All that glitters…

All of us are guilty of sins of omission every so often, don’t you think? Or is the possession of goldfish one of commission? Because of their numerical profligacy I often have difficulty with the correct theological classification of my transgressions. In this case, though, I think I was lulled into a rather naïve philosophical complacency about their Dasein, by their ubiquity -not in lakes or rivers, you understand, but more in bowls. Unlike sharks, or those huge Asian silver carp you see in videos jumping high out of the river water enroute to Lake Michigan, I may have been unduly lulled by the stare-at-you-each-time-you-walk-by goldfish placidly finning water in their little glass aquaria as if they were waiting, blank-eyed, for Godot. I did not realize that they, too, are carp, and that they, too, are voracious eaters of anything they can get their constantly gasping mouths around.[i] Maybe they have hidden teeth, or something.

There were so many things I didn’t think of -didn’t know– when I bought a fresh batch of goldfish; I saw it as a new start and I even wrote an essay about that occasion, so beguiled I was.[ii] I had no idea what dangers lurked in the little pretend-aquarium I had dug outside my door. I had actually felt sorry for them because of the legendary appetite of the Garter snakes that also cohabit the marshes around the pond. But I had not counted on the fortitude of what I had introduced there; not counted on them chasing the snakes away -well I haven’t seen any this year, at any rate. Mind you, I’m pretty careful where I step, and always wear tall rubber boots.

At any rate, I had no intention of introducing fish which, should they happen to escape one night after a particularly heavy coastal rainfall, might find their way in drainage ditches to the nearby lake. Okay, the lake is two or three kilometers away and by and large uphill, but I am still alert to the possibility of their escape in a heavy wind. I have been giving them extra helpings of food just to keep them in the pond; to make them feel content; to imprison them with ballast.

Just the other day, however, I found one of them lying motionless in the mud -prostrate but pretty well intact- as if it were merely sunbathing in the riparian zone I have reserved for wannabe fluvial pond-life. But, since the corpse had actually made it as far as the demilitarized area which I regularly inspect for slither marks, I suspected an escape attempt. A pond-break gone bad.

Anyway, unlike most prisons where you need merely to count whoever shows up for dinner, my goldfish census is by necessity more approximate; many live lonely and probably celibate lives among the water plants, eating only for sustenance and eschewing the normally sacred shoaling activities at mealtimes. I have lost track of the hermits, and even the shoalers seem to have ever-shifting group loyalties, so who knows whether the one I found had gone mad, or been the victim of internecine warfare. It could even have been dropped there by a fussy heron, or maybe a rogue snake unsatisfied by the selection on offer… There are obviously more things in heaven and pond than were dreamt of in the instruction book that came with the fish.

I am reminded of William Golding’s conjecture in his Lord of the Flies that boys, left to themselves in an isolated, non-policed environment might form into cabals and hunt each other. Goldfish might do that too I fear: they might develop a taste for fish that refuse to join them; fish that do not share their beliefs; fish that prefer vegan food…

I can only imagine what it would be like to be suddenly liberated from a bowl, or a crowded little glass tank where you’ve lived your whole life under scrutiny, though. A place with no refugia to which to retire, no place to float by yourself if you have a headache, and no place to hide the extra large fish-flake you managed to slip under your fin far from the madding ritual feeding frenzies. With none of those opportunities available, and no mother guarding your dorsal fin, I suspect you’d go a little tank-crazy after a while. Need I ask, then, what you would do if you were suddenly plunked into a pond with a million hiding places inside a forest of water plants, and plenty of opportunities for anchoritic immurement; opportunities to pretend you were wise and profound?

Of course if you really were wise, you could also organize the more gullible others into a shoal cult -one that was so enamoured with the sacred bubble of truth you had discovered, that it would tolerate no variance, on pain of banishment, or imbibement. Given the apparent goldfish penchant for bullying in the wild, I worry about that, actually. Perhaps the shoal master might justify sacrificing unbelievers to the snake-gods that watch with hooded eyes in the shallows…

But I have to confess to very few sleepless nights worrying about the pond: worrying that I, in my overweening conceit, am paying too much attention to the agents, rather than the environment in which I have hired them to act. Is the pond nothing? Just a floating shadow full of fish and bubbles, night after night…? Do my friends only come to see the fish -fish that rise to the surface on command, like trained seals when I scatter fish-flakes with celestial benevolence…?

That’s only how I feel on windless moonful nights when, if I have indigestion, or perhaps a physiological need to visit another room, I rise from my bed and eventually go to the window to check. The plants in the pond usually stand like motionless silhouettes: watchful guards distracted only by the stars silently caressing their leaves. The water they protect is calm, despite what may be stirring beneath its surface. The pond seems a peaceful place, a welcome bandage on my broken sleep.

But what do the hidden fish think of a darkened reed-choked pond rimmed with snakes in a Nature turned red in tooth and scale patiently waiting for their slightest mistakes? True, there were few if any dangers in the tank from which I purchased them, but in fairness, maybe life is only truly meaningful when it is threatened; valuable only when there is a contrast against which it can be compared; important when there is something it is not.

I often wonder if that’s really what a pond is for: a place where strangers can organize themselves into communities, a place with endless options for a Magisterium not my own. I envy them their ability to adapt so easily; in fact I wonder if it would be me, not them, who should not be trusted in the wild…




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