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Killing My Goldfish: Thoughts on Power and Personhood

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I killed my first pet. It was a goldfish, orange flicker in a plastic baggie I carried carefully home from Lankenau Fair. The bowl sat on my windowsill, framed by flowered, ruffled curtains. My parents had long nixed the idea of a dog or a cat, but the fish was low-maintenance, making endless, unflappable circuits of his tiny, glassed-in world.

Every week or so, my dad helped me change the cloudy water in my goldfish's bowl. That meant scooping the fish in a tiny net while he dumped the murk and rinsed the bowl under a bathroom faucet. I held the net at arm's length, flinching every time Goldy quivered in his little sac of mesh. Or maybe it was her sac? I'm not sure I ever knew the fish's gender. But I do recall my heart pattering with worry: what if Goldy jumped out and crash-landed on the bathroom tile? Was she gasping? Dad, hurry, fill the bowl.

A children's book had stoked my anxiety, a book about a boy who overfed his goldfish in spite of the pet store owner's warning. The fish grew and grew until it was monstrous, a swollen dirigible of neon orange too big for the fish bowl, the bathtub or even the flooded basement.

I took that cautionary tale to heart (see how a small mistake could go so colossally wrong?) and sprinkled just a pinch of paprika-colored food into the water each day. I was terrified that my fish would die overnight, or while I was at school. In the afternoons, I'd hesitate outside my bedroom door, peeking until I saw a vermilion flash on the windowsill.

I think I was frightened not so much of my fish's mortality but of my own capacity to cause harm. I might have been the smallest kid in Penn Wynne's fifth grade, but compared to Goldy, I was a giant. Holding that net once a week, arbitrary as God, knowing I could return Goldy to her bowl or let her languish, sucking useless air and twitching her filmy tail, was more responsibility than I could bear.

Is that why I agreed, one early Sunday morning, when my cousin suggested feeding Goldy breakfast cereal? Stuart was a year older and liked to scamper on the edge of mischief. "Hey, let's climb out the window and go on the porch roof, your parents won't mind... Let's play doctor. Why not? See, you are chicken... I know! Let's feed the fish. Give it cereal. C'mon!"

Stuart may have been the instigator, but I was the one who tiptoed downstairs for the box of Puffa Puffa Rice, the one who poured sugar-coated grains into the bowl and kept pouring as the water glazed, as Goldy swam in ever-narrowing circles. It was just like my book, except that I knew the story was a lie: an overdose of breakfast cereal would not make my goldfish grow to the size of a dolphin. It would suffocate him.

It took less than five minutes. And when my father found us, cereal box half-empty, hands sticky, fish belly-up in sugared water, he didn't say a word. He just took the bowl to the bathroom, shut the door, and flushed.

Years later, a lover told me how she and her brother had tortured frogs when they were children. This was a woman who sang to her artichoke plants and believed one of her cats was the reincarnation of her dead father. I confessed to a similar horror. "I killed my goldfish," I whispered.

Pattie stroked my hair. "You were young. Your cousin was older. It must have been impossible to say no." Yes, yes, true. But this is the part that is hardest to remember, nearly unbearable to say: The incident was exactly what I'd feared -- that I would do something wrong and be liable for my fish's death -- and I did it because I wanted to know what would happen, how it would feel, and how it felt was like the downward plummet of the roller coaster, terrifying, thrilling and inevitable. When I think of it now, I am sick with shame.

Almost a year ago, we put our cat, Gilda, to sleep. Actually, the vet. Micki Mooney, put her to sleep, but we were the ones who made the appointment and paid the bill. The receipt from Mt. Airy Animal Hospital didn't mince words -- "euthanasia," it read, "$117." But when we talked about Gilda's death, we used all the duck-and-cover phrases: "put her down... put her to sleep... ended her suffering... said goodbye." When Jesse, our 6-year-old neighbor, asked what that meant, I tried to be gentle and direct: "Gilda was in a lot of pain and she wasn't going to get better, so the vet gave her a shot that made her heart stop working." Jesse took that in. "So, she died?" Yes, sweetie, she died.

In between Goldy and Gilda, there were other pets: twin gerbils, Simon and Garfunkel, found cold in their cage one summer when I was away at camp; my first cat, Zooey, whose kidneys failed when she was just 7; a hamster named Alex who suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed his back legs.

It was my daughter, 10 at the time, who held Alex after the vet injected the heart-stopping medicine, who held him until he was quiet. And it was Sasha who petted Gilda until Dr. Mooney said softly, "She's gone," then asked, just as softly, "But where'd she go?"

We drag out the soft euphemisms because we can't bear the prickly rub of truth: I killed my fish. We killed our cat, the one who loved to wrap herself around our feet at night. Friends told us that we'd made the right decision, that it was our duty to give her a "good death," that it was all okay. Then why did it feel so wrong?

In Genesis, not too long after God pulls six all-nighters making the world, he gives Adam and Eve dominion over the animals -- porpoise and owl, gazelle and chimpanzee. It's a thunderous responsibility, the very price of being human: to have the capacity to wound and to kill, deliberately and consciously. For the right reasons, sometimes. Maybe. For the wrong reasons, all too often.

No wonder Adam and Eve had to act out right after that, munching on the forbidden fruit and getting kicked out of Eden, like children banished from the playhouse. I get it. They must have been so frightened to hear the truth: Welcome to this world, where we hold each other -- every nattering heart, every living thing--in something like that tiny goldfish net. We have the ability to injure with words, fists, guns and silence. We can cause so much suffering. Or we can try to fix what suffering there is. We can help each other heal.

"Ama," Sasha once said while Alex, her hamster, was nestling in her palm, chewing on her bathrobe sleeve, "don't you sometimes think how fragile he is, how easy it would be to crush him?"

I do, sweetheart. I think about that terrible power every day -- every time I see a fish darting in a bowl, every time I read the newspaper, every time I open and clench my hand.