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The Fish Tank

I once lost three pairs of perfectly healthy fish within three weeks. And they were carp, among the hardiest fish in my collection.

It all started when I got a glass tank dead cheap in the second-hand store. The man in the store seemed glad to get rid of it, but I was gladder as the price was ridiculously low. As I was leaving the shop, the man asked me, “Say, do you plan on keeping fish in that tank?”

I was a bit surprised, but wanted to get away before the man changed his mind about selling the tank. “Of course I do,” I murmured and quickly left the shop.

It was a beautiful glass tank, four feet long, two feet wide and three feet high – a big tank for my place, but it was so cheap, it would’ve been a crime to let it go. It was strikingly clean, and there was something about it that made you want to keep looking at it.

I cleared a corner for it – it was too magnificent to be kept along with the four other tanks I had in my work-room. I took my time with setting it up – everything I bought for it was carefully selected with the tank in mind. Everything was new, no second-hand stuff, no used stuff. It seemed rather excessive to pour so much time and money into a second-hand tank, but it had me in its grip. It had a strange attraction – I would sit for hours before the empty tank, just as I had when the Betta splendens was hatching. It was nearly two months before I decided that the tank was ready for piscine habitation. The landscaping had been done and redone a number of time; every small hill and valley I knew by heart; every plant had its own positions, when the aerators were on or when the filtration unit was working. As it stood in its state of final readiness, I was prouder than da Vinci when he had finished the Giaconda. The tank looked so liveable in that I wished I were a fish.

The first occupants of the tank were a pair of beautiful carp – prime specimens of their kind, as healthy as can be and coloured a glorious shade of pink with a hint of blue speckles. As they slowly explored their new home, they seemed to be hesitant and cautious, but fish always do that. They usually take their time to get used to their habitat and a twenty-four hour period had to pass before any fish got settled into a new tank. But it never happened with this pair. Normally carp, being hardier than most other fish, settle in quite fast and start feeding in a day or two. But these two had not started feeding even after four days. Something was definitely wrong. I checked all the possible things that might affect the health of the fish. The temperature was normal, a steady twenty-five degrees Celsius. The pH was okay and there seemed to be no problems with the aeration and filtration units. The fish themselves showed no signs of disease, though it was clear that they were not at ease. They were very jumpy and refused to feed. They kept trying to jump out of the tank, though they did not seem to have any difficulty in breathing. And on the sixth day, both the fish died.

The second pair was also carp – this time a dull white. These were nowhere as beautiful as the first pair, but they were as hardy as they come. I waited for a day before I let the new occupants into their home. Even in the tank where they were waiting, they settled in within four hours and were feeding happily by the sixth. This pair seemed as if it could survive anything. But, the moment they were let into the new tank, they seemed to lose all their life. They became jumpy, and immediately started trying to jump out. They never settled in. They never fed. They died within forty-eight hours.

Something was drastically wrong and my dream tank was turning into a house of horror. I had to find out what was wrong. I took samples of the water, the soil, the plants and the two dead fish and went to see an old aquarium buddy of mine – I never knew his name – we met in an aquarium, started chatting and became, well, aquarium buddies. We met quite often after that and the topic never varied – though it was varied enough for us. He was old, in his late sixties and amazingly well informed on aquaria – not only the technical details, but also its history and development. So many anecdotes were shared between us, so many forgotten by me, but not, I’m sure, by him. He also knew almost everybody in the world of aquarium keeping. He was the man who could tell me what, if anything, was wrong with my tank or its setting up.

I found him in the second shop I went to, talking to a small boy who was listening earnestly to him. I waited for him to finish before I went up to him. “Ah! There you are. It’s been such a long time. What’s been keeping you at home?”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about,” I said, handing him the bag containing all the samples and the dead fish. “Does anyone do autopsies on fish?” I asked him.

He gave me a queer look, but said nothing. He pointed to a chair and sat down on an old high stool in front of it. I told him everything from the buying of the tank to the death of the second pair of fish.

When I had finished, I could see that there was a very strange expression on his face, something between amazement and incredulity. “Where did you say you got your tank from?” he asked. When I told him he asked me to wait and went to the corner phone booth. I could see him talking very animatedly on the phone.

When he came back he was chuckling to himself, and I could catch the word ‘amazing’ being repeated under his breath. “So its true after all,” he said, shaking his head.

“What’s true?” I asked.

“Well, you are now the proud owner of what we in aquarium circles refer to as the “Captain’s Curse.” It’s a story I’ve never told you, because I never believed in it myself. Now I know it’s true.” So started a tale that I still do not know whether to believe. Apparently there had been a keen aquarium enthusiast who was called the Captain. And he had a penchant for the most expensive and exotic fish. And he could afford to indulge himself. Once he had got himself some piranhas – of course, a lot of people did have piranhas, but his were special. They were fed only the best fish in the market. At times the Captain would buy the pride of someone’s collection and feed it to them. This went on for quite some time. And then one day, the Captain died. No one knows how he died – his body was found in a chair, staring at his huge glass fish tank with the piranhas swimming around waiting for their meal. His heirs sold off his property and the fish tank was bought by another enthusiast. But to his dismay, no fish would survive in that tank. It changed hands more than a dozen times before it disappeared. And apparently, I had it now.

I went home unsatisfied and more than a bit angry. I emptied the tank and set about setting it up again afresh. I took extra care to see that there was nothing that could harm the fish. Finally, after a week, the tank was ready to receive its new occupants. This time I selected a pair of medium-sized carp, every bit as hardy as the previous pair. They did not last even forty-eight hours.

Now the glass tank is somewhere in the garage, filled with god-knows-what and buried beneath many layers of accumulated junk. I can’t bring myself to throw it away. After all, it’s my dream tank.