"Politics as Usual"
Simultaneously, in the pond . . .
The screech of Tom’s chair scrambled the entire pond, as Kiziah, one of the goldfish who had recently been dumped into the pond from Wilson’s Pet Shop, was just learning to find his way around. Life had been good and predictable at Wilson’s. The tank was always bright and warm; food appeared in the sky every morning at the same time. Everyone in his tank was a goldfish; they all got along. Kiziah, with his best friend Damaris, had spent time pondering life. They frequently talked about “God”. Never clearly seen, the God of the Pet Shop was said to have a face with both eyes facing forward. That led them to conclude that God was focusing exclusively on them. They also talked about the feelings that adolescent goldfish deal with: particularly about girl fish -specifically Linet Kanitha. Linet loved to flirt. She would give a wink of one of her beautiful goldfish eyes to Kiziah, looking straight at him, at the same time washing some water from her gorgeous tail over Damaris, who was approaching her from behind. (Having a face which is long and narrow, with one eye on each side, allows you to see ahead and behind, although there are always a few blind spots.) Though both had fantasies about Linet, so far that competition had not come between them.The ultimate irony occurred when a big net appeared in their tank and scooped up Kiziah, Damaris, and Linet together. Three other goldfish, whom none of them knew, ended up in the same plastic bag, ultimately headed to Jack Harris’ fishpond. Jack’s pond was much bigger than the little tank at Wilson’s. It was a totally different world: huge, cold, and foreboding. But worse than that, they were not alone; other fish lived there. They were called Koi. To a Goldfish, a Koi is uncanny. Goldfish are only one color. Koi have many colors: gold, white, black, and blue; each with its own unique pattern. And Koi are bigger; way bigger. If a Goldfish wandered a few feet away from its home, it could be intercepted by menacing groups of huge Koi fish, surrounding it, taunting it with anti-Goldfish slogans, backing it into a cold, dank, moss-covered cave from which it could not escape. Only after it was reduced to a quivering sack of scales, would they back away, snickering and snidely commenting on its cowardice. Also, the food came irregularly: some days in the morning, some in the evening. Some days no food would come, some it could come twice. When the food, which the Koi called Kalêbs, appeared in the sky, all jostled for position, the bigger Koi taking advantage of the smaller fish. It was brutal just trying to get enough to eat. The Koi used their massive fins to shove around the goldfish, leaving them bruised and battered, bringing back only a few crumbs. Kalêbs were delicious when served whole and in the company of family and friends, but they rapidly became bitter when broken up and exposed to the chemistry of Jack’s pond. So, Kiziah, Damaris, and Linet were facing a whole new reality when the screech of Tom Magglio’s chair from the patio reverberated like a tornado siren in their pond.“What the hell was that?” Kiziah yelled above the chaos. “No clue. . . duck under the rock!” Damaris shouted as he scooped up Linet in his side fin and spirited her away to the protection of the Northland Rock, located near the waterfall. The three of them backed into the depth of the cave underneath the rock. “This kind of stuff really pisses me off,” said Kiziah, once safely tucked away under the rock. “At Wilson’s we knew what would happen when – life was good. In this Hell-hole shit happens for no reason at all.” “Waddya expect, man? Everything’s new. We gotta figure it out.” Damaris poked back. Linet was sensing a tension between Kiziah and Damaris in this new environment. Playful teasing and boyish competition had somehow given way to this new, higher stakes game. In this cave, playful winks and waves were no longer acceptable. It was a new game now: called “Survival.” All the rules were different; it was not nearly as much fun. Huddled in the cave, they began comparing notes. Kiziah had been out and about a little in the last week and had learned some things: the Koi were the absolute rulers of the pond. The Chief of the Koi, Uka Utunga, a massive fish with unbelievable powers, who was rarely seen in public, had been recognized as the protector of the pond since the beginning. He was a deep blue color. His support was based on his communication with the Pond God, and resultant ability to protect the fish. For example, from time to time, usually once every two weeks, but not predictably so, the pond would go completely dark for several hours. It would be so dark that, even though it was the middle of the day, you couldn’t see beyond your fin. Slowly, over three to four hours, it would lighten up. Nobody in the pond understood why that happened until Uka Utunga explained that the darkness was the result of the Pond God’s anger at the behavior of specific Koi fish who had misbehaved. Uka Utunga seemed to know who these individual fish were, and what they had done. Since there were only five other Koi in the pond besides Uka Utunga, this became very personal. There was not a single Koi in the pond who had lived a perfect life: all had done things they were not proud of, and each was sure that somehow, Uka Utunga had specific knowledge of their sin. They had ceded all power to Uka Utunga, since he knew everything. Every time the pond went dark, Uka gained more power, since each of the other Koi thought they were responsible because of a past or recent transgression. Uka Utunga claimed that, because he interceded with the Pond God, the pond would clear. And it always did. In several hours, visibility would come back, and every fish would be grateful to Uka Utunga for his intervention.Kiziah wasn’t sure he bought the whole “Pond God” thing, let alone some special relationship with Uka Utunga. He was used to a different God. The God of the Pet Shop was quite benign, focusing on them, in no way vindictive. Yet Uka Utunga’s Pond God seemed to be looking to punish the fish for almost any reason: a God to be feared, not a God to be loved. This was troubling to Kiziah. The other goldfish agreed. One day as they shared the few, bitter morsels of Kalêbs that Kiziah had been able to muster, he said, “I overheard a couple of Koi talking; they hate Uka Utunga! They were trying to figure out how they could take him out! They’ve been in the minority- the other three are loyal to Uka. They said that maybe the new goldfish could somehow help bring Uka Utunga down. I suggested that we talk.”“Whatcha tell them?” fluttered Linet.“I said that we don’t believe in their Pond God. We think Uka Utunga is ruling by fear. I wish I could remember their names, but what I said seemed to make sense to them. They’re sure that he’s managing the news to maintain his own power. They had an idea they wanted to float by me, but it would look strange for goldfish and Koi to be hanging out together. We decided that at feeding time everybody would be together naturally. We could talk without causing suspicion.”“What was it like, talking to a Koi?” Asked Damaris.“Well, of course, they’re big. It’s hard not to stare at their spots, with all those colors and all. They smell kinda funny. But once you get through all that, they weren’t as bad as I thought they would be.”“Scary!” Linet said softly as she slowly undulated into a bit of sand. As she did, she looked up at him with a touch of tenderness and worry in the eye that was facing Kiziah, while keeping her other eye on Damaris on the other side. For a moment, Kiziah felt that old stirring of the crush he had on Linet back at Wilson’s. But he quickly pulled himself together. This was survival. The bright orange light of the sunset had come and gone, and the sky was dark. It was time to get some rest. “Goodnight Linet. Good night, Damaris.” The underwater lights in the pond went out as the timer went past 10:00PM. All was dark.
The sputter of food appearing in the sky abruptly woke them up the next morning. “Holy shit!” They had never had food early in the morning, but there it was- time to scramble and go get it! Bags under his eyes, Kiziah jumped into action. “Can you bring me something, Kiziah? I want to sleep in a little,” blinked Linet. Kiziah barely heard the question as he headed up into the feeding area, wondering what it was the Koi wanted to talk about. Once the sizzle of the food hit the surface of the sky, the response was quite predictable: a mad scramble upward, with intense jostling. In all of this, Kiziah had lost one or two skirmishes, but was very much still in the hunt. One particularly beautiful Kalêb bobbled just above his head; he was thinking that would be a great prize to take back to Linet, as he gained speed and altitude toward the prize. Just as he was about to make the catch, he collided with Potsubay, one of the Koi whose name he couldn’t remember earlier. Potsubay was at least twice Kiziah’s size, mostly orange with huge amorphous white spots, and black accents. He smelled funny. As they both came down, the Kalêb between them, Potsubay whispered to Kiziah: “Meet me under the pad on the west side of the pond.”“Cool!” Said Kiziah and within the next couple of minutes they found themselves under the protective shade of the huge green leaf. “Tsup?” jabbed Kiziah.“Look here, Ziah,” said Potsubay. “Y’all are newcomers to the pond; we’ve been here for quite a spell. Uka Utunga rules the roost. He has shit on all of us; we don’t even know what it is; but he knows it and we are toast if anyone else finds out! He knows the Pond God who can make the pond go dark for hours during the day just to punish whoever has been doing something nasty. We want to take Uka out!”“What’s that got to do with me?”“Do the math: there are only five of us Koi here in the pond. Three are loyal to Uka, and then there is myself and Njoroge. Until you guys came, we didn’t have the numbers to take him down. Even though you guys are really small, if all five of you helped. . . maybe. Here’s what I’m thinkin’. . .”Potsubay laid out a plot for the assassination of Uka Utunga involving a huge goblet of fiber that Potsubay and Njoroge had accumulated just west of Northland Rock. They had amassed enough dandelion and cottonwood fiber to make a pillow that could kill Uka, if stuffed into his mouth, by disrupting water flow over his gills. Since his forward fins were too far back to be useful, he couldn’t wipe it out. Uka would go belly up and no longer be a threat to the Koi in the pond, let alone the goldfish. And so, the plot was hatched: Kiziah and friends, along with Potsubay and Njoroge, would attack Uka from below and behind, the one blind spot Koi have. They would stuff the fiber into his mouth. They planned to pull this off during one of the rare public appearances of Uka, usually preceded by leaked information from one of his staff of some impending announcement. The assassination squad would need to have the event planned and ready for execution with only minimal notice. Kiziah had to sell this plan to his goldfish gang, but, more importantly, make sure Linet was on board. Without her approval, Kiziah would be uninterested in risking his scales.
The day started on an up note for Jack. Yesterday’s patient was doing well so he could concentrate on the election. He would be meeting Tom and a few members of the committee at his house to watch the press conference. They would listen to Manny’s allegations and plot their response.Compulsive as he was, Jack was glad that he had changed the filter in the fishpond earlier in the week. That always messes things up. For three to four hours, the pond looks terrible: the water black and opaque, no fish or underwater plants visible. Having gotten that out of the way, the pond would be crystal clear for the late afternoon meeting. “. . . and now over to our correspondent Stephen Backley at the Wellington City Hall. Stephen, what’s happening?” “Manny Bradshaw is about to speak. Lagging in the polls and looking for some sort of last-minute miracle, this could be big.” The camera slowly panned in on what was classic Manny Bradshaw: but tonight, his thin lips were slightly uplifted at the ends, forming an assassin’s grin that sent chills down Tom’s spine. Manny tapped on the padded microphone, sending loud thumps echoing across the staging area on the steps of the Wellington City Hall. The meager crowd had been deftly consolidated by Manny’s deputies to look larger for the TV audience. “My fellow citizens. . .”The next three minutes would later be described by Tom Maglio as the longest three minutes in his life. As each sentence dripped out of Manny’s mouth, Tom descended further into depression. It was an absurd allegation from an old girlfriend down at the Jersey Shore who had recently moved into his district. His thoughts were darting around: looking for potential sources of information, cataloging chits available to limit the political effects, assessing the potential damage to his family and professional relationships. He envisioned his lead in the polls evaporating. He was decimated. Manny’s image faded to black on the screen, to be replaced by an infomercial from a local hospital network.Jack clicked the remote and the screen went blank. Nobody spoke. In the suddenly darkened kitchen, a few minutes went by, each man absorbed by his own thoughts. With five days left until the election, if they wanted to salvage the effort, they needed a plan. They started outside to work on a plan. As they got up from their chairs, Tom appeared wobbly, and Jack grabbed him by the elbow. As they stepped out of the kitchen door onto the patio, they were struck by a shaft of orange light from the sunset, characteristic of this time of evening in October. Ordinarily, this was a treat for Jack at the end of a hard day in the operating room, but today it was a shock, unexpected, and unnerving.
Meanwhile, in the pond . . . Linet could barely see as the bright orange light suffused the pond. From her vantage point, east facing west, it was hard to keep an eye on the waterfall where, it was rumored, Uka Utunga would be appearing. Her job was to spot Utunga when he emerged and that would launch the assault. She signaled to Kiziah, hiding behind Northland Rock with Potsubay, the Koi informer. Kiziah was worried that Potsubay was too big to hide behind Northland. “Tuck your tail back in, Potsubay! If Uka’s Security spots your tail when he comes out were goners.”“I’m workin’ at it, man.”“OK, Pots; let’s review the plan: We got Damaris and Njoroge over on the west side ready to go. When Uka gets far enough out, Linet will give us the signal. You and I will sneak up from behind, grab his lower jaw and pull it down. Damaris and Njoroge will come from his blind spot on the other side and pull his top jaw up. Then what’s-his-name will stuff in the pillow!”“He’s a strange dude. What is his name?”“Since last night at the meeting we’re all calling him Scooter, although I’m not sure anyone knows his real name. Back at Wilson’s, he was a real loner. At school he was a quiet kind of guy that had no real friends. He never caused any trouble. His neighbors thought he was nice, but he seemed a little weird; nobody really knows him.”“It takes a weirdo to do Scooter’s job! It could be suicide. You head up to that huge guy with four of us trying to hold his mouth open; you got the big pillow in your mouth that you gotta stuff into Uka’s. One slip, or if any of us let go, he could be swallowed up.”Kiziah glanced up to Scooter. He was in position, ready, resigned; he gave a flip of his left pectoral fin, signifying he was set.“So, Pots: last night you seemed pretty sure that Uka would come out during the Orange time tonight.”“Yeah; his folks been yappin’ since that blackout a few days ago. They say Uka been talking with the Pond God. He’s sayin’ the Pond God don’t like it that some of the Koi are mingling with the Goldfish. Uka’ gonna make a major statement.” Just then Linet signaled. Uka Utunga was emerging. Slowly, ever so slowly, he effortlessly glided out toward the center of the pond. As he emerged from under the waterfall, it was apparent the Koi fish in the pond loyal to Uka were being bodyguards: one in front, one each on each side, fin high. It was an impressive sight. Massive, mostly blue, and bathed in the orange light of the moment, Uka Utunga exuded authority, confidence, and even a sense of eternity. He paused in the center of the pond. He was clearing his throat and preparing to speak as the two teams of would-be assassins each silently approached from behind. Meanwhile, Scooter, fiber pillow in his mouth, approached from underneath. As Linet watched from her perch, it was clear that one part of the plot had not been considered: the fiber pillow was so large in Scooter’s mouth that he couldn’t see around it. The jaw-openers were rapidly closing in, but Scooter was veering seriously off course!At that moment, the pond was shattered with a force unlike anything anyone had experienced. The Orange light was fractured into pieces and the entire scene exploded with a deafening sound. Moments later, a shock wave tossed both assassination teams and Linet on their backs onto the rocks lining the pond. Linnet landed with her full force on a sharp rock; she felt like a knife had been driven into her shoulder. Kiziah and Potsubay landed just inside the shoreline. Damaris and Njoroge ended up underneath the waterfall. Only Scooter emerged unhurt. The fiber pillow apparently acted as an airbag, protecting him. When everything quieted down the only sound left was that of the waterfall. Kiziah looked around and surveyed the damage; everything looked different: injured or traumatized fish lay around groaning, lily pads overhead were still wobbling, the orange light was rapidly fading. But there was something new: two large thin poles rising up from the middle of the pond into the sky, like nothing he had ever seen. And Uka Utunga was nowhere in sight.
Jack emerged onto the patio, helping Tom. In the last few minutes, everything had changed. Why hadn’t Tom told him about the one item that could bring them down? They could have planned; they could have dealt with it early on. . . straight up!As Jack’s eyes slowly adjusted to the glaring sunset, he glanced over to the pond and his heart sank even further. There, in the middle of the pond, stood a heron from the nearby river, standing tall, knee-deep in the water. In his beak, gently held and wiggling back and forth, was a huge Koi fish which Jack immediately recognized as Big Blue.“You bastard! Drop him! Let him go!” Jack shouted as he ran toward the pond, waving his arms frantically, tripping over the hassock. With that, the heron quietly prepared for takeoff, gracefully spreading her wings, and lifted off gently into the airspace over the pond, banking gradually downwind and landing smoothly on the roof of the house two doors west, all the time holding the giant Koi fish gently in her beak. Once settled onto the roof, comfortable and quiet, she looked back toward Jack, raised her head to the sky, opened her beak widely, and swallowed Uka Utunga.As orange turned to grey in the late October evening, Jack turned to Tom in disbelief. But in the withering light he was struck by Tom’s ashen color and expression of pain. “Tom… you OK?” he said as he dialed 9-1-1 on his cell phone. In short order, alternating pulses of red and blue strobes announced the arrival of the Wellington squad.