Lizards, snakes, turtles, spiders. Pet material? For some yes, and for others a big and hearty â€œNO!â€ My own preferences run toward animals with fur, purring or barking or whinnying potential, and with mainstream interactive capabilities. And yet I completely understand the sudden and inexplicable bond that forms between creatures of differing realms. Itâ€™s not for me to judge those who have â€œa buddyâ€ thatâ€™s a dung beetle for instance, because I too have an unusual affection for an outlier of sorts. Allow me to share my story.
The White One
I have a need to be near water. Our property abuts a â€œnature lake,â€ which means something akin to a swamp and yet sounds so much prettier. Marshy views aside, it wasnâ€™t enough watery goodness for me. Fairly early into our home ownership I pestered my husband until he put in a small backyard pond complete with a waterfall that tumbles down a gentle stubble of rocks. I adore it. The sound of running water soothes me on many levels, and I feel sad when fall arrives and we are forced to shut down the pond due to our harsh Minnesota winters. The pond is deep enough, in theory, for fish to survive the freezing months. With no small amount of trepidation we stocked the pond with goldfish and a handful of koi, and theyâ€™ve overwintered surprisingly well.
I wasnâ€™t initially excited about getting koi because Iâ€™d heard they were delicate, fussy, and often messy during spawning season. Goldfish on the other hand, were easy to buy, easy to maintain, and easy to replace. I wanted easy! My husband ignored me and bought koi anywayâ€¦an orange and black one, and a nearly white one. I had no way of knowing â€œthe white oneâ€ and I would bond so deeply.
It started innocently. When my husband brought them home in bulging, water-filled, plastic bags the koi were perhaps six inches long. Babies, really. And because Iâ€™m a mother it was natural for me to want to feed the babies. Thatâ€™s what mothers do! My husband often chastised me because he approached fish ownership by the rulesâ€¦donâ€™t feed if the water temperature is below blah, blah, blah. Donâ€™t feed if you want the fish to consume the algae and mosquitoes. Donâ€™t, donâ€™t, donâ€™t. Well, I did, did, did. Before long the white koi became friendly. He (I donâ€™t know if it was a he or she, but I thought of it as a he) began swimming up to me whenever my shadow graced the pond water. â€œHey guys,â€ Iâ€™d say, and then sprinkle fish food pellets like manna from heaven.
Time passed and the white one began to follow as I walked around the waterâ€™s edge. Heâ€™d pop up and peek at me from beneath the cover of a summer water lily, or give a playful splash when I added water via the hose. He was a gentle soul, an old soul. We made eye contact and I felt an inexplicable bond withâ€¦ a fish. No fur, no purr, but it was there nonetheless.
Each winter I worried over the fish in general, and the white one in particular, as the temperature plunged and the snows accumulated. My husband devised a way to keep a small amount of the pond open through a bubbler and a 100-watt light bulb, but it wasnâ€™t foolproof. Would they, could they, survive the polar vortex? Did they have enough air and water as the ice thickened? What would the spring thaw bring? The uncertainty about the fishâ€™s survival stayed with me until I could make out shadowy movement beneath the frozen water surface. My heart soared each spring when the white one emerged from the pond depths and greeted me once again.
About two weeks ago our pond developed a leak. The water level drops to about the midway point, so we figure the issue is somewhere at that level. Brilliance like that is hard to quantify, but we go with it. My husband decided it would be best to take the fish out of the pond and hold them in a tank in the workshop until we resolve the leak, or until next spring if we canâ€™t.
The first fish to â€œvolunteerâ€ was, of course, the white one. My husband scooped him into a net and I walked him to the tank. In almost a surreal fashion, the white one remained calm and looked at me with unquestioning trust. There was something in his eyes that I canâ€™t explain, but understood. He didnâ€™t thrash or flop or panic. He remained still until I released him into the tank, and than began to gently explore his temporary housing. I had the sense that he knew I meant no harm, and that our bond was much, much, stronger than a pond leak.
We placed a screen over the tank, added an aerator, and hunted for the source of the pond leak. Twice a day I checked on the fish to make sure they were doing okay and to offer greetings to the white one. They seemed fine. They seemed to be adapting.
Last night I went to check on them before running an errand in town. As I opened the door vestiges of sunlight chased away shadows and I saw my beloved white one laying still on the cement floor. Somehow he had managed to jump out of the tank, although the screen was still in place. â€œOh no, oh no, oh no,â€ I uttered and rushed to his side. â€œPlease be alive.â€
The white one, and many others, had managed to survive the un-survivable two years earlier when our dog decided fish made colorful lawn ornaments. Surely he would magically survive this. But as I held him in my hands, willing another miracle, I knew he was gone.
Iâ€™m not ashamed to say I cried over a fish. Iâ€™m crying still. The white one swam into my affections as a baby, and stayed. Just as people bond with creatures that, for the most part, seem unlovable, the white one and I had something special. Something beyond understanding or description. Something old and of the spirit world. Knowing I will no longer see him swim to greet me, follow me around the watery perimeter of the pond, or assure me the brutal winter ended well, causes a deep wistful ache. He wasnâ€™t just a fish. He was a playful soul who touched mine. He was a friend who taught me joy in the simple act of being. He was, and will always be, the white one.