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Life, Death and the Survival of the Fittest

10/01/2012 10:57 am ET | Updated Dec 01, 2012

In my early 20s I lived in Tokyo for a few years, off and on. It was a great experience with the added plus of getting to meet a cousin from Sweden. Beautiful and generous Carlotta -- true to her country's hospitable traditions -- decided that she couldn't possibly allow me to live in a hotel: I had to come and stay at her apartment in Roppongi. Of course I jumped at this chance and moved in with her and her husband David, a big English man, with a smile that spread slowly over his face and a droll sense of humor that infected everyone around him.
I was fascinated by a big aquarium in their living room. Fish of every shape and color revolved inside the tank, swimming between fake palm trees and fluttering plastic leaves. They'd gently brushed the pebbles on the bottom, while chasing tiny particles of food that floated in slow- motion, catching the light that filtered through the water.

The gold fish were the best of all. They looked like ballet dancers with diaphanous red and orange chiffon dresses that trembled and swayed with each pirouette. Never in a hurry, always in control, they circled their liquid universe with poise and imperturbability.

One fateful afternoon I noticed a big commotion in those usually placid waters. A few tiny black fish were biting off pieces of flesh from the gold fish. Suddenly it was like a horror movie: Bits of fins, tails and entrails floated around, coloring the water an awkward pink. The assaults were ferocious and the assailants left their hopeless victims neither space nor time.

What to do? Carlotta was traveling. I was left with the sole option of summoning David. Without delay.

His courteous but firm Japanese secretary answered the phone and tried to make some sense of the hysterical sobbing and garbled message issuing from the Italian cousin. "He's in the annual board meeting. Very important, nobody can disturb him. Gomen'nasai. Sorry."
"You must call him, it's a question of life and death," My voice must have conveyed the gravity of the situation. Confronted with this drama, the secretary ran into the board-room and plucked David from the meeting. Unable to make any sense of my mad rambling, he rushed home where, in the meantime, tragedy had completed its course and the aquarium was filled with floating corpses. The tiny black fish swam around, satisfied.

What still stuns me is that David not only never batted an eyelash, but kept an Olympic calm. He didn't reproach me for interrupting one of the major business deals of his life and never accused me of being ridiculous. He just hugged me, calmed me down and proceeded to fish out the maimed bodies and take care of the few survivors.

It had indeed been a question of life and death...

Close encounters with mass murder (of the animal variety) followed me when I married. Our house, just outside Rome, was a bit of a Darwinian world where only the fittest survived. Our dogs, cats, goats and poultry would constantly fall prey to vipers' bites, the incursions of foxes and wild-boars' attacks -- but even more than that, to dangerous mankind. Unlawful hunters and people who worked for us were responsible for many untimely deaths.

One day, unbeknownst to me, a hundred ducks found their way into my freezer, where they stayed forever as I indignantly refused to transform them into Canards à l'orange. But the worst happened on a quiet summer evening, when I suddenly heard screams coming from the garden. "No! Oh no, Oliver!" My two young guests, barely 4 and 6, had witnessed the sudden death of Oliver, our pet rabbit, killed and nonchalantly skinned by the farm's caretakers as if they were peeling off a furry glove.

And then there was a true Romeo and Juliet moment. My husband used to breed tumbling-pigeons, whose spectacular mid-air tumbles, roll-overs, somersaults, backflips and final nosedives entertained and mesmerized us. Unfortunately, an especially talented bird had fallen in love with a normal pigeon lady who had somehow infiltrated the elite group. They spent their days in a corner kissing, cooing, and adoring each other. But when he stopped his tumbling, the lovers had to be separated.

After a confusing few days searching for his companion, the feathery Romeo began to throw himself, head-on, against a stone wall. By the time those loud thumps had reverberated inside our house and we had run out to check the cause, the unfortunate pigeon lay dead.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." Was Darwin right?

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