SOME ANIMALS WE HAVE KNOWN


When my daughters were small, we somehow inherited two axolotls from their kindergarten. They were quite large axolotls, about six inches long, with handsome frills about their gills; the black one we named Nathan and the gold one we named Charlie. But where to keep our new friends? The goldfish did not seem  keen to take in lodgers, particularly since these lodgers might eat them, so there was nothing for it but to invest in a large new tank.  This we kept on the kitchen bench, having nowhere else to put it.  Let me just say that keeping axolotls on the kitchen bench is not a décor tip you’ll see in the lifestyle magazines, and for good reason. Frankly they were depressing. Far from the ‘hugge’ look I was going for, they gave the place a grotesque Addams family vibe. Why? they seemed to be silently demanding as they clung to the walls of their tank, gazing out at us. Why are we here?

In matters of diet, the axolotls proved to be particular; they favoured finely diced pieces of lamb's heart, administered to them piece by piece with the aid of a pair of tweezers. The idea was to dangle the delicacy temptingly in front of the axolotl; the axolotl would then assume an air of melancholy indifference for a prolonged but unspecified period of time.  Then suddenly and without warning, it would snap the meat off the tweezers, startling the bejesus out of you.  It was necessary to repeat this operation five or six times for each axolotl; consequently, you spent the better part of an evening with your arm immersed in the fish-tank, alternately cursing them quietly under your breath or screaming in terror. It was a task both mind-numbingly tedious and wildly nerve-wracking.

A consequence of the lamb’s heart diet was that the water began to smell. Of course, all you had to do was change the water, but this always seemed to have undesirable consequences. Nathan’s knee-jerk response to fresh water was to lay conical gelatinous "sperm parcels," with which to entice his lady friend (Charlie). I cannot quite account for why clean water prompted in Nathan these amorous impulses; I can only think it might be similar to what I have observed as the "Clean Sheets Effect" in my own marital bed. Studying our axolotl handbook, we learned that Nathan would somehow (I can’t quite picture it) "pass" Charlie over these sperm parcels, and in that mysterious manner impregnate her. We longed to witness this feat; however, axolotls are intensely private about such matters. The passing of Charlie over the sperm parcels happened only when the kitchen light went out and the household had gone to bed.  The next morning, we awoke to glad tidings: the entire tank was festooned with Charlie’s eggs, suspended in a goopy, gelatinous substance hanging from the plants.

We were not so interested in axolotls as to want to breed them, however, so all this would mean was that we had to clean the tank all over again.  It was all very labour intensive. Still, we nodded approvingly to ourselves, it was certainly educational: our young daughters were precociously fluent with terms such as "sperm parcels" and "gelatinous" and, their personal favorite, "cloaca."

The constant cycle of changing water and sperm parcels and the tank bedecked with eggs became too much for my husband, and he decided the only thing for it was to go out and dig a pond in our back yard.  In fact, he made two ponds, connected by a small waterfall; the top pond was for the axolotls, and the lower pond was for the fish. Then we liberated our aquatic friends from the confines of their tanks and released them to the relative wilderness of our suburban back yard.

What a rod for our backs we created. For now, the feeding ritual became infinitely more arduous. It was almost impossible find the axolotls skulking at the bottom of the pond, particularly at night, so a torch had to be brought into play. Chris would often volunteer for the job, as it gave him the opportunity to sit up the back yard for hours on end drinking beer, instead of, say, doing the dishes, but even he began to weary of it in the wintertime. When I think of him up there, in the dark, lying on his side on the cold ground, one arm immersed up to armpit in the dank cold pondwater, I feel a great surge of fondness for the man I married.  “Girls,” I might have said at the time (but didn’t). “Take a good long look at your father. And make sure you find yourself a man just like him.”  By which I mean a man with a soft spot for critters, of course, but the girls may have simply seen a man who would willingly endure any amount of discomfort to be left alone to drink beer.