Deep Sea Barreleye Fish, 3D rendered model (3dsam79/iStock)

Barreleye Fish: An Abecedarian

Macropinna microstoma

ABOUT TWO EIFFEL TOWERS deep in the Pacific Ocean, barreleye fish hang almost motionless in the dark, like holiday decorations.


Books, books! Your father tells me you are reading too many books. No more reading at night. No more reading. You want thick glasses like me? No books in the bedroom. You play outside. You don’t need books from the book order, that’s what a library is for! You want pencil? You want pen? I bring you some pens next time I see you. No more books in bed. Don’t read at night! Don’t bring books outside. You go play! Why did we buy you a bike?


Contracts for my mom’s job back then would last four years or so, which always meant another move right when we started to feel settled. During third through fifth grades, my sister and I lived with my dad in Arizona, while Mom finished out her contract working for a state mental hospital in Kansas. There would be a temporary change when we couldn’t take the separation anymore—my sister and I moved to a “Doctor’s Duplex” on the grounds of the hospital just to be with her again—but when she had to have a medical procedure done, we landed back in Arizona with only two months left in my sixth-grade year. Boom, just like that, I was back at the school where I already said my goodbyes the year before, walking the wide and airy hallways of Sunburst Elementary.


Deep in the ocean, barreleyes sport a shield around their heads to protect their green, googly eyes. This bulbous shield looks much like the soap-bubble canopy of a helicopter—the glass so wide and round—for great views, say, over and into the Grand Canyon. My mother always scared us about these helicopters, and, when I told her I hoped to ride in one before we left Arizona, made me promise over the phone never to do it. If you fall out what will I do? Where do you get these ideas of flying? What books are you reading? Why don’t you read about something nice, like flowers?


Eyes of the barrelfish look up, always scanning the dark ocean-night like they’re searching the sky for the occasional star, the way I did after a day of rollerskating, in a rink as dark as the sea—save for the dazzle of a mirrored ball in the center. Don’t look down, don’t look down, my friends would yelp to me if I grew dizzy from the spin and whirl of lights at the Great Skate roller rink in Phoenix. Under the mirror ball, the whole rink seemed to move backward although I knew my skates were drifting me forward. You’ll fall if you look down. Eyes up!


Feeding on jellyfish and the occasional stolen catches from a siphonophore—a skinny invertebrate longer than a blue whale—the barreleye hovers, or stationkeeps, at about five inches long. Funny to think of this relatively small fish braving the stinging capsules of the siphonophore’s stretchy and lanky-twisty tintella. Above the barreleye’s mouth are two dark smudges that were first thought to be eyes, but are actually nares, the fish version of nostrils. Such a tiny mouth puckering in the dark from all the wild smells!


Gosh, how my mom cried when my dad told her I needed glasses. She reads too much, too much! I heard her say when I eavesdropped on them from the kitchen phone. What can I do? She always wants to go to the library! No matter where we landed during our moves around the country, I always had the library. But carrying my books home proved too unwieldy for my thin brown arms. Once, a librarian spotted us fumbling with our stacks in the parking lot in Phoenix and gave me my first-ever cloth tote bag. I felt so rich: my own book bag! Now I own several dozen and I can’t bear to get rid of them.

No matter where we landed during our moves around the country, I always had the library.

Head membrane of the barreleye fish forms a transparent dome of skin over its chartreuse eyes. Inside this dome, a barreleye’s globular eyes can rotate like binoculars and move to better spy prey directly above them. A clear dome like this acts like a shield to protect the barreleye’s eyes from the stinging zap of a jellyfish or a siphonophore. The first planes I ever saw with a dome like that, like those Grand Canyon touring helicopters, were from the top-grossing movie of that year—specifically, on the jets that Maverick and Iceman flew in Top Gun.


Ice pops and waxy bags of popcorn handed out in the gym meant it was the last day of school. A group of my fellow bus riders started gathering at the door for the car riders. Why aren’t you in line? I asked. We’re all going to __________’s house, my classmate replied. Her mom is picking us up and taking us to see Top Gun. Oh, I said. That’s right—I forgot that was today. I already had plans. What, the others wanted to know. I don’t know—but it’s big. My dad said it was a big surprise, I lied. They gave me quizzical looks, and when __________’s mom pulled up, I watched them giggle into a station wagon, and zoom away.


(Just so you know, I honestly don’t remember the name of that girl who invited every girl in our sixth grade homeroom to the movies except me. If I could remember, I would definitely name her. Was it you?)


Kicks in the lit-up pool while night swimming made the surface of the water seem like it was boiling over, and I loved those ripples and splashes glowing in the dark, the scent of gyros from our favorite Greek café mixing with creosote from the mountains and faint notes of chlorine. There were no special plans that night, and I simmered about my exclusion that afternoon. These were girls who had been some of my best friends just a year before—but suddenly they were all boy crazy, and I . . . wasn’t. But I was eleven. My sister was my best pal, and she wanted to float in the pool with me and look up at all the stars. We floated under a radiance of constellations. How could I be salty for long? Maybe my dad would join us and pretend he was a shark or a manta ray. The water was the same color as barreleye fish eyes: electric teal. Once more, I felt so rich because I had my sister, my dad, a now-healthy mom, and a pool to swim in before bedtime.


Loudly some neighborhood kids would sometimes call out, Google-eyes! Hey, Google-eyes! Where’d you get your goggles? while I rollerskated at the park. But I could skate faster than any of those kids, and I could pop wheelies with my banana-seat bike. When my circle of friends recreated scenes from Star Wars in our cul-de-sac, I always called dibs on playing Darth Vader. I could be scary if I wanted to. So that quieted their jeers—for a while, at least.


My dad said we could rent Top Gun as soon as it came out. Usually it took years for a movie to make it to VHS, but Top Gun changed all that. It was the first movie to come out on video the same year it was released in theatres. It was the first blockbuster for Blockbuster, Family Video, and Hollywood Video. I remember from the news on TV that the lines for those stores were long and sometimes wrapped through the aisles for a big release. But my dad snagged a copy and waited in line while my sister and I pranced around the store.

Bring home your paperback copy of World of Wonders featuring four brand new essays (including this one!) today!


Neighborhoods in middle-class suburban Phoenix were full of backyard pools. We learned the impossible art of waiting exactly thirty minutes after meals before diving in. Our pool was small compared to most—not even five feet in the deep end—but it was the only one where I ever heard night-splashing. Our dad seemed to be the only grown-up who let his kids swim under the stars in our cul-de-sac. I have no idea how he had the energy to join us after working long shifts at the hospital. But at night in the pool, the three of us floated on our backs—an unfinished star of our brown bodies without Mom there—and he taught us constellations until we ran out of patience and begged him to play Marco Polo instead.


Of course my father did everything right those years. Though I don’t recall having very many toys around, I don’t remember wanting for anything or ever being sad for too long, except for sometimes missing my mom at night. I’d say my prayers and think of her when I saw the pink moon through the slats of my bedroom’s blinds. During the day, there were endless bike rides and adventures in the neighborhood, and making mixtapes from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. A pile of books from the library. Hiking on weekends. Smiles for miles. Of course this isn’t true, exactly. But I cannot think of any sustained sadness during that time. Once, he didn’t know exactly where to find fluorescent-colored clothing for “Neon Night” at the Great Skate. And another time, he didn’t know what I was talking about when I said I wanted more rubber bracelets, like Madonna wore on MTV during those years.


Pink and plastic. My first pair of glasses, and I loved them so much. The whole world sharpened, and I could see cactus wrens and hot-air balloons much more in focus now. My eyes were so good with my pink glasses that I could even see the people in the basket of the balloon waving down at me. And I waved back at them from the center of our cul-de-sac. Eventually the bullies stopped calling me names. One even bought me flowers and snuck them into my desk at school, though my mom made me return them. Too young! Too young for boyfriends, naman!


Quite a view while night swimming—in the lit-up pool, skim the floor and rotate till your belly faces the surface and try to hold your breath: When do you start to float up? See the night sky and all its stars from your goggles. In those years, after I started wearing glasses, the sight I missed seeing most with my bare eyes were my Arizona friends while night swimming: the Little Dipper, Draco, Cassiopeia, and the great square of Pegasus, the winged horse.


Running around the back drainage “ditches” behind the new housing developments in our neighborhood meant my pink glasses fogged up, got covered in dust that I’d have to stop and wipe off every so often on my shirt, like I’d seen my father do when he skimmed the pool on weekend mornings. I loved my glasses, but they were a pain for an active kid, and a few years later, when I turned sixteen, I would decide to change to contact lenses instead.


Spookfish are a type of barreleye—the only vertebrates to have mirrors in their eyes. They can see up and down at the same time and follow any flash of bioluminescent light below their body, or even at their side. 


Toothless for their vertical gulps, barreleyes depend wholly on shadows and their googly green eyes looking up, down, sideways—all at the same time—when they hunt and slurp and gulp small jellies whole.

An empty bag reminds me of how full I felt just from going to the library. How rich.

Under any sky in the western hemisphere, some thirty years later, no matter what state I’m in—as long as it’s a clear night and I’m not near any giant patch of skyscrapers—I can find my old friends. What a gift to spot those bright coins in the sky again.


Various conferences, publishers, schools I’ve visited—so many tote bags. I keep some in the trunk of my car, some for the farmers’ market, and, of course, some for all the books I still check out as a professor and mother to two voracious readers of my own. My husband says we need to donate some, give some away, but I don’t want to part with them. An empty bag reminds me of how full I felt just from going to the library. How rich. It reminds me of my four-eyed self, sitting “crisscross applesauce” (as my boys say now) on the floor of the library until the custodian flicked the lights on and off, as a warning: Closing time soon, time to make final selections!


Whole whirls of relief spun like a pinwheel when my mom decided she’d had enough of being away from her daughters. No job was worth it. Even if it meant selling our house in Arizona and our pool. Our entire family was going to move to Gowanda, New York, so we could all live under the same roof finally: in a new, spacious doctor’s residence with three large bedrooms. A small park and swing set in front. Rings of maple trees surrounding the hospital grounds. I’d start seventh grade clear on the other side of the country, but again, would be living on the grounds of a mental hospital. I wouldn’t see a cactus again for at least another decade.


EXamples of sketches and drawings of the barreleye fish have existed since 1939, but because the transparent, fluid-filled shield disintegrates without the water pressure of the deep, scientists never knew about the membrane until deep-sea cameras were able to catch one in a photo.


Yawning as I picked him up off the couch, up waaaay past his bedtime last week, Jasper, my youngest, said, Wait, wait—I’m not ready for bed yet. Can I finish one more chapter? Just one more? All he’s ever known about Lola, or Yaya, is that she freely grants his wishes. She always lets him read more, lets him stay up later than I would like. Buys him all the books he asks for, and then some.


Zero times has my mother refused my boys’ pleas for extended bedtimes, extra ice cream, or more books when she is visiting or when we stay at their house in Florida. Gone are her days of worry and admonitions. In their driveway, my dad now teaches his grandsons how to find constellations, too. The trick to finding constellations is to let your eyes adjust to all that dark. Scientists refer to this as dark adaptation. Give them at least thirty minutes to get accustomed to the night sky. If you want to find Pegasus, look for that distinctive square—the plump belly of the horse—look up, look up. The winged horse still flies there without ever losing a feather—over you and me, and all the seas.

From World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2024). Copyright © 2024 by Aimee Nezhukuamathil. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems, including, most recently, Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and two essay collections, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, and the forthcoming Bite by Bite: Nourishments and Jamborees. Other awards for her writing include fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Mississippi Arts Council, and MacDowell. Her writing appears in Poetry, the New York Times MagazineESPN, and Tin House. She serves as poetry faculty for the Writing Workshops in Greece and is professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.