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Fishkeeping in the Desert

Arid Challenge 2023. Adapted from Fishkeeping: The Great American Aquarium. “The Glass” (2022) version 4.

By Elisabeth BalmonPublished 3 months ago 11 min read
Top Story - November 2023
Fishkeeping in the Desert
Photo by Daniel Pelaez Duque on Unsplash

Yellow light becomes absorbed underwater at around thirty-five feet deep, but the air is golden and alive. It shimmers around tanks and walls, like a mirage in the desert. Vast and rolling mounds of sand stretch far and wide, with exclusive spots of unattainable soil. I work in one such spot of richness. This artificial oasis draws in parched crowds, thirsting for connection, community, escape. Thirsting for water.

Though old, the desert is not natural. It is as artificial as the aquarium, and likewise intended to mimic the ancient and organic world. It is oppressively hot in the yellow daylight. The aquarium has a complicated system to regulate temperatures in the air for visitors and in the water for fishes. The lobsters and oysters want for nothing. The desert nights are quite cold.

Yellow light becomes absorbed underwater at around thirty-five feet deep. That golden, shallow American Dream. An attractive shimmer at the surface, intriguing enough to dive in. If you just keep swimming, if you reach far enough and kick hard enough and hold your breath long enough, you might even touch it. Nevermind the serpent who guards it, has claimed it as theirs alone. The moray that always craves more, or the venomous krait chasing its own greatness. Nevermind not being able to breath. There are no lifeguards and you chose to swim. Wouldn’t we all argue that you swam at your own risk, knowing we would never make such a blunder ourselves? Next, it’s green that gets absorbed. Of course it’s green behind the American Dream, capitol driven, paid for by those who profit on the naive. On the green, sixty-five feet deep! Those brightly-scaled serpents, who reached treasure first. One day soon, you’ll drop your legs and become one of them. It’s a given that you are due your serpentine splendor. The entire ocean lies at your feet, as long as you drop them to the sea floor. Blue light is what reaches the deepest. Beyond it all, we’re still under fucking water.

The aquarium takes us all under the sea, cocooned in a clam shell and escorted by a king crab. Down deep in that unknown, wavering gloom where sand dollars are alive. In the pelagic zone, safety is as good as currency, but everyone still works together to share it. Hermit crabs line up in a row until enough of them are ready to trade shells, the big guys giving the little ones their hand-me-downs. There’s no shame in the secondhand home, and they make sure to line up rather than simply finding their new homes on their own. In the perfectly fitted shell of the aquarium, we imagine ourselves in that little line with those little arthropods, just one part of a large world. Somehow, in the deep water, with sand under our feet, we forget the pressure of the entire ocean above us. To see ourselves connected to a gigantic, ever-moving world connects us to something buried deep within ourselves. We can take comfort around the shark tank, in the dark, ears full of mystic instrumentals and the chatter of other visitors while they walk by. Until we are reminded that we are all just visitors of the sea, and we’re standing in a well-decorated room, with four walls and a nice fish tank.

If walls could talk, they would choose not to. Their purpose is obedient division, and the only way to succeed is blindly. There is safety for them in their unshakable apathy. You are meant to believe they exist to elevate, to hold up the world for you, but they only stand to separate and corner your most vulnerable. Standing together, we would have no need for walls at all. I see visitors and employees stream in and out within these walls. How strong could they be together? The aquarium is expensive and the employees are stressed, the visitors can rarely afford this special excursion, underpaid in their own careers. There is chatter all around me. By choice, I certainly will bear witness, though I could choose to tune it all out. What greater privilege is there, than that of willful ignorance? Workers have gathered, restoring their old power, despite growing corporate dominance. Despite the people swimming alone. We cut the head off the hydra, but thought we had domesticated those sweet new growths. My puppy is so well behaved. Red roses, white bows, the blue deep. Turn around and sit back down, you may not join us in the submarine, but you can have a box. Every wall ignores those who use them to hide and spy, to make sure you can not see past what someone else deems enough. If they didn’t, they would crumble under the guilt of supporting not the great wide world, but a devious system. That system wants you to believe the walls do not feel, so I ask you to accept that neither do I.

I touch two worlds, and they touch me. Oh, the things I could see if I only could see. If I could feel or think. If I could hold a sign, or even a conversation. Schools circle and cycle through the space, a steady flow of traffic around me. To the left, the school is wide-eyed students, and to the right, bug-eyed fishes. They all eye the great octopus on display, cautiously and curiously. Students wonder aloud how clever an octopus might really be and share anecdotes they have haphazardly heard and revised. The fish know all too well. The fish and I watch the octopus every night, anticipating its periodic escape. No matter the havoc that great, eight-armed god might wreck in the dark, the octopus tank is always occupied once again in the daylight. Why return to the tiny box someone else has assigned to you? The thrill of escape and disobedience gives a false sense of power. Do not forget that there is sunlight and open air and flowing water, just beyond these revolving doors. Walls hold us all within the same room, but I stand tall. I am the doorway. Unfortunately, doorways only exist between two walls.

There is an outside world, beyond those constructed walls and all of this glass. That’s where the real ocean is. It’s not something you have to pay admittance for, nor a temporary thing to fulfill an artificially-created need to escape. The ocean is a rolling thing, that holds the origin of life and shapes the world. It can not be asked to stop, we would have to claim cessation by force. What a tragedy, that would be; to decide life only works on a financial clock. But time is already ticking. Screw the ocean! It smells and harbors unimaginable horrors. That’s why we’ve bottled up the brilliant salt breeze and the best buoyant creatures money can buy, for your weekend entertainment.

This may seem heavy handed, but I don’t have hands at all. I’ve been stained with sticky handprints, grasping inwards for something they only dream of. A vision of the future, full of the simple peace I seem to hold inside. I am a window to a world they can never be allowed to touch. The purpose of my construction was to create the illusion of an attainable dream, to keep the hands reaching. Me and my conceptual parents share the same nightmare that the hands will stop reaching one day, that the ones closest to the glass will turn around and reach backwards and help other hands get closer. I am afraid that I will become unnecessary, forgotten, and alone. The others are afraid to lose their power. When the hands learn to hold each other, when they experience that support, they may no longer need the dream.

What does aquarium glass experience? Immense pressure on one end, a welcome place to crumble on the other. I choose to hold strong, to let the artificial currents caress me. Sometimes, I am rewarded by a toddler’s kiss. They always press their faces to me for a better look. When the sharks bump into me, they do it to move beyond me. They simply know they must not stop swimming. There is no reason to pay attention to the glass or the walls that surround them, even if they were meant to live in open water. The sharks have learned to forget the vast ocean and their role in it. But the children in awe of those multi-toothed drones? We share the experience together. Their fingerprints linger and I feel like someone is holding my hand long after the lights are shut off. It doesn’t matter that everyone looks past me, as long as I remember I was once held.

I do still love the sharks, all the fishes I hold. What fingerprints are for me, I want to be for the waterlogged masses. They remind me that I am real and have purpose, and I must keep them safe. If not for their sakes, I must do it for my own self preservation. What an unfortunate selfishness. I can not help but feel a heavy guilt when I think about them too long, where they were meant to be. I personally deny them the freedom they know in their DNA, simply because they were born into my aquarium or sent here after personal disaster. These are the times when I look to the dry floor with the most longing. I must never forget what would happen to each fish if I were to give way, how the air would steal oxygen from them rather than give it. I know both forms of oxygen well, and I can’t decide which is friendlier. Perhaps it is not so simple as one or the other.

The languages of air and sea are so different. A constant stream of two completely opposing genres grating against me, or soothing me depending on the day. I try not to get lost in the liminal space, the meeting place where so much constantly collides but can never be allowed to cross. I try to let each flow through and away, never absorbing what would weigh me down or crack me. First, there is just plain music, pumping through the speakers as steady as water through the filters within my tanks. Next, there is the chaotic sound of land. This is the language of language, of dancing and learning. Here the sounds scratch at me, to take chips out of me until a vital weakness forms and I shatter. I would be forced to drop everything as I tumble to the ground, and I would, for the first time, be a part of the land sound. Could my clattering collapse be a protest? Would each shard of glass inspire another to drop their golden burden, piercing through the illusion I held up? There is also the song of the water, a slow and sultry crescendo and crash. Bubbles skitter and pop, everything is muffled. These sounds can sneak up on me if they want to. They do not seek the grand and cacophonous destruction of me, not in the way of the land. Submergence changes the way you perceive and analyze. The water songs have the patience to wear me down like a river through a mountain, carving out a valley so deep it reaches sea level. Even audio knows where it is meant to be.

So, then, what of my song and my place? The octopus circumvents me at night, and I do not know whether to feel failure or freedom. Why does he always return? I wonder if this cage could be a comfort, if I could be. I am fond of this octopus, whom I hate. He lives not in the border, but beyond it and me. Moving freely between the worlds I exist to hold separate. I stand in place, ever the serious sentry. My molecules do actually move just the slightest bit. Like the perfect summer’s day, a light breeze across the sand. The air gently picks up grains and brings them to the sea, the waves gently return them soon after. A balance of physical forces, of push and pull. This breathing of silicon dioxide and quartz. The harmonious whistle across an invisible, perhaps imaginary, barrier. What is glass, but the tempered sand of a cyclical shoreline?

Perhaps the octopus is just afraid to cross the desert. A seemingly insurmountable trial, built up and never conquered by any hero. Certainly never by any octopus. If even one leg out of eight where brave enough to reach further, to dream something new, he would find that the desert is only a long beachfront. He does not believe in the water and so he will never find it.

Arid. The world seems empty outside of the aquarium, so devoid of resources. Does it matter where yellow light gets absorbed, when the world is yellow already? Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.


About the Creator

Elisabeth Balmon

sometimes I write almond themed poetry

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  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydred3 months ago

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  • KJ Aartila3 months ago

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  • Caroline Jane3 months ago

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  • Gerald Holmes3 months ago

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  • Naveed 3 months ago

    Well done! Keep pushing forward with your excellent work—congrats!

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