Holy Mackerel

  Jerome Shea       April 26, 2010      Weekend Wonk

The bala haunts me.

I mean the bala shark I wrote about last week. For twenty years he has resided in our living room fish tank. Twenty years. Back and forth (or, in a daring reversal, forth and back; actually he just hangs still, mostly). Think what has happened in that time. Four presidential administrations. The fall of the Berlin Wall. 9/11. Our two kids’ growing up, suffering through their adolescence, and leaving the nest. And still the bala just hung in there, staring glumly. A cloistered monk is a cosmopolite compared to poor Bala.

Sometimes one would like to be a bird, to revel in the freedom of the skies. Or a grizzly bear, monarch of the North. Or a galloping steed. But I can’t imagine anyone aspiring to be a fish; no one, I’ll warrant, has piscine dreams.

Just for starters, what kind of life is it without arms or legs? Oh, fins, yeah. Big deal. And can fish make any vocal noises, aren’t they forever mute? Ah, enchanting whale song, you say—forgetting that whales are not fish.

Consider those fish that live in the abyssal zone, the very deepest parts of the oceans, five, six miles down, at enormous pressure and temperatures hovering just above freezing. Grotesque, they are, most of them—the stuff of fever dreams. Most if not all are blind. But shed no tears for them. No light ever penetrates this abysmal inky black, so there is absolutely nothing to see. They live their whole lives in the dark and cold.

Or consider the benthic fishes, specifically the flatfish. “Benthic” in this regard means that they spend most of their time lying on the bottom instead of cruising above the sea floor, like your shark or your haddock. The halibut, sometimes called the cow of the sea, is a good example. (Halibut actually means “holy flatfish,” because it was favored for meatless holy days.) Like the flounder, it begins life on an even keel, so to speak, just like a bass or a salmon. But then, when it hits the equivalent of piscine puberty, its eyes begin to migrate to one side of its head! And you thought your adolescence, your voice squeaky and zits breaking out, was traumatic! Ha! A halibut then spends the rest of its life mostly lying flat on the bottom, making just occasional forays to the upper reaches, awkward and, well, floundering. And to top it off, it has to endure that tiresome pun, “I did it just for the halibut.” Oh please.

Spare a thought for the salmon, while you’re at it. Magnificent fish, the salmon. We all know the life story: how the young salmon leave the spawning ground for the open ocean and then after a time the urge to procreate becomes so overwhelming that they head hellbent for wherever they had started out, swimming upstream in multitudes, leaping over obstacles with balletic grace and power. An epic journey indeed. And if they don’t become lunch for that grizzly in the second paragraph, they do finally, exhausted but triumphant, arrive home. Where they procreate and then more or less promptly die. Not for me, thank you.

One often sees the fish symbol on Christian cars—I mean cars owned by professing Christians—these days. Fish and Christians go way back. (I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the phrase “Holy mackerel,” but Irish immigrants were called “mackerel snappers,” because they were Catholics; it was not a compliment.) Tradition has it that most of the apostles were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Christ, always quick with a metaphor, promised that he would make them fishers of men, and he blessed the five loaves and two fishes in that famous miracle. Until fairly recently, Catholics ate no meat (i.e., flesh as opposed to fish) on Fridays. During the early days of persecution, it is said, the simple fish shape—two curves intersecting at one end—identified Christians to each other. A (closet) Christian would draw the top curve and another would draw the bottom curve, revealing himself. Often this was drawn in the dirt so it could be quickly erased. Thus evolved the fish symbol that you see today on the back of your neighbor’s SUV.

And then them smart aleck Darwinians come along and stick feet on it. Fish don’t get no respect.

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