So, of course, the next day at sunrise I was back in the park.
Once again, approaching the ash, I looked up at the stick. Its
shape seemed to suggest something, how it appeared snouted
at one end while toward the rear it presented a pair of knots,
lobed and ventral, and I realized it looked like a fish. A fish in a
tree! Amused, I slowed my walking and regarded it some more.
The illusion brought to mind a pretty word for these tricks of the
eye, pareidolia. From the Greek, it means “beside the thing you’re
looking at.” When we discover a face in cracked paint or in the
froth of our cappuccino, we are having a moment of pareidolia.
While the illusion was charming enough, its discovery brought
some disappointment as well, for I figured that the verisimilitude probably exhausted everything the stick had to o=er.
A memory of an early Peanuts strip challenged this presumption. From a grassy hilltop, Charlie Brown is pleased to find a
ducky in the clouds while Linus observes the stoning of Saint
Phillip. Schultz’s humor celebrates the quality of imagination
and the complex way that imagination can texture life’s sensuous side. Clearly, for Linus, those clouds had drifted beyond verisimilitude and into a mandorla of his own. In my own case, it
seemed there was more in the tree than I first thought. Indeed,
I got the feeling that the stick—now a fish— was not about to
be dispatched by my categorization of it. As I passed under the
ash, the silence above seemed nearly reproachful. The opprobrium had an oddly compelling quality to it, as if a cold little
planet were pulling at my breast. I continued my walk, watching
the lobed fins turn behind me and then disappear among the
branches. Pareidolia, it seemed, would not serve to explain the
fish. Indeed, as I left the park the term had acquired new meaning: no more a category of optical hustle, but rather the name
for a distracted third daughter in a fairytale, as in, Once upon a
time, young Pareidolia went into the forest and was accosted by a
fish in a tree.
Next morning, back in the park. Stars overhead, orange hori-
zon; all the eastern branches looked like the wreckage of cathe-
dral windows. I stopped just west of the fish. It was, as ever, at
fat rest on its perch. The opprobrium was gone, replaced by a
vacancy that invited consideration. I pondered the fish. Its skin
appeared black with white fleckings that I guessed were fungi. I
decided this fish was male. His circumstances seemed to reveal
his sex, this being stuck in a tree for so long. A female, I guessed,
would have detected the whereabouts of her interior and soon
disappeared into it. But this fish seemed to lack such recourse,
or refused to engage it, and so kept to that branch, day after
day, resolutely finning his predicament. But if a male, what kind?
Mythical, surely—an Ouroborus spread flat, or perhaps a Levia-
than, a small one, who’d made a very unfortunate turn in the deep.
Yet his silhouette, so factually piscine, refuted that deduction. My
form, he seemed to say, swims in taxonomies. I tried a flying fish,
a rainbow trout. But neither endured. His settled contours, his
shadowed skin, suggested a creature foreign to sunny waters.
He had that brooding somnolence one associates with bottom-
feeders. A bullhead, then. Or a dogfish. At last a carp came to
mind. Perhaps a venerable koi well into its second century. That
appealed, at least aesthetically, this locating him somewhere be-
tween a Basho haiku and an Escher print. At any rate, if I lacked
precision in pinpointing his species, I assured myself I’d gotten
close enough. My prima materia, after all, was just a stick.