FISH TANK: A Fable for Our Times
PROFESSOR BROWN COULD HEAR Augustus banging around down below and wondered
what he was doing. For the hundredth time the good professor shuddered at the thought
of leaving his precious work in the hands of a full-fledged bumbler, an imbecile
of the first order.
The professor stood at the top of the stairs to listen. More banging, this time
sharp and metallic.
Professor Brown buttoned his tattered sweater, then grabbed the railing and started
stiffly down the
long set of stairs to the aquarium. He told himself once again that he had to go
to Australia; that this was surely his last shot at a sabbatical. Even this one
seemed absurd. He’d been out of active research for 15 years and these days held
only a courtesy appointment at the university.
But Professor Brown had gotten lucky. For over four decades he had concentrated
on a little studied,
oft-forgotten, endangered seahorse measuring only an inch in length. And now a
new oil discovery threatened one of three known populations of “his” seahorse. The
deposit lay beneath the Indian Ocean floor right under the seahorses’ home reef.
Within a month of the oil discovery an ocean research institute in Western Australia
had offered him a year-long sabbatical—paid, with a fully outfitted lab and a research
How could he possibly turn that down?
As he reached the bottom of the steps Professor Brown saw just how: Augustus, all
square head and greasy
overalls, was beating a rusty valve with a ball-peen hammer. The crack of metal-on-metal
resounded through the room.
“What on Earth are you doing?” the professor asked.
“Tryin’ to loosen the valve to let the fresh seawater into the fish tank, like youse
showed me,” responded
Augustus, an accent from the old country coming through.
“It’s an aquarium, Augustus, not a fish tank—how many times do I have to tell you?!”
pulled off his glasses, then rubbed his mustache, a habit past students recognized
as meaning he was annoyed.
“And look here, Augustus, all you do is lift this catch and then the valve opens
easily, just like I
showed you yesterday—remember? You don’t have to bang on it! Besides it’s supposed
to be open all the time. Why did you close it anyway? Did you pay any attention
during our training sessions?!”
“Oh yea, profess’r, sorry,” Augustus said, stepping backwards and stumbling over
a pipe wrench lying
on the floor. “I remember all that, I do. I really do. Don’t youse worry none,
I’ll ‘member it all. See look, look—I filled the binny to feed all them fish for
three or four days, jus’ like ya showed me. See there?”
The professor did not look at the food bin. Instead he stared at Augustus in consternation.
I trust this man? he thought. I have no choice, he realized once again. No one
else had answered his ad for a caretaker; there were just not many people on this
remote section of coast. So no one else was available, at least not at the price
he was able to pay. He was stuck with Augustus, who said he could only come down
to check on things twice a week owing to his job at the mill.
“Just go get the car, OK?” said the professor, turning away and putting his glasses
back on. “You’ve
got to get me over to the Eugene airport.”
Augustus dropped the hammer on the floor, muttering something the professor couldn’t
make out, and started
up the stairs. Professor Brown turned to follow, but then paused. One more look
around, he thought. It’ll be a year until I see this place again.
The aquarium had been his life’s work, started 50 years earlier when he had taught
inland at the university
town. In those days he had only lived part time at the beach house. Still he had
carried out all of his lab-based seahorse research here. The professor would proudly
tell anyone who’d listen that he had authored over a hundred peer-reviewed publications
based on work done in the basement aquarium at his beach house.
The beach house was an odd place on a remote section of the Oregon coast. It sat
right at the end of
a long, narrow basalt inlet, like nothing they’d allow you to construct today. Professor
Brown had built the house over a cave of sorts, twenty feet down, then run two 50-foot
pipes to link the base of the aquarium to the ocean. One pipe channeled sea water
into the aquarium and hence brought his living lab to life. With each ocean wave
the aquarium received a fresh surge of new water. The surges made the aquarium
gently pulsate, giving the sense that the aquarium itself was a living, breathing
being. A sump pump in the aquarium floor, screened at the inlet so that no creature
could enter or exit that way, carried water back out to the ocean via the second
pipe. A second sump, also screened, protected the room outside the aquarium.
The aquarium itself, as big as a Hummer, was a masterful work of thick, smoothly
cut glass and caulking
built into the corner of the cave. Two sides of the aquarium were relatively normal
and boxy. The cave wall made up the third and fourth sides. One of the places
the rock and glass came together was relatively smooth and the seal could be made
fast and strong. The other seal, however, held the glass to a very rough section
of cave wall; the roughness meant that the fourth corner of the aquarium required
caulking every year or two to hold its seal.
The professor noted with satisfaction that his new caulking job from the previous
day looked smooth
and bright white.
The aquarium currently only housed two of the seahorses on which Professor Brown
had made his career.
At one point he had several dozen, but now the aquarium mostly consisted of an odd
assortment of crustaceans, coral, and fish, all remnants from the time when he’d
tried to make it as much like the seahorses’ warm water environs as possible.
The professor brought in sun through a tube in the ceiling. Heating coils allowed
him to gently heat
the cool Oregon coastal waters to match the warmer waters where the seahorses lived.
While Professor Brown usually fed the creatures of the aquarium by hand—he always
thought it best to spend time seeing how his creatures were doing—he was quite proud
of the feeder he’d built for those times when he went away. It looked a bit like
an inverted funnel with a hopper on top for fish food storage and a narrow tube
that dropped from there into the water. The end of the tube allowed food to slowly
fall into the aquarium for the fish to eat. Just above the tube, mounted on the
side of the aquarium, was a valve that could be turned to adjust how much food was
dispensed each day.
For a moment now Professor Brown did glance at the food hopper and indeed, as Augustus
had said, it
was full. The professor had designed the food hopper with enough volume to supply
the aquarium for a week, the longest he’d ever been gone at a conference or on vacation.
With Augustus hired to come in twice a week for the next year, the safety factor
Satisfied that the food was in place, the professor knelt and pushed his nose against
the glass. Even
at 78 he retained the child’s joy of gazing into the aquarium, never tiring of wondering
what the fish were thinking, wondering if they knew they were not in the outside
world but instead in an environment of his creation.
At that moment the two seahorses hovered opposite him across the glass. “I will
see you in a year,”
Professor Brown said as much to himself as to the seahorses. “In the meantime I’ll
see what I can do for your brethren down south.” The seahorses seemed to stare
right back at him, gill plates rhythmically opening and closing, almost as if they
were in conversation.
“Professor, we gotta go.” Augustus’s call from upstairs brought Professor Brown
out of his reflections.
“I forgot ta gas up the car like youse told me so we need to hurry or ya might be
Professor Brown sighed. He stood and walked to the stairway, then shifted his cane
to his left hand
and reached for the light switch. Suddenly the professor had the odd sensation
of being watched and a chill ran down his spine. He took one last look back. At
that moment the aquarium’s lone turtle—a young Ridley he’d relatively newly acquired—floated
at the top of the water column. It was a creature that would eventually outgrow
the aquarium, the professor knew, but he had agreed to take it as for the moment
it was small and unobtrusive.
As the professor watched, the young turtle lifted its head above the surface and
looked at him. Professor
Brown drew up short—for one sublimely strange moment his eyes locked with those
of the turtle and he was certain he could sense a look of worry in the turtle’s
No, couldn’t be, you crazy old man, he thought. The professor turned, switched
out the light, and began
the long climb up the stairs.
THE TURTLE’S LOOK, INTERESTINGLY enough, had been one of concern. For the young
turtle, whose name
was Jessie, knew that with Professor Brown gone and no one to watch over them, the
crabs—Sarin, Roop, and Big Moe—could be trouble.
It all started soon enough, just five days after Professor Brown departed. The
crabs called the creatures
together. They convened near the corner where the aquarium glass mated with the
rough wall of the cave. The cave wall had a large ledge there, a stage of sorts.
Sarin, the crab ringleader, stepped into the center of the ledge flanked by compatriots
Roop and Big Moe.
“Listen up,” Sarin said. The creatures shushed. They were variously circled around
the crabs: the
shrimp stood at attention; Tommy Tang, Sanger the squirrelfish, Hammy the parrotfish,
Push the puffer, and Hansom the yellow goatfish floated quietly. Small schools
of wrasses, gobies, and grunts flitted back and forth, finding it hard to stay still.
Dusty, a curmudgeonly old flounder, lifted a sleepy eye from beneath the sand while
Flecky the clownfish peered out from the protection of some anemone stalks. Jessie
the turtle looked down from above the rest.
“It’s been five days since Professor Brown left and we have not been fed,” said
Sarin the crab. “The
professor would have been here every day. But you heard what he said before he
left—he is gone for a year and has left us to the devices of that idiot Augustus.”
“Yes, Augustus,” Roop, the others crab, chimed in with disdain. “Aren’t we lucky
to have brilliant Augustus? Perhaps we should call him ‘AgainstUs’ instead.”
The other creatures chuckled.
“Yes agreed, AgainstUs is more appropriate. But this is not a laughing matter,”
Sarin continued, silencing
the chuckles. “AgainstUs has been coming for three weeks and done nothing for us,
nothing, even during the time when Professor Brown was right upstairs! AgainstUs
simply looks down from above with that big stupid grin of his, watching us, treating
us like children.”
“That’s right,” said Hammy the parrotfish. “AgainstUs couldn’t even open the inlet
pipe without messing
up. What use is he anyway?”
“Well of some use, I should surely think,” replied Hansom, a goatfish so respected
for his intellectual
bearing that within the aquarium he was known as “Doc”. Hansom continued, rubbing
his whiskers in contemplation, “Without Augustus we won’t get fed. Assuming he
does return—don’t forget he’s getting paid—I would call that being of some use,
A murmur went through the crowd.
“Get fed, what do you mean get fed?!” It was Push the puffer now, his face bloated
and turning crimson.
“Even if AgainstUs shows up he’s only going to be here twice a week!”
Tommy the blue and gold tang swished his tail lightly to move into the circle. “I
dare say, Push, you
are the last one of us who should be worrying about getting his feedings.”
More laughter. Push glared at Tommy.
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