It was five in the morning, the time in his experience—between four and five—when the condemned was wakened to be led out. It was always five in the morning that his stomach independently from his thoughts remembered another time, another country. He was only thinking of the lone, little goldfish he had put in the horses’ drinking trough. His grandson had won it with a well-placed tennis ball at the Alachua County fair. There was no way he could tell the boy at the age of four that they should not bring it back home, that he only wanted to spare him the pain of seeing his little fish floating belly-up in a glass bowl. Trying to shield him from pain he proposed their horses’ drinking trough as a home for Goldy. There was nothing else he could do. The fish had been named.
At the next morning’s feeding, he had expected to see a dead fish floating on the surface of the water tank, but other than bits of grass, there was nothing. A month later when he was skimming the water with a bucket he had seen a much larger Goldy in the depths of the murky trough. The Extension publications on cattle and horse troughs he had been reading for years had been vindicated, but it was a mixed blessing. He couldn’t get Goldy out of his mind. Goldy alone in the tank. Goldy alone in his world unable to communicate.
Goldy, an inadvertent symbol. The blind had Braille, the deaf sign language, but the church that for centuries had taught illiterates through her stained-glass windows and symbols had lost the ability. Her vocal cords had atrophied from trying to speak in a falsetto to accommodate a people who, by and large, made their life decisions based on the state of their hormones or of the current fads. To make decisions based on “Thus saith the Lord” was patronizingly assigned to the simple-minded or was called “insultingly cruel” even by some Christian publications. He lived among Western Christians whose most quoted theologians and bishops had created a robocop theology that was part f lesh, part politically correct, secular thought. They wanted Christianity without its revelation, without God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like King Nebuchadnezzar’s chief eunuch renaming Daniel, they wanted to rename the One beyond their ken to name. Their ideal of “religion” was the Roman equitas that placed all religions on the same footing, but put beyond the pale certain of their brethren who believed with Origen of Alexandria, as he had expressed it in the third century, that the Christian religion has its origin in God’s manifestation and not in human sagacity, maintaining that salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ. That belief made them fail the politically correct church’s litmus test, applied even to martyrs of the faith. Christians who were killed or put into concentration camps by the communists never passed the test either. They remained nameless, forgotten people.
He looked at the illuminated clock radio. It was six o’clock. He didn’t want to turn on the light and wake up his wife. The pain he felt was overwhelming. He listened to it, trying to sort it out as he had tried during the war to sort out the sounds around him, believing that if he had classified them correctly he was safe, provided it wasn’t heavy artillery, mortars, or B-29 bombers. But he could not classify this pain. There was no demarcation between the physical and the mental, no Green Line that would indicate one side or the other.
“Are you alright?” his wife asked.
“Yes.” He touched her lovely, familiar body that over the years had kept his terrifying ghosts at bay. “Go back to sleep.”
The dogs didn’t want to leave the utility room. It was the first week in Advent and there was light frost in the air that turned the pastures a glittering white in the early morning light, regular North Florida November weather where later in the day the temperature would climb to the seventies. Most of the horses were outside the barn facing east toward the woods, looking like people standing in the nave of a cathedral. With pricked ears they watched a small band of grazing deer. The deer had jumped over the fence from their San Felasco nature preserve. In the total silence he could hear them crop grass; then one of the horses stomped the ground and the deer froze into statues of speed and grace. They were all waiting, watching the white light expand as if seeing the moment of creation bringing forth a streak of green that no color chart had ever captured, then light pink deepening into rich purple, a royal robe edged with gold flung over it all. Then the birds began to sing, the deer were released, and he knew with all certainty that a deaf Beethoven had heard what he had seen this morning in the first week of Advent and in his own joy rehearsed with the psalmist: “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, O Lord, and causest to approach Thee.” Pain that seemed to have made a constant abode in him for the past few years had disappeared with the peculiar effect of a struck guitar string that would not resonate. He remembered the pain, but its sting had gone, as if to teach him that though there were no endings there were always beginnings that could come in the blinking of an eye, a trumpet blast or with the daily aesthetic glory of a sunrise.
The sky was blue now with white clouds like gossamer scarves flung in an arc against it. Samba, the lightning-struck but surviving chestnut thoroughbred, who against all odds had reached Olympic levels in dressage, came up to nudge him in the back. He touched his nose then blew into his nostrils. The other horses came too, to have their noses touched. It was feeding time.
At eight thirty he drove his grandson to preschool. Instead of driving straight back home he stopped at a small shopping center and parked in front of the “Aquarium Connection.” The second he opened the door to the shop he was engulfed in the heat, smells, and sounds of the pet store. There were large parrots gripping their perches with claws that revolted him because they made him remember the retreat from the Ukraine where he had seen human hands turned into dark claws sticking out of the melting snow.
“What can I do for you, sir?” A young woman emerging from behind a large aquarium asked him.
“I’d like some goldfish. Nothing fancy. I need them for my horses’ drinking trough.”
“I didn’t know people did that with goldfish.”
“Oh yes. We already have one called Goldy. He’s thriving.”
“The little ones are four for a dollar.”
“If you don’t mind my asking. Where are you from? My major is linguistics.” She was fishing in the tank with a tiny net.
“That’s not an Alachua accent,” she laughed.
“Hungary.” Even to his own ears it sounded like a confession. He didn’t want to be a hyphenated American.
He put the fish in their water-filled plastic bag into the trough as he had been instructed. They needed to be acclimated for fifteen minutes before they were turned loose. He watched the little fish darting about in their prison as if trying to burst through the plastic walls, making it hard not to free them prematurely.
He looked up. An eagle was gliding with turned-up wing tips against the blue sky. It circled lazily, stopping at times, its wings stretched wide. Standing there at the water tank watching the four little fish darting about in their prison he wondered what an eagle was doing over the pasture. He had seen hawks before but not eagles.
Then the eagle cried with a loud voice and he knew that it was time. He took his pocketknife and slit the plastic prison walls, setting the little fish free. Goldy, twice their size, came to meet them.