Saturday, December 13, 2014

Can't Get the Sound of Fish out of My Head

Legend has it that fish will fall occasionally from the sky. Singapore 1861. Saskatchewan 1903. Louisiana 1947. 
Fish, fresh fallen fish. People stood on their steps holding skillets waiting for a meal from heaven. I saw this when I was young. I asked my mother, who was holding the black, cast-iron frying pan beneath the pregnant sky, why the fish were falling from the clouds. She maintained her focus on a spiraling northern pike and replied, "Gravity." I asked my father, who was cleaning a nice large-mouth bass, about six pounds, and he nodded, "Because they can't fly."
So, they gravitated toward the easy answers, that fish will fall once they are airborne, just like people. I saw a man shot out of a cannon at the circus. He fell just like those fish, flopping around on the straw in center ring, only the audience did not rush toward him with filet knives. I asked my father why we didn't eat the man in the cannon and he barked, "You can't filet a man!" They carried him off on a stretcher. The next night he did it again, with a cast on his leg. That was the hardest working fish I had ever seen.
Here 2014. Today, I am standing on the sidewalk below a seventy-story office building, watching a man running in circles yelling that the sky is falling. "The sky is falling," he says. He has long, matted grey hair, a nine-o'clock shadow, a thicket of eyebrows, sky-blue eyes, and a quilted flannel shirt. The buttons don't match up with the correct buttonholes, leaving one tail longer than the other. He holds a bottle in his hand and waves it at the sky. Sky pirate, I think. He fell overboard, floated down here, and he wants to swim back up there to be with his mates. 
I was up up there in that tower last night, on the 58th floor and I heard banging on the windows. Who in their right mind would want to come in through the window late at night? Of course, I didn't open the window, I just kept typing, typing, typing, typing this thing you are supposedly reading, typing, don't look up, I can't look up. Who would want to come in through the window late at night? I won't look. Maybe it was this guy. So he drifted back to earth in the dark and swims in circles on the sidewalk, talking about himself.   
I have read that thunderstorms breed when a mass of cold air meets a mass of warm moist air. At the boundary, water condenses, energy is released, winds and clouds build, and it begins to rain and hail. Storms. So in the course of a day, they start by raging toward the sun and they end in a free-fall back to earth, gassed, exhausted, paintbrushes of rain, a mist the color of salmon, so tired they evaporate before they reach the ground, inhaled by hungry clouds. The hard part it getting those fish up into the sky. It's not a problem getting them to fall. Look at this man, flopping on the sidewalk. 
The problem presented itself: How do fish get up into the sky? A few decades ago a study was conducted on the phenomenon of falling fish. A cadre of hardened scientists at the Groveland Institute of Physics were captivated by the notion. For years, they had been hearing stories about falling fish from one of the women on the staff. She was lame in her left arm, being so injured by a falling fish when she was a young child. She couldn't recall the event, being so young, but her parents retold the story every year on her birthday. She certainly despised fish. She wore a necklace with a Allenypterus skeleton. Extinction brought her deep joy; she would weep when reading that another fish species vanished. Ameca shiner, blackfin cisco, gravenche, New Zealand grayling, Parras pupfish, Utah Lake sculpin, thicktail chub, yellowfin cutthroat trout. Ah, the transcendent bliss! Tears like rivers, flowing into the deep, black, oxygen-starved sea.  
By the way, Groveland Institute is located in a sleepy, backwater town in east-central Minnesota, situated in a second story laboratory, above a plankton-based, high-protein, nutritious snack wafer processing plant. The employees take their lunch break at the plant. They get free wafers. 
So while I have been talking, the fellow on the sidewalk started gasping for air and someone called an ambulance and paramedics arrived, they pulled right up alongside of him and now they are attending to him. In distress. Combative. One of them is standing on his shirt tail to hold him still. The other is putting a metal device in his mouth and a couple of other guys are cutting away his flannel shirt. He should be loaded into the van soon enough. They brought out some bags of ice. Poor fella. I think I know him from somewhere. I wish they would turn off that siren. It makes me tense.   
Acting on reports, rumors, and anecdotes, the Groveland research team flew to Bangkok, Beijing, Mumbai, and Lagos to interview locals and to collect eyewitness testimony, photographs and fish specimens. They were out of the country for six months; they got hung up in Lagos for a month scraping together the money to pay the seventeen distinct, ineffectual, and redundant layers of bureaucracy their requisite bribes. On the return flight, at about 38,000 feet, they hit a line of strong thunderstorms in the southeastern United States. The the violent air pressure changes caused the cargo doors to burst open, right over the heart of Mobile, Alabama, sending tens of thousands of frozen Bonga Shad, Pla Sawai, Crucian Carp, and Pomfret slicing toward the earth.
Well, I was happening through the town that stormy afternoon, on my way to a gaudy theater production of Reap the Whirlwind. A musical. To the east, I could see the muskmelon-orange rain capture the sunset, the water on the streets and sidewalks reflecting the sky like fresh varnish. Everything was orange. The air was clear, cool. Distant thunder. Someone was whistling from an upstairs window, but I couldn't tell which house. What was that song? No, it wasn't a song, it was a tea kettle boiling. Big kettle, must be for a mob of relatives. Then it got so loud I wondered if it was an ambulance on the way. Where is that pirate? My grandfather used to talk about the terrifying whistling noise made by the Stuka dive bombers during WW2. That's what made me look up. At first, I thought it was a flock of Peregrine Falcons in a power dive chasing their prey. But Peregrines aren't starlings. This was no murmuration. It was the fish, tens of thousand of them, froze stiff as stones, shad, carp, sawai, pomfret, whistling toward the earth like the London Blitz. I barely had the time to cover my head with my arms. At once, the fish crashed through street lamps, car windows, punched holes in roofs, broke tree limbs. The screaming fish, the din of breaking glass, the shattering frozen fish clattering down the alley, street signs shredding, the clanging of garbage cans, crackling of tree limbs, and shrieks and prayers of terrified residents running for protection was so loud that I had to cover my ears. That's when a two-pound pomfret rocked me alongside my head, dropping me to the sidewalk, where, they say, I staggered about dazed like a prizefighter groping for the ropes.
At least I can still hear. Thousands of birds were killed, probably thousands of mammals. All told, about 200 people were hospitalized for head injuries and lacerations. They told me that an ambulance took me to the hospital. I guess I was a handful; they had to tie me to the stretcher. They say I wanted to get up there where the fish were coming from.
The nurses told me that at the height of the fish storm, as the sky was darkened by their mass, some of the aged residents hobbled out into the streets facing the volley with outstretched arms, frying pans in hand. One old timer crowed, "By golly, those are fish alright, just like Kansas 1922." That's what he said. Good thing it wasn't whales.
Here, in my room high up in the sky, the nurses are whistling. I can hear that banging on the windows again.