Two Beautiful Fish
By Shelley Burne-Field
What the judges said about 'Two Beautiful Fish':
"This story is beautifully articulated, rich in detail, nuanced, told with a confident voice that is also delicate and strikingly original. It tells of family grief with surprising yet inevitable developments, exploring generational shifts to do with gender, karma and love. This is a deeply felt story that delivers its message with well-paced economy."
My twin brother’s heart broke the day Opo the dolphin died. At first, Dean cried the way I imagined Opo drowned – wet and silent, wedged into a crack in the rocks at Hokianga Harbour – except Dean was wedged right next to Father at the kitchen table. Mother and I jumped when Father rolled up the newspaper and smacked Dean clear across the top of his head, forcing him to hiccough and emit sounds out of his ‘cake hole’ that sounded like ‘Goddamn air raid sirens’, according to Father.

We all stared, then Dean pressed his mouth shut like a clam and began to bang his head on the table, thumping out an SOS right on Mother’s cotton runner. Instantly, I felt my head begin to pulse in time with the blunt thuds.

‘Dean, stop dear, you’re hurting your sister’s porridge.’

Mother’s voice was soothing. She’d inherited the habit of calmly dealing with emergencies and she joked, often, that her superior negotiation skills came from the ‘accomplished side’ of the family. Her third cousin, Edward, worked overseas in an ‘important position’ and each Christmas she sent him an elegantly sewn silk handkerchief, boxed up in tissue, monogrammed with a large letter ‘E’.

‘Edward is such a dear.’

We never believed a word of it, and would tease Mother mercilessly that her monogrammed handkerchiefs had ended up wiping the noses of famous London vagabonds named Elliott or Edgar.

Back at the table, there was no negotiating the sound of Dean’s head hitting wood. It reminded me of Father and I machete-ing mutton chops in the wash-house every other Sunday night. Thwop! But Mother wasn’t having it. She took Dean by the elbow, wrapped him up gently, and led him upstairs. His cries were soon diminished.

My poor brother. I felt sorry for Mother, too. She was continually wrapping Dean in her arms. Father and I were left staring at two bowls of uneaten porridge, plus a plate of sardines on toast, which he pushed away, then smoothed his moustache.

‘I’m off to the RSA, Betty. Get some kindling in and some chops out for dinner.’

What a waste of a Saturday! I was annoyed. Now the drive out to Rabbit Island with Rosie would be cancelled. My brother wouldn’t want to go now, I simply knew it, and that would be that. Rosie wouldn’t want to go if it were just me.
Rosie, my beautiful raven-haired childhood friend, had put me aside when she’d set her heart on Dean for a husband. At the stroke of thirteen, she would stare dreamily at his bowl haircut while primping her own style – which looked exactly like Princess Margaret’s front wing. Dean would purposefully stare at the pages of Mother’s Vogue magazine.

Still annoyed, I cleared the table, willing each plate to smash into smithereens. Then I scraped the porridge out to the chickens and sat on the grass, watching them peck at the leftover sardines. Their book-book calls soothed my temples and I soon felt as calm as Mother in a crisis. The basket of kindling was light and I carried it inside, skipping up the steps. The house was quiet.

I found Dean lying face down on Mother’s bed, sniffling into the sage bedspread as she stroked his socks and hummed softly. It was fine that he was Mother’s favourite. He needed her more.

‘My two beautiful fish,’ said Mother, staring through us as if we were transparent. She meant our birth sign, Pisces, which fit us perfectly. Two little fish swimming in opposite directions but forever connected.

‘I suppose wearing trousers every day is fine,’ Mother said with a smile when she eyed up my yellow dungarees. ‘But a dress can be gorgeous, too. Wearing one won’t change who you are, on the inside.’ Her eyes were deep and loving, though her words made my lips tremble.

Mother disappeared down the stairs, calling out over her shoulder, ‘Doing washing, loves’, while I sat cross-legged on the bed next to Dean. He muffled something unintelligible.

‘What?’ I asked, hoping he wouldn’t lapse into mourning.

‘I said,’ he sniffed. ‘Mother wants me to draw you a new dress. For your coming out.’

It wasn’t an odd request. He was from the creative side of the family.

‘I’d abhor it,’ I moaned, flopping onto my back to stare at the plaster vines and leaves creeping around the ceiling. ‘If you want to make one, you wear it.’

Dean looked at me as if I’d given him a golden egg, a gift so fantastical that we couldn’t dare to believe it. He bit his lip and we both just lay there.

‘It’s not a terrible idea,’ he whispered, and reached over to wind a short strand of my fringe around his finger. Then he danced off the bed, leaping towards the window. ‘A gorgeous dress! A ball gown just for me!’ Dean sang, then stopped short, his fists raised to the windowsill. ‘Muuuum!’

Dean screamed and slapped his hands on the glass. When he turned to me, I knew something horrible had happened. We ran downstairs and out back to the clothesline, and just like Opo, Mother had died, silently and alone, a half-full basket of wet laundry by her side, a pair of Father’s y-fronts clasped to her chest. If Dean hadn’t seen her from the window, who knows when she would’ve been found? I pegged up Father’s underwear before anyone else saw. The funeral was dire. Dean and Father howled like sirens the whole time.


A year later, Dean and I were about to turn sixteen. His hair was dark blonde and stylish. Mine, short as a lavatory brush. Father hadn’t fared well after Mother died. His grief involved working hours and hours at the timber yard and drinking jugs and jugs of beer to numb the memories of war, and the pain that had replaced Mother. My grief meant ignoring Father at all costs. I made him do his own laundry. Dean grieved by drawing patterns.

Some nights, Father would stagger upstairs and stand in the doorway and stare at us and cry. The bubble was so fragile that I didn’t want to breathe, and Dean would simply keep drawing and running the sewing machine over the paper cutouts.

One Friday night, Father was out drinking when Rosie came to stay. Our friendship hadn’t exactly been the same since she’d suggested Mother died of melancholy.

‘I expect she knew she’d never get any grandchildren out of you,’ Rosie said waspishly, and my heart disintegrated, though it made Dean ignore her even more – apart from telling Rosie she looked like Graham Kerr in bad lighting. Lately, her voice had started to sound like a steam train.

‘You can’t wear trousers!’ she screeched when I said I wanted to wear Oxford Bags to the ball, and certainly not white.
Dean pursed his lips. ‘Yes! A touch of Pygmalion and maybe harem pants instead?’

‘Pig what?’ asked Rosie.

It didn’t matter. We couldn’t afford the material, the piping, or the thread. We could barely afford to keep the house, or buy a side of mutton.

‘You’re getting a bit fat,’ Dean mumbled, measuring my waist.

‘You’re getting a bit you,’ I said, measuring his chest.

‘Why are you measuring him?’ Rosie snapped, and we both giggled at the secret. She left soon after.

Later that night, Father, smelling less of beer and more of musky perfume, came into the room carrying a large package tied up with string and brown paper.

‘Your Mother’s cousin sent this,’ he said, sounding quite sober as he looked Dean straight in the eye. Then Father turned on his long socks, and padded back along the landing. The thought of Mother’s loving eyes made my eyes water. I missed her way of knowing us.

We ripped open the package as if we had claws. Inside was the most exquisite lavender and silver-grey brocade. Yards of it. The huge bolt of fabric, pulled out, seemed to flow on and on, like a river of luxury, over the bed, over the chair, piling softly onto the floor.

The card read ‘Dear Family, I was acquired recently by the clothing designer for Princess Margaret who gifted me this fabulous brocade. I’m sending it to you in honour of my favourite New Zealand cousin. Rest in Peace. E.’

All of a sudden Dean hiccoughed and wrapped himself in the fabric, twirling around and around as if swirling through water. The lavender brocade flashed silver around his hips and chest and shoulders, under his arms, and around his ankles. He launched himself onto the bed, laughing and sobbing, cast as if he were wedged into a crack in the rocks, or thrown belly-up onto dry land. I lay beside him, blinking tears and holding his hand, willing into life a stunning pair of pants – and a gorgeous lavender dress.

Shelley Burne-Field (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Rārua, Samoa) writes fiction and non-fiction and lives in Te Matau-ā-Māui Hawke’s Bay. Her story ‘Speaking in tongues’ has recently been shortlisted in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2022. Her stories have appeared on Radio NZ, in Newsroom, e-Tangata, and in various anthologies. Her short story ‘Pinching out dahlias’ is the most read short story published in Reading Room as of April 2022.

Read the other prize-winning stories:

FIRST PLACE: "Perfect Modesty" by Anne Moir (Otago)

THIRD PLACE: "A Lavender Fascination" by AJ Fitzwater (Canterbury)

HIGHLY COMMENDED: "Silence is a Dress" by Clara van Wel (Wellington)