an essay by D. L. Pughe
What becomes of those creatures who find our way into our homes so far removed from the wilds? How do we reckon with our desire to know and understand them? And how do we imagine what they long for if they’ve never known the wilderness from which they came?
Charles Edward Perugini – The Goldfish Bowl, 1870
The German Romantics explained longing as though it were bumping up against a membrane separating one from the final sensation of the sublime in nature. The deep glow of a sunset could penetrate our eyes only so far, the hushed calm of the forest could infiltrate our skin only so long, and the brief moment when a deer entering the meadow paused before realizing it was seen, this split-second awareness still let us know where we stood: across the green field, in the domain of humanity, bumping into the awkward upright posture of our selves. Filled with a kind of longing for an intimacy with something we can never truly know.
We’re most often like uninvited guests in the wilds of nature, and perhaps a bit anxious when the creatures we encounter fail to welcome us in. It could be why we began the dubious practice of coaxing them to eat from our hand, as though our offering allows us to part the gauze curtain for a moment and put our feet up on the sofa of the wild. It is easy to feel honored by the brush of anxious whiskers on our skin, the touch of a tongue tasting us in a way we find acceptable: without teeth. To stroke a trembling animal unaccustomed to human touch brings one close to their trepidation, their racing hearts, a rightful suspicion that cannot be petted away. It is perhaps that mysterious wildness which increases our respect for them, for their way of life; and in trying to understand their longings it makes us deeply question our own.
When Mr. Fish arrived in our home he was a small brown thing with black spots left in a glass bowl by a friend departing for the East Coast. With a fine large translucent tail he swished back and forth with a gentle eagerness for food dropped from some mysterious source above. With tiny arm-like fins he navigated elegant quick turns from within the confines of his small transparent pond. He established himself in the center of our lives on the kitchen counter, wagging near the glass as we chopped up vegetables, darting back and forth when we reached for a spice from the cabinet, and pursing his lips at the surface of the water then opening them in bubbly smacks which suggested his unlimited appetite.
In most goldfish legends, their appetite is always spoke of as grand, but their memory or intelligence is held in slight account. It is assumed that in each lap circling the bowl they fail to recall that everything is quite familiar and welcome it instead as something new. For centuries it has justified giving them a decorative glass-bound existence where they are seen as a hobby and not as a pet. And it has perhaps made them susceptible to fraternity boys trying to swallow them, or explains why they are carried away in plastic bags as prizes from school carnivals. If anything goes wrong in caring for goldfish, they are easily flushed away. For these reasons their lives are not often long, and in their cramped quarters, they are not very large.
But Mr. Fish began to grow, and grow. His tiny arm-fins whirled in circles lifting him to mouth the surface. When you bent down he paused at the side of the bowl his eyes goggling and his body small from the curve of the glass, he now wore a question across his forehead. When he swam it seemed more like the frustrated way one might circle a parking structure always looking for an open spot. Then, after we went away leaving him in the care of a dear friend, he began to make demands. He had reached the size where a swish of his tail could lob a vocal splash a good distance from the bowl.
We tried to offer him a new home in the closest thing to a pond: an aquarium. Envisioning a ‘room’ in nature, we took it out of nature—a cake-like slice of layered water and plants and pond bottom, bringing it home to him in a box. Mr. Fish could now swim up and down, side to side, exploring all the corners of a square new world. He raced through the water enjoying his first real swim; it was exhilarating to see him streaking all around quite fearlessly Then he could pick through the bits of rock on his new floor and spit them endlessly back each day looking for food. At last he had something more to do. But the times when I got up to look at him in the dark he was searching the gravel with a kind of betrayed frustration. It appeared as though he’d lost something, possibly a notion of a real pond somewhere like a shiny watch chain which had slid down between the rocks.
Perhaps that is all part of our strange human perspective where we press our face into water and see a blurry moving world which challenges our own. We often imagine things, attribute things. In the extracted glass simulated nature in which most humans keep fish, they usually offer them buxom mermaids combing their hair, overflowing treasure chests of jewels and coins, tippling jolly rogers or gigantic skulls where the fish can dart in and out through the eye sockets. What is their pleasure in the sunken galleons of every size, the pagodas, castles, curved bridges which begin and end nowhere?
And how do they consider the tiny ceramic signs evoking crossed rickety boards where someone has roughly scrawled: ‘NO fishing!’
A fish might want such a sign near a real pond, warning humans not to become predators like all the rest. Yet who knows what memory Mr. Fish has of a faraway place in the wilds of nature he has never known? At the back of that furrowed brow is there an embedded virtual pool? Is it surrounded by uneven stones where fish wriggle between the stalks of plants, dodge other creatures of the shallows, glide noiselessly for long distances with fearless grace? A place where the day is spent not idly waiting for food but engaged in the act of finding it. A pond which chills in the winter and everything slows to near stillness. A place where, when the water warms in spring, the fishes hover together in the pale band closest to the sun until the heat reminds them to seek and find one another at last.
I do not know whether I ever said then that I loved Mr. Fish. He grew and grew. His dream pond, the rumor of his legitimate life somewhere in the wilds, was beginning to bump up against my heart whenever he wiggled the short length of his tank. He always hit the glass with widening eyes, then his mouth opened, his lips outstretched as if trying to drink in all that was beyond.
I know about that beyond. There are ponds where the sweetness of the water embraces you, the leaves of plants brush against you, where the chill numbs your skin but awakens your soul in the heart of the forest.
Mr. Fish burgeoned to several inches long until it was difficult for him to negotiate a turn. He back-paddled with an arm-fin screeching one side to a halt while the other fin gestured wildly, like a traffic cop motioning us to ‘move along!’ So we got a new tank twice the size of his first one and cleared a spot for him in the dining room. There he swam further and seemed happier. His character and his size continued to grow. He would sometimes pause in mid-stroke as if he had a change of mind, and in his portly large size, when he would occasionally stretch his mouth in a masterful yawn, he resembled a fine older statesman. He would slowly approach the glass then look directly at you as though something was mutually understood. And because he as no longer in the center of all the action of our lives, when we entered he would abandon his decorum. He would rush to the light and begin an attention-getting dance, a shimmy with eager eyes while his lips seemed to be mouthing some words.
Fish are cold-blooded and for some this accounts for their incomprehensible nature, their lack of personality. They have no eyebrows, for instance, and no voice. They cannot command us with a bark or meow, seduce us with a whine, or alert us to their pain with a cry. We cannot touch them. But they can show us their colors as Mr. Fish did, gradually turning a brilliant orange beneath his black spots. And they can see into us with their eyes.
We went away again and when we returned Mr. Fish was very ill. Hiding in the corner he refused to eat and his forehead was scarlet. Experts were consulted all over the map, each with a different prescription and advice. After giving him the medicines I watched helplessly from behind the glass of his ‘hospital tank’ as he huddled bleary-eyed in the cloudy water. I tried to tempt him with food held in chopsticks near his mouth. White sores appeared on his forehead; a red streak ran like a river through his tail. To make sure his main tank water became pure again, I became an alchemist, filling vials with drops of solution then holding them up to the light. Color took on harsh significance. I became terrified when the vials appeared to test red, or brilliant green, or dark cobalt blue. I lugged countless gallons of fine mountain spring water up the many stairs to his artificial pond, offerings of purity from that distant enigmatic source.
For weeks each day was different: one day life, the other day death; one day hope, the other despair. And in looking at him so intently day after day for a sign of improvement I realized how seldom I’d watched him before, how little I had known him in the past. It was a this moment I knew how much I had grown to love Mr. Fish through the ache in my arms on the other side of the glass. I could only watch, longing to hold him and reassure him and take away his pain. Is this moment of awareness we all have of loving, the profound anguish when our love is out of reach and in danger of being taken away? When you are at your most powerless, your least reasonable self? In terrifying dreams Mr. Fish became taller than I and I staggered about holding him in my arms, carrying him upright and dripping. In this nocturnal myth I wandered trying to find a soothing pool for him that, each time I woke, was further from sight.
Finally, on a day in late spring he seemed a bit better. Though his eyes were still foggy and uncertain, he no longer hid in the darkest corner. He had become near-sighted and bumped into things so I offered him his food as though I were at an official function serving hors d’oeuvres. He reached for each morsel with the uneasy nonchalance of someone attending a reception, but his telltale outstretched lips again betrayed his enormous appetite.
Surprisingly, somehow through all his illness he had continued to grow. His size again became an obstacle. In order to turn he had to dip his head down then flip himself from side to side like a lap swimmer. He was now a huge fish, a foot or more long, a fish with a certain gait like an old professor who had lost his glasses. When you sought his attention, he turned slowly as though his arms were full of books and his mind on something else.
A new pond perhaps? We brought him a new tank, this time nearly filling a whole wall of the house, the largest block of water we could find. And still missing a few scales and with a reddened forehead, I lowered him into his new home in a clear sack. Like a child frightened by the enormity of his first day at school, he rushed back into the corner of the bag and refused to come out, then gradually he turned and swam out into the expanse of his new home. He looked a bit curious he took a mouthful of gravel and swiftly blew it out, and then he began to swim. Slowly at first, and then with absolute excitement he started to race the whole length with his small arm-like fins pressed back at his sides, letting his giant tail wiggle back and forth like a porpoise and ending with a graceful glide to stop well before the end of the glass. I saw things become clear to him, how the new and varied plants provided a safe place to hide when he wanted privacy. In the night when I peeked in to watch him in the dark, I saw him soaring as though in an endless sky. His small fins outstretched and his tail straight, he took off from the bottom, gliding up to the surface to check the midnight air, then let himself drift down as though safely held by a parachute to nestle on the floor and become very still. In the cool depths of his pond he appeared to blink and fall asleep.
The happiness of one you love often counts for your own. In Mr. Fish’s current cubic pond he appears to be as happy as I’ve ever known. The dreams of the distant mountain ponds are farther away for me; I no longer stagger carrying him there in my dreams in the dark. It has even occurred to me that perhaps he now might long for a friend. Someone to swim with and exchange fish remarks with as they sort through the gravel during the day. Someone to chase in and out through the plants. Who knows what amount of mischief they could come up with… It seems simple to do, bring another fish home in a bag. Why not? The urgent need to be mindful of the quality of their lives is always there, humming in my heart. The weight of all that. But even more I shudder and something leaps up and catches me with its wild fear: that I might grow to care for that fish too with the same regard. What it has meant to love Mr. Fish. What it means to love. What meaning expands and allows.
AU REVOIR: Sadly, in late August Mr. Fish leapt from his brief stay in his smaller hospital tank after his illness returned. I returned home too late to save him, though tried desperately to revive him for half an hour, swishing his large foot long orange and black form back and forth in the water as they direct you to do in the fish first aid books. Then I was forced to look into his wide eyes and mouth frozen in a gasping cry. I could not help feeling the pain of his final suffering, reliving each moment of flapping on the floor, acknowledging the purity of his primal innocence weighing in with my ultimate responsibility for his welfare, and finally and most selfishly, just missing him so much—his eager face and eyes wagging before me, anxious for his evening meal.
I hiked to a place early the morning after his death where I found him a pond at last, and left him hidden in the watery rushes at the side to join nature in his own way.