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The Fish Who Lived

By Esther C. Baird/Tri-Town Transcript columnist
First Published in the Tri-Town Transcript January 17, 2014

Regular Readers may have caught the line in my last column about a fish tank a certain unprepared parent purchased for her daughter at Christmas. I’d done just enough reading about fish tanks, and the crazy nitrogen cycling process, to know that it’d be easier to launch myself to the moon, with a bucket on my head for air supply, than it would be for a fish to survive the rigors of unexperienced owners.
So we prepped our first grade daughter accordingly.
“What do fish do?” I asked her as she bounced around her room scouting the best place to put the fish tank.
“Swim? Eat?” She answered. “Do you think we should move my bed over by the window so I can see my fish when I sleep?”
“No,” I replied. “We are not rearranging your bedroom to accommodate a fish, because, yes, they do swim and eat but also . . . fish die.”
She stopped bouncing.
“And,” my husband added, (we presented our message of aquatic doom as a team,) “when they die, we flush them down the potty.”
“That’s gross!” She sputtered.
Gross, but true. If a fish slaughter ensued, there would be no backyard fish cemetery. On that note, I smiled. “Ok! Who’s ready to go pick her first fish!?”
At the pet store we met Mr. Jean, a fish whisperer. He felt that a single betta fish would be a good start, but,
“I’m afraid the snow has disrupted our deliveries and we’re out of bettas.” He paused and looked at my disappointed daughter,
“Except . . . I do have one very special betta. She’s been in our display bowl because she is particularly beautiful.”
My daughter’s eyes widened.
“I haven’t wanted to sell her but,” he paused, “I know you’ll give her a good home.”
My daughter nodded solemnly and named the special, beautiful fish, Lemon. I nodded solemnly and panicked about our fish-down-the-potty policy in view of Mr. Jean’s faith.
But, despite the long odds, Lemon was a fish who lived. She was lovely and elegant and I was, I mean my daughter was, mesmerized.
We went back to Mr. Jean a week later. “I’m so glad you are back. I’ve been wondering about Lemon.” We assured him that Lemon had found her forever home, but possibly wanted a friend. He suggested we add a goldfish. My daughter chose one that was bright orange with a silver belly and named her, Clementine.
If Lemon was special and lovely and at peace, Clementine was like a three year old who was
just given a bouncy castle. She zipped around the tank and did forward loops and backwards spins; she charged the day-glo plants. Lemon exuded serenity. Clementine exuded a sugar high. When Clementine was a little fish roe had she not felt ‘special’ among her many thousands of siblings. Was life as, ‘just a goldfish’ making her insecure? Why else all the acting out?
Lemon would gracefully flutter by the neon purple plant to better offset her lemony fins, while Clementine would charge like an bullet directly into the tank wall, or gulp up fluorescent pink gravel only to spit it out. Really, it was uncouth.
At times I would find Lemon resting behind the filter — where Clementine could not fit — tolerating this orange intrusion, but on her own terms. As for me, I realized . . . that I was staring at my daughter’s fish, in her bedroom, rather than working, downstairs.
Downstairs where I couldn’t help but wonder if we could fit a second fish tank in the living room, you know, if we just rearranged the couch by the TV.

[Note: Yes, both Mr. Jean and I know that most fancy bettas are males. For the sake of the meta-narrative, and all things pink and flowing in my daughter’s room, Lemon is, regardless of reality, a ‘she’.]