I got a little pissed last evening. The label said Vote Responsibly, a fundraiser. The frozen fish and chips were cooking in the oven, yes, I know the contradiction there. Dancing to Nina Simone, in a way which so disturbed the cat, unused to a show of less inhibition. Still, I sang along as best I could, a little hop here and there. I realized I don’t know any fish. A deep hypocrisy overcame me. If you have had cattle, been licked, laughed with, cuddled down in the grass on a tarpaulin belly, watched their eyes going as they dream of clover, legs running while in deep sleep you ought to know what I mean. We kill these beautiful sentient beings, we betray their faith in our better nature, we expel them from their home, push them in their shaking fear onto a truck and off to the abattoir. We break their big gentle hearts, their kind watchfulness looking about in terror, shaken from all they have ever known.
Maybe I had too much to drink, but it had been lurking after I cooked lentils for lunch, after I walked my daily heart clearer kilometres to where the dunes are being carved open for new houses. I was fast yesterday, Cohen in the earbuds, Live in London 2009, and we’re still making love in my secret life. Maybe my age has led me to a morbid remorse, thinking on how my chickens ran to me on returning from work, dancing zig zag in that holding pantaloons way, clucking to me of their day and how they’d waited for feed, in absolute trust of my return to them. I’ve chased a fox over paddocks when one was taken, murder in my heart, despair at the cast away feathers, ready to inflict any cruelty for unthinking retribution.
I have wondered through the night, of songs, and writers, and years laid together, turned over, teased out of supposed meaning. And now I am thinking of fish, do their thoughts surf between dart and lunge, roll over in warm remembrances, even where the coral and reef taught their goggle eyes to beware of shadow, looking out for larger fins, mouths open in expectation, feeding on the move, restless, unceasing, awake and asleep. I know the natural world can be a cruel place of hardened evolutionary necessity. I know the crocodile will eat me, the heron, the fish, whatever comes by. The snake will bite if I stray too near, or accidentally collide with it. My innocence is irrelevant to their survival and my guilt is personal choice, and a convenience of upbringing. In sober light I know I should be a wiser human than I am, because unlike this other animal world I have options.
Are ethics limited or defined by degrees of difficulty? I’ve had horses veer around me rather than run through me; their ‘nature’ constrained by a deliberate elective side step, because they thought of me. It would be too easy to say Anthropomorphism, that great big word which might really just mean ignorance – I looked in their eyes and I know I was not an unrecognized object to avoid, it was something more. You are not going to eat your cat, or your dog, or your goldfish. These relationships exist outside of the ease of laziness, they are intimate, tribal within an environment of care, familial in every sense. In the mirror this morning, my old quisling man getting fatter and balder, but with a chance of reform. A warm-blooded killer, who does know better. Find me a wine label printed with Live Responsibly, I’ll talk to a fish, I’ll put it back, I won’t grow feathers, or hide, or scales, but I might grow a backbone to face my own truth, and maybe I Shall be Released. Hallelujah!
Published in Meanjin Quarterly Volume 81, Issue 1, Autumn 2022
Editor: Jonathan Green, Deputy Editor: Tess Smurthwaite