Thursday, April 15, 2021

Koi by Nadia Mikail

“I think we should get some koi fish,” Don said.
 
Kay slanted a look over to him. “Koi fish? We don’t have a pond.”

“They can live for more than fifty years,” said Don. “It’s a good investment.”

“I think you’re not listening,” said Kay, which meant it was the end of the conversation. “We don’t have a pond.”

“We don’t need a pond,” Don said, but Kay had diverted her attention back to her laptop, typing furiously away with her gaze focused on whatever important email it was she had to send immediately. The ghost of her attention lingered in the air. Don looked back at the website. Apparently they needed at least four hundred gallons.

***
Later that night, after brushing his teeth and turning out the lights, he said quietly, “Darling?”

“Yes, babe,” said Kay, sounding half-asleep already.

“We don’t need a pond,” Don said.

Kay sighed, the sound loud in the quiet room. “Koi need a pond. They get really big and eat each other, or something like that. Get a goldfish, if you really want a pet.”

Kay had allergies, so they couldn’t have a dog or a cat. Even a hamster made her sneeze.

“Okay,” Don said.

***
The next morning was Sunday. It was the day Kay needed to prepare for work on Monday, so Don sat and looked up koi keeper facts on his phone.

The day after that was Monday, and that was when the builders arrived. Don watched them measure proportions, check pipelines, smoke cigarettes in his garden. They left before Kay came back, late at night and exhausted. She didn’t notice the ghost of all that extra smoke, kissing Don distractedly and going to bed. Then came the excavation, then placing the skimmer and spillway, lining the pond, and adhering it. It took her a week to notice, and by then the rockery was being set.

The only reason she noticed was that a large stone had been accidentally left by the backdoor, and she had gone down for a late-night snack. Something woke Don that night, and he stumbled sleepily down too. She was framed against their doorway, watching their moonlit half-formed pond.

“I think I’m getting three,” Don said. She startled a bit, then pointedly looked away from him, back to the pond.

“I thought I said no to this,” she said.

“You said we don’t have a pond,” Don corrected. “Now we do.”

“I need to sleep,” Kay said. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Don said. He took over her watch when she went back upstairs. He stood where she had and felt the warmth of her bare feet.

***
Kay didn’t say anything in the morning. At any rate she was called away for a meeting after breakfast. Half-relieved, Don waved her off and moved a few stones. He sat on a large flat one in the warmth of the spring sun, right in the middle of the pool. He looked up.

It would be a good view for the koi, he decided.

Kay came back late. Don thought perhaps that it would be one of those things, just unsaid between them and lingering, the vacant space in the middle of their bed, but on Sunday morning she was watching him as he blinked awake.

“That’s quite creepy,” he said.

“Why koi?” she asked.

“They live more than fifty years,” he said. She stared at him like it wasn’t an answer. Perhaps it wasn’t, but she should have understood. Five years ago she might have. Now she stared. “It’s a good investment,” Don said, to the ghost-of-the-her-of-five-years-ago.

To the current Kay’s credit, she nodded once, slow. “Fine. But I’m not feeding them, you know,” she said. “I just don’t have the time.”

***

The koi came on Tuesday, once they’d connected the pump to the filter, the filter to the pond. Once the workers had left and taken their heavy, friendly cigarette smoke and low chatter with them. Three of them. A bright orange one, with white fins and a tail. One a paler orange, with a sleeker shine. And one with a dirty tar-like splotch on its back, Don’s personal favourite. “Hello,” he said.

They did not look up.

This comforted Don immensely. “One of your ancestors lived up till he was two hundred and twenty-six,” he said. “You’re all going to beat that.”

They swam, frantic and placid at the same time, swishing. Don sat by the pond a long time. The large flat stone he’d moved to the side of it and he sat there, sunning himself as they did.

***

Kay came back as the sun’s rays deepened into a darker gold, which was early for her. She stood on the grass in her bare feet, and she rubbed them against it over and over. “Do they have names?” she asked.

“Not yet,” said Don. “Do you want to help name them?”

“You’re just trying to forge a connection,” she said wryly, but stepped closer. “This one looks like a Lizzie.” She pointed at the brightest one. “And that one kind of looks like a Winona.”

“This one looks like a Richard,” Don said. “Dick for short.”

“Have you fed them?” she asked. “Did you buy the food?”

“They eat anything,” Don said. He opened his hand and laid the slice of watermelon down on a nearby rock. Immediately Lizzie and Winona and Dick came to nip eagerly at it.

Kay watched this with amusement. It hung in the air, in a way that felt surprised at how easy it had come. “I might feed them,” she said. “Once in a while.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Don said, and she curved a grin at him.

Things settled into a sort of routine. Don would say goodbye to Kay as she went to work and go outside and feed them. He’d spend a couple of hours there, reading. Then he’d go in and get lunch, go outside and take a walk, clean or bake, and come back in time for late evening. Kay would come home, earlier these days, and they would talk as they watched Winona swim in lazy circles, or Dick chase after some food. Then they would get dinner and go to sleep, closer to each other in the bed.

***

At least there was a routine, and then they died.

All three of them, floating on the surface of the water, mouths open in ghastly cold-looking Os.

Don sat there in the spring sun until it started to get cold, and felt rather like he was floating as well, outside of his body. In his head he saw his father and in his nostrils was the scent of the Marlboros his father smoked after dinner.

He didn’t realise he was shaking until the car pulled up and Kay called for him. Then a short shocked silence, then he felt her arms around him and her voice in his ear. “Come inside, please.” He tried to, he really did. In his head he was walking, but then there was a blanket around him and her warm fingers on his cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” Kay was saying.

He tried to get his voice to work. When it did, it was small. “You didn’t even want them.”

“I liked them,” Kay said. “I’m sorry.”

“They were supposed to live two hundred and twenty-six years.”

His father was supposed to live more than fifty years, too, but there was the night of the car crash, the night of his neck at an unnatural angle. He’d taken Don’s ability to talk, Don’s capacity to function, and Don’s relationship along with him, too.

“But I’m still here,” Kay said, and Don realised he’d said all of this aloud. “I’m no ghost.” Her fingers were now digging into his shoulders and she tugged him away from the sight of Lizzie’s motionless tail. “Look at me.” He looked at her and saw the ghosts of a thousand emails she’d delved into after her father-in-law had died but her husband had started haunting the house.

But she was there. Don kept looking.


© Nadia Mikail

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