Like the butterflyfishes, Moorish Idols mate for life; as juveniles, they are more apt to school. Adult males tend to be aggressive toward one another.
Gill never knew his parents. He told himself over and over that he as lucky that way. Growing up hard is a good thing in the ocean where only the hard, fast, clever or mean survive.
And the faster you learn to live alone, the further ahead in life you will be.
He was first a scrapper, then a fighter, dropping out of school in lieu of being thrown out in disgrace. He told himself school was for fish who wanted to think like sheep. He was a wild card, a free spirit; he didn't need any one or anything.
Other fish only let you down.
He saw her nipping at an alga bloom one day, her banner tossed back wild and free and glinting in the sun. He saw the sea snake bear down upon her and he charged without thinking. There was little enough beauty in this world without having it gobbled up. Gill lost three inches off his dorsal fin, his top front teeth, but worst of all he lost track of her. The only girl he would ever love. He knew it as he nursed his wounds and settled in to his cranny for the night, but he had no regrets.
For perfect love, no price paid is too great.
Just before the last light faded, she swam in to his nook and nestled down beside his cheek. "You make me feel safe," she said. "My name's Char."
Gill knew then that this was the fish who had been born to break his heart.
Moorish Idols are pelagic spawners; that is, eggs and sperm are released in midwater and the fertilized eggs are left to drift away with the currents.
It was over almost before it started. His body, with a mind of its own, released its seed. It mixed with hers in a milky swirl and as the sun went down, Gill watched the cloud of infinite possibilities waft away. It would be in Tasmania by fall.
"My son's in there," said Gill.
"It's better this way," Char said. "You know what happens if he stays on the reef."
Eaten within minutes or hours. There as no space for the luxurious innocence of youth in this fish eat fish world of theirs.
Gill let his sons go because he had to, yet each time they mated, after the great joy--with each great release--he lost a little bit more of himself. Every time he saw a youngun, he would look at it and wonder: did he see any of himself in him?
"Who's teaching them to play catch & release?" he'd ask her. "Or skate, or current events?..."
"He's your son," she'd say. "A lone wolf. He's fine. Like you, he's probably loving it that way"
Then she'd shake her tail and he'd forget everything except how much he needed her. They'd make sweet love, and watch their children drift away again.
Still, if he could have the world go his way, he'd tell his kids that no amount of pride is worth bedding down alone. He'd push her behind him and guard their nook until the safety of morning light rose again.
Moorish Idols are notorious for being difficult to maintain in captivity. They require enormous tanks, often exceeding 200 U.S. gallons, are voracious eaters, and are infamous for becoming incredibly destructive.
Storms were a mixed blessing. They churned the ocean and stirred up food, but the catch was: you couldn't see. The seine net dropped around them, and up with a school of squid they went.
"Char!" he called to her frantically. "Char!" Finally he heard the muffled reply. Past arms and beaks of terrified squid, he battled his way to her and covered her with his body like a shroud.
"Listen to me," he said. "Char, we've got one chance to make it. When the net lifts into air, we'll have gravity on our side. We need to stick together--be as heavy and as thin as we need to slide down past all the squid and out."
"I'll never leave you," said Char. He hugged her tighter. Then the net jerked up.
They hung suspended strangling in thin gas, faces crushed against writhing squid flesh, the pressure growing heavier with every turn of the winch. Char tried to scream, but she had no breath. Harsh gravity wrenched at her belly with more force than she had ever felt, threatening to pull her insides out.
"Now!" gasped Gill. "Make like a Flathead!"
Char pulled her fins in and held still and down they slid. Down past an infinite number of squid in extremis. Down to the bottom mesh of the fishing trap.
One terrified squid clung sprawled between them and freedom, tentacles wrapped around the ropes for dear life--for all the good it wouldn't do. "Move!" Gill rasped at him and flapped his body against the squids.
The squid shook his head and wrapped himself tighter still.
Gill lunged at him with his beak.
Squid beaks are tougher than fish beaks, and the squid struck back.
It was no contest, but it had never been Gill's intention to win the fight, only to make the squid let go.
Char slipped past. One square of the netting was free and she wriggled towards it. "Come on, Gill!" she cried.
The squid reached down with one arm and tugged on the ropes. It tightened the gap to impassable dimensions again.
"It's too small!" Char battered herself against the ropes.
The net was almost over the trawler deck. Gill knew what he had to do. "Jump, Char! Swim!"
Gill poked the squid right in an eye, and the squid howled and launched all of his tentacles at Gill. Gill managed one hard wrench; it tore his pectoral fin near off. The other arms constricted around Gill's waist.
Gill started to black out, cursing the ignominy of being eaten by a squid, when he suddenly clattered to free to the sea-washed deck amidst about a thousand disoriented squid.
The net had been dropped open.
He wondered if he'd drown faster from the rain or the air, but then he was scooped up and poured on the filleting table in a mess of squid guts and blood. It was a better way for a soldier to die, and content, Gill waited his turn. The blade chopped with even practice, and from the rate Gill could almost count down the few minutes of life he had left.
A gloved hand picked him up, and Gill flipped around for one last look at the ocean. Home.
Somewhere down there his wife and kids swam free.
As life in the ocean went, it wasn't a bad trade.
With nauseous torque, Gill was spun around. The glove had him by the tail. He was going to get flung over the side! Thrown back! Maybe there was a supreme pisciform being after all.
"Hey, Mike! That one's worth money. Me mate has a shop. Toss him in here."
A square maw gaped below. Gill was dropped into the cooler, and the lid slammed shut leaving him in absolute dark. Gill sucked in deep, grateful breaths even as particles of dirt and debris choked him into a spate of wracking spasms.
Something on the surface of the stagnant water bumped his shoulder. It was a Humbug Damselfish floating upside down. Near the bottom a baby Clown Triggerfish cried like he would never stop.
The flood of oxygen to his torn fin fed the pain anew, and finally, mercifully Gill passed out.
Moorish Idols are also popular aquarium fish, but despite their popularity, they are notorious for their short aquarium life spans and difficulty.
"Half off," the shopkeeper explained. "Because of the damaged fin. Usually a Moorish Idol will run you $500 at least. He's a steal. Just got him in today, so I thought of you straight off. He'll be gone by closing tomorrow, but I wanted you to have first shot."
"I don't know," the dentist rubbed his chin. "Aren't they hard to keep?"
"Not for an expert like yourself," the shop keep said.
That's true, the dentist thought. He was proud of his tank, and he did have way with fish.
"Fishy!" said Darla.
"Not this one for you, sweetie. You get the next one. Blue is for boys. This one is too hard to take care of. He's made for grown-up boys. We'll get a nice pink or red one for you." The dentist pulled his wallet out.
It is said the Moorish Idol got its name from the Moors of Africa, who purportedly believe the fish to be a bringer of happiness.
"He's not eating," Bubbles bubbled.
"He doesn't look too good," Deb said. "What do you think, Flo?" Deb turned to the reflecting glass.
"I'm sure she agrees with you," Bloat said.
"Maybe he's a piscivore," Gurgle gurgled.
"J'espère qu'il n'aime pas la cuisine Française," Jacques wrung his antenna in a nervous fret.
"Hey, fellow," Peach ambled her way over and nudged him with a congenial flip of a tip. "Snap out of it."
"Leave me alone," Gill said. He pulled back into a corner. "I want to die."
"I guess the ocean's not all that. It's for losers and fraidyfish," said Peach.
Gill was over her in less then a second, dorsal fin rigid and quivering, gills flaring, teeth tensed and bared. "If you were a sponge, I'd rip you to pieces and eat you alive for that."
"I guess you've got two choices then," Peach said with equanimity. "You can die and prove me right, or you can live, and bring the ocean to life in here--through us, and you."
"Uh, third choice: he could eat you."
"Not helping, Bloat," Peach ground out through clenched lips.
Jacques tip-toed over and tapped Gill's back. "Por vous, Monsieur." He offered him a tastefully dressed and prepared worm. "I was saving him for a special occasion, et eh bien." Jacques extended the worm again.
Gill gulped it down in one swallow, and felt a little better as his belly filled. He looked up--no lid. And there was sky. Somewhere below sky there had to be ground and all ground runs to the ocean eventually.
Where there as life, there were always possibilities.
As long as you didn't start to think like a sheep.
He looked back around to a tank full of expectant faces and took a breath. They may not be kids, but they weren't that far removed.
Gill burped. He could do just about anything--even live on worms.
"Did anyone ever tell you about the deadly fireworms with a thousand legs that march over you and eat you up while you're still alive?"
"Do they really breathe fire?"
"They can't breath fire underwater, stupid!"
"Is that how you lost your fin?"
"Wait! You're scaring Flo!"
"Shut up and let him talk."
They all settled down in a circle, and Gill warmed up. "The ocean is a magical place…"