Before my parents finally succumbed after years and years of my constant poking and wheedling for a cat, we had been the caretakers of several pet fish. They were always goldfish, some being common goldfish and some being fancy goldfish, because while tropical fish are very lovely and much easier to care for, they’ve never quite captured my attention as completely as goldfish.
Whether it was because I was desperate to have an animal friend or because I was diverting my love of cats to the only possible surrogates around, I was fascinated by goldfish. I’d watch the five or so fish circle around the thirty-gallon tank, threading through the plastic weeds and vacuuming the tank bottom of fish food. They’d use their gaping mouths to pick up the pebbles of the floor in the hopes that they’d find overlooked morsels underneath. The shyer fish liked to lurk behind the shadow of the tank’s large, mossy rock, which was shaped with two holes large enough for a plump goldfish to squeeze through.
The attention I gave to our fish in their tanks naturally shifted to researching them. When I wasn’t poring over my cat encyclopedia, goldfish facts found themselves in my browser history and floating around in my brain. I learned the different breeds, allowing me to determine my favorite goldfish, Chub-chub, as being a Pearlscale. (Although he was my first “real,” beloved pet, this didn’t afford him the benefit of a very sophisticated name.) While the name was a bit silly, it was true—he looked like he had swallowed a golf-ball. He waddled through the water with a surprising grace, yet he still sometimes got carried away by the filter’s current and tumbled clumsily over, struggling to right his considerable self back into an upright position.
Pearlscales are fancy goldfish, also known as egg-shaped goldfish (for obvious reasons), and are known for their delicateness and slow swimming. My brother and I liked them because they were chubby and cute. Our other fancy goldfish were picked out by my dad for much more distinguished criteria. A Black Moor goldfish with telescope eyes, an Oranda for its raspberry-shaped head-growth, called “wen”, and other goldfish all found themselves swimming around our tank.
Our common goldfish were the owners of short, stubby single-finned tails that were affixed stiffly and securely, smoothly integrating into the fishes’ bodies. Being slim and fashioned into the shape of torpedos, the common goldfish looked like they had the more simple, sturdy, and efficient bodies, making it clear as to why they were called “the hardiest of all goldfish.” Similar in appearance were the comet goldfish, but instead of staying in one piece, their tails split themselves into a deep “V” shape, like two twin tails of light spraying from a falling star.
In contrast, the tails of our fancy goldfish were much larger and elaborate, with Chub-chub having one of the more impressive tails. They attached behind the fancy goldfishes’ balloon-like bodies, floating behind like the gossamer trains of delicate evening gowns or billowing sails in the wind. The tails fanned out behind, and—rather than smoothly transitioning from the body to the tail like with the common and comet goldfish—were delicately attached by a small point on the fishes’ backends, like some person had stuck a pair of butterfly wings to the fishes’ backs and could pop it on and off like a doll accessory.
Although they are beautiful, goldfish are also given the reputation of being dirty fish and relentless eaters. Goldfish are gluttonous, non-stop eaters, which—along with their hygiene issues as well—is probably the reason why they are so difficult to care for. Most people have likely heard that fish only have a measly three second memory, but fish can actually recall information for up to five months. Our goldfish were able to remember and were comfortable following a regulated feeding schedule; once in the morning at around 7 AM, I’d quickly shovel breakfast into my mouth and give them a dash of flakes before heading out the door, and once at night at around 6 PM, I’d sprinkle in their food before eating my dinner (and then washing my hands at my parents’ behest).
Even though they really do have five-month long memories, the goldfish ate as if they forgot they had ever eaten before in their lives. The goldfish would rush to eat as soon as the time came to shovel as much food into their gaping mouths as possible, poking at the surface of the water like dolphins begging to be thrown fish or dogs pawing for treats. The common and comet goldfish in our tank were fast and darted quickly to the tank’s top to skim the surface of flakes; the fancier fish were fatter and slower, and so I learned to also feed them heavier feed pellets to forage from the bottom.
It’s tricky to get the right amount of food for them, because while you don’t want to underfeed them, you also don’t want to overfeed them. (The goldfish would be the last to complain, seeing that not having real stomachs can make it hard for them to gauge when they’re full). Overfeeding can increase the already high levels of ammonia the fish produce, dirtying the water and potentially poisoning the fish, so to preserve the health of your greedy goldfish it’s best to not let them trick you into feeding them too much.
In good health, goldfish can flourish and live to become years, even decades old. In Lake Tahoe, years after being thrown in by its owner, a humongous goldfish was found to be a foot and a half long. Our goldfish didn’t live to their full potentials. They eventually died off after a few years. I don’t know if it was because we had gotten a sick fish that had poisoned the rest, but whatever the cause, the treatments we bought didn’t work and we were forced to watch the fish die one by one and float to the top. I loved all of our goldfish, but when I woke up and went down the stairs to the kitchen, the sight I dreaded seeing the most was Chub-chub’s corpse. I hoped more than anything that our fish could all get better, and promised that I wouldn’t wish for superpowers or another snow day ever again if they’d just stay alive.
It didn’t work.
I had buried the goldfish that died before him under the small pine tree in our garden, with little sticks marking the ground where they laid. The garden wasn’t new to being a grave; maybe about a year or so before, my family had gone to a restaurant and eaten a fish. The fish’s eye was a hard, white, and fascinatingly spherical ball that I had taken home with us on a whim and buried in the garden, right next to a little hermit crab grave from much longer ago.
I took his body to a different section of the garden. The spade made crunching, gravelly noises as I tore up more soil and grass for his final resting place, and when I finally swaddled him in a tissue, set him in the hole, and filled it back up, my fingernails were caked with dirt. To perfectly set the scene of a grieving child and the burying of their dead pet, it so happened that on that day there was a downpour; along with dirty fingernails, I was also covered in mud and dripping water when I finally let myself go back inside.
The rest of the fish all died and I buried them. When walking to the bus-stop, I’d stop to blow them all kisses, one for each fish, and say goodbye to each so that I could always remember their names. Later, I found his body ripped from the ground partially eaten, and I had to bury him again, deeper so that whatever stray cat or scavenger had eaten him couldn’t finish him off. The tank stayed empty of fish but full of water, so when I was tired from a fitful night, the gurgling of the tank made me think that they were still there, just hiding behind the rock.
Now we have new goldfish, but because I have finally gotten my cat (who’s two and a half years into what I hope will be a long, long lifetime), naming privileges and feeding responsibilities have been bestowed upon my little brother, and so I don’t really know the new goldfish’s names. And, for all I tried to remember, I’ve forgotten almost all of our old goldfish’s names. They’ve been gone and out of mind for a while now, but underneath the earth and the grass growing over the topsoil, there still lie the bones in the garden.
Written by Ellan Suder