FIRST PLACE (THE WELKIN WRITING PRIZE 2023)
There are a million ways to say goodbye, and how can I possibly choose?
by Lindy Biller
The koi are swimming in circles in the hospice fish pond—slow and languid, gleaming like pennies at the bottom of the mall fountain in May of 1999, when you picked me up from school in your orange flowered housedress, your brown orthopedic shoes, and took me to the food court, where you bought me a sundae and tried to help with my long division homework. A sign explains the difference between goldfish and koi: goldfish tend to be smaller, and koi have barbels on their lips. Goldfish live up to 40 years, which makes their bloated orange carcasses bobbing in plastic bags at fairgrounds all the more depressing. Most koi live longer than their owners—the oldest known specimen, a scarlet koi named Hanako, dipped her fins in three centuries and probably more than a dozen ponds, though most of them would’ve looked more or less the same. Hanako’s caretaker said the fish was passed down from his grandmother, like bone china or old photographs, like a weak heart or bad knees or an inclination toward sorrow. In May of 1999, my mother’s heart grew too large for its fishbowl chest, and you scooped me up, bought me a strawberry sundae, a sequined tank top from Wet Seal. You helped me fold numbers into numbers. Neither of us knew what we were doing, but the C- didn’t bother me—I remember how good it felt, both of us mystified, drinking melted ice cream from the bottom of the paper dish. I want to find your room, bring you a milkshake, kiss your sun-spotted hands. I want to tell you about the koi: how you can count the growth rings on their scales, like tree trunks. But the mingled smell of fish-pond water and latex gloves and sweet-pungent sympathy bouquets is making me dizzy. The unit clerk pats my arm, offers me a cup of coffee or an off-brand lemon-lime soda—all this heat has been getting to her, too, she says. The coffee tastes thin as water in its Styrofoam cup. I want to dunk my head into the bright, clear pool. I want to scoop up the largest fish in my arms and throw it back, my impossible wish clinging to its rust-dappled scales. There are a million ways to say goodbye, but I can’t think of a single one.
Lindy Biller is a writer based in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Parentheses Journal, Empty House Press, Vestal Review, Scrawl Place, and Passages North. Her chapbook of interconnected stories, Love at the End of the World, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
This single, breathless paragraph appears so small when you look at it on the page (it's just 392 words) but there is a whole world contained within that space, not just a present scene but also a rich backstory that paints the deep relationship between narrator and dying relative, weaving together these two timeframes in such an effortless way. The language is sparkling in its quiet creativity. I love the description of the koi "dip[ping] her fins in three centuries" and that wonderful list of things passed through the generations that shifts from concrete to abstract. That "inclination toward sorrow" is of course at the heart of the piece, a story about grief that finds a compellingly unique angle on a well-trodden tale, leaving me heart-broken and pondering the question in the title - what is the best way to say goodbye? How can I possibly choose?