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What Falls When We’re Not Looking

Written By Wendy Peterson
Cover Art by


After hitting her head in an accident, a woman has a strange conversation with a fish about the limits of her life and ends up with a little more hope than before.

Editors’ Note

The day was too early and too gray to wake. I peeled the scab of the comforter away from  the raw yawning of my bare legs and grabbed the bundle of clothes that would dress me in all  shades of seriousness for work. I combed my morning straight through with the prongs of usual  routine: shower, breakfast, cup of tea. Keys that clack together as they lock the door and a car  that takes two hruffing times to start. The commute takes an hour without comment, with no  apology for the length of road or the time not given back. 

It’s odd to watch the warming start: sunrise cracks the blank-egg sky like a thumb yolking out color, and then the gray clouds trundle back in and smother it. Patchy weather. A  fidgeting indecision in the rain that would and wouldn’t fall for want of sunlight after all. But the rain came anyway. I watched the distortions of thick and heavy drops plop and bulge along the  windshield. I turned the windshield nob and watched the wiper slay the brief full-thoughts of  droplets, wet, depressing down the pane. 

The road turned, gradual, a long unwinding, and the marshy swamplands fogged the left  side of my car with low, disgruntled trees and furrowed brush. I side-eyed the landscape. There  was no one on the road so I risked distraction. The causeway I was driving on stretched over  miles of tangled wetland, and I watched the gray things blur. It felt barren, mottled. For all the  life that sprouts from such wet earth, it all looked dead. Gnarled, fetal things curling under the  thumbnail of the world. Pressed into bogs of time. Twisted, shriveled things, and the howls of  shorebirds swooping by, snapping up shimmering pulses from the mucked up womb. Womb,  tomb—what was the use? You could try and try, but what wouldn’t still goes on and simply  would not work—wouldn’t for a long time. Life doesn’t beget life alone. It begets sore tries and  failure to thrive. 

My eyes detoured back to the road ahead. A few gulls were swaying in the wind,  dropping crabs that shrapneled in collision with the shoulder of the road. I wanted to get away  from those pops of life vanishing into fragmented parts. My fingers tightened around the steering  wheel as I tapped the accelerator, but a gull cut in front of my windshield, and I swerved as  another bird dropped its half-devoured meal onto the hood of my car. There were two thumps  and a slap. The slap happened first. The thumps knocked me cold. One was my headlight and  fender plummeting into the wet bog and running solidly into an idle, slanting tree. The second  was my forehead into the steering wheel. The gray behind my eyelids prickled, and I sank into a bodily sleep.

Numb, I came to. A partial fish face looked at me through the windshield. Its body had rolled up  the car as the vehicle force-braked against the tree. The mackerel sheen of the head and his  ribbed tailbone had slapped down from the sky and settled like a sweeping bruise on the skin of  my car. I felt the water of the marsh already wrapped like socks around my bloated ankles, the  water pulling itself up my pant leg hand over cold hand, and I knew I was too dizzy to seriously  move. I rested my cheek on the steering wheel and probed my forehead with my fingers feeling  for the goop of blood that was drying like oil paint to the canvas of my bleach-blind headache. I  watched the fish as my eyes dipped in and out of focus. Watched the gills flap in the wind and  the bottom lip blubber as if about to talk. The one eye, smooshed against the glass, did a curious  thing and blinked—one time, two, three. 

“My god, lady, you’re bleeding.” 

I snorted, pathetically, my weight thrown forward onto the steering wheel, my feet  stirring up tidal waves in the water that was slowly filling the car from some unseen rent in the  framework. I shifted my legs and spoke from the side of my mouth as my cheek slumped on the  bar of the steering wheel. “You should see yourself. Not too shabby, I think. The blood that is.  Me.” 

“Do you ever ask how we get like this?” The fish twisted eagerly. 

“Get like what?” I asked. 

“Falling out of the air when you least expect it. Dislodged-like. Certainly didn’t plan it.  After all, I’m a sea thing. I glub about in water. You think you could trust that staying the same, but now here.” The fish’s eye swirled, rotating in its head, as it took in the interior of my car— ripped ceiling cloth, junk tossed onto the back seat, water rising. 

“At least it’s raining.” I grumbled. 

“That’s like air bubbles in the sea—useless if you’re drowning.” 

“Do you drown in air?” 

“It’s a sort of choking—this sort of falling down into unfamiliar territory. Purged from  whatever body steadies you.” 

“Expels you,” I mumbled into my arm. 


I dismissed him with a slight shake of my head. “There’s water in here. You know, for  drowning or, uh, not choking.” My brain hummed. I slowly dragged my feet and felt the water  slosh around my ankles, quickly regenerating, gushing into the brief emptiness left by my legs— like tides grasping around the legs of a pier. Toppling. Humming—my brain. “I hope it doesn’t  sink any further. The car, that is. I don’t feel I can get up just yet.” 

“Yeah, don’t tell me.” The fish flashed its skeletal tail in the air behind him. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Pain blushed out of my forehead. I felt woozy and  tried to grip the steering wheel with my hands, but my fingers were too sore, dented with impact. The fish head called to me. “So why do you think it happens? This falling?” “What falling? I didn’t fall. Nothing fell.” My eyes flared open angrily then immediately  cringed as my head throbbed with the sudden movement. The fish blinked. “Sure you’ve fallen. You were happy and smiling and gurgling, and then a few feet into  the air of your life and whatever was buoyancy dropped you. Or maybe that’s just me or anyway… And now, you’re here poking at your rib-bones, finger painting with your blood, and  you’re wondering why? Surely the world isn’t all that different. So, something fell inside.” “Something fell inside.” 

“Quite.” The fish’s mouth gaped open and closed. 

“I feel so alone.” 

The fish’s eye twitched. “Is that what fell?” 

“No. I don’t know.” 

“Do you want a family?” 

My chest clenched, and I shrugged sharply. My whole body ached in extension of the car  wreck. “That’s not something you plan on your own. You can’t just will it into being. No.” “It isn’t?” 

“No. It’s not like you point into the crowd and say, Yup, that’s the person I want to fuck a  family out of. It comes from mutual choice and ability. Ability to… and someone who wants to  stick around. Someone who sticks, you know? Not someone so easily shaken out.” 

“Oh. Well—I guess it’s different for a fish. I had a family of a sort. A big family— huge—little swimmers. Hard to be lonely when there’s ten more just like you bumping around in  your swim. And I guess—” 

A gull flapped down on the car and stripped a ribbon of flesh from the gray-scaled fish. I  raised my hand and slapped the windshield which scared the buzzard off. My arm fell limply  back to my lap. “You were saying?” 

“Lonely: I guess I’m used to more company. So I would ask if you’ve got company?” “Oh, no. Not anymore.” 

“Well, what about a hobby?”

“I’m infertile.” 

“Infertile in dreams, you mean?” 

My palm cradled my abdomen, and I rubbed my head gently along the top of the steering  wheel. “I guess you can say that.” 

“Do you feel stalled?” 

“No, no—life doesn’t feel like that,” I pushed myself away from the steering wheel and  leaned back in my seat, lopsided with headache, eyeing the fish. “It doesn’t feel idle or stalling.  It feels like a current, and it’s rushing in a deaf static all around me, and I am bound by a—by a  fishing line, if you will, to a sunk fishing rod wedged in unbudgable rocks at the bottom of all  

that rushing, and I’m flapping around but not swimming. There’s no living. No dreaming. No  company. No one. Nothing—do you understand? It’s just me at the bottom. Nothing sticks. It’s  just me.” 

The fish blinked its eye. The skeletal tail tapped uncomfortably against the glass. “No.  No, see, I don’t understand. I think that’s very rare to find a fish tied up like that… I think  sometimes the current rushes, and there’s greater joy in spreading your fins and following.  Sometimes you look back along your spine,” the fish demonstrated by curling his head back to  look at his tail, “and what you find is that what you thought was a line was only a stroke of  sunlight that confused the water. Do you understand? That it’s just confusion? Madness to flap  around like that? Not a real line. Not a real trap. There is no bottom for a fish, only rising up. A  sinking skyward when we’re done. You see?” 

“No. No, I don’t see. I’m not a fish.” I pinched my eyes shut. 

“May I tell you a story?”

I stayed quiet. Still. Listening for the nothing moving inside of me. My hand smoothed  over my abdomen. 

“About a fisherman,” the fish continued, “who once stopped by the wave I was riding  on.” 

The fish waited a moment and then went on, “His name was Gabe. He came across me  one night when I was testing the shallows, and he told me about him and his wife. Kept me in a  bucket on his little skiff and told me he’d let me go if I only listened. So, naturally, I did. 

“He wanted to tell me about his wife, he said. How it had been a year since her death,  you see? And she was right pretty and wore her life as well as she could. Gabe wiped his nose on  the back of his hand and continued, Well, it was a night like tonight. A night like tonight, and I’ll  never forget. Never forget how she changed the tides for me. For both of us, really. See: when we  were younger, her and I, we tried to conceive. Wanted a big family. All the company our little  home could keep. He said to me, he says, They were unable to hold anything. Nights, his wife,  Martha, would take to her bed and just lay there, despondent, cribbing herself under the covers.  No more nights siting up by the fireplace, no more talking over cups of joe, nothing. She would  just go to her room with the lights off and just curl into the dark like the echo of the sea curls into  the coil of a shell. Just wouldn’t move. 

“So I started taking myself out at nights. Would row out here on the water and just watch  the stars twisting about like little minnows or some sort in the reflection of the water as it furled  off the boat. Would row real slow so as not to disturb them, but a few always spun out. 

“And one night, long after we’d given up and age was starting to fray and loosen the  waistbands of our knuckles from holding on so tight, and the skin around our eyes finally  stopped shrugging from looking so hard for the damn thing, dear Martha, my shell of a wife, 

uncoiled from her grief and, instead of remaining under the blankets, followed me outside. She  followed him right outside, he told me. Gabe said, He had already settled himself into his little  boat, was about to release the rope from the dock and shove off, and Martha done called out his  name. ‘Gabe, stop!’ He stopped. And helped her climb in and spread the blanket he kept under  his bench across their knees—a shared square of warmth—little frail and worn-down thing. And  when they were skimming along the shoreline, the man rowing and the wife dipping her fingers  in, she shivered and made a grasp for Gabe’s hand, ‘Wait, wait,’ she said. He stopped rowing  and just watched her face watching the wake. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘All these stars.’ She peered into  the water. ‘Yes,’ he said, just watching her watch the water. Didn’t look at the stars. Seen them  all before. ‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘yes, they’re quiet.’ Martha looked up at him, ‘Grief can be like  that. Quiet.’ She smiled. ‘Gabe, I can imagine each shard of star in this vast fluid dark is one of  ours. One of our tries, and maybe grief is quiet like that. And it distills all our failures and all  our tries in vastness. In waves that make them shine for the mere trying. The attempt. What we’ve  survived hasn’t been small after all.’ Not for one moment did my eyes leave her face, Mr. Fish,  and I told her, I said, ‘That’s a right pretty way of looking at them.’ Martha settled closer—her  knee touching my knee, and that dear love said, ‘I would like some tea or some coffee. Something  warm to drink. Can we go home now?’ The fisherman smiled. He told me, he knew when he was  welcome and her affair with loneliness was over. And they went back to that home of no holding  and warmed themselves to living. 

“He let me go after that. Said he wanted to be on his way, and I’d be wanting to be on  mine too. And told me to say hello to all our fallen stars—not one too many, not one too few.”  The fish fell silent and blinked at me.

“I need to go.” I swiped the wetness from my cheek and thumbed the seatbelt buckle off  of me. The lock released and unwound the restraint from my body. And I sighed with the  soreness of my being thrown about. “I can’t do this. God—so alone.” I squeezed my eyes closed  and hugged my chest. Folding in. 

“No, you’re not.” 

I opened my eyes and looked at the fish who was shifting side to side trying to get a  better look at me, and repeated, “You’re not.” 

“I’m talking to a fish.” 

“No, I mean—I saw something on the way down that you may have missed as you were  careening into that tree.” 

“What’s that?” 

“You’ll see.” 

“Mmm.” I slumped forward slightly, testing my legs by lifting them one after the other.  “I need to leave. I can’t stay here.” 

“I wish I could walk from where I land. At least you have that going for you.” The fish  nodded at me slowly. “But even in this moment it is not that bad because I’ve made a friend in  falling.” 

I shook my head and shouldered open the door. More water rushed in as the car tipped to  it. I stepped out and was up to my thighs in marsh. Looking around, I saw other cars crashed into  trees, into bog, into brush—in various stages of sinking—doors ajar where others had fallen into  the same helpless ditch. Swamped. Flooded. Cars gutted of people—real people. Others who had opened the doors of their crash and walked off. Walked from where they landed.

I nodded, feeling the warmth from my head spread down to the extremities of my body,  and turned back to my mangled companion. “So, falling is the least lonely thing about living?” The fish slapped its bony tail on the glass. “So falling is the answer, it would seem.”

About The Author

Wendy Peterson is a multi-genre writer who is currently attending the MFA program at Stony Brook University Southampton. She has a B.A. in Literary Studies from Delaware Valley University.