It's a steamy Saturday in Berwyn. We're standing in the backyard of Bill Miller's yellow brick bungalow, staring through sweat at a gurgling six-foot-deep pond. Miller, a burly recently retired factory supervisor, is delivering a lecture on koi aesthetics in rich Brooklynese. "The skin has to have a texture to it that looks like a paintin'," he says. "The white has to be impeccable. The reds can't bleed into the other colors. The blacks have to look like they were just dabbed with a paintbrush on 'em, so they look like a work of art." He pauses for a draw on his cigarette, letting a moment pass before crossing the fine but inevitable line from aesthetics to commerce. "A good koi of 24 inches or so will cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000," he says. "In the California area, $20,000 to $40,000 is not uncommon for top quality."
Below us, under the Japanese maple and the waterfall, his herd of 16 koi cavort, smug and cool in their water world, precious agates, objects of desire. One after another they glide by for a look at us, tottering on our absurd legs, sweating and stinking in the hot air. When the weather gets uncomfortable for them, about November, they'll drift majestically to the bottom of the pond and take a long nap. They won't need to eat again till May.
When Miller was growing up in an apartment in Brooklyn, there were two kinds of pets: the ones that lived in cages and the ones that lived in bowls. He got his first guppy when he was 9 and showed his first champion at 13. He still has the trophy. After his wife, Sue, gave him a fish tank for a birthday gift the first year they were married, he dove back into his boyhood hobby, filling the basement with one tank after another of angelfish and guppies, digging a modest pond in the backyard for goldfish. Life seemed complete. Then one day about 13 years ago, Sue came home from a trip to the local mall with two small koi. "We threw 'em in with the goldfish, and then we got to like 'em," Bill says. After that, "little by little, we got rid of the goldfish." There's a term for what happened to us, Sue adds, dipping a few fingers into the pond to summon her favorite, Baby Face. ("Follows her around like a puppy," Bill says.) "We are koi kichi," Sue says. "Koi nuts."
Right now, before we get pulled too far into the current of Gin Rin (glittering scales) and Doitsu (scaleless) and generations of mountaintop breeders in Japan and shipments on El Al and converted swimming pools--right now is a good time to mention a certain four-letter word that, like the origins of royalty, is best avoided in polite koi society: carp. Yes, koi are carp. Bred like racehorses in Japan until their fabulous bloodlines, their Sumi (black coloring) and Shiro (white coloring) and Moyo (pattern), made it unthinkable that anyone would make a meal of them. There are 13 varieties, Miller says, categorized by color and pattern and the presence or absence of scales, and no two fish are alike. There are solid golds and silvers and blacks, but most have an abstract, Pollock-y pattern--splats of brilliant red against pure white (Kohaku), or inky black on metallic yellow (Kin-Ki Utsuri), or a single red spot, like a bindi, on the forehead (Tancho). With the development of plastic bags that made it practical to import the fish, koi collecting became an international hobby, especially popular in England, Germany, South Africa, and the United States. The best still come from Japan--spawned in remote mud ponds, nursed through the winters in greenhouses, all but a promising few weeded out--but in the last few years Israel has begun to supply top-quality kibbutz-raised koi. Handled properly, koi can live for 50 years.
The Millers have made their passion their livelihood. After years as hobbyists, they are now full-time wholesalers of koi and goldfish. A club they founded with two other collectors eight years ago in their basement has grown into the Midwest Pond & Koi Society, which boasts 350 families as members. Its seventh annual Koi and Goldfish Show, a regional event, will be held this weekend, with beauty contests for 15 categories of koi (judged on body shape, color, pattern, and skin quality) and 10 categories of goldfish, plus seminars and exhibits. Hours are 9 to 5 Saturday and 9 to 3 Sunday at the Du Page County Fairgrounds, 2015 W. Manchester Road in Wheaton. It's open to the public; admission is $3. Call 312-409-2081 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Drew Reynolds.