Fish Tanks and Fortunes

(I’m going to make it a personal goal of mine to alliterate all of my blog titles in 2021)

For the past month, I’ve been translating a story that is about, among other things, fish. Fish feature prominently in the story, as do fish tanks, which are described in vivid detail. In the story, there’s a scene where the protagonist goes on walk, looking for fish tanks that others have discarded and are giving away for free. She plans to use these tanks to store specimen of dead fish, which must be preserved in formalin and ethanol. 

Going on a walk/jog and looking for objects (books, bowls, etc.) that people no longer want is an accidental hobby of mine. I’m a slow runner and the idea that my run could double as a treasure hunt certainly makes the journey more appealing. Over the past few months I’ve seen plenty of unwanted things on sidewalks: plush toys, college diplomas, old clothes, glass bottles. But it was today, while I was thinking about the author and her writing, that I happened to come across—you guessed it—a fish tank.

I suppose this is a “coincidence.” But as a writer, I seldom believe in coincidences. If something appears more than once in a text, it becomes a motif. If a character has a dream that then replays in reality, the dream is a prophesy (both these things happen in the story I’m translating). So when a scene I translate happens to me in “real life,” I also want to imagine that it’s an omen, a sign from above, perhaps the universe’s way of affirming that my work as a translator matters somehow.

But it’s not just in my translation or on my jog that I’ve found fish tanks. This morning, I was re-watching the marvelous dinner scene from Fleabag (Season 2, episode 1), during which one of the characters describes a miscarriage as “a ‘goldfish out of the bowl’ sort of thing” (he later gets punched in the face). For the past couple months, I’ve been revising a fish-themed crossword puzzle, and am now on my fourth attempt to build a strong grid. Isn’t the grid that contains my theme words also a kind of tank? As I create new grids but keep my theme words more or less the same, I feel as if I’m changing the water of a fish tank so that the fish inside can continue to live.

I bought a bag of fortune cookies last week, and Kevin and I have been eating one each day. I have always been obsessed with fortune cookies; the idea of finding meaningful words inside something sweet seems very poetic to me, probably because a lot of good poems are often the exact reverse: a sweet feeling hidden inside meaningful words. Each time I read my fortune, I spend the next day or so wondering whether that fortune has already “come true,” or what it may suggest about my life. 

The idea of having a “fortune” is particularly appealing during times of uncertainty about what the future holds. Most people are stuck at home right now, perhaps like fish inside their tanks. But at the end of the day, the most important thing isn’t whether the words inside a cookie bear truth, or whether a fictional moment also has real-life relevance. What’s more important to me is the belief I attach to these “fortunes.” Simply believing in the serendipitous, which is in a way the same as being hopeful, may be the most fortuitous takeaway about my fish tank encounter.

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