Hit By A Fish

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

In French, as you may know, April Fool’s Day is called Poisson d’Avril, which literally means “April Fish.”

My Dad sometimes tells a story about when I was a little kid and I discovered a deck of Tarot cards. Immediately enchanted, I set about telling the fortunes of all my friends. Of course, I didn’t know what any of the cards or layouts meant, so my readings were both linear and extremely literal. I’d just slap the cards down one after another like I was playing War: “You will be stabbed with ten swords! Then you will be given seven coins! Then you will become a juggler! Then you will die!”

What I lacked in symbology, I made up in oracular conviction, by bellowing all of my prophesies in a booming voice (as booming as an eight-year-old can muster). It must have worked too, because, as my Dad tells it, my little chums would finish their Tarot readings quaking in fright. All the fortunes I told ended badly. I think I thought you just kept going all the way through the deck until you got to Death or one of the other clearly fatal cards. How else would you know when to stop?

(Some parents might have stepped in after the third or fourth ashen-faced eight-year-old staggered home, each convinced of their own strangely specific yet utterly unavoidable doom. But Dad obviously thought this was all a good laugh. I love my parents and the irreligious upbringing they gave me. Ours would later be the go-to house for scary Ouija board action. And if I’ve never told you my Sunday School story, I will.)

Anyway, Dad was particularly taken by the fate I prophesied for my friend Aaron McLaughlin: “You will ride on a horse! You will drink from three cups! And then… you will be hit by a fish!!” I don’t even know which Tarot card has a fish on it, but that is the line from this story that has stuck as family catchphrase #17,368: “You will be hit… by a fish!” (You’re supposed to say it booming and loud, with just a little pregnant pause before revealing the precise instrument of your subject’s frappage.)

Aaron McLaughlin and his family moved to Alberta, so I don’t know if he ever did get hit by that fish. But the saying has stayed with me, and I’ve come to think of it as my own fortune rather than his. It’s not a terrifying doom, but a warning against hubris, and a reminder of the general perversity of the cosmos. Don’t get too full of yourself. Don’t count your chickens. Just when you start thinking you’re all that—an Emperor, or a Juggler, or some fancy dude on a horse with seven coins and a cup—Fwap! You too will be hit by a fish.

Case in point: me, the last week or so. “Hey, I’m graduating soon! Hey, I got a swell job! Lookit me, big Harvard PhD with a fancy poobah fellowship! Hey, big tax refund coming our way! Wonder what we’ll spend all those coins on?” Then today: Crash of thunder. Deluge of rain. “Hey, it’s been raining steadily for 48 hours. Hey, our ceiling is leaking in seven places. Hey, should it be… bulging like that?”


Happy Poisson d’Avril, everybody. 🙂


  1. Hmm. That particular fish doesn’t look all that fearsome.

    There aren’t a lot of fish in the standard Tarot deck, are there? It’s become such a part of my family history; I’d hate for the crucial line of this story to be apocryphal.

  2. Man, you crack me up. I want a shirt that says “I heart Rob,” but really says the word “heart.” Not with a picture of a heart, just a the word.

  3. Okay, show of hands – how many of us are Googling “tarot” and “fish” right now?

  4. Standard Rider-Waite I think.

    Googling “fish” and “Tarot” as Chris suggested reveals, among other things, that “the Hebrew letter for Death is Nun, which means Fish.”

    It all becomes clear…

  5. So the roof finally gave out, eh? Hope it didn’t cause too much damage.

    I can’t wait to see you to hear the ‘Sunday School Story.’ 🙂

  6. “You will be stabbed with ten swords! Then you will be given seven coins! Then you will become a juggler! Then you will die!”

    Just so you know, you are now officially a GMC in my Unknown Armies game.

  7. Just came across your blog as i was searching tarot. LOL i like your take as a kid as to what the cards mean. The page of cups in the ryder waite deck would be your evil fish ;).

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