The Community Tank: A Betta Fish Story

by Emily Kemme
fish story

There are any number of animals I have fallen in love with and determined to bring home. I’ve adopted five cats — and with apologies to cat lovers round the world — they each lasted less than a week once I discovered how wonderful cats aren’t, at least when compared to my faithful dogs. Cats climbing up the laundry rack, their claws shredding clean clothing; cats clawing their way up silk curtains; and most criminal of all — cats harassing my endlessly adoring collies.

“No,” the collies informed me. “Just no.”

Other animals have similarly wormed their way into my heart, with heavy emphasis on cows. Not that I live on a farm, but there is something soul-stirring in the liquid depths of those brown eyes. Those calf eyes beg me to bring them home and let them munch the lawn.

Once again, sanity, driven by the resignation that the collies own the lawn, that the calf will evolve into a large cow with hooves to kick the dogs, has prevailed every time I’ve considered bringing home a baby calf.

betta fish
Go on and admit it. They’re pretty cute.

But of all the creatures I have encountered, betta fish have failed to move me.

I’m not saying I don’t like fish in a tank. They’re beautiful to watch, their swimming graceful and seemingly effortless, gliding through a physical property which, when torrents are unleashed, wreaks havoc on anything in its path. I’ve marveled at fish, the way they can breathe underwater, their smooth silence, their aloof superiority. In that, I’ve always believed fish were even more aloof than cats.

Up til now.

Last September when my daughter Isabelle left, I adopted her fish. It took three weeks before I remembered it existed. When I did recall that she’d kept a blue betta in a bowl, my reaction was one of horror.

Three weeks without food in a half gallon of water that hadn’t been changed. Whether I like fish or not, I owed it to the poor creature to give it a decent flushing, at the least.

I drummed up the courage to go to Isabelle’s apartment to determine Charlie’s status. Although we hadn’t talked much recently about the pros and cons of this fish, I did remember the betta’s name. I’m not sure why she decided upon it — knowing Isabelle, it was probably a joke about tuna, ie; “Sorry, Charlie.”

As it was, I didn’t have much hope for Charlie being alive, so I figured it didn’t matter if I couldn’t recall his name.

Walking into her apartment, I tried to remember where he was. In Isabelle’s previous place, she’d kept several fish (spaced out between inevitable deaths) in a small tank on her desk that overlooked the street. It faced west, with lots of sunshine. We’d both discussed the beneficence of giving a fish an opportunity to look out the window and enjoy the light play on the leaves of the tree outside the window. Not that we were sure fish did this. Options are nice, though.

I walked into the apartment led by my nose. I was damned sure the fish was dead — after three weeks, the thing had to smell, right?

I discovered Charlie in his small plastic bowl on her dresser in the bedroom. He was floating, and it wasn’t sideways. Nearly motionless, the betta seemed tiny and deflated, hanging on for whatever purpose it found it worthwhile. I scooped up the little bowl and the container of betta pellets and set it gently on the passenger seat in my car. I could flush him at home.

The betta fish wasn’t dead. The thing had an immense will to live.

Charlie was fed and his water changed. He gazed listlessly at the brown pellets, but managed to float to the water’s surface. Opening his mouth, and with an intake of breath that seemed to encompass a sigh, he sucked in one or two of them.

Intrigued, I spent the next several hours reading everything I could find about betta fish. What they ate and when, the best size tank to keep them in. Morbidly, I read horror stories of fish deaths: bettas that had jumped out of bowls to land on the floor, only to be scraped off with a spatula hours later — nearly dried out, but still a fish. I read how bettas, bred as Siamese fighting fish, hated tank mates, hated a water current, and were susceptible to all manner of fish ailments. A betta might bite the fins or fight with any but the most docile fish in its tank, comments warned on fish sites.

And yet, as is most often true, there were exceptions. So I began to experiment.

betta fish
Out of the bowl, into a two-gallon tank for Fishy to swim round and round and round . . .

The next day I bought Fishy (renamed in case I became too attached to my new, blue friend) a two-gallon tank with a number of artificial plants. After a week of hard, brown pellets, I bought him flakes, expanding the feeding program into dried shrimp to be crumbled enticingly across the water’s top.

Fishy re-inflated. He swam round and round the tank. Even more miraculous, he knew when it was feeding time. Swimming to the front of the tank, Fishy waggled his fins and tail (in opposite directions all at once), opening and shutting his mouth, begging for food.

He was no different than a dog, except he didn’t bark. And as an old lawyers’ proverb goes, “The fish got hooked because it opened its mouth.”

Except in this instance, I was the one who’d been hooked, fallen hook, line, and sinker, for this silent yet engaging blue creature.

Off to the fish store I went. I’d read that Fishy really wanted to eat minuscule blood worms. Every morning. Scrumptious.

He sucked them down like spaghetti, chasing a cascade of worms to the bottom of the tank, scavenging among the rocks for a half hour each morning to make sure he hadn’t missed one.

The collies were wary. They sensed I was cheating on them, feeding Fishy before them each morning. To their minds, it was beyond nervy.

Ignoring them, I bought a bigger tank and added tank mates. Along the way, Fishy’s name changed once more. And our conversations saw a change in tone.

Fishy: I get that you bought three Otocinclus to clean up the mess I’ve made (algae). But man are they skittish (he whined while going nose-to-nose with the largest Oto.)

Me: Back off the Oto’s, you Big Blue Terror.

BBTerror: Just curious. Nothing more. But these Panda Corys, geez. Darting, scampering. No dignity whatsoever.

Me: Play nice. You looked bored in there. You can only sleep so much.

betta fish
Sharing a feast with a few friends.

The other morning, the Panda Cory’s discovered the fish feast of blood worms and I watched in trepidation. Would this be the time when the Blue Terror gave them the thrashing he believed they deserved?

Nearly tripping over each other to find food, they fed alongside Big Blue. Swimming beneath and through Blue’s flowing fins, they swam circles around him. He remained nonplussed.

I sense he is looking at me with amusement at their antics. “These kids,” he says. “You can’t get any respect.”

Off he swims, in search of food, in search of a quiet spot near the top of the tank amongst the artificial greenery. Until he decides it’s time to mingle again.

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33 comments

Norma Smith February 24, 2020 - 4:39 pm

Beautiful

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Monica and Bob Kahn February 21, 2020 - 11:01 am

It’s significant that if someone works long and hard enough to overcome problematic behavior it can be accomplished. Hopefully this can apply in all incidences to overcome hopelessness also in human behavior. With the correct choice and attitudes, this may apply to humans who have significant differences to find commonality when the correct methods are used.

Thanks for this insight

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Luba Holzmuller February 21, 2020 - 11:00 am

Nice!

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Karen Buss February 20, 2020 - 10:34 am

I had a beta for years!!!

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Emily Kemme February 20, 2020 - 10:35 am

I understand they can live fairly long, for a fish, in right conditions.

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Rhonda Tipsy Gypsy Ray February 17, 2020 - 5:25 pm

They have no friends!!

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Susan Dee Sandidge February 17, 2020 - 1:28 pm

Aren’t they just great!! I was always told they cannot be with other fish. They will kill each other. They can be in separate tanks next to each other. It makes them flair.

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Emily Kemme February 17, 2020 - 1:29 pm

That’s what I’d heard, too, but then after reading more about betta fish, along with talking to the people at the fish store, I learned that there are a number of fish and other organisms (snails, for example) that can cohabit with a betta. The key is the other fish can’t have long, flowing fins (because the betta will think it’s another betta and fight it for territory). Anything short-finned and a bottom-feeder will work. Of course, there are always aggressive fish, as with any creatures, who don’t play well with others in the sandbox/fish tank.

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Diane Bassett February 17, 2020 - 10:31 am

Again, you write a compelling piece that no one else would think/ dare to write. This fishy could be a metaphor for your life.

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Emily Kemme February 17, 2020 - 10:31 am

Very true, it is. I just see life in layers.

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Kathy Newman February 16, 2020 - 12:30 pm

Love this piece!!

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Emily Kemme February 16, 2020 - 12:29 pm

Love this piece!!

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Kelsey Burd February 16, 2020 - 12:24 pm

I miss my Blue Betta boy, Yondu. I only had him a year, and he got real sick really sudden and passed 🙁
He HATED every tank mate I tried him on…chased and bit Larry and Barry the corries until I had to move them to a new tank, and he killed two snails. He also hated the sight of bite sized candy bars and would flare, in an attempt to scare them off.
Just like his Marvel counterpart, Yondu preferred being a tough @$$hole, but he loved me and my roommate and would dance excitedly every time we came near his tank.

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Emily Kemme February 16, 2020 - 12:26 pm

Oh, bummer, Kelsey. I’m sorry Yondu isn’t around anymore. So far, Big Blue is getting along with the 3 Oto’s and 3 Panda Corys. A bit of flaring now and then, and at first he had some stare-downs with the Oto’s. Are you going to get another Betta and try again? They’re so pretty!

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Kelsey Burd February 16, 2020 - 12:33 pm

I will, but at a reputable breeder and not Petco. They don’t care for their fish, and I believe poor Yondu arrived sicker than he looked.

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Emily Kemme February 16, 2020 - 1:30 pm

He was beautiful! Very similar to Big Blue. I think my daughter bought him at Petco, too. But I’ve been buying the tank mates from a store dedicated to fish.

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Kelsey Burd February 16, 2020 - 1:29 pm

Thank you, he was. Yeah, I’ll never buy fish there again…they over stock their tanks, and those God awful Tupperware containers they keep the bettas in…I’ve found more dead/dying fish in all their tanks than I’ve ever seen at any other pet store.

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Deb Larsen February 16, 2020 - 12:23 pm

Loved this! 😉

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John Nevins Jr. February 16, 2020 - 12:23 pm

You can put one in a regular fish tank with other fish

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Emily Kemme February 16, 2020 - 12:25 pm

Yep! So far, so good. Blue is getting along well with three Oto’s and three Pandy Corys.

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Kate Moore February 15, 2020 - 6:58 pm

Great and creative story telling!

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Robert Kahn February 15, 2020 - 6:57 pm

Looks good fun

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Valena Ruth Christian February 15, 2020 - 6:57 pm

They are so fun to have ❤️❤️

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Janice Ranson February 15, 2020 - 2:14 pm

Enjoyed the story. Glad Charlie Fishy survived.

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Phyllis Alles February 15, 2020 - 2:00 pm

Hope you are feeling better!

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Emily Kemme February 15, 2020 - 2:01 pm

Yes, thanks! It took over 12 days to recover from the influenza. What a doozie!

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Evelyn Bullard February 15, 2020 - 11:31 am

Cute read

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Lynda Colton February 15, 2020 - 11:18 am

Love a fish tank. They are so calming to me!

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Emily Kemme February 15, 2020 - 11:19 am

Yes! Zen in a tank.

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Lynette K Wassemiller February 15, 2020 - 9:17 am

Loved this story Emily! And how beautiful your tank is. I worried about you when you were down with the “bug” but you must have risen from the depths. I also worry about you and Dr. K and your daughter. I have a non-weight bearing (for at least another two weeks), 50 year marriage spouse (spiral fracture of the lateral malleolus) at home. Can go out for a 2-3 hour stint with errands, then return home. Managing. Anyway, I always look forward to these stories. :-}

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Emily Kemme February 15, 2020 - 11:11 am

Thank you, Lynette. We are managing with our “new normal,” as well. All the best for speedy healing to Jerry. Take care.

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Lynne February 14, 2020 - 9:19 pm

Wonderful, Emily. A resurrection in every sense of the word. A great job. It’s not easy.

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Emily Kemme February 15, 2020 - 11:33 am

It’s all part of the new normal, right?

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