A Motherly Knight in Armor, Page 3

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It was a long time before I had another chance to be in at the death after a seahorse's stalk and this time I knew rather than saw what happened. It was in a small hand aquarium and against the glass floated a score or more of fish eggs that had come in with a surface haul. I was lucky enough to get a flat-field eight-diameter hand lens in position without causing the seahorse to shy. I watched without a wink and I saw the mouth of Hippocampus open wide, whereupon one egg after another simply was no longer where it had been an instant before. A flicker and I knew that an egg had been sucked with amazing speed from a distance into the tube mouth, but my senses were too dull, my rods and cones too human-slow to register such bullet speed. Then the reason for it flashed upon me and I saw how, even in its pursuit and capture of living prey, the seahorse still plays the role of a vegetable. The cheek of this fish is formed of one large bone, the opercle, and is fastened by strong muscles directly over the gill-openings. There are no clogging gill-rakers or teeth or tongue, so that a sudden lifting of this great pair of valves induces a mighty influx of water, sufficient to drag with it at lightening speed any living creature in the path of the waterspout.

I have never seen the courtship of seahorses, but it is described as most amusing, the marine stallion shaking his head and moving swiftly around the female. I was about to pen some light, casual phrase about all that was lacking was to have him paw the water and neigh, when I came across an account, which, as so often happens, made considerable sense out of a meaningless joke. For it is recorded that by cunning movements of the lower jaw the little fish can produce a loud snapping that increases in volume and frequency as the season of courtship approaches. They have even been known to call and answer one another when confined in separate aquariums.

We might reasonably suppose that now we had exhausted the little bag of life tricks of a seahorse: remains only to record that the eggs are deposited and hatched, the young grow up and the eternal cycle starts another turn. But we are only at the beginning. Hippocampus is to prove that for sheer interest the last fact may be first, that a psychological reverse may make all physical shifts seem trivial, that what would be abnormal in ourselves has become usual and general in seahorses, and (what in science is almost a truism) that to the most dramatic phenomena we can often ascribe no primary reason or ultimate value.

We left the male seahorse doing his best to charm his mate, curvetting about, rippling his mane, snapping his jaws. The climax comes when she approaches and the two little creatures, rearing high, meet in mid-water. By the rules of sex throughout the ages, at this moment the eggs should be fertilized, but apparently the race of seahorses is bound by no rules. At the moment of contact, one or several eggs pass from the ovary of the female out into the water, and by some instinctive bit of magic are slipped into the orifice of a pouch, which, like the pocket of a kangaroo, is suspended in front of the male. What we mistook for evidences of an unusually heavy meal is something far otherwise. Again and again the female swims up, and egg after egg is produced and passed between them. So our generous male was wooing not only for marriage but for the custody and care of prospective children. The last egg is tucked away and without a "Cheerio" or backward glance, the bride turns and swims off, to the work or play or meditation on life which occupies a lady Hippocampus I know not, after this amazing, ten-minute honeymoon whether to call her maid, wife or seahorse widow.

Also without a thanksverymuch, or even a well-merited sigh of envy of his more fortunate brothers in the world, our seahorse etymologically a woman swims off on his life's path, with his pocket full of the hope of the next generation of sea-pasture equines.

If it is true that the eggs require four weeks to develop, then a fathom or two down, among the eel-grass and seaweeds of Castle Harbor, a certain seahorse was courted, married and deserted on a Saturday night, the sixth of June. On the second of July we seined him off our bathing beach. As he glided gracefully about the aquarium I saw he was a horse of unusual beauty. He was full grown one hundred millimeters from snout to tail or less impressively, four inches. His color was a brilliant seagreen, darkened on the back, but the cheeks, chest and pouch were aglow with this beautiful shade; his eyes were blazing gold, cut four square by lines of alabaster; his neck was arched and proud as that of a thoroughbred Arab. The pectoral fins were long and wide-spread like wings, and the graceful body gleamed with a host of white dots, streaming out into constellations or concentrated into galaxies good reasons all for calling him Pegasus.

His pouch was unusually distended; now and then, even when he was quietly resting, the emerald surface was troubled, quivered, and was quiet again. I returned frequently to the tank and watched him time after time make the circuit of the glass and back to his resting frond. He was restless and gave no time to feeding. His eyes kept turning, twisting, sometimes in rhythm or often independently as if they belonged to a span of horses. So I left him at midnight, slowly gliding on his rounds.

The following day, at ten o'clock, I saw the first sea colt break from the paternal stable and rush across the aquarium. I chivied it into a narrow glass and watched it carefully for a long time. Its activity was prodigious and its position was ancestral. Never for more than a moment did it rear into a true seahorse posture, but was usually outstretched with tail trailing and head bent at only a few degrees, reminiscent of some pipefish-like forefather. Its heart beat vigorously and the great dorsal fin and the lower pectorals fanned the water and sent it swiftly ahead. The tail was the most amazing portion of its anatomy, it coiled and uncoiled, stretched and drew back, but especially it lashed from side to side. More than any other movement of fin or head or body, this lateral stroke was characteristic. When it wished to attain ultimate speed, it was by lateral wriggling, and when it began to resent and be enraged at the constant bumping of its nose against the glass it twisted its tail into a veritable corkscrew, then undid itself and with the greatest ease astonishingly entwined the tip around its own snout, neck and fin. Now and then it opened its tiny tube mouth, and the short, broad hyoid bone would bend downward in an absurd resemblance to a very blunt, second lower jaw.

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