The goldfish

On the limits of empathy

The goldfish

The goldfish

for Emma

I must confess to a failure of empathy
when it comes to fish in bowls, inside houses.

There were two of them, very large, taken from a pond,
carried as a present to my daughter,
and delivered on the doorstep in a plastic bag
on a birthday (I forget which).
So she laughed. She said thank you.
We gave them a very large bowl of water
which we replenished when necessary,
and we fed them at the recommended intervals
for several years.

We tried naming them,
but none of the names seemed to fit.
They swam round and round and round in their bowl,
day in, day out, cold eyes staring
as we went round and round in our kitchen.
Sometimes I watched them carefully,
trying to imagine life without memory.
When one of them died,
the other showed no signs of pining.

A few weeks later, the remaining one
turned sideways, sank to the bottom of the bowl –
looked a goner, but came back up friskily
now and again, as if it meant something.
It took ages for us to work out
that it might be in pain, might want to die.

One morning before anyone else was up,
my husband emptied the bowl, and put the fish
on the compost heap – no ceremony.
This creature was not buried under the apple tree
with a cross, like Satan the cat, or numerous other pets,
including ‘Here lies the dead hamster’.
So perfunctory.

I don't understand the lives of fish,
and I don't think I could ever love one.
I must confess to a failure of empathy.