In today's story, Cuckoo Catfish, Katie tells Cal about chaperoning their son's field trip
Today's prompt was based on a recent trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It's a great place to see a wide range of aquatic life. Apparently, it's a good place to get a story prompt, too!
As always, the story was written from the prompt, with no planning and very little editing. If you enjoy today's story, please share it with your friends and leave a review for Freely Written. Thank you!
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 101 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Cuckoo Catfish.
Today’s prompt came up during a recent trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. If you’ve never been, it’s a great place to see a wide range of aquatic life. There are also touching stations where you can gently touch horseshoe crabs, moon jellies, and other sea creatures. If you do go, be sure to look for the jellyfish exhibit out near the dolphins. The jellies are mesmerizing!
Anyway, getting back to the prompt, we were wandering through the exhibits and noticed a fish called the cuckoo catfish. It’s a spotted fish with whiskers. The sign didn’t say much about it, but I thought the name was funny, so I looked it up later. It’s an… uh… interesting fish. Instead of saying more now, I'll work what I learned into today’s story.
Outside of what I’d read about the cuckoo catfish, I wrote this story with my usual Freely Written process, which is to sit down with the prompt and write whatever comes to mind—with no planning and very little editing—before I record and share the finished story with you.
Let’s see how that worked out today:
Cal was chopping bell peppers when Katie and Joel came home from an extended day at school. Joel kicked off his shoes and nudged them toward the shoe rack, while Katie set down her bag and unzipped her jacket.
“How was the field trip?” Cal called out as they rounded the corner into the kitchen.
“Good,” Katie answered wearily.
“Cuckoo!” Joel laughed nonsensically then stopped in his tracks. His eyes widened and he said, “Oh! I’ve gotta poop!” before running out of the room.
“Wash your hands when you’re done!” Katie shouted after him before taking a seat at the kitchen island where she gently rubbed her temples.
“Long day?” Cal wiped his hands on a towel before fetching a bottle of wine and two glasses.
It had been Katie’s turn to chaperone Joel’s school field trip: a 90-minute bus ride to Baltimore’s National Aquarium in the morning, followed by a picnic lunch and tour of Cylburn Arboretum in the afternoon. She’d happily volunteered for this trip, even though it included a long bus ride and getting home well after the normal end of the school day.
Cal offered her a glass of wine, and they clicked glasses with rueful smiles. He had a pretty good idea of how she was feeling since he’d chaperoned Joel’s class on a trip to tour the White House and Capitol building the previous year.
“Who knew 11-year-olds could be so loud?” Katie asked with a shake of her head.
“We did.” Cal laughed, getting back to his chopping.
“Yeah, well, remind me the next time I volunteer for anything.”
“Was it that bad?” Cal scraped the peppers into a large skillet and moved it to the cooktop.
“No,” Katie admitted, after a sip of wine. “The aquarium was really good actually. The kids were well-behaved, and we didn’t lose any of them. We’ll have to go back some weekend so you can see the jellyfish exhibit. It was really beautiful!”
“Sounds good,” Cal agreed, sautéing the peppers while sipping wine with his free hand.
“It was later at the arboretum,” Katie said with a sigh, “and on the bus home.”
She paused to shake her head and Cal suppressed a smile, waiting to hear what had happened.
“Apparently, there was a fish at the aquarium called a cuckoo catfish.”
“Ah,” Cal interjected, realizing that had something to do with Joel’s exuberant cuckoo when he walked in the door.
“Some of the kids saw it,” Katie continued. “I didn’t, but one of the dad’s did, too. I guess he’d been joking with some of the kids about it. But it wasn’t a big deal until after lunch, when he decided to make a game out of it.”
“Was it Dylan’s dad?” Cal asked with a frown. Katie scrunched up her face in thought.
“Dylan J. or Dylan S.?”
“Dylan J.” Cal answered firmly before asking, “There’s a Dylan S. this year?”
“Yes, new student.” Katie waved that thought away and said, “It might have been Dylan J.’s dad. I didn’t talk to him before the aquarium and didn’t want to after the arboretum.”
“Oh, boy.” Cal gave the peppers another stir before checking on the roast chicken in the oven. “What was the game?”
“Well, there was this big picnic area where the kids could run around after lunch. This dad couldn’t just let them run on their own. He had to jump in with his cuckoo catfish game, which was basically tag except they were all supposed to be fish. The person who was ‘it’ was the cuckoo catfish, so they had to run around shouting cuckoo, cuckoo and waving their arms like whiskers until they tagged someone.”
Katie took a rather large sip of wine before going on.
“Of course, all the kids wanted to be the cuckoo catfish, so they were letting themselves get caught, which kind of upset the game. So, the kids decided they should all be cuckoo catfish and whoever was ‘it’ should be the fisherman. Which meant they were all running around like crazy yelling cuckoo at the top of their lungs.”
Cal laughed until Katie shot him a withering look.
“Well, at least they were outside,” Cal offered.
“It gets worse,” Katie said grimly. “The dad, who thought the game was hilarious, taught the fisherman to yell cuckoo ca-choo, gonna catch you, taking it to a whole new level.”
That’s not bad, Cal thought but didn’t say.
“Well, it took forever to wind them down when it was time to end the lunch break. Then, through the whole arboretum tour, kids kept taking turns shouting cuckoo, and then some kids started responding with ca-choo. The teachers would get them to stop, but a few minutes later, it would start up again.”
Cal bit his lip and shook his head, seeing where this was going.
“Eventually, the teachers lost it and started threatening to call parents or give extra homework, so it did die down. But once they got on the bus… the songs started.”
“Songs?” Cal lowered the heat on the peppers and sighed in sympathy.
“Ninety minutes of songs about the cuckoo catfish. Each new verse more grating than the last.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” Cal agreed.
They were silent for a moment, until Cal asked, “Why is it called a cuckoo catfish?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Katie told him. But Cal was curious, so he pulled out his phone and did a quick search.
“It says it’s because the cuckoo catfish tricks other fish into raising its young, like the cuckoo bird does with its offspring.”
“Not a bad idea…” Katie muttered, while Cal continued to scroll on his phone.
“Oh, wow,” he said with wide eyes. “Cuckoo catfish sneak their fertilized eggs under another fish—one that scoops its eggs into its mouth to incubate, so their eggs get scooped up with hers.”
“Gross,” Katie commented before taking another sip of wine.
“It gets grosser. The cuckoo catfish hatchlings eat the other hatchlings headfirst. Just chomps them down with their big jaws. Wow. I can’t wait to tell Joel about this!”
“No.” Katie set her wineglass on the island and raised one finger in warning. “You will not tell Joel any of that!”
“Oh, come on.” Cal chuckled. “He’ll think it’s cool.”
“Yes, he will,” Katie agreed darkly. “Then he’ll tell all the kids at school, and we’ll get a call from his teacher asking why we stirred this whole thing up even more.”
“Katie, come on,” Cal tried again. “It’s science!”
“I don’t care,” Katie insisted. “I will not be responsible for the games and songs that information will spawn!”
“Ha, spawn,” Cal chuckled again, then stopped at the look on Katie’s face.
They stared at each other. Katie glaring, Cal’s eyes pleading for her to lighten up.
Joel’s voice yelled from upstairs, “Cuckoo ca choo, I made a big poo!”
Katie raised an eyebrow. Cal closed his eyes and frowned.
“Okay,” he agreed. “Maybe we let the cuckoo catfish thing go.”
They clinked their wineglasses and began setting the table for dinner.
Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed that story and enjoyed learning a little something about the cuckoo catfish. If you are enjoying Freely Written, please tell your friends and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you want to suggest a prompt, please do! You can connect with me on social media or through my website: SusanQuilty.com. Links are in the show notes.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]