On her 15th birthday, my daughter received a beta fish from a kid who lived in the neighborhood. A kid who had been in our house many times. A kid who would know we weren’t “fish people.” I thought it an odd gift. And then thought, what an odd fish. Beta are strikingly beautiful to be sure, and this one was no exception. He was blue with feathery red fins. We named him Beta.

And Beta looked lonely in that little bowl.

So I bought a 5-gallon plastic tank for him. But he still looked lonely, so I did my due diligence and researched enough to invest in a 20-gallon tank, along with a variety of other “beta-friendly” fish.

After a couple weeks of first-tank anxiety (taking inventory every day to ensure we hadn’t killed any) we eventually created a fresh water fish ecosystem that would make Marlin Perkins proud.

It turned out, however, that one of the fish the girl at the fish store sent home with us was some kind of shark. Literally, shark was part of its name. No, it didn’t look like an ocean shark, but it grew and grew and then snails started dying. So we’d get new ones. And we’d lose them too. Finally, we caught the shark eating the flesh of one of the gastropods and decided he was pretty ruthless. So we stopped buying snails. Then, a few days later we caught the shark attacking the beta fish. Beta’s eye was badly beaten, and there was a chunk of flesh taken out of his back. He was losing color.

My wife (somehow) instinctually jumped into action by removing the shark and placing him in the old plastic tank. And then over the next couple weeks she nursed that damn beta fish back to health. Of course I knew it wasn’t the shark’s fault, so I went out and bought a 10-gallon tank just for him.

After that, the beta fish lived in glorious fashion under a fake piece of coral, poking his head out whenever I’d kneel next to the tank and put my face up to the glass. He really was a stunner. Over time we got more snails, and the big tank lived happily ever after.

Until tonight. Tonight we found Beta (yes, that’s what we named him) at the bottom of the tank, colorless on the black gravel.

We decided a Christian burial was irrelevant, and instead gave him a watery, spirally grave as Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You played on the girl’s phone.

Beta lived with us for 18 months. We shared life with that creature. I think that means something.

(The shark lives in my office and watches me with hungry eyes as I work.)



The Heart

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.