It was never my intention to be the Creator. But I had to be.
As I stand before my koi pond, my responsibility awes me. I realize I am the provider of all things necessary for my fish and frogs. Do they consider me a deity? Regardless, my supremacy humbles me. My fish won’t live without me. Their environment is not a natural pool of water made from some dammed-up brook. It is a closed system and I must maintain it in a state of harmony in order for it to sustain life, like an astronaut's space suit or a planet with an atmosphere. Without me to refresh the water and clean the filters, the koi's environment becomes poisoned. If I do not feed them, they starve. If I fail to control algae, they suffocate. When there is a tear in the lining of their home, I fix it, or their water will seep away. If I fail to protect them from predators such as a curious cat, my fish will be carried off for dinner.
It is not unusual for me to get up in the middle of night, to turn on the outside lights, and to verify the water remains in the pond, the aeration is still occurring, and the fish are alive.
I did not foresee any unintended consequences when I first decided to build the pond. Nor did I think of slimy filters, corrugated hoses that spring leaks, or algae that clog submerged pumps. All I envisioned was sparkling water, colorful, healthy fish, and graceful water lilies.
Creating my koi's universe was an artistic and physical endeavor. Ten years ago, I planned the pond with my husband, and he dug it out and laid the lining. We built small waterfalls, and inserted pink and white water lily plants with deep green leaves. The lilies provided shade and protection for the fish and a display of beauty for the human. We added other plants to the water over time, set flagstone around the pond's perimeter, and installed a solar fountain.
Today, the pond is home to six koi, who started out at about three inches long when I purchased them, except for one, a white and black beauty that survived its dangerous fry stage and now swims with the big fish. It amazes me that of all the thousands of eggs laid over the years, only one survived. We call it Lucky.
Most of the fish are ten years old, and over eighteen inches long now. They laze around or dart about, glide through the water, and search aggressively underneath the flagstone that projects over the pond a few inches, offering some shade and little pockets where food can collect. In colors of gold and white, orange and yellow, black and coral, they grace the dark, clear water like giant jewels. The bullfrog tadpoles I purchase each year grow into frogs and hang around the pond, perching on the lily pads like images from a child’s fairy tale book. In the warmer months, they entertain the neighborhood with their amorous nightly engagements. Their raspy voices serenade us for a few weeks, and toads, too, take up residence at the pond, where they lay their long ribbons of eggs in the water. The fish eat the eggs as fast as the toads produce them.
There is an amazing amount of sex going on in my pond.
But I would never have had a pond if it were not for my turtles.
I purchased two baby red-eared sliders—the kind I had as a child— at a flea market in Gallup, New Mexico during a girls' getaway weekend. The turtles’ plastic habitat was part of the purchase. On the way home, I wondered what my husband would say about my new pets and remembered he told me the first dollar he ever received was spent on a turtle and a plastic tub.
My childhood track record with turtles was not stellar. Usually, they lived for a couple of months, and then disappeared. Sometimes I found their empty shells.
I didn't expect my Gallup turtles to live a long time either, but I vowed to enjoy them for as long as possible.
I purchased a ten-gallon fish tank, a waterfall-style internal filter, sand, gravel, and a heated hood. I created their world, playing the Almighty, making sure it looked natural with a sloping "pond" and warm, dry places for them to "sun" themselves. They thrived.
I bought a twenty-gallon tank.
Their new environment was more upscale than their first. I named them Scramble and Edge, after the patterns on their carapaces, and took them outside on the lawn, where I learned turtles can be quite swift. Scramble and Edge continued to grow. I started to think about a larger tank and initiated a conversation with my husband.
"Aren't the turtles doing well?" I remarked.
"I thought you said they'd probably die."
"Yes, I thought they would, but they are still with us," I replied. "I must be doing something right."
"We're not getting a larger tank.”
"Why not? They're going to need one soon."
"There is no room. My father had four large fish tanks. They're a lot of work."
"So, are you doing the work?" I teased my husband.
"No, I'm not. They're your turtles. I just don't want a large fish tank dominating the house."
One cannot reason with ghosts from someone else's childhood.
I countered, "How about a small pond on the north side of the house?"
He looked at me and his shoulders drooped.
I continued, "It's protected there and we can build it in the corner where the garage wall meets the house wall and the garden wall forms a third side. It's a "U" and all we have to do is add a fence on the open side. We always talked about having a pond. We can dig a pond, don't you think?"
He raised his eyebrows, "By 'we' don't you mean me?"
"Of course. I can't dig a pond."
He didn't say anything.
"Well?" I demanded.
"We have to do something. My turtles need more room."
So, he dug a small pond on the north side of the house. Nothing is straightforward, of course. He also had to re-route some sprinkler lines. At about eight feet by four feet and a little less than two feet in its deepest part, it was near a lilac bush and a desert willow tree. He built it with the turtles in mind. It had sloping sides and "steps" built into it, lots of rock and some sand. It was well-aerated with fountains and concrete frogs that spit streams of water. The pond looked pretty, nestled safely in a corner.
We took the turtles outside and showed them their new home. We placed them on the rim and they sat there, observing their new world. They strained their necks and stared. I nudged them into the water. They swam and dived to the bottom and I stayed at the pond until I was confident they could climb out on their own. I provided a hollowed-out fake log for them to hide in when they came out of the water.
What I didn't count on was their ability to climb. Unintended consequences.
Why was it, with this beautiful new pond in the garden, their main objective was to get away? They walked toward the only side of the pond without a permanent wall. We had placed some decorative block as a movable fence, spanning the empty space between the house wall and the garden wall. It enclosed the fourth side of the pond area. They actually climbed the corner by putting a leg from their right side on the stucco wall and one leg from their left side on the blocks. In one minute and seventeen seconds they were on top of the wall meant to contain them. We put some temporary mesh fencing around the pond, instead. They climbed it. We built a taller wall.
The next morning, Scramble and Edge were gone.
My husband bought me flowers and a condolence card.
I had an empty pond, but not for long. I decided to get some fish. How much trouble could a few fish be?
I purchased some young koi, the variety requiring only a small investment of $5.99 each. I didn't expect the fish to survive the summer.
They outgrew the turtle's pond in three years. It hadn't been built for fish, and the deep parts were neither deep enough nor wide enough for the koi.
One Sunday morning at breakfast, I asked, "The fish have gotten big, haven't they?"
"Uh oh," my husband responded.
"I really didn't expect them to live this long."
"We have to do something!"
"We need a bigger pond," I declared.
"I knew this was coming."
"Maybe Anthony can help you dig one.” Anthony was our handyman.
Again, the deep sigh, the drooped shoulders confronted me.
We scouted the garden for the new pond's location. Northeast. Not too hot, not too shady. We outlined it and a week later my husband and Anthony dug the hole. It was deeper—about three feet, with steeply sloping sides so the fish would have plenty of room. At fifteen feet by eight feet, it was designed for the fish as they grew.
It is at the edge of this pond where I feel like God.
The fish are flourishing. They are beautiful to watch, elegant in their movements, and ferocious in their appetites.
I do not complain about cleaning filters, removing algae, or skimming leaves from the water. These are tasks I have learned to do well. They came with the act of creation.
This little world, my pond, attracts thirsty bunnies. Finches, sparrows, and juncos bathe in the waterfalls and refresh themselves with a drink. Rusty-toned dragonflies flit and hover over the water and spend their afternoons atop small stakes I inserted in some flowerpots along the perimeter. These dragonflies have lost their fear of me. Curve-billed Thrashers nest in our Cholla cactus, knowing they have a ready source of food from the bird feeders and a supply of drinking and bathing water. Inquisitive roadrunners make an appearance from time to time, flitting down from the garden wall to the pond. They are twice the size of the largest koi, who instinctively hide beneath lily pads when the roadrunners are present. Yellow jackets stretch their legs as far as they can and stand on the water to drink. I detest them, but their drinking pose infuses me with a feeling of tenderness as they take infinitesimal sips of water.
Although usually an idyllic spot, there are dangers at the pond. Herons, tall wading birds, sometimes threaten my fish. They perch among tree branches near the pond and wait for a fish to emerge from the shadows. I have learned to scare them off by approaching them while banging on a metal pot with a metal spoon. They invariably lift off and their enormous wings fly them gracefully toward the Rio Grande, only two miles away. Hawks come by too. If I see them, I perform my noise making routine.
Despite periodic dangers, the pond is an overwhelmingly tranquil place. Butterflies alight on flowers. Hummingbirds drink nectar from cherry sage and red yuccas. Lizards, like tiny dinosaurs, dart over stones along the edge, cock their heads, then lean over to drink. Bevies of quail stop to refresh themselves. The toads and frogs put on their annual amorous displays and sing their love songs. The sound of gently falling water showers my garden in refreshment.
I look out upon my creation and it is good.
But it's an incredible amount of work being God.
Photos by Author
Ms. Walkow is an award winning author whose work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, online journals, and anthologies. Her full-length biography of a World War II teenage slave laborer, The War Within, the Story of Josef, won first place in biography in the 2017 New Mexico Press Women Communications contest, first place for historical biography in the 2017 National Indie Excellence Awards contest, and has been selected as a recommended read by the Military Writers Society of America. A collection of her new short stories has just been published in Passages, an anthology. She has also received awards for individual short stories from the Military Writers Society of America, New Mexico Press Women, and the 2016 William Faulkner International Literary Competition. She is a member of the Corrales Writing Group.