Dolphin Sized Goldfish
When I told her I kept having dreams about riding giant goldfish like they were dolphins, she laughed at me.
The problem was, it was never meant to be funny.
Those dreams came with such incredible, unbridled bliss. It was like being home, but I was beginning to worry nobody would understand that.
I’d wake up after each dream and feel disappointed, empty and apprehensive about the day to come that would involve neither joy nor dolphin-sized goldfish.
In real life, I have three goldfish. A ten year old white comet, a three year old red and white comet, and a two year old shubunkin. In real life, I feed my fish, then go to work. I come home, feed my fish, and then feed myself.
I watch the news, I watch maybe an hour or two of some show I don’t dislike.
I go to bed and dream of goldfish.
Sometimes they’re dolphin sized. I’m in the water with them, hugging them like you’d hug a dog or cat, in ways you’d never be able to hug a real hand-sized goldfish.
Sometimes they’re in huge tanks, bigger than what I could ever afford; swimming-pool sized, taking up entire walls, or with pyrex tunnels across rooms and corridors, a maze of hundreds of curious fish.
Sometimes they’re sick, or in leaking tanks, or dying of ammonia poisoning.
The ones where my fish die are the worst.
But more often than not, I dream of them being larger than life, large enough to ride and hug and marvel over.
I woke up from one of those dreams today. I rolled out of bed, and saw my shubunkin wasn’t doing so well.
He has a lump on his side. I don’t know what it is, and I certainly don’t have any sort of aquarium expert or vet on hand who could tell me what’s wrong with him. Vets only get a single day of training on goldfish diseases and biology, I’m told. Even if I took him to a vet, we’d likely both be mystified.
Where I grew up, you couldn’t keep goldfish, and so I think aquariums and fish bowls were somewhat of a miracle to me.
My friend’s parents kept a turtle in a tank, and who needed fish tanks when our backyard led onto coral reefs? No aquarium matches the memory of shoals of turquoise fish swimming through you as if you’re not there, up and through your shirt and between your fingers. Nothing is like the sensation of cleaner wrasse investigating the palms of your hands, only to flit away, put off by the taste of sunscreen.
No fish tank quite matches the sight of sharks looming up and out of the dark, passing by silently. Nothing comes close to the joy of teasing breeding clown fish, and their unexpected boldness in rising up to bite you.
Clown fish bites don’t hurt. In moments, I understood why they got their name, as I can’t stop laughing even as the grumpy, tiny fish in question tries to intimidate me away from its nest.
My memories are full of synchronised movement and jewel colours against forests of flourishing limestone, and as much as fish tanks don’t come close to the tranquility of those moments, I can capture at least some of it.
Sometimes I lie on the floor next to the fish tank, looking up at the goldfish swimming above and the patterns of the undulating water above them.
I pretend I’m under it all, and pretend I’m a rock or coral.
I feel at home when I pretend I’m some shelter or home for little fish.
My shubunkin is two years old, and has had an unremarkable life until now. I bought him in the local pet store, same as all of my goldfish. He was the least colourful shubunkin in the tank, lacking any red colouring, instead possessing interesting grey and black stripes down his fins like a humbug lolly. I nearly called him Beetlejuice for the stripes, but my sister convinced me to call him something less ridiculous.
I called him Kelpie, which isn’t much less ridiculous.
My sister pointed him out for his interesting colouring, and for the fact that he seemed to be the hardiest fish in the tank – energetic and attentive, following our hands as we waved them in front of the glass. He didn’t seem frail or lethargic, instead possessing a hardy spark of life in him.
We knew from that moment he was a fighter, and so I chose him.
He’d always been a stoic fighter from the moment I brought him home. He adjusted quickly to my other goldfish and their bullying, eventually winning their respect. I don’t know when they began following him around the tank and affectionately staying by his side, but I wasn’t surprised by it.
When he jumped out of the tank at five a.m. and scared the early morning light out of me, he survived. I quickly caught him up off the floor, struggling to hold him for the way he fought my hands, thrashing and slapping his fins against my fingers.
I dropped him into the tank, and he sank to the bottom, stunned. I thought he was a goner; I had no idea how long he’d been thrashing, suffocating on the floor.
Yet he pulled through, as if nothing had ever happened.
My sister dates a soldier, who claims to have fought in peacekeeping missions in the Pacific. Timor, Solomon Islands, it doesn’t matter. I wonder why they need soldiers for peace.
There’s stories about the starve-out in Bougainville, redskins versus blackskins. My sister’s whiteskin boyfriend looks no worse for wear considering the horrors he speaks of.
There’s stories about the horrific things Papua New Guinean military wrought on Bougainvillean villagers, rape and murder and bodies fed to pigs. For some reason, its the stories with the pigs that disgusts my friends the most, not the rapes and lost families.
He brags about kill rates and shot accuracy and I pretend he’s talking about video games. He remembers to mention rebuilding communities when I stare at him for too long.
Kelpie’s a fighter too, if on a much smaller scale.
Now, he has a lump.
The lump has started oozing, and his scales have begun pine-coning.
I still have dreams.
He’s strong and wild, the power of a dolphin in his fin-strokes, and his eye is the size of my palm. He’s not alarmed when I pet him. And the lump isn’t there.
When I wake up, he’s swollen twice his size and gasping at the bottom of the tank.
I move him to a smaller hospice tank, where I can monitor his behaviour, and the evil, oozing lump. The watery blisters under his scales, the way his swollen body obstructs his gills and causes his tiny self to gasp and struggle.
He’s still fighting, though. He fights me when I move him to the hospice tank, and fights each time I clean out the stuff that settles on the bottom of the tank when it oozes from his lump. I can feel the power in him when his fins beat against my hands. He fights to eat, even when he can’t swallow and instead spits out every pellet I feed him.
I know soldiers weaker than the little fish that barely spans my hand-span.
There’s memories of witch hunts and villages razed for the sake of blood price. A man who owes money is accused of sorcery. His wife is raped, his children castrated and decapitated, his family’s houses burned.
A young woman is burned at the stake, accused of causing deaths that could be so painfully explicable if the victims had access to adequate health care and doctors. Years later, her daughter is held hostage and burned and wounded for the same crimes.
Police won’t get involved for fear of retaliation.
Children are tortured for their mothers’ presumed sins, as if said women being burned alive wasn’t punishment enough.
Hazy smoke rolls across a sunset sky framed by valley mountains. I am home, but home is so inexplicably wrong sometimes.
Peacekeeping doesn’t always work when they leave societies still broken in their wake. Mission organisations achieve nothing when Lutheran missionaries accuse six-year-olds of sorcery.
I go to work, and am subsequently let go. My numbers haven’t been great, my boss explains. Things out of my control – the groups we market towards aren’t generally interested this time of year, and I’ve always been unlucky with catching potential sales clients over the phone. Secretaries don’t cooperate with me.
Despite this, the company can’t afford to pay a worker who’s not getting results. I’m let go, and I suddenly have far too much time to fret over my fish.
He’s still fighting to eat when I realise I have to euthanise him. It’s the kindest thing, now. He’s only getting worse, not better, as much as I held out hope that things would turn around.
I research humane fish euthanasia methods on Google.
I drink too much whisky.
I resolve to bury him under the rose bushes outside the window near the fish tank.
My other fish are still bewildered by his absence, thrown off balance. They don’t have the bold Kelpie to follow around the tank, now.
My red-and-white comet flits up and down the front glass side erratically, directionless. My white comet sits on the gravel, despondent.
The two fish won’t eat, and shy away from me when I pass the tank.
Goldfish are community fish, I remember. Goldfish have memories of at least three months. Goldfish know when their tankmates have been taken away, and they mourn lost friends.
Never euthanise a goldfish in sight of its tankmates.
Despite this, I still dream of dolphin sized goldfish.
When I wake up, my fish is a hundred times his previous size. He definitely doesn’t fit in my smaller tank now, and seems to have overflown onto most of my bedroom floor.
I need my sister’s help to lift him into my car, after I’ve folded all of the seats down. I have minutes to drive to one of the dams, I think. I don’t know if he’ll survive that long.
Kelpie is dolphin sized, and I am unprepared for it.
My sister holds him still in the back, while I careen out of the drive and along the streets in the dawn light. There’s not many cars on the road yet.
We swing out onto the highway, and I’m pushing my ten-year-old little blue car as hard as it can go, which is admittedly not much faster than a hundred and eighty.
Kelpie sits in the back, struggling against my sister’s hands, and gasps.
We drive to one of the dams, and I reverse up to the waterline.
My sister helps me drag the massive goldfish out of the car, and we toss him bodily into the dam.
He sinks, silent. The water is dark and murky, and I can’t see him anymore. I can’t see if he’s still alive.
For a long time, nothing happens.
Then, I see ripples, the signs of powerful flicks of a huge tail. My goldfish surfaces, gulping at the surface as if expecting food.
I wade into the water, and he doesn’t shy away from my hand when I reach to him.
His scales are slimy, and sharp at the edges. Fish are cold and metallic-smelling, and not always pleasant to handle, but I cried with relief and joy when I felt Kelpie twitch under my hand.
His tail flicked once, twice, and he was gone, disappearing into the depths of the dam.
I am waist-deep in brackish water, with slimy hands and a blotchy face. I am unemployed, I just lost one of my beloved goldfish, and I couldn’t be happier.
My sister and I drive home. We visit the pet store. I pick another shubunkin, this time a frail one with blooming patches of red colouration across its mottled scales.
We haven’t found a name for it yet, and it gets bullied by my other goldfish. I know it’ll take time before it asserts itself among the group. My sister’s boyfriend disapproves of me getting a new goldfish so soon after the last one’s loss.
I don’t mind.
I watch the news. There’s going to be an election soon, where I grew up. Bougainville is petitioning to become an independent nation, separate from Papua New Guinea.
Girls are still being beaten and burned. There are no women in parliament to use the single womens’ bathroom there. Things still aren’t okay, and won’t be for a long time.
In a myth from the Tangu people, in the north coast of New Guinea, a woman’s daughter is murdered by a man. She buries her daughter’s body, gets married, and has a son.
When she next visits the grave, it is overflowing with water and abundant with fish. The woman feeds the fish to her son and husband, and her son thrives, growing to adulthood overnight.
It’s a story about the origin of the ocean and the importance of fish. It’s a story about a woman who recovers from terrible loss and tragedy.
I go to sleep, and I dream of dolphin sized goldfish. I know things are going to be okay.