It was early on the morning of my birthday. My husband had given me a computer gadget just after our sunrise coffee ritual. Knowing me as he does, he knew that particular gift would send me directly to my computer to fiddle with the thing, giving him time to retrieve the real present.
I was totally engrossed by the exciting blue line of progress (57% complete!) when I became vaguely aware that Quintin was standing outside, peering at me through the sliding glass door. I ignored him until he tapped on the glass. One glance and I broke into laughter. He was holding up a water-filled plastic bag right in front of his face and grinning ear to ear. His normally handsome features were distorted into something clown-like, bordering on inhuman, which was the part that made me laugh; what was swimming around in the water was the part that made me squeal with delight.
Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Months before, our beautiful back yard – one of the primary reasons we had purchased the house – had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The FEMA agent had explained that we had experienced a microburst, sort of a mini-tornado with a small area of concentration. It came down directly in our yard and only our yard. The houses on each side of us had every tree intact. We lost eight large trees in a very small area, along with our fence all the way around.
I was brokenhearted. The initial shock was followed by a slow realization that there was even more mess to follow. Stumps had to be ground down or pulled out with heavy machinery, which meant that even the grass was now destroyed as well. The lemonade we decided to make out of these lemons consisted of two parts: a vegetable garden, heretofore impossible because of the deep shade, and a koi pond, because there was already an initial big hole from the stump removal anyway.
Getting the vegetable garden going was easy enough. Twenty bucks at Home Depot for a few starter plants and we were in business.
The pond became one of those projects that seemed to go on forever. Quintin dug the hole in the shape of a horseshoe, for good luck with the coming hurricane season, I suppose. It looks really cool, but is not the easiest thing in the world to work with when it comes to putting in rubbery pond liner. The fellow whose property backs up to ours was fascinated by the goings-on and came over daily to offer advice. He told Quintin that his pond wouldn't hold water with the liner in place, which prompted Quintin to hire a crew to pour concrete in the new pond. By gosh, we would not be left with a vast empty hole in the ground! Let me mention at this point that had the fence not blown down, we would never have even met this helpful neighbor.
Two concrete truckloads later, the pond was formed up and filled with water. I was eager to get plants and fish in, but I had read enough on the 'net about koi ponds to know that aeration was needed to keep the fish alive and we didn't even have a pump in place. I didn't know how to do it, and Quintin had been working long hours and hadn't had time to fool with it. So, our fish-less hole in the earth became just one more mosquito breeding ground. My frustration with the lack of progress must have been more evident than I realized, which is why my loving husband knew that greeting me early in the morning with two bagged koi would be the perfect birthday gift.
I jumped out of my chair with 86% completed and slid the door open in a rush.
"Do you have a pump? 'Cause if you don't have a pump, they'll just die. But I love them! Thank you, thank you, thank you sooooo much!"
Quintin's big grin momentarily showed exasperation. "Of course I have a pump. You know I always think of everything. C'mon, let's put 'em in!"
So off we went, with me gingerly carrying the two fish so as not to slosh them excessively, and Quintin bringing the new pump and an extension cord. The timing worked out so that I released the fish just about the same time the pump spewed forth the first gush of water. The white fish swam the perimeter at the very top, thrilled to be in this castle of a home. The gold fish went down and tried to hide, but there was nowhere to hide.
"Quintin, we have to go buy plants right now! They have to have plants to hide in and under. I've read all about it."
But Quintin was lost in his own little world. The white fish had actually come right up to the edge of the pond and Quintin was rubbing its side with his finger. I could not believe my eyes. My normally tough-guy hubby looked up at me, all misty-eyed.
"So, what are you going to name them?" he asked.
"We won't be able to name them anything at all if we don't give them a place to hide. Birds will fly over and swoop right down and eat them! C'mon, let's go get some plants!"
We temporarily dropped in a couple of plastic crates for them to duck under in case of aerial predators. We had to weigh them down with something, so we put the pump on one and a concrete block on another. I saw the gold koi duck under one right away and felt vindicated. That Internet is an amazing thing, isn't it?
A fortune in water lilies later, we returned home to find no white fish at all and the gold one still cowering under the crate. We searched in vain for fifteen minutes. It occurred to me that the ripples on the water's surface could be helping hide the white fish under the mini-whitecaps. As soon as we turned off the pump and the water settled to a flat glaze, I spotted a white sliver of something at the bottom of the pond, very near the pump.
"What is that right there, Honey?" I asked. "It looks like a paper towel or a Kleenex to me."
Quintin grabbed a piece of PVC pipe and poked at the unidentifiable sunken object. His face turned a shade of pale I had never seen before. He looked up at me and cleared his throat to speak.
"Oh, no… that's the white fish. Go get a garbage bag, please." His voice, usually strong and booming, had dropped to a reverent whisper.
"What?? What happened? How could he look like that?" I wasn't convinced that this could be the lively fish that had nuzzled Quintin's knuckles an hour earlier.
"The pump. The pump got him. It just sucked him in through this big hole and spit him out through all these little holes."
I had never seen Quintin so distraught over anything, thus his demeanor spurred me to stop asking questions and go get the requested garbage bag. He pulled up a little wisp of nothing, totally white, and dropped it in the bag. I wanted to peek as I took it to the big garbage container, but refrained. It sort of felt like fish tissue in my hands so I let it stand as it was. In the back of my mind, I kept wondering where his bones had gone, but decided that the unbelievable, horrifying truth was that he had just gotten squished beyond recognition and that was that.
I returned to the scene of the crime to find Quintin putting a piece of chicken wire around the pump to prevent future murders. He was still subdued but seemed determined to put the best face on the situation.
"C'mon, let's go get you some more fish. I'm glad we didn't name him. Of course, if we had named him, I suppose we could have called him Chum. Guess we'll call the gold one Lucky!"
That's what I love about my husband. He's hilarious. I laughed out loud at his quick wit and piled into the truck with him for our next adventure. He had purchased the only two koi in our local store so we had to go to the next town over. Quintin's doggedness to ensure my birthday was not ruined by this unfortunate event endeared him to me even further.
After a nice lunch, we found our spirits lifted to the point where we were willing to try again. We found a fancy-schmancy gourmet pet store and paid six times what they were worth for four tiny koi. Thus armed, we returned once more to the pond to try our luck again. We put them in, fed them immediately, and settled back to watch them devour everything we put in the water. We continued to monitor them closely like anxious parents until we tired of the heat and ducked inside for air conditioning and icy drinks.
About an hour after we released the new crew, we went out to check to make sure the pump armor was working. All of our wet friends seemed to be hiding, so an apprehensive Quintin poked at the plastic crate. A big white whale of a fish came darting out and up right towards me.
"Honey!" Quintin exclaimed. "Look how big that one is already!"
"Honey, that's Chum. There's no way one of those little fish got that big already. He's just been hiding all this time! He's shy."
He looked at me skeptically. I reassured him once more that, yes, this big fellow right here was indeed Chum, his little nuzzle buddy.
"Well, then, what on earth was that we took out of the pond? I know that was a fish."
"Like I said to begin with, I think it was a paper towel. Look, there are the other four little ones. See?"
For whatever reason, we never went to fish the mystery out of the garbage. We were just happy that our failure to plan in advance had not caused the death of Chum. Of course, within a week, they were all dead (never build a concrete koi pond – the alkalinity goes through the roof!) and we were saddened once more. Still, his efforts to give me a fishy 50th were successful, as I have a special memory and a great story to tell.
And, I just did.