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Reliable Narrator: Part Two

April 11, 2009

There’s a fish pond in my yard. Over-landscaped and pristine, it’s charming nevertheless, and its waterfall lulls me to nap in summer shade. In early spring, the pond is still murky and congested. But, this morning, the fish woke up, signaling that summer naps are closer than winter ice. Each April, the carp bob up like corks and begin to swim, little orange crescents gliding below the surface. Local predators try to catch them so the fish stick to the shadows or tuck safely beneath overhanging slabs of rock.

These carp are as much a spring thing as crocus greens pricking the garden. When I announced to a friend, “The fish are awake! That means it’s truly springtime,” he cocked his head and told me that was nice, in a tone that implied he was humouring my twee declaration. Like I was being cute, and that was fine, since we both understood that no, the fish hadn’t woken up. But, when I continued to reference their long sleep, the composition of their beds, how fun it must be to clear their gills after lying clogged in the dirt, my friend decided he’d let my joke and his patience run long enough.

“Come on,” he scoffed, “your landlord keeps them in a tank or something, right? And this morning, he probably dumped them back since the weather’s been pretty nice.”

“Don’t be silly,” I replied, “of course the fish sleep! How else would they survive winter? The pond’s all frozen!”

His point exactly. Fish are small and thin, January temperatures dip to -35, and the ice crusts several inches thick. No way could such fragile creatures survive an Ontario winter. I counter that I’m small and thin, and I make it through, so fish, descended from dinosaurs, must be hardy enough for Canada, if they’ve survived so many harsh ages. My friend accuses me of being absurd, claims that birds, not fish, are partially prehistoric, and pats me on the head like case closed: no sleeping fish.

“Where did you learn this, anyhow,” he challenges.

Dinosaurs. Birds. Fish. Birds…fish…birds…fish…oh, damn. Suddenly, I remember how I learned about fish hunkering down until the water warms again. Narrative reliability has been on my mind lately–when and where a story is recounted, who tells it, what the narrator showcases and the bits left out. In a flash, The Lifecycle of Fish According to Me tops the list of possibly dodgy tales. For years, I’ve discussed the sleeping habits of fish like a kid explaining that the earth goes around the sun because someone tows it on a really long string. And now, my source bobs to the surface like my carp.

When I was small, I favoured three bedtime stories. Mimi the Merry-go-Round Cat and Trumpet the Dog were all about sound effects and special voices and the bits where we turned the page and got to shout. But, Hamilton Duck was more serious. One morning, he heads for a dip in the pond, only to bonk his bill on the newly formed ice. The splat he makes wakes a fish who’s been sleeping in a toasty pondweed bed. Swimming to the frozen surface, the fish tells Hamilton to keep it down. Then, raising his voice to be heard through the layer of ice, the fish teaches the clueless duck about winter, and explains that if they take a nice long snooze, one morning, they’ll wake to discover the water and flowers and sunshine have returned.

Sure, a storybook might simplify things, sticking to two-syllable words and dumbing down tougher concepts. But, would the author snow a child with falsehood? I pull the book from my shelf and discover this:

Hmmmm, that’s not good.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Carrie permalink
    April 13, 2009 9:47 am

    Ha! I love this little story!

    Having once hacked a small fish from a frozen pond to “save” it, I was under the impression that they simply freeze in the water. Some wake up, some don’t.


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