Fishes' Faces

DID you ever stop to examine the expression on the face of a fish ? I do not mean of some notoriously grotesque fish, but of just any plain seafaring fish. I confess that the fascination for me is the same, whether I stand in front of some great collection of little monstrosities like that in the Naples aquarium, or whether I sit by my dining-room window and contemplate the gold-fish in my little boy’s glass bowl. People watch the monkeys at the Zoo and remark how human they are, how sly and crafty the old ones, how “ cute ” and playful the young ones. But for steady company give me the fish. How restful they are with their mouthings, as regular as if they were governed by a balance-wheel! How quiet, too, for not one word of murmured protest or of chattering fault-finding do they inflict upon us! How philosophical, as they bask in the sun the livelong day or seek the occasional shade of the modest sprig of greens which forms the conventional garnishing of their watery abode! How easily gratified are their simple tastes! Surely with their good manners, their quiet deportment, and their stoical bearing, gold-fish are the ideal companions of the mature man. Monkeys and dogs and kittens may amuse the children by their tricks and antics, but only the grown man can appreciate the solid qualities of the fish’s character as written upon his features.

Not long ago I turned to my old textbooks of natural history to see what the nature students had to say about the facial expression of fish. Would you believe it? There were pages about the bone structure of the creature, his scales and his fins, all having to do with his physical fitness for the peculiar kind of navigating through life that he is called upon to perform. But not one word was said about the features of his face, that racial expression of receptivity and of philosophical candor which is a constant sermon and inspiration to the thoughtful observer. I put this down as one more failure of the scientists to explain what poor humanity really wants to know. What do we care about the adaptability of the fish’s body to the element for which he was created or to which he has been banished ? When it comes to constructing flying-macliines, we may well study the structure of the bird’s wings. But did any one ever learn to swim by watching a fish ? Seriously, can any one look a fish in the face and not admit that there lies the highest expression of the creature’s nature ? All the rest of the body is the mere machinery for getting about. One wonders why Izaak Walton, that lover of the trout and grayling, did not write one of his inimitable chapters on his little fishes’ faces. Or rather one wonders how Piscator could go on catching and cooking harmless creatures who had done no harm to God or man,and whose wondering faces are a constant rebuke to the passion of their cruel captors. Doubtless our fish-mongers and cooks take good care to remove the death-head of our morning purchase before it appears on the table, knowing full well that our appetite would perish if forced to confront the cold staring eye and the mouth at last stilled in death.

But to return to the expression of the living fish. There are only a few animals that may be said to have any facial expression worthy of the name. The rabbit’s prominent feature is his flexible nose; the cow and the deer melt you with their great soft eyes; the owl sounds our very being from the bottomless depths of his great orbs; the dog and the horse find expression in the movements of their head and tail. But when I think of these fish, my memory goes back for a parallel to the “ ships of the desert,” those melancholy and patient camels hobbled for the night and chewing their cud in the market-place at Tangiers. There is the same philosophical rumination, the same stoical determination to make the best of it. The mouth expresses it all.

There have been those superficial observers who think that the fish is a fool, that he has no brains. “ Ignorant comme une carpe,” say the French. Well, I can only say that I have seen many a boy on the benches at school whose expression after a copious dinner would compare unfavorably with that of a fish. I have an idea that one of my little gold-fish does not miss much of what is going on. Move where I may, his eye follows me like that of a horse. And as for his mouth, — well, I can’t help coming back to the mouth. You simply can’t escape it. He seems to be all mouth. Yet, his is not the mouth of indiscriminate greed, or of the vulgar gum-chewer. He chews as if his very life depended upon it (and indeed it does), — as if he were determined not to let one atom that comes his way from the outside world escape him. All the useless chaff, all the buzz-buzz from without, may be said to go in one ear and out the other. But what is worth while he keeps with fine discrimination to build into that graceful body, and to deepen that look of philosophical dignity which I envy but cannot emulate.

You cannot pet a fish; you cannot pull his tail, and tie up his neck with ribbons, and whisper sweet nothings in his ear, as ladies do with poodle-dogs. He is away above that sort of thing. He would not stand for that kind of nonsense, and I respect him for his personal dignity. His nature does not lend itself kindly to slavery, no matter how fair may be the mistress.

Somehow, then, I feel that one of these fishes knows a deal more about the secrets of the universe there in his watery element than we do with all our loud chatter and our airy boastings. When I consider his simplicity, his regularity, his dignity, his receptive expression, — I am sure that he is a philosopher, and my heart, like that of Saint Francis, goes out in sympathy to this little brother.