Highlander in a Bowl: A Fish for the Ages


In the tank

Literally the only photo I have of still-living aquatic wildlife.

The longest-lived pet I ever had was a goldfish named Ducky. Other animals came and went through my young life: cats adopted before my birth, dogs with bum legs, rabid and ultimately too-crafty hamsters that had to be returned to the store in double-locked and duct-taped carrying cases to prevent escape or high-octane villainy. Ducky was a constant stalwart through my childhood, a calm, stupid, beautiful presence, never judgmental, never changing, and always there for me. She had a red streak down her back and a placid, gaping goldfish mouth.

My goldfish lived for over nine years.

Her arrival in my childhood bedroom is too far back in my memories to unearth. I remember little of her early days, little of her previous tankmate, little of what things I must have said to her as a boy. My connection to her was primal and innocent, a child and a small life entrusted to him. I controlled her access to sustenance, found out how to change her water with my parents, learned quickly not to slam my fists or fingers against the tank to get her attention. She was a little bright comet, gliding through a distant orbit in my room, and always there.

Years passed. I learned to tie my own shoes, I learned basic algebra. I grew several inches. Snow fell and melted. The earth turned. Ducky swam. For ages, I put no thought into her constant, comforting presence.

I remember being 13 and considering the absurd durability of my fresh-water Methuselah. I knew only the vaguest intricacies of marine biology as I entered my teen years, but I knew that goldfish, particularly my goldfish, were not long-lived creatures. They were cheap and low-maintenance and could be easily replaced or serve as elegant conversation-starters on the nature of death, depending on how much your parents wanted to bother. I could understand the vicissitudes of life through these creatures because their demises would be low-impact—sad in a general sense, but not the kind of sad I’d have had if something fluffy or cute croaked.

Before Ducky, a 6-year-old me had seen nearly 10 different fish come and go through my fishbowl. We always bought them in pairs, so that they could be friends, and I usually named them after various characters from movies or educational films I had watched at the time. I saw numerous pairs die off, usually simultaneously, in what I later deemed to be murder-suicides, or possibly chaotic and destructive aquatic love affairs that went awry. I would wake some mornings and find one body sunk down in the red stones lining the tank, the other floating airily, delicately at the horizon point between water and air. Ducky, too, came with a partner, but Littlefoot had gone belly-up within three weeks of his entrance into the tank. He was removed, and Ducky lingered on.

This is to say, I was well-versed and capable of dealing with fish-death. Even at a young age I must have proven frighteningly stouthearted, or possibly cold and embittered, and utterly unmoved by the rotation of fish in and out of my life. My brittle acceptance of death must have made me seem either like a budding sociopath or a long-suffering Bruce Willis character in a dark action thriller. By 13 I was not only cognizant of death and capable of dealing with it, I was also suspicious when it wasn’t present.

I remember bringing the subject up to my mother. We had once had a cat that “went to live on a farm,” a euphemism I did not decipher until I was roughly ten, when it walloped me in the stomach that Licorice was a totally dead cat. Was Ducky, too, a living metaphor, some attempt to preserve my childlike innocence, to make up for all the other fish that had died within weeks or months or days? Were my parents trying to instill a sense of hope within me, trying to foster the notion that Earth was not so dark and dreary a place, that maybe there was a little light on the world?

I sat my parents down for a formal discussion. I was mature enough, now. I was nearly a man grown. I could handle heartbreak, I could handle betrayal, and I could handle biology. Was the Ducky currently residing in my teenage bedroom the same that had swam pluckily through the days of my youth? Had she lingered on bravely, a valiant marine maiden forever dancing in the depths, a constant ghost, a spectre watching over me as I slept? Or was she some simulacra, some carbon-copy, some cheap replacement fish? Was she the True Ducky, or were we on Ducky version 8.4 by this time? I was old enough to ask, and this meant I was old enough to hear the answer.

“No,” my mother answered, bewildered and also a little weary. The tank filter we had purchased killed dozens of Ducky’s former brethren, which meant we cleaned the tank by hand every other week. “That damned fish has just lived a really long time.”

When she finally passed, it was without fireworks or calamity. She could not cry out or announce her coming departure, and she had aged as much as she was likely to age years before. Her passing was the flickering out of a candle that had long burned nearly to the wick—a sputter, an expected extinguishing, a lack of light where once it was.

My other fish had seen their final, cruel ends in the toilet. Sheared of their meagre flame of life, committing them to water, even sewage water, had seemed convenient and appropriate, in exactly that order. With Ducky’s death, though, a toilet seemed not only inadequate, but insulting. Ducky had outlasted nearly every other pet, and had actually been in my life for longer than some of my human relatives. She didn’t say anything particularly profound or help me with my math homework, and she never barked or meowed or learned any tricks or comforted me when I was down. But she had the years, and that called for my respect.

I placed Ducky in an old jewellery box, the only properly sized casket I could find for her measurements. She was wrapped in tissue, her funeral veil, and I moved to the backyard. At fifteen my sense of ceremony was still developing, but I spoke for her, in a language I doubt she understood. I hoped the words still counted, that if anything else, there was the sound of my voice, waves of sound hitting the surface of the water. Under the lilac bush, under the purple and pink blossoms on one sunny spring afternoon, I dug my fingers into the earth and laid to rest the most unexpected, long-lasting friend I ever had.

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