photo collage C. Ascher
I had a goldfish when I was young; actually it was a blackfish. It was one of those feathery-finned ones with a long, undulating tail and big, bulging eyes. It was very pretty. It lived by itself in a round bowl that had two flat sides and that sat on the kitchen counter. The fish would spend its time swimming back and forth lazily along one wall then the other of the bowl. The only thing that seemed to animate it was the food I sprinkled in dry slivers on the surface of its water.
I concluded that food was its life force, almost convinced by everything I learned in school that it was ‘just a fish’, incapable of any awareness other than hunger; everything else was ‘just instinct”.
I say I was almost convinced of its mindless status because there were moments when I felt guilty about it. It was alone. Didn’t fish belong in schools? And it seemed distressed when its water got cloudy, swimming closer and closer to the surface until it hung there by the mouth trying to suck in fresh air. I would clean the bowl then and note how it would dart to the opposite wall from where I stood when I bent down to examine it as if it were angry at me and wanted to avoid me.
My blackfish didn’t live too long. After one of my infrequent bowl cleaning jobs I noticed one of its eyes was bigger than the other. A fungus, I was told. The fish died and it disappeared down the toilet. I was reassured by my adults that such fish are ‘delicate’ and ‘they don’t live long”, that it ‘died of old age”. These were comforting thoughts. Still, I decided, no more fish bowls for me!
I didn’t think much about fish other than when I consulted a menu as I grew into adulthood. Not until I came across another fish, this one a real ‘gold’ fish, a small carp, in another bowl on a kitchen counter.
A friend and I had traveled from home to go do research in another city. We enrolled in a course meant to teach realistic oil painting techniques of the old masters. My friend was focused on learning the techniques; I wanted to assess the teaching method and the qualifications of the teacher in view of hiring him to do a workshop. It was a two-week course. Not inclined to stay in a hotel, nor in fact able to afford it we looked for and found a house to rent. The owner left on vacation with his children and we settled in.
The first thing I noticed the next morning at breakfast was a putrid smell. That’s when I realized that the bowl on the counter wasn’t for rooting plants but was a fish bowl. It was so filthy the water was brown, and it stank. At its surface I could see what looked like a hole opening and closing. It was a fish half on its side trying desperately to get some air. I had to do something.
I was meticulous about cleaning the kitchen sink before gently transferring the poor fish into clean water. I had to scoop it into my hand out of the dirty water to do so; it was like handling jelly. The fish’s scales were slimy like the water. My friend, looking over my shoulder said, “Don’t bother, it won’t survive,” then, looking at the fish bowl, “Oh gross!”
It took me many trips to the toilet to dump disgusting, smelly water, much time rubbing slime off the glass bowl and off the plastic … and rubbing the bed of gradually colourful stones to clean each one thoroughly. As I worked, I thought of my long ago fish. I thought of solitary confinement, I thought of torture, I thought of mindless neglect by people convinced from childhood that not all living things ‘feel’, ‘think’ or ‘act’ like us and therefore don’t deserve care and attention. We’re taught these things though our religions, our sciences, or social conditioning, and we as a result go about exploiting, abusing and degrading everything around us – and sometimes are inspired to do the same to those who are different than us.
It seemed indeed that my friend was right. When I gently returned the goldfish to its now sparkling clean bowl, it barely moved. I’d carefully run my finger along its body to at least loosen the slime, and though its scales showed red and white again, I wasn’t sure it would benefit from my handling. It was such a tiny little thing. Yet, day after day I sprinkled small amounts of food onto the water’s surface, and every other day I refreshed the water. Over the course of the next week, I saw the fish begin to right itself. I saw it move down from the surface to poke among the stones, I saw it begin to swim with more and more energy. I was deeply relieved.
“Look at that,” said my friend one morning when I joined her in the kitchen for breakfast.
“What?” I asked, having just woken up in my upstairs room and stumbled down the stairs still half asleep.
“The fish. That’s so weird!” she said. “Go out and come back,” she commanded. I did as I was told. “Well that’s something!”
“What?” I asked again, slightly irritated.
“It reacted when you came into the kitchen. Like it knew you.”
So we tested the theory. When she came and went from the room, or went up to the bowl to look at the fish or touched the glass the fish did its normal fish thing, it just swam around indifferently. However, when I left the room and returned, it seemed to be waiting, facing the door. If I approached the bowl, it swam toward me, and if I touched the glass, it poked it as if it kissed the tip of my finger. It responded to me and only me, even when others came to visit us.
My only regret in returning the house to its owner and his children a week later was leaving the fish in their so-called care. If I could have stolen the fish, I would have; I felt like a traitor, because leaving, I knew what would happen to it.
Well. I listen now as people still go on with “It’s just a dog!” or “It’s a chicken / cow / pig / rhino, people need to eat!” or “It’s a just a beluga!” They are convinced that we need spare them nothing, that the creatures who share our lives don’t ‘feel’, ‘think’ or ‘act’ ‘like us’. I think: Would it really be any different if they did? WE act like us; is that such an enviable, superior thing?
There’s an artwork in there somewhere. I’m working on it.