Firemouth Cichlids are the assholes of the freshwater aquaria community.
"Territorial" is the word most commonly used to describe their Family. They like what they like, and if you fuck with their space then jeebus help you, ‘cuz they will fuck your shits up.
They mate for life, though, Cichlids do. But it's a difficult process. Cichlids test a potential partner by inviting them into their space. Most of the time, this doesn't work out so well. The usually end up eating each other's face – and not in a good way.
But eventually, one Cichlid will invite the other over. And they discover that they both hate the same other fish. And they both like the speed and the direction that the river flows in that particular spot. They like the same food available in that area. And the sounds they hear through their little fish ears – well, it makes ‘em wanna do it. Forever.
And that's why we have Cichlids today.
When I was 10, I became obsessed with fish. A noted ichthyologist who lived in the area came to speak at our school. He talked about the psychology of fish. He told us that piranhas weren't bad people, that they just knew how to take care of their own and work together as a team. One for all and all for one, swimming cows be damned. He also explained how pretty little neon tetras can survive as top-feeders, eating only what was dropped on top of them. And that they could go on being pretty and little forever because what little mean they had on them wasn't worth hunting for.
My father, bless his sad little heart, indulged my newfound interests and bought me a ten gallon aquarium. At first, the pet shop boys advised us to fill the tank with low-maintenance top-feeders like tetras and hardy live-breeders like swordtails and platys. But I got bored with them pretty quickly. All they did was sit around and wait for me to feed them.
Fuck that. I wanted something with a little more character. A little more get-up-and-go. So I talked my dad into getting me a Firemouth Cichlid.
Oh, that would fuck shit up! A temperamental solitary aggressive fish making his way on his own in a community of boring little pretty things.
I loved that thing. I would hand feed him frozen shrimp down to the bottom of the tank. That was his home. The little rock in the near-right corner.
And he was all solitary down there in his own space, interacting with the other fish only if they dared get in his way. He's peck at ‘em as they swam by. Never really hurt anything, though. He just didn't like visitors.
I figured he might have been a little lonely down there, so one day we got him another Firemouth. A lady Firemouth. And the two of ‘em took to each other like Jack to Coke. Inseparable. The top-feeders clung to the break-even point near the surface, vapidly darting around in search of crumbs while the Firemouths nuzzled their bright red jaws against each other down at the bottom of the tank, oblivious to everything above the. What did they care? They like the way the water moved down there, and there was always sunken shrimp to eat.
About six-months into it, the lady Firemouth died. I found her one morning as I was getting up to fix myself a bowl of Special K. She wrapped herself around the curvature of a hole in the rock, her eyes all blank and clouded over, and her scales all starting to decay.
The original Firemouth, well he just swam over her, pecking off the decaying parts of her flesh. Trying to keep her pretty. Trying to keep her the way he knew her.
"Can we take a walk?" I remember him asking.
So we went for a walk. I put him in a little bowl, and we went over to the high school football field down the street from my house.
He said nothing for a while. Just floated there, in his bowl, staring blankly.
"I hope you die," he finally said. "I hope we both die."
Years later, John Darnielle would write a song containing those words. I wonder if my Firemouth told him to do that. How else would he have known?
I took him home, and put him back in his tank. Later on that night, after I had gone to bed, he finally lost his shit. At all the top-feeders. All the pretty little neon tetras and White Clouds. None of them would escape his wrath. He got ‘em all, and he got ‘em good.
The next week I took all of my allowance I had been saving up and filled the tank with as many hatefully aggressive fish as I could. I bought a Featherback, and those things are nasty. They'll eat anything smaller than they are. I also bought a couple of Jack Dempseys – another cichlid that likes to fuck shit up.
He loved that, my Firemouth. Just as I knew he would
He kept his home in the near-right corner of the tank. By the rock, where she died. No other fish – not even the Dempseys – dared go near it. He kept that place holy. He kept that place theirs.
That fucking Firemouth outlived everything in the tan