Hiss, the garter snake, is hungry. It's not all that difficult to tell. When he comes out from underneath the rock he's fond of and starts spastically writhing around in the water hole or, as we like to call it in captivity, the Tupperware, it's fairly apparent that he's looking for food. Thankfully, Hiss consumes fish instead of mice. This is easier for me to justify in my own head. I eat fish. And pretty much as a rule, I do not eat mice. Oh sure, there have been times when I've found a particular course of Hiss's meal to be kind of spunky, attractive, or generally worth more than its lot in life but a snake's gotta eat, right? So I try not to look directly at them. I focus on their lack of contribution to society in general. And, above all, I do not name them. If you don't make friends with the fish, it's easier to watch your snake wolf them down like a hungry, uh, well, snake.
I went to Wal-Mart today to satisfy Hiss's rumbling belly. Garrett looked into all the tanks while Unfriendly Pet Section Girl retrieved eight tiny Rosy Red Feeders for me. I've bought feeder fish at many Wal-Marts in the area and this girl, while perhaps the most efficient at her job, is as rude as they get. Not a lot of social skills, that one. Garrett, who was most unhappy to be getting back into the cart instead of staring all the live long day at the glorious selection of aquatic friends, was permitted to hold the bag.
We strolled along, he intently watching the fish and me pushing the cart forward but looking sideways down the aisles. POP!
My head swiveled forward. Garrett was looking, stunned, at the ground. Water surrounded our cart. The bag, split from top to bottom, lay at my feet. Eight tiny fish wiggled on their sides gasping for breath. On occasion they would squirm, searching and hoping for the discovery of water deeper than a few lousy millimeters. "Oh no, mom!" said the little boy in the cart.
This is much more embarrassing than "oh no" son, I thought to myself. I could feel the warmth creeping into my cheeks. And the worst of it was that I had no idea what to do. I didn't want to leave the poor fish there while I went for help. I'm not sure why death by snake seems better than death by reverse drowning but it does. And it certainly seems better than death by getting run over by a cart. I took off my coat because I didn't want it to soak up fish water and I crouched down. I did the only thing I could think to do. I started shoving the feeders into the deepest part of the puddle--a good quarter of an inch. I watched as the dirt from my shoes, muddy from MOPS (another story altogether), mixed with the fish water and made a filthy paste. Eventually--and I do mean a good two minutes later--an employee walked up with a roll of paper towels and informed me that a mop was on its way. I nodded. With all due respect, sir, I'm more concerned about these fish coding right here on your floor than I am about the puddle. It's a good thing I don't always say what I'm thinking.
I wish I knew what happened. I wish I'd seen whether my son pitched the bag up and over the cart handle or if it slithered out of the leg hole. One option is reprimandable. One is not. "Garrett, you cannot throw fish over the side of the cart." I said anyway. It made me feel better about the careless slaughtering of fish.
At this point another employee approached. "Where are they from?" He asked. Confused and flustered I pointed to the pet section.
"They're from the pet department, back there." I supplied. Puzzled he raised his eyebrows and rephrased the question.
"Right but, which tank? What kind are they?" Well, that does make more sense. I thought to myself. Giving him the answer he headed toward the corner of the store. I began assisting the other employee with mopping up the mess.
"Uh oh, mommy. Ishies, uh oh!"
"You just sit still and watch," I informed him.
Pretty soon the Employee Who Thinks I'm An Idiot returned with Unfriendly Pet Section Girl. She was carrying another bag of water. And she was smiling, amused. It's really the first time I've seen any personality emerge from within her and I was somewhat glad to be of service and mostly just horrifically appalled at the situation. I apologized approximately 192 times to anyone within earshot of the pond. Now Friendlier Pet Section Girl and I picked up the itty bitty fish and deposited them into the new bag. They were all still alive and swimming. I asked for more paper towels. They assured me I could leave. I told them I could help. They told me it was alright--we'd done enough. Okay so they didn't say that. They said something about being paid to clean it up. As I walked away I felt my face return to a much more normal temperature.
My son looked confused. I leaned down, kissed his head and giggled. "I think that was an accident, bud. So I'm not mad. But if you threw them out of the cart, never, ever do it again."
I finished my shopping and we headed home. Upon arrival the score was 7-1. Seven little Rosy Red feeders happily swimming around, oblivious to the fact that though they survived one near death experience, they wouldn't be likely to survive what was coming. And one poor little guy who'd gone belly up. Apparently falling three feet and then gasping for breath for several minutes was more than he could handle.
I dumped them into the snake's tank and walked away. As it turns out, you become attached to fish while you're attempting to save their lives. They become more than just fish as you contemplate mouth to gill resuscitation. I just couldn't bear to watch Hiss happily consuming Frank, Rosy, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Marlin, Victoria, and Bob.