Tim Baxter
12 min readJul 3, 2021


(This is a work of fiction I had published fifteen years ago. It’s mostly here because I realised that the only copy I had of it was in print.)

I have become a collection of mundane facts.

My five o'clock shadow long ago went midnight. I am a single father. I am twenty-eight. I imagine that I am the only person for miles crying into an empty fishtank. It once held a red-breasted wrasse. I am wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt over a brown t-shirt and black pants. My clothes are dripping with water. I have an orange pencil in my breast pocket. I am on a boat over the Great Barrier Reef. I am 3000 kilometres from my home in Melbourne. My eyes are red. My body is five feet and eleven inches long.

There's another boat coming. It is shining its three spotlights on me.

It pulls alongside.

They're asking me questions. I can't remember the answers. Do I have a license for this craft? Why haven't I got lights on it? Am I the owner? Shit, am I okay, mate? What's wrong?

There’s an image running on a loop in my brain. Moments ago. I wore a snorkel to watch the wrasse I released into the water. It wears a splash of red like an Aztec Sun drawn in sacrificial blood. I watched it until it disappeared.

It's Gill's sixth birthday today. I invited some kids from her school, so I tidy the house and string up some decorations.

Yesterday, I went back to the toy store and bought the Tropical Barbie Gill was begging me for only two weeks ago – partly out of guilt, and partly out of some vain hope that a little normality might bring an end to all of this.

After I have finished spoon-feeding her cereal, I unwrap the present for Gill. As soon as she sees it, her eyes light up and, for a moment, I believe in magic. Then she reaches out with one stiff hand and smacks the box, drumming on the plastic.

At the same time, her other hand goes straight into the bowl of jelly I made as an after-breakfast treat (if you can't eat junk on your birthday...). She spills the bowl on the floor. While I tidy the mess, she smears the red jelly on her face.

No one’s arrived by eleven – the time I told parents to drop off their kids. Not even Jack, her best friend. I don’t blame them. Gill’s definitely not contagious, but I can see how sensitive parents might think she is. She’s covered in psoriasis, and newly physically and intellectually disabled. She used to be popular.

After it's clear that no one's coming, we go swimming together. I float on my back with her paddling around me. The now angular form of her body doesn't really fit swimming, but she still manages to keep her head above water and even walks unsupported in the shallow end.

The rest of the birthday consists of her sitting across my lap while I play some kids videos on TV. She is more interested in her mouth and spends a good deal of the day playing with her tongue and spittle. I spend most of the day trying to get to know the new daughter I have.

At bedtime, I lie down beside her and read Blueback by Tim Winton aloud. It's her favourite book. Once upon a time she'd tell me off for skipping a single word while reading it to her, but now she just falls asleep to my voice. I fall asleep next to her.

The website says the red-breasted wrasse is a tropical fish found in the Indian and Pacific oceans from 30⁰N through to 27⁰S. It is found up to sixty metres deep in lagoon or reef areas with a mixture of coral, sand and rubble.

It is a perch-like fish with black and white stripes running vertically along its body. This effect is balanced by a murky gold head. Upon reaching maturity, it develops a brilliant red or orange patch in the area between its eye and pectoral fin. Traces of red can also spread to other areas on the body.

Kenya is the only place where it is commonly considered food, but its bright colours and peaceful nature make it a popular choice for aquariums. A large specimen can fetch upwards of US$140.

Because of its wide distribution, it goes by many names. In Japanese it is known as ‘Yashabera’, which translates as 'She-Demon Wrasse’. In Mozambique, it is ‘Vieja Florida’ (‘Old Flower’) and also ‘Bodião Raiado’ (‘Come in Sight Wrasse’). In Gela, the language of the Solomon Islands, it is ‘Pulupulu Sui’ (‘Clothed/Wrapped in Sui’, the Gela word for a local species of red parakeet). As ever, the French names are among the most poetic, with their choices being, ‘Madame Tombée Ragé’ (‘Madam Fallen Rage’), and ‘Vieille Tachetée’ (‘Mottled, Old Woman’). This poeticism is somewhat overshadowed, though, by the third way they address it. In the French-speaking Maldives, it is ‘Labre à Poitrine Rouge’, which translates, in zoological terms, as. ‘[Fish with] Thick Lips, Double Dentition and a Red Chest’.

I have one in my bathtub. It is – used to be – whatever – my daughter, Gill.

Today, you can't tell the difference. She is my little girl.

We went swimming in the pool next to our new flat. I picked the flat solely for its proximity to the pool. She's been swimming without a kickboard since she was three. She is my water-baby.

I swim laps, and she twists underwater. Even at five, she can hold her breath under water longer than I can. I blame my ex-smoker’s lungs.

She has the hair of my mother – or at least, the hair my mother had until recently. It is dark, straight and smooth. It fans out behind her as she spins. She uses it to feel her way through the water like a catfish uses its whiskers. She senses her path by feeling the vibrations push the strands around. She hates swimming in shower caps.

Her name is a play on my name and my ex-wife's, but it turned out to be fitting. Bill and Gail created Gill. I like to think she is part fish, rather than part of a fish.

Gill is beautiful. Her features contrast between jet black and pale white. She has all the better parts of her parents, though she also has a few of our worse ones – Gail’s dreaminess, my temper. Everything about the way she looks is definition. She missed my half-asleep brown eyes and got her mother’s bright blue. She got my angular jaw and missed her mother’s round face.

‘I want to play a game.’ She swims over to me with a grin on her face.

‘What game is this, then?’

‘I learned it at school. I say, “I one a dead horse”, then you say, “I two a dead horse”. Then I say the next one. Then you.’

She launches right in. ‘I one a dead horse.’

‘I two a dead horse.’

‘I three a dead horse.’

‘I four a dead horse.’ What is this?

‘I five a dead horse.’

‘I six a dead horse.’

She gets a naughty grin on her face when she says, ‘I seven a dead horse.’

‘I ate a dead horse.’ Damn it! I’m outsmarted by a five-year-old.

She giggles and slides underwater. I try to catch her, but I can’t keep up. I am a typically flailing land mammal. She pushes through the water like it vacates a tunnel just for her.

There's something wrong with Gill. Overnight, she's stopped talking.

When I try to get her up for school, she won’t get out of bed. I lift her out, but her legs won’t take her own weight. I rush her out of the house in her pyjamas.

It's one week until her sixth birthday.

After a few quick tests, the Emergency room at the Epworth Hospital sends us to a neurologist upstairs. He is young and thin. Gill is in a borrowed wheelchair because my back is giving out from carrying her around. The psoriasis has almost completely covered her. It’s now midday and she hasn’t spoken yet - instead using the same gurgling gibberish.

‘Well hello there, Gill! How are you today?’

‘Ga-bugh. Ga-bugh. Ga-bugh.’ Her hands are flapping around her mouth, as she flicks saliva bubbles on her tongue.

He shakes my hand.

‘Tony Orbach. Hi. What can I do for you?’

And I launch right into it, handing over whatever medical records I grabbed in my rush out of the house. I mention the psoriasis, the divorce and her obsession with water. He quizzes me on the blanks left in the medical history; height, weight and developmental milestones – everything except who she actually is. If she was aware enough right now, I know Gill would feel left out. I am reducing her to a collection of mundane facts.

All the while, I feel like he's not firing the questions fast enough. Each minute, my daughter could be getting further and further from me. I try to push him toward an answer any answer. I want him to pull out the prescription pad beneath his desk and write the cure on a piece of paper.

And then he stands and starts poking and shuffling Gill in her wheelchair. He feels her muscles, which have wasted away over night. She's giggling and clapping on the side of her chair. When Dr. Orbach reaches down to feel her ankles, Gill starts drumming on his head.

He’s going over his notes after The Grand Quiz.

‘So what’s the answer?’

‘I’m afraid it’s too early to know. There are many possib—’

‘What’s number one?"

‘Ignoring her history, she fits the major criteria for Rett Syndrome, but it moves much slower and usually exhibits a symptoms much earlier in life than this. A tumour, haemorrhage or major seizure could have caused brain damage but that wouldn’t account for the ataxia. It could be a viral infection, but I’ve never heard of one this aggressive. It may even be partially psychiatric. All of these possibilities are very preliminary, though.’

The stress he puts on 'very' makes me realise that we’re in for a long wait.

He takes some blood, which makes Gill howl. We then leave for a series of scans and tests, Gill bursts into tears at almost every one and, soon enough, our whole day is gone. There aren't any decent answers today and all we've gained upon walking out of the hospital is a rented wheelchair.

Minutes later, she’s forgotten all about the needles and scans and is happy again, but now it’s my turn to howl. She’s wet herself.

Gill is murmuring while I put my phone in the cabinet so it doesn't get wet. Her hands are pushed together in front of her chest and twisting about jerkily. She's wringing her hands like some maniacal super-villain.

I lift her out of her wheelchair and onto the changing table. She’s light, but awkward to carry. Despite the fact that I’ve stringently followed the doctor’s physical therapy routine, her joints are getting stiffer. I get her undressed, clean up her nappy, and lift her into the bath. As soon as she feels the water, she starts splashing. Her arms. hit it with a whack and water coats everything in the room. The same thing happens every time. I always have to change my clothes.

She only stops splashing when I start singing to her. The song choices are mine, not hers, but they work all the same. She sits still and watches me. I never sang to her like this before the change. I wish I had.

‘At my most beautiful, I count your eyelashes, secretly. With every one, I whisper “I love you”. I’ll let you sleep. I know your closed eyes are watching me, listening. I thought I saw a smile.’

‘Ga-bugh. Ga-bugh. Ga-bugh. Ga-bugh.’

She leans back in the bath. Her head sinks under the water, and bubbles spill out of her nose. Unusually for her, she takes a deep breath under water and comes up coughing.

This is an exercise in logic. Which of these examples are logical? Why?

A: All fish have gills.

A whale is a fish.

Therefore, a whale has gills.

B: All fish have gills.

A salmon has gills.

Therefore, a salmon is a fish.

C: Only fish have gills.

I have my daughter, Gill.

Therefore, I am a fish.

In the morning, she wakes me up by shaking me.

‘Daddy. Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.’

She sounds like my alarm clock.

I’m groaning and rolling over. She’s holding her pyjama top up and pointing to a small mark. My eyes still haven’t woken up, but it looks like a bruise. As they do wake up, I see a raised, red spot of scaly skin. It’s psoriasis – a lesser trait of her mother’s evidently passed down the genetic line.

I have work today and she has school, but I make a doctor's appointment for tomorrow, just in case.

At bedtime that night, I tell her about Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, The Vampire Squid from Hell, which is a real, small, very-deep-sea squid. Its tentacles are webbed and flare out like an umbrella to catch food. It has giant blue eyes – compared to its size, it has the biggest eyes of any animal in the world. Also, instead of shooting ink like a normal squid, the Vampyroteuthis shoots tiny balls of light. Its tentacles also light up and it uses these to confuse things that want to eat it.

I’m not sure if telling Gill these things helps her sleep, but she seems to enjoy them. I go to great lengths to memorise this trivia purely for her entertainment, and have become an amateur marine biologist as a consequence.

The next morning, the doctor at the health centre confirms my home diagnosis, but orders allergy tests anyway. In the meantime, he suggests I give Gill fish oil capsules each night. I joke with him about giving the oil of a scaled creature to cure scaly skin, but he doesn't get it.

It's late at night and I'm heading off to bed.

As I walk past Gill’s room, I can hear movement. Expecting to find her still awake and playing, I sneak in to catch her in the act. She’s lying in bed, face down, her body stiff. Her arms are straight down by her sides. Her legs are moving as one caudal fin. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can see her hands are stuck out to the side and moving in circles beneath the covers.

She's swimming like a fish in her dreams. I kiss her on the back of the head and close the door behind me as I leave.

I lean her forward to cough up the water she’s swallowed but it doesn’t work. Gill’s gurgling and turning blue. I grab my phone. Dial an ambulance. Empty the bath. The operator is brisk. Ambulance will be here soon. Do I know CPR? Towel down on the floor, then lift her onto it (we wouldn’t want her life threatened uncomfortably). Check pulse. Yes. Breathing. No. Tilt head. Hold jaw open with pistol-grip on chin. Cover tiny nose and mouth with my mouth. Breathe. Breathe. Ambulance coming. Breathe. Breathe. She coughs a little. Nothing comes out. Can’t hear breath. Breathe. Breathe. She has some colour - maybe too much. My mobile phone drops out.

Her shoulders are turning bright red. Her mouth is grabbing at air that isn’t there. Is it in my head or is she shrinking? Can’t be. Come on, Gill, Breathe. She pushes her shoulders up. Folds her arms. Wrists at her shoulders. She starts to seize up and there is definitely something else going on here. She’s arching her back and relaxing Slowly at first, then it gets faster. She’s flapping on the ground.

Her psoriasis turns black, with stripes of white. Her shoulders are a brilliant red. Her head is forced back and her face stretches.

I find the presence of mind to throw her in the bath and turn the taps on high. Once submerged, she relaxes and continues shrinking. She’s gently filtering the water through her new gills.

I can hear the sirens and open the door without waiting for the ambulance to pull up. I rush back into the bathroom, but Gill's still there, contentedly catching her breath after the ordeal.

The ambulance officers call out from the door and I shout to them. They make their way to the back of the house and find me staring at my daughter. I've hit a peculiar kind of calm. It's the point beyond faith.

‘Where is she?’

I point.

‘You have got to be kidding. I am not treating a fucking red-breasted wrasse.’

‘Is that what she is now?’

‘You’d better be a fruitcake or you’re in for a hefty bloody fine.’

‘Does this happen often?’

They're both staring at me. I don't care. The older one picks up his bag and stomps off. The younger one looks like he's about to punch me, but thinks again. He follows, slamming the door behind him after telling me to expect the police later on.

I sit on the edge of the bath watching my daughter, the fish. Her new form is beautiful, however shocking the transformation was. Along with the red around her fins, her eye is surrounded by four concentric circles alternating black and red. The flecks around the circles creates the effect of an Aztec Sun on either side of her head. It’s drawn in sacrificial blood.

It hits me. She deserves to be free.



Tim Baxter

Climate and energy researcher for my day job, but these opinions are written on my own time.