It was summer and the koi were dying. Almost before we realized we were losing them, they were gone—in a metaphysical sense, that is, because the truth is they lingered terribly, “like an ex-boyfriend,” Cam said, popping her gum. She’d know, because her mom, Ms. Stacy, had three, and an ex-husband too.
We were kneeling at the edge of the koi pond Daddy and I dug before he left, staring at their bloated corpses, shining like the nibs of old highlighters beneath a layer of grief and scum.
“Shit,” I said, and that just about covered everything.
We broke the news to Mama in the worst way possible—with a rusty shovel handle through the gut of her favorite gnome. We’d been levering the soft bodies in a fugue, sweating from the sun and their curious weight.
“These fish wouldn’t make it to the underworld,” Cam said. I turned to squint at her through the triangular window at the top of my shovel. Over her shoulder I could see Ms. Stacy’s lace bras drying on the line in the next yard over.
“Whattaya mean? We’re putting ‘em in a hole, aren’t we?”
“Not that kind of underworld.” She sloshed a fish into the grave we’d dug, wrinkling her nose at the squelch. We’d soon churned up a muddy broth in the basin, splashing a terrible soup over the fish in our haste to unburden ourselves. “In Ancient Egypt, they weighed your soul against a feather. If it weighed more than the feather, you didn’t get to go to heaven.”
“They had heaven back then?” I asked. I was pretty sure we’d learned something very different in church, but Mama always said the Bible was open to interpretation. She said “Jesus Christ” when she saw the shattered gnome, and started tutting at us, until I showed her the grave. Then she said “Oh, baby girl.” She let Cam stay for dinner.
The truth was, I wasn’t very interested in the underworld, koi or no koi. The pond had been Daddy’s idea; he said fish were “grounded.” I think that was a joke, because it always made Mama laugh when he said it. I’ll bet neither of them ever pictured those great wet beasts in dirt.
Cam and I preferred heights, because Daddy was a climber. Not a social climber, like Ms. Stacy was always chatting on about becoming, but a real one. He travelled all over the world conquering mountains, and then he’d come back to us, wind-chapped and lean all over, like a wolf. Wolves eat fish, I think, but he loved these koi. He said they looked like the sun did shining down on you when you were close enough to touch. He said the sky was just an ocean, and you could swim up it, and break the surface. “Up there,” he’d told me, “all you breathe is stars. That’s all you need. Just starlight.”
Mama let Cam stay past dinner, too. We put in a movie, the latest “chick flick” Ms. Stacy brought by. She was always trying to get Cam to wear prettier things, and to go by her given name, Camilla. “Because you’re my perfect baby,” she’d coo, which always made Cam blush, then scoot, faster than any fish I’ve seen driving for the shallows.
The film wasn’t too good. It was called 10 Things I Hate About You, and we ran it on the VCR, the dark, translucent reels feeding sluggishly through the ancient player we’d wired beneath the T.V. That machine was just as likely to eat your tape as it was to play it, though if you wanted to watch a movie, you had to risk it. There was no way out but through.
Well, I sat through it, all right, but things didn’t get interesting until the end, when the man and the woman are kissing outside the car and everything’s lit up in that koi gold, and the music is swelling and you know it can’t last forever, but even just a little while is good enough. Then the camera jumps, and this band, Letters for Cleo, is playing high up on a rooftop, and my heart started thumping, because I knew Daddy would like that, all those people making music up where the air’s so thin.
After Mama found us with the fish she called Mr. Hollander’s garden shop, where we’d bought them. According to his son, who ran the shop when Mr. Hollander was ill, our koi must have suffocated, which is a fancy way to say they drowned. He told Mama they got too big for the pond, so they used up all the oxygen. I wish I’d never seen her face, when she heard that.
“Bill,” she’d always say to him. “Bill, you take care out there.” At this point, she was usually crying. Daddy would take her long blond hair and run it through his fingers, so it split into beautiful golden strands, like beams of light.
“I just worry,” she’d sniff. “I miss your voice. How can you call for help up there? The air’s so thin. You couldn’t even—oh, baby,” she’d sigh. “You couldn’t even call for me by name.”
Then he’d heft her up, like she couldn’t weigh more than a feather, and tumble her into his arms. I knew if anyone was getting into heaven it was those two. But I was so worried they wouldn’t wait for me. They were two balloons, ready to float off the moment you dropped their strings.
“Let’s put rocks in her pockets,” Cam said when she woke up and found me crying. “Dirt in her shoes to weigh her down. Your Dad’s too, when he comes back. Where is he now? Peru? I don’t think they’ve got mummies in Peru.”
They don’t. What they have got in Peru is mountains.
We snuck downstairs to the den, where the T.V. screen had lapsed to blue, painting the whole room like it was underwater. Cam and I crouched before the VCR to roll the tape back by hand. In the screen’s blue wash I restrung time in reverent loops and whorls. When we’d gone far enough, we tipped the flap, inserted the tape, and played the final song again, this time silently.
Letters to Cleo were rocking out on a rooftop to “I Want You to Want Me,” while a camera slow-panned past Seattle to the sea. The lead singer tossed bleach bright hair to a soundless rhythm, twitching around in a little black dress Ms. Stacy would’ve killed for.
Even though the T.V. was muted, I could hear her clearly. She was strutting her stuff, working this gorgeous wail, and above her the sky was this wave of color and light. Suddenly, I got the feeling she could see us—that even from her terrible height she knew the dirt under our nails was fresh from burying. She had seen us in our unspeakable hours. She had to know, I guess, but there she was, still singing.
“Hey,” Cam said, after a little while, when the tape had run down again. “You wanna bury me?” She crawled up onto the couch and showed me how the mummies from Egypt lie, and how they cross their hands over their hearts like they’re cold or something. I felt a pang for those dumb fish, without hands or heartbeats or anyone to sing at their funeral. And the one person who loved them so far away he couldn’t hear anything but maybe his own thoughts.
When I knelt over Cam I could feel her stomach trembling, and she was breathing funny, something drawing out of her like a riptide.
“I don’t think I can lie as still as them,” she whispered. The mummies or the koi? But I didn’t ask.
“Stop trying,” I said instead, and squashed down beside her. If I closed my eyes I could pretend the darkness was really dirt, closing us in its warm fist. “We’re safe now.” But inside all this I could feel my heart beating, wild and scared as any dying thing.