A Surprise in the Reflecting Pool
We are having a gloriously early spring this year and I am starting to prepare my highrise balcony for the yearly planting of my container garden. I’ve been small space gardening up here on my balcony for many years—it’s one of my favourite summertime joys. Who says you can’t grow a garden in the sky?
Since its inception, my balcony garden has gone through a vast array of incarnations. My first container garden was nothing more than a row of five flower pots, but it wasn’t long before it evolved into a spectacularly dense mass of lush foliage, flowers, shrubs, ferns and trailing vines—a truly impressive show for such a small space, if I say so myself. At one point early in the garden’s development, I even created a water feature, a reflecting pool (oh, the things my partner has hauled all the way up here and all the way back down again…). Our early summer weather was perfect that year—sunny and warm—and my partner and I sat out in our little garden every moment we could. We especially loved the new reflecting pool—it served as a perfect contemplative focal point for the garden.
Not long into that summer, we hit the road for a week-long road trip and I arranged for a friend, an experienced gardener, to stop by daily to thoroughly water every single pot (which at that point, numbered just over 60). He faithfully did so, lovingly tending my garden, which continued to flourish under his attentive eye. But something strange possessed my friend and for some unknown reason he could not resist adorning my new water feature with what he thought would be “a nice surprise”, as he later told me. Imagine my shock when we returned from our holiday and, as I eagerly inspected the progress of my little garden, I discovered five bright orange goldfish and ten little yellow eyes staring back at me from the reflecting pool! So begins my fishy story, the tale of all the little goldfish who lived in the pond in my balcony garden in the sky that summer. While some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, this is a true story.
What is the Value of a Life?
I was now responsible for five little, living, breathing creatures, and I was honestly thrilled about it. I knew almost nothing about fish care, but I did know that these goldfish wouldn’t survive without a few things. I knew that, at the very least, the water needed to be aerated—so off my partner and I went to an aquarium supply shop. Neither of us had ever set foot in one before and what a strange and wonderful world we entered. The aquatic paraphernalia available these days is mind-boggling. I quickly spotted the fish tank from whence came my little fish—my friend had spent less than $5 for the lot. They were labelled “feeder fish”, meaning they were meant to be lunch for other larger aquatic creatures. But I didn’t care. How can you assign a monetary value to a precious little life? Now that I had them, I just wanted to give my five little fish a good home. We purchased what we needed and walked out of the fish store, our arms cradling over $150 worth of equipment—what we thought was the bare minimum to keep our new little friends alive and comfortable: a pump (to create a little fountain which would aerate the water), gravel for the bottom of the pond, snails, a variety of water plants (to shield them from the sun and give them places to hide—some of which grew underwater and some which floated on top), fish food, a fish net, and some sort of tablets to take the chlorine out of the water. We also succumbed to a more frivolous temptation and splurged on a submersible water light to illuminate the pond at night.
I was surprised at how delighted I was about the whole fish thing. I was thrilled to have them in my little pond and I fell totally in love with each of them. I’d step out onto the balcony first thing in the morning, still in my nightgown, to say good morning and feed them. I was amazed when it became apparent that, even though several of them looked identical, I began to be able to identify each one based solely on its personality. I had no idea that goldfish had personalities! But these guys clearly did. The sociable ones came to the surface any time I showed my face out on the balcony. The shyer ones took longer to appear. I knew that I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help myself: I named them all. I was totally smitten. I found myself taking a morning head count as each one showed up to feed. And, of course, I talked to them. At night, I’d sit out on the balcony, listen to the burbling fountain and watch the calming reflections and concentric patterns of rippling water as the underwater light cast magical shadows and fishy shapes on the walls and ceiling of our balcony. It was utterly enchanting!
Everything was going swimmingly until, one day, I couldn’t find Jumper anywhere. I’d been enjoying Jumper, so-named, as you might have surmised, due to his amazing ability to leap into the air and through the fountain. Jumper was outgoing and was always the first to greet me in the morning. I was delighted the first time I saw a bright orange flash arch through the fountain in the center of the pond. But Jumper quickly got better and better with his acrobatic leaps, and the first time I heard his fleshy little body plink softly onto the inner edge of the ceramic bowl, I knew that Jumper might one day overshoot the mark. Sure enough, one morning, Jumper was nowhere to be found. I searched all around the pot and in the plants below. No Jumper anywhere. I had visions of him leaping clear off the balcony and free-falling down to earth. Or had a visiting bird come by on a fishing expedition, perhaps? The mystery was solved weeks later, near summer’s end, when I was clearing away some plant growth and found Jumper’s desiccated but still beautiful little body laying amidst the thick branches of an asparagus fern at an impressive distance from the ceramic bowl. He died doing what he loved.
I replaced Jumper with a new feeder goldfish, but the new one did not jump. Just as well – one Jumper seemed like enough. Everything returned to normal and I was once again thoroughly enjoying my little aquatic friends. That is, until morning roll call indicated another absent fish. This time, it was Shy Sally. She was not a jumper, in fact, she was quite the opposite – she was always the last to come for food and usually stayed well out of sight. I’m certain she was an avid reader. At first I thought she must have simply over-eaten and was skipping a meal – I’ve done it myself. But, after several head-counts and removing a few pond plants to have a better look, Shy Sally was not in any of her usual hiding places. I rolled up my sleeve and reached my arm shoulder-deep into the cold pond water. I took out all the plants and gently lifted rocks and the few shells I’d placed in the bottom of the pond for a homier feel. Still, no Shy Sally.
Two days passed and it seemed that Sally was clearly gone. On the third evening, I had an impulse to check the big conch shell again. This time, I lifted it clear out of the water. No Shy Sally. Then, as if from another chamber, a whoosh of water came swirling out in a big flush, and with it Shy Sally. She came tumbling out and fell kerplunk into the water. The poor thing had been trapped in some inner chamber of the shell for nearly three full days. I felt a pang of guilt – this was a shell from my own collection that I had added to the pond. Shy Sally did not look good. I gave her some food, and offered many soothing words, but she was not long for this world after that grueling episode of captivity. In the end, after all my efforts to revive her had failed, I flushed her unceremoniously down the loo, saying my final goodbye as she took her last swirl around the bowl.
Back to Normal Again
I did not replace Shy Sally. We simply regrouped and happily carried on with what turned out to be a particularly gorgeous summer. The balcony garden was spectacular that year, overflowing with brightly coloured blossoms and lush foliage. The humidity from the pond created a perfect micro-climate and everything flourished. I could not have been more delighted with my garden and my little fish pond. I loved to tiptoe out early every morning and greet my fish. I loved sitting out in the afternoon to read beside the pond, or peer into the water to see where the snails had gotten to. And we spent many a warm, enchanted summer evening with glowing candle lanterns everywhere, listening to the pleasant burbling sounds of the fountain and watching the magical glow of the pond lights. I love hot sunny weather and that year it was unusually hot. The pond required daily replenishment, as nearly a quarter of it would evaporate by evening, and I made sure to top it up each day. My little aquatic friends didn’t seem to mind the heat though. Apparently, there was enough water in that huge ceramic pond to keep the water a comfortable temperature for them. They were thriving. In fact, they were doing so well that, as summer began to come to a close, we started to wonder what we would do with them when the weather turned cold. We did a bit of preliminary research and discovered there were such things as fish pond heaters and, of course, we could always invest in an indoor aquarium. But none of the options seemed easy or cheap.
Flipper’s Last Stand
We put all of those thoughts aside and went off for another week-long vacation. Once again, I had my gardener friend come by to care for my plants. I pleaded with him to please not put any more surprises into our pond. He laughed heartily, but promised. The weather remained abnormally hot for the week we were away and the city was wilting. My friend took expert care of my plants while we were away but, in spite of my instructions to top up the pond daily, he apparently didn’t notice that the water levels were drastically dropping. We arrived home to a pond with only a quarter of the amount of water that it should have contained. The water was quite warm and the fish did not look happy. I immediately replenished the water, gave them all a fresh meal and calmed everyone down. And they all completely perked up! For a day. It seems that being poached in the hot sun and nearly turned into bouillabaisse did not sit well with them.
The next day, I discovered Flipper lifelessly floating on his side at the top of the pond. I gently poked him but he did not stir. I got out the fish net and we made the short procession to the Great White Bowl. I said my goodbyes and stoically flushed. I stood quietly and watched his inert body take its first swirl around the bowl. Then, as the water current began to build, Flipper suddenly and shockingly—and quite miraculously—came back to full and vivid life! Horrified, I watched as a bolt of super-energy charged through his little body and he began to swim mightily upstream, refusing to be flushed, powerfully holding fast to one spot in the torrential current! He looked like a salmon swimming upstream as he wiggled and swam against the current, exerting every last ounce of strength, his little fishy eyes looking straight into mine. Finally, he could hold on no more and, in one last swoosh and swirl, he was gone.
When the last three little guys floated up onto their sides, I dispatched my partner to fish them out, bonk them a good one on the head, and flush. We never did get any more fish.
There is, however, a silver lining to this fishy story. We really enjoyed the sight and sound of our burbling little fountain and the beautiful water plants which floated and bobbed like miniature lily pads atop the water, so for many summers after the fish debacle I continued to purchase new aquatic plants for the pond, which, to my happy surprise, always came loaded with baby snails. The snails thrived and quickly grew in our pond so that they were easy to spot. I loved to make a sport out of trying to find where they had all gotten to and I became very fond of them.
But I never named any of them.
My Balcony Garden in the Sky, by madlyinlovewithlife;
© 1993 A Gold Fish, by BJC; used with permission.