“Is he dead?” my mother asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “Let’s see.”
The death of a fish can almost become a matter of curiosity. Once you’ve looked at it enough, an aquarium becomes a house plant that changes its petals every second. Fish become tiny chocolates for our eyes instead of living things.
I roll up my sleeves and look into the surface of the aquarium.
He is the last of our fish. My sister gave him the name Bubba — he was a tiny, tiny fish when he first came to live with us — but he’ll never know that. Fish are wordless, nearly breathless creatures. The only thing we share with them is a vertebra. You can’t speak to them and hope that a little precious fragment of your words reaches their minds. And you can never touch them.
Not until it’s too late.
I put my hands into the water and look through the plastic plants and rocks we set out for our fish long ago. I wonder if they ever considered why the plants would sometimes lose their moorings and float through the middle of the water. Or why the rock on their ocean floor marked the exact middle of their world.
It’s hard to say whether they even knew who we were, beyond shapes that moved across their field of vision and sometimes heralded a meal mysteriously appearing at the surface of the water. It’s hard to know whether they understand that they live in a box made of 90-degree angles.
The water feels immaculate.
“I don’t see him,” I say.
Bubba sometimes would disappear for spaces of time into a recess of the tank. We’ve never understood why. He’s an old fish now, though I don’t know exactly how old he is. Timeless. Fish are almost timeless too.
You can begin to guess at how old a fish is by how big it is. Our fish grew to fill our aquarium. It’s their instinct to fill space, to the point that we had to let some of them go in the reservoir near our house because the tank became too crowded.
Those fish we let go must be dead now, but it’s impossible to know when it happened.
I peel off some of the suction cups that hold a rock formation against the side of the aquarium. There he is, behind a curve of plastic brown rock. Not rising. Not sinking. His body points upward. His fishy eyes are black and still. His scales shine in the light.
“I think he’s alive,” I say.
Fish remember things. It’s been proven by Dr. Manfred Milinski, a scientist at the University of Bern, that their brains can hold more than three seconds of their life at a time. They can remember where they received food in the past for as long as two weeks.
But it’s impossible to know if they store the memories they way we do, in the half-erased images and the echoes of voices that visit me as I’m going to sleep. Maybe it’s only an instinct, a small piece of their brain that reminds them some places are good and others bad. It would make sense from a scientific point of view. But then, I’m not sure what the scientific value is of being able to string together everything inside your head into a story of your life. And yet we see things every day and never forget them.
I lift the rocks a little further from the aquarium wall and his body falls and folds into a tight loop, tail pressed to head, and finally comes to rest on the bright gravel of his home.
It happened when we weren’t watching. Silently his body must have given up on itself. No violence was done to his body. No disease. No malfunction of his organs.
Maybe he came to the rocks because his brain told him it was a safe place. Maybe because food might accumulate there; maybe because it was out of the open, where the predators he would have faced in the real world might have prowled.
Maybe just because he was afraid.
Maybe he knew it was time before it happened.
As I’m drying my arms off in the kitchen, I ask my mother, “Do you think he had a good life?”
“I think so,” my mother replies.
In the end, none of us knows for sure.