"Is it dead?" asks a little girl.
The pike, lying on a table at the National Aquarium, is indeed dead but on its way to immortality.
Artist Terry Ravie is applying printers' ink to it with brushes and rollers, and when the colors have been blended to simulate the fish's own, he presses rice paper on the pike, creating a lovely impression.
Ravie and other members of the Nature Printing Society are practicing the ancient Japanese art of gyotaku -- an art the public is invited to try at a workshop this weekend.
The little girl is told that most artists prefer to work with dead fish because they don't flop around, but "there is a poet who takes the fish out of the water and prints them very quickly," pipes up Marian Cromley, who is arranging the antennae of a blue crab -- dead -- for printing. "He lets them move around and make their own print. Then he throws them back and writes a poem."
Eric Hochberg, considered the guru of American fish printers, is gouging the eye out of a flounder, then stuffing the cavity with a wad of paper towel to avoid a potential mess.
"You also put paper toweling in the mouth," he explains, "so the fish doesn't bleed out. And you have to wash the fish with water and a little Comet or Ajax to take the mucus off."
Hochberg applies several coats of red and brown ink to the flounder, then blends the colors selectively with a roller. He presses a sheet of rice paper onto the flounder, tamping and rubbing with skilled fingers to capture every scale and fin. The result is a softly ethereal image of a flounder swimming on stark white paper and looking much more beautiful than in real life.
"Eric prints soft-image," says Cromley. "But look at the detail. If you don't get detail, you're not a fishprinter -- you're kindergarten."
Other members of the Nature Printing Society are selecting their fish from an ice- chest full of flounder, perch, blues and butterfish donated by a friendly fisherman. As for Ravie's fish, well, "The pike is one of my failures," says aquarium curator Brian Montague. "It jumped out of the tank last night."
Fresh as the pike may be, nobody plans to eat it for dinner.
"I make so many prints of one fish that by the time I finish, the fish wouldn't be fit to eat," says Ravie, pressing the rice paper into the fins with the stick end of a brush.
But dinners with fish printing as the appetizer and the subject as the main course may someday be a possibility, according to another participant, Marilyn Micik.
"There's a soy-protein-based ink now on the Japanese market," she says. "We have a member going to Japan soon who's going to bring some back."
No one knows exactly how and when fish printing got started in Japan, but there's an ancient folk tale about a fish who was a prince until a wicked priest cast a spell on him. A peasant caught the fish prince and wrapped it in rice paper, creating a print so beautiful it was hung on the palace wall. When the wicked priest looked at it, the fish turned back into a prince and killed him. Ever since then -- whenever that was -- gyotaku has been practiced by poets, artists and scientists, fishermen who wanted to prove how big the catch was and shopkeepers who want to advertise fishing tackle for sale. Most American fishprinters learned about the art more or less by accident.
"I caught a fish about 13 years ago and decided I wanted to make an image," says Ravie, whose main artistic interest at that time was pottery.
Hochberg got into fish printing as a study break when he was writing his doctoral dissertation on the kidney parasites of the octopus. When Cromley, who lives in Falls Church, wanted some information on fish printing, she wrote to Japanese authority Yoshio Hiyama, who put her in touch with Hochberg.
"We had all been working in our closets," says Cromley, spreading black ink on a butterfish.
Now the Nature Printing Society has about 75 members nationwide, a half-dozen of them here. Many, like Evelyn Pennington, concentrate on printing plants or insects rather than fish.
But now she stands here, in a skirt that she printed with Queen Anne's Lace, trying to "see what a plant printer can do with a fish," and regarding the porgy she is preparing with a certain amount of distrust. After printing the porgy and a butterfish, Pennington turns to another subject and shows the print to a visitor. It is a beautiful image of a familiar creature.
"It's a cockroach," she explains. "I found it in the corner." PRINTING YOUR OWN FISH -- The National Aquarium will host a fish-printing workshop this Saturday from 10 to noon and from 1 to 3 at the Aquarium, in the Department of Commerce, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Children and adults are welcome and participants are asked to bring a stiff 1/2-inch paint brush and a tube of black, water-base printers' ink. Instruction, paper and fish will be supplied. The only cost is admission to the Aquarium -- $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.