To many people – most people, probably – the death of a goldfish is a small thing. You get a goldfish for a quarter – maybe three dollars, if you like the fancy kind – and put it in a $5 bowl, and if it lives more than a week maybe you get it a little plant or something. Otherwise, burial at sea in the porcelain ocean, and try again. Right?
When our goldfish CJ passed away this weekend, however, it wasn’t such a small thing.
Ryan and I rented for our first year together, and couldn’t have pets. It was a rough transition for me, raised by wolves as I was, and so we looked for small ways to compensate. We were on the 28 Days plan: first there was Cat and Dog, a pair of $5 houseplants in handpainted flower pots. Then there was Rigel, a small but personable stuffed moose. When none of them immediately kicked the bucket, we began investigating the addition of an actual animated critter to the household. We bought a tank, passed up two different tanks of diseased fish, and finally found and bought CJ.
CJ, a fantail goldfish, was bred at a goldfish farm in Arizona. A short while later (I’m not sure how long it takes a goldfish to mature) he was shipped to the PetsMart near the Boise Towne Square Mall. On February 8, 2005, he was slipped into a plastic bag, wrapped inside my sweater for warmth, and relocated to a prism-shaped desktop aquarium in Boise’s North End. Ryan and I named him in honor of a goldfish-loving character on our favorite television show. He immediately took a dislike to us and spent the next week hiding behind a plastic reef.
As time passed, CJ acclimated to his new home and warmed up to Ryan and I. He came to recognize us and would flit to the nearest side of the tank when we entered the room, would follow our fingers if we rubbed the glass. When we realized that his long, beautiful tail was snagging on the coral we replaced it with a soft plant, and he became even more comfortable in his home. I tried in vain to get a good picture of him – he was so animated, and the reflecting edges of the tank distorted him and ruined his good looks.
He was a bright and friendly addition to my desk. We couldn’t take him for a walk, pet him, or hold him in our laps, but somehow just having that extra heart beating in the apartment made it feel warmer, homier.
CJ’s color and the long, silky lines of his tail astonished me with their beauty – I’d had fish before, but somehow CJ was different. Shockingly perfect for a $3 fish. He’d been sold to us as a fantail goldfish, but I came to believe that he was more likely a veiltail – his long tail draped and billowed in the current, brushing the tank bottom like a princess’s train as he swam. At the time I was really into haiku and was much better about updating my Daily Haiku Xanga. One day I gave tribute to the latest member of our family in seventeen syllables:
orange silken sail
dances (like children with flags);
floats in the current
We moved that summer to our own house, and decided that if we needed more room to spread out that our growing goldfish likely did as well. We moved him from his 1.5-gallon tank to an 8-gallon aquarium, furnished with Roman ruins. In one day, CJ went from common fishy to Emperor of the Living Room.
Now that we had our own home and could make our own rules, we moved fairly quickly to add a furbaby to the family. When we brought d’Artagnan home, it was clear that both of the “children” took after me in the coloration department – redheads, all of us. While he was a kitten, d’Art spent happy hours watching – but never harassing – CJ as he glittered back and forth in the water.
CJ wasn’t always an easy fish to live with. His new tank got infested with unbeatable algae, and then sprung a leak along one of the seams. We thought about spending $7 for tank sealer but ended up spending $20 on a new tank – a ten-gallon, this time – in the hopes that starting from scratch would kill the unwanted plantlife. The new tank had a better filter and – much to CJ’s delight – a bubble wall. Now Ryan and I were like d’Artagnan, sitting there watching CJ as he wove in and out through the bubbles, letting them tickle his underbelly. You can say that fish are cold and boring, but this fish had a personality and, I daresay, a sense of humor. CJ’s new tank was furnished with a sunken pirate ship to reflect his new career as a buccaneer (hey, if you don’t have a kid to dress, at least you can have a fishtank to decorate) and he seemed to enjoy swimming in and out the artful holes in the hull.
As he grew older, CJ suffered from episodes of swim bladder disease, and I thought sure we were losing him a couple of times before Memorial Day 2007. The day before, I found him lying on the bottom of the aquarium, his tail draped gracefully across the gravel. I tapped the glass, and on the second tap CJ turned a fraction of an inch toward me and wiggled a fin. It broke my heart, and I felt no shame when my eyes burned as I told Ryan that we were losing our fish.
The next day, CJ was in the back of the tank next to the bubbles, and now he was lying on his side. I didn’t need to tap the glass to tell that he was gone; the color was gone from his scales, and there was a different angle to his tail. It was over. On the day Americans set apart to remember their glorious dead, our first pet left this world.
So on Tuesday, I bought a little wooden box at Michael’s on my lunch break, spent my afternoon “cigarette breaks” painting orange and copper accents on it, and lined it with paper that glimmered like a golden fantail. I wrote “CJ” in gold on a little heart on the lid. While I was in class, Ryan put the tiny body into the tiny box. And at 9:30 that night, we laid our first pet to rest under a juniper bush. It wasn’t what I would call a funeral; it’s hard to wax too religious over a goldfish and keep a straight face… but as darkness fell over our back yard, Ryan set aside the shovel and hugged me, tears in his eyes, and we took a minute to mourn the passing of something so insignificant, and yet so important.
CJ Baker was, to my best estimation, nearly three years old. He lived a good life. He was a blogger, a novelist, a friend, a cat toy, a jewel. Sometimes it is the small things that really matter, the bright and beautiful creatures that remind us that love is not limited to species, size, even physical contact. How God can take something as small and inhuman as a farm-bred goldfish and pack it with so much beauty is a glorious mystery, and if the roads of Heaven are paved with gold then I can only imagine that the celestial ponds sparkle with good goldfish like ours.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Rest in peace, best fish.