The Scales by Maria Poulatha

“If I had a drachma for every fish I cleaned,” we heard Grandma lament again and again. Grandpa emptied bucketfuls onto the rotten door turned workbench and separated them like laundry: “These for soup, these for the grill, these for the fryer.” Grandma sighed and thrust a hand wrist-deep into a fish, disemboweling in three swift motions. Her short knife scraped the outsides like a precise pencil sharpener before she wedged a lemon beneath her fingernails to remove the stink. Scales glistened like flecks of mica, coated the countertops with transparent currency. She never became a rich woman. Still, fish overflowed like tears in Gethsemane.

What if she had had a drachma for every tear? She would have had a hard time entering the kingdom of heaven.

There was no shrine to her boy. No icons framed on the wall or wisps of angelic hair tied with ribbon behind votive candles. Only a few centimeters of a child’s bike chain dangling from her shackle of iron keys and a single coin pulling down the thin pocket of her housecoat. “Charon comes for old women,” she said, “tragedy comes for children.”

No matter how many scales or muddy guts, how many grape leaves rolled into tight cigars, how many underpants scrubbed white with ash, holes mended, foreheads kissed, knees patched, they did not add up to the sum of sorrow.

No matter how many children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren running through the house, barefoot and salty with faces flushed and eager for her fried spaghetti or her runny pudding, pain tipped the balance.

I sat on the settee where the boy’s skinny legs once dangled from his short pants before the explosion left him sprawled like a starfish, gasping for air. From the other room I heard her chuckle at the discovery of a whole squid in a fish’s belly followed by a bottomless sigh that sounded like logs being dragged across a bog.

Joy is treacherous.

Watching her go was like witnessing the tide. Only when she died, fish innards down the drain, needlepoint folded between mothballs–when we were finally ready to settle those busy hands into the earth like restless children into their beds–only then did we take a weightless breath. The coin that swung reassuringly against her thigh was slipped out of her pocket and placed above her mouth. A single coin pays for a one-way ticket.

These days the fishmonger cleans our fish and wraps it in yesterday’s paper. We watch his hands make scales fly like sparks as the fish’s mouth puckers and stretches one final time. My daughter beside me removes a mitten and pokes a tiny finger into the silent hole.

MARIA POULATHA — Originally from New Jersey, Maria lives in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter. You can find her stories in lovely journals such as Split Lip Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Copper Nickel, trampset and Okay Donkey.

Art by MARIEJULIE LAFRANCE — Bilingual, Multidisciplinary artist, MarieJulie won two art scholarships while studying for her DEC in Arts in letters. She obtained her DEC in 2012. Since 2014, as an illustrator-freelancer MarieJulie uses pencils, brushes, digital software, and fabrics as tools to express her creativity. Diagnosed as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), MJ is highly attuned to details, giving her the ability to bring a textured but flowy elegance to her work. Find out more on her website: