Sunday, January 3, 2016


It's been three and a half years since we left the white bread enclave of Orinda California for the friendlier, funkier Oakland Hills. We landed in a two bedroom house with a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. It's what the local parlance refers to as a two bridge view, with the Bay Bridge directly across us and the Golden Gate to the right. We are on a small ridge and you have to go down a flight of steps to reach the front door. When the landlord remodeled the place, he shored up the incline with a stone wall and built a rocky fish pond with a little waterfall. Two fish lived in the pond. One was orange and maybe 8 inches long, the other ghostly white and the size of a respectable trout. Little Red and Big Gil looked more like overgrown gold fish than fancy koi. The landlord instructed us not to feed them and indeed, they seemed to feed on nothing. I suspect they subsisted on pond scum.

That pond was trouble from the get go. The lining leaked and the rocky walls oozed water, leaving a perpetual puddle on the patio. We had to keep refilling the basin with the garden hose several times a week. Not environmentally responsible in the face of a water shortage, and a bit of a bump in the water bill, but the fish were happy.

If we're stuck with fish, I figured, lets add a dash of color to the murk and get a pond-full. So my husband bought me seven more fish for my birthday. Most were garden variety goldfish but a couple were especially fancy, white with bold orange markings and long delicate fins. Not long after we repopulated the pond, Maggie the mini schnauzer and I returned from her nightly walk and surprised a racoon gazing intently into the water, like Narcissus admiring his reflection.  He loped off as we started down the stairs, but the next day I noticed we were down a couple of fish.

One hot day, a month or so later, we were sitting on the sofa with the front and balcony doors open, trying to get a cross breeze. My husband, who was facing the yard, suddenly gestured for me to look outside. Perched on the edge of the pond was a brown hawk,  showing off his impressive wingspan. Not long after Mr. Hawk dropped by, I took inventory of the pond's inhabitants. Down two more.

Our most impressive and unexpected fish-napper was a great white heron.  Maggie and I came home from the store one afternoon to find him checking the pond for signs of life. She bolted down the stairs barking madly and the big bird flew up onto the roof where he remained for a good ten minutes before the dog's ferocious fussing finally drove him away. Post-heron, only two fish remained. It was survival of the fittest, the hardy, pond-smart, original two, Big Gil and Little Red. They hung in for several more months.

Then came the morning I ran into my neighbor taking out the trash. "I saw the craziest thing in your yard this morning," he announced. "Your motion detector light went on about 6 a.m. and when I looked out the window at your yard, there was a raccoon in the pond."  Yes, you read that right – the raccoon was literally swimming laps, back and forth, back and forth. I don't think he was trying to get his cardio on, because the red fish was gone. Only the great white guppy remained, the last of his kind.

When the next water bill came, we called the landlord. It's hard to justify wasting this much water for just one fish - not when desperate central valley farmers are draining California's aquifers  dry. The landlord gave us a choice: he could fix the pond or fill it with dirt and put some plants in. We chose option number two.

The landlord sent over his handyman, Francisco, to drain and fill the pond. "What do you want me to do with the fish?" Francisco asked. "I don't know, Francisco. You decide." I've gone fishing and I'm not that squeamish about it, although I like to eat my catch. Catch and release just seems sadistic to me. But scooping up the Old Man of the Pond with a net felt unsportsmanlike, and making him into dinner, downright unappetizing. Francisco is a country guy. I knew he'd figure something out – maybe bop Big Gil on the head and leave him out for one of the neighborhood cats. I left to buy some drought resistant succulents for our new bed.

When I came back, the pond was full of potting soil and Francisco was gone. Big Gil was still there. Francisco had placed him in solitary confinement in a white plastic bucket. Big Gil was my problem now. For two days, he refused to die. He wasn't going to sleep with the fishes, even if he was one. My cowardly response was to race past the bucket with my head turned away, pretending he wasn't there. And then suddenly, he wasn't. "What did you do with the fish?" I asked my husband.

He looked bemused. "What fish?"

He'll never tell.

Big Gil's tragic final days

The former fish pond