The pop-eyed fish ogle us from the walls of El Estrecho, a little tapas bar in the seaside village of Marbella on the Mediterranean coast. Bubble-eyed and kite-tailed, they have no business being here, spying upon us as we eat our tapas, drink our wine, lament the unavailability of gazpacho at this particular establishment on this particular day.
Here, on the sunny Costa del Sol, these fish seem out of place. We are thousands of miles from Japan, Asian terrain of my childhood, where we used to buy them at fairs by the pair, sometimes singly, in their inevitable take-home containers—clear plastic bags full of water—to be dumped into the goldfish bowl in our living room.
My little sister, Amelia, five years old at the time, was notorious for purchasing them. They only cost a few yen—and a good thing that was because these pets too often died within a few short days of their arrival. My parents never seemed distressed by their demise, nor did Ikosan, our maid, whose job it was to help us feed our pets—be they aquatic or landlubberly—and dispose of the bodies (fish only, thankfully) when they expired. And although the adults seemed not to mind their passing, every piscine death was troubling to us, especially to little Amelia, whose adoption process included naming each fish and assigning it a personality.
Exactly four of the goldfish lived beyond those first few days: not the pop-eyed specimens, which seemed more fragile, but the shimmering orange and silver koi. They got so large that they outgrew their fishbowl home and were resettled in a very large aquarium. It occupied a central space in the main room of our tiny home. We called them Amy, Richard, Paul and Linda—our names. They survived for some time, dying en masse quite a while after they were moved to the aquarium, but before our Japanese grandmother passed away, and before we moved back to the United States.
Needless to say, Amelia was distraught when we lost them. It turned out Ikosan had taken to cleaning out the tank with Clorox to keep the glass clean and algae-free. We, none of us, faulted her for it. We never faulted Ikosan, whom we adored, for anything. Besides, we were told that fish in general and these fish—koi—in particular, the symbol of prosperity and longevity, were often kept to guard those who collected them from harm. The fish absorbed and deflected negativity meant for their possessors. If a fish died, it only meant that it had been a stand-in for the some human in the household.
I don’t think I believed this, but I did find it comforting, largely because it comforted my little sis. Amelia grew up, and although she loved koi ponds and even wished she had one in her garden, her pets of choice were cats. Now I ponder that switch as I study the sweeping lines of the black pop-eyed fish, so unexpected on the wall here in this Spanish restaurant.
My sister, Amelia, died in a fatal car crash in August of 2014, just a few months prior to my travel to Marbella, a place she never visited, but one I know she would have loved. She left behind a husband and a cat, her many, many friends, and a profoundly grieving brother and sister.
I can’t help wishing that she’d had some fish.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin