Margaret and I were reminiscing the other day about Margaret’s first fish, Flip. Flip was a fish she spied at a park while spending time with her nana many years ago, when she was six or seven years old. She somehow scooped Flip out of his home, a pond. In little Margaret’s mind, she was rescuing him from the hard knock life it shared with slimy green algae, pesky insects, and yucky scum. Little did this poor fish know that he’d be spending the rest of his life swimming in a tiny tank of water containing overly high levels of magnesium and calcium.
Flip seemed content in his fish tank comprised of gravel and fake ocean scenery. It was hard to tell, though, because he always had the same expression on his face. Margaret, on the other hand, was convinced that he was lonely. So we decided to get Flip a mate at Petco. Margaret was ecstatic about our latest addition to the family until the next morning, when we found it floating in the water. We bought another and another, each with the same tragic outcome. I suggested my husband take Margaret to a store that specialized in fish to figure out what we were doing wrong. The fish store expert explained that the other fish all died because we weren’t treating the water properly. Flip had survived because he was a pond fish, which meant he was hardy and could handle the magnesium level and cold temperature, whereas the other fish had been cultivated in treated water. He suggested to my husband that we get a Betta fish. Margaret found one and named it Zip. When they brought Zip home, I was concerned; I’d always heard that Betta fish were fish eaters. But then again, what did I know? It had been over 15 years since I owned pet fish – and Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel were goldfish. (I still miss Ricky, who lasted 5 years in an 8-inch drum bowl.)
We would soon find out that this was the equivalent of sticking a zebra in a small, enclosed cage to live with a lion.
One morning before school, just a week or so after we got Zip, the Betta fish, Margaret started complaining that Zip was chasing Flip. My husband and I guffawed, telling her that she was “seeing things,” that the fish were probably just playing. My husband shuffled them out of the house so they wouldn’t be late for school. Before I left for work, I decided to check in to see if everything in the tank was normal. Everything seemed to be fine; I saw Zip swimming around excitedly. I figured Flip was playing inside the little fortress we had recently added so I walked away, relieved. And then I stopped and looked again. This time, I scrutinized the fortress. I could not see Flip. I looked at the fortress from each side and then from the top of the tank down. No Flip. NO FLIP! WHAT HAPPENED TO FLIP?? Frantic, I looked around the outside of the tank to see if there was evidence that one of our two cats ate him, but there were no water drops whatsoever. And then the reality set in: Zip ate Flip!
I watched the little sushi loving killer as it smugly swam around with Flip inside its belly – and I cringed. How was I going to tell my baby girl that she was right? That Zip was trying to eat Flip? She saw him chase Flip and we did nothing to protect him. We were accomplices to fish murder…sort of.
Desperation set in. Questions like, “I wonder if I can find another fish that looks like Flip at Petco?” and “Maybe she won’t notice that Flip’s gone?” were replaced with vengeful thoughts like, “I’m going to kill that fish for killing that fish!” But neither delusion nor deception was the answer. I had to face the reality that my husband and I had to tell Margaret that Zip ate Flip.
Margaret was distraught for days. We gave her the option of flushing Zip down the toilet or feeding it to the cats. Anything to punish it from eating her beloved Flip. But unlike Sean and me, revenge did not appeal to Margaret. Margaret wanted to keep Flip, the murderer, because of one reason only: Flip was still inside him.
We memorialized Flip that weekend in a small, family ceremony. A few months later Zip died, and to my astonishment Margaret cried. Not because she’d miss killer Zip, but rather because her beloved pet Flip was gone forever.
Though he was just a fish we had for a short while, Flip’s spirit lives on with us. He was a hardy little fella – a survivor. And if I’m honest, I suspect a bit tasty too.