Saturday, December 11, 2010

Letter to the fishes of Balili

PETS are very good to their humans.

Anyone who lives with a dog will not argue. Sloppy, sticky and abiding, doglove is the secret to world peace, if only we could find a way to translate this to human-for-human terms.

The felines are not far behind. Even if its innate unshakeable dignity dictates that a cat permits its human only one pat throughout its entire nine lives, we humans accept without knowing why we let these creatures walk in and out of our lives. And back again.

I’ve lived, too, with goats, all kinds of birds, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, rats, cockroaches, ants, centipedes, mosquitoes and so on. At any time, there’s a host of creatures sharing our space without demanding human affection, just tolerance or indifference guaranteeing coexistence.

A pet that’s wrapped around itself, shutting out everything, oblivious even to the human that’s waiting on it hand and mouth—that sounds more like human, rather than non-human, behavior to me.

Then my son brought home a pair of fishes.

Tiny and transparent except for a glint of gold on its scales, the fishes were bought at his school’s Christmas fair. Each was as small as the nail on my little finger. When they didn’t grow overnight into shark size, my son lost interest. That’s how I became an aqua-mom.

How is it to live with fish?

At the start, their size stirred up a panic of protectiveness. Purchased at P15, the pair quickly racked up more costs and serious commitment. To set up a conducive world inside their fish bowl, I walked up to a pet store clerk and walked away feeling like I was the clueless, irresponsible participant of an unplanned birth.

Rushing home in time to see the fishes rush to the surface of the water, the tiny mouths puckered into desperate Os to gulp air, I felt the surge from plugging the pump that aids their breathing inside the bowl. Life lesson: never underestimate the capacity of about 10 centimeters of scales and flesh to teach nurturing and responsibility.

Later, size issues became an impediment to bonding. A fish face has no expression that can be interpreted by humans. Try magnifying an expressionless countenance that’s about the size of a fingernail cutting, and you’ll have an idea how the nature of fish-sitting concentrates most, if not all, of the emotions on one party.

In a droll mood, dogs roll their eyes when their humans act queer. Even a cat, whose triangular visage is fixed in a permanent moue of disdain, will close their eyes from the pleasure of a nape tug or an ear scratch.

But a fish is a fish is a fish. Our two fellows don’t even glance at the faces ballooning behind the glass. My guess is that even if coal ash were dumped inside the bowl, their expressions before this action and later, after they’re floating on the surface, will not vastly differ. Death erases the need for facial subtleties.

And then there’s the absence of sound. Living with pets means one is attuned to the sounds they make, of hunger, warning, anger, fear, pain, joy. Scientists say, contrary to common thinking, fish communicate by sound. They squeak, quack, click, growl and hiss—all on a higher frequency their humans cannot hear.

I’ve told my hopeful son to forget the idea I’m buying an underwater microphone to catch what the fishes are saying, about or against us. Living with fish means, more or less, a one-sided relationship built on thought balloons: to keep a semblance of communication, the more articulate or expressive party fills with his or her thoughts the balloons representing the views of the silent or silenced party.

On late nights or early mornings, when all I hear is the vibration of the fish bowl pump, errant thoughts sometimes pause my writing or reading, like the dance-like darting the fishes make, often after we’ve changed the water or sprinkled flakes:

When you have the power of life and death over creatures incapable of speaking, do you fill in the silence or try harder to listen?


* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 12, 2010 issue of the Sunday “Matamata” column

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