Yellow Mama Archives II

Cecilia Kennedy

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Guarding the Koi Pond

 

by Cecilia Kennedy

 

 

 

            A mossy, fresh-water smell pierces through the chlorine that I’d expect to dominate the air inside the Pratmoth Public Aquatic Center. When I tour the perimeter of the pool area, I pinpoint the source: a koi pond. It’s the main attraction here—the only one of its kind for a community rec pool. The koi inside are legendary—50-80 pounds and four-feet long. They’re big enough that children can—and do—ride them. And I’m wondering why that’s allowed, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

          “Basically,” Kelly says, “you can’t let anyone over the age of six in the koi pond. Older children can crush the others—and the koi. There used to be a fountain—the plumbing’s still there—but it doesn’t work, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

As Kelly rattles off the rules—and there are many—the weight of what’s expected overwhelms me. I barely passed my lifeguard test, which lasted a mere three days. In those three days, I killed the mannequin I was tasked with saving. She was face-down in the deep end, and I was supposed to grab her by the armpits and pull her back up and out, but I dragged her head underwater, filling her nostrils and chest while the instructor shouted, “You killed her! Game over!” And they hired me anyway, reasoning that the lifeguard’s job is to yell at people for not passing the swim test, for putting babies in hot tubs, for sneaking in without paying, for running instead of walking. Anyone could do that, but not everyone would. Kelly couldn’t find lifeguards. I am one of the very few, scheduled every day, for six to eight-hour shifts—to check the chlorine levels, feed the koi, wipe down surfaces, vacuum the pool, and watch 50-100 swimmers who could suddenly be floating face down. My stomach sinks.

#

          The screaming is the worst part of the job. Parents, red-faced, say that I’m unfair. A 40-year-old man wants to get into the koi pond and rough-house with his 12-year-old son, so I tell them no, but he wants to shout. When I tell Kelly, he strikes a deal with the man and makes an exception—giving him, and his son, a special pass to use the koi pond whenever they want on my watch. I give up, sit in my chair, and stare at the long, bloated fish bodies gleaming in the light that seeps through the windows. The patterns on their backs move and change from red to black to white, some with specks of blue. A three-year-old grabs a red-patterned fish, hugging it tightly around its neck. I want to tell her that she’s probably choking it, but I don’t dare. She eventually lets go, and when she does, I see something I hadn’t before: the insides of the fish appear to glow, emitting a faint green light from within—and dark shadows inside the body move, twisting and bending—but only for a moment. I keep watching them until my shift ends, and the fish have glowed at least five times. No one else seems to notice.

#

          When Kelly leaves for the night, and the very few of us that he’s hired remain to close up, Reggie gets the idea to drag a mini trampoline from the supplies closet out to the koi pond. He takes a running start, pounces on the middle of the trampoline, and sails over the pond, landing into the lap pool on the other side. We all jump, and I revel in the feeling of weightlessness, of holding my breath, letting it out, and holding it again when I go underwater. But from my view, I can also see everything that could go wrong—every place to break a neck or splinter a femur. And that perfect coming-together-of-fabric-and-hard-edges aligns when Zach takes his turn next. He goes straight up, as high as the ceiling, and comes straight down, into the koi pond, striking the hard surface below. His legs buckle upon impact, and the fish scatter. The water turns red with blood as Zach’s face grows pale. Chloe and Reggie take him to the hospital. I’m left to make it look like nothing happened.

          In the closet, I find products that will clear nitrates from the water, and I hope that it will work to clear the blood. I check the filter to make sure it’s running strong, and I carefully inspect the fish for damage—broken tissue or skin—or a fin that doesn’t look right. I feel along the bodies with gloved hands, and I notice a bony ridge on all of them—on their undersides. I tilt one slightly to see what’s underneath, and it looks like gleaming, pearl-like points surround the belly in a circle. But it’s getting late, and I have an early shift tomorrow. So, I put everything back where I found it, and call the hospital. Zach will be okay, but he won’t be guarding any time soon.

          When I turn the lights off, the ceiling above reflects a greenish glow in the shape of giant koi.

#

          On a sweltering day, I report for a twelve-hour shift—fatigue clouding my mind, my backside sore from sitting in the lifeguard chair. I’ve given up completely. I no longer blow my whistle. It’s not worth it, especially when I saw what happened to Chloe, when she told a man to stop hanging on the basketball net near the pool, and he refused. He called her a fat cow before raising his fist. She backed away in time, and Kelly hit the police alarm. The police escorted him out in front of his kids, but he’s back here again today, throwing his little ones high into the air.

          In the koi pond, the 40-year-old man and his 12-year-old son are wrestling each other. I hear a child scream and a mother yell. The man kicked a child, but she’s fine—just screaming. I’m tempted to blow my whistle, but Kelly is sick of my concerns. He’s sick of the police. We’re all sick of summer and want it to end. But I keep watch, just in case, and from my vantage point, over the koi pond, I can see the fish are agitated. It’s like their whole bodies vibrate and pulse, sizzling like static. Faintly, I see the colors change back to glowing green, the shadows inside their stomachs creeping and crawling. The swimmers are too busy splashing and riding to notice, but I see it and half consider blowing my whistle, but I don’t.

          As the fish glow green, they begin to turn onto their sides—the shadows inside their bellies, long and string-like—grope. All of the koi, at once, keep turning and glowing, and the children and parents start to sense it. A four-year-old girl in a ruffle-bottomed swimsuit, all done up in pink and yellow flowers, stands next to a red and black fish which now glows green. She makes circles with her floatie-ringed arms and babbles a song. The fish is now upside down, with the bumpy ring exposed on the underside—a bumpy ring that now opens like a mouth with sharp teeth. From inside, the tentacles snap the air, pulling the girl into a tight grip, and shoving her inside, swallowing her whole. Tentacled coils unleash themselves upon the children, devouring every one—while the parents watch—unable to move or speak. The water inside the pond sloshes in shades of sunset-orange. The fish close their mouths, turn themselves upright, and swim. From the middle of the pond, the once-dormant fountain erupts, shooting water high into the air in bright hues of gold and red—and everyone marvels at how it’s “finally working again—after so many years.” Kelly smiles, proud of what’s happened under his leadership. And as we stand at the edge of the pond—the mossy, earthy smell hanging over the jubilant laughter, tangerine drops falling on my arms—I hand Kelly my whistle and tell him I quit.


The Secret Ingredient

                                        

                                      by Cecilia Kennedy

 

 

Curry powder spills from the bottle when I open the spice drawer. I should probably replace it, but I don’t. I’ll use every last bit, even the parts that cake up under the lid, when I shake it over the soup stock, which is in big demand to this day—every family reunion, every potluck. It’s no secret. The winning recipe was published ages ago, but no one saved it. Recipes abound, remedies abound—someone’s got to have the secret formula for the saving salve, the extra EpiPen for the little girl in Andsprit County, who was allergic to walnuts, but when the time came, the kitchen drawer was empty, except for a few walnut shells—and my parents had to find the neighbors, several miles down the road.

 

#

 

          The Sweet Michigan Cherry Pie Sweepstakes Champion added a dash of almond extract to her recipe. That was it—and she won. The Twisty Bar Chocolate Champ added toasted walnuts to the brownie batter—and that was enough to declare her a winner. So when I saw the call for the Cozy Chicken Noodle Soup Cook-Off, I knew just what to do: I added one new ingredient, curry powder. It made all the difference in the world—the difference between first and second place.

 

#

 

          “Send a Little Love” comes through in an email online, late at night. It’s a chain letter of sorts, which I haven’t seen in years. They used to come in the mailbox when I was growing up—mostly threats of bad luck if you didn’t send the letter to at least ten other people. I open the message online. No threats. Just a proposal: Send recipes to three people you know by forwarding the email on. I choose my daughters and my sister. They could use my chicken noodle soup recipe, so I send it, with curry powder still stuck under my nails, a fluorescent yellow, sprinkling away as I type.

 

#

 

          Sometimes, I see shadows walking past my window. Sometimes, I hear the door downstairs, open on its own. The drawer in the kitchen rattles, and I think I see footprints in the morning, but I live out in the country. No one would come out this far, to open the kitchen drawer.

 

#

 

          The messages come pouring in: Someone’s used my credit card. Someone’s tried to take loans out in my name. I’m so busy entering new passwords and opening new bank accounts that I hardly hear the knock on the door. But I do hear something, so I go downstairs and open the front door to find a bowl of soup left on the front porch. There’s no note attached—just a bowl of chicken noodle soup—and when I taste it, I recognize that whoever prepared it, did something different. They added saffron threads and thickened it slightly. And then, I remember whose recipe this is: the second-place winner’s, made with saffron and walnuts.

 

With my breath already beginning to catch in my throat, my tongue just beginning to swell, I race to the kitchen to find that the curry powder is missing, along with the EpiPen—and all the neighbors are so far away.

 

 

 

Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) taught English and Spanish in Ohio for 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has published stories in international literary magazines and anthologies. Her work has appeared in Yellow MamaMaudlin House, Tiny Molecules, Rejection Letters, Kandisha Press, Ghost Orchid Press, and others.

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