I had a client last year who told me that he had once had an extraordinary fish collection. He prided himself on how clean he kept the water and how groomed he kept the fish. But his personal life caught up with him and he needed to be out of the country for three months and in the craziness of going he didn't make all the arrangements that he would usually make and one of the arrangements he didn't make was the fish.

The three months passed and when he limped home he did so with dread for he knew it was going to be a bad scene inside that fish tank. He began to sniff the air as he opened the door to his house and he sniffed as he walked from room to room on his way to his library where the fish used to live. Nothing but the stuffy airless house smell. He opened the door slowly as if there was a tiger in the room. He sniffed in the darkness. Still nothing. He switched on the light in the room and now he could see the tank. The water was ink black. And all at once the guilt was on him like he was getting into wet blue jeans. He hadn't lived the right life. He hadn't taken care of the fish. He hadn't taken care of many things. He hadn't lived the right life.

And so he walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. He didn't have the strength to clean up the death in the fish tank that night.

He didn't have the strength the next day either or the next. He just couldn't bring himself to go into that room. And so he put himself back into his life all except in that one room where he kept the secret of the ruin he had created.

One morning about two weeks after he came home he woke early and he knew that the time had come for him to confront the fish tank and so he got his equipment and went upstairs to his library to bleed the death out of the room. He had a long hose to siphon the water and he had gloves and soap and a huge green hefty bag to hold the carcasses. "Just like a frickin' body bag," he said to himself in disgust. He knew what body bags were about from the time he had spent in Southeastern Asia. And the loathing of that time was sickeningly strong as he lifted the clear plastic lid on the top of the aquarium. But once again there was no smell. And no floating fish. Just the inky water.

He took his little net. It was white as a petticoat. He dipped it in the vast and hideous waters of the tank.

He trolled slowly. The nausea welled up in him as his rubber gloved hands dipped into the fetid water. He scooped, the net dragging against the gravel at the bottom. But when he brought the net to the surface there was nothing but gravel and the detritus of aquatic plant life long gone to spoil. He scooped again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. The tank was empty.

He got the hose out and began to siphon the water into the toilet. When it was half out he put his hand in a rubber glove and carefully felt around the bottom. Nothing. By now he was mystified. What had happened to the fish?

He felt again, but he dipped his arm in a bit too far and the water rushed into the open spot where the glove met his forearm.

"DAMN!"

He pulled his arm out of the tank, but the rubber glove was already bloated with water. He didn't want to dump the water onto the carpet of his library so he had to endure the slow humiliation of pulling the glove off finger by finger above the surface of the water in the tank. The black liquid ran down his forearm. He swore again and dropped the glove into the tank. He reached for it, but he reached too slowly. The glove veered below the surface. But now he was furious at himself and he reached down bare-handed and that is when he felt it. That is when he felt the heavy swishing presence that surged beneath the water.

He screamed.

It took most of the morning before he could get enough fresh water in the tank to see through the accumulated ooze. But when he did he saw that one fish remained. It was swollen and languid in the water. Once it had been a kissing goromi. Now it was a beast fish, a dark dream, a nightmare. But alive. A survivor of the things that had happened in that dark water in the long days he had been away.

He got the tank cleaned up. He made the water fresh. He put in new brightly colored gravel. He cleaned off the little sunken ship that he had had at the bottom. He bought new plants. He cleaned the filter and air jets and the thermometer. But he did not buy any more fish. He just left that one in the tank. Alone. Cruising, surviving, waiting for the day when man would fail him and the waters would slowly darken again.

Jay Duret