One day last fall I thought I was leaving the Yale Law School Library but went down the wrong set of stairs. They led me into a dim hall full of tightly packed wooden shelves. I wandered past congressional hearings and city charters to the repository of Supreme Court briefings, through which I proceeded uncertainly, moving backward through the years, until I heard the sound of running water. I followed it. Its source lay across the aisle from Supreme Court Briefs: 1947-1942, next to a microform scanner: fish.

They live in a 180-gallon freshwater tank which for 14 years has stood, encased in a wooden cabinet about as tall as the average supreme court justice, under several faded black and white photos of men wearing wigs. Mostly the fish are there, but occasionally they aren’t. Once, when the glass of the tank had to be replaced, the fish were temporarily housed in Greenwich at House of Fins. “The ongoing joke was, we had these lofty fish, so when they went on vacation they went to Greenwich,” says Shana Jackson, who curates and maintains the fish tank.

Separated by thin sheets of glass from the fish, law students sit hunched over tables, faces lit with laptop glare. They are the reason the tank’s being: the fish are intended to make the library’s atmosphere more bearable during long hours of studying. With the help of her daughter and nephew, Shana carefully chooses an assortment of fish that will give the tank both balance and wonder. The result is a rigidly enforced hierarchy of aesthetics: top of the tank, middle of the tank, bottom of the tank; beauty, motion, eccentricity. The tinfoil gleam of the languid angelfish is remarkable on its own, but the best tanks also incorporate the movement of the long-tailed rosy barb and the “craziness” of the clown loach, which looks like a cross between a clownfish and a very small nuclear submarine.

Glowfish hover at the top of the world like living neon lights, advertising only the extreme edge of brightness. The fish acquire this color through a steady diet of bloodworms, which Shana allocates via turkey baster. When she tells me I can watch her feed the fish, I brace myself, but it turns out that to the naked human eye, bloodworms look like tiny red strings, not intestines with teeth (thank you, God). There are glass catfish whose transparent skins leave their spines almost bare, delicate little skeleton fish that drift together in the upper corners of the tank, like they’re trying to figure out how to escape so they can go find some sushi restaurant to haunt. There are mid-tank dwellers like the roseline sharks, the rasboras, and the lone German Balloonfish. (“I asked them to get me a normal balloonfish,” is all Shana has to say about that one.)

And then there are the bottom feeders. Spotted plecos, wearing the drab tan and black of a cleaning crew, use their mouths to suck themselves along the porous rocks or blades of seaweed. The tank is a self-purifying world of perfect 90-degree angles, a clear prism of a universe that exists only to display the beauty of its inhabitants, and as I watch the fish race up toward food, it seems to be outside the jurisdiction of want, even of gravity. But there is always the threat of violence.

After receiving multiple reports of assault by a tetra, Shana walked in to find it restraining another fish in its mouth. She immediately ordered the tetra’s removal. “Every now and then, you get a rogue fish,” she explains. Currently, Shana is dealing with a spike in uprisings by the clown loaches — “five clown loaches may be too many clown loaches,” she speculates — who have been challenging the status quo by swimming up to the top of the tank, hoarding food, and bringing it back down to their territory. To remind them of their place, Shana forces them back to the bottom of the tank with a long net: the fish equivalent, she says, of being waterboarded.

I ask Shana what happens when a fish, uh, passes away. She shows me the net.
It’s the same net that she uses to put down coups, and I wonder if the fish recognize it through the glass — if they balk at the color, a wrathful, faceless shade of blue that brings low the prideful, raises the departed, and delivers them to some unknown end. This end turns out to be the bathroom around the corner, appropriately unisex, accented blue and grey tiling and multiple yellow signs asking users to keep the facilities clean and to please remember to turn off the lights. Shana tells me that the fish, left to their own devices, prefer to eat their dead.
Although she wields her net among them like a gavel, feeds them, flushes them, knows their personalities, scientific names, and the temperatures at which they can survive, Shana maintains a professional detachment with the fish: “I don’t get close to them.”

Get up close to the tank, and the glass is so pristine that the barrier between you and the fish is invisible, and when the fish make their way over to you in iridescent shudders and stare at you through the tank with perfect, round eyes it is very easy to feel a sudden shock—where has the glass gone, make it come back. The fish come toward you and the clown loaches, quite close now, open and close their mouths, and they look like they’re shouting at you, and you can’t decide if you want to get a restraining order, or if you want to get a little closer, so you can hear them.