The Curse of the Golden Carp by Elaine Chiew

Old Mrs. Khoo next door asks if Lao Dai would mind keeping her golden carp in his pond for a while. As if she’s moving back some day in the future. You never know, she says, baring her teeth.

She’s moving to the Capital. Her son has just gotten a new job at the Heart Institute, and he’s a VIP all of a sudden.

Lao Dai does mind. First, he rears Kikusui golden koi, and that only. His koi are sleek and symmetrical like jet-planes, fiery orange blended with silvery white, and no visitor to his house is spared a tour of his koi pond. No telling what mixing another species of carp in the pond will do, he thinks. Second, her golden carp are enormous bloated things, as if they’re filled with helium. He’s not sure what she feeds them, and if he’ll be expected to do the same. He doesn’t go for anything bloody, no scraps of meat, bones or left-over dumplings. He doesn’t want to have to do extra work; he has a heart condition. His koi, well, his koi practically rear themselves.

But it’s hard to say no to an old lady. Especially hard to say no to his best friend’s widow, the way she sits in her wheelchair, her head tilted to one side, her mouth slack, and her one stump of a leg swinging to and fro.

Don’t worry, I’ll take care of them for you, he hears himself say. He notices his wife has pursed her lips and looked away. Don’t worry, he says, and pats Mrs. Khoo’s knee. Mrs. Khoo glowers. Already, he feels he’s let her down.

The day the carp arrive, her son carries in a fish-tank the size of a small coffin, yellow with lichen and mould, and Lao Dai stands by with a big basin of fresh tap water. Gently, he lifts out one of the carp, slippery and scaly all at once, and he can feel the muscle on the creature, bolting and flipping against his palm. He drops the first one with a plop into the basin, and it lies there at the bottom, stunned. Lao Dai dips in one finger, giving the water a stir, giving the fish a poke. It does not move.

It’s too much fresh water at once, Lao Dai mutters. He gets a plastic beaker out, scoops out some of the rank water from the tank, pours it into the basin. Slowly, slowly, the carp’s tail swishes. It bends suddenly, turns over on its side, begins to swim around.

Mrs. Khoo’s son stands, arms akimbo, watching as if Lao Dai were putting on a show in marine world.

Slowly, Lao Dai transfers each carp, first into the basin, then after a few minutes into his rock-pool pond. There are five carp crowded into that tank, with barely any room to swim around in. He’s surprised they haven’t eaten each other by now, pacifist though they may be. They watch the carp circle the rock-pool, with its bubbling fountains, lily-pads, clean and smooth white rocks hugging the mossy banks. Each rock, each viridian square in the man-made rock-pool has been built and sculpted and landscaped by Lao Dai with his own hands.

Carp are good feng shui, you know, Mrs. Khoo’s son says. Lao Dai frowns. He’s catching an undercurrent of meaning, but he’s not sure what.

How’s the heart? Mrs. Khoo’s son says.

Same as ever. It beats. Lao Dai says as he watches the carp begin to mingle, watches his koi give the carp a wide berth. The carp are tearing around the pond, their fins coiling and uncoiling, crazed and bewildered by so much room, so much good water, so much bounty. Their scales of gold flash iridescent in the glaring light.

Good, good. Hope I never have to see you at the Heart Institute, the son says.

Lao Dai wants to swear. What kind of gratitude is this? he thinks. Are you cursing me, you young upstart?

The son leaves a big bag of dried shrimps. Twice a day, he says. Feed the carp twice a day. When Lao Dai looks in the bag, he sees the serrated bottom of a 2-liter Coco-Cola plastic bottle. Two scoops a day! That’s the secret of how the fish got so fat, Lao Dai clicks his tongue and shakes his head.

Lao Dai’s wife comes home with a new perm. She looks like a giant cup mushroom, but Lao Dai tells her she looks good. The sun is sinking, and the horizon is awash with magenta and crimson hues, the remaining legacy of cement pollution and forest fires from the valley.

One day, Lao Dai goes out to survey his pond, and finds that two of his koi have gone belly-up. He stands frozen in disbelief. Having raised koi for well-nigh ten years, they’ve died on him only after living out their natural life-spans.

He fishes them out. The carp all seem to be asleep, unmoving, unblinking in the cool dank depths. Lao Dai continues watching them, suspicion raging his innards.

In bed that night, having stewed all day, he says, two of the koi are dead.

It’s the carp, his wife immediately says, lathering Ponds Cold Cream on her face.

We don’t know that. Lao Dai tries to be reasonable. But his wife’s words finds immediate echo in his heart.

What’s there to know? His wife snaps. That Mrs. Khoo, every time she comes round, she wants something. Since her husband died, we’ve done so much for her. Given her rides to the hospital. Found her a realtor. Helped her to sell her shop-house. Found her a nurse attendant after she lost her foot. When have we ever said no? When have we ever asked for a favor in return?

You’re right, Lao Dai says, but in Old Chu’s memory, we can’t say no.

How long are we going to keep doing her favors? His wife grumbles. Old Chu has been in the ground for six years.

There’s no limit to friendship, Lao Dai says. Honor does not end at death.

Pah! His wife glares at him in the mirror. She looks like a spectral ancestor with her face all covered in frosting.

In the same week, two more of Lao Dai’s koi die. The carp frolic around the pool, their bodies flashing with glee.

Lao Dai thinks about constructing another pool, one just for the carp. His wife begins to nag. She doesn’t want their garden raked up again. She doesn’t want the expense. She doesn’t want so many fish she can’t eat in her life, period. Once she begins, there’s no stopping, and Lao Dai has to endure the running train whistle of her droning for the rest of the day. When she’s angry, she bangs cutlery about, as if she’s busting the pots and pans. She wants him to stop obsessing about the fish. Tell her to take them back. Tell her to stop taking advantage.

Lao Dai begins to reduce the amount of feed given to the carp. He knows all about overfeeding, but he wonders if eating so much has made them belligerent. With these particular fish, he thinks, the more they eat, the hungrier they seem to get.

On Friday morning, he’s arranged to meet Old Tao at a kopitiam for a coffee -- to ruminate over old times when they both ran secondary schools with the imaginary whip in kid gloves. He comes out, shoots a look over at the pond. Something on its filmy surface draws him.

Closer, he sees that one of his koi has been mangled and half-eaten. The sight galvanizes Lao Dai. Shouting, he grabs a bucket and ladles out the half-eaten fish. Its head is dangling by a mere sliver of ligature. Part of its backbone is showing, the viscera of flesh a shiny, translucent gleam among scale shards. My fish, my fish, Lao Dai wails.

Lao Dai’s wife yells at him. Why should you be surprised, you old goon? I told you. Didn’t I tell you? Like owner, like pet.


Lao Dai’s mind is aswirl in thoughts, his feelings are muddy, caught in a fug. It seems to him undeniable that Mrs. Khoo’s carp have shanghaied his pond of koi. It’s the rape of Nanking here.







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Elaine Chiew



© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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