Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not Zen 156: Tradition

The toughest male swam ahead of the group. His eye slits opened wide. He glanced around to locate other, more senior cuttlefish. Seeing none, he addressed the loosely knit group behind him.

"As I said before, this is Turning Day. We're finished with sparse life on the long coast. We have undergone a tiresome journey ..."

"That school of snapper fish!"

" ... but we made it. Most of us did, anyhow." Like other cuttlefish, he used color and motion to express himself. For his regret, he kept his color a speckled blue. That color also expressed his disdain if anyone knew to look. His fins and arms fluttered to emphasize regret. "Snapper fish are usually not a threat except to the extremely careless. Today, we turn into a different current. We are leaving the desert."

"Leaving the crabs?" This was the female who swam closest to him.

"I'm tired of crabs," said a small male, three back in line.

"Can we eat something else? I'm tired, too."

"There's more to eat where we're headed," he told them all. "This is the current that brings us to the rocks of the south coast. There are mountains of rubble there, corals, ferns, and weeds of all sorts. On the sea floor there are anemones and sea stars. Around us will be puffer fish, angel fish, and other animals, some of them dangerous."

He flicked his mantle fins and rose. Alone, he turned from the stretch of white sands toward a line of grey grit and pebbles. The current above the sands lifted him. A moment later, it lifted the female close behind as she followed. One after another, the current made itself felt to each member of the group. Several young cuttlefish puffed their bodies to rise higher. 

For a while, they drifted and maneuvered with lazy flips of their fins and arms. Soon the grey sand gave way to other features. The cuttlefish looked down on a shelf of rocks below, all speckled. Those rocks looked unlike anything in the brown-white desert that the group had left. Although they were unliving, they had a texture that none of the recently-hatched had seen before in their lives. They changed their colors and fluttered their tentacles in appreciation.

The pack leader noticed a difference among the rocks a little too late. A hidden predator arose. Its arms spread wide. It closed with the center of the group.

The group scattered. The toughest male did not.

"No, dad!" He flung himself forward. His color changed to hostile red. His arms thickened. "Cut it out. Every Turning Day, someone imitates a rock and scares the youngest ones."

"That's the tradition." His father relaxed his colors to speckled purple and blue.

"You complained last time. But this season you're an instigator." Instinctively, he calmed his colors, too. He didn't intend to fight. This was the traditional trick.

"A month ago, I saw an octopus fool everyone and take a child from us." His father glanced to the females on either side of him. "I want to teach the newly hatched here to look more carefully at their surroundings. The south coast is wonderful, yes, but it's dangerous. We're not the only ones who can change shape and color."

"What kind of tradition is this, anyway, fooling everyone?" the male sighed. He flipped his fins and his tentacles to orient himself to the current. He glided. "I've seen your cousin pretend to be female so he could hunt in a wider territory."

"Yes, well, he's not a tough fellow." His father decided to follow. His color relaxed into a pale blue. "You may try it, too, if you're wounded and hungry."

"And if we fool young ones today, why not every day?" The older generation wasn't logical. That was the problem.

"We should." His father's humor turned him yellow-green around his mantle fins. "Did you hear them laugh?"

"That was from relief," he retorted. "They realized you weren't an octopus, that's all."

"Maybe." His father's leftmost tentacle floundered for a moment. He'd lost the tip in a fight. Possibly the next mating season would be his last. His color faded along with his humor. "But I like to think they'll come to understand. You protest against the tradition this time. But during the next event or the next, you may see the importance."

"It's a stupid tradition."

For a while, they swam in relative quiet. Although they had entered the southern current, the sea floor below hadn't grown very interesting. They could feel no tail motions of large fish. Below them, a pair of sea stars inched along. Such tough bodies were poor fare to sustain large predators.

"Traditions mean what people want them to mean," his father said after a while. "Some of these young folks are too accepting of appearances. So I say, this is a tradition of awareness. We need to cultivate their skepticism."

"Or it's an excuse for meanness."

His father turned purple. Then his arms and tentacles heaved with a sigh. The edges of his fins faded.

"You need to make the tradition serve your purpose," said the older fish. "It's there for your family, your friends, and your community. You shouldn't be mean with it of course. You shouldn't serve the tradition unless you decide to use it to serve others."

"Well, I don't serve you. Or anyone else. I've no use for it."

"If you say so." His father's color relaxed to be as blue as his surroundings. "But occasions like this let us reach out to others with kindness and love. And laughter. And surprise."

"Definitely surprise." The male found it hard to keep the ironic tone from his speech.

"And that surprise is a gift of awareness, which is a gift of life, whether people know it or not, whether they understand the gift or not." His father gazed off into the distant sea in sort of a rapture. "It's something we should do at every excuse."

The sea floor below acquired its first set of boulders. The male studied the mound of sandstones and conglomerates. Moss grew on the edges of each rock. A small group of animals must have eaten patches of them bare. He didn't see signs of the animals. He wondered where they'd gone.

They passed over a gouramis fish. It was guarding its marginal territory. One of the females in the group sank lower as it considered hunting the silvery gouramis but its body was obviously capable of speed. She decided to wait for something easier.
Stubby sea cucumbers started to become visible in the sea floor. They weren't much to look at but the young cuttlefish slowed as they studied the plants. Next came another rock mound made from chunks of obsidian. Ferns waved between the rocks. The male eyed them closely.

Suddenly, three shapes burst from the mound. Their dark bodies had been masked by the black stones. The force of their push gave them away, a pulse that was felt by everyone near. The sea grasses around the rocks pushed back as the three shot upward.

The male turned toward them. His father, next to him, reacted to the pulse with a burst of his own. He fled. The older cuttlefish soared upward and backward into the cuttlefish line. He'd nearly hid himself behind two females before he realized what had happened. The three attackers were young cuttlefish males. Their color had begun to fade as soon as they'd launched. They had tried to turn red but they hadn't been able to manage real aggression. They started to flip in the water, their fin edges white and yellow with humor.

The old cuttlefish vibrated with a laugh in return. He exerted himself and hurried to catch his son. As he passed the younger males, he gave one a gentle push.

"Did you put the young ones up to this?" he said when he reached his son. "I thought you were opposed."

"We had you going, didn't we?" The male felt his color soften. His father had taken the trick in the right spirit.

"They really hid well." His father flicked his mantle fins. His eyes narrowed in delight. "Really well."


  1. I like this piece. Traditions are so important because of how they connect us with something like family, the ancestors, our heritage or just a moment we share with our family or friends. The chains that we make each year fill me with joy when I see them...partly because we make them with you and partly because my house is filled with blessings from all the years we've shared this beautiful tradition.

    The way the cuttlefish could show emotion through their colors was especially neat. I wish we could do that; it would make people easier to read. Hugs! :)

  2. Cuttlefish are odd but wonderfully intelligent creatures. (We can see their immense problem solving skills and tricks with camouflage but we don't give them much credit, generally, I think because they live fairly short lives.) It's my opinion that color plays a strong role in their communication. Scientist have witnessed them tricking one another with color.

    The tradition of fooling people - of promoting skepticism - was certainly on my mind for this one. So were traditions in general.

    The chains we make each year are one of the best. Writing out thankfulness is a great thing.