Winnipeg ghost-fish in winter

Manitoba? it used to be a lake — a sea, nearly, and Winnipeg was a swamp. It teemed with life: fish, mammals, sea monsters. Today, as the breadbasket of the world, we raise our meals on the bones of those beasts. The dried lake is dusted with the sacrifice of these creatures, a womb that grants us life.

However, their spirits remain, still swimming in the places where the water used to fill. The heights of these invisible waters put our centennial floods to shame. You can feel their specters everywhere, and always in the winter, when frozen water blankets their primordial home.

Take the bundled pedestrian, who has the entirety of the sidewalk to herself. She does not know that after the 5 p.m. sunset, ghosts of prehistoric fish trail behind her in a procession. They too meander headlong into the snow, and swim and turn to the rhythm of her feet. Each bubble they breathe floats and cracks in the elm branches above, until the pedestrian turns to look at the disturbance. And that’s when the ghost-fish scatter and hide behind trees, waiting for her to dismiss the sound and resume her mighty trek to the next bus stop.

Her path is lit by the orange glow of snow banks up to the spot-light shine of a hill-less park. In this park, the shades of ancient sturgeons press their gaping mouths against wire fences caging a hockey rink with four sweating players. The athletes ignore the albino crocodile curling up in the goalie crease, yawning at yet another goal.

Continuing her solitary march, the pedestrian reaches the bridge and crosses the Red River, overstepping frozen seaweed that struggles to stand under endless cotton snow. From the bridge you could see how the flat river breaks and lowers in the horizon, perfectly framing the low rising moon. The waxing satellite swells and rises, but alas, it too is blind to the school of ancestral goldeye swimming past it like a sinister cloud. The ghost-fish cameo soon transforms into a cosmic silhouette against the celestial lantern’s alabaster sheen.

Finally, behind her, the pedestrian hears the unmistakable rumble of the iconic Winnipeg Transit. Naturally, she must run to the stop to catch it, and also be careful not to trip on any of the dog-sized lobsters in the way.

She runs past the McDonald’s, empty tonight, save for a few xiphactinus playing cards and mumbling in French, possibly bemoaning the burger filet. She runs past the 7-Eleven, where more fish shake their heads at school children getting Slurpees on bicycles at night in -20 C storms. She runs past the Safeway, whose parking lot is sad and empty, except for the few squids pushing runaway carts and pocketing free quarters for those Air Miles sales on tuna.

Finally, after dodging a crowd of remarkably contemporary looking jellyfish species, she reaches the bus and sits down. Little clown fish ancestors swim perfect concentric circles around her dizzied head. As usual, the waiting room on wheels is packed with ancient sardines, but thankfully the people in the traffic box are inviting and warm. The orange blur outside still hides the spirits of these unimaginably old fish — eating, driving and washing themselves (in bathhouses no less) and using the utilities of our empty world while we sleep. Can you feel them?