The Unwitting Murder

Posted on 27 May 2009

Sometime last week–either Thursday or Friday, mid- to late-morning–a man came into my back yard with his lawn mower. This is normal; he does it every couple of weeks, though as far as I have been able to tell he doesn’t follow any strict mowing schedule. He does an excellent job cutting our lawn, and in the spring and fall even helps to pull out dead plants and trim back weeds along the yard edges. How much of this caretaking he arranged specifically with my landlady, I am unsure; but the periodic mowing of the lawn is certainly one of the outdoor activities that begin again each spring, like walking to the farmers’ market.

It therefore came as no surprise that he showed up, last Thursday, and began mowing our back yard.  Pushing and pulling, he covered the fresh green grass with his whining, grinding machine, and when he arrived at the electrical plug leading to the filter fountain for our fish pond, he unplugged it and placed it on the rocks next to the pond–so as not to run over it with the mower (or what clearly would have been a highly dangerous, possibly fatal mistake).  After a few more minutes he finished mowing the lawn (despite my great pride in it, we have a very small back yard), collected his equipment, and left.  Or, I should say, left the electrical cord to the filter, unplugged, lying peacefully beside the fish pond.

He undoubtedly did not realize that this little fountain is not only a decorative item, but an important element of survival for the goldfish living in the pond.  He also didn’t know that my boyfriend and I had left the house earlier that day, en route to Boston for the long weekend.  Although we normally turn the filter off during the day to save electricity, we had purposely left it running that day, so that the water would stay reasonably clean in our absence.  Though its true weight was only superficially understood by us at the time, this decision, and its very real meaning for our fish, was absolutely vital.

For the next four days, our seven goldfish swam around in increasingly clouded, debris-filled water.  Filter issues aside, goldfish are known to be fairly dirty fish.  Despite the stereotype of a goldfish in a bowl (hence the term, “goldfish bowl”), they won’t survive for long in a tank without a filter; in other words, they tend to be very messy, and don’t clean up after themselves.  Complicating matters still further is the naturally variable cleanliness of the pond, due to its outdoor surroundings.  It just so happens that overhanging our charming little fish pond, stands a not-so-charming American holly tree.  I knew almost nothing about hollies before moving to DC, and what I did know was mostly tinged with tinseled thoughts of Christmas, decking the halls fa-la-la (or something), and a vague picture of cheerful green leaves with red berries.

Unfortunately, this merry vision was quick to depart, once I began keeping goldfish in the pond beneath our tree.  In short order, I came to discover that holly trees are almost as dirty as goldfish.  First of all, in the spring and to some extent the fall, this tree sheds its stiff, prickly little leaves almost constantly.  These, I found, are perilous to collect with the naked hand–their awkward shape and curves make it almost impossible to pick up a handful without getting pricked in a dozen spots–and make the prospect of enjoying the vicinity of the pond in bare feet entirely out of the question, unless you take pleasure from the darkly devious combination of pain and surprise.  On more than one occasion, these little suckers have drawn blood; casting a grizzly shadow over more than one joyful Christmas vision.  And it doesn’t end there.  Soon after the mass dumping of spring leaves come the holly flowers, which consist of tiny, fluffly little white bunches that disintegrate gradually (read: painfully slowly) and float in a thick, pale coat on top of the water.  If not collected promptly with a fish net, these will float lazily just below the surface, and eventually sink to the bottom in a dense blanket that covers the entire pool.  Finally, the stems that held the flowers on detach, as well, and descend to dance clumsily in the splash of the filter before finally joining the other debris at the bottom.  All of this flotsam hovers on the surface for a day or maybe two, before ending up here, where it clogs the filter and slowly disintegrates into a foggy brown mush.  The fish like to pick around in it as I swipe out large clumps with the fish net, but this past weekend it proved the key to their demise.

I arrived home from Boston, exhausted, on Monday night.  Dusk was gathering as I pulled into the driveway and unloaded the car.  Passing through the yard on the way to the house, I immediately noticed the unplugged filter cord lying on the rocks and thought it strange.  On my way back outside for the next load, I walked over to check things out.  The water in the pond, vaguely darkened by the evening shadows, looked cloudy and grey.  As I plugged the filter back in I briefly saw one of the fish surface through the murk and nibble at something, before descending back out of sight.  Though obviously dirty due to the break in filtering, the pond itself seemed more or less normal–there were only a few leaves and flowers that I could see floating between the lily pads–and so I returned to unloading the car.  As I brought in the last few bags, raindrops began to fall out of low-hanging clouds, and I decided to check in on the fish the following day.

If only I had known, what I’d find then!  Arriving back home yesterday after work, I wandered out to poke around the back yard–one of my favorite post-work activities.  The sky was again cloudy and the air damp and cool; but I wore shorts just in case I had to do a little pond work.  A smart decision, as I soon found out.  Striding across our small lawn to the water’s edge, I immediately noticed a strange, billowing white foam that gathered and pulsed around the filter fountain.  “That’s weird,” I thought, “…never seen that before.”  Then I noticed the smell.  It wasn’t an odor that jumped out at you, but once I was standing right beside the pond it was an undisputed presence, hovering ominously over the water like an unwashed spectre.  It struck me as somewhere between the smell of dirty feet and wet sheep.  If you’re not familiar with the latter, it’s a rich, almost creamy animal smell with a certain gamey tang.  Unless you’re a sheep, it’s not a nice smell.

I began to get the feeling that something was very wrong.  The water still looked very cloudy with a brown, billowing mist, and as I reached in with the fish net I could barely see beyond two inches underwater.  Then I saw them: two bodies, floating by the edge of the pool.  As the water moved they seemed to gravitate toward the sides, lying limply on their sides with glazed eyes and dulled skin.  I hasten to collect them from the water with my net, as tiny bubbles of frustration and sadness spread and burst within me.  The former gleam of their bright orange bodies, which used to glint so smartly in the sun, had become muted by a thin layer of whitish slime.  With little ceremony, I buried them in the garden (fish carcasses, I have heard, are good for vegetables) and returned to the pond-cleaning with a sigh.

But it wasn’t over, yet.  As I continued collecting holly flowers from the bottom of the pool, the malodorous water churned up still more bodies: my big-bellied friend “Guapo”, and finally one of my favorites–a little black one with big eyes.  Both surfaced to hug the water’s edge shyly, as if in shame of their own murder.  They, too, went into the garden, and after thoroughly cleaning out the tragically under-utilized filter, I returned to the house.  Dejected on the phone last night, I bemoaned the loss of our fair fishies to my boyfriend, and agonized over who’s fault it was–ours, or the lawn mower man’s?–and got nowhere.  Today I changed out some of the water in the pond and again cleaned the water with the net, but for all my inspired action found my efforts rewarded with still another carcass–this one belonging to “Garfield,” our sole speckled goldfish.  Garfield was laid to rest in the tomato pot, his faded speckles disappearing beneath the tiny clods of dark brown earth.  Now settled back inside with a cup of tea, I sincerely hope that he is the last to go.

After this experience, I am unsure of whether I will get more goldfish for the pond.  As far as I know, two remain; and for their benefit I will be erecting a sign next to the pond, the first chance I get: “If you unplug the fountain, please plug it in again!  Our fish depend on it.”  I will refrain from using this notice as an outlet to vent my frustration (for example, “Do you want blood on your hands?  Leave this filter unplugged, and you become a murderer!” or simply “An Unplugged Filter=Death to Innocents”) and instead quietly resolve to protect the (what I believe to be) two remaining fishies from any perils resulting from a simple weekend away from home–for my peace of mind, as much as theirs.


1 Response to The Unwitting Murder

  • Damien says:

    Good post, even though it makes me sad to think of how Garfield’s life was snuffed out before his time. I sincerely hope he was the last of the casualties.

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