two fish are in a tree

apropos of nothing

I never understand your stories, he said. They go like this:

Two fish were in a tree. The first fish said to the other, how’s the weather outside today?

Then I ask you, Why are they there? What is the meaning of the fish and the tree? Why not a monkey in a pond? Why not a candle that sets itself on fire? And then you will repeat the story from the beginning, as if that explained anything. Two fish are in a tree. The first fish said to the other, how’s the weather?

No, I said. Clearly I would not tell a story that failed to address why two fish are in a tree, since it is obviously meant to be a point of interest.

Two fish are in a tree. They’re there because their marriage has failed.

Why are they there together if their marriage has failed?

Now you’re asking the correct questions. They’re there because they’ve given up hope of finding any other fish to love. They have nowhere else to be with anybody else, anymore, ever.

The first fish said to the second, Is this what you wanted? Is this what you thought would happen? The second fish said to the first fish, What have you done to us?

The second fish said, What have you done to us? and not, What have we done to ourselves? The first fish would do well to reflect on that if this were the type of story where two words indicated intent: The woman becomes pregnant, and the man asks her, What are you going to do? She looks at him, thinks of nothing, licks her lips, and tastes salt.


I have an idea for a story, I said.

Okay, she said.

Two fish are in a tree. They’re there—because their marriage has failed.

What happens next?

I don’t know. I’m writing this story at a pace of one sentence a month. In blood.

There’s so little explanatory power in literature. Instead, there’s rather a lot of plausibility. Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights for revenge after being wronged. Revenge is plausible, Heathcliff is not, and if Emily Brontë were alive, she would witness scores of English majors sweat blood trying to make him believable by reconciling Heathcliff’s behavior with the common experiences we all share.

The failure of plausibility is not necessarily bad. An old man sprouts wings by the sea. A woman realizes she never loved her husband because of a pair of lederhosen. These do not necessarily evoke less valuable thought than a situation where five people are on one trolley track and one is on another and you must decide which group shall die. In any case I’ve never heard a work praised for being plausible. Have you read In Search of Lost Time? Yes, very plausible. I could believe it.

Things happen in conjunction, often appearing but failing to explain each other, leaving the same twenty-year-olds to butcher the chain of causality, as if each novel were the ragged remnants of a game of Jenga left for the reader to rebuild.

So nothing explains anything?


No, you’re right. I’m not supporting the reading of every book as a series of violently discombobulated words that have nothing to do with explaining any other part of the next few pages. But here is how I would like my story not to be read: Why is Heathcliff back at Wuthering Heights? He’s there because he’s been wronged. He’s also there because he was brought to the Heights as an outsider with a racially ambiguous background, had no inheritance claim to the land, and was therefore cast out by Hindley, rejected by Catherine, and as a result feels he’s been wronged and has come back to seek revenge. A dark man comes back to the moors. He’s there because he’s been wronged.

They’re there because their marriage has failed.

Their identity as fish has likely played a role in leading them to where they are now; without it they would not be who they were, and without being two fish they could not even be two fish in a tree. But it’s not about how they are two fish. It’s about the fact that they’re unhappy. If you only read the story in light of the fact that they are fish, you’ll miss the point of their story. Certainly, nothing they do can escape the fact that they’re fish, but their identity isn’t congruent with the reasons they act even if the two always perfectly corresponded.

Are you writing diaspora literature with fish?

That might be a pretty stupid form of identity politics. This might be even more inane than what goes on when we do read diaspora lit.

Why don’t the fish have names?

I’m working on it.

I don’t know, maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe it’s about the tree.

How would it be about the tree? The tree had seen it all before?

No. Too cliché.

You’re right. That would kill the story.


Two fish are in a tree. They’re there because their marriage has failed.

Let’s fall in love again, the first fish said to the second.

Do you want to? asked the second fish.

There’s nobody else left now, said the first fish.

I’ve forgotten how, said the second fish.

And I’ve never been able to remember, said the first.

Have all the other fish died? Is that why the two fish are together?

It’s not a desert, I said.

If you’re going to write this story at a pace of one sentence a month in blood, he said reasonably, what are you going to send in for production on Wednesday?

I’ll figure something out, I said.

Is it going to be a good use of production space?

I will consider this a part of an ongoing effort to keep readers constantly uneasy and vigilant. Open up the publication, and one might expect anything. You may consider this an open advertisement to writers.

At the end of their thirst, the fish looked around.

Where did all the water go? said the first fish.

What have we done to ourselves? said the second.