They Could Live Forever

This week, I’ve been meandering through Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman’s second short story collection. My bookmark is currently lodged behind the tale of a man who purchases supernatural assassinations in bulk. I’m approximately sixty percent of the way home, my imagination having blazed swathes through strange fields: trolls, malevolent toys, the Holy Grail, werewolves, feline deities, and other wondrous happenings. As with most anthological roads, the mileage varies: some of the stories have left me bewildered, certain I’ve missed something of critical importance nestled within the preceding pages. Others kindle raised eyebrows and satisfaction. Most have elicited steady head-nodding and subdued grinning, repercussions of consummate storytelling and typical of Gaiman’s work—at least for me.

But my favorite story thus far is a less shadowy gala than fits Gaiman’s customary horror-fantasy métier. The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories—actually a single story—centers on an obscure writer’s introduction to Hollywood culture and the mechanics of film adaptation in a town where everything is as disposable as a goldfish’s permanently-amnesic memory. Gaiman has admitted that the story is quasi-autobiographical, and it’s generally thought to be based on his experiences unsuccessfully adapting Good Omens, the stellar comedic fantasy novel he wrote with Sir Terry Pratchett. Plans for the film have festered in development hell for at least two decades.

In The Goldfish Pool, the narrator, on an afternoon break from script treatment, initiates a conversation with Pious Dundas, an ancient hotel groundskeeper with whom he forms the sole authentic connection established in the entire narrative. Pious mentions that his grandson is an ichthyologist, which prompts our narrator to remark:

“I read once that carp don’t have set life spans. They don’t age like we do. They die if they’re killed by people or predators or disease, but they don’t just get old and die. Theoretically they could live forever” 

From my armchair, I continued reading the rest of the page, but my eyes periodically flickered back to those lines.

I HAVE TO READ IT JUST ONE MORE TIME.
I HAVE TO READ IT JUST ONE MORE TIME.

When the last word had turned off the lights and closed down the story’s set, I decided that before traveling on, I needed to know if the ponds and streams near my house are being governed by immortal fish.

*****

As I was disappointed to learn, they are not. Also, carp are not native to North America anyway, but that’s a secondary point when one is researching eternal life.

With an average lifespan of forty seven years, however, the common carp has more than sufficient time to write its carp-poetry, take up knitting, volunteer for school trustee, and build a coralhouse for its carpettes. As with any system, there are outliers—many koi (Japanese for “carp”) are centenarians, and one, Hanako, lived to be 226 years old.

Hanako
Hanako, photographed by her last caretaker, Dr. Komei Koshihara.

I leaned back in my tattered jet-black office chair, pivoted towards the window, and gazed into the darkness. What is it about contemplation and nightfall? Silence, shade, and musing fused, and I held the echoes of a creature that could live nine generations. Laughter, hopes, struggles, dreams—in all of our time, we’ve not been able to sufficiently draw the signposts of a single life, while Hanako remained, through births and marriages, triumphs and setbacks, tears and joy. She witnessed the world’s transformation exponentially longer than any human who has ever lived.

Maybe that’s not immortality. But it’s surely close.

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