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Something Fishy This Way Comes

Lately I have been thinking about fish. Maybe you should too. We pay too little attention, I think, to what goes on in the deep blue sea and even in the aquarium and the fish pond. On the other hand, what goes on may be little more exciting than watching algae grow.

A case in the last point is the fish that the Sheas have: a dozen or more goldfish in the fish pond in the back yard, and our bala shark in the living room aquarium tank. Suffice it to say, there is not a drama queen in the lot. Truth is, we seldom know they are there, except perhaps for the bala shark, which we pass on the way to the john.

I dug the fish pond over twenty years ago and lined it with enough cement to build a highway overpass (a sign of the true amateur engineer). The goldfish are the very common variety, the ones you win at the carnival (and eventually flush down the toilet) or feed to your caiman (which, thankfully, I don’t have anymore). I like to think they are grateful that I rescued them. The pond has no inlet or outlet but I try to keep it clean in the summer, when I muck it out and rig a pump and makeshift fountain. We are supposed to sit beside it in the morning and enjoy its Zen-like tranquility, but we seldom do. Come October, the leaves fall in and I do my insufficient best to rake them out and flush the pond to dilute the crud. In the winter I chop the ice out—sometimes it is about four inches thick, which leaves precious little room for the fish, who are patiently waiting out the winter. But they are always still there in the spring like poor relations, hungry for food and the attention that they will never get. Actually I did find a deceased goldfish yesterday, which quite surprised me. First casualty in three or four years. I will chalk it up to old age—the fish’s, that is--although I have only the haziest idea of goldfish longevity.

The bala shark is not a true shark, as any fish fancier knows. It is, rather, a balantiocheilos melanopteros, native to Southeast Asia and a very popular denizen of your 50-gallon aquarium. It is called a shark, I imagine, because of its streamlined shape and very prominent dorsal fin. I can tell you that balas live longer than goldfish. I checked with the Long Suffering Diana. She says we got him about 20 years ago! For 20 years that fellow has swum back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, with, sometimes, a couple of algae-eating plecostomusses (plecostomi?) for company. For quite a while he had a silver dollar for a tank mate, a dollar, alas, no longer in circulation. He looks to be about eight inches long, and he is actually quite handsome, with dark edging on his elegant, feathery fins.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Or floating mid-level like a becalmed submarine (I just checked on him; he gave me slim greeting). It is tempting to cobble up a romantic story of his being scooped up in the Mekong Delta by an old Vietnamese fisherman who instantly deemed him too special (and too small) to eat and sent him to his grandson’s pet shop in Albuquerque. I suspect instead that he never saw the wild at all, but was born on a factory fish farm. Maybe that was a kindness. And something tells me that it would not be a kindness to smuggle him out the Rio Grande and release him. (Never underestimate the mischief that a guilty conscience can make.)

What I am trying to do—a fool’s errand, yes—is to get inside a fish’s head. It is so hard to get out of one’s own (human) head. You’ll have guessed that I find that poor bala’s life absolutely intolerable (back and forth, back and forth…). But maybe it’s not. Maybe he has such a low-wattage brain (now I’m insulting the poor scaly beast!) that such a life is just hunky-dory with him. Hell for me, heaven for him. Food every night, and if he has other urgings of the flesh he is not very demonstrative about them.

I guess there is just no empathizing or even sympathizing with fish. I’d put them somewhere above daffodils and oysters but far below the acumen and sensitivity of, oh, your average frog.

On the other hand, maybe his intellect and awareness are far superior to mine. Perhaps in his little piscine brain he is writing, line by tortured line, an epic of bala sharks since their beginnings. Perhaps he is composing deathless music (a new pantheon: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bala!). Perhaps last weekend he discovered the secret that still eludes our most brilliant nuclear physicists. And then promptly forgot it and went on to ponder more profound mysteries.

Back and forth, back and forth…. Lord knows he has little else to do.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is He may also be found reading vintage wonks at


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