One of the most thrilling annual events in Hampden, where I spent part of my young life, was when capelin hit the beach. There would be a mad scravel as the word spread through the community, “Capelin’s struck!” Within moments, the beach would be lined by young and old, males and females, in their knee-high or hip rubbers. The occasional dog would be on hand to bark at and frolic with the wiggly fish.
At times, the schools of capelin were so thick, all you had to do was to wade in and scoop them up with a pot, bucket, seine, even your hands. The fish, in the words of the novelist, Stanley C. Tiller, all rushed “together in one solid mass…, making the surface of the sea one shining, rolling and splashing assemblage of fish.” The excitement was palpable.
Then, it was all over. All hands returned to their homes, lugging their catch with them. The first meal was usually fresh fried capelin. The remainder would be cleaned, salted and dried, hopefully to last during the winter.
While on the beach early one morning with my father and brother, I had a minor epiphany.
As I watched the capelin splashing and sparkling, I thought, I won’t be getting a cat or a dog anytime soon, so I’m gonna get a capelin as a pet!
Got to admit it was a unique idea. Can’t say any of my friends owned a pet capelin. But some of them had goldfish. A capelin won’t cost me anything, I reasoned. And, upkeep is cheap. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Stepping into the school of capelin again, I reached down, gently grasped a squirming fish in my hand, and deposited it in a bowl, which I had filled with water from the ocean.
I walked carefully across the beach, crossed the unpaved main road, and entered our garden. Inside the house, I was careful not to spill the water.
Mom was in the kitchen. “What have you got there, Burton?” she asked.
“A capelin,” I answered.
“Yes, I can see that. But why only one? From the crowd of people I saw on the beach through the window, the capelin must have been thick.”
“He’s me pet,” I said. I didn’t know anything about the gender of capelin.
Dad would have immediately corrected my grammar, but all Mom said was, “Your what?” She had a surprised look on her face.
“Me pet. I’m gonna keep ‘im as me pet.”
“I see,” she said slowly, although I knew she didn’t.
For the time being, my pet–I named him Flipper–was safe, swimming contentedly, if a little cramped, in his natural habitat…saltwater.
After a day or so, the water in the bowl was a trifle cloudy and, Mom suggested, needed to be changed.
“Yup,” I said. Flipper was my sole responsibility. I was determined to take care of him.
I knew he needed salt water, but it didn’t occur to me that all I had to do was to cross the road and scoop up another bowl of the Atlantic Ocean.
Instead, I took a bowl from the cupboard and filled it with tap water. To attain the requisite saline content, I reached for the salt shaker. I could have measured the salt, but I didn’t know how much Flipper needed. So, I freely poured the salt into the water. I tasted it. Still fresh. More salt. Another taste. A little better. A third dose. “Dat’s briny!” I exclaimed under my breath. I figured I finally had the proper mix.
I removed Flipper from his bowl to the new one. He swam diligently, flicking his tail with seeming delight.
Later that day, I went back to my “aquarium” to play with my pet. To my surprise, he was asleep. Or so I thought, because he was upside down. I didn’t know anything about the nocturnal patterns of fish. His eyes were open, which didn’t bother me, because I figured that was how capelin slept…upside down with eyes wide open.
I checked him several times throughout the afternoon.
“Poor fellow,” I said. “Awfully tired or sick or somethin’. Must be what I put ‘im through. He haven’t moved in hours.”
Eventually, I decided to wake him up. I touched him with a finger. No response. I tapped harder. No change. Then, I thrashed my fingers around the water, realizing that Flipper was in a coma.
“Mom,” I called, “Flipper won’t do nuttin’.”
“Well, you did put him in salt water, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I used half a shaker of salt.”
I wondered what part of my comment she didn’t understand as I repeated it.
“Burton…,” she began. From the tone of her voice, I knew I had done something unusual. “Burton,” she started again, “you can’t put a fish in fresh water, then make it salt with table salt. Why didn’t you go down to the beach and get another bowl of salt water?”
“Oh yeah,” I muttered. “Never thought of dat.”