Sparrow Girl – Daphnia


After we had moved to our second apartment in Hoogvliet, and my father had finished his studies, we suddenly started collecting pets. We had a dog, Cerbie (Cerberus) since I was about two, a half chow, half wolf puppy, ferocious to others but my very best friend. Dogs are the sort of friends only children value above all others. I could dress him up in clothes or endlessly throw the ball or a stick. Because of his fierce loyalty to my well being I could go anywhere in the neighbourhood if I took the dog. The dog was a given, he was family, not really a pet.

My father’s new self indulgence was collecting up birds and fish. The first bird was Oliver, a handed down canary my dad brought home from work one day (for mom, said he, but…). It was a lovely yellow bird with a ring of black around his little head like the hairlines of a Franciscan monk. He sang with my mother as she did her morning voice warmup or as she rehearsed at home. He also whistled along with my father, who could only carry a tune when he whistled, singing was something we did not encourage in my father. I didn’t much care for birds in cages, I preferred the ones I saw everyday outside, like my little sparrows across the street every morning on the way to school for as long as the bread crumbs held out.

The aquarium on the other hand was much more to my liking. I was forever fascinated by the new fish my father would bring home on pay cheque days. Neon tetras, zebra fish, danios, loaches, and the one Siamese fighting fish, a big ruby read one with a streaming purple tail. It was probably about a 10 gallon aquarium, for me it was huge,, my own personal marine world. It was one of those family projects, and much more interesting than television those days. Tonnie had a television, and occasionally I would watch a show with her family. It was black and white and not very interesting compared to the colourful ever-changing world in the aquarium. Tonnie thought so too and often came to sit with me watching the parade of finned beauties. We made up stories to go with what we were watching.

Occasionally a fish would die, usually a zebra fish, they were temperamental and did not deal well with temperature changes in the water. I did not deal well with dead things. I was frightened of all dead things. He could not get me to fish out a dead fish with the net. Whenever he tried to coax me into it I would end up running off and crying in bed for some time. I could however flush them away, after uttering a few words of respect, a fish funeral rite.

There was no heater in the aquarium. It was set up near the warmest inside wall and occasionally on cold days tepid water would be run into the aquarium as the coldest water was siphoned from the bottom. Consequently the aquarium was spotless during winter. None of us minded the extra work at least not that I noticed, and I could not get enough of the aquarium especially in winter when there was not much daylight for playing outside. We had the basic little pump and used sand found around the polder and plants from the slough not far away.

Every few weeks my father would go to the slough for daphnia, little red ones. My father had a small microscope from when he was a boy and we’d look at the organisms he scooped up with the daphnia, another world to explore. I grew up thinking that my father had the be the most knowledgeable person in the whole world. He knew something about everything.

My father would often take me along on his daphnia expeditions. The dog would run alongside the bicycle and I would be in the basket on the handlebars holding a big jar and the net, a fine net made with one of my mothers old stockings and a wire. We’d be off o the slough near Spijkernisse. I liked it there, I could see the windmill nearby and there were lots of wildflowers and tall grasses. My father liked to take his time and fish out examples of this and that small fish or creature to show me. Those expeditions could take a long time if he found much to show me. On the way back I would hold they day’s catch of red daphnia.

One day in particular we had caught an exceptional amount of daphnia, the intent being to keep them alive in the jar and feed them to the fish in smaller pourings from the jar. That was the theory. What really happened on getting them home was a slip of the jar and a large cloud of oxygen hogging daphnia threatened to asphyxiate the fish, the beautiful prized collection of tropical fish my father had so lovingly looked after.

Eventually the fish would have eaten them and the supply of oxygen the small pump provided would be ample again. Right then, however the little fish were struggling for every breath between meals. Some were beginning, after an hour or so to swim sideways and jerking about. My father had set up a temporary solution, explaining the physics of it to me while doing it (he could have done it faster without the explanations). The bicycle pump and an inner tube with a hose running to an air stone he would pump up the inner tube and slowly release the extra air. It was working the fish were recovering and slowly the red mass was getting thinner. The dedicated teamwork of my parents had all but one fish survive the ordeal. My mother heroically, while hugely pregnant stayed up the night with the bicycle pump and inner tube, giving up sleep to save the fish as my father who had to work the next day slept. It was an error never made again. Still, my father was right, the daphnia made our fish spectacularly healthy and colourful.

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