Tequila Splitfin

Tequila Splitfin

Tequila Splitfin 1920 1080 Melanie Unruh

I slide the vial out of the purple sachet, gazing at what is left of Jenn. Ashes flecked with triangles of bone. Swords are forged in fires, but in flames my friend was unmade. They removed all her jewelry, gave it back to her sister. Her sister gave me some of her ashes, which I will have made into jewelry.


The fastest train in the world, the Maglev of Japan, clocks a max speed of 374 miles per hour. Using technology called magnetic levitation, it can travel 1.1 miles in 10.8 seconds. When I try to make sense of this speed, I think of my childhood, of how quickly my mother would plummet into sadness and how my reciprocal withdrawal was just as sudden. If I too could speed away, away, then I wouldn’t be left standing on an empty platform, missing someone who had already disappeared, riding her own one-way train to nowhere.

When someone close to me starts sliding into sadness, I am no ally or support system. I am a freckled child alone on a train, staring mutely out the window at clouds and fields ripping by, more distraction than scenery. Jenn wasn’t gone yet. She was on that platform behind me, a dot receding in the distance, and I couldn’t make myself go back for her.


The number of fish going extinct is staggering. Longcomb sawfish, Brazilian guitarfish, widemouth gambusia, thicklip pupfish, Valencia toothcarp, tequila splitfin, elongate bitterling, Twee River redfin, Clanwilliam sandfish, Haditha cave garra, lowland longjaw galaxias, Canterbury mudfish, chucky madtom, arrow cichlid. Such beautiful, strange names for just a fraction of the creatures we lack the will to save.

Jenn will never know the names of all the fish that follow her in death. I wonder if she ever saw any of them in Hawaii, San Diego, or the other places she lived by the water. Could she have named them?

I imagine sitting with her on a little boat, a cotton candy sunset blooming behind us, casting the ocean a crepuscular purple. She points down into the water, saying, “That’s a tequila splitfin” with a snorting laugh. “We ate them when I was a kid before we knew.”

I had no idea how soon she would leave the earth, become loose powder to be sprinkled, carried, melted down to a purple stone.

One pandemic night we were on Zoom, in our separate houses across town, getting ready to record a podcast. We paused to get water. When I returned, she wasn’t there at the screen. I read over my show notes, watched a couple of Instagram stories. Then I heard a noise—was that moaning? I called her phone and it shrilled unattended beside her laptop.

“Jenn!” I screamed into the mic, an act that now feels like an aching metaphor for the past 15 months.

“Jenn, are you okay?”

Distantly, I heard her call back in a small voice, “No, I fell down.”

It took several more minutes, but she finally slumped her way back to the computer, red faced and clutching her back.

I should have begged her to go to a doctor, to get a full exam. Though I said get looked at, I didn’t push, didn’t follow up. Emotionally, she was checking out and so I did, too. My train was already rushing me away, away at 374 miles per hour, and it was all I could do to dig my nails into the seat and hope that things would be better when I returned.

The fall did not kill her, but it coincided with a sharp decline right before she passed.


Around the same time that COVID-19 took the U.S. in a stranglehold in March of 2020, the smooth handfish, a creature with pectoral and pelvic fins that looked like hands moving it across the seafloor, was declared extinct. For those who knew casually of this fish, it will wither from memory over time. A footnote, a trivia question. Remember that fish with the—yeah, the hands. What the fuck, right?

But what of the scientists, the conservationists who railed, who lobbied, who tried to get us to care about this one fish, this ocean anomaly that most people had never even seen?

The smooth handfish will stalk their dreams, moving its wet, finger-like fins across their limbs, their stomachs, their eyes.

I should still be here it whispers.

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1 Comment
  • Daniel Mueller 05/16/2024 at 2:24 pm

    Great essay! I knew Jenn, too, and mourn her passing. So much compression in this short, powerful piece. Unruh is a writer to follow and admire.

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