Photo by Lee Nachtigal
I thought I’d been having a bad year—chewed up and spit out after a couple of months in the New York City public school system (which is a whole other story I was advised by my attorney not to write about until after our lawsuit was resolved)—but then I met the saddest, sorriest creature I’d ever seen. An anabantid, a.k.a blue paradise fish, he was living a not unpleasant, if rather solitary life, alone in a ten-gallon tank but for a big, shy catfish he’d terrorized into permanent retreat behind a flat slab of slate. One fateful day, though, a stranger arrived, a particularly aggressive cichlid, which began to literally chew (and swallow) the paradise’s fins and tail, essentially eating it alive.
Which may have been the feeling I’d had, set upon by a sick, sadistic high school administration, but let’s face it, I did escape with my ass, if not my sanity, entirely intact.
By the time I realized what had been going on in that tank—the smaller of two in the upstairs apartment of a fish-fancying friend—the paradise was a pathetic, stumpy remnant of its former self, unable to steer or swim with any speed. It could no longer even pretend to evade the increasingly vicious assaults on its ragged, bitten-raw body. It seemed definitively doomed, and my friend seemed, well, disinterested.
It’s a fish eat fish world, was his feeling. The main tank, up top, was filled with peaceful, sociable species; this tank down below was a somewhat experimental environment, in which a pair or trio of volatile fish might be put together, just to see what would happen. Most often, they reached a sort of standoff (as had the paradise and the cat.) But with the introduction of a tough new contender, the conclusion was foregone. Surely he didn’t need to let this scenario play out to its bitter end. I insisted he remove the battered, badly handicapped fish now.
He shrugged, then obliged me by scooping it up in a little net and dropping it into a plastic holding tank of its own, where it hung in the water, dazed and defeated. It constantly fell over and couldn’t easily right itself. Nor could it accurately navigate toward pellets or flakes at feeding time. Though paradise fish do get their oxygen underwater via gills, they also surface to breathe our air, which I, in my utter ignorance, found astonishing. Meanwhile, though, this one had trouble moving up or down at all, the six inch depth of the tank as challenging as any lake.
But it survived a few days of stunned relative stillness, and a few days more of tentative movement, retraining itself to swim without most of the external fishy anatomy swimming generally requires. When I saw it would most likely make it, I decided that since I was responsible for its life, it ought to be more properly mine, resident in my apartment. I brought it home one evening, setting the container on my desk where it would get the most sunlight during the day, and where I could easily observe its progress as it adjusted to its new surroundings (supposing it noticed such subtleties beyond the plastic walls), continued its rehabilitation.
In my mind and in my notebook his name was Blu, or sometimes Para (but that was too painful a pun, even for a fish.) Out loud, I mainly called him Fish and Fishy. I’d concluded he was a he because of his former ferocity with the catfish, and because, after another week or so of convalescence, he began to blow the kind of bubbles male paradises produce to support and hold the females’ eggs. Of course, Blu’s bubblings were a thin, inadequate version of the real thing, but still, it seemed a positive sign.
I didn’t actually notice I was calling Fish Fishy, or talking to him, for that matter, until almost a week after his homecoming. I mean, I suppose I’d been saying good morning when I opened the blinds and threw him a few “tropical crisps” or whatever. But it wasn’t until I found the paradise hovering motionless, patiently watching me as I sat back down to work one afternoon that I stopped too, took some time to study the deformed survivor, who neither flinched nor fled under my steady gaze. We stared at one another for minutes on end, and then I heard myself say, “Fishy, we make a fine pair.” No need to elaborate on that, we both knew what I meant. Interesting, too, that I’d lived as a lone Pisces all these years, never harboring so much as a childhood guppy, until this unexpected rescue of a poisson more traumatized, more thoroughly screwed over, than I’d ever be.
“ You’re gonna be all right,” I told him. I was, more or less. Mere all rightness didn’t seem too much to promise a fish. I wondered whether accidentally amputated fins and tails could ever be expected to regenerate. If that were to happen, Fish would doubtless need a larger habitat in which to enjoy doing real laps again. And maybe even a new tank mate? But that would surely demand careful, critical thinking (the kind the aficionado upstairs apparently hadn’t bothered exerting on Fish’s behalf.) Meanwhile, he had me, and I had him. And as even a tiny tank without a filter requires quite a bit of personal attention, we were more together each day than not. And then there were the nights.
My bedroom is never absolutely dark: streetlight filters in, and there are points of electro-green emanating from the laptop and various peripherals. I couldn’t see Fishy, precisely, but I could discern the tank’s outlines, sense a piscine presence on the far side of the space between my bed and his inches of desktop. It made me feel like a child in some picture-book fantasy. I can’t recall the last time I prayed, or even wished on a star, but suddenly, one night when I was having trouble sleeping, it struck me that I could wish on this Fishy. A simple wish, to start: I wished I’d fall asleep. And I did.
I didn’t often wish on Fishy in the darkness, but I did make a point of saying good-night, as I turned off the bedside lamp. And once in awhile, I’d go on, no more than a minute, outlining provisional plans for the following morning. If Fish was just a way to rationalize talking out loud to myself, what of it? People talk to their dogs and cats (and birds and rabbits) all the time. At least I wasn’t making a public spectacle of my special relationship out on the street, or irritating friends by insinuating Fishy into ordinary conversation at home.
In fact, it never occurred to me to discuss him, beyond the bare fact of his existence in a plastic box on my desk. Which itself didn’t much grab anybody: just a fish, and a fairly sick joke figure of one at that. Scarcely counted as a pet, much less a companion. Even his original owner didn’t seem moved by Fish’s miraculous recovery. Moreover, as someone who’d kept large aquaria since adolescence, he’d seldom experienced attachment to any individual specimen.
On the other hand, he did more than once remark, “Who would have ever thought that fish could become a victim?” Exactly! And the unpredictably of such vicissitudes was clearly not restricted to life in the tank.
Still, it’s possible I didn’t realize, myself, that I was bonding (as the psychobabblers say) with Fishy, forming actual feelings for the little freak, and yes, perhaps over identifying with him, as the weeks went by. Because it’s otherwise difficult to explain the shock, and the surprisingly sharp pang of sorrow, I felt the evening I found him dead—and not floating, either, but, rather, standing straight on end, a strange centerpiece to the teeny green plastic grove I’d planted to cozy up his cold cell. Perhaps his dearth of limbs accounts for this last lugubrious trick. However that may be, I stroked him, spoke to him, and my eyes stung with tears (!) as I wracked my brain about what I could possibly have done wrong, this particular day, to bring about his so-sudden demise.
Yet there was something more, beyond useless guilt, past simple animal sadness. Fishy had beaten such odds, I think he’d become, for me, the living proof that anyone could survive anything and keep on swimming…or at least floundering with full attention. Now he was gone, and I was once again a split-off, solo Pisces, facing the unknown future on my own. Oy. What if this were some kind of sign? My melancholy mood made me more than usually suggestible, I suppose. In the end, in my wordless grief, I gave him a decent burial (no toilet flushing for my Fish), rinsed out his tank, swore off rescuing strays and sad cases, for the time being.
As fate would have it, though, the very next week my friend asked me to foster a failing blue gourami. Seems he was more impressed with my fish-keeping skills than he’d let on, despite the eventual loss of Fishy. I’m feeling better about that myself; my love kept him alive as long as anything could. Meanwhile, the new guy not only came through the crisis, he began to actually thrive. I upgraded to a two-and-a-half gallon tank, with gravel, modest décor, a filtration system, and a pair of corys for company and bottom cleaning.
But I never spent nearly as much time watching, never mind communing with this one; I rarely spoke to or called him by name, and I never, ever wished on him in the night. Fish is fish, finally, neither metaphor nor talisman. Man, they just die on you too much to put your whole heart into their happiness and well-being. There’s a reason so many people keep these cozily alien creatures, and from what I can see, psychic connection ain’t it.
Still, there’s no shame in recalling how, for one brief moment, Fish flashed through my life as the image of a soul mate in absurd adversity. By the way—word to those bee-atches at Wadleigh Secondary School—his cichlid tormentor was soon killed outright by a bigger, badder bully. So Fishy, despite the cruel suffering he endured, had the last laugh there. And really, what more, or better, could I wish for myself?
Susan Volchok is a New York writer of fiction and essays whose work has been published widely in literary journals and anthologies, and in mainstream magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. These days, she leaves the fish to that upstairs neighbor, who’s since become a most Pisces-loving boyfriend.