Tell Your Goldfish You Love Him
My betta fish swims to the front of her tank and surfs the glass eagerly. Behind the blades of my ribs a fist of warmth opens and its heat radiates through my chest.
“Hi baby, I love you.”
Dilly is called a ‘galaxy koi’ plakat and looks like Claude Monet’s best rendering of a pink nebula. She has the short, agile fins of wild-variety bettas, but they are striped in various shades of fuchsia and red. Her shark-like body is sleek and dappled with white scales that iridesce blue under the aquarium lights. One of her eyes protrudes bulbously from her head, swollen almost to the point of bursting. It is disturbing, but does not have to be fatal. Unilateral Pop-Eye is a treatable condition caused by a bacterial infection following traumatic injury to the eye.
I cried the first time I administered what’s called a salt bath treatment. With only the counsel of aquarium hobbyist forums to guide me, I siphoned a gallon of water from her tank into a clean bucket and mixed in one tablespoon of aquarium salt. I offered a prayer to what fish gods may be listening to a middling aquarist like me and lowered her into it, a knot of panic and horror twisting at the base of my throat as I watched her thrash and attempt to jump out of the solution.
“I know, I know. I’m so sorry.” I moaned wretchedly.
Previously, Dilly and I had not gotten along. The Demon Queen had killed the rest of her sorority in a ruthless conquest to claim the entire twenty gallons as her territory. The tank’s substrate is a smooth gravel that’s an attractive mix of rustic reds, slate blues, and tans. An enormous piece of driftwood populated with Java ferns is situated at an angle on the left side of the tank to block the current of the aquarium filter, and the opposite side of the tank is planted with tall, broad-leafed Amazon swords. In the calm water of the aquarium’s protected center is an assortment of smaller plants and driftwoods, and an enormous hand-thrown mug with a blue and green glaze, laid on its side so that white sand spills from its mouth.
Despite numerous hiding places and an abundance of live plants to break up line of sight (this was sufficient enough, the forums had assured me, female bettas are social creatures and will surely thrive when kept in groups), Dilly hunted her tank mates doggedly. Marrow had died first, ganged up on because she was the weakest. But once the older fish was felled, Dilly was quick to turn on Dally. By the time I brought home the mesh partition that would divide the tank into two unimpeachable territories, it was too late.
Dally clung to life for a few horrible weeks. Her pink scales blanched white until she was almost unrecognizable and her flesh wasted away until I could see the ridges of her skull underneath her scales. She spent her time hiding in a shaded cave at the bottom of the tank, only emerging to surface for air or to stare at the high-protein, slow-sinking pellets that I sprinkled into her side of the tank. I would watch her intently, begging her to eat, to recover her will to live. She didn’t.
The thing about fishkeeping is that it’s highly scientific–most people don’t understand this. They dump “quickstart” bacteria cultures into their brand new tank and introduce their new fish the next day, then shrug their shoulders a week later when they flush their goldfish down the toilet (after all, it’s just a fish). Maybe they will try again with some other beginner-friendly species, like swordtails or guppies. If they are lucky, if the fish gods smile, these new fish will survive the ammonia and nitrogen spikes as their tank cycles and establishes a biofilter, but they don’t understand what those words mean or that it drastically shortens the lifespans of their new pets. Often this will not impact them emotionally because, after all, they are just fish. But maybe, if the fish gods tire of this cycle of slow death, the would-be aquarist will give up and list their equipment for $20 on Facebook Marketplace.
Fishkeeping involves many variables–pH, GH, ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, tannins, temperature, substrate (are you bored yet?)–that fluctuate constantly and can quickly become fatal if even one tips out of balance. The unfortunate truth is, no matter how much time you spend studying, once you get beyond the basics you have to start wading through the opinions of strangers online (all of whom are passionately convinced their opinion is right) and try to decide for yourself what sounds like sane advice.
For example, professionals and hobbyists alike may tell you female bettas can be kept in sororities of three to five, given adequate space and proper aquascape, but my personal belief (and yes, my opinion is right) is that they are best housed in the requisite conditions for groups of ten to fifteen.
Ironically, the blow that nearly spelled The Demon Queen Dilly’s demise was delivered by an algae-eater. Stupid-Bitch-I-Hate-You (full name) is the other homicidal fish that menaces the tank due to an ignorant mistake. Flying Foxes, sometimes called False Siamese Algae Eaters, are an aggressive species of algae-eater that does best in large schools. I had purchased the offending fish under the assumption that he and his sibling would fill out the ranks of my school of three Dwarf Siamese Algae Eaters. He killed his fellow Fox first, then spent a few months picking off the school of three gentle suckerfish, and now harasses Dilly and the resident school of Rasboras (who are only guilty of being a little empty-headed).
Where I had previously been inclined to subject the Demon Queen to my human sense of morality (jail for the murderess!), my affection for the pink betta fish bloomed when she took ill. I dutifully nursed her back to health, obsessively scouring the annals of the internet for more of the same information I’d already consumed, and fretting after her through work shifts and social engagements.
It is, admittedly, absurd to love a fish (I know, I know, it’s just a fish). They are so unlike us, so unlike a cat or dog or bird or rabbit, it may seem strange to feel kinship with them. They live inside a world of glass and water. You can’t communicate with them, can’t understand their intelligence or their feelings, if they even have them (they do, I think–another aquarist’s staunch conviction). They will not jump into your lap when you are upset or sneak into your bed to snuggle. Neither are they easy to keep–even goldfish deserve diligent maintenance and continual study–and the learning curve is steep and sometimes financially devastating.
I think you should love them anyway. It’s an important measure of character to give a damn about things we can’t understand– to give a damn. I even give a damn about Stupid-Bitch-I-Hate-You, in a furious sort of way.
The second day of salt baths I switched from aquarium salt to epsom and Dilly tolerated it better. She swam tranquilly around in the net and humored me patiently, only testing her confines occasionally. By day three, the Demon Queen greeted me cheerfully and ate her frozen bloodworms greedily.
Pop-Eye can take months to resolve and her red, angry eye perturbed my guests. When the swelling reduced after four days of treatments, I thought the worst was over. Surprise! I was wrong. I noticed swelling in her face three days after discontinuing the baths: around the side of her mouth and over the bridge of her nose. I canceled my plans to spend the day with my partner and bailed out on an already-rescheduled Dungeons & Dragons game (for a fish? you’re thinking).
It was back to the forums. Wading through advice, discarding some based on gut feeling alone and re-evaluating others. Strike epsom salt, it’s best for impacted bowels. Back to the aquarium salt, one to five tablespoons depending on the condition of your fish. Still eating and swimming around some? Good signs, sick fish will feign health for as long as they can, but once your fish stops eating they’re good as dead already. You can administer up to two, 30-minute salt baths daily (one aquarist recommends keeping your fish in the bath until the salinity causes it to go belly up—fuck that guy).
I opt for one and a half tablespoons of aquarium salt in a one gallon bucket, then I transfer 25% of the saline solution into a second bucket and add 75% aquarium water. I dip Dilly into the first bucket in her net and watch her for fifteen minutes, then transfer her to the second bucket for an additional five. I do this once a day, every day. Several hobbyists warn against using store-bought, broad spectrum antibiotics, but on day three of the new treatment I transition her into my nursery aquarium and start dosing it with antibiotics anyway. On day seven, the swelling in her face goes away and she starts hunting the guppy fry that share the tank (but you judge the salt-bath guy, you’re thinking).
At the front of the tank Dilly follows my finger along the glass. She is likely just searching for food, but I like to think that when she recognizes my figure across the room and swims to the front of her habitat, she is saying ‘Hello, God! Manna from heaven, please!’ I do not know if a fish feels an approximation of love, but loving her is enough for me.
My partner, having received daily updates for weeks, was understanding. Our friends perhaps less so, but they didn’t give me grief (for one reason or another, we still haven’t gotten around to that session of D&D). In what I suspect is an antibiotic-resistant resurgence, white discs now cloud Dilly’s eyes (Cloudy Eye, it’s called, inventively). Though she still has a voracious appetite and a good attitude, I have isolated her in the nursery tank and taken to salting it directly. But I’m not hopeful.
While I often find myself praying to the fish gods these last months, it’s perhaps more like praying to myself. Asking for what power is within reach. I am the master of this wet world I have created. The stakes are high, the consequences real. Maybe they are only fish, but they are alive and engaged and that matters.
“Hi Dill’, I love you.” I say every day, because it is a gift and a burden to be responsible for these tiny fishy lives. It is a gift and a burden to give a damn.
I hope you will give a damn. I hope you tell your goldfish you love him.
Charlie Divine (he/they) is a poet-essayist born and raised in the shrub-steppe of rural Oregon. His work explores themes of fragmentation, restoration, and growing up queer in small-town America. In addition to writing, Charlie has a passion for roller skating and the cultivation of living things. They live with their 32 houseplants and beloved betta fish in the Columbia Gorge and look forward to starting a new chapter at PSU's creative writing program this fall.