Lifespan of the Fathead Minnow

by Caitlin Rae Taylor

When she takes the folded brochure out of her canvas bag, I know I’m fucked. The brochure, though creased and veined with white age lines, is a fire of blues and magentas, its color pieced together by chromic rhombuses. In some decorative sans-serif, it reads, Creative City: 21 local artists share their favorite things about Seattle. I don’t know where she gets them, the brochures. They litter our house, our cars, the section of our driveway dedicated to our trash and recycling bins. When she walks, they fall from her like scales.

“Lola,” I say delicately, “Lola we’ve only been in Auburn for six months.”

This is always my argument when Lola wants to get out of dodge. She is usually either wounded or offended by my insistence we need more than a few months to find the groove of a place’s newness. There is no pattern to how she might respond to me. I am surprised by the sparkle in her black eyes.

“This is different, Sage,” she says. “We could really settle down in Seattle. Auburn is so small, god. I don’t know what we were thinking. But look at all these creatives. Playwrights, dancers, choreographers. Someone like me could really thrive here. And you, you can work from anywhere.”

She waves as she says this, like my work, what funds these habitual cross-country moves, is some skin I am sure to shed. The moves, they are for her and her flagging jewelry business, A Labia Nights, Inc., one which cannot seem to get off the ground no matter where we go. I used to think there was some hope inside her that I might leave the world of academic book design behind and one again become the installation artist she met in college, but she hasn’t asked about my art in ages.

She turns to me, her blonde hair fluffy and freshly washed around her face. Her lips are a tight smile, her chin drawn inward. A face to humor my doubts, to wash away the silliness of my habitual worry. She lays a soft, paint-covered hand on my neck.

“Love,” she says, in that sweet, breezy way, a cloud enveloping me. My heart races, and suddenly it feels as if there is no difference between the skin of her palm and the skin of my neck.

“This could be a real chance for us. For the labias.”

She gestures with her free hand, and I am forced to reckon with her artwork plastered all around our living room. For as long as I’ve known Lola, she has only ever created one thing: labias. Muted, neon, multicultural. There is no labia she has not painted, embroidered, beaded. They adorn our walls as needlepoint and watercolor. They are sewn into our curtains and woven into our rugs. We have them as beer koozies and napkin rings. And most notably, we have them in the form of beaded bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Hundreds of them tangled together in half a dozen cardboard boxes. Lola keeps adding to them, throwing a new nose ring or bangle into the open boxes, which line our dining room’s south wall. She cannot sell them worth a damn. Especially in this conservative enclave we inhabit: Auburn, Alabama. Before this it was Atlanta. Before that, Wilmington. Before that, Minneapolis. We have had five addresses in three years.

The labias make me think about my mother, about how long it’s been since I’ve seen her, that bright-magic woman who first put a paintbrush in my hand. The moves take me farther and farther away from her each time. From those mountains where I learned to sculpt grasshoppers from clay, where she taught me, fatherless, to use a hammer and nails. We haven’t spoken on the phone in months, life-updating through texts and concise emails.

I touch Lola’s hand gingerly, my papery fingers scratching against one another.

“Seattle is a ways away. Don’t you think we ought to give this place a proper chance?”

Lola sighs, pushes herself off the couch, and begins to pace, dragging her fingers like a child along our record collection. I wince as her nail catches against the torn corner of my favorite B-52’s album. I got me a car, it’s as big as a whale/And we’re headin’ on down to the love shack/I got me a Chrysler, it seats about twenty/So hurry up and bring your jukebox money.

“Angel’s pulled my line this morning,” she grouses. She sneaks a look at me quickly before turning her back, pinching the album’s protruding paper between her thumb and forefinger. “A couple old church ladies complained. Called my work ‘obscene.’ And Ginger’s Consignment a couple weeks ago pulled out, too. I didn’t tell you. I thought I could get the labias into Plato’s Closet, but the manager has started calling security when she sees my car drive up. Before I even get out!”

When she gets like this, flustered and emotional, it’s hard to point out the logical inconsistencies in her business plans. I would like to tell her that “bringing sexual liberation to the thirsty, queer deep south” is maybe not the best reason to move her operation to a small, unfriendly village in the reddest state in the union. Or that maybe she should take some business and marketing classes online instead of trusting her “artistic instinct” and “natural people personness” to do the work for her. I have said these things to her before. I have drawn business plans that end up unread in the wastebasket. But when she gets riled up, excited for some new venture, her cheeks turn this lovely shade of pink. Her lips flush. She trips over her words in the loveliest of ways.

So instead, I press myself into her, bury my face in her hair, and wait to feel that flutter in my gut, the one that reaffirms my decision to follow her everywhere. To carry on this grand adventure of ours, no matter how it tires me, how it upends my finances. I pull her hands away from the B-52’s album and hold them close to her chest.

Lola leans her head back to rest on my shoulder, the smallest tear rolling from the corner of her eye. Its wetness slicks my cheek, and the sourness of her breath shocks me as she turns to kiss my nose.

I wait for the flutter, perhaps too long, tightening my grip around her long after her tears have ceased and she’s wiggling to get away, her mind now zeroed in on some work she must have out, another labia to paint or macramé or build from reclaimed wood.

When the flutter comes, faint and fading, I ask her for something I never have before: a month.




“Are you two all right?” my mother asks, her voice tinny and weak on the phone.

“We’re fine,” I tell her, distracted by the interior layout of a technical journal on the science of fish hatcheries I’ve been freelance designing for the past two years. The work bores anyone to whom I dare mention it, but I’ve learned a surprising amount about fathead minnow reproduction as I futz with margins and leading and paragraph styles. The poor minnows are bred largely for consumption by the largemouth bass, the true fish people want to buy and eat. I think about the minnows, their existence. What it must be like, skittering about against thousands of your brothers and sisters in a too-small pond. Writhing, swimming, living, only to be fed to another species’ food. Not even good enough to yourself become a fish filet at McDonald’s.

I think about the kind of person I might be if I spent time researching the minnows. The science of fish hatching. Why it’s important. But I don’t. I plod along as the practical, money-making spouse, setting aside my curiosities for pixels and image resolution.

“It’s just you’ve never stayed behind before,” my mother reminds me. This is the fourth time this week she has said this. “I didn’t even think you liked Alabama. You haven’t even had time to settle in, start any new art projects. What happened to the sculpture you were going to make of the war eagle? Out of deflated pigskins and discarded football game tickets? I haven’t heard you talk about that since you first moved.”

I debate whether or not to add a line-drawing of a bass onto the opening spread of the journal’s first article. The drawing took me three hours to perfect in Illustrator, and I’m quite proud of it. But the last time I made such a bold design choice for the interior, I was met with a strongly worded email from the journal’s editor, some stodgy marine biologist from Florida who dislikes creative license and cartoons, probably.

I sigh into the cell phone wedged between my cheek and shoulder.

“I don’t like Alabama, mother. But we just moved here. My bones are still reeling from the last move, and Lola wanted to just pack up and go in one night. So I let her. She can survive with a grocery bag full of two dresses and a tube of toothpaste. I’ll join her after I’ve had a few weeks to pack up the house. We can’t just keep flitting off and abandoning everything. We have a lease, you know.”

“Do you talk often?”

“Every night, Mama. Promise.”

“Nine years is a long relationship,” she says after a moment.

“She didn’t even take her artwork,” I say as I close out of the bass’s Illustrator file and open up some stock photo software to look for the journal’s next cover inspiration. “But she’ll want the inventory eventually, especially if she does well in sales. So I have to gather them all.”

“The labias?” my mother asks.

“Yes, the labias.”

There is a beat of silence between. I type the word fish into the stock photo search engine. From the kitchen, the sounds of water boiling in the small pot I put on for tea half an hour ago, only to be forgotten. Outside, behind the blackout curtains covering my windows, skateboards make long rolling noises against the asphalt. Their wheels strike the ground like hammers against metal, and I wonder what can be created with just the wheels of a skateboard. I imagine a child built entirely of wheels, perpetually spinning, and no matter how she falls, she will always keep rolling. How would I connect them so each wheel remained free to spin? Wire, perhaps, sturdy but malleable.

“You should drive,” my mother says finally.


“Drive to Seattle,” she says. “Come up through Tennessee. Visit your old mom. Haven’t seen you in a minute.”

I re-open the bass’s design file. Stare it its curved lines, its detailed mouth, gaping and hungry. It might disturb the readers of Fish Hatchery Monthly. Tenderly, I flush the fish’s underbelly with shadow and print him out. I have this idea I might frame him. Hang him on the wall between all of Lola’s artwork.

“All right,” I say to my mother. “I just might do that.




I don’t hire men to pack up the house. I do it all myself in the course of three weeks. I put aside most of my freelancing projects to create an elaborate packing system. On the few free wall spaces left, I plaster charts and lists, a grid of the house’s floor plan and how each section will be packed in turn. I’m quite proud of them, the charts and grids, color coded using the pack of highlighters Lola gifted me two Christmases before. The last time anyone I loved gave me anything resembling art supplies.

At the start of our relationship, Lola gave me nothing but. Brushes and acrylics, scrap metal and clay. I worked in every medium, never satisfied. Together, we built my wild structures. Geometric renditions of dilapidated buildings, built to scale from rusted rebar and splintery plywood, all salvaged. I would take pictures of the installations when they were finished, distort them in Photoshop, then project the distorted image back onto the installation. There was something behind it all, something about the death of industrialization. Lola would avail me of my own artistic vision, chatting about workers’ rights, unionization, Marxism, the plight of the working class. None of which we were fit to comment on as the nineteen-year-old children of middle-class Baby Boomers. I would nod along, but in truth I simply liked the shapes, the hard angles, the solid materials. I liked building something real with my own two hands, and I was never sure what my installations were supposed to mean. She always had a better idea of the theory behind what I was doing than I. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Until Lola, my mother was the only other artist I had ever known, never one to explain her art or write self-serving essays about its symbolism. Lola’s surefootedness in theory and art history made me feel lesser, but in that way which drew me further into her, desperate to learn from her and her labias. She, along with my teachers, made art a discipline to study, a skill to commodify, rather than a way to live my life.

By contrast to mine, Lola’s artwork was always a solitary endeavor. Even when she built a seven-foot labia installation out of crushed soda cans for her sculpture final, she wouldn’t let me help. I tried to be involved, gathering accordianed Fantas from the recycling bin behind the campus mess hall. When I brought them to her, gleamingly orange and sticky from their own dried fluids, Lola merely patted my cheek and kissed my forehead, thanking me the way someone might thank a dog for bringing in the newspaper. When her sculpture was revealed to the class, it was made entirely of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Not a Fanta can in sight.

In our time apart, I pack during the day, everything but Lola’s artwork. That will be last. It only makes sense, I tell myself, to do it this way. It is only logical. I stare at bright photos of Lola’s smile on my iPhone, remembering the flutter. It is in me like an echo, the feeling of it.

During the night, I cook elaborate meals full of herbs I have purchased from the grocery store. We had our own herb garden once, in Wilmington, overflowing with lavender and rosemary and calendula. I had this idea we’d help the bees. It was a bear to leave them behind when Lola decided her art wasn’t selling because the art scene in Wilmington was too saturated by college students. I make for myself Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, braised red-wine brisket, more chicken and dumplings than I can stomach, but I gorge myself anyway. I read books upon books, novels. I have not read a novel since Minneapolis.

I stay up until three in the morning every night to draw more bass. I call my mother and tell her about the bass. After week one, these bass are joined by salmon and crawfish. By week two I have digitally painted seven different minnows in a variety of colors against backdrops of muted, crowded ponds. They are for work, I tell myself, for the redesign I will pitch to the editor of Fish Hatcheries Monthly.

I print them all out and leave them in a stack on my desk. I am still thinking about the child made of wheels.

I think of her when Lola calls me, always on the weekend, always in the mornings when I am starfished across our bed, surrounded by open boxes filled with shirts and hangers and bedside table knicknacks.

Before we hang up, after we have said we miss each other and love each other and cannot wait to be together again, after Lola has availed me of all the new artists she’s met and all the pho she’s tried, she reminds me not to pack the labias on the moving trucks.

“Pack them in the car with you,” she says every time. “You need to protect them. They’re so vulnerable to the elements.”

I am a woman who keeps her promises. So, when the month is up, the charts and grids fulfilled and untacked from the wall, our possessions loaded on moving trucks and already on their way to Seattle and the tight little bungalow Lola has secured with the deposit I Venmoed her, I lay each labia gingerly in those last few boxes, and stack them in my car’s trunk, surrounding them with the blankets Lola and I made in college as part of our fabrics and dyes final.

As I drive, I keep the air conditioning cranked to its highest setting so the paintings won’t warp or bleed. I’ve worn a sweater, despite the 93 degree Alabama heat, so I may weather this extreme cold.

Driving through Tennessee to where my mother lives in Sewanee is not the most logical route. It isn’t expedient, but the trip will already cost me several days, and I haven’t seen my mother in a year and a half, two moves taking up all my time and energy, extra freelance work to cover the costs bleeding into any vacation time I might give myself. The trip is, however, scenic. The Tennessee mountains are my hometown. My mother, an artist in her own right, gave birth to me by herself in the woods on a self-imposed camping/art retreat. There was no father and no one to advise her against these trips in her last trimester, which she took often to create her collages made of entirely natural materials.

I arrived in the earliest morning, my mother tells me, when the light is soft and wanting, when the sun is deliberate but leisurely and the insects find themselves, suddenly, alive. She birthed me on a large swath of canvas, out of necessity, she assures me, not art. But that canvas colored in her viscera and leavings still hangs behind glass in her living room, in that stone house nestled among the trees behind the university.

Its glass floods with yellow fire when my mother opens the door to me and the setting sun. I am blinded, but it is a good blinding. I have needed this new kind of sight.

My mother stands there for a minute, taking me in. Her long gray hair is woven into a braid stretching down her back, and she has not yet changed out of the red dress covered in The Magic School Bus characters she wears on Fridays to the preschool she manages. Her face is warm and old. Older than I have remembered.

“I didn’t think you would come,” she tells me, but in the way that some people might tell you they have missed you every moment of their loneliness.

I drop my bags and sink into her arms.

“Neither did I,” I say into her shoulder.

“Did you bring them with you?” She asks, stroking my hair.

“The labias?” I ask.

“The labias,” she says.

I nod, and we set about unloading the labias into my mother’s climate-controlled studio.




“You said you were only going to stay for two nights,” Lola says, her voice distorted, breaking up through the shitty reception my mother gets on the mountain. “It’s been a week, Sage. I started to get some orders for A Labia Nights, and I need my work.”

Lola has been testy on the phone this week. She answers my texts with what I imagine to be snarky, clipped, single-word phrases, and she calls every night to remind me of her waiting.

“Business here is going to be good,” she says, suddenly chipper despite my silence. I find, when Lola is in a mood, it is best to let her talk herself down from it. “Oh and I talked to one of the editors of a mathematics journal at the university. She says they’ve been meaning to spice up their design, and they’d love to be a client of yours. I showed them some issues of Fish Hatcheries Monthly.”

I should feel some wave of panic at my work being mentioned. The design for the new issue was due to my editor four days ago. I haven’t checked my email in two weeks. But as I lie in my soft, sinking childhood bed, and take in the stone walls still plastered in my early artwork, no other feeling fights this deep serenity.

“That was nice of you,” I tell Lola, thinking of the lifespan of the Fathead Minnow, which I have begun to research out of sheer curiosity. Four years, potentially, if they have not spawned. Significantly shorter if they have. “Maybe I can make a mockup for them. What’s the journal called?”

Pi-ology. Like the chain restaurant, I think. It’s clever.”

“Not as clever as A Labia Nights,” I say. Still that unsure nineteen-year-old artist, desperate for a girl’s quick, cheap love.

“I miss you,” Lola tells me after a moment, and there’s a warmth in my chest I am relieved to feel. Until: “And the utilities bill is due soon. You should call that editor. I’ll text you her number.”




I don’t mean to destroy the labias. It starts out small, innocent.

I stay with my mother for another week, but I’m no mooch. Her preschool’s receptionist quits to move with her husband to North Dakota, and I slide into her place. I do quick, mundane work that requires no artistic skill or specialized knowledge. Children greet me as they enter the preschool’s lobby. Their parents smile at me as they check themselves in. I answer phones and watch my mother paint her face with non-toxic, washable Crayola paint, just to make the children laugh.

Lola calls less and less, dissatisfied with the explanations for my absence: my mother needs help at work; my mother isn’t feeling well; my mother’s car has broken down; my mother needs help with her petunias. Out of necessity, Lola starts teaching art workshops to pay the bills.

As her calls dwindle, I make more digital fish, still convinced I might check my freelance work email, apologize profusely to the editor of Fish Hatcheries Monthly, and send him the issue that’s been due for some time. Pack up Lola’s labias and join her in Seattle. Drove my way through designing Pi-ology and living like the responsible adult I have always told myself I am meant to be. Until one day, I decide to build a sculpture, my first one since college. A Fathead Minnow, its silvery body wrapped around a thin blade of seaweed.

With my mother’s help, I build the minnow entirely of metal from out-turned Fanta cans. We salvage the cans from the preschool’s dumpster, our neighbors’ trash cans. One night, we even break into the local recycling center to sift through the aluminum waste, cutting ourselves on sharp metal and laughing as we steal away into the night, garbage bags full of cans in tow.

When the minnow, who I have named Minnie Driver, is complete, cans fastened on chicken wire, my mother and I contemplate the seaweed.

It is a Sunday morning. We, heathens, non-churchgoers, clad in my mother’s jean art aprons, tiny soda-can metal flowers in our hair, stand before Minnie Driver with our hands on our hips.

“The seaweed should be a soft material,” my mother says, wincing as she stares at the naked chicken wire in the shape of a squiggly leaf.

“Fabric?” I ask.

My mother nods.

“Silken, I think. But I don’t have anything like that lying around. Maybe we should go to the fabric store.”

There’s a logical solution, an expedient one. Lola hasn’t called in two weeks, though there’s a short text from her in my phone asking if I can ship her at least the box containing her labia necklaces, the item most in-demand in Seattle. I have not answered her, but the box is taped up and waiting for Fedex to come pick it up on Monday.

Without a word, I walk to the five open boxes of Lola’s artwork stacked in the corner of my mother’s studio. They have gathered dust over the past month, which blooms and chokes me as I pry open the box labeled Fabrics. From the carefully folded contents, I pull a bundle of silk scarves, all pink and pieced together to resemble the crude folds of the labia minora.

I lay the material in my mother’s cracked hands, her knuckles reddened from arthritis and clay sculpting.

“We could dye them green,” I say, playing into my mother’s affinity for natural dyes. She will want to use the artichokes she grows in her garden.

She smiles at me, lays a hand on my cheek, rubbing her thumb affectionately against my cheekbone. She nods, as if I have answered the great question of my existence. As if I have outright told her that this is my life now, that I have come, not to take care of her or hide from the world and its desires. But to find some new version of myself that is, at once, an old version of myself.

We dye the fabric and use the labias as seaweed. We do this together.

When Minnie Driver is finished, we move on from fish.

We build mountains and bridges and the Loch Ness monster.

When we are strapped for cash, we dip into Lola’s boxes of labias. We dismantle them and use their papers and beads, their fabrics and strings, to piece together each new object.

It will be months before we deplete all the boxes.

And when the last scrap of Lola is gone from my life, I pour myself a glass of wine.

Not in celebration, not in mourning. Not for any particular reason, really. Just to taste the tannins on my tongue. Just to watch the liquid crest against the glass in chaos before it settles.

Caitlin Rae Taylor earned her MFA from UNC Wilmington. She is currently the managing editor for Southern Humanities Review and the designer for Press Pause. Her work can be found in AdroitHobartMoon City Review, the Alabama Writers Forum, and Germ Magazine. More at