The water hadn’t been clean since Fergus died. The pond filter had stalled that very week, its rotary apparatus refusing to turn as if in silent protest for Fergus’ passing. Annette had been far too busy arranging the funeral to be concerned with the small matter of a defective motor. And afterward she had to contend with the solicitors, the bills, the pension scheme, on top of her three daughters—all grown but somehow children again since the loss of their father—crying into her apron as if they were smaller than her and not the other way around. Annette envied the faulty filter, wishing that she could just stop dead as Fergus had. But she had to keep going, getting up each morning to propel their lives forward, ensuring that their little world continued to turn.
Only much later, when she’d cast off her mourning duties, did she notice how murky the water had become. The pond was little more than a large begonia-rimmed smudge across the lawn. She peered into the gloomy depths wondering if her neglect had affected any of the pond’s inhabitants. But the muddied surface gave nothing away. If life existed at all it was in the dark. She reached for the net that was balanced across the back of a ceramic tortoise; left there from the last time Fergus had used it. Long idle judging from the accretion of leaves lining the mesh. She shook it clean and plunged it deep.
It was like a lucky dip, these blind sweeping motions through the water, only to be rewarded with a brimful of algae. She picked out the woolly clumps and drove the net in deeper. The only thing that was clear was that nothing could live in such a stagnant pool.
A flick of silver and the brief shimmer of fish scales contradicted her. And then it was gone. The bobbing water as the ripples receded were the only clue that something had been there at all. So there was life in the old gal yet. Annette waited until the water settled and returned indoors.
Everyone agreed that the pond was in an alarming state. Her daughters complained of the dank smell and they ushered their children away from it as if it were contagious. Why don’t you pave it over, Mum? they said. It would make a lovely patio area. You could get that hammock you always wanted.
The pond had been Fergus’ province. Annette didn’t know the first thing about maintaining it. She had no understanding or desire to understand the specialist equipment, the maintenance regimes and checks, the disease prevention measures which Fergus had detailed so meticulously in various notebooks and manuals. It would be too much upkeep for a woman of her age. Her daughters had all married partners as ineffectual as they were. None of them wanted to take on Fergus’ legacy. None of them were prepared to get their hands dirty. It was easier to cover it over and start again.
She didn’t tell them about the fish she’d seen, the one she’d glimpsed numerous times since. It would only complicate matters. People were overly sentimental about pets. Let them believe nothing existed in those dark depths. The pond had become so congested with silt and leaves, clogged with blanketweed, that it was easy to think that life within had just given up. Preferable in fact, than the idea that something dwelled in those black and putrid waters.
But life subsisted. Annette watched a solitary fin skirt the surface, hovering there as if to afford a better view, its milky, almost translucent colouring vaguely familiar. She recalled the times spent at pet shops and leisure centres where koi enthusiasts would display their fish in the shallow confines of paddling pools or tanks. She could see Fergus immersed in this exotic world of colour, selecting the best on offer, the babies mostly—cheaper and more likely to be disease free—to be netted and bagged. On the journey home, the girls, children then, would each clutch a plastic bag, relishing the spongy weight in their laps as the fish turned circles in their transparent worlds. And they’d christen them with silly names, Gill-ian, Fishfinger, Jaws, which they forgot as they got older, as they became more interested in life beyond the back garden.
Annette found carp pretty unmemorable too, all except one, on account of its cloudy anaemic colouring, the shadowy patterning along its belly and sides so that its dorsal fin stood out white and skeletal. A ghost koi, which the girls had rather un-inspiringly named Ghost.
It was Ghost that remained now, Annette was sure of it. Solitarily haunting what was left of the pond.
The possibility of moving it to another pond wasn’t an option. She had a vague memory of it having contracted some kind of carp disease. A disease that had made its body swell, forcing its eyes to bulge outwards. Its skin developed a milky film of mucus that seemed to encircle it like ectoplasm, making its name even more appropriate. Perhaps she remembered the fish so well because of her husband’s repeated attempts to treat it. It had been relegated to the children’s paddling pool more than once, in makeshift quarantine while he administered homemade remedies or drugs recommended by other fanatics. She’d found Ghost once, floating lifeless on its side, as if dead. And she’d been somewhat relieved that this sickly fish had finally kicked the bucket, freeing her husband from further toil, only for it suddenly revive and dart off into the depths. Perhaps it wasn’t sick at all, just indolent.
Ghost rose now to the surface. His huge suction mouth gulping at the air. The barbels either side resembling a drooping moustache. He looked whiter, strangely more translucent, visible only because the water was so dark, so murky. Had the water been as clean as Fergus would have liked, Ghost may have disappeared altogether. That was what she wanted. Why couldn’t he have just died in the paddling pool all those years ago? Annette felt a stab of guilt, but let it swim free with thoughts of her new patio. She’d already selected the hammock she wanted from the catalogue, complete with stripy awning and drinks holder. Her dreams were finally becoming more concrete and she wasn’t going to let some ailing phantom get in her way.
So she’d tried in her subtle way to engineer his death. She removed the plastic heron, which stood sentinel-like from the top of the shed and even sprinkled bird feed next to the pond—an open invitation for nature to attack tooth and claw. But the birds refused to make a meal of it, as did the neighbour’s cats, which avoided the pond as if sensing Ghost’s unnatural existence, his strange abnormal longevity. If only something could finish him off. She’d begun to feed him less and less, and now she’d stopped altogether, hoping that she could starve him out. She tried to think of it as a kindness. To live in such darkness could only mean to suffer. She knew that in time, without clean, properly oxygenated water, the pond would become ripe with disease. Wouldn’t it be better to hasten it along, than to draw it out any longer than was necessary?
Fergus had hung on as well. Much longer than anyone had expected. When he was brought home it was because everyone knew there was no hope. The treatments and drugs had all failed; they couldn’t stop his inevitable decline. So he was tucked up in his own bed, to live out his final days with his family. But Fergus didn’t seem to get the memo. He refused to comply with the doctors and nurses, the specialists and their expert prognoses. He just wouldn’t roll over and die. Instead, the bedroom became a stagnant holding pen, Annette’s linen took on the odour of death and she and the girls became as pallid and ashen as Fergus was. Living ghosts, while Fergus kept his head above water and swelled and burgeoned, fed with drugs and fluids by matronly carers. Initially, he tried to haul himself out of bed, but his arms were too frail. She’d watch as her daughters clasped his hands, hands that had once relished the handiwork around the bungalow, hands that had served the pond so diligently, now swollen and ineffectual. Near the end he couldn’t speak. Communication was reduced to the most basic of exchanges. Blink once for yes, twice for no. His lashes would flutter lightly in obedience, while he lay there day after day, immobile, listless.
That night Ghost swam into Annette’s dreams. The pond was a dark shadow illuminated by the solar powered spotlights Fergus had installed around its periphery. A deep black hollow, an open sore across their otherwise perfect lawn. Surely nothing could live in such a place. A cluster of white buds, translucent like frogspawn, broke the surface. They floated there a moment but then reared upwards like mushroom stalks, reaching into the dark night, until they stopped suddenly and drooped forward as if exhausted by the enterprise. Then Annette realised what she was seeing. Fingers. Long, anaemic fingers which groped at the paving slabs, and pushed against them to haul the rest of it—whatever it was—from the depths. Amid the dark and the splashing, she could see flashes of white, the metallic shimmer of fish scales and long wiry barbels licked the air.
She watched the strange hybrid scurry out of the pond, with hands where its dorsal fins should be, walking on fingertips across the lawn, towards the house. In her dream, she saw herself sleeping soundly, while the strange white spectre crept towards the bed, gripping the sheets with its long ghostly fingers, pulling its scaly wet bulk up onto the pillow beside her. She watched as the long fingers curled over the top of the bed sheets, reaching out towards her, with its gulping fish mouth, those snaking barbels, moving closer and closer.
The bed was soaked through when she finally woke up. Her body was still clammy and feverish as she pulled off the sheets and carried them through to the washing machine. She was relieved when her daughters arrived later that day, a large cardboard box in tow. Whilst Annette made the tea, the girls opened it, strewing the contents across the lawn. Annette glimpsed the stripy upholstery, green like the algae that festered along the rim of the pond. While her daughters argued over the self-assembly instructions, Annette encouraged the children to throw stones into the pond. There’s nothing in there, she told them as she filled their palms with pebbles.
Maybe that was the truth. In her dream, Ghost had pulled himself out of the water and left the pond behind. Was that how it had been all those millions of years ago, when our piscine antecedents had pulled themselves out onto land? Had we all emerged from a form of pond life? And did those creatures have hands too, or had they just dragged themselves upon fat fins, tossing and rolling themselves forward because it was better than staying where they were?
Annette could understand that. Why would anything want to stay in such a dark place? She remembered how upset Fergus had been a few years before, when a couple of koi had leapt from the pond. The nitrate levels had been too high, inducing suicidal tendencies. Of course the fish didn’t know it was suicide, Annette had argued. To them, the unknown was a better option than a long, drawn out death. It was actually a leap of faith. What she couldn’t understand though, was why they hadn’t all jumped, why some stayed behind and tolerated those toxic levels. Why some would always linger at the bottom of the pond and persist in the darkness.
The children had made a game of throwing stones and now ran at the pond like shot-putters with larger slabs they’d acquired from the rockery. If Ghost hadn’t left on his own accord, they were actively prompting his exorcism. Her unknowing assassins. Annette heard her daughters cheer as they lifted the hammock upright, one of them gently pushing the swing seat. Her attention was only away from the pond for a moment but when she turned back her grandson was at the pond’s edge, and a white fin was cutting through the black water.
She saw it all as she rushed towards her grandson, the milky hand rising up out of the water as it had in her dream, clasping his little ankle and pulling him down into the murky depths, where he’d remain forever, turning circles and blowing bubbles that would break pitifully on the surface. She said as much to her daughters, who led her inside with alarmed looks, guiding her towards her bed and fetching aspirin. The grandchildren, bewildered but unharmed, continued with their game, filling the pond with rocks.
The hammock sat on the lawn beside the pond. The upholstery was darker, saturated from the rain. Annette hadn’t been outside to place the tarpaulin cover over it. In fact, she’d hardly been out at all, confined to the house since her strange episode in the garden. She tried to keep herself busy, but the housework only took so long. She couldn’t bear idle hands so she made her way to the bedroom and sat down on the freshly laundered sheets. She picked up a pillow and held it to her face. She thought she’d gotten rid of it, but it was still there, lingering in the background. The smell of death. She stripped the linen and carried the bundle to the washing machine. Kneeling on the floor, she watched the sheets go round in the drum. A white blur. She had to keep her world turning, she reasoned. Her bright, sanitary world.
After she’d tumble-dried the sheets, she ironed them. There was something enjoyable about prolonging these small tasks. She never had the time when the girls were young. How they would interrupt her chores, get under her feet as she made the beds, placing the sheets over their heads with warbling cries, Woooo, woooo, playing ghosts.
She’d had her fill of ghosts. The one that disturbed her most haunted a little over four feet of water. They’d existed in this strange stalemate for too long already. She moved to the window and looked out at the pond. The water was dark, motionless. Perhaps she was finally free of Ghost.
She made her way out into the garden, surprised at the alarming growth of her wisteria, the rebellious borders. The pond’s surface was covered in a sickly crust of algae and pondweed like the membrane of a scab. She reached for the net, still balanced on the back of the ceramic tortoise and drove it into the water.
There was nothing but pond debris and leaves. At first she was cautious but then she swept the net through the water blindly, without hesitation. It couldn’t do more damage than the rocks the grandchildren had deposited so violently into the water. She was beginning to sense victory, when the net pulled and she felt a weight at the end of the stick.
As she lifted Ghost from the water, she was reminded of Fergus, without his dentures, gulping air from his wide toothless mouth. The drugs had given his skin a translucent quality, a wet slickness, though the skin itself had dried, making his eczema more pronounced, the skin flaking off into the bed sheets where it accumulated in clumps like shavings of parmesan. Blink once for yes, twice for no, the girls had chorused, encouraging him to answer their inane questions.
When they were alone, Annette didn’t engage in any form of communication. She was sick of his inert body, lifeless except for his eyes, which followed her around the room, blinking hard to get her attention. She wanted to close them. She wanted her bed back, the sheets clean, free of disease. She ran her hand on the pillow beside him, recalling the children beneath the white sheets. Ghosts.
She lifted Ghost free of the water, his body curled within the net like a white flag. She watched him unfurl and loll against the mesh, struggling for breath, his gills labouring. She saw the scaly, metallic surface of his skin, the patina of mucus, interrupted by numerous ulcerous cavities, inflicted probably from the barrage of stones and pebbles. She could identify the onset of disease—recalling images from Fergus’ books—in the curvature of Ghost’s spine, the pine-coning of his tail. His scales fanned outwards, his fins rotten and torn, trailing behind him like ribbons.
Now will you die? Annette thought, turning the net towards her, looking into the face of her adversary. But there, above his bulging eyes, two fleshy flaps hung loose. Was this some strange new growth, a leprous protuberance? If Annette didn’t know better, she’d have said they were eyelids. Holding him aloft, she saw her reflection in his black pupils, could sense him regarding her from behind white-lidded eyes. And he blinked twice.
Originally published in Skein and Bone.