“Lookit, Mama...this fish has a moustachieeee!”
“Ah tolle you not to run off like thayat! Better mine me, yu little shét...”
Two moonpie faces loomed before Fisch, and he saw that they were good, and clean, and their eyes were huge. And not blue. Neither was their hair blonde.
Now Fisch couldn’t decide what he found more interesting, objectively: the faces, or the Reflection. He could see both of them with equally intense clarity - at will - instantly - but never both at the same time. He definitely knew which one he liked better. He would swim up and down, swishing his ass from side to side and blowing bubbles all day long, doing the trick to shift his mind between the two images. The faces would change, different ones all the time, but the Reflection would not, and that was part of it, too. And when the lights went out, the faces disappeared altogether, and the Reflection became brighter, clearer, and impossible to see through. The trick stopped working. That was the part that scared him. That was when he slept. Drifting, digesting, preparing and repairing his aging innards, he would sleep and dream that the faces were like him, and shared seeing the Reflection. And he would also dream that the Reflection was seeing faces somewhere inside him, and that would make him roll over in his sleep and wake up with bubbles of dry air coating his scales. He would have to shake them off and listen sometimes for hours to the Hum of the World, The Golden Pump of Absolute Serenity, before he could numb himself back to sleep for another day.
Mama chuckled to herself, tapping the side of the tank with a spongy, grey index finger.
“Come on...your father is up ahead, and mah feet hurt."
“Can I have a fishie with a moustachieee? MOUSTACHIEEE! Moustachieoke-apoke!” The child closed its eyes and squealed. There was bouncing.
And so persisted the indelible illusion...
The days were long, but every face was different, and that made the days pass. The faces made the days have depth and detail - they made the days cut themselves apart from one another - and he was glad for them in a robust kind of abstract way, although he didn’t know what else there could be, and didn’t know if gratitude for what was inevitable really counted. He was quite the philosopher sometimes, was Fisch.
For instance, he had managed to totally and completely determine the full history and path of the entire cosmos, from the beginning to the end, while still retaining a cyclical and self-sustaining picture of ultimate reality that reinforced and bled into his daily allowable serving-size of tasty despair. The universe was a cube, that much was certain. It was a gigantic block of space-time, with levels and layers where some things stayed on top, and some things went to the bottom. Things that were good to eat stayed on top, for instance, and things that came out of him, his creative product, sank into piles beneath him, like the sand that was the remnant of the beginning times and upon which the whole universe rested. Above him was blackness and shimmering pockets that sometimes became the Net, or the Hand of God. Around him were the faces, unless the lights had gone out, and then he saw the Reflection without cessation or release. And The Golden Pump kept things moving, kept things from setting like primordial Jello, like what the beats of his very own heart - his pump - told him its function must be. He had never seen the Pump, he could only feel and hear its activities, but he knew it must be golden because that’s what color he was, and he felt a special kinship - an attunement to - the vibration of the universe.
Although, as Fisch was wont to say to himself:
This was Hell.
Punishment. Eternally. He was quite certain that his death would only start things over again from the beginning. The Reflection told him so. Plus, to be frank, he could imagine what fun must be and what pleasure must feel like, and he certainly wasn’t getting anything close to either. This was Hell, he was Fisch, The Pump pumped, he watched the Reflection and the faces, swam up and down, swished his little golden ass, blew bubbles, and all was precise, proper, and controlled. Eating time was eating time, and, ontologically speaking, Fisch was done with all that needed figuring out.
Now. What was important about Fisch, although no one else in the entire REAL cosmos knew it, especially no one at the Port Levinson Aquarium where his tank sat on the third shelf of the North American Oddities room, top floor in the back, right next to the Rays and Eels room, was that Fisch was the fifth tangible reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Really. He had been placed alone in the Oddities room because of the great black whiskers that protruded very comically, very familiarly, from right underneath his little Fisch nose - downward, manicured-looking, and impossible to ignore - and because he was incredibly fragile and the aquarium professionals were afraid any other kind of companion fish would kill him and eat him. What gets reincarnated in a spiritual body is exceedingly odd sometimes. It was the mustache that followed the being who had once been Adolph Hitler. Mikhail Gorbachav’s past life was as the planet Jupiter.
Fisch remembered his first faces in this body, but nothing before.
“Oh my,” said the professor who first discovered the new and exciting creature, clapping a hand to his mouth to hide his bemused half-grin. He was a scientist, and must remain calm, and above all NOT LAUGH, but it was really too much, and in the end, he did give a very scientific chuckle. His assistant, a lovely young grad student he was scientifically boning twice a week, raised an eyebrow.
“Doctor,” she said, “Do you think this is a new species, or merely some kind of mutation?”
The professor shrugged.
“We’ll justify our grant if it’s a new species. Do you feel like doing all the work to make sure it’s not?”
They watched Fisch swim in the plastic baggie. They would be his first faces. He would remember them as Mother and Father of the universe, and, later, with greater understanding, as his judge, jury, and executioner. Hell. His home, his universe.
He was named the Mustacheoed Golden Hitler Fish, Carassius auratus anschluss. The only one known in existence, an irony lost to Fisch, who, of course, could not read. There was also a placard next to his tank that warned against the terrible losses that the pollution of American streams and lakes caused, laying out the tragic plight of the anschluss, and its doomed, endangered status. He couldn’t see the placard, and his only insight into who or what he was, lamentably, was the Reflection.
See, the thing about the Reflection, was that sometimes, it was more than just a Reflection. That’s why Fisch thought about it as THE Reflection, and not HIS Reflection. Sometimes it showed him things when he looked into its eyes - images - things he shouldn’t have to know - past things of horror and terror, lunacy and blood, that made him want to bash himself against the side of the tank until he was inside out and dead. The Reflection was interesting, nonetheless, and he wondered what its intent was, without actually becoming crazy enough to begin talking to it. He wouldn’t want the faces to think he was some sort of freak. Besides, there was nothing that gave him greater solace than the smiles the faces gave him as they passed him on their way to eternity and oblivion. He figured the faces lived only transiently in the thin cool glass that made up the wall of reality - the liminal paper-thin razor cut that outlined existence - but they were still the faces of... hmmmm...salvation? The smiles meant happiness and pleasure, and sometimes he could entertain the possibility that the faces were buying him stock in a better universe someday, a universe where there was activity and excitement, pleasure and beauty, leisure and booty, treasure and annuity...
The Reflection said it would all just start over.
From the begjnning.
“Oh my,” the Reflection would say, in its best professor voice, “Remember that?”
On days when the Reflection was particularly cutting and persuasive, the faces were always laughing at him, and that was part of it, too. Because everything that passed laughed at him, and everything that saw him felt a little bit better about itself at his expense, the only way he could maintain his sanity, whatever that means to a fish (although surely there is some objective standard), was to gain deeper and deeper insight into the faces themselves, so he could understand, appreciate, and empathize with their laughter, no matter where it came from or how malicious its intent. He was powerless and needed the faces, he needed their protean guises, but he also needed them to reveal themselves to him, so that he could see the force that strung them all together, of which he was somehow a small part, allowing him to hold on to the ravaged and tattered shred of dignity that a fish in a tank has. It is a small shred, indeed. He was a small fish.
There was a kind of laughter that was worst.
It was the big men with tattoos and shiny white scalps.
It was the laughter of identification.
“Check it...look! It’s Der Fuhrer! Sieg Heil! Ahargleharglehargle....dude, we oughtta steal this fuckin’ fish. This thing is beautiful.”
“No way we’d ever get it out, man. They’ve got cameras all over this shit.”
“But look...we gotta tell people about this thing so they’ll come see it...god, look at that mustache.”
“Yeah. Heh heh heh. Sweet deal he’s got though...bet they feed him real good.”
“I want him bad, man. I would put him on top of the end table, next to the futon. Next to the flag...”
“Yeah, that’d kick ass. Everyone would freak out.”
“Come on...we gotta go get your sister and show her...”
“Sieg Heil! Ahargleharglehargle...”
That laughter reminded him of where he was, and he couldn’t get anything out of it. And often they would stare for a long time, keeping others away, making him some kind of symbol. It was very counterproductive.
Okay, so he couldn’t be completely sure this was Hell. There was always fresh water, he didn’t have to fight for resources, and his food came regularly and with precision. He never got sick, and something about his genetic biochemistry told him that he should have died a long time ago. Things could have been much worse. No doubt. But being in Hell gave his world a meaning and a purpose, and that was something. If it wasn’t Hell, then what was? Does a Fisch have a higher destiny? He didn’t know it, but his previous incarnation had been as a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The time before that he was a puppet on Sesame Street, but one of the ones that just came out for a short dance number and was then tossed inside a storage closet to be eaten by rats until its parts were needed for other new puppets. A gnarly, dry old hand was shoved up his ass and he danced in a little hat to a song about the number four.
The time before that he was a head cold for Harry Truman. Truman groused for a week and a half, and then bed rest and an infusion of hot chicken soup fixed him right up. Summer colds were the worst to have, but the easiest to crack.
And before that? One of the farts that got lit after hours at Walter Cronkite’s fifteenth birthday party. Everybody giggled and poked each other, and then Mrs. Cronkite came downstairs and made all the boys go back to sleep. There was a war on.
It didn't happen epiphanically. It was kind of a slow aggregation of insight and disgust. Slowly, Fisch began to hate the faces. To really and fully despise them and everything they stood for.
“I think it is really disturbing. Those black bristles on a such a tiny little fish...”
“Come on, honey...it’s all part of nature’s majesty.”
“It must be some sort of genetic problem. This fish shouldn’t be alive. Look at how the mustache makes its front half sink lower in the water...it can barely keep its head up.”
“I wonder if it can reproduce?”
“It says here it is the only known one of its kind...I hope to God it is the last one.”
“Yeah, but it is definitely interesting.”
“Let’s go...this thing is giving me the creeps...”
It was something about the way he could tell what they would say before they spoke, the way he could tell what kind of laugh they would have just by looking at the way they parted their hair. He was suddenly almost glad he was Fisch. He was alone...sure....but he was at least not one of them.
He began to focus his entire being on a plan to end the universe. He would crack open reality, and mystically transport himself into theoretical negative space. His soul would end, and he would be free from all the torment and pointlessness that his life had become. He felt an upward surge of high feeling, an inner chorus of soaring violins and brass instruments, and he did a loop in his tank in spite of himself.
“The fish did a flip! I saw it! I saw the fish do a flip!”
“Where? That fish? That little ugly thing? Huh. You know, he looks kind of familiar...”
“Hold on, maybe he’ll do it again.”
“Golden Mustacheod Hitler Fish. Ha. Yeah, they named him right. Ha.”
“Aw, come on...turn around fishie. ...turn around...”
“I think he’s sulking. Do fish sulk?”
While the lights were out, under the constant eagle-eye of the Reflection, Fisch began to stack rocks.
“You are nothing,” he thought at the Reflection. The Reflection just swam in its empty flat universe, silent and contemplative looking.
The next morning, when the janitor turned on the lights in the North American Oddities room, he nearly broke his back slipping on standing water, caught himself just in time, yelped, and ran gangles akimbo downstairs to fetch management. They stood there, janitor and floor manager, above the broken fish tank that had once housed the last remaining Mustacheod Golden Hitler Fish, and which had now become a concussion zone of jagged glass that looked like it would be an entire morning project.
“I don’t understand, sir...maybe if the tank became unbalanced somehow, and then received a direct hit...”
“We checked the security cameras. It just fell over on its own volition around 3 AM. Real spooky.”
The janitor poked the only piece of organic debris with the business end of his flashlight, squatting on one knee.
“What do you guys do with these things when they die?”
“We analyze them...take blood samples...and then...well...”
The floor manager blushed.
“You flush them, don’t you?”
The floor manager nodded.
The janitor picked up Fisch by his limp tail and brought him up close to his face. He cackled, and then dropped him back into the wreckage, flopping him onto a pile of damp seaweed.
“Gott mit uns, little fishie.”