Monday, March 24, 2014

Curiosity Killed the Fish

In this short memoir, ninth-grader Cindy N. recalls a mistake with a nostalgic smile at her younger self.

Artwork by Adam E., Grade 9 

Curiosity Killed the Fish

The large front doors of the house were swung open to the rest of Vietnam. The bright sunlight from outside flooded the house, illuminating the white tiles of the floor that jolted my body awake when my bare feet would run on top of the dirt and dust gliding into the house from motorcycles and the other vehicles speeding past.

Like a crow among a group of doves, despite the bright atmosphere of the room, my grandfather's fish tank stuck out like a sore thumb. The dark, murky background of the tank made the water look like a translucent green and the long, flat, sliver fish that had a face of a bully with two whiskers hanging from the sides glided along peacefully inside. My grandparents already warned me that the angry strip of sliver was a carnivorous beast and would try to eat any piece of meat it laid its eyes on. I pressed my tiny finger against the glass and felt the soft vibrations of the water whirring underneath my skin. As soon as its flat, iridescent eye caught sight of the warm, chunk of human meat sitting on top of the glass, it flicked its head at my direction in one swift movement. I flinched at its sudden sense of hunger and felt my breathing stop as the fish lunged at my finger with its mouth open in a famished frenzy.

A plunk echoed in my head as the glass collided with its face. My body propelled itself backwards as I drew my hand back to make sure my finger was still there. I looked around and let out a sigh of relief that no one had seen me in my mini state of panic.

"Cindy!" I heard my grandfather call me from his spot on the couch in the living room. I scanned myself, so no question would be asked about what I was doing and scampered over to where he was sitting. I hopped over the massive step that led into the living room and forced myself not to look at the brown and yellow pinky toe he injured during the Vietnam War.

"Yes?" I regarded him politely.

He placed a dirty gold colored coin in my small hand.

 "Go buy some food for the fish," he told me. I rubbed the coin in my hand, feeling its oldness and nodded my head as a sign of acceptance of his mission and that I'd be leaving.

With a smile on my face, I turned myself around and dashed through the specks of dust to find my open-toed sandals that were beginning to look beat up from my growing feet. I felt excited that I was sent to the store two houses down, filled with all kinds of fish swimming around in the tank and different types of nets with fishes flipping and flopping itself around, gasping for water. Even if I wasn't sent there with a coin in my hand, sometimes I would bring my younger sister and cousins over to stand and stare until the shop owner would give me a questioning look. But it was always a proud moment for myself to enter the store every morning with money in hand to complete my daily job.

I jumped over bumps and cracks in the sides of the road, holding down the skirt of my favorite red dress and waited to find the stream of water trickling down the side of the road from the employees cleaning out the tanks and dumping dirty water filled with fish germs onto the pavement outside the store. Now, I walked slower with more caution, hoping that a stream of liquid wouldn't flood my shoes. People scuttled in and out the doors with bags of fish worriedly swimming back and forth. I squeezed past the legs of a man and woman exiting and stopped to look at the many fish the store had to offer. The store's red tiled floor was stained with blotches of water and wet footprints. And against the walls, large fish tanks desperately tried to look appealing in the dark, dingy place. 

The slender, tanned store owner didn't give me "the look" and I muttered the phrase of Vietnamese my grandfather told me to repeat to him, which I only half understood. The man smiled under his sweat from the warm climate, laughing to himself at every mistake I made saying that one sentence. He walked over to one of the fish tanks and I waddled along behind him, unsure if he wanted me to stay where I was.  He scooped some water into a plastic bag and I watched as a waterfall of small fish plopped into the bag one by one. I could see the shock in their eyes as they fell into the bag, but quickly adapting to their temporary, plastic home. I took the bag of fish from the man's bony hand and dropped the coin into his palm, hoping Grandfather gave me enough money to pay. When I noticed the satisfied look in the man's eyes, I turned around and shuffled back home while talking to my new friends silently.

Stumbling over the bumps and cracks I was attentively avoiding before, I found my way back home where I handed over my friends to my grandfather who was waiting for me at the door. My eyes observed his large, brown hands easily undo the rubber band wrapped around the bag and let the fish relive the shock of being poured into a new home again. The shock soon changed into fear when the colossal, silver fish vacuumed one fish after another into its mouth. Once it ate enough fins and scales, it glided around the tank with a full belly, gazing at its leftovers it saved for lunch.

I plopped myself onto the ground resting my arms, on the khaki, metal table that the tank rested upon. I let the frigid feeling from the metal seep into my skin and stared up at the different colors of fish, fascinated by creatures that could breathe underwater. A heavy hand tapped my head a few times and I heard my grandfather ask me, "You like to look at the fish?"

I looked at him in the eyes, "Yes," I said quietly, slightly afraid of this old man whom I've never really spoken to before. He smiled at me and gave my head one last pat before leaving to his room for an afternoon nap. I watched his back as he headed for his room, his belly jiggled up and down through the white tank top he wore every day, matching the rhythm of the ripples that flowed across his loose, grey shorts. I didn't know why I was scared of him, but his raspy voice combined with the seriousness of his face, freaked me out at times when he walked into the room.

The fish continued to swim in circles, occasionally changing directions if something suddenly scared them. But as they continued to swim, I gradually got bored. I stood back up, and tried to shake the pins and needles out of my feet. My clumsy hand had a mind of its own during the process of waking up my feet; several "bwonks" traveled through the air after my palm slapped a bottle out of its resting place. I glanced down at the item that could possibly earn me a scolding and laughed at myself for getting worked up over a tiny bottle of soap. It was at that moment that something in my mind clicked.

I scooped the smooth, sleek bottle Into my hand  and grinned as I was transported into a world where fish could do more than swim and eat each other. As the fish monotonously open and close their lips on the hinges of their mouths, bubbles popped out of their bodies with every breath they took. Giggling at the idea, my curiosity had to know if such a brilliant idea would work. My eyes surveyed the room and made sure the coast was clear before attempting my scientific experiment. If someone walked in on me, the excitement of making such a discovery would diminish and I would have to share my fame with another person. I allowed my eyes to scan the area once again, taking note that my mom was in the living room with her attention affixed to the television, my grandparents still in their room, and my aunts watching multiple babies stuffed in one room while my uncles worked.

The step stool was too heavy for me to lift, and made a deafening screech when I pushed it to the side of the tank. I cringed at the ear-splitting noise and winced when I heard my mom.

"Cindy!" She called. It was loud enough for me to hear, yet soft enough so my grandparents could sleep.

I paused. Should I reply? Is she going to come in if I don't? Mom didn't wait for a reply, in a distracted tone she hollered, "What are you doing in there?"

I paused again. What do I say? "Just playing with the fish!"

There was no reply. That meant I was safe. It meant my mom went back to enjoying her relationship with the TV.

Getting back to my experiment, I climbed up the black rubber steps of the mini ladder, making me feel like I was tall enough to pat my parents on the head rather than vice versa. I gawked at the fish tank below me. What if I fall in? Alarmed, I backed down to a height where I wouldn't topple into the tank and observed the silver fish I hated so much from above. He was still swimming and frightening the scales off the other fish when he got near.

"The scary fish won't seem as scary when he's blowing bubbles every time he opens his mouth," I coaxed the smaller fish. With one hand, I coolly flicked opened the soap bottle and squeezed a couple of drops into the gurgling water.

I hopped off the step stool and looked into the tank. Nothing happened. The fish continued to swim and no bubbles were visible. I spilled some more soap into the water and clenched my fists in frustration. The water still looked the same murky, green and the silver bully was still scaring the other fish. As a final attempt at my experiment, I poured the entire bottle of the translucent, liquid soap into the tank and waited. Nothing.

It was more fun having the fish try to bite off my finger, I thought. And at the thought,  I placed my finger on the glass, mocking the silver fish to come after the delightful meal my finger would make. Like I predicted, he hit his head on the glass in attempt to eat my finger. For what felt like a century, I continued playing my sick joke on the fish until I noticed he was slowing down and coming to a stop.

Finally bored out of my mind, I sat next to my mom on the sofa and became the third wheel in her love life with her favorite television series. I sat there, listening to people blabbering Vietnamese back and forth to each other dramatically and decided that I've had enough of all the crying, shouting, and annoying kisses of the show. I bounced off the couch and dashed back to the fish tank to see if they were blowing bubbles yet. I thrust my face in front of the tank to make observations and smiled to myself with the pleasant thought that I've discovered something that no one else has.

I found the fish sleeping.

Excitement ran through my veins and I scurried back to my mom with the great news.

"Mom! Mom!" She nodded her head to show she was listening, when she really wasn't. I lowered my voice, "I found the fish sleeping!"

It took her a while to pretend to process what I was telling her, "Good for you sweetie."

I was irked that she wasn't as excited as I was about my amazing discovery and tugged at her, "Come look!"

"Let me finish my show!" She said, brushing me off. Luckily, at that moment, the commercial break began and I knew my mom wasn't interested in watching desperate salespeople interrupt her show. After a few more moments of consistent pulling, my mom gave in and I pushed her from her rear end towards the tank.

I stood proudly in front of the tank, gesturing my hands at it as if I were showing off a very gloomy first place trophy. She glanced at the tank, irritated that I was wasting her TV time.

"The fish..." I paused to build suspense, "are sleeping." The sun shone on my back and I stood there, waiting for my mom's reaction. But the reaction she gave me was not what I expected.

She paused and squinted at the tank, and after several seconds, broke into hysterics. I felt the ends of my eyebrows shoot up in confusion and took another look at the tank. Every single fish had floated to the top of the water, bobbing on their sides, napping their worries away as the current pushed them in a circle. It was just how I left my sensational breakthrough, so why was she laughing?

             "Cindy," my mom managed to say between wheezes of cackling. "They aren't sleeping. You killed them."

              Her relentless laughing continued as my cheeks became bright, red tomatoes and salty water engulfed my eyes. What am I going to do when Grandfather finds out? I was already afraid of him when he wasn't mad at me and I didn't want to have to face him when he truly was angry. He cherished that fish and I knew that malicious fish costs more money than I could lay my hands on. Now I've killed him and my beloved fish friends. And my grandfather was going to wake up from his daily afternoon nap very soon.

               I froze in fear thinking over what I was going to do, but my mind was a blank page. I didn't know what to do or what to say once my grandfather woke up. I looked at my mom laughing infinitely and didn't know what to think of the situation until I heard the distinct squeak of my grandfather 's bedroom door. One word appeared on my page of thoughts: Run.

My legs looked for the closest exit out of the room. I wouldn't know where to go if I left the house and I couldn't risk heading in the direction of my grandfather's room. The stairwell that connected the living room to the second floor was close enough for me to reach before my grandfather came out. I dashed up it as fast as I could of all the upstairs rooms I could've chosen to hide in, I chose the bathroom.

My feet splashed through puddles of water in the very blue, spacious bathroom, leaving wet, brown footprints behind from walking in dirt and dust all day. I found a dry spot besides the toilet and crouched behind it, hoping my grandfather wouldn't find me here.

I prayed that no one had used the toilet yet and no stinky smell would enter my nose any time soon. I stared at the bathroom door through tears from behind my knees, wishing I had never conducted my experiment. I was clueless about what to do to make things right again. I cowered besides the pungent toilet, sobbing about my possible punishments.

"Cindy!" I heard one of my aunts call my name from the hallway. "It's okay. You can come out!"

I was progressively getting tired of sitting next to a toilet and having my feet soaked in bathroom water. This is probably enough punishment already, I thought and pulled myself up, shaking the pins and needles of my feet from sitting there for so long. I grasped the metal doorknob of the door and pulled it open, expecting someone to be standing there and drag me to face my grandfather. But the hallway was empty.

I really didn't want to spend any more quality time with the toilet and decided to go downstairs to get it over with. I peered into the living room below and saw my entire family gathered in one spot, questioning my mom about what happened. Finally, my mom caught sight of me and beckoned me to come downstairs. Slowly, but steadily, I crept my way down the marble steps and made my dramatic entrance as a convict into the living room filled with smiles and laughter. As soon as I walked in, I made eye contact with my grandfather and was pushed down the long line of people until I was standing directly in front of him.

He held both of his hands out with his palms facing upward in front of me. At first, I thought it meant that he wanted me to do the same, so he could smack his large, meaty hands against my palms to show that my hands have done a bad thing. But instead, he pulled me into a hug and placed me on his lap to kiss me on the forehead.

"It's okay," he told me. "I'm not mad."


Almost ten years passed after I committed my crime when I was five and now I'm visiting my family in Vietnam again. I still feel guilty for taking away the lives of innocent creatures, even though the silver fish could be considered a murderer for eating other fish, but that would be like saying every human is a murderer for eating hamburgers or pepperoni pizza. Looking back at the time when I was really bold and didn't care about how I looked, I realize I didn't like my grandfather at the time because of his appearance. But after my mom told me that one of my aunts were afraid of me because I didn't smile as often, I understand how my grandfather must've felt when he figured out why I was so fearful of him back then.

One night, my mom called me into her room and placed the home phone into my now much bigger hand, before I could say anything. I felt my mom's warmth transfer to my ear as I placed it against the side of my phone and said, "Hello?"

A deep, raspy voice replied, "Hello. Cindy?"

"Grandfather?" I asked, even though I already knew it was him. As I asked about how he was and if anything new was going on, my mom told me about how he's been drinking lately and didn't feel so good. A pang of sadness hit me and I had no idea what to say to him besides the cliché, "I hope you feel better."

"Tell him to stop drinking," my mom whispered to me.

"Grandfather, stop drinking," I repeated into the phone. With help from my mom, I was able to develop a conversation with him that had all the aspects of  "feel better soon" and "I love you. I can't wait to see you soon."

"I will," my grandfather replied.

"You need to stay healthy, so we can hang out when I come home this summer. If you're sick, we won't be able to do anything."

"I will," he repeated again.

"Promise me?"

"I promise."

After another conversation of a different topic with many awkward pauses in between, I hung up and carelessly tossed the phone onto the bed and climbed in besides my mom, making the bed squeak and creak on the way.

"You know," my mom said after I made myself comfortable, "he only listens to you."

"Oh," I blankly said, unsure what to say.

"This problem has been going for a while now, but your grandfather won't listen to me and the rest of your aunts and uncles."

I wasn't sure if I'd be the solution to this, but I didn't want to argue with my mom this late at night. "Do you think he'll get better?" I asked.

"You're special to him," she said. "He really cares about the first-born child of our family."

A smile spread across my face in the darkness of the room, "I wish I was closer to him, Mom."

"I think you're already closer to him than anyone else." With those words, thoughts of my grandfather filled my head, rocking me to sleep. I fell asleep that night, hoping my mom's words were true.

About two weeks later, my mom reported to me that Grandfather gave up his excessive drinking and his health was gradually getting better. Normally, you'll rarely find my family saying "I love you," since we're people of expressions rather than people of words. But I was terrible at both and didn't know how to tell my grandfather that I was proud of him, that I missed him, or that I loved him, so I didn't say or do anything. Instead, I let my feelings transfer through my mom to reach my grandfather since her words and expressions were far better than mine.

"Remember to stay healthy, so I can see you again," were the words I said to my grandfather the next time we spoke on the phone. I  just hoped that he could see through the layers of my words.

I don't talk to my grandfather often, and I think that's the only full-length conversation we've ever had that I can remember. But while I was talking, the thoughts I had about him as a five-year old were completely different than the thoughts I had when I spoke to him on the phone. I now look at the scary, old man as my grandfather who has to take of me and in return, I have to take care of him. I don't see him often and I don't speak to him often even in person, but between the two of us, there's a relationship we share that can't exactly be described in just words.

Instead of my grandfather owning silver fish, the hobby has moved onto my new uncle who recently married my aunt. The new family bully swims around luxuriously in his glass tank, waiting for his meals to fall into his possession. I occasionally find little replicas of my murder weapon sitting beside his tank after my uncle cleans his tank with the soap. And I still make fun of the little guy by mocking him with the delicious finger of mine whenever I get bored or want to entertain my younger cousins.

I stare at the fish flick its tail in the new tank, daring me to put my finger in the water.

"Don't do it," I hear, flinching at the fact that I wasn't alone. I turn around to see my youngest uncle, who was the one responsible of cleaning up the crime scene ten years ago.

"I won't," I say, thinking he thought I was going to dip my finger into the home of a ferocious monster.

"I don't want to have to empty another tank of carcasses because of those murderous hands of yours," he jokingly told me.

I laughed at his humorous take on my misdeed. After several chuckles, I smiled to myself, knowing that eventually someone else's curiosity will end up killing the fish.
-- Cindy Nguyen, Grade 9

Monday, March 3, 2014

Somehow, the winter never seems to leave us this year.  Today we bring you a follow-up to our series of darkness poems from Miss Levin's ninth graders.  And we hereby commission you, our readers, to write us some bright spring poems so we can share them next week. 

With her wonderful poem, Maggie M. reminds us that out of darkness, there can still be goodness and love.

dancing in the dark

standing, swaying
the dark lit only by the stars
a whirl of air keeping us together
dancing, laughing
the furl of my dress swirling around us
a space big enough for our complex steps
doting, knowing
the warmth of your hand against mine fills my heart
a feeling of contentedness, looms between and within us
knowing, whispering
the day will break, and with it the one thing in which we can trust
a promise kept to only us, that the stars, will bring us home once more
Maggie M., Grade 9

Caity M. takes us back in time to a place where our toys can become some of our darkest fears, and shows how we grow to realize that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Good Night, Strange Dark Corner

Breathing in the frigid air in my room
Under the covers I look all about
Cold and stuffy like in a pharaoh’s tomb
Holding in my fear trying not to shout


The dark is concealing and hides a strange being
And in it my eyes cannot see
The fear in my heart tells me I should be fleeing
But the curiosity in my head asks me what it could be


I stare at the corner across from my bed
Reassuring myself it’s only my imagination
Searching all of the weird creatures I used to picture in my head
Or maybe a demon saying a weird incantation


And then the dark wasn’t as scary
It wasn’t evil or bad
There was nothing in my strange dark corner that was hairy
And all of a sudden my thoughts were glad


That dark corner was a place to be still
A place that I could dream sweet dreams
Sure, my imagination can give me a chill
But not everything is as it seems


So there I lay in my dark room
Under the covers as I look about
My dreams were in full bloom
And my fear has never had more doubt

Caity M., Grade 9

Many people can get lost in darkness, and fall to its desires.  However, Christian H. demonstrates that it is possible to escape the darkness unscathed.
The Darkness Around Me
As the darkness descends upon my skin,
I refuse to let it fill me; I refuse to let in in.
I sit in the room all alone,
Trying to cope with the dark which has set the tone.
After the light has gone, darkness will embrace,
Anyone in the room who has accepted its place.
The dark hides all, the dark is concealing,
I know in my heart that I should be fleeing.

But as I sit alone, in the dark,
I realize that it has not left its mark.
The darkness has not scarred me; it has not changed me,
I am free from it like the sea.
As I sit alone, in the dark,
I ponder how darkness eats at you, like a shark.
How I refused to let it overtake,
And how I just wouldn’t break.

Now I can finally cope with
Being in the darkness.
Christian H, Grade 9
Last but not least, we have Shania B., who brings into her poem a real-life struggle about being lost in the darkness, unable to find a way out.

Into The Dark

In the dark I was alone
By myself with my ghost.
No one to turn to;
No one would help.


That feeling of lost
That feeling of being alone
I kept struggling for truth,
Struggling for a friend.


I wanted help, but didn’t know how to get it
I wanted a friend; I wanted the truth
No one would let me in


I wanted the best for myself
I wanted to protect me
I didn’t know how kids could be so mean


I went into the dark
No, not just that year
Not just the next
But years after
And the worst part:

The worst part is I’m still there

 Shaina B., Grade 9


We hope you enjoyed this selection of poetry from Miss Levin’s ninth grade classes!  Remember to keep checking back for more literature, and e-mail Mr. Vogelsinger at if you have anything you would like to submit to the blog!