Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The year of the fish.

For his birthday last October we gave Sam a much requested fish tank. We bought him a small one along with two Mollies because they're live bearers and because I used to have them and really liked the dance the male Sailfins did when courting a female. Also I thought it would be a good teaching tool that would cover a lot of bases (procreation, birth, life, death).

I told him if he demonstrated that he could care for them without being prodded to do so that we'd get him both a bigger tank and more fish eventually. I also cautioned him that fish (especially first fish) often don't live very long and that his made it through the first six months I'd be thrilled.

I should have remembered which child I was talking to.

Sam never has to be reminded to feed his pets or take care of them. His cat, Tara, has the shiniest coat of all the cats because she gets extra treats. I'm not supposed to know that he sneaks his dog into his bed after I go to sleep at night (one of these days I suppose I'll have to say something). And Sam's five month old ant farm still has the original ants in it (typically ants live for three months). They're decrepit and moving pretty slowly, but they're still wandering up the surface to sit in the sun and sip mint juleps every day and discuss the good old days.

So naturally Sam's fish (Bonnie and Clyde) grew strong and healthy. He turned off the tank light every night and on every morning. He fed them and was on hand to help with every cleaning. He talked to them. He noted little changes in them. He fretted. He reported on their happiness from day to day.

So when Bonnie died unexpectedly (no warning, but I have my suspicions about Clyde--I thought I saw an Uzi tucked out of sight under the plastic plant--but I'm not sure) what could I do but offer Sam the promised bigger tank and more fish in an attempt to ease him past her loss?

But Sam was heartbroken over Bonnie--gave her a burial in the front yard--and was unsure that it was proper to get Clyde a new wife quite so soon. At first I tried the practical approach, explaining that fish are pretty primitive and have memories about five minutes long. This didn't work (he could just tell that Clyde missed her) so I gave up and told him the fairy tale. I pointed out that Clyde was lonely and would appreciate some platonic company rather than wander around alone. After all, he didn't have to marry her if he didn't want to. I also said that he needed the comfort of a large family around him to help him through his period of mourning. So far the tank is working out well as a teaching tool. I'm teaching Sam how to tell better stories to his children.

Lucky for me, a friend just happened to have a beautiful ten gallon tank with all the accouterments, including a lighted lid, a pump, gravel, lots of decorations and plants that she was happy to give away. It is beautiful and well cared for and looks like we spent a fortune on it.This freed up our budget to buy more fish. And it excited Sam enough to conclude that I was right.

Cindy, the lady who runs the local pet store, is one of the few people I've met who can out talk me (that is an astronomical feat) and she's also a local expert on all things fish. When you enter her store, you simply prepare to be there for a while and know a lot more than you did when you walked in about whatever small pets you own. I turned Sam over to her kid friendly ministrations and wandered off to talk to the birds (I've had parakeets and a cockatiel--someday after the kids are gone I want a parrot) and admire the rats and hamsters (I used to raise these--Rats are great pets). I might should have kept a closer tabs on Cindy and Sam. In between all the terrific tank care advice she was offering him there was obviously some serious selling going on. An hour later we left with 3 Guppies, 2Platys, 3 Mollies, a plecostomous, and one of those little cat fish that clean up the fish food. I looked at the bags of fish, at the cash register total, at Cindy's very pleased face, and at Sam's glowing smile, and wrote the check, narrowly managing to keep my grumbling to myself.

THEY ALL HAVE NAMES. And I can't keep them straight, but Sam can.

To Sam's delight, one of the females arrived in a pregnant state so we now have children too (at least two, but there may be more). This spawned another educational discussion concerning natural selection and why Mom isn't in a big rush to scoop them all out. I suggested that he wait a month or so to name them (that's how long it takes them to get big enough to not be food for all the other fish). When that didn't work, I told him that I'd set up the other tank today and put them in the nursery where Sam could name them and make sure they grow up healthy and strong. I'm not heartless, I just have to replace the filters we're now using on the bigger tank and that means more money and I'm a little broke at present (thanks a lot Cindy).

Sam was somewhat dismayed to see that Clyde is actually quite the womanizer. Apparently male Mollies are not adverse to interracial relationships and he's perfectly happy in the company of either female guppies or female mollies--at the same time. Fortunately there are a couple of other males in thank who will keep him in check or I think we'd have a whole bunch of muppies (gollies?) and plollies (Maties?).

This whole fish tank affair brings to mind the Oscar I got for Gary when the boys were really little. Gary dubbed him Arthur after a Douglas Adams' character. Frankly, the fish gave me the creeps. I was fairly sure he was not staring at us lovingly through the glass when we passed during the day as Gary insisted. Because at night I'd hear him bumping the lid and knew he was trying to jump out and come eat us while we were sleeping. Gary said it was just my imagination; he couldn't see the mavolence in that fish's eyes. I put a rock on the tank lid, just to be sure.

Gary adored Arthur and love blinds us to the serial killer tendencies of our pets. He taught the fish to come to the top for a back scratching and to take food from his hands. He bought him gold fish and guppies to eat and watched with great relish as the big fish dashed around the tank devouring the smaller ones. (As a former keeper of goldfish, I was horrified)

Arthur might have lived a very, very long happy life if it hadn't been for the boys being at "that age". Especially Daniel who had a tough time connecting the consequences of his actions to his actual actions. Daniel was forever putting things in the tank when my back was turned--baby bottles, toys, a bottle of baby shampoo (that one was almost fatal). One time, while I was in another room cooking dinner, the little guy managed to pull the tank off its stand (a miracle story in and of itself that he himself was not crushed) and spilled the contents of the entire tank on the floor, with Arthur himself washing up under the couch. When I finally found him twenty minutes later (I was little busy being quietly hysterical before that), Arthur was still alive. Arthur saw the gates of heaven at least three times in Daniel's second year. One time Gary even had a sad little hole dug for the fish in the back yard when my oldest son pointed out that he was still breathing.

We finally got the message across to Daniel that Daddy's fish was off limits and we had an uneventful third year (as far as Arthur was concerned. Daniel simply moved on to other mother-frightening activities). Arthur grew even larger happily murdering other fish by day and plotting our demise by night, and Gary was a very pleased fish owner.

Then Joseph was born.

The day after we brought Joseph home from the midwife's, Arthur quietly turned belly up (true story). We're fairly sure he took one look at the baby carrier and concluded that he was not up to another round of outliving a toddler's curiosity. After that we decided to wait until the household was a little quieter to keep fish again.

It appears this time has arrived. Last night, all the boys were crowded around the tank spotting babies. Daniel himself helped set up the new tank and monitored the water temperature until it was warm enough to put in the fish. He's even helped Sam test the PH. Judging from the entire family's fascination with Sam's fish (both Clyde and Bonnie and the current bunch). Though he dubbed them less interesting than Arthur, Gary pauses several times a day to watch the tank (probably hoping that he'll see one of them eat the others). I'd say we've entered into the year of the fish.


Julie Carter said...

The catfish is probably a Corydoras. I used to have a Corydoras julii to fit my name.

I wish you were closer. I have lots of aquarium stuff.

How about fish books? I know I have those. I'd be happy to send them along.

Mary Paddock said...

Julie, if you have some books you could spare, they'd be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much for your gracious offer.

Pencil Writer said...

Oscars are really interesting fish. Aren't they close relatives to pirannahs (or however you spell it)? My husband's cousin had one for a while. Weird fish. Fun story, though!

How's the query letter thing going for your book? Hope you get some positive feedback soon!