It was on the afternoon of the Vandellen’s Annual Charity Event that we learned about the time India Footlock had been bitten by a fish. The Event was as dreary as such events tend to be: you presented your invitation, paid for long in advance, to a butlerish sort of man and entered a large room that had once been a ballroom, and began to approach a huge table that held pots of sour coffee and soggy sandwiches. Then you carried, precariously, your paper cup and paper plate and drifted about looking for a place to sit. We had long since learned that to get a spot with enough chairs together to seat those of our group we knew were coming we had to arrive early; by now we had, by unspoken agreement, always included an extra chair for when India joined us. We knew that she would show up, and that sooner or later she would meander toward us and, if seating were available, join us.
She showed up fairly soon, looking with mild distaste at her plateful of lettuce and pale salmon as she carefully lowered herself into her chair. “I was bitten by one of these long ago,” she said, “and haven’t trusted them since.”
With anyone else, we would have assumed a metaphoric meaning: the speaker had gotten ill from eating spoiled lettuce, or too much salmon, that sort of thing. With India, such an assumption was questionable. After a moment’s hesitation and a near sigh, Riply took the lead. “You mean,” he asked cautiously, “a salmon bit you?’’
“Yes,” she replied. “Of course, I was fairly young at the time.” We all nodded, and she continued. “It was in one of the foster homes, where the people were very nice, and tried to make sure we all had educational experiences. So one Sunday, they took us all out to a fish hatchery. Have you ever been to a fish hatchery? No? I wouldn’t recommend it. They’re very boring—at least this one was; I’ve never been to one since. Just these square pools full of baby fish, who don’t do much but swim around in circles, poor things, and then there’s one real little lake with examples of what the fish look like when they grow up, which isn’t much more interesting than the baby pools. I had eaten tuna salad earlier in the day, and some must have remained on my fingers. Anyway my fingers felt greasy and I stuck them into the water. I was daydreaming about something; you do tend to daydream when they’re making you watch baby fish all day. And one of the grownup fish must have thought I was a tuna. Silly, wasn’t it? Tuna are awfully big; a little salmon couldn’t eat one, now could it? But whatever the reason, the wretched thing dug its teeth into my finger; it felt like a knife cutting and I screamed and yanked my hand up, with the nasty salmon attached to it, and the teeth pulling the wound further open with the weight of the fish, which fell onto the ground. I was bleeding and I was and scared of getting rabies, because those shots, you know, are very painful but if you don’t get them you die. So I started, quite sensibly, to scream, which brought the other foster children, lost no doubt in their own daydreams, to attention. They ignored me, all but one little boy, who glared at me and pointed to the flapping fish at my foot.
“If you leave it there it will drown,” he yelled at me, and pushed the creature back into the water with his foot. Someone eventually found me a band-aid, and I never did get rabies, so I guess that was alright. But I’ve never trusted the ghastly creatures since.” She popped the salad into her mouth, winced, washed it down with coffee, and winced again. Then she smiled at us and walked on to another group of people, stopping at the table on the way to grab a fresh sandwich. Prunella watched her, and then looked at us. “You don’t suppose she ever got bitten by a chicken, do you?” she asked.