Just a little fish

The first time I discovered that fish actually exist in bodies of water and how it changed me.

Olivia Masterson, Reporter

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Deep water never used to make me panic. 

It didn’t used to make my heart pound and my breath come in short gasps every time I couldn’t see the sand or the rocks below my feet. It didn’t used to make me swim for the safety of land or whatever closest thing to being out of the water is. Deep water didn’t used to scare me as much as it does now.

That fear didn’t exist before the age of nine. 

My grandparents live on a lake. I had grown up flinging myself off boats into the deepest parts of the lake when the murky darkness that lingered just below my feet didn’t even begin to frighten me. I didn’t even realize there could be something in that darkness. 

Until the summer of 2013, of course. 

We were staying at a resort in Mexico that I no longer remember the name of. It was basically Disney to my nine-year-old self, though significantly smaller and with less scream-inducing, stomach-dropping rides. They had dolphins which made up for it. Looking back on it now, it’s probably pretty cruel to keep dolphins at a resort and let people pay to swim with them, but that didn’t matter to nine-year-old me. They were dolphins. 

We spent a lot of time at the beach that summer, laying under the cloudless blue sky on dirty white lounge chairs. The beach or rather the ocean was where everything started, but I wouldn’t realize it until the next time we visited my grandparents. 

I played in the crystal blue waves like every other kid that afternoon. My parents watched from the shore as I tried to get them to swim with me. I wanted someone to splash and my parents were always perfect targets. They were tall and they didn’t let me eat ice cream for breakfast even on vacation, which was a dramatic betrayal in my nine-year-old mind. Ice cream for breakfast was the ultimate vacation meal, but per usual, my parents just had to suck the fun right out of everything with their balanced meals and vegetables. My mind was set on vengeance and just as my dad got up to swim, something touched my foot. 

I shrieked. 

I knew for a fact it wasn’t a hand. I could see straight under the water and there was nothing there, which freaked me out the most. My dad had seen me jump almost a foot in the air and hurried over to see what was going on. He, of course, found it hilarious when I told him that something had touched my foot. 

“It’s probably just some seaweed.”

It was not just some seaweed. There was no seaweed in sight, at least not near my feet. When I looked up from searching the water, my mom had joined us and my dad had stopped laughing. He was looking at the water now, trying to see something. The water always seems crystal clear until you’re trying to see what exactly is touching your feet and legs. 

“Did you feel it too?”

He nodded and then my mom yelped. She had felt whatever it was too. A few seconds later and I felt it on my feet again, but it wasn’t just one brush though. It was like something was nibbling on my feet, not at all painful but generally uncomfortable. Mom was the first of us to use her head and figure out what it was. 

She smiled. “It’s just a fish.”

A fish. A small sand-colored one that blended right in with the sand below my feet. I couldn’t see it, but I sure could feel it. Teeny tiny little nibbles all up and down my feet. Now my family is a family of naming. We used to name our cars and we still name our plants to this day. Of course, we had to name our new little friend.

And so we dubbed him Nibbler.

Nibbler was a constant nuisance for the next 10 minutes, invisible against the soft white sand beneath our feet and yet ever-present. When we left the water and dashed across the warm sand to our chairs and towels, we never saw it again. Nibbler went from real living fish to an everlasting inside joke that reemerged every time we went to the beach afterwards. 

Nibbler also went from a real fish to a constant fear. 

When I found myself on my grandparent’s boat the summer everything started out fine. We flew over the calm water towards the islands that were off in the distance to our right. I was smiling, laughing, having loads of fun until the anchor dropped. One look at the cold dark water beneath the boat made my stomach drop along with it.

A thousand thoughts went through my head all at once. What If there’s something down there? Just out of sight? There’s fish in this lake. Oh god, there’s fish in this lake. The water looked endless and suddenly I found myself needing a float, needing something solid, something I could escape on. As family member after family member jumped into the water, for the first time in my life I was considering not getting in. 

Eventually, I was taunted into getting in. With a running start and a splash my head ducked below the water and the panic took over. I threw myself towards the surface terrified of the shadows under the waves. My chest was tight and every nerve in my body was screaming for me to race to the ladder, to climb out and huddle on the deck until I felt safe again. Until I felt like there wasn’t something down there, just out of sight.

I still swim of course, but with a float or near someone. I try not to look down and see how my feet look like fish when the light from the sun turns them green and yellow in the murky water. Or how anything below the water like a buoy rope or a rock looks like something out of an underwater horror movie. 

Thanks Nibbler.