The phenomenal catfish

I don’t know what I’m supposed to think, Birney, confronting me with a fish and then your just staying mum for the rest. You’ve changed, buddy. You’re not the free spirit of the old days who trekked around with his guitar and played on street corners and in cafés to earn his daily bread, with never a thought of the morrow for the rest. I see you’ve found a place in the new apartment complex jungle that gets whipped by downdrafts from the residential and office high rises that are located around it and that are supposed to give your city some appeal. And how did the writer imagine he was going give himself some appeal? By choosing an inconspicuous hideaway here and sporadically meeting his obligations? I was supposed to come over to get a portrait of you for the paper, a fine opportunity to dig up old memories, I thought, but evidently you only see me now as a future character for a book, or worse, a short story. Somebody who, for instance, in one day has to go back to the writer three separate times before the latter deigns to open the door, which, by the way, has a peep hole and is missing a nameplate. Someone who is then witness to a remarkable change of attire in three acts and on top of this has to make the acquaintance of a fish! That irritated expression on your face was like a slap in mine, bud. You had a warlike black kimono on and for the briefest instant I thought that you fancied you were in a cheap Chinese stunt-fight flick, and mistook me for a punk. But you were still half-asleep, and disappeared into the bathroom with vague apologies. In the living room I was struck right away by the aquarium, which divides your desk from the rest of the space. No, there still wasn’t a fish to be seen. I imagined that you might find it amusing now and then when bored to let a pencil roll off the blotter and into the water, or to let crumpled wads of rejected pages float around on top of the water, or to rinse your prewar fountain pen in it. The water doesn’t look black, though, and I have the impression that you like that shy fish, in any case have some kind of relationship with it that is not to be contaminated by residue from your writings. In any case, you’re living with a fish now. Must have had your fill of all those women who couldn’t swim in that muddy water of yours. Or was it the other way around? Who, after all, would want to accompany you on your nocturnal wanderings with your pen along that sexless, ruled skin on which you allow so much or so little to happen? No, I’m not saying anything about your books, Birney, I’m talking about your behavior. Invigorated after taking a shower, you popped out of the kitchen with a tray in your hands, and invited me to come sit out on the balcony. The sun was already at its peak. Good morning. You left me alone. Good afternoon. You went into your room again. While I partook of my lunch alone, I spied through the blinds and saw you busy doing a series of those spacey tai chi exercises, then saw you go to your bedroom again, and come back out dressed, to my surprise, in a cycling outfit. Out on the balcony, you drank your cooled coffee with me in silence, ate a bowl of muesli, apologized again, then put on a pair of sports glasses, and left me entirely alone this time with that invisible fish, without first even having properly introduced me to it. The ride through the dunes on your racing bicycle wouldn’t take long, you promised, it was part of the ritual of waking up, but still you stayed away the entire afternoon. All a fear of death, buddy, that mindless fitness stuff, merely cures for thirty-somethings who don’t know how young or how old they feel. I’m not saying I didn’t entertain myself: I passed the hours alternately sunbathing, nosing around in your bookcase, and studying that weird aquarium. You’ve created a biotope with a labyrinth of branches, somber in tone, macabre in form, with hollows and slits, in which your fish plays hide-and-seek during the day. No, I still hadn’t discovered it yet when you came home with an exhausted, I should say suicidal, look in your eyes. You lowered yourself onto the floor, massaged your legs, took a shower, put on a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt -then you were beginning to look a little like the bohemian of the old days- and made a quick run to the supermarket across the street just before it closed, stretched out on the couch on returning, smoked a cigarette, and laconically fell asleep. What a host! An hour later you woke up, stretched like a cat-a black one-and proceeded to shut yourself in the kitchen for two hours to fix dinner. Not specially for me, of course, but out of habit. I wasn’t allowed to be around, you don’t like distraction around you while you’re performing magic with those spices, and you also didn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to have a friendly chat with me at the counter about the old days, how night after night we tried to summarize life in a single sentence, and would make our way to the park, stoned and drunk, and count the UFO’s that only we could see in the firmament, because they were there only for us. Now where am I supposed to go with my nostalgia? Your friendship exists only on paper anymore, bud, although I have to admit that you have taken good care of me. Your food tastes superb, maybe you should try dipping your pen in ketyap and writing an Indisch cookbook, a tasty bestseller for the nonfiction top-ten, so that you could devote yourself to one unfinished novel free of financial worries, and have time once again to party with me and all those others from the old days. I still see them once in a while, those others, and I can tell you that none of them ever communicates with a fish, and that nobody other than myself would have been so good as to listen for an entire evening to a drawn-out lecture on the phenomenal catfish. By now I know just about everything about the fish, and they would certainly get bored listening to me if I told them that you own a specimen from the family of the actual syno catfish, an Angel Catfish, Synodontis angelicus, a scaleless fish with polka-dot markings, a creature that exhibits the tendency to swim upside-down at night when it looks for food on the water’s surface, and during the day relaxes in all kinds of weird positions. After squinting for a long time I finally became aware of that fish, in a vertical position, its head down, its naked body pressed against a branch. Once it shared the tank with another of its kind, a Berney’s Shark Catfish, an Arius Berneyi of all things, but for reasons that are not obvious, that one gave up the ghost. It wasn’t very old yet, that fish, when you heard a weird noise in the tank one night, so different from the speech sounds you claim they are able to produce. You went to have a look, and saw it swim into an immobile condition with a last flick of its tail. You compare it to a pen which, without a protective hand around it, hovers above a sheet of paper. And what are you comparing this fish to? Maybe you’ll buy a larger tank sometime so you can swim around in it together? Your ultimate leave-taking from humanity perhaps? That fish of yours, that African catfish, I saw it finally move, when, close to midnight, you got up from your observation post, and I out of politeness expressed my hopes of sometime getting to see a collection of your stories which contain all those unbelievable anecdotes about it that I got to hear tonight. And you: restless, you kept walking over to the balcony and back again, while that fish carefully left its hiding place and warily scouted out its surroundings, as if it had landed in a new world. It was looking for food while you were taking a walk around the block and getting cigarettes for the night. Every vibration that I caused by walking around the room was picked up by its long feelers, and made it go back to its hiding place for a little while. And now you’re finally sitting at your desk and I’m lying on the couch in the corner of the room, exhausted, staying as quiet as possible not to disturb you. Am I actually invisible enough? The desk lamp makes the aquarium light up strangely, and I see the shadowy form of the backstroker glide along the surface of the water. Its movement is synchronized with that of your hand across the paper: slowly it swims in mirror image toward the left and at the end races like crazy to get back to the margin. Maybe I’m imagining this meanwhile, and you just caught me in ink. Should that fish of yours suddenly swim into its death and you, stiffened, let your pen drop, then, I believe, I won’t wake up here again.

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Copyright © 1989, Alfred Birney. Original title: De fenomenale meerval. From Fantasia, a collections of stories. Amsterdam: Contact, 1999. Translation by Wanda Boeke. No reproducing allowed in any form without written permission from both the author and translator.