Blessing the Pets

by M.K. Foster

Fingernails were its favorite. But only until the thumb tacks. After that, it was my baby teeth.

I had resolved to keep it a secret. My secret. And then it would be a surprise, how good I was at having a pet.

I was 8 that year. Ate, the only age that is also a verb, which I liked. And we were living in the yellowest house I had ever seen. It was one of those really old historic neighborhoods where all the houses looked like rows of pastel milk cartons, so you couldn’t ever change the color. But we got a good deal on it, my parents had said.

I just thought no one wanted to live in such a yellow house.

So there we were, and I was asking for a dog, a cat, an anything for a pet because that was the deal. As soon as we have a house, my parents had said, but then it became, not just now. Not this year. Maybe for your birthday.

Which is why it felt so good to have my secret.

I didn’t even mind that it didn’t have eyes. Just skinned-over sockets in a cat-shaped head on a mouse-sized body, touching its way out from under my dresser with a tongue like a wrinkled pinkie finger, feeling out floors and corners, searching for teeth, wanting something for the pocks of its gum-puckered mouth.

Just wanting a way to chew. That’s all. Only at night, too, which made sense since skin like cooked egg white probably burned easily in sunlight.

My small fingernail clippings fit its small face in the beginning, which helped it get through chicken nugget bits. The thumb tacks made freezer-pizza pepperoni easier to swallow. But my baby teeth worked best.

You just had to remember to feed it. Which I did, being responsible. Otherwise, it would remind you.

The morning after a sleepover, I found a half-chewed click beetle in my slipper. Some of the fingernail teeth had come off in the onyx carcass, too. Just to make a point, it seemed.

Another time, it was late, and its thumbtack incisor drew blood. Not enough to hurt, but just enough to mean something. Maybe it was a warning. Or payback. It got bigger anyway, almost the size of a skinned rabbit come autumn.

And it was going to be a surprise. Every October, our church did a ‘Blessing the Pets’ event, and every year, I looked forward to it, hoping I’d have my own to bring one day.

This year, I thought, giving the last of my finally-lost baby teeth to my secret. They all finally fit the full of its newly cat-sized face. And when I would smile at it, it was my own mouth that smiled back.

And I was so proud of myself, so ready to show my parents how responsible I could be, bringing a pet of my own to church with me. That’s why the yellow fish was such a surprise the night before.

I’d been very good, they said, keeping to my room, as I should. But maybe a little too well, they thought, so it would do me some good, the fish.

It was a bright lemon color all over and shaped like one, too. Belly bulged. And then there were the stripes like crimson comets on either side. It was beautiful. My parents had even given me a mason jar to use to carry it to church the next day.

I watched it turn for hours in the glass planet of its bowl like a lost star or a Jupiter moon. It was almost dawn when I finally fell asleep.

And I meant to feed it. The next morning, I took it to church for the blessing, the yellow fish. Just how I’d always wanted. But I felt bad about it.

I just didn’t want my secret to feel forgotten or replaced. Or to remind me.

But it didn’t show. I stayed awake most of every night for weeks with waiting. My parents would find me asleep on the floor with meat bits stuffed in my fists. For nothing.

I never saw my secret again. But not my baby teeth.

Those I found cleaning the fish bowl a month later. They were in the bottom with the rainbow gravel. Crushed. Chewed, maybe? But still teeth. Even a few tack metal bits and fingernail slivers. Eight. You miss a lot when you’re only eight.

I missed my secret. It helped to have the yellow fish. But not always. Nothing I could touch or feed from my hand like my secret. Nothing that could smile.

It died like anything else, that yellow fish, two years later when we left that yellow house for my dad’s next new job. But this time, it was another fish my parents had to promise me.

Don’t be sad, they said as I bit my fingernails and cried watching them flush the fish down our toilet. It was almost too big by then, having almost grown into a grapefruit.

It will be okay, they said, then told me, Maybe wherever we move next will also come with a fish.

Living in the old pipes in the walls like this one had been, apparently. Coming up the kitchen drain at night, because they used to find it in the morning swimming around the soaking dishes, this yellow fish.

And they felt bad after a while, seeing it grate its face on meaty plate streaks and gnaw at chicken bone bits. So they thought that it could use a proper home. And I could use a surprise.

Bless its heart, my mother said, petting my head as the fish vanished in a whirl of water. It was always so hungry.

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