One of Many Deaths

By Maria Pinto

I lay back on the rug, cheeks and the curled hairs at my temples wet with salt water. The 6-hour bloom of a purple bruise on my forehead matches a ding in the bedroom door. My knuckles ache. You clean the fish tank. We are discussing whether I should be in the hospital again after last night. Even if only to get a hold of the pills I used to take. Not because I belong there, you assure me. You replant an aquatic fern with the sharp end of an old chopstick. Neither of us has slept.

“I don’t want to sound selfish, because the primary concern is your well-being, but do you think we can survive this?”

I say yes but should say no, since I doubt the existence of anything good in my future, which means you are not a possibility there. But this is rare frankness for you. I am unused to the empty space where your joke should be. The betta swims from corner to corner of the tank, avoiding your thin-skinned, godly hand.

“I really should take him out when I’m doing this,” you say. You’ve said this every time I’ve been present for your performance of this task over the five years he’s been our pet.

“He should know what it costs to live somewhere nice,” I say. You ignore me. That’s good practice for later.

Bettas, or Siamese fighting fish, live in standing ponds and canals in the wild, you like reminding me, to show how far our fish has come. If a male encounters another male, they duke it out, their fins diaphanous and silky as a well-worn lady’s slip, gilding the brawl, until the weaker of the two concedes. But in captivity they will fight to the death. A happy male betta like this one, however, just eats, shits, plays in the filter’s current, and builds an endless string of nests from hundreds of clinging bubbles.

It makes me sad to think that when our fish is happy, he builds a home for the eggs of a female who will never come. I say this to you now, and you laugh. More than once I have caught myself feeling jealous of her ability to never come.

You curse as water splashes over the side of the tank onto the wooden shelf and one of the plants rips in two. I speculate about the fish’s consciousness. Does he remember the trauma of last week’s violent cleaning? Do we seem wrong, we predators, to face him down, to admire him without a fight? Does he take note of our stingy fingers doling pellets, careful not to overfeed; does he wonder at our clumsy hands or does he simply fear them?

Last night my gentle self died inside a spitting, charging, bloody mass. I was unpredictable as the weather on its swerve into a new season. I was instinct over ego and I frightened you. Everything I took into my hands became a weapon. It does you no good to know that had you held a mirror up to me then, I would have shattered it, too.

Next Page