Miller Time
By Grady Miller
Nov 11, 2007 - 8:31:03 AM

Illustration by Jessica Huff

Now that several weeks have passed, I can speak of the tragedy.  Betta has passed away, leaving a roomy spheroid fishbowl, festooned by fish stickers, in which could be occasionally glimpsed other denizens of the fishbowl — Britney, Angelina, and the redoubtable Lindsay Lohan.

This silly fish with the billowing coral-red fins, that gracefully trailed her in the water like the train of a wedding dress follows a bride down the church aisle, taught me why people love subhuman species.  It allowed me to comprehend, albeit vaguely, how Leona Helmsley could leave 12 million dollars in her will to a scrappy Maltese dog.  It taught me the reality of bonds of pet-human affection which I had hitherto ridiculed as mawkish and puerile.  This mute fish kept me out of the loony bin, no less.

Betta was a guest fish, foisted off on my household late one spring by a suave European prevaricator with false promises of returning for her in November.  Suspense built as we neared the month of November and readied for the return of Betta's owner, and the time to return the aquarium and paraphernalia for making the tap water fish-safe.  The date of the woman's return kept getting postponed.  More than a year had passed when she finally surfaced in Los Angeles and was astonished to learn that Betta was still alive.  The ripples of childlike surprise instantly absolved her of any proprietary interest in the fish and awareness of the mendacity that the fish had been turned over to my stewardship merely as a loaner was swept under the carpet.

By this time, however, my chagrin at the sloppiness of human nature was outweighed by my attachment to that fish to which I owed my sanity.  Betta accompanied me through the darkest and most dizzying moments of a collapsing marriage.  Looking at that streamlined creature floating in its tank and remembering to feed it took me out of my own pains and sorrows.  It was impossible to be self-absorbed with that helpless aquatic creature dependant on me for nourishment and clean water once a week.  The fish served as a purifier for all the rotten things that were swirling around the atmosphere at the time.

Dear Betta was there through thick and thin for a tumultuous 18 months.  And when I awoke one morning to find her bloated, corpse-stiff, and deprived of her iridescent luster, a dagger pierced my heart.  A pang, a flinch, a Christmas-stealing grimace.

Call it guilt, call it inter-species responsibility, but the weight of that bond is such that, no sooner did I contemplate Betta's inert body than I cast out for reasons it may have been my fault.  I'd let the fishbowl go a few too many days between cleanings; I had been feeding her at irregular intervals.  My guilt drove me to a veterinarian who performed an autopsy.  The conclusion: Betta died of old fish age.

Now I feel a kinship with a segment of the population from whom I was previously alienated: those dog lovers who bequeath their estate to a mutt or cat lovers who call in sick for a week after their feline has gone to the great kitty litter in the sky.  Betta not only saved my sanity, she was a lesson in expanding compassion.

She deserved finer treatment than to be unceremoniously flushed down the toilet. 

I breaded her and fried her in olive oil, and now she's a part of me forever.  (No, that was just to get the animal lovers riled up.)  Here's the skinny: she got an eternal sleeping place near the foot of my cumquat tree.  A week later the cumquat tree died.  I wonder if Betta feels guilt for killing it.


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