MARTHA SEZ: ‘The fish had a strange expression on its face?’

“In retrospect, I should have known an explosion was coming, because the fish had a strange expression on its face.”

— Random old lady striking up a conversation at China Camp Park, California

The hauntingly dreamlike statement above was posted on Facebook by my daughter, Molly, and appropriated by me for this column, because I agree with one of my daughter’s Facebook friends, who posted “This is pretty much a perfect quote.” I just can’t stop thinking about it.

As background, Molly and her old friend Aleigh were enjoying a beach day together, away from the responsibilities and cares of home and workplace, when the Random Old Lady arrived, plonked herself down on the sand next to them, and without further ado began regaling them with tales of her adventures.

Ah, I thought when I first read the quote, the 20-20 vision of hindsight!

“In retrospect, I should have known.” You just don’t realize, do you, until it’s too late.

But wait. The fish had a strange expression on its face? Why this sounds wrong–stop and consider: Do fishes actually have facial expressions? My first thought would be no, but OK, let’s give the Random Old Lady the benefit of the doubt and say they do. Then where was the ROL situated, to be able to see the look the fish was giving her? Perhaps the fish was swimming around in an aquarium, under her surveillance. But no, the impression I got from Molly was that the fish was in the sea and the ROL was in a boat. So. Not in a perfect position to see the fish’s face, much less interpret its expression.

I once read in an old detective novel, “He was giving me the fish eye,” and the connotation was of an unfriendly, suspicious look. But I don’t think that is what the ROL meant.

Maybe fish were rearing up above the waves, gasping and gaping their mouths. I asked Molly, and she said that was sort of the way she pictured it too.

Even so, how could anyone, even an ichthyologist or a demolitions expert, deduce that an explosion was coming by observing fish behavior?

I put this to my friend Genny when we were out walking this morning, and she said, Oh, you know how animals know things are happening before people do. Well, yes, I agreed, earthquakes, and tsunamis. That has been documented. Remember the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami back in 2004? When the tsunami hit Thailand, an elephant ran away to high ground with a little girl on its back and saved her life before the humans knew what was coming.

And then they say that woolly bear caterpillars know when we’re going to have a harsh winter. When I say I seriously doubt it, they answer, look at the Farmer’s Almanac! As if that proves their point, and, since I never do, I have to accept that they’re right.

Elephants and woolly bear caterpillars notwithstanding, I don’t know whether animals sense that explosions are imminent. Possibly there are vibrations fish can feel in the water before the explosion occurs?

Even so, why would the ROL believe that she should have been able to read this specific message in the fish’s aspect? Wasn’t this expecting rather too much of herself, setting the bar a tad too high?

After all, there are probably a multitude of things that might alarm a fish other than fear of an impending explosion. Sharks, say, or red tide algae bloom. Killer whales. An ever-widening gyre of floating plastic waste.

No, my conclusion is that the ROL’s quote was in the language of dreams, the kind of dream that goes on and on and seems to make sense until you finally wake up and say wait a minute, and then thank God that was just a dream. I say it is crazy talk.

Molly said the ROL was knocked out by the explosion, which she was fortunate enough to survive, and that the last thing she remembers before losing consciousness is the fish. Which I think is not inconsistent with my assessment.

The ROL had some good stories, Molly said, but this was the first time in several months that Molly and Aleigh had been able to spend quality time alone together, and eventually they both said OK, that’s it, gotta go, and left the ROL on the beach.

Where she probably is right now, talking to someone else.

Have a good week.


(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)