emma mccartor

30 Things About a Photo and a Fish Tank

1. I don’t know where this picture was taken, probably Michigan or Ohio. The sky looks the same no matter what part of the midwest you are in. 

2. My grandparents stand in front of the door to their brick house, a potted plant with saggy leaves on my grandfather’s left. 

3. My aunts, Mary and Ann, and my dad sit in an unevenly spaced row. Mary and Ann are in front of my grandparents while my dad sits off to the side, legs dangling over the edge of the stoop. 

4. They all have on dress shoes. The girls wear tights and the boys wear slacks, dressed nicely as if they just arrived home from church. 

5. I don’t know how old everyone is in the photo. My grandparents both look young, my grandmother almost looks my age but I know she is older than seventeen. 6. My Aunt Mary sits in front of her father, smiling, her eyes squinted closed, probably because the sun is in her eyes. 

7. Despite the sun it is hard to tell what season it is in the photo. I can only guess that it isn’t winter. The grass is still green. 

8. Grass dies in the cold and turns brown. 

9. Two people in this photograph have had cancer. 

10. My grandfather had cancer, probably before I was born. He survived. 11. My Aunt Mary was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2015. 

12. My dad sat my sister and I down in my bedroom to tell us, but I guessed what it was before he even said the word “cancer.” He told us that she was sick. We told him that it would be okay. 

13. The cancer spread to Mary’s brain. The time for hope was over. Now we needed hope for time. 

14. On my dad’s first of the last trips a few years ago to visit with Mary, he came home with a fish tank. 

15. The fish tank had belonged to Mary and her husband. I remember running through their home in Florida as a child and seeing the bright fish that filled the tank. 16. Mary gave the tank to my dad. It had become too much for her to care for while undergoing cancer treatment. 

17. A week later my dad walked through the door with four five-gallon buckets holding tropical fish and a tank that would fill the corner of our dining room. 

18. For a while all of the fish survived. 

19. On rainy afternoons I enjoyed watching them swim around, tapping the glass and watching the angel fish bump it’s nose as it turned quickly. 

20. My favorite fish to watch was the smallest one. Despite being so small it swam everywhere in the tank, not scared of the bigger fish. 

21. Then something happened. The smallest fish died or was eaten by the shark in the tank. 22. We think the shark ate the fish because there were no remains. The fish simply disappeared. 

23. My Aunt Mary disappeared, gone before I even got the chance to know her.

24. She died in January–in winter–the grass was brown. 

25. In the fish tank, the grass was green year round. It was as if time did not pass in the tropical fish aquarium. 

26. I wonder if fish feel the years pass? 

27. Sometimes, I run my fingers over the mahogany wood of the tank then press them gently under the lip that keeps it closed. 

28. The lid is heavy. It keeps the water warm in the tank. It prevents time from passing for the fish. 

29. When I shut the lid, it thuds like the lid of a coffin and I see the steam rebuild at the top of the tank. 

30. It keeps the cold of the outside world away.


Emma McArtor (she/her/hers) is a creative writing senior at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. She enjoys writing poetry and nonfiction the most. She loves Harry Potter and collecting quotes. Emma wants to be a high school english teacher and have two children and a couple of dogs and cats.