Apr/May 2004  •   Fiction

AquaSerene (A Fish Story)

by Anthony W. Brown

Art by Janet L. Snell

Art by Janet L. Snell

Congratulations on the purchase of your AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom! In joining the AquaSerene family, you have made a superior choice in the exciting and rewarding world of freshwater aquariums. Expect years of quiet pleasure and pride in ownership as you embark on your above and underwater adventures. Now let's get started:



The location you choose for your AquaSerene is just as important as the quality of water you maintain for your kingdom (See Step 6: WATER). It's better to be safe than sorry when choosing a location. Be aware of the following:

1. High traffic areas are danger zones. Do not place your AquaSerene in harm's way. Avoid hallways, restrooms, kitchens, etc. You might consider your bedroom as a happy alternative to the more conspicuous but more dangerous areas of your home. It's quiet in your bedroom. No one sleeps there anymore. Not even you. The few minutes you spend there each day are disturbed only by the tapping of the blinds cord on the windowsill and the sound of someone missing. Sooner or later you'll have to close that window, especially if you plan to locate your AquaSerene in the bedroom (See POINT #2, which directly follows).

2. Avoid drafty areas and those areas near heating and air-conditioning ducts. Huge temperature swings can adversely affect water quality and lead you to despair. Despair in all cases is to be avoided. Despair will ruin your kingdom before it even gets started. If you bought your AquaSerene out of despair, stop reading now and return it immediately. We will not be held responsible for despair.

3. Keep your AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom away from direct sunlight. When so stimulated, your Kingdom can overheat and succumb to unsightly algae growth. While this appears to be a natural process, growth is not always good. Sometimes, as in the case of algae, the wrong things can grow in your kingdom, things inhospitable to the life you hope to cultivate. Ugly, deadly things. Then the real trouble begins. Hours wasted on things you cannot control but cannot help worry over, things that go on and thrive in spite of you, things that spawn ocean currents and carry warming air over otherwise arctic places, things that could break you and all you know into a series of moments divorced from happiness or even meaning. Be careful of these things. If you let them get away from you or think about them too much, you'll spend all your time washing away what's ugly in your kingdom in the vain hope what remains is beautiful or agreeable enough to sustain you.

4. Stay level. Keep your AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom level. We cannot stress this enough. Full surface contact to something solid and lasting is required to properly distribute the aquarium weight and maintain a healthy balance for your Kingdom. Your life depends on this. You must keep full contact with your Kingdom, or you may very well lose it. If, for some unforeseeable circumstance, you should lose it, do not despair (See Step 7: FISH); you have alternatives.



Believe it or not, you can have too much light in your AquaSerene. Make sure the light is left on for only a few hours each day. Observe and enjoy what you can during these lighted hours, but do not try to take it in all at once. If you try to see it all, it will overwhelm you, and you'll see nothing. Look just a little beyond the moment, and you'll be OK, because remember: too much light can be a bad thing (See Step 1: LOCATION, POINT #3).



All living things must have oxygen in order to survive. This is the cold hard truth, and there's no getting around it. Most smokers, firefighters and coal miners encounter this fundamental law of nature at some time in their lives. They run from it, then they learn from it, and then they regret it. Right before they die. Or at the moment they imagine they are going to die. Or even at the moment they are told they are going to die. Any of these situations will typically drive the point home. Sometimes, though, obstinacy rules. These learn only at that moment when that thing-so-big-they-can't-deny-or-resist-it washes over them and casts them into the smoky Bingo hall or burning building or bleak cave of oblivion. However it happens, they all learn eventually. As you have. But you are lucky. Lucky. Lucky, because you learned about it without being in bed with it. You got to see the slow drown through the window of another room (or, at worst, at the foot of the bed), without so much as a drop of water to touch your eyes (See Step 6: WATER).



There are three types of filtration:

Biological, which breaks down accumulated organic matter and converts it into a relatively harmless but nonetheless distasteful waste product that you endure as a consequence of love and loving;

Mechanical, which, much like you, physically carries out unwanted waste products as they occur in the Kingdom; and

Chemical, which removes certain unwanted (and tragically, certain necessary and beloved) products from the Kingdom.

There are plenty of hidden dangers to the happy existence of your Kingdom (See Step 1: LOCATION; Step 2: LIGHTING; Step 6: WATER). Ammonia, nitrites, Taxol, etoposide, cisplatin, various forms of targeted radiation. Cleanliness and dramatic forms of therapy have already posed genuine threats. When taking responsibility for your AquaSerene, you must do what you can to eliminate these dangers, although we all know that doing so is not entirely possible. Remember: no matter how forbidding the threat, just do what you can.



Always use gravel in your AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom. Gravel not only helps keep your Kingdom healthy, it provides a nice, clean, aesthetic effect and promotes positive thinking. Apply this technique of beautification to all your rooms, especially the bedroom. Remove the rubber sheet from the mattress and make the bed. Remove those bottles of medications from the nightstand. Pull back the curtains, but only for a few hours each day (See Step 2: LIGHTING). Sweep the rug and, lest you lose any of what-was-once-your-dear-departed-wife hiding in the fibers of the room, shake the contents into a nice box or a pretty bottle and put it on the mantel over the fireplace. Tie flowers to that tapping blinds cord and replace them regularly, choosing blooms appropriate for the season. Start an AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom on the nightstand. Do whatever gets you through. Just do something.



Water is the life-blood of your Kingdom. It and you and everyone else you've ever cared about cannot live without it, so you must have it, and you must have it regularly. You've seen what life without water can do. It's no real secret, and it's not even complicated. Without water, there is nothing. You know it as well as anything. All the plants in your home are long dead because you are not a man who waters flowers. You have never been a man who waters flowers or plants or your yard. In fact, you have barely taken the time to water yourself. Only now do you do it, because you have to, because no one can do it for you, because all that has ever mattered to you has passed on like seconds falling from a clock's last hour and left you with little more than a room and a tapping blinds cord and the sound of someone missing. It's a constant sound, this sound of someone missing. A hum that can only be the whir of the earth turning—undaunted by grief or desire or love—beneath your tiny, heavy feet.



With great care and deliberation, you have prepared your AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom for its happy end: the addition of fish and perhaps other marine life. Be careful. Do not be overzealous in your attempt to add life to your Kingdom. There's plenty of time. Pace yourself. Do not add fish all at once. If you add too many too soon, the ammonia and nitrite levels will rise and prove harmful, perhaps even fatal (See Step 4: FILTRATION). Take your time. You are in control. Of this one thing you are in control (sort of). Hopefully, you will have many hours, days, perhaps even weeks, to get your Kingdom in order. There will be plenty of time to adjust to the colorful new spasms of life in your home only AquaSerene can bring.

When adding fish (there will come a time to add new fish; don't worry about it; when the time comes, you'll recognize the necessity of it), float the bag for 15 -20 minutes before release to acclimate the fish to the water temperature in your Kingdom.

Now, remember this. This is the hard part, maybe the hardest part. Sometimes, no matter what you do or how careful you are, fish die. Sometimes they hang low for a few days, close to the bottom (See Step 5: GRAVEL), sullen and twitching with distress, and then after much protest, they rise up to meet you, their soft underbellies a last offering. Do not despair when this happens. It is not your fault (probably). There are any number of reasons they can die, but it has nothing to do with you (probably). You are not to blame for any of it, though blame seems appropriate. You smoked for 20 years and that could be a reason. Your wife smoked, too, unrepentant to the very end, and that could be a reason. Your wife was of delicate constitution, and that could be a reason. God, or something like God, is angry at you or her, and that could be a reason. These things could all be true, but it is of little consequence. It is truly irrelevant (probably). This is the process. This is how it happens. It is not your fault. This is how it happens. It is not your fault. The earth hums, and fish and loved ones die. It is not your fault.

You may fall prey to the notion you, as progenitor of the AquaSerene Underwater Kingdom, are a god, that you are responsible for everything happening in the Kingdom. But you aren't. You are not a god. You are so far from being a god, your contemplation of the possibility is a true paradox. Believe it, things will die irrespective of your desire to the contrary. The rivers coursing hidden in the ocean will lose their salty weight, and the world will grow white with cold. The dark sky and all in it, above and beyond, will burst into a final sparked bloom and leave us all in darkness. And you can do nothing about any of it but tread consciousness for as long as your heart or mind or whatever allows.

So, tread on. Reject the rules, reject serenity, if you must, but tread on. Tell yourself pretty stories with happy endings. Remember them. Do whatever it takes to get through the night, because like it or not, you will be plucked from consciousness, and you may not have anything to think about when it's over. You may be held up in the light (or dark) of something different (perhaps nothing), and when it's over, there may be little to remember (if anything) about all that's come before. It's possible all those years you spent with your wife—those happy loving years, those years that made you who you are, made you worthwhile and solid in the world—will be little more than a brilliant flash of memory or a brief, final imprint of light before your final darkness. It may be your wife, your dear departed, the woman whom you have loved, in all her guises and idiosyncrasies, may never matter more to you than she has during this brief time of light and sight.

So love her now. Remember. Reflect. Celebrate. Enjoy the stories. Milk every last detail. Embellish everything. She was a goddess of virtue. A paragon of determination. A woman with the right word for every situation. A beauty beyond compare. She was a perfect life. She was your love.

Do what you can. But, again, do not despair. Open your mind to meet the remainder of your life yawning before you (yes, sometimes your life will yawn, but that is to be expected; don't be offended; just go with it). Open your mind and do not fear.

We repeat. Do not fear. Yes, you will die, and all you've ever known will die, but you must not fear it. Do you fear the rising sun each day? Do you fear the beating of your heart? Of course not. These things do not inspire fear. They are not to be feared. They just are. Just as you are. Celebrate that.

Of course you don't feel like celebrating now. We at AquaSerene understand and appreciate your current situation. You are grudgingly afloat in a world that will not stop for you.

But—and here's the best part—you have read this far. That is a good sign. A very good sign. Just keep swimming. Angry? Sad? Confused? It doesn't matter. We are all that. Just keep swimming.

There is hope for you yet.