Fish Out of Water

In my dream all the women were there

because it was a women’s college some of them had attended

and we were seated around a wooden table.

I was brought a fish,

silverscaled: a salmon, I believe.

I fed it a goldfish.

—Now your fish is pregnant,

they told me

—you must carry it everywhere.

I worried. The fish was out of water. I tried to find water

to give it to drink, or it would die.

The first water I found was hard and gelatinous.

Then I found a glass, too small for my poor fish,

but it sucked water from the glass from my finger.


My lifejacket, which I had put on as there was water all around us,


had become a straitjacket,

and the women gathered to release me,

all the time telling me about the care and feeding of my fish,

the pregnant bump, the goldfish inside it,

as long as I could keep it safe

(It was out of water, I worried,

how long could it survive, my perfect fish?

Already its scales felt dry and rough.)

And I was trapped and struggling to free myself

as Holly tells me about her fish

as Martha tells me about escaping to New York

the cords prove tight and puzzling: everyone

thought it would be so easy.

I’ll learn to live with it.


We drive across the bridge together

all of us, in a car, and Lee is driving,

and I do not think about stopping the car

or jumping from the bridge

instead I lean back

and stare up into the mirror as the city

looms into view,

I honestly could not tell whether it was below me or above me

and I wake gasping,

being driven to a new city

so huge, reflected, waiting to fall into the sky,

and me not knowing my above from below, not any more,

holding my poor pregnant fish out of water,

and my world all turned upside down


Neil Gaiman

Neil’s poem “The Mushroom Hunters” was awarded the Rhysling Award for SF poetry, Best Long Poem 2018. His 2019 poem “What You Need to Be Warm” was made into an animated film to help refugees in 2020. He will one day collect all his poetry into a book.

Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

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