Late yesterday afternoon, after naps and just before dark, I decided it was high time I cleaned out the little pond behind our house. During our first big storm, it had filled with fallen leaves — at first they’d been piled up on top, but then they slowly sank until they filled the whole thing. For about a week and a half I couldn’t do anything about it because the leaves were all frozen in place, but now that everything had thawed, I had no excuses. I thought it was a job Niko could easily help me with. We would build good work habits, I thought. It would be stress-free because he really couldn’t mess it up, and if he wandered off briefly to play it wouldn’t be a big deal. And he would have so much fun. Water, fall leaves, a rake just his size — what could be more fun?
I didn’t count on having to incorporate a conversation on death, decomposition, and the inability of dead goldfish to lie on their bellies.
I don’t know what exactly caused the fish to die. They were probably pretty badly traumatized by being among the last to be rescued from the muck when we cleaned out our big pond, which turned out to contain a HUGE school of goldfish, mostly in shades of black and brown. I’m sure having their entire pool filled with dead leaves didn’t help. Nor did the frozen surface do anything to relieve their difficulties. Combine those problems with the fact that this pond isn’t filtered or oxygenated with a little waterfall or fountain (because the sweet little waterfall the previous owners constructed is so leaky that the pool loses half its water within an hour), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Who knows at what point these poor creatures breathed their last?
I started scooping the leaves into the wheelbarrow with a large plastic rake while Niko fished for leaves with his. I thought the rake would be a better tool than the big net because it wouldn’t capture the fish. I needn’t have worried. I was about three scoops in when I noticed the Smell. Yes, it was bad enough to warrant the capital letter.
I checked the bottoms of my magenta mud boots: no dog poop. I eyed Niko suspiciously, but I knew it wasn’t him. He hasn’t had a poop accident in forever — even when we were potty training it was rare. On my back, Sofia bounced and babbled happily. Couldn’t be her: she does not appreciate a messy diaper.
Two more scoops, and the first fish bobbed to the surface, blanched and stiff, eyes bulging. I quickly fished it out with the rake, but I wasn’t fast enough. “Is that fish DEAD?” exclaimed my son. I confirmed that yes, it was dead, as I carried it to an out-of-the-way spot between a large tree and the fence. As we discussed NEVER touching dead things, the next one popped up. This one was deposited with the first.
After I’d carried two more on their long-handled bier to the tree, I gave up. As seven more fish rose to the surface, their rest disturbed by my scoops, I set them aside on a flat rock. They lay there, stiff, on their sides, a grotesque tableau of the Feeding of the Multitudes with just a few little fish (no loaves here).
Niko eyed them. “Are they dead too?” Yes. “Are they making that yucky smell?” Yes. “Can you make them go back on their tummies? I don’t like them like that. ” No, sorry. “Can I catch one with my rake too?” NonononoNO, absolutely NOT. No touching dead things! Even with a rake! “But you are, Mommy.”
All told, I scooped eleven dead fish out of there. I’m now terrified to clean out the smaller pond next to the garage, now. Three of those fish are nearly as large as my hand and beautifully golden-orange, plus numerous black-and-orange and plain black or brown ones. That pond was similarly filled with leaves and frozen, but it has the advantage of having a filter and a koi-shaped fountain for oxygenation. And the refugees from the big pond who ended up here were earlier rescues. They may have survived. But I’m not very hopeful.
On the bright side, the onions? scallions? that I harvested last week and then forgot to lay out to dry did not rot, and I chopped up two for our chicken and dumplings that I made to cheer me up after having to dispose of eleven smelly fish. So…that’s nice, right?