There was little I could do to stop the fighting. Convicts are so territorial; they do not hesitate to take on intruders
twice their size. They just can’t be reasoned with. It’s even worse when the convicts are mating. What drama!
No, no, no! I’m not talking about bizarre behavior among my fellow prisoners – though they do have their moments. I’m referring to Herichthys (Archocentrus) Nigrofasciatus, a fish of the cichlidae family native to the tropical river basins of Central America. They are popularly known as convict cichlids, or just convicts because of their characteristic black stripes.
Oh, go ahead and yawn! Whenever I would recite the scientific nomenclature for the fish in my aquarium, my friends would always yawn! Aquarium buffs are used to it! The more serious among us always felt duty-bound to learn the scientific names of the residents of our aquatic neighborhoods. Hey, we don’t talk that way by choice, you know!
My 100 gallon cichlid aquarium was my spare-time-consuming hobby for most of my life as a priest until I was sent to prison at age 41. It was an oasis of life, light, and aquatic drama that kept me mesmerized for hours at the end of each day. Only one other priest in my diocese had an aquarium, and we had an instant bond of shared knowledge and interest.
I had a breeding pair of convict cichlids who shared their home – perhaps “shared” is too strong a word – with a pair of Astronotus Ocellatus, or red oscars native to the Amazon Basin. I also had a single Herichthys (Archocentrus) Octofasciatus known otherwise as a “Jack Dempsey,” and for good reason. He ended up in a smaller aquarium of his own. Couldn’t play well with others.
Convicts typically excavate a cave when preparing to breed, so an old clay flower-pot in the corner sufficed. I named my convicts Bonnie and Clyde (at the time, I had limited knowledge of suitable convict names. Today I’d go with Bubba and Bella.) The other denizens, the Oscars, were names Oscar Madison and Oscar Wilde. (I’m glad I only had two!)
The oscars gave their grouchy neighbors a wide berth once eggs were laid in the cave. Oscar Madison, twice the size of the convicts, sometimes paid a price for lumbering over to eat the convicts’ food. He had the nips in his fins to remember them by.
I once tried to use a mirrored barrier to keep everyone happy, but Clyde kept launching himself furiously at his own reflection. In time, everyone learned to respect some boundaries. My current convict friends could learn a lot from that. “The Aquarium is Gone.” That’s actually a line from a poem by Robert Spence Lowell (“For the Union Dead.” 1964)
Its absence from my world is missed and mourned still. It is one of the three recurring dreams I have in prison. (I’ll write of the other two later.) It haunts me a bit. I often dream that my aquarium is on the concrete shelf of my cell, and Oscar Wilde is staring at me with his bulging eyes willing me to bring food.
I miss them. There is nothing with water and life here.
“And the fish of the sea will declare to you. In His hand is the life of every living thing.” (Job 12:8,10).