Mother turned into a goldfish. It happened on Tuesday morning as she was preparing breakfast. One moment, she was cracking an egg over the frying pan, and the next, she was reaching for her throat and gasping for breath.
“What’s wrong, Mother?” I cried. I reached her just in time to keep her from collapsing against the stove. Mother stared at me with bulging eyes, unable to speak. She pointed at her neck just behind her ears. There I saw reddish slits appear, the hint of gills.
After that, the rest of the transformation went very quickly. Her skin turned to golden orange scales, her stomach distended, and her hands and feet morphed into fins. Mother shrank until she fit into the palm of my hand. She flopped for breath and almost slipped out of my grasp. Luckily, I thought of dunking her into the pitcher of water I had placed on the kitchen table.
Mother bobbed up and down in the water and swam around twice before floating to rest. She blinked and let out a couple of bubbles. For what seemed like forever we stared at each other until finally I thought of calling for help. I picked up the phone and dialed 911.
The dispatcher who answered was calm and professional. She first got my name, number, and address. Then: “What is the nature of your emergency, sir?”
“My mother has turned into a goldfish!”
“I see.” She paused a bit. “What is her condition now?”
“She’s still a goldfish!”
“I mean, is she stable? Is she breathing all right?”
“I put her in water….”
“Very good. Just what you ought to have done. Your quick thinking may have saved your mother’s life.”
“But…what do I do now?”
The dispatcher let out a long sigh. “Sir, you’re mother is in no immediate danger. On the other hand, all our available units are tied up. If you want to see a doctor, it would be quicker if you brought her yourself.”
I stammered my thanks to the dispatcher. In her own cold way, she was right. Mother was fine, as goldfish went. She floated on her side, then with a twitch of a fin, switched to the other. Still, the whole transformation had been so sudden, I felt I really should bring her to some expert medical care. But that meant I would have to skip work.
I rang up Neil. “Hell-looow, beeyotch!” he replied in his usual chirpy manner.
“Hey, friend,” I said. “Something’s come up and I can’t come to work today. Could you cover for me?”
“Oh ho hooo, so mysterious. Spill for me, baby.”
“It’s Mother. I have to take her to the doctor.”
“Oh! Is Tita Elsa all right? It’s not serious is it?”
I told him Mother had turned into a goldfish. He clucked sympathetically. I gave him my list of appointments for the day. “Please explain to Mommy Len why I’m out today. I hope she’ll understand.”
“Mmm ’kay. Buh-bye.”
I called for a taxi and brought Mother, in her water jug, to the emergency room of Davao Doctors Hospital. Dumbly I wondered what to do. There weren’t any cases but the nurses and residents milled around at the station, flipping through their charts and books or cracking jokes. “Excuse me…” I said more than once, but they only looked at me briefly before going back to what they were doing.
I sat down and waited, Mother and the pitcher beside me. Finally a matronly nurse came in and asked me what was the matter. I explained what had happened. She harrumphed and gave me a form to fill out. She collected it after I was done, and disappeared for a quarter of an hour. When she came back, she said: “Your case doesn’t qualify as an emergency. You should go see a specialist instead.”
“I don’t know anyone. Can you refer me?”
She sighed, wrote out a name on a slip, and handed it to me. “He holds clinic at the Medical Arts next door.”
The specialist was Dr. Coching. The line outside his office was long. There must have been fifteen patients and companions waiting ahead of me. The receptionist took down Mother’s name and gave me a number.
A few spots ahead, there was a young lady who also cradled a water-filled bowl on her lap. In it was also a goldfish, though its scales ranged closer to gray than gold. Was it the same case as Mother’s? I looked curiously at her, hoping to catch her eye. She saw me, frowned, and glanced quickly away. Rejected, I turned to studying the contours of my shoes.
The line moved slowly. It seemed that each patient took close to an hour. I despaired that we would ever get to see Dr. Coching. Past one, I finally felt hungry, and remembered that I had left the house without touching my breakfast. I bought a pack of Sky Flakes to tide me over. I crushed a piece and dropped the crumbs into Mother’s pitcher. She took a couple of nibbles.
It was almost three when we were called in. Dr. Coching sat behind a huge desk. He motioned me to sit, and asked me what the problem was. I explained what happened. He nodded.
“Spontaneous icthyomorphogenesis,” he pronounced. It was the first time I had heard of that, but I felt relieved that someone knew about it. He launched into a long and detailed explanation (“glandular mutation,” “affects small percentage,” “partial cognition” — those were the only words I remember.) “The transformation seems to have been rather fast, though. Are you sure you did not notice any symptoms before?”
“Mother seemed all right. She never complained about anything.” Well, that wasn’t wholly true. But she never complained about any physical ailments.
Dr. Coching caught Mother by the tail and lifted her out of the pitcher. He squeezed her sides, which gave me a start — I was afraid he’d crush her — but then he threw her back in.
“Is she all right?” I asked.
He nodded. “All things considered. But you’ll have to keep her under observation if symptoms change.”
“Can we do anything for her?”
“Not at the moment. Just standard care for goldfish.”
“I mean…can you get Mother back to the way she was?”
He shook his head. “There’s been no reversal in cases like this, so far.”
Dr. Coching filled out a prescription for antibiotics and supplements (and an antihypertensive for me.). He also gave me instructions on caring for and feeding Mother, and told me to come back a week after. I thanked him. On the way out, I paid his secretary P600 for the consultation.
“Hello, Kuya Art? This is Carlos.”
“Oy, Carlos. Is this important? Will this take long? I have a client meeting in 10 minutes.”
I dreaded calling my brother Art. He was a manager for InfoSys in Singapore. He was always busy.
“Sorry to bother you, Kuya. It’s about Mother–”
“Why? What happened to Mother? Is she all right?”
“She turned into a goldfish–”
“What? Why did you let that happen? Carlo, that’s why you’re there. You’re supposed to be taking care of her.”
“It just happened! It’s not my fault!”
“I didn’t say it was. Look… forget it…. Is she all right?”
“I took her to the doctor–”
“What did he say? Is there any treatment needed?”
“No, no treatment. Mother is all right, but the doctor thinks it’s irreversible.”
He seemed to sigh and relax. “Okay, okay. Just so long as she’s all right. Any maintenance?”
“No. I… think I can take care of it from here.”
That put him more at ease. “Sorry, bro,” he said. “You just got me in a panic. It’s quarter end here and we’re scrambling for quota. Money’s tight because Junior just started school.”
“I understand. I just thought, with what happened, you should know.”
“Yeah, thanks. I’ll bring Janet and the kids to visit when we get the chance. Maybe Christmas. Just so… busy here. You know how Singapore is. Always money, money, money. Listen, I gotta go, my meeting is about to start. Take care of Mom, okay? Give her my love.”
I thought of calling Ate Bea next, but the clock said it was only four in the afternoon; in New Jersey it would have been four in the morning. How would she take the news? Bea never did get along with Mother. Every conversation would end up in a verbal fight. Still….
I dialed another number.
“Hello, Tita Hilda? It’s Carlos.”
“Hello-ooo, hijo!” Tita Hilda’s voice came out hoarse and raspy, the product of many years of smoking. “How are you? How are things with Ben?”
“We broke up two years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you still friends?”
“Not so much,” I said.
“That’s too bad. Well, your Mother must be pleased. She finally got her way.”
“Actually, Tita, Mother is the reason I called. She turned into a goldfish. Just today.”
Tita Hilda broke into a coughing fit, or so I thought. It lasted a bit. “A-hee, a-hee, well….” she said when she caught her breath. “Now my sister has really done it, hasn’t she? And she kept scolding me about my smoking. Ah-hee… heee… heee…”
“She’s fine, though,” I volunteered, “as far as being a goldfish goes.”
“That’s good. A-heee… heee…. And how about you?”
“Shocked at first, but I’m fine now.”
“That’s a good boy. Your Mother is really lucky to have you, you know. If only she hadn’t been so hard-headed, she could have moved with Bea to the States. But she’s lucky you’re there for her.”
“Thank you, Tita.”
“Well, I’m sorry I can’t talk some more. You be a good boy and take care of your Mother, all right? Love. Bye!”
I scrolled through my cellphone’s directory, name after name, number after number. I paused at each one, thinking what Mother meant to them, what I meant to them. I kept scrolling down until I looped back to the beginning.
I put the phone aside. Across the kitchen table was Mother in her goldfish jug. She looked forlorn, floating with her head at an angle downward. The only sign of life was the occasional flutter of her fins to keep her level.
“Oh, Mother. What am I going to do?”
Unbidden, tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to hold them back, but my lungs let out sobs instead. Soon I was bawling, and I didn’t care what the neighbors thought.
When the tears dried, it was near dusk. Hunger displaced sadness. I had not had anything since those crackers in Dr. Coching’s clinic. Neither, I remembered, had Mother. What do goldfish need for sustenance?
Putting my own pangs aside, I followed the first good idea I had all day. I brought Mother, pitcher and all, to a nearby pet shop.
We arrived just before closing time. The sales girls had already half-shuttered the grills, but the Chinese owner still sat serenely behind the cash register. The pet store was lined with aquariums and exotic fishes. In contrast, Mother seemed very plain.
I headed to the fish food section and realized I had another problem. Between taxi rides and consultation fees, I had only P50 to spare. I picked put the cheapest fish flakes they had and brought it to the counter.
The owner absentmindedly punched the bill into his register. Then he stopped midway, looked me up and down, not menacingly, but rather curiously. Then he took a long appraising look at Mother.
He shook his head and put away the flakes I had selected. “No, this won’t do,” he said. Instead, he took out a vial of red, green, and yellow pellets. I blanched when I saw the tag.
“I can’t afford that,” I stammered.
Nevertheless, he popped the vial open. He took my hand and dropped a few pellets into my palm. He gestured toward Mother.
I dropped the pellets into the pitcher. Immediately Mother perked up, swam around twice, then nibbled at them furiously. Within moments she had devoured them all. For the first time that day, I smiled.
The owner passed me another handful which I then passed on to Mother. He took some himself, and dropped them into the aquarium beside the register. The tank held a lone goldfish, old, fat, but regal. Like Mother, she swam excitedly towards the pellets, but more slowly.
“How long have you had her?” he asked.
“Just today,” I said. Or should I have said: all of my life? Which did he mean? The way he nodded told me I had guessed right.
“Ah, yes. Very hard, the first day. Some people are not able to take it at all.” He moved Mother’s pitcher next to his aquarium. Mother pressed her nose against the glass, and the other goldfish did likewise. They floated up and down in sync.
“Have you given thought what you will do?” he asked.
His question gave me pause. I hadn’t really thought beyond the moment. I was muddling from one step to the next. Then I thought of the past, of my time with Mother. We had our ups and downs, sometimes it felt that the downs outweighed the ups. Her disappointment at my career choices, for instance. And Ben. But she was mother to me, after all.
She was all I had, I was all she had.
“I will…take care of her.”
“Very good, very good,” the owner said. He handed me the vial of pellets. “On the house.”
“Thank you,” I stammered. I slipped it in my pocket.
“And tomorrow, you come back, yes? I will show you what to do. There are things to buy,” he warned, “but for you, special price.” He winked.
When I left the pet shop, it was dark. I hailed a cab and we went on our way home. Traffic moved slowly, but my mood felt light and I didn’t think to complain. I took in the passing lights and pedestrians of Davao. I realized that Mother hadn’t been out of the house since Father died. There were many things she hadn’t yet seen. I raised her pitcher to the window and whispered to her the names of things.
Cammi F. Cardona works as a virtual assistant. She enjoys crafting.