Passing by the lily pond in that deep December snow, you glimpse the goldfish, a prisoner below thin ice. I break the surface with the heel of my boot, plunge a hand into the water, then clench my fist for a moment, immobilised by an irrational fear of touching the glint and gleam of the fish.
I picture my childhood pet, Pepper, thrashing on the polished wood of the dining table. I’d forgotten to put the lid on the tank after feeding him, and he leapt to freedom. I screamed for my mother, tentatively holding my hand out towards the fish, already imagining the cold wriggle of him, the possibility that he would slither from my grasp and land on the parquet floor.
Pepper’s body gave a final jerk as my mother arrived in the room. She dropped him back into the tank, but he stayed on his side, floating amongst the flakes of fish food, his mouth open in surprise.
My mother took me into town, we bought new shoes and ate ice cream sundaes, but it didn’t help. Back home, we buried Pepper in the garden, and the following week I chose a new fish from the pet shop. He was silver, and I called him Salt. But he didn’t overwrite the memory of Pepper; instead he was a daily reminder that I’d allowed him to die.
And now, this opportunity to make amends. I reach for the fish, teeth gritted, feel him quivering as I scoop him up with a paper coffee cup. You carry the cup home, so carefully, in your tiny mittened hands, heating it with clouds of chocolatey breath.
The goldfish spends winter in a borrowed bowl, and we admire his shimmer as he circles the pirate ship, weaves through weed in a one-man glittering shoal, makes eyes at the mermaid with the yellow plait.
In April, we carry him back to the pond in a jar, squat down at the edge to watch him explore, but his tail flicks once, and he’s already gone, leaving only a ripple between the lily pads to say he was there: just as though he never knew us.
AMANDA HUGGINS is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea, and the flash collection, Brightly Coloured Horses. She was a runner-up in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award, and shortlisted for Bridport and Fish. She is also a published poet and award-winning travel writer.
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