— Harold Whitman
My husband had fish when he was a kid, so when Joseph and I first married, we got two graceful, long-finned female beta fish. Joseph fed them, changed the water, cleaned the tank and did all the things needed to keep fish happy.
Pretty as they were, they just didn’t have the degree of interaction I expect from a pet. Nonetheless, one of the betas won me over.
I thought their little aquarium looked rather drab, so one day I picked a big, curved rhododendrum leaf from our yard and floated it on the top of their water. The fish immediately started investigating it and hanging around under the leaf. When the leaf started looking a little shopworn, I’d replace it with another.
Whenever Joseph pulled out the fish food, they’d rush to the side of the bowl and eagerly watch him. Fish were still pretty low on my fun-pets list, but one day as he was opening the fish food, the bigger fish-girl leaped up the side of the rhody leaf, skidded over the curved top and slid down the other side back into the water.
I was amazed! She seemed to be watching our reaction as she slid up over the top and down her leaf slide, and when she figured out this entertained us, she did it again and again.
The leaf game became part of our day and she eventually invented many ways to leap up from the water, land mid-leaf and slide down, or take a running start, fly over the top, barely skim the leaf’s surface and torpedo straight down into the water again.
Betas apparently have a special organ that allows them to extract oxygen from the air, so her forays into the upper atmosphere were both functional and entertaining. Each time she leaped over the leaf, she grabbed a little air and also put a smile on our faces.
One day we noticed the other smaller fish, her buddy who had never been quite as gifted as she, developed a list to one side. When we asked at the fish store, they told us betas were short-lived and that often they got bacterial infections that eventually killed them. They suggested we just flush the sick fish down the toilet.
Not being ones to give up so easily, we got on the internet and looked up possible solutions, which we tried one after another.
Our girl-fish was very concerned about her little buddy’s deteriorating condition. If a fish could look worried, she did.
As her buddy got worse, our girl-fish began nudging one side of the little fish to right her when she started to float crooked.
Although we had some success treating the infection, the little fish didn’t seem to be doing well overall. As she got sicker, our girl would position herself beneath her, gently lift her up and delicately carry her up to the surface where she’d feebly gulp at the air.
I’ve never had a fish break my heart, but this one was doing it. Each day she spent all her waking hours carrying the little fish to the surface, balancing her from underneath as she grabbed a gulp of air, then watching her drift sideways down the tank to the bottom. A few minutes later she’d start the process over again.
Within a few days, the little fish died and our beta-girl became our only fish. She and my husband bonded and he always made sure she got some solo attention each day, which she loved. When he walked into the room, she’d roll and spin and cavort around the tank, leaping onto her leaf and slipping with obvious delight down the other side.
We marveled at her skill. We told her she was as smart a fish as there could be in the world, and we told her how beautiful and clever she was.
Can fish hear us? I felt sure she knew what every word, every admiring look from us meant and, if it’s possible, we felt loved by a fish in return.
About a year later, as my husband and I were sleeping in the bedroom at 3 a.m., Joseph suddenly sat bolt upright in the bed.
Alarmed I said, “What? What happened? Did you hear something?” He shouted, “The fish! The fish!” and flew out of bed to the living room.
A minute later he came back to bed. I pelted him with questions about what woke him up and was everything okay?
He said he was sound asleep when suddenly, in the middle of a dream, he saw the fish-girl covered with dust balls on the carpet behind the desk where the aquarium sat. And he distinctly heard a high-pitched voice say, “Help!”
When he ran into the living room and turned on the light, sure enough, there was no fish in the tank. He looked on the floor, on the desk, under the furniture, all around the rug, but no fish.
Then, remembering the image in his dream, he grabbed a flashlight and shined it down the little gap between the desk and the wall.
There she was. Covered with dust balls and gasping for air.
He pulled the desk away from the wall, scooped her up and plopped her back into the tank. The fuzz balls peeled off her as she dove to the bottom of the aquarium.
After he saw she was going to be okay, he came back to bed.
He told me what happened then fell right back to sleep, but I laid awake thinking, “The fish called HELP to him in his dream? And he found her in exactly the place he saw in the dream?”
The next morning when we looked, she was good as new. She flipped and rolled and sparkled in her delight at being safely home in her tank again.
The girl-fish and my husband had shared a death-defying adventure and she survived it. She’d demonstrated brilliant problem-solving skills, a sense of humor, sincere empathy and compassion for her fellow fish and an extraordinary ability to “speak” to another species.
I knew this little girl-fish was special and I thought to myself –maybe, just maybe — this lively little girl-fish really is one step further along in the evolution of fish.
And perhaps now I am, too. I realize that when anyone touches my life in a way that deepens me, I, too, grow and evolve.
In seeing how this little fish reached out beyond what we imagine a fish’s capacity to be, how she communicated her kindness, caring and interdependence with those around her, I am uplifted and blessed to be in her presence.