'The Mirror Pond' by Ruth Geldard
LISP 4th Quarter 2020 Official Selection, Short Story, 'The Mirror Pond' by Ruth Geldard
The Mirror Pond
The new pond waits. Young willow fronds lightly brush the surface. Freshly aerated water rushes by and throws itself, gurgling and churning, into the deep end. Faith, a duty-full daughter, the one who stayed behind when her siblings flew the nest, has been tasked with finding an appropriate gift for her parents’ wedding anniversary. After much research she settles on Ghost Koi carp, an ornamental fish.
At the aquatic centre, Faith watches as a man attempts to catch her chosen fish. It looks stressful for both species. Two ruler-sized carp now sit without moving at the bottom of a bucket. Faith keeps the water-level straight as she carries it to her car. As she lets off the handbrake, she unclenches her jaw.
The man’s fist smashes through the glassy surface of the water causing a pressure change in the tank. Having no ears, the fish perceive the violence of this intrusion as vibrations through their bodies. Instinctively they shoal away from the threat.
Faith and her parents stand by at the shallow end of the pond to wait out the necessary acclimatisation time. Her father angles the bucket and eases the ominously still fish into the water, they vanish instantly, their absence leaving a sense of anti-climax, like of a failed magic trick.
The fish cling as if magnetised by the pond floor. The shock of the net, wrenching them from their natural element, into air’s choking suffocation, stuns them, they lie low.
Faith’s parents wait every day by the pond for the fish to surface. After several weeks, her mother says,
“I think we’ve seen the last of them.”
Faith appalled, says,
“No, surely we would have seen bodies.”
Her mother says with resignation “I expect the heron took them.”
Faith regrets ever getting them.
The following spring, the part-time gardener sees a fish. This sighting galvanises Faith’s mother into sitting by the pond every afternoon, where she is rewarded with a flash a gold and the flick of a metallic tail.
The cautious fish stay at the bottom of the pond exploring their new underworld, except in areas where weeds grow thick and dark. With a plentiful supply of food, and no predators, the juvenile fish double in size.
The fish gradually reveal more of their eel-grey bodies illuminated with pale gilt tracery, which like hieroglyphics, sometimes you can see their trademark skull patterns. Their close proximity spawns affection, and Faith’s father charmed by his wife’s dedication, joins her pond-side. They name the fish Charles and Diana, although they can’t tell them apart.
The Carp revel in the fishy equilibrium of their manmade world soon associating the sound vibrations of the other species with food, they rise up from their silky green depths, lift their massive bulk from the water and display their markings to best effect, before slowly submerging with a lazy barrel-roll.
Sometimes Faith’s mother says, “What did we do before the fish?” and during the long winters the fish-feeding ritual is replaced with separation-anxiety.
The years unravel. The pond, accommodates grandchildren laugh at their reflections and take turns to accidently-on-purpose fall in. One winter, Faith’s father is diagnosed with an incurable disease, a proud man, he deals with the physical inequities with dignity and courage. The family close ranks and carry on, although they never speak of it, they understand what’s coming.
At first the fish are unaware of external change to their environment, but the following spring, feeding times are missed, and water quality suffers when the pump malfunctions. Only the part-time gardener, struggling with the untended garden, remembers to chuck food in occasionally.
That summer, Faith’s father is in-and-out of hospital, the family gather and disperse with increasing frequency. One evening he kisses his wife goodnight remarks on what a pleasant day it was, turns over and quietly dies.
The unfiltered, water weakens the fish, and forces them back to the bottom. Weeds choke the pond making the search for food dangerous. The willow, its growth unchecked, blacks-out the sun. Nobody comes, not even the part-time gardener who stays away out of respect for the dead.
After her father’s death Faith understands his role as the lungs of the family, it was he who had kept them in-the-loop, spurred them on and stirred them up. His absence is as unbearable as an empty library.
Years of austerity and hoping for the best, keep the widow’s eyes dry during the funeral. Afterwards, she quietly withdraws into herself, gets thinner and unable to sleep, marks the passage of the long night hours with the World Service. Faith and her mother, spend a lot of time together, going through her father’s things, but as winter approaches, even memories pricked by old photographs cannot make Faith’s mother cry.
Hoping to lift her mother’s spirits, Faith arranges for a mobile hairdresser to come from the town. When Faith arrives at the house, her mother is shrouded in a towel and hair cutting is underway. The hairdresser is talking,
“I was so sorry to hear about your husband’s passing, such a shame, he was very popular in the village by all accounts….”
She stops dead as Faith enters the room. Becoming visibly pale, unable to finish her sentence, she starts a new one asking if she and Faith have ever met before. Faith says she is sure they haven’t. The hairdresser finishes the job in silence which feels awkward. Afterwards, Faith’s mother offers the woman a cup of coffee, as she takes the cup, she says,
“I’m not sure how to say this…but I have a gift…I sometimes get messages from...er, from ...from the other side.”
Irritation and embarrassment rise simultaneously in mother and daughter as the woman continues,
“When your daughter walked in, your husband…he just broke through he has a message for you.”
Faith making eye-contact with her mother, says,
“Are you okay with this Mum?”
Her mother flushes, but before she can answer, the woman is off again.
“He’s saying something about alcohol, it’s a bit jumbled...”
Faith’s mother stiffens she almost never dinks alcohol.
But Faith remembering, says,
“When Dad was ill, didn’t you sometimes have a tot of brandy with him, at bedtime?”
Recollection lights her mother’s face.
The hairdresser scenting vindication, continues,
“He wants you to have a tot every night just like you did with him, to help you sleep.”
Faith’s mother draws a sharp breath.
“There’s more.” Says the hairdresser, Faith was afraid there might be…
“You know that moment when you’re just about to drop off to sleep - do you ever feel something brush your forehead? Well, that’s him! Letting you know that he’s there and not to be afraid.”
Something extraordinary is happens to Faith’s mother, a small shiny tear describes the contour of her cheek. This is amazing, Faith has never seen her mother cry. As the hairdresser-come-medium leaves, she says,
“One last thing, he is really upset about the state of the pond, he says there’s something bad in there.”
Faith standing at the edge of the pond pokes about with a stick in the opaque, blackish-green water, that smells of drains. The stick is useless, it’s ridiculous what does she expect to find? She has forgotten how big the pond is and how deep the deep end. And how did that bloody hairdresser get through her motherlike that? Her mother almost never talks about herself and when Faith attempts a personal question, she fidgets, and says something like,
“Changing the subject, did you ever plant those seedlings I gave you?”
And Faith vows never to go there again, but she always does.
Realising how overgrown the pond has become, Faith asks the gardener to clean it out and have a proper look…just in case.
A week later, Faith finds an answerphone message from her mother, something about the way she sucks in her breath between sentences, makes Faith pay attention.
“That awful woman was right, there was something in the pond! One of the fish must have tangled itself in the weeds at the bottom. It had been dead a while... it’s made an awful mess of the pond…”
The surviving fish goes to ground, instinct keeps him there. The water is foul he must conserve his energy so he slips into a state of suspended animation that lasts through till spring. When he wakes up, he knows he has been born again into a new world where he is king. All around gurgles brook-clear water rippling through the weeds in a ceaseless dance. Sunlight rains kaleidoscopically down. Best of all he can sense food and with his whole body he rises to the surface.
Sitting together by the side of the pond the two women wait for the fish, Faith’s mother is knitting again, and Faith watches her tender head, bent in concentration, as her lips follow the pattern; 2nd row: [K4. P2. K4. P1. K1. P1. K4. P2. K4.] repeat to end, her ball of wool slips unnoticed into the grass.