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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
I suppose there's a goldfish like me in every bowl old, fat, seemingly indestructible, bought with four other fry at the aquarium store to entertain a seven year old child, and then, ten years later, after the other original four have perished one by one of kidney bloat, tail rot, mouth fungus, gill flukes, the ill-advised and temporary introduction of an aggressive species to the bowl, or neglect, still going on strong with four or five more recent inmates. I'm not necessarily the top of the pecking order and my passivity is one of the reasons for my longevity. Goldfish bowls are often overcrowded, and the liveliest of the local bully pack (always known as the School) will make sure the smaller and weaker and newer fish don't take up space for too long. So I'm big. I'm the fish that's floating in his favorite little area beside the artificial sword plant (introduced when the real thing perished two scant weeks after its planting) every time the owner walks by, day or night, unless there's food floating on the surface. The new fish don't mess with me, because I'm simply too big. I don't mess with them either. Later life is no time to start picking fights.
And I suppose in every bowl there's a fish like the little Pearl-Scale that was the newest and smallest guest to our glass hotel. He's scrawny, and not looking to get much bigger once the owners learned about terminal overfeeding and the tougher fish dominate the surface when the food is scattered. He doesn't have a territory and spends most of his time trying to find a place to rest. The Red-Cap Oranda who currently rules the roost has made him good and aware of the pecking order, and particularly likes batting him awake and chasing him in circles before he has had time to recover. And the owners wonder why the new, exotic fish seem to perish and the fat, plain old fish they started with refuse to yield up some much needed space.
Yes, I've seen enough fish come and go not to bother striking up much of a relationship with them until a few months have gone by and they've found their place in the hierarchy. The new fish learns soon enough that he doesn't have much of a chance of rising in that hierarchy until death shakes up the numbers. Besides, what is there to say in a bowl? Discussing the weather or the chow is pretty much a no-go. So, though I was surprised that the little Pearl-Scale lived longer than the expected month, I was even more surprised when he approached me first.
"I hear you're the fish that's lived in these parts the longest," he said one morning, coming right over to where I was feeding. I was struck that he didn't fight like a demon to get some of the rare and precious food, but let it drift down by him as though it wasn't important.
"You heard right."
"How long would that be, about?"
"About ten years."
"Ever thought of escaping?"
"Escaping? Why, sure I have! Once I even made it as far as the back door before the house cat brought me back."
"Look, new fish. Number one, you're in a bowl. Outside of the bowl there is no water. Goldfish have been known to show a liking for water. Number two, you've got bigger worries. This bowl is overcrowded and you're bottom of the pecking order. Number three, you better grab some of this food while you can, like I'm doing."
He absently swallowed a flake drifting past his nose, then turned back to me.
"I've noticed it seems kind of low in oxygen in here."
"You should have been here in the days before they put in the under-gravel filter. Took em a couple years to understand why I was always gulping air at the surface. Let's make that number four: the owners of this bowl are a few sharks short of a feeding frenzy."
"I know, they won't even let me feed."
"I meant the human owners. Even if you manage to survive a couple of months without much food or decent sleep, chances are the humans will forget to change the water and you'll die of ammonia poisoning. I've seen it happen, new fish."
"What's your name?"
"The humans call me Goldy."
"You can call me Pearl."
"Okay, new fish. Ha! Just kidding, Pearl."
"So how is it you've survived so long?"
"Acceptance, kid. Sheer acceptance. You don't get all worked up about nothing when you're not going anywhere. Save your energy and practice your hardiness. Run from fights. The rest is just acceptance."
Pearl took some of that advice, all right I've never seen a goldfish complain less about the irregular food, the irregular light schedule, the irregular water changes. Sometimes the humans would be gone from the house a few days at a time and during those times another human was supposed to come in and feed us, but he was just a fry and often forgot. On those days tempers would inevitably fray. First the fish complained, louder and louder, as though that might help. Then they'd get agitated whenever they saw anything moving outside of the bowl. When they still didn't get fed, they turned their attention inwards and the Red-Cap spent more than his usual allotment of energy chasing Pearl in circles, the other two taking their initiative from the Red-Cap. But Pearl didn't go wild and try and jump over the rim (I've seen it happen not a pretty way out of here). No, he just kept quietly swimming along.
Now, never let it be said that goldfish have no memories. Goldfish have long memories. Every little slight is recorded, because what else is there to think about? Certainly not what's going to be for supper. Paranoia breeds like algae in a confined space. Someone bumps into your pectoral fin when you're circling the bowl that was deliberate! A conversation stops when you drift by they were talking about me! So acceptance is the only way to keep from going crazy, to keep from turning into a little warlord like the Red-Cap Oranda who rules the School in here, or from becoming one of the new fish found belly up one morning.
It was during one of these little fasting periods that Pearl changed his strategy for dealing with the School. I've already mentioned that a favorite tactic for harassing new fish is to bump them awake when they've just fallen asleep and chase them in circles for a while. Not everyone knows that goldfish sleep, but they do or maybe it's more akin to entering a trance, since we don't have lids to close. But it happened one night that one of the School decided to wake old Pearl, only to find that Pearl was faking being asleep and battered the bully against the wall of the bowl before he knew what hit him. Pearl paid for that little stunt, all right I don't think he got a moment's peace for twenty-four hours. The School slept in shifts for the express purpose of keeping Pearl awake.
I watched all this from behind the sword plant, sorely tempted to intervene, but, as I've already stated, later life is no time to start picking fights. And, I hate to admit, I didn't want the School to try that one on me. I may be hardy, I may have equanimity, but I like my sleep, and I like it undisturbed.
On the second day, though, Pearl passed by my plant and I asked him how he was holding up. He looked ragged, and his bright orange patches were dull as mud. One of his fins had a tear in it.
"Just fine, Goldy. They'll run out of steam sooner or later."
"You better take it easy there, champ. They outnumber you."
"Think we'll get fed today?"
"Who knows? I'll tell you one thing though if we don't, I might make a break over the side again."
"Tip me the nod when you go and I'll come with you."
The humans did come back that night, and they did feed us, and tensions eased somewhat. They left Pearl alone for a day or two, but one morning soon after one of the School tried waking Pearl just for a little fun and fell right for his fake-trance trick again. This time Pearl bit the tip off the bully's ventral fin. In came Red-Cap and set to work chasing Pearl in circles in a fury that lasted a good couple of hours. For a while one of the humans watched us, delighted, I suppose, that her precious fish were actually doing something, but the phone rang and she left. At the end of the second hour, both contestants were flagging mightly, and when Red-Cap passed by I spoke up.
"Little guy's had enough, don't you think?"
The Red-Cap shifted attention to me like a school changing direction. He was half my size but twice my fierceness and I admit I flinched.
"What's it to you, Oldy?"
"It's nothing to him," said Pearl, coming up at Red-Cap again. "You were chasing me. What's the matter, got no memory?" And they were off again.
"You don't want to get mixed up with the likes of me," Pearl said to me later when Red-Cap was sleeping, protected by his two toadies. "Not unless you were serious when you said you were going over the side. Even together they still out-number us, and this isn't your fight."
"True enough," I said. "I guess you'll work it out. The thing is, Red-Cap is threatened. You're the most aggressive fish they've dropped in here in an age and you're only a fingerling. With Red-Cap out of the picture, and a little more body weight on you, you could lead the School."
"He's got nothing to worry about. I haven't the slightest interest in leading the School. And I'm not aggressive. I just stand up for myself, that's all."
"In here, that makes you aggressive." I changed the subject. "How are you handling the ammonia and nitrates?"
"They haven't changed the water in a while, have they? It's not so bad."
"Not so bad for me, because I'm used to it. It's got to be rough on you."
"I guess I'll build up a tolerance."
Our conversation must have gotten him thinking, because he began spending his time on the bottom of the tank, where the water was murkiest, and gulping that muck over his gills like it was mealworms. When the oxygen ran low (with five of us in here, that under-gravel filter just didn't cut it some days) he refused to join the others in gulping air at the surface. He was a tough little fish.
"How long have you been on the inside now?" he asked me one day. A couple of months had gone by and an uneasy truce existed between him and the School: he ignored them, and they pretended to ignore him. It wasn't helping him get established in the pack, but it was a start.
"As of today, ten years, three months, and fifteen days, by my memory," I said.
"And in that time, what would you say is the most interesting thing that's happened to you?"
I had to laugh. "Interesting? Well, Pearl, I never thought the day would come when I'd hear you say a dirty word." Then a thought occurred to me. I said more quietly: "I guess I would have to say that you coming in here and shaking up the natural order of things was pretty damn interesting for a while."
He was looking outside the bowl. "I wonder what it's like on the outside," he said wistfully.
"Two dirty words in the same day! If I can give you any more advice, Pearl, not that you need it these days, quit wondering."
He looked at me. "That's good advice. I think I will."
The next day Pearl was gone.
The way it happened was this. When the human opened the blinds in the morning, letting in the sunlight, Pearl was floating on his side at the surface, dead as gravel. The School were going nowhere near him, afraid they'd catch whatever goldfish plague did him in, and I was the same way. He was discovered soon enough, and with a minor hue and cry Pearl's little body was scooped out of the water with a net, and he took the only exit out of here there is.
But since that day, I've been thinking. I have, as I say, been around a decent length of time, and I've seen quite a few fish take that last swim. Every time they did bite the big one, they were found floating upside-down. Pearl was floating on his side. It's well-nigh impossible for a living fish to turn upside down that's what we have a dorsal fin for. But on one's side that just might be possible.
Of course, you'd have to hold the pose a good long time long enough to fool both the School and the human owners but Pearl was something of an expert in faking trances. It's also possible he survived the trip out of the bowl for a while, what with his practice in living in low oxygen water.
So what happens to a goldfish after it's dead? You don't just throw it out the back door, I assume. We've all heard rumors of the toilet bowl funeral and perhaps that's exactly how Pearl made his exit from this house.
It would be pretty hard to survive such an exit. The thermal shock of the temperature change would kill an average fish, but goldfish are damn hardy for their size. Another big problem would be the level of certain chemicals in the water, but perhaps these humans are as haphazard at cleaning out their toilet bowl as they are their goldfish bowl. And once you were emptied out at the other end, where would you be? Some natural river? Some further human contrivance where water was boiled, filtered, treated? Depends where in the world this bowl is. I honestly don't know.
I doubt Pearl knew either, if in fact my escape theory is accurate. But I can say without a doubt he'd have taken his chance on the sewer a hundred times over rather than grow to my size on the inside of the glass hotel.
The owners haven't got a new fish yet. Perhaps they're tired of flushing the old ones. With less strain on the oxygen and chemistry of the water, the School has calmed down some. Most of them have been here a decent length of time perhaps they're starting to mellow with age. This might even become a pleasant place to retire in.
But lately I've been hanging out at the bottom of the tank more, where the muck builds up, and seeing how much of it I can swallow before I feel ill. When they forget to change the water and the oxygen gets low, I resist a little longer before I head to the surface to gulp air. I've been thinking, you see. I've been thinking, I've had a good long life, uneventful, but decently fed and decently safe.
Maybe now itıs time to see what other options I have.