The buoying lift of their numbers

Once submerged, a diver is not easily seen. Given all the fish in the water—naturally as many healthy fish are raised as possible—she is a mere shadow among them, trained to do her tasks quickly and unobtrusively. This is why she uses no special breathing apparatus aside from a snorkel, compressed gases causing too much of a disturbance. Fearful fish are not happy fish. The diver is not “one of them” but is part of the waterscape from the time they are hatchlings, and they see her customary form and the repeated cadence of her movements and the gentle motor of her flippered feet that must come to them like a motherly lullaby. A dream-song of refuge, right up to the moment of harvest. The diver is there at harvest, of course, and sees to it that the very last of them finds its way into the chute. And it is only then, for the span of the few hours while the tank is being cleaned and filtered before the next generation of hatchlings is released, that the water is clear of activity, that the diver is alone.

How somber a period that must be. The constant light from the grow bulbs filtering through the canopy of vegetables and herbs and ornamental flowers suspended above the tanks throws blue-green glints about the facility walls, this cool Amazonian hue that suggests and fecundity primordial and unceasing. The diver inspects each aquarium, which is roughly the dimension of a badminton court, and by the end she is exhausted not by the work or holding her breath but instead from the strange exertion of pushing against the emptiness. For she is accustomed to the buoying lift of their numbers, how sometimes the fish seem to gird her and bear her along the tank walls like a living scaffold, or perhaps lead her to one of their dead by swarming about its upended corpse, or even playfully school themselves into just her shape and become her mirror in the water. At the pellet drop they are simply fish again and thrash upward, mouths agape, the vibrato of the water chattering and electric, as if bees were madly attempting to pass through her suit. And wouldn’t it be the truth enough to speak of those bristling hundreds are not only being cared for by the diver but as serving to shepherd her, too, through the march of days?

I find myself returning again and again to this passage from Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such A Full Sea. I’m enamored with the mood of it, the tranquility that these divers experiences while swimming with their fish—a tranquility that, I’ve realized, doesn’t stem from an absence of danger. They know that their work as divers isn’t immune to accidents. They know that some among them have died during their routine submersions. The tranquility, rather, comes from an acceptance of their place amongst their fish—swimming with them, feeling almost as if they are of them. And it seems the fish feel the same way. It’s an interesting relationship, a sort of symbiosis I think. As much as the divers take care of the fish, the fish also take care of their divers, if not in physical nurturing then emotional. There’s a reassurance in numbers, a sense of safety and belonging that taps into what makes us innately human.

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