The piranha grinned at Riley through the window of the thrift store. Yellow green, shiny, about six inches long, teeth projecting forward from the jaw bones, a personification of evil mounted on a simple rectangular wooden stand.
On a whim he went in, paid the couple of dollars, and took it home. His wife had died a couple of years before, he didn’t have to explain his idiosyncratic purchases to anyone. Anyway, it was she who had insisted on browsing the goodwill shops and thrift stores in the area and it was a habit he continued, it helped to fill his time. He had a small area of his backyard populated with quirky and unlikely items. Lizards made from coke cans and wire, small ugly sculptures, old bottles he’d dug up, strange and grotesque artefacts, all from the thrift stores. He called it the “Garden of Earthly Delight.” His new acquisition was definitely going to be displayed on the book shelves in his den.
Arriving home, he placed the piranha on the kitchen table, made coffee and while it brewed he sat and studied the fish through his reading glasses.
‘What a handsome fellow you are,’ he said. The fish grinned back at him, as if it knew something he didn’t, something funny.
Years before, when he first retired, he’d dug a large pond in his back yard, it was an attempt to lose some weight and get fit after years in a sedentary office job, it had taken weeks. After he lined and filled it his wife had populated it with reeds and weeds and various types of goldfish. He’d always thought them fussy and boring, he wasn’t too worried when the local herons wet their beaks taking their quota.
He did some research on the internet and found that he could purchase live piranhas quite easily. There was a small cold-water variety that lived in the upper reaches of the rivers of the Andes, they would be able to survive the winters here.
He bought half a dozen tiny juveniles and nursed them in an aquarium. After a few months he felt they were big enough to be released into the big pond. The results were predictable, slowly but surely the goldfish population declined and, after about a year, were extinct. As for the piranhas, they grinned quietly to themselves and went about their business like the good little psychopaths they were, gliding through the shadowy depths or swimming just under the surface, their dorsal fins leaving circular punctuations as they broke through the sticky surface tension. They were happy, they were comfortable, so they began to breed.
He fed them, they liked anything meaty, dog food, cat food, scraps from the butcher. For such aggressive creatures, they were remarkably respectful of each other at feeding time, each waiting their turn. He loved to see them motoring across towards him from all parts of the pond, when he made his regular afternoon visit with meaty treats and the occasional chicken carcass.
He showed them to his infrequent visitors, warning them not to put their hands in the water. Each fish would only tear off a small bite, he explained, but it was the accumulated effect that was so horrifying.
It was the mailman who noticed the pileup in his mailbox. He was a church goer who felt a duty towards his older customers especially those who lived alone. After two weeks he rang social services. A social worker came to the house but couldn’t get an answer at the front or back doors, so she rang the police, and it was they who tipped of the local paper.
“Skeleton found in pond” read the headline.
“Several police officers suffered injuries to their hands and arms while recovering the skeleton of a recently deceased resident from the pond in his backyard. It is believed to be Mr Martin Riley (69) of 14 Church Road, Bruisyard. The authorities were unable to determine a cause of death.
‘There was a complete lack of soft tissue,’ said police pathologist Dr Erin Matthews. ‘The victim may have suffered a stroke, a heart attack or simply tripped and fallen into his pond. We’ll probably never know.’”
The paper declined to report the facemask and snorkel, chewed and damaged but still loosely attached to the skull, nor the empty pint bourbon bottle at the side of the pond. It would be too macabre for the taste of the ‘Rocksprings County Inquirer’s’ readership.
And the piranhas? They grinned their grins and swam their swims, they were used to waiting. There were always the visits of the herons to look forward to, or maybe something larger.
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