Taking One More Breath – A Fish Story


“Hope is only the love of life.”                                           Henri-Frederic Amiel (1821-1881)

You are looking at a bag of survivors – fish that by all reasonable expectations should have died – and yet most of them managed to see a better life and even the one that perished, fought hard to remain with the living.

Their ordeal began at a Vancouver Island Koi breeder who assured me that shipping by bus was both inexpensive and safe for the fish, as the trip was only going to take one to two days. He packed thirty-five Koi I had ordered into three plastic bags filled with oxygenated water and fitted these into two cardboard boxes roughly twenty inches long by eighteen inches deep and wide in size. He brought them to the bus depot late Wednesday afternoon and phoned to tell me to expect them either late Thursday or on Friday. The fish were to travel in the bumpy cargo hold of a passenger bus for about an hour, take a two-hour ferry ride across the Strait of Georgia and then make the rest of the journey to Maple Ridge in three to four hours, including stops. The boxes would then be sorted at the mailroom in our local bus depot, and sent by courier directly to the nursery where I worked.

There was no sign of the fish on Thursday or for most of Friday, so at three o’clock I phoned the supplier only to get his answering machine. It took several calls on Saturday to finally get through to him and when I finally did, it was late afternoon and he seemed quite concerned that I hadn’t received them. I phoned the bus courier immediately afterwards only to discover, via recorded message, that they closed at 3 pm and were not open on Sundays – so I gave the fish up for dead. Still, I couldn’t help but think about what a terrible way it was to die – tied up in small plastic bags, slowly asphyxiating in total darkness in water filled with ammonia and feces – but as dreadful as it was, there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

I went to the nursery on Monday (which is my day off) to do a little photography and was told that the bus courier had tried to make the delivery earlier that morning – but since he would not allow them to inspect the contents prior to accepting, they sent the parcels back to the depot unopened. I spent an hour taking photos and was about to leave when the courier made a second unexpected visit with boxes in hand. Rather than ask anyone’s permission, I just grabbed an exacto knife and opened the boxes to find three bags of murky water filled with lethargic fish, barely holding onto any semblance of life. We immediately rushed them out to the fish tanks, releasing them without the usual temperature acclimation. All of the Koi that came out of those bags had slimy scales, tattered fins and most were quite disoriented, swimming awkwardly with very limited mobility. One small butterfly Koi in particular was unable to submerge, barely swimming on its side in an irregular circular pattern. My co-worker asked me if we should cull it right away – I told him that the fish had earned the right to live or die naturally, and that we should just wait.

When I showed up to work the next morning there was only one dead fish (the small butterfly Koi) floating on the surface, with the rest clustered together at a bottom back corner of the tank, where they would stay (except for feedings) for the next month or so. This made them difficult to sell but given the circumstances, it was completely understandable. The staff started calling them our ‘miracle’ fish, but I had to ask myself whether it was really a miracle or just an extraordinary example of hope without reason. While some might say that it was simply an instinctive will to live, I have to wonder if that makes the ordeal any easier to bear – as the fish obviously remembered the trauma, given the fact that they remained at the bottom of the tank for a month.

It struck me as a bit of a life lesson and while it may seem ironic for people to learn moral truths from fish, the principle is nonetheless valid. I have lived through many negative experiences in my life and sometimes our world can become a very shitty, claustrophobic space – one where we literally swim through the bile of our own mistakes looking for any way out. At other times, this murky confusion is no fault of our own and like these fish, circumstances can take us to very dark places where hope and a better life seem totally out of grasp. It’s a lot like treading water: sooner or later, you get tired and you ask yourself, is it really worth the effort or would it be better to just give up and quietly slip beneath the water’s surface.

But when you consider that your life is a piece of many other lives – be it family, friends or aquaintances – there is no dying quietly without leaving a gaping hole in a world where you had both purpose and meaning. To survive, you have to believe that today’s dark experience will pass and that one day you may have the insight to relieve the despair of another, giving that person hope and a reason to continue living. And if karma has any place in this life, that person will live to do the same for yet another and one day we’ll all wake-up to breathe in a better day.

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