Creative Nonfiction

The Golden Myth

18 April 2016

Listen to Amie read “The Golden Myth”.

Like many kids, once I had a small goldfish tank. It was fitted out like you’d expect – neon plastic plants, chunky castle ornaments and a substrate of rainbow gravel. Yet of course, the first fry didn’t last long. It wasn’t supposed to matter. Each pet was another small responsibility that I thought of as a stepping-stone to getting the precious fluffy pup that my pre-teen dreams were made of. Fish, hermit crabs, budgies – my backyard was a cemetery for their little bodies.

When I was 14 I got really sick. Everything was really hard. Even getting out of bed was too much. Naturally my hobbies suffered too – succulents wilted, palettes dried, books yellowed. When my mum brought home her partner’s dusty fish tank, I really tried. I threw myself out of bed. Levelling up from tacky décor and tight containers, I filled my new tank with real rocks and living greenery. Even before buying any fish I had thoroughly versed myself on nitrogen cycles, salt balance, water hardness… I could have written the encyclopaedia of fish keeping with what I learnt lurking aquarium forums way past my bedtime. There was something kitsch about goldfish, the idea of a goldfish bowl on my bedside table with a little orange swimmer that would enthusiastically greet me each morning. I would sit bug-eyed in front of my first goldfish tank, mesmerised by the movement of their floating, pleated tails. I became obsessed with looking at pictures of all of the different types of goldfish – the golf-ball Pearlscales, the Bubble Eyes with membrane sacs on their cheeks, and the curved spines of Ranchus. Then when I finally got my two Telescope goldfish, regally dubbed Arthur and Merlin, I was immediately in love. Even just sitting in bags on my lap during the car ride home, I could tell they had distinct personalities. Arthur was almost hyperactive as he darted as fast as his tiny fins could take him. He had a never-ending stomach and loved to suck at my fingers as I scrubbed algae from the tank walls. Merlin was his yin: calmer, with a tendency to hang around at the back of the tank, slowly sorting through the pebbles.

There was a learning curve, sure – I couldn’t tell you how many times I spilt water on my carpet or how many shattered water-testing tubes I tossed. But my goldfish were neat company and for a while everything was really good. The tank sat on my desk and at night the regular hum of the filter was soothing. Plenty of sleepless nights were spent watching the movement of the fish in the slivers of silver moonlight filtering through my blinds.

And then I was sick again. I deserted the land of the living, including my poor fishies. Brown algae bloomed, the water quality dipped. Merlin was awkward and stunted, while Arthur’s pearlescent scales were tinged with red. I couldn’t look at my fish and moved the tank to the kitchen. When I emerged from my slumber, Merlin was sitting on the bottom, centred and stuck like a weight. Arthur was entangled in the air stone’s tubes – a buoy tangled in life support. I learnt online that you can use clove oil to euthanise fish. The sedative lulls them into a lifeless sleep. I wished that I had the guts to do it. Instead, I prolonged it. Arthur slowly lost scales and Merlin drew thinner and thinner. I did what I could, keeping the water clean and limiting stressful stimuli. But, it was too late. Their slippery bodies were so small in my palm when I fished them out of the tank. Part of me thought that when I brought them out of the water they would gasp, electrified with life and shocked back alive. My uncle buried them for me. I couldn’t look at them, or even think of them, without feeling that stone of guilt buried in my belly.

It was against my nature to give up. This time I didn’t just pick out a fish from my local aquarium shop. I visited practically every store that sold goldfish in Victoria. What I saw was horrifying. Sallow sores and weeping, pink-cottage-cheese tumours. Cramped, grimy tanks with black water. And so many dead and dying fish. Nobody even had the decency to scoop out the lifeless bodies. But finally I found him. He was the tiniest, stoutest baby Ranchu. He had a tiny tail, so when he swam he looked like a miniature submarine. I named him Casper for his ivory, speckled scales. I set the tank back up next to my bed.

Despite my pristine water and attentive care, Casper never prospered. It was only four days after I found him that I broke my anonymity and begged for help online. There I met Gale, a local, middle-aged woman. I was in awe – she was an expert, super-helpful and super-friendly. I went with my Uncle to her house, where she showed us her glorious, healthy fish. Imported from Japan, her Ranchu, Bubba, was show-quality. Bubba was like a mandarin, rotund and orange. Gale told me of her foray into goldfish keeping. Years ago she was helping a friend clean out their old, dried out pond. Beneath the scum, lodged between the foundation of the fountain, was a goldfish. It was alive, but had grown into an L-shape as it was wedged between bricks. Gale swore by the hardiness and resilience of these little creatures. She opened up the cabinet beneath her tank, displaying a stocked shelf of pill bottles. She helped me prepare this gel food with ground-up antibiotics (which she admittedly obtained in a less-than legal way). To force a picky fish to eat you calmly, but firmly, hold the fish so that their gills are under the water, and their mouth is angled out of the tank. You mush the food with a spoon and a drop of tank water, then suck it into a syringe and load it into the gaping jaw of the goldfish. Casper was too sick to fuss when I syringe-fed him. Yet he didn’t swallow, the green liquid slowly seeping from his mouth when I set him down in the water. I tried again and again, multiple times a day. I ended up, on Gale’s advice, dissolving a measured amount of medication into his tank water.

On the seventh night I knew it was Casper’s last. His grey eyes were flat. The bubbles of the air stone gently moved him around in the cloudy water. I woke up to find his slimy thin body transparent like wet paper. You could almost see the worms bulging inside his belly. Gale had told me that this is just what happens to ornamental fish, especially with the lack of quality care plaguing the consumer-focused aquarium industry. After all, fancy goldfish are inbred and riddled with abnormalities. Their unusual qualities aren’t endearing, but purposely propagated mutations. Their guts are all squished and prone to intestinal worms. Gale believed that Casper would have been infested when I bought him – he had suffered so quickly that there was nothing I could do to keep him on this earth. Yet I was, and still am, plagued with guilt. I did it. I brought him home.

I never did return to the forum. I was done. I had carefully cut a square of printed fabric and folded my Casper into a little pouch. My Uncle dug a hole so deep that I couldn’t even reach the bottom. And then I tossed his body into the dark. Years on the goldfish tank still stands empty in my kitchen. When I finally began to drain the stagnant, sour water, beneath the rocks I found little bits of what felt like porcelain. They were goldfish teeth. Now when I meet the flat eyes of dead fish in the Queen Victoria Market, their pouty lips and little pointy teeth remind me of my goldfish from years ago.


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