Friday, May 28, 2010
I was driving along the interstate Thursday afternoon and I wound up stuck behind a big, white tanker truck painted with the words “LIVE FISH.” Traffic was heavy and I had a lot of time to wonder why someone felt the need to warn me that there was a tank full of live fish on the road. Should I fear the fish? Do they represent a hazard of some kind? Or maybe the supposed threat runs the other way and someone’s giving me a heads up so I don’t inadvertently transform the live fish to dead ones--though unless I steered my dinky car under the wheels of the mammoth truck, I’m not sure how I’d do that. And if I did tie it up with the truck, there would surely be more important casualties than a few hundred fish. At least one, or so I like to think.
All these questions aside, I marvel at the power of a simple phrase to conjure sense memories and associations. Even while I was obsessing over the intended message of “LIVE FISH,” I was smelling the scent of the lake where we used to go fishing when I was little, feeling the way the heat rose off the limestone bank and the way the handle of the pole dug into my palm--and, of course, shuddering slightly at the sensation of grabbing a doomed fish as it squirmed on the hook.
Actually, I was never an enthusiastic angler at all, and hardly ever fished when we went to the lake. I much preferred joining the fish in the water to hauling them out. It would make more sense if “LIVE FISH” made me think of Barry the pet goldfish who lived two weeks, or the koi in my grandmother’s garden pond, or the minnows that darted around my ankles when I went wading in the creek. But no, “LIVE FISH” made me think--fondly, nostalgically--of killing fish. Which I’m pretty sure is not what the author had in mind.
Big Fishes Eat Little Fishes, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1556