For almost 8 years, every time someone came to the house, they wanted to see the fish. Not just any fish – and with three aquariums in the house, we certainly had a lot of fish around here – but the fish. We called him Oscar, since he was a Tiger Oscar Cichlid, but everyone else just called him The Fish, with capital letters and italics apparent in the tone of their voice. It was a little akin to having a circus sideshow in the house. They would walk in the door and ask in somewhat hushed tones “Do you still have The Fish?” followed by “Can we see him?” and the obligatory traipsing up the stairs to visit Oscar in all his fishy glory.
Oscar was, quite honestly, the most fun we’ve ever had with a fish, and we became quite attached to him. If you’ve never kept fish, or if all you’ve had are carnival goldfish, a fish like Oscar is quite a novelty. To begin with, he was big. Not just a little big, but over a foot long big. Which meant, of course, that we needed an equally big aquarium to house him in. And, since cichlids love redecorating their environment, we needed large rocks for him to push around with his nose, and plastic plants for him to dig up, and a nice thick layer of gravel for him to sculpt into waves and dunes as the spirit moved him.
Fairly early on in Oscar’s life, when he was still only a couple of inches long, we figured out that he was able to see outside his tank quite well. Whenever we would walk by, he would trail along beside you. If you stopped to look at him, he would show off for a bit. And beg for food, because Oscar was all about the food. And, being a territorial cichlid who likes to be in control of his environment, he was very interested in anything you put in his tank.
Simple flake food would get nipped at. Floating pellets were gobbled up with speed. Sinking pellets meant hours of nosing around through the gravel making sure he had indeed found every last bite. Blood worms were a delicacy he would gently nibble at with his large lips, vacuuming them from the surface of the water one at a time (which is quite a feat considering how tiny blood worms are and how large Oscar’s lips were). But shrimp… oh my! Freeze dried shrimp turned Oscar into a bullet, speeding towards the surface of the water in such a way that you just knew he was about to have a nasty collision with the lid, until with a twist of his muscular body he would just skim the surface instead, his mouth open wide, to close around the shrimp with a loud ‘clomp!’ that set the water splashing and made friends and family alike jump back from the tank in surprise.
The kids, of course, loved it. Loved feeding him shrimp, but loved even more being able to make grownups jump back in fright at the sight and sound of Oscar’s wide open (and somewhat toothy) mouth as he hunted… and captured.
Oscar knew it, too. He was delighted to show off for strangers. A true exhibitionist at heart, he loved to play when people were watching. In the presence of people, he would flash his long body around, open those massive jaws, and give a funny fishy wiggle that served to make the water splash up into waves, some strong enough to splash bystanders with. If you put a ping pong ball in the tank and left the lid open, he would slap at it with his tail and nose until he managed to get the offending object out of his tank. If you put your hand in the tank and held it still, he would investigate your fingers and then rub his body up against you over and over again, not unlike a cat. And, strangest of all, he would laugh with the kids.
I suspect it was because he could see their facial expressions so clearly given that their little faces were level with his tank and they spent so very many hours with their noses pressed up against the glass as they watched him go about his daily business of eating, sleeping, and redecorating his tank for the thousandth time. Whatever the reason, Oscar learned that when kids laugh, it was his cue to open his mouth wide too. It got so the kids could walk up to his tank, make wide O’s of their mouths in his direction, and he would arrow to attention and open his own toothy mouth gaping wide in response. Fishy laughter.
And, I imagine, fishy love.
It was a sad, sad day when Oscar’s old age finally caught up with him. I had seen the moment coming for months. He just wasn’t his same old self. His movements had become slow and creaky, his snapping mouth more of a tired jawing motion than the audibly powerful snap! that had entranced so many visitors to our house, and most telling of all, he had stopped redecorating. He would make a token effort at it, nudging at rocks or rooting under plants, but he lacked the power to rearrange with ease and so I took to doing it for him, an effort which he rewarded by rubbing up against my hands as I moved a lump of driftwood or shifted the position of a plant. But even in his old age, he still laughed with the kids, his fishy lips gaping wide as they stared at each other, noses pressed against their respective sides of the glass. Up to the end, they laughed.
His tank sat empty for some time, then housed some tropical fish for a while until some deadly fungus cleared them out overnight, much to my dismay. Empty again, it cried out for the kind of fish that we could grow to love. It cried out for another cichlid. Now it has two.
We bought two very young tiger oscar cichlids, barely an inch long, and installed them in Oscar’s old home. They are as yet too tiny to do much rearranging, though I am sure that will come.
“What shall we name them?” I asked the kids.
“Oscar,” K announced. “because they are tiger oscars like Oscar was.”
“Oscar and Buster.” B added with a firm nod of her curly-haired head.
My heart did a funny thump at the thought of naming another fish Oscar, but as they grow into their personalities, I can see echos of the first Oscar and I think maybe it will be okay after all.