Mike wrote about going to the Birch Aquarium the other day. As is often the case, his post was accompanied by a number of photos he took of the excursion; others that he had taken while at the fish zoo were also posted on his flickr site. I took a few minutes to paw through them, and lit upon this image, which I hope he will forgive me for posting hereabouts without the usual “asking permission” formalities and so on.
It got me thinking about my own adventures in icthyology, many years ago.
Before I tell you the story, you have to promise to keep an open mind throughout. Here’s the dilemma: as a grown-up person, a responsible adult with a job and a family, I am a capable and impressive person. A living embodiment of the frontier spirit, some would say, I am plucky and irrepressible; not the kind of fellow whose bold actions and decisive self-reliance might be derailed by something so insignificant and easily defeasible as “fear.” But I was not born to this devil-may-care attitude; it took time for me to evolve into the tough-as-nails quasi-commando with whom you are now so familiar.
When I was but a boy in my early teens, however, my best friend Todd and I shared several obsessions: Dungeons and Dragons; certain types of music (then in their first incarnation) that would now be described as “classic rock”; and fish-keeping. I know that, in view of the nature of the foregoing list of my boyhood hobbies, it will be difficult for you to believe it, but it would have been fair to describe me – at that time of my life ONLY, mind you – as a bit on the awkward, bookish and nerdy side. I know that this last statement will come as a bit of a shock to you all, in view of the now transcendent and enduring nature of my indomitable masculinity, but it is true.
Todd and I tended to see the world in fairly stark, well-defined moral terms. For example, whereas the Rolling Stones were undoubtedly a human manifestation of whatever Good and True forces may exist in the universe, it was equally obvious, we felt, that Journey sucked donkey balls. It is essential that you understand that in our universe, at the time, life was a series of revelatory choices, each with an obvious and important essentially moral component to them. Thus, when sitting at the dining table in the mid-morning of a summer’s day, sipping tea and poring over the local newspaper, if Steve Perry’s voice should happen to emerge from the speakers of the ever-playing stereo in the background, there really wasn’t any debate about the proper course of action: one or the other of us would have to get up and change the radio station. To refrain from doing so – and this is where the moral, imperative quality of these decisions comes in – would have meant, in our minds, that we were announcing publicly our deep and abiding affinity for all things lame, inferior and uncool – a process that could only lead one, through inferential reasoning, to the conclusion that we too were lame, inferior and uncool.
What I am trying to impress upon you is that when I tell you that Todd and I chose to keep saltwater, rather than freshwater fish, this choice was no casual expression of mere preference; it was a matter of something not unlike ethics. Saltwater fish were good; freshwater fish were worse than evil, they were uncool.
A cynic might point out – and remember, this is just the cynic talking now – that two jobless (and therefore impecunious) idiots ought not to attempt keeping the bounty of the sea in aquariums commensurate in size with their tiny budgets. Saltwater fish are extremely sensitive to minute changes in the chemistry of their environment, changes that are almost impossible to avoid with a relatively small volume of water. I had a mere 32 gallon tank; Todd had both a 32 gallong and – monster of monsters, to our perspective-limited eyes – a 55 gallon behemoth that was in his family’s basement. Whatever the scientific merits of the project, we were determined to focus exclusively on marine, rather than freshwater fishes.
At some point or other, Todd got a moray eel. I think the moray started out in the smaller tank in Todd’s room, but it wasn’t long before it was moved to the larger one in his basement, and this is where I most clearly remember watching the animal’s exploits, which chiefly consisted of “eating”. It was about eighteen inches long, and spent most of its time completely obscured from view resting up for his next prolonged flurry of ingestion, nestled in the interior spiral of a conch shell which stood upright in the middle of the tank. Todd fed the moray french-fry sized bits of (initially) frozen fish purchased from the local grocer; the feeding process being principally aided by a long set of plastic tongs, as I recall. Todd would cut off a piece of fish, grasp it with the tongs, insert the fish-laden tongs in the water and kind of wave the rapidly defrosting hunk of halibut around over top of the conch, like a magic incantation that would inevitably result in the partial emergence of the eel/genie’s head from its gastropodal abode – just far enough to snatch the morsel of chow in its jaws. The eel would then retract with an almost audible snap into the conch, like the spring-loaded power cord on a vaccuum cleaner.
Gradually, in the way that teenage boys do, I got an idea: I should have a moray eel too.
There was only one pet store in the immediate vicinity that traded in saltwater fish: The Pet Spot, a little store in a strip mall just a block or two away from the high school we attended. Todd and I haunted the place; as moray eels were not a common commodity, we needed to keep a constant watch on the turnover in the little shop’s stock. I had become thoroughly enamoured with the idea of having a moray eel of my own. We badgered Jim, the good-natured shopkeeper and, come to think of it, the rest of his family to bring in another eel so that I could have one too.
Months passed. I grew comfortable with the idea of wanting to be an eel owner.
And then one day, it was there in one of the tanks at The Pet Spot. An eighteen inch moray; this one decidedly more reddish-yellow in colour than Todd’s blue-gray model, but – most assuredly – a moray eel nonetheless. There really was no decision left to be made; it was a given that I would buy the moray eel.
There was only one problem: as we went to the store that day, I began to have serious misgivings about having that thing in my fish tank. At the time, my aquarium was positioned diagonally across one corner of my bedroom, right next to the head of the bed. This was an excellent vantage point from which to observe the various colourful damsels, butterflys and clown fish that I from time to time had in the tank – lying with my head on my pillow at night, if I left the light in the tank on, I could watch my beautiful fish through the aquarium glass from no further than two feet away. It wasn’t really until we were on the way to buy the thing that it occurred to me that the eel would be in that very tank, and I’d be looking at its considerably more menacing visage from that same vantage point.
Always a quick study, I began to have buyer’s remorse even before I had set down my carefully gathered funds (cobbled together from the usual childhood revenue sources – birthdays, Christmases, assorted lawn mowings driveway shovellings) on the Pet Spot’s cash counter. Before I knew it, we were on our way home from the store with the eel in a large plastic bag filled with seawater.
The fucking thing wouldn’t stop flailing around in the bag.
I tried to keep up a brave face – in the way that teenage boys do, you understand. I tried very hard not to reveal the terror that was growing within me. We got home, placed the bag in the open top of my aquarium and began the process of slowly acclimating the eel to its new home. At the best of times, saltwater fish need to be introduced to a new environment slowly – their extreme sensitivity to slight variations in the water chemistry puts an unhealthy, potentially lethal stress on the fish if the introduction is rushed – but I was pretty fucking sure by now that the eel would be ready for him to live in that tank long before I was. As the evening wore on, pretty much everybody in my family spent a fair bit of time with Todd and I in the bedroom waiting for the eel to be released into the tank, and then watching him when the Big Moment finally came to let him out of the bag and into the 32 gallon wild of his new home.
And what a show the little bugger put on! The eel spent the better part of the next couple of hours swimming around the tank at breakneck speed, his snakelike body wriggling frantically back and forth. He darted back and forth along the glass. In the brief moments that he did pause – briefly trying out the conch shell residence I had graciously prepared for what I had believed to be his upcoming luxurious and langorous enjoyment – pictures were taken. This was long before the days of digital photography; the light was low and the eel was – as I have tried to make clear – thrashing about like a kidnap victim in a burlap sack, so it wasn’t until much later that we learned that the pictures were a little blurry. The eel’s serpentine body whirling rapidly around the tank burned snaky s-es in my mind. I was beginning to sweat a little bit.
Every so often – usually when nobody else happened to be looking, the moray – my moray – stuck his head up out of the water and looked around. I want to be clear about this: without a word of a lie, the eel was swimming along with its head protruding out of the water. To me, it was clear the fucking thing was trying to get out of the tank. The top of the aquarium consisted of a series of squarish glass segments designed to rest in the grooved plastic molding ringing the top edge of the tank an inch or two above the water’s surface. Largish portions of the glass, especially near the back corners, were cut out of the squarish panels to permit the various filters, tubes and air hoses inside the tank to be connected with the necessary power and air supplies outside of it. These holes were easily, in my estimation, wide enough for the eel to get out, and it was clear to me that this thing wanted out.
I started to obsess over one mental image: I saw my self, head atop my pillow and in that never-never land between waking and sleeping. I could see, in my mind’s eye, the eel emerging from the cutout hole in the back-right corner of the tank, the one right next to my headboard. I could feel the eel slithering across my face as I snapped awake, its jaws opening and closing rhythmically (scientists will tell you eels need to do this to force water across their gills; I am here to tell you that in actuality, they do it to scare the shit out of anybody watching).
Todd went home, the members of my family left me alone in my room with the eel, and soon it was time for bed.
Except I couldn’t get into the bed. Well, I could get ON it, but I couldn’t lay my head down on the pillow. Everybody else in the house got cleaned up, said their “G’night John Boys” and headed for the land of Nod. I sat on the floor in front of my fish tank, watching that fucking eel go ape shit, back and forth across the face of the glass, now an inch and a half out of the water, now two inches, now – wait a minute, did it just bump the lid open a little bit?
I started piling the heaviest books I could find on my bookshelf on the glass top. In my mind, I was certain that I needed a significant amount of ballast to prevent the monster from emerging. I covered the holes as best I could. I got in the bed. I tried; oh, how I tried. I even put my head down on the pillow, once. Briefly. Carrying on a full-on self-eviscerating internal monologue laced with a suitable amount of saucy profanity, I finally admitted defeat: I gathered up my bedclothes and my pillow and I swear to you I backed out of that room and headed for the downstairs couch in an effort to catch some shuteye.
Not much time passed before my parents were down the stairs, wondering politely what the hell I thought I was doing going to sleep on the couch in the den. Sleep deprived and terrified, I couldn’t think of a plausible explanation; I was trapped. I gave up the explanation without much of a struggle, really. I may even have cried a bit. My folks explained to me, in a very nice way, that although they understood the nature of the presenting problem, in their considered opinion my plan of sleeping on the couch for however many years it took for the eel to die was not a rational and reasonable solution to the said problem. I don’t know exactly how they did it, but parents are magical with words (at least mine are) and it wasn’t long before – incredibly – I found myself trudging back up the stairs, bedclothes in hand, resigned to my fate: I would never sleep again, two feet away from a moray eel that wanted to kill me.
Again, I am somewhat hazy on the exact details; I suspect, given my level of fear, that my folks must have slipped me some sort of stupefying agent or cast a hypnotic spell over me in a secret parental way that I was unable to detect, because I did fall asleep eventually. It was well after five o’clock in the morning, but I did fall asleep.
I slept fitfully, drenched in sweat. Over and over again, I saw the slimy eel emerging from its watery prison in a murderous rage. Again and again, I watched as a horrified spectator as the monster pounced on my defenseless sleeping form, clamping its terrible jaws on my face repeatedly. It was the least amount of rest I ever got while actually asleep. When I awoke, I literally sprang from the bed, launching myself upwards and into the air. I was frantically brushing at my torso, shoulders and legs, trying to ensure that I was not in contact with the horrific beast.
As I reached the apogee of my launch trajectory – my highest point above the bedroom flor – events began to unfold in ultra-slow motion. I felt something; maybe I caught a whisper of the gods laughing at me. My eyes flicked to the front glass of the aquarium. The moray was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, I turned back in the direction my body was travelling and cast a glance at the floor beneath.
There, on the blue broadloom beneath my naked little piggies, coiled neatly and directly below me, was the eel. The lidless eyes of the brute stared vacantly up at me, it’s jaws half opened and upraised. I would later find out that the eel was, at this time, nothing but a crusty corpse and a former prisoner, the winner of one Pyrrhic victory. At this moment in time though, perhaps owing to a trick of the light or a local atmospheric disturbance, suspended in space as I was above the awful creature, he looked every bit the same as my slimy tormentor from the night before.
Gravity took over, and – toes wriggling – I began my terrible descent into ignominy.