The Curse of the Golden Carp by Elaine Chiew
 


He knows what he must do. But it takes him the better part of a week to bolster the nerve. Every time he thinks about what he must say to Mrs. Khoo, the face of Old Chu accosts him Ė a regretful, admonishing look. As if to say, is this what our friendship amounts to? After all the things Iíve done for you? True, it was Old Chu who had recommended him for his last headmaster posting to one of the biggest public schools in town. A much coveted position, but Old Chu knew how to pull strings in the Ministry of Education.

Meanwhile, he loses another koi, even though heís upped the feed to thrice a day, a scoop and a half of the makeshift Coke cup.

Thatís it. Heís not going to lose all his koi. Not even for Old Chu.

When Mrs. Khoo comes to the phone, she assays a barrage of hacking, chesty hurls that sounds as if sheís bent on coughing up her own liver.

Thereís a sudden abatement. In the lull, Lao Dai takes a deep breath and plunges in. Your fish are cannibals, he says. Theyíre killing my fish.

Mrs. Khoo pauses. Lao Dai wonders if sheís heard him. He clears his throat.

Iím sorry, I canít keep them. Youíll have to take them back.

There is such deep silence from the other end that Lao Dai begins to sweat.

All right, Mrs. Khoo says. Iím sorry to have been such trouble. My son will come pick them up over the weekend. Please let me recompense you for your loss. In memory of my dead husband.

Lao Daiís eyes pinch closed. His heart lurches. He can see Old Chuís chafed, leathery face, his faintly rebuking eyes. If Old Chu had been in his place, heíd rather have all his fish killed than cause his best palís old woman to lose face like this.

Lao Dai mumbles, take your time, donít worry, just take your time. In light of his bumbling fiasco, the only face-saving gesture is to be conciliatory, to concede sheís gotten the better of him.

****


The worst is yet to come. All but one of Lao Daiís gold koi are killed. The one remaining koi swims in frenzied circles, churning up the water of the pond with its fins until itís a murky green. Fight, fight for your life, Lao Dai whispers his mantra. He can save the koi by putting it in the basin or buying a tank, but heís superstitious. If his koi manages to survive, the gods are with him. He feels justified in calling Mrs. Khoo, turning his back on his old chumís memory. So, Lao Dai sets up a kind of daily surveillance. He spends hours agitating -- watching these piranha-carp chase the lone koi, following the way their bodies curl around the fish, marking its fight for survival and honor. Fight, fight, damnit! It wrings his old heart out to watch the battle in the pond.

On the first day of Cheng Meng -- the festival to honor the dead -- his lone gold koi succumbs. Lao Dai cries big wrenching sobs, even though itís just a fish, even though his wife clearly thinks heís lost his marbles. Lao Dai lifts it out, but hesitates to flush it down the gutter. He stands there with the garden hose spewing water in one hand, the dead fish flopped in the other. His heart sets up a pitter-patter, his eyelids seem encrusted, his breathing turns shallow.

The sun feels as if itís goring a hole in his back, and a band of white-hot heat envelopes his arms, his neck and his head. In the distance, Lao Dai can hear a drumbeat, thunk-thunk-thunk. Taste the metallic spit in his mouth, of rust and fish and something provisional. Thunk-thunk-thunk, the percussionist calls him. He can hear his wifeís washing flapping in the wind, joining in, flip-wap-pap. The gurgle of the fountain. The flip of fins against the bubbles frothing on the surface.


His wifeís gentle eerie whisper near his ear rouses him from his sun-torched stupor. Whatís the matter with you? Are you dying on me?

Lao Dai clutches his heart. He struggles to breathe normally. He shakes his head. Thunk-thunk-thunk. The drumbeat is receding.

Maybe an abnormal patter, he says. Itís subsided now.

His wifeís expression changes, becomes a mask of alarm. She insists on taking him to the hospital right away. As his wife turns to run back in the house to get her driving jacket, a plastic raincoat she wears back to front to protect her arms from the glare of the sun through the windshield, Lao Dai looks at the dead fish in his hands. A dead fish will rot the pond. A spurt of anger mixes with sadness, and the drumbeat of a funeral gong resounds somewhere in his mind. He dangles the dead fish over the pond, and he says softly, thunk-thunk. His fingers splay as he watches the fish fall with a satisfactory splash.
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The following Saturday, Mrs. Khooís son unexpectedly shows up with the same fish-tank from before, now scrubbed clean. He stands in the driveway, near the compound gate, in a hurry. No time to even sit down for a cup of tea. Lao Dai emerges from the house, still dressed in his kimono bathrobe. Ever since the hospital visit, his wife has been insisting that he stay in bed for the better part of the morning. Resting, she calls it. Not wanting to risk another scare, she strictly regiments anything that can be classified as semi-exertion on his part.

Mrs. Khooís son swivels his head back and forth, scraping something from his shoe, making a divot in Lao Daiís nicely-groomed grass.

Lao Daiís wife shoots him a glance as he prepares to step out. The glance says. you take it easy now on your old heart. No spitting and arguing outside.

But how to tell the son that half the carp are now dead? When he dropped the dead fish back in the pond, he knew what would happen, knew it with certainty, yet how to explain why he did it? Not for revenge, but will the boy believe that? How to tell him he briefly lost his bearings, his moral purpose, in the immediate aftermath of his mild heart murmur? How to tell him that in the last week heíd not been allowed to step out of the house to take care of anything? Look at the garden, look at the rock-pool; everything has already acquired an overgrown, uncultivated wildness augmented by sultry flying spores and muggy rains. How to tell him that heís just a retired old man, waiting to die?

Lao Dai shuffles his slippers. Meanwhile, the son has gone over to the pond, pacing up and down the garden, hands resting on hips. Looking like heís spoiling for a fight, Lao Dai thinks, and his heart sinks.

Itís been a bad patch for me, Lao Dai ventures. IÖhow to phrase thisÖit looks like your carp didnít like the change in environment. Carp can be like that. They get used to a certain type of dirty water. The second the word Ďdirtyí escapes his lips, Lao Dai regrets it. He isnít trying to justify anything. He isnít trying to accuse.

The son looks at Lao Dai long and hard, shading his eyes with his hand. Lao Dai canít make out anything from his expression.

I should have taken better care of them, Lao Dai says. He wipes his brow. His mind jumps on choice words of confession, then rejects them in the same instant. Look, Iím really sorry.

The son shrugs. How many died?

Two. Only two.

Well, he says. Too bad they didnít all die.

Lao Daiís eyes must have protruded. The son laughs. If they all died, itíd save us the trouble of transporting them on a two-hour journey.

Your mother loves those fish, Lao Dai says.

The son makes a face Ė half a grimace, half a sneer. She thought we had bad feng shui when our dad got diagnosed with cancer and my oldest brother lost his job. So, we kept carp. Our dad died, but our brother found an even better job. We donít need carp anymore.

Lao Dai canít quite believe what heís hearing. He stands there, nearly apoplectic.

Do you want them? The son asks. If you like the carp, take them. Theyíre yours. Maybe itíll give you good feng shui.

Take them, he urges, then begins to insist, completely misunderstanding Lao Daiís hesitation.

In the end, itís how debts are settled, Lao Dai reflects as he watches the son load the empty tank back into his car. Discarded debris of a life recycled as peace offerings. What he really wants is his koi. Drat these infernal carp. If his wife has her way, theyíll be on the dinner plate tomorrow.

Yet, after the son drives away, Lao Dai sits on the edge of the pond in a deckchair, just gazing at the remaining three carp larking about. Left-over feng shui is still feng shui. Who is he to turn away luck? With a sigh, he gets up and goes to the shed to drag out the basin. He unwinds the long garden hose. His wife shouts from a slatted window, what do you think youíre doing? His one arm flaps at her while the other begins anew the art of taking care of fish.

 

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Elaine Chiew

Fiction

 

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