The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club
My plecostamus is dead. Belly up on the bottom of the tank, no pulsing mouth or breathing gills. He had been official tank custodian. Almost a foot long, with a face that only a mother could love. I tried for ten years, I really did. I just could not love that face.
His spiny armor and rolling eyes unnerved me. For ten long years. He was a throwback to the dinosaur age, swimming shark-like in our living room, reminding me that mere millennia ago, creatures like him controlled the earth. And then they were gone. But the plecostamus remembers those days and controlled his little watery kingdom.
It was a rather pleasant relationship with him at first, when my tank was new and he was an under two inch soft little sucker fish, diligent and unobtrusive. He alone survived two tanks springing leaks, complete with temporary quarters for a few days in 5 gallon buckets. He survived winter storms with no electricity, so the water temperature dropped way below a level any sensible South American river fish would tolerate. Yet he did. He kept growing. His fins got sharper and pokier. He watched many other fish come and go over the years, and when they went, he helped clean up the remains so I was never sure what had happened to the missing party. Unnerving indeed.
He was an efficient glass cleaner with his sucking lips, so I rarely had to erase the algae, like chalk from a board. When I did reach in, way past my elbow, to clean house underwater, I’d sometimes startle him from his hiding place behind the rocks or the fairy tale castle. He’d sweep by my arm with a wave of his spikey fins scratching my skin, and roll his eyes at me, indignant at the disturbance, and the implication he was not doing his job.
As he aged, I wondered a number of times if he had died, as he lay still on the bottom of the tank, rather than hiding as usual. I would reach in tentatively with a net and brush his fins and he’d dart out from under my touch. In his old age weariness, he began leaving algae behind on the glass, and couldn’t keep up with the house cleaning without occasional help. I know the feeling.
And now today, after all those years, through all those tribulations, including all those times I inwardly cringed when I gazed at his homely face, he is gone, buried deep in the compost pile. I cannot say that I will miss him.
I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to another baby plecostamus, almost cute in a soft and pliant way, if it means a long term commitment like this last one.
But then, who can I count on to do the cleaning?