Fishing for Koi with an Afghan Veteran

Since I’m focusing on Slow Education at the moment, I thought it might be worth reposting this article I wrote for First Things a while back:

Throwing my bags into the car, I waved my wife and children a hasty goodbye and then reversed out of the drive, automatically turning on the radio as I went. I was just in time for Arvo Pärt’s Festina Lente, a curious piece in which the basses play the tune at one speed, the violas at another, and the violins at a third.

It took me a while to adjust to Pärt’s mesmeric rhythms: festina lente, “make haste slowly”; quick, quick, slow. The day’s tide was ebbing and flowing; the morning’s tabula rasa was beginning to be filled.

If driving to work forced me into one rhythmic pattern, the school day provided a jarring counterpoint. Petty frustrations, rushed lessons, and snatched conversations were marshalled into neat sixty-minute units, the school bell obliterating any memory of Pärt’s tintinnabuli. I needed to slow down, so during my break I stepped outside, where I bumped into a colleague, a former infantryman.

“I see you’ve dropped your koi into the school pond then,” he said.

My family and I were trying to find a way to offload as many fish as we could, having recently moved house and inherited an overstocked pond.

“Not guilty,” I replied. “I couldn’t work out how I was going to get them here, so we looked online for someone who was willing to collect. In fact, someone’s coming round this evening. An Afghan veteran. He was hit by a suicide bomber in Kabul, and keeping koi is his therapy now.”

My colleague nodded. “How many limbs has he got left?” It didn’t seem like a question anyone should be asking.

At the end of the day, I rushed home. Martin, the Afghan veteran, was standing on the edge of the pond, a couple of ghost koi already bagged up at his feet and a broken net in his hand. He was intimidatingly large and he had all his limbs.

“We’re having a few problems,” he said.

I fetched what my three-year old calls my “wedding boots” (“Wellington” being difficult to say) and clambered onto the metal grid we had put in to keep herons and children out of the water. As Martin prodded with what was left of his net handle, I swooped with the net, but the more we stirred up the pond the less keen the koi were on showing themselves.

We nabbed a tench we hadn’t known was there and managed to net another unlucky ghost koi, but the rest of our prey remained stubbornly elusive.

It was an unusually wet, unusually warm evening, but we kept going. As the rain fell tropically into our garden and the children disappeared for the night, we settled into something of a rhythm, watching and scooping as the sky greyed over and dozens of birds provided a backing chorus.

As we slowed down we became more observant. And as we became more observant we started to talk. Martin told me that he’d been in Headley Court, a military rehabilitation centre, for three years. His family had been informed that he had only a 10 percent chance of surviving, but he had pulled through and recently won gold at the British Indoor Rowing Championships.

He told me that he now taught water-skiing and fishing to disabled veterans, that he kept tropical fish and maintained several ponds. He showed me the scars on the back of his enormously strong legs and told me about his brain, stomach, and lung injuries. But I already knew they were damaged from the way he rasped and wheezed as he tried to catch our unwanted koi.

Eventually we gave up. The fish had beaten us. I tried to reassemble the pond cover while Martin wheeled the three ghost koi that hadn’t got away to his Mitsubishi Outlander. As he carted his last bits and pieces to the car, I noticed that he was walking with a stick. We shook hands and he drove off. I thought about Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”: the burnt land; the unspoken trauma of war; the fish seen distorted through the surface of the pool.

Later I re-read Hemingway’s story until my eyes began to glaze over. I thought about Afghanistan and the globular ghosts we’d fished out of the pond. I thought about Cormac McCarthy’s mysterious trout at the end of The Road and wondered whether they too were victims of disaster, or strange signs of hope. I realized that the day had slowed and, as it had slowed, I had grown. Festina lente.

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