One day a man caught two little fishes while hunting for crawdads in a small Texas stream with his two children. “Come see what I caught!” he called to Lilly and Brandon. They both looked up from their own crawdad hunt, and wading out of the creek and onto its rocky bank, ran to where their father was. “Come see,” he said again, and the two slowly waded back out to look into the plastic cup their dad held. “Wow!” they said at once while peering into the cup, their excited eyes discerning the two small fishes swimming in the murky water there. “What are they?” Brandon asked inquisitively. “Texas cichlids,” his father quickly replied, “they were hiding under a rock.” “How do you know they’re cichlids?” asked Lilly. “See the little black stripes on their backs?” said dad, “That’s how you know it’s a baby cichlid.” Both children were still watching the little fish swim around and around. “What are we gonna do with them?” Lilly asked. “Well” said dad, “I reckon we can take them home and put them in the big tank. I’ve been looking for a reason to get it cleaned out and set up, and I think it’ll make a fine home for these two little guys.”
They gathered their gear and made their way up the steep creek bank to where the Jeep was parked. Brandon carried the seine net, dad carried the orange plastic bucket that had the crawdads they had caught in it, and Lilly carefully carried the white plastic cup, making sure that none of the water spilled. Dad let Lilly carry the cup in her lap on the way home, too, showing her how to hold it up when they went over bumps so that no water splashed out.
Once home the kids couldn’t wait to get the two little fishes into their new home, but dad said that they would have to stay in the small tank until tomorrow. “When can we set the big tank up, dad?” asked Lilly. “Tomorrow’s Saturday,” dad said, “so we’ll make it our project of the day. For now, go ahead and put them into the small tank with the guppies. We’ll give them a little breakfast in the morning and then get started on their new home.” Lilly and Brandon couldn’t wait till tomorrow, and thought about their project even as they lay in bed that night.
The following morning, after everyone had gotten ready for their day and breakfast had been eaten, Brandon asked if he could give the cichlids some breakfast, too. “Sure” said dad. “Just take some of the flake food we have and crush it up real good between your fingers over the water. If they’re not too shy, they’ll come up and get some of it.” Brandon followed his dad’s instructions. The guppies, who were quite used to life in the small tank, immediately began sucking the tiny pieces of fish food off of the water’s surface. The little cichlids, however, just stayed near the bottom in a back corner of the tank, apparently quite shy and skittish. “They’re not eating, Dad” Brandon said. “Well that’s natural, son. They’re so used to having everything trying to eat them that they’re too afraid to come up and eat. They’ll get used to us soon enough though; I ain’t never seen an animal that would let itself starve to death.”
While Brandon was putting the fish food away, dad and Lilly began gathering the things they would need to set up the big tank. First, they went into the garage and got out all of the large rocks that had been in the tank from before when dad had Oscars, and carried them outside and onto the front porch. “What’s this?” Lilly asked when dad handed her something black and plastic. “That’s a filter” he told her. “It hangs on the outside of the tank and sucks in the dirty water, then lets the clean water fall back in like a waterfall.” “Aw, cool”, said Lilly. Brandon joined them now and carried out the items dad had given him. He didn’t recognize any of them except for the green fishnet, and so asked him what they were. Laying them all out neatly on the front porch, dad began to point out items and explain what their role would be in the tank. “That large flat plastic thing with all the holes in it is called an Undergravel Filter, and it helps keep the tank’s ecosystem working.” Lilly and Brandon grew puzzled. They had heard the word ecosystem before, but had no idea what it meant. Dad set down the bucket of brown gravel he was carrying and began to assemble some of the pieces of the filter, elaborating on what he had already said. “See, we put these fat plastic tubes here in the undergravel filter, then we’ll run some air tubing down into them like this, with a bubbler inside. What happens is that the bubbles rushing up the tubes will actually be sucking fresh water down into the filter.” Dad made a gesture with his hands, showing the water flowing downward toward the plastic grating. “What that does is make sure that the bacteria living in the gravel…oh, forgot to tell you that we’re going to bury this under the gravel first…anyway, the fresh water flowing down through the gravel will keep the bacteria that live there healthy.” The children were very satisfied at the explanation dad was giving them, but they still had more questions. “Well, what’s a bacteria?” Lilly asked. “Ah, excellent question, Pumpkin”, dad said. “Bacteria are teeny tiny little guys whose job it is to clean up all of the things that could dirty up a tank, like food that the fish don’t eat and the fish’s bathroom.” That answer seemed to satisfy the kids, so dad disassembled the filter and laid the pieces back out again. “Alrighty now, it’s time to clean these things up real good so we don’t put anything dangerous back into the tank. Wouldn’t want the little guys to get sick and die.”
One piece at a time dad, Lilly, and Brandon scrubbed them with old toothbrushes and salt water from a blue plastic bowl. After a piece was scrubbed, dad rinsed it off and laid it on a towel in the sun to dry. “What about the gravel, Dad?” Brandon asked. “How are we gonna clean that?”. “Not to worry, son” said dad, “watch this.” Dad uncoiled the green garden hose a few turns off of its holder on the wall of the house and put the nozzle down into the bucket full of gravel. “Can you turn the water on for me Lilly?” Dad asked. Lilly ran to the spigot and slowly opened the valve until he told her to stop. The kids watched as the bucket filled up and up and finally started overflowing. Once it was overflowing, dad pushed his arm down into the gravel as far as he could and started swirling it around and around. Immediately dirt and debris started rising and the water became muddy. The constant flow of the hose, however, pushed the dirty water out and out until finally, in just a few minutes, the water ran clean no matter how much dad swirled the gravel. “Alright, it’s all clean and ready for the tank!” dad exclaimed. He put his hand over one side of the bucket and tipped it that way, letting the water run out while keeping the gravel in.
With all of the parts and the gravel and rocks now clean, they carried them into the house and laid them in front of the fifty five gallon tank that sat on a black stand in the dining room. “Whew!” said dad, “you guys ready for some lunch yet?” Both Lilly and Brandon had worked up quite an appetite, and so dad made PBJs for everyone. The kids had a sandwich in one hand and a glass of milk in the other while they stood in front of the small fish tank and watched the tiny cichlids. The kids could see them clearly now in the clean water of the little tank. They were a grey color, like the rocks in the stream they had found them in, and they had tiny black stripes like a tiger. The most prominent marks on them, though, were two large black spots, one near their tail, and another in the middle of their bodies. To the kids, the fishes seemed more at ease now. They weren't nearly as skittish, and they were exploring the dimensions of their temporary home, picking for food amongst the white gravel. “Dad, they’re not afraid anymore!” Brandon happily exclaimed. “I didn’t think they would be for long,” dad said; “fish adapt pretty quickly to their environment.”
After they finished their lunches, they set to work putting everything in place for the little cichlids. First, dad put in the undergravel filter and set it up just like he had shown them on the front porch. It covered almost the entire bottom of the tank, and at each end a thick clear plastic tube stuck straight up out of it. Next, they took the bucket of gravel and cupful by cupful they put it in on top of the filter. “We need to make sure there’s a good thick layer of gravel over this,“ dad said, “’cause that’s where the bacteria’s home will be.” With most of the gravel in place, dad started asking for some of the larger rocks. “Hand me that one with the big hole in the middle,” he asked Lilly. She handed it to him and he carefully set it into one corner of the tank, pushing it down into the gravel. Several rocks later dad had created what looked like a small cave in one corner of the tank, with other rocks of curious shapes protruding here and there throughout the rest of the space. “Hey!” the kids said, “That looks like a cave!”. “It is” said dad, “’cause those little guys are gonna need a place to go where they can feel safe; it’ll help them be happier and healthier.” While dad was adjusting some of the other rocks and pouring the remaining gravel here and there to form decorative mounds and slopes, Brandon noticed one more item still left on the towel. “You forgot something, Dad” Brandon said. “Oh yeah” replied their father “the other filter”. Dad opened the door underneath the black aquarium stand and took out a plastic packet. He opened it up and took out something flat and fuzzy looking. “This is what lets this filter keep the water clean”, he said. “All the dirt and other things that come in with the dirty water get trapped right here and only clean water comes out.” “Cool” Lilly said. Dad put the fuzzy thing inside of the filter, assembled the rest of the pieces that went with it, and hung it on the outside of the tank just above the cave. “Well, what do you think we should do now?” dad asked Lilly and Brandon. “Ummm…put the water in?” they said. “Absolutely right!” said dad, and they took the empty gravel bucket into the kitchen and set it in the sink. Dad started running water in it, and while it was filling up, took a small yellow bottle of something and put a few drops into the bucket. “What’s that?” the kids asked. “This will take out anything in this water that’s poisonous to the fish,” he said. When the bucket was full, dad turned off the water and carried it to the tank, where he ever so slowly and carefully poured the water in, making sure that it landed directly on a flat stone he had placed near the end opposite the cave. “I’m pouring it in like this so that we don’t mess up the beautiful landscape we just made.” It seemed like forever before they had the tank full, but it had really only been twelve buckets. The tank was already looking like a cool, magical place to Lilly. The light through the water’s ripples made pretty designs over the gravel and rocks, and let just a little bit of light into the cave. Dad worked inside the area under the tank’s stand for a few minutes, until suddenly to the kids’ pleasant surprise, the soft hum of the pump was heard and silver bubbles streamed upwards in the tubes like pearls. “Oh!,” the kids exclaimed. Brandon loved the sound that the cascade of popping bubbles made; he just stared as they did so, trying to see patterns in the way they came out of the airstones at the bottom of the tubes. At this point dad stopped and sat in front of the tank, Lilly joining him on his lap. None of them could look away as the pump’s hum and the bubbles’ silvery streams and gentle pops made each of them smile. “Oh, forgot one” dad said, and reached inside the stand door once more. At once the soft sound of something clicking underwater was heard as the hanging filter came to life. They heard the water in the filter rising, rising rising until finally a lovely flowing fall of water fell from its perch and into the tank. “Now this is how to really relax,” dad said as they sat their admiring their handywork. “Sure is” said Brandon, with Lilly echoing last. “So when can we put the fish in, dad?” Lilly asked excitedly. This was, after all, the moment they had been waiting for. “Well, let’s just let everything run for a few hours first, just to make sure the water is good and clean when we put the little fellas in.” The children were perfectly content with that answer, and they both sat there in front of the tank for another half hour, imagining that they were little fishes, riding down down down on the waterfall’s deluge, going in and out of the dark but inviting little stone cave. Before they knew it, it was time for their baths and dinner so they left the tank to run in peace. Even from another part of the house, though, they could still hear the soothing stream of the bubbles and loud trickling sound of the waterfall; even without being able to see the fishtank, just the sound of it made them feel happier.
With their dinner finished, their teeth brushed, and their pajamas on, dad called Lilly and Brandon into the dining room. “Okay,” he said smiling, “I think it’s time now.” He picked up the green fish net from beside the little tank and slowly and gently put it down into the water. The guppies quickly hugged the surface of the water and moved to one side, while the little cichlids huddled at the bottom in one corner. Dad skillfully moved the net over the little fish, not scaring them at all, until he was able to lift them slowly out of the water. Only after leaving the water did they begin to flip and flop, but not a moment later dad had them in the big tank and swimming free again. The kids sat down in front of the tank, as did dad, and watched to see what the little fishes would do. Immediately they both made their way to the bottom and, staying close together, just hovered there, not daring to move an inch. “They’re getting their bearings,” dad said, “trying to figure out where they are, where the dangers are, and what to do next. It won’t take them long though, just watch.” Almost on dad’s cue, the two little fish drifted quickly over toward the cave dad had created and slipped into its dark recesses. From the right angle, the kids could see their tiny eyes peering out from the shadow’s edge, their little mouths and gills pumping water fast. “I’m so glad you made them a cave, dad” Brandon said. “You were right, it does make them feel safe.” For another half hour they all sat there, just watching the beautiful, disorderly stream of bubbles and listening to the pump’s hum and the sound of clean water cascading into the tank. Finally dad said it was time for bed and told the children that tomorrow sometime they’d see if they could get the little guys to eat something. Happy with anticipation and very pleased with themselves for making such a wonderful and safe home for their new little fishes, Brandon and Lilly went to bed.