When we finally got home, driving and listening to the Greatest Generation podcast, we had basically good news. For one, the house had not been broken into, burned down, or otherwise harmed by an unoccupied week. For another, it hadn't snowed, or at least hadn't snowed enough to stick. We hadn't, apparently, been neighborhood scofflaws about this. The free Community News edition of the Lansing State Journal, a four-page brief designed to carry ads, was wrapped in plastic and sitting on the approach to the front porch, and would have been since Saturday. But enough people ignore that that it wasn't necessarily advertising to the world how the house was empty.
And for pets. There was no rabbit to collect, a steady source of sadness, but we could start looking for one in a good conscience now. It would take months and go through a foster rabbit we don't like to think of giving up and then an adoptee we certainly won't.
And the goldfish. We had about fifty of them, resting in plastic watering tanks in the basement. We were worried about leaving them over a week without food, and we had bought some spinach leaves as plant matter they could eat as they liked. We saw evidence they might have chewed on them some. Not much, but they seemed to be doing fine.
The appearance was a lie. We would work out later that at least one of our adult fish, one of the original set of eleven we'd gotten in 2013 and that we so loved, had probably died while we were out and the body disintegrated before we could spot it. This would be the start of a most awful winter for our fish.
It had started near New Year's with the discovery the nitrate levels had spiked. This is bad, dangerous stuff, dealt with by changing the water a lot. I've been doing that since, replacing five or ten gallons in each of the roughly 120-gallons in each tank. But we would see this sad story over and over: one of the fish would sink to the bottom of the tank, moving sluggishly if at all. We eventually started setting up a quarantine tank in the kitchen, for the fish to recover without its mates harassing it. None of them ever has. We don't even know how many we've lost; it's been a brutal winter.
After two months of this I took water samples to Preuss Pets, for water testing. They found the pH dangerously low, about 6.0 and the carbonate hardness nonexistent. Carbonate hardness keeps the pH from fluctuating too much over the day. (Also pH naturally fluctuates over the day; who knew?) Goldfish want water that's slightly basic; 6.0 is slightly acidic. We had a good hypothesis and could start treating the water for this. Which would be a mix of alkaline and acid buffer powders to raise the pH and, as a side effect of mixing the two, get some carbonate in.
With this, and several rounds of alkaline-and-acid-buffers to get the carbonate hardness up, the situation seemed stable. The pH got to somewhere in the 7.5 to 8.0 range, the carbonate hardness on the low but acceptable side of things, and the fish apparently doing better. We figured we could make it until the outside was warm enough to return the fish. Then April came and stayed as cold as March, for one. And another fish, another of the adults and our original set, fell ill.
More water samples to Preuss. The water tested out all right. I described the symptoms to one of the more experienced staff there; they specialize in reptiles and fish. His best hypothesis: the water was too cold while we were feeding them. The water temperature had dropped to the mid-40s much of the winter. He said we should not feed the fish if it's below 50 degrees, and only winter food at that. I asked in a couple different ways, don't feed fish that are active and moving around for months? He said in a couple different ways, yes, exactly. With too much to eat in too much cold weather they had probably got gut rot. A fish in the quarantine tank, upstairs and warmer, might recover but he didn't have high hopes.
And, well, that's just devastating to me. As the person more likely to be up early I was feeding the fish all winter. I was using their response to the food as a rough way to check whether any were getting sick. And to think that my feeding them did this is just ... just terrible. Guilt isn't the right feeling for this, not really. I didn't do anything inappropriate, by the best information I had available. It was just wrong.
We had no way of suspecting. It's crazy to think of active fish being left unfed for months; even eight days seemed too many. And it's never been a problem in the past. Well, we'd lost one or two fish in the winter before, but never this many, and I pointed that out to the Preuss guy. He didn't know, but pointed out that it could be that something stressed the fish just that bit too much this year.
We have hypotheses about that, too. The unexplained nitrate spike could have been the proximate problem. Several ancient cracks in the basement windows grew into holes that left the basement colder this year than past years. We had figured to get them replaced with better, insulating, windows this year. And we can open the heat vents to keep the basement warmer, so that the water temperature doesn't stay below 50 degrees.
We've saved all the fish bodies, the ones that haven't just disappeared, for burial when the ground is warm enough. And we're hoping to transport the fish back to the pond this weekend. Goldfish are partially social animals. I wonder if they miss their mates. I'm sorry we lost them.
Trivia: The number of miniature flags (4 by 6 inches) of the United States, the fifty states, the District of Columbia, United States territories, nations of the world, and the United Nations brought to the Moon on Apollo 11 is not known. Nor is it known how many orbited versus how many were brought to the lunar surface. Source: First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, James R Hansen.
Currently Reading: The Best of Simon and Kirby, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby. Book Editor Steve Saffel.
Well, that's a bundle of raw feelings. The next thing in my photo roll is a bunch of pictures from a day we took Columbo out in the backyard and I'm not sure I feel up to that right now. I used many of the best ones right after his death, posting pictures of how great he looked then and how great bunny_hugger looked with him. But right after that is pictures from a day bunny_hugger's parents and their dog came over to hang out and have a grilled early-summer dinner outside and of course I have pictures of the goldfish from before so much ill came to them and, well, fine then. If I can't avoid the rawness I'll embrace it.
So here's the fish gathered in the sunlight because they like sunlight and because they know people standing by the edge of the pond often implies that food is going to be tossed in shortly. They were right about that.
Another attempt at taking pictures of the fish in their element, which goes awry because their element is water and if the fish are being at all interesting they're making the surface too busy to use. I keep thinking about rigging up something for underwater pictures, even if it's as simple as putting my camera in a sealed plastic bag, to see what might happen. Probably ruin my camera.
The rare photograph of the goldfish when the surface cooperates and the light is good and at least fish ... is ... upside-down? I'm not sure what's the deal with the one at the center, just right of that lily pad and in front of the much bigger fish.