Josna Rege

73. Trouble

In 2000s, Stories, United States on September 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm

He was an eighteenth-birthday present to Nikhil from his old schoolfriend Kathy. Andrew and I had withdrawn discreetly after the cake and candles so that the teenagers could enjoy themselves alone; when we came downstairs the next morning, half a dozen sleeping bags were sardine-packed side-by-side in the den, their teenage inhabitants unlikely to stir for hours to come, while a tropical fish, turquoise with streaks of jet-black, was darting back and forth agitatedly in a tiny bowl perched amid the debris of the party.

Immediately, of course, Andrew and I began emoting—or rather, I did, while Andrew set about finding it a more livable habitat. Poor little thing, I wailed, and thoughtless girl, however well-meaning; couldn’t she have asked permission before giving a living creature as a gift? Nikhil made it crystal-clear that he had no intention of taking it to college with him, so Andrew and I, who had always resisted bringing dogs or cats to live with us because we didn’t want to be tied down, were now to be held in thrall to a fish.

But now that we had it (or rather, him; only the males of  his species were so brilliantly appointed) in our care, we had to do right by him, and we did. We found someone in Easthampton selling a fish tank with all accessories, and Andrew went over and picked it up, along with a couple of books on tropical fish. It was Andrew, once again, who read up about how to set up the tank, what kind of fish he was—a Beta, or Siamese fighting fish—and what to feed him. After a couple of false starts—a pet-store plant that turned out to be contaminated and filled the tank with thick green slime, and a period during which we overfed him and the uneaten fish-food particles clouded the water—we settled into a routine and Trouble became part of the household.

I can’t remember who named him. Perhaps it was Kathy herself, a little apologetic about her unasked-for gift, or perhaps it was Nikhil, with a wry nod to the parents who would be taking care of him. For it was Andrew and I who were left with Trouble when Nikhil went off to college. It was a stressful period for me and I found it soothing, almost hypnotic, to sit in front of his tank and watch him swimming to and fro; at times he would get uncharacteristically listless, and I would worry, but when I approached he always perked up and swam to the surface expectantly. When I told Nikhil this he shook his head pityingly, sure that I was going off my rocker now that he had left home and compensating for his absence by projecting my pent-up emotions onto the fish. “His brain is smaller than a pea, Mom; in fact, he doesn’t even have a brain, just a few nerve endings. He can’t possibly know that you are going to feed him.”

But I knew better. Despite his diminutive size, Trouble always managed to look endearingly fierce, rather like Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street. I was sorry that we couldn’t provide a companion for him, since he was a scrappy little fellow and longed for a mate, I felt sure. We had read that Siamese fighting fish will kill just about any other fish sharing their tank, even a female of their own species, so that if we wanted him to fulfil his biological destiny we would have to get a separate tank along with a female Beta (Why Beta? The very name was dehumanizing), and put them together in Trouble’s tank only for the purpose of mating, watching them like a hawk and then separating them before his killer instinct took over.  Ultimately, we found the prospect too daunting, and so Trouble grew to fiery male adulthood alone, and declined into old age alone as well.

Although I knew that goldfish could live for ten, even twenty, years,  I didn’t know the life expectancy for a Siamese fighting fish. In the second semester of Nikhil’s first year away at college, Trouble began to slow down. His glossy turquoise scales grew dull, and I fancy that the black ones turned a little grey, along with his whiskers. Instead of shooting up, down, and around, he took to hiding behind a cave-like rock Andrew had thoughtfully placed in his tank to give him shelter and privacy, not emerging even at feeding time. We worried that he might not be getting enough oxygen or that the water had become contaminated again, but try as we might, we could not restore his earlier vitality. The last time I sat in front of his tank, there was nothing to be seen but some creeping slime, a cloud of uneaten food, and a black tail fin sticking out from behind his favorite rock.

The next morning he was gone. Andrew is an early riser, and so it was he who found out that Trouble was no more. Before I had even come downstairs, Andrew had dug a small grave under the birch tree outside our kitchen, and quietly buried him there, with a white rock to mark the spot.

Perhaps it was us whom Kathy really bought that fish for, since her own mother had just gotten herself a large, lively puppy in anticipation of her leaving home, who attacked their guests—Nikhil among them—and was so much trouble that she had eventually had to take him back to the breeder. (The mother of another of Nikhil’s classmates had gotten a donkey.) Trouble was never any trouble at all. We didn’t mean to use him to fill our empty nest; it just happened that way. He couldn’t have had much joy in his short life, but he brought a flash of color into ours at a time when we needed it most.

Tell me another!

  1. I went back to fishkeeping sometime in July after a nine-year hiatus; the tank and fish came from some rather illustrious prior owners who were moving to DC – Jarrett Barrios, president of GLAAD, and his partner Doug Hattaway, who was spokesman for both Gore and Hillary during their campaigns. (A recent Google search says that they just got divorced. Nooooo!)

    Hennyway, so I thought I remembered everything about being a serious hobby aquarist – our last tank at home was the size of a hallway, and held some extremely elegant and very large sharks. The morning after setting up my tank, I woke up to find an angelfish wrapped around the filter. Oops.

    We finally have the tank running in a somewhat stable mode, though my fond hopes of maintaining a South American biotope are on hold, for now. We’ve taken to stocking the tank with very cheap (and hence, very hardy) fish like gourami and tetras.

    If you feel like returning to your fish ownership days, let me know – I have a couple of goldfish to spare! 🙂

  2. Lovely meditation on a fish and life. Thanks.

  3. This echoes our experience with our Goldfish 3G who lived for only three months though our Guppie named Glutton lived for 3 years. And, it is quite amazing how very endearing the microscopic pisceans can be. I couldn’t flush his (her?) corpse down the toilet as well-meaning friends told me to, before she was discovered belly-up (well transverse section up) by my daughter. I have to say, I did bury 3G, all less than three inches of her (him?) under the grape myrtle tree in the backyard and surround the minute orange corpse with the requested magic circle of seven white stones.
    Lovely piece, Josna!

  4. Josna, This was lovely! My son goes to 4th grade tomorrow. I can’t imagine what I’ll do when it’s college!

  5. Thank you, everyone: Shounak, for your kind offer of the goldfish and expert fishkeeping advice, should we decide to venture once more into the care of fish; Norah and Maureen, for your motherly empathy (hope the first day of school goes well, Maureen); Urmi, for your story of your tender burial of 3G. Was it your daughter who requested the magic circle of stones?

  6. Daniel went off to his first day of school today, so this had special poignancy, although it would have in any context. I can just picture you tendering ministering to Trouble. What a sweet tribute to him in this post!

    My own parents adopted a stray cat a few days after I left for college. I was stunned, not least because my younger brothers and I had long begged for a cat, to no avail. Worse, they briefly named the new cat “Mary”! I think this was meant as a joke, but, just to make sure the joke didn’t stick, I insisted that they rename her “Toonces,” after a popular Saturday Night Live skit. Silly name aside, Toonces was a beautiful calico kitty, and she lived a long, serene life. (In part because my parents heroically nursed her back to health after she had a run-in with some wildlife — but that’s another story.) She passed away shortly after my parents had cared for their own parents (my grandparents) unto their deaths. It felt like the end of an era, and my mother has vowed that she shall never have another pet.

    • I hope Daniel had a good first day and that you and Julia didn’t miss him too much.

      How easily one is replaced! Nikhil gave me a soft and squashy stuffed elephant before he went off to college, and felt compelled to remind me that it was not supposed to be a substitute for him! I’m glad you insisted on getting your parents to change the new cat’s name. And I’m glad that Toonces lived a good, long life. Like your mother, my father vowed that he could never again have another pet after the death of Big Brownie, our only dog in America. (Actually, that’s not quite right: Big Brownie (so named because he was the runt of the litter) had a big brother called Toofan (or storm), who died mysteriously of poisoning when he was still a puppy. So his little brother lost his companion and protector, but grew up to live a long life.)

      You might like to read Doris Lessing’s non-fiction book, Particularly Cats. In it, she nurses a cat back to health when it has lost the will to live.
      x J

  7. What a perfect name, Trouble! And I love it that you kept him, instead of giving him to someone else. It’s such a positive attitude toward life and caring for living things. My only experience with fish was quite sad for the fish, now that I’m reminded of it. I was six or seven years old and some neighbor thought it a great idea to give me a tank full of guppies. There were probably 50 or 60, and every day when I came home from school, more would be floating on the top, until finally they were all gone. I overfed them, underfed them, didn’t clean the tank. I’m great with dogs and cats, but to this day, I wouldn’t ever have a tank of fish and even don’t like to be given a plant. I guess I just need the warm fuzzies. I come by that honestly. My parents took to pulling out their wallets to show pictures of the dogs after I was the last to leave the nest. I don’t think their friends even knew what I looked like!

    • Now that’s what I mean about thoughtless. It’s downright wrong to give a child a gift like that without at least checking first with the parents. Poor little you! You’re certainly wonderful with anything and anyone warm-blooded!

  8. Nice one for the new school season, Jojo!
    and Trouble was such an innovative name!! 🙂

    Loved it.

  9. A winner! I loved it xxx mwiley

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