You could see, just from Nick’s posture, that something was very wrong. As I walked towards the garden from the street where I had left the car, there was just something in the bleak way he was holding himself, looking out across the pond. So I was at least partly prepared. Just not enough. He didn’t need to say a word. As I stood beside him, the sight of floating bodies and the white bellies of fish that had sunk to the bottom told their own story.
My camera was in my bag, so I took pictures. …and this is not as horrible as it may sound. They are Nick’s fish, and Nick’s eyesight was one of the things damaged by the attack that left him unable to walk. The camera allows him to see things he would have no other hope of seeing. And, if we could learn from this disaster, it might help another fish.
The fish are already stressed by all the building work going on around them. The fountain was temporarily out of action while the new flower beds were being built, but the new pump and filter were acting as a waterfall, which should have been enough. We had already decided, that evening… when he called me about a butterfly that needed to be rescued…that we would clean them both out next morning as a matter of course. It wouldn’t be easy, with the garden a building site, and no handrails for Nick to get around…but we’d manage somehow. But we were a day too late.
There was no blame to anyone… except that the fish are in our care. It was a concatenation of circumstances. Temperatures had soared. No-one felt great or had the energy to think. The air was heavy and hard to breathe. The trouble is, that while oxygen in breathable air is measured in a couple of hundred-thousand parts per million, the available oxygen in a pond measures only in single figures… so any drop can be dangerous. And in very hot weather, it drops rapidly.
If we’d cleaned the filter and pump… if we’d made sure the fountain was reinstated… if I’d got dressed again and gone back into town to rescue the butterfly….if, if, if… but ifs and blame would serve no purpose and help no fish. I dosed the pond with water conditioner and set the cool hosepipe to play over the surface to get the oxygen levels up.
We cleaned out the new filter and started a water change and while that was going, I jerry-rigged the fountain, connected the pipework and got the thing spewing out oxygenated water as fast as I could. The pump needed cleaning, the fall of water increasing… and when we had done all we could to get conditions in the water better, we faced the saddest of tasks.
We did not know how many or which fish were dead. We hoped that some of the ones we could see, at least, might ‘only’ be near death and could be saved…which is why we’d left them in there as we worked. Trooper, the ‘little fish who swam’, had taught us a great deal about hoping beyond reasonable hope where fish were concerned. We were not going to give up until we were forced.
Some of the fish hung at the surface, struggling dreadfully against their inability to breathe. There was hope there…as soon as the oxygen levels went up, they might recover. The great, white underbellies of all three sturgeon were visible as they lay on the bottom of the pond… we did not know if they would pull through. Sadly, though, there was at least one fish I knew for certain was beyond help…my friend, Simon, the bubble-blower. His was the first face I saw… and you could see it and feel it. The presence of life had left. And there were others.
We spread a sheet on the rough ground, unable to place their bodies on sharp stones, even though they would no longer know. With a face as wet as the pond, I took the net and began to remove the fish who had left us.
Ten fish, all of them magnificent, friendly creatures. And then, when I checked in the plants, a baby too. The whole family of barbels…the babies had been born in the pond. My friend Simon and a mirror carp. Fat Fish, who had survived so much. Bent-Tail who had taught so much. Another beautiful golden orfe…. It had been bad enough until then. But there was yet another orfe, one with distinctive black markings upon his back. Trooper.
We checked each one before taking them out of the pond, wanting to be very sure. Some had already stiffened, Trooper had, apparently, not long passed. His eyes were still brilliant as we held him in the net, beneath the surface of the water with fresh water playing over him, hoping he would pull off yet another miracle, but it was not to be. Yet, as we watched and waited, I saw a fish swim by that looked like Trooper. For a moment, we both hoped… but it was only for a moment. I laid him with the others, so Nick could say goodbye.
Once the fish had been wrapped and laid to rest, and after nearly three hours of solid work, I finally got to make us a much needed coffee. As the kettle was boiling, I caught sight of the trapped butterfly Nick had called about the night before. Opening the window, I ushered it outside, but, instead of flying off, it just dropped to the sill. After a day inside…and such a hot day… I thought it had to be dehydrated. I grabbed a pipette I use for testing the pond and took the fragile creature some honey and water.
I had expected it to be gone, but it was still there… and I watched as it uncurled the spiral proboscis to drink. It shook out its wings and flew…to my hand. I carried it across to where Nick was sitting by the pond… a small thing, but beautiful…and perhaps the light of one tiny life saved in face of such heartache would help and heal.
It flew from my hand…and found its own place to rest awhile. Not entirely practical, but neither butterfly nor perch seemed to mind much. I let the tiny creature crawl onto my finger and placed it in Nick’s hand with a pool of sweet water to drink. It took…and gave… what was needed, lifting hurting hearts a little, before it finally flew away.
Sunday or not, the gardeners, hearing what had happened, arrived to see what they could do to help. The three big sturgeon were still hanging in the water upside down… only the little white albino had begun to recover. They helped set up a better version of my jerry-rigged system and moved some plants so I could check for fish beneath them but the only further casualty was the gardener, who managed to saw his finger…
As we worked, our hearts were lifted once again as the Lancaster bomber circled three times, very low, right above Nick’s home. It is a plane that has its own history and memories, but it is more than that for us, as it speaks of family and love, of childhood and of the gifts and sacrifices unconditional love can make. A completely surreal moment… but it made us pause, and smile through different tears.
By the end of the afternoon, only two of the sturgeon were belly-up and they were still breathing. Everyone else looked okay, there was nothing more we could do except watch and we were both exhausted, covered in mud and fish-slime. A neighbour came round, out of the blue… a gentleman recently bereaved, offering just the right gesture to Nick and I left them to talk while I made food for Nick, in case he was hungry later.
Eventually, Nick sent me home, asking me to check the sturgeon one last time first. As I leaned over the pond, my sandaled foot caught the rock I had brought back from the Hebrides for the pond… and I found myself considering the small pool of blood pouring into the water. I decided that going home would be the safest course at that point…
I hadn’t been home long when the phone rang. After the shocked expletives had died down, Nick told me how he’d seen one of the remining orfe shoot itself out of the pond to land, on the opposite side of the garden, near the roses, with an incredible leap. Without handrails, neither I nor Nick have any idea how he managed to get around the pond in time to pick it up. “I must have thrown it back into the water…” He’s cut himself on the rescue mission… the third of us to do so in the same spot in the garden that day, all in different ways… but nothing to worry me.
Oddly, the fish he had rescued was the same orfe I had momentarily mistaken for Trooper as we were watching him in the net. “He’s swimming just in front of me now,” said Nick. “He doesn’t seem to want to leave…” As if saying, thank you, perhaps? “I will name him ‘Icarus’.”
I know… it is a long post for ‘a few fish’. But these were not ‘just’ fish… they were beings with their own characters, alien to us, perhaps, but not entirely. We shared fragments of the same life and knew each other in a way that reached across the barriers of species. We cared for them… and as we wait to see whether the sturgeons will make it through the night, we can look back on the life-lessons we have learned from these fish. And they are many and valuable lessons, from the lightly philosophical to the deepest lessons of love and hope.
It was a surreal day, with so many emotions, so many random, weird things happening… as if life and fish were conspiring to teach us yet another lesson. What this time? That love knows no limits, regardless of species… or any other label? That we are here to participate in life… not as spectators, nor even as actors, but to live it, feel it… immerse ourselves in it? Or perhaps simply that no moment is so bleak that neither beauty nor hope can exist… even if they, like life itself, are as fragile and ephemeral as a butterfly.