“…so, we’ve being doing this for a while…”
“Twelve thousand, four hundred and ten days to be exact.”
“…and I still don’t really know.”
“What flowers you would prefer for Mother’s Day.”
“Ones with roots.”
“For the garden?”
“Or you could have fish…”
…which is why we ended up at the local aquarium place and why, a little while later, we were watching the newly acclimatised fish settle into their new home.
It was fascinating to watch the little corydoras, with their long, trailing fins, as they excitedly explored their environment. Almost straight away, they were joined by another small fish, a phantom tetra who seemed to feel he belonged. Phantoms are shoaling fish and he is the last of his kind in my tank until I can replenish his shoal. Although no more than a tiny fish, he Is beautiful, with velvety black fins and an iridescent ‘eye’ on his flanks. He too has a long, trailing dorsal fin, set at a similar angle to that of the new arrivals. He has apparently decided that he is now a corydora and seldom wanders far from his friends. He is determined to become part of their shoal and ‘fit in’… even though he doesn’t.
While the young corys dash around and rummage through the substrate in a constant hunt for food, the little phantom follows them, yet looks at a loss. Phantoms are shy fish, preferring to hide, where the corys are gregarious and playful extroverts. They are bottom-feeders, while the phantom is not, yet they swim in the open and at all levels, while the phantom prefers to stay close to the bottom and safe hiding places in the plants. Nevertheless, little phantom fish is now doing a very good imitation of a corydora, so desperate is he to fit in with them.
We are often guilty of projecting human behaviours and emotions onto other creatures, but I could not help but be struck by the little phantom’s illustration of something many of us do, or are expected to do, at some point in our lives. The only thing the phantom has in common with the corys… aside from them all being fish… is the shape of one fin. Yet he is prepared to set his own nature aside and conform to an alien model, copying the behaviour of others in order to be accepted. It is unnatural; he seems rather lost and confused, and his own beautiful being is subsumed by the need to belong. The sooner I can provide him with a shoal of his own kind, the better.
Later, I watched the fish in my son’s pond, and finally got a good look at our wonky fish. It happens every so often… some disease or other will twist a fish’s spine, leaving them otherwise quite healthy, but with a curvature that makes swimming more difficult. We have seen it before, and Bent-Tail proved to be a better teacher than his able-bodied counterparts until he flew away.
Wonky-fish is the worst case I have seen though; his spine bent almost perpendicular to his body and he is unable to swim properly at all. Like Bent-Tail, all my research does is throw up methods of euthanasia, and like Bent-Tail, that will not be happening. Wonky-fish is perfectly healthy apart from the twisted spine. He is, in fact, a beautiful mirror carp and has grown, in spite of his problem, to a foot in length. Being a dark coloured fish and preferring the depths, we did not see him until he had grown and by then it was far too late to try and effect a cure.
I watched him today as he played on the surface in the sun. He cannot swim in a straight line at all… the movement of his tail, because of his spine, sends him in circles. When he first showed up at the surface last year, it was heartbreaking as he seemed so frustrated, but he soon adapted.
He knows how to swim… there is a pond full of teachers demonstrating every technique. When he sought to conform, all he did was wear himself out and struggle to little avail.
Now, instead of desperately thrashing around, he has learned to ride the currents in the pond and use them to sail gently to where he wants to be. He has learned that it only takes a slight movement of his tail to carry his resting body effortlessly through the waters. He trusts me to throw food within his reach, yet he does not rely solely on me to feed him, he forages quietly for himself too. Instead of swimming with the crowd, he has made a home for himself beneath the irises, where the roots hold him steady and keep him safe from predators. And, by gently going his own way, instead of trying to be what he is not, he is better able to be part of the life of the pond, playing with the other fish in the sun.
Little Wonky-fish follows his own light, in spite or because of the difficulties he has faced. He does not swim with the shoal. He is one of a kind and, like his predecessor, a wonderful teacher.