Monday, June 7, 2010

MY FATHER'S FISH




It seems preposterous now, looking back: that fish pond my father designed, the one he’d sketched out one hot May evening on his blue-gridded drawing paper, the one on which he had penciled, in his precise hand, the exact dimensions of the thing and the directions for its construction, the pond he’d built by hand - concrete, brick and mortar - and its fountain. . . all of it stuck, like a gaudy luxury, to the front of a concrete block house that was unremarkable as all the other painted concrete block houses along our street. When he’d finished it and filled it with water from the garden hose, he’d stocked it with three - or was it four? - large orange Japanese fish. Koi.

I'd loved the pond then, for the fish if not for the pond itself, and for how, when I put my hand into the cool water and held it still long enough, the fish would swim to my hand and latch onto my fingers with their suckered mouths, making a tingling place at the spot where their cool, wet world met my heat-riddled, arid world. My father had astonished me. He had thought of this thing all on his own, then had drawn it, painstakingly and perfectly, in the dim-lit, unfinished workshop behind our house. And then he had made it happen.

If you had asked me, back then, to tell you something about my father, I’d have told you that he worked long hours at the Glidden Chemical Plant across town and that he came home reeking of that chemical soup each evening. I'd have told you how my brother and I held our noses and backed away from that stench. I’d have told you that my father sometimes took a shower, ate quickly and went off to an evening class at the local community college, even after working all day. I would have told you that he went to church and prayed and read his Bible, and that sometimes he’d just start singing in the house for no reason. I’d tell you that, sometimes, he sat on the back stoop and played “Strangers on the Shore” on his clarinet and that it sounded sorrowful and melancholy in the twilight. I'd tell you how I’d come from anywhere – the nearby woods or fields or reading in the house – just to be close when he played that song like that.

But that pond and those fish! They were evidence that my father also dreamed. They were proof that he had conceived of something beautiful which had not existed before and that he had willfully brought into being, that watery thing lit from above by the sun, that orange flicker of possibility in my child’s eye.

That first night, while I lay in my narrow bed beneath the front window - the window right over the little fountain and pond - while I tried to forget the sticky heat of the evening, as I lay there marveling that my father had dreams, I drifted off towards sleep while the little fountain trickled faithfully on under the great expanse of the dark heavens and the Southern Cross.

I began to imagine that our lives had opened that day to something new and that there was a place for these fish – my father’s fish – in our lives, and a place for that water-filled fountain humming beneath my window, and even a place for my father’s dreams. And because I was the child I was, filled with fear and foreboding, because I was a child with a "vivid imagination," and also prone to moments of melancholy myself, it occurred to me that winter would come and that little pond would be rimed then with ice. What would happen to the fish? Would they suffer? Would they freeze slowly to death?

My father, I told myself, will know what to do. And for the first time, I was almost certain of that. Maybe, I thought, he’ll bring them inside. Maybe we’ll have a tank of water in the living room like Beth Poppell's house does, a tank where they’ll swim all winter, safe from the ice. And maybe, come spring, when we return them to the pond, there will be big-eyed babies. I grew dreamy and content then, lulled to sleep by the soft splashing beneath the window, never hearing it for what it really was: the feral cats gathering to feed on my father’s beautiful fish, picking the bright, fleshy parts from his dreams, discarding the impossible bones.