"Not at all!" I said with what I deemed to be a reassuring smile. After all (thought I to myself), how much trouble could it be to keep a little betta fish alive for a few days?
Famous last words, said a little nagging voice in the back of my mind.
"All right, then," she said with a nod and a smile. "His name is Ink. He needs to be fed once in the morning and once at night. When I feed him, I usually just twist the cap of his food bottle, and enough flakes fall out that I don't actually need to remove the lid."
"Great!" I said. "Sounds easy enough."
"Yeah, he's a pretty low-maintenance pet. All you really need to do is feed him, and he should be fine," my friend assured me.
Hahaha! chortled the nagging voice, full of mirth. Don't you know how temperamental pet fish are? Don't you remember what happened to every fish you and your siblings ever won from those summer reading programs at the library?
"But...but..." I thought, a small panic beginning to chisel away at my confidence.
What if something deadly suddenly happens to Ink while he is in your care? the nag continued. He could have a heart attack. He could unexpectedly stop eating. He could go insane (how would you like to spend your life cooped up in that tiny tank?). He could drown (but really). Are you sure you want to undertake this kind of responsibility?
"But...but..." I desperately floundered for a counterargument.
A realization dawned on me. "Wait! Aha!" I thought triumphantly, temporarily overruling the nag. "Those library fish were just inexpensive little creatures whose life expectancy was short to begin with. They probably came from Wal-mart or the dollar store. Ink is a tropical fish who lives in an oxygenated fish tank--surely he has a better chance than those goldfish did. His background can't be that dismal."
Well, why don't you find out?
"Where did you acquire Ink?" I found the nag forcing me to question out of feigned curiosity.
"Oh, I just bought him for a couple of bucks at Meijer* the other day," my friend said nonchalantly.
Ha! I wiiinnnnnnnn! cried the nag.
"No, no! Ink is not dead, so you have proved nothing! Resilience often stems from modest beginnings." I distraughtly replied as I showed my friend to the door, my outward demeanor giving no hint at the inward turmoil I was experiencing.
We shall see, said the nag in an aggravating, know-it-all voice. We shall see.
The next morning, I awoke to the sun streaming through my open window. Ink's first feeding the previous night had gone without a hitch, which had proved to be a serious blow to the voice of the nag. As I climbed out of bed and walked into the living room, I could see from afar that Ink still seemed to be in good health, swimming about his aquarium as usual.
"No heart attack or drowning victims here," I thought smugly. Another blow to the nag. I confidently supposed that, should I manage a successful morning feeding, I could silence the nag once and for all.
"Good morning, Ink!" I said in my best sing-song voice, reserved for times when no other humans are within earshot. "Are you hungry?"
I removed the lid of the fish tank and set it carefully aside. I picked up Ink's fish food and gently twisted the cap, just as my friend had shown me, and just as I had the night previous. This time, however, only a very sparse sprinkling of food came out.
I twisted again.
I tilted the bottle downward a bit and twisted again.
Ink nibbled at the few tiny shreds of food that had made it into his tank, and then became motionless, head tilted toward the top of the tank, his mouth opening and closing as if to ask where the rest of his breakfast was.
I decided to ever-so-slowly unscrew the cap from the tilted bottle, holding it over the top of the tank so that any excess pieces that might fall would go into the tank and not dirty the carpet on which the tank rested.
Careful! said the voice of the nag. Don't let too much food drop into the tank. Overfeeding is the number one cause of pet fish death. Care--
In the moment that the last bit of ridge on the cap left its groove on the bottle, I knew I had made a mistake.
Dump went the contents of the suddenly unbalanced bottle--right into Ink's tank.
I was stunned. Ink was stunned. Even the nag was stunned to silence.
As the food began to spread along the top of the tank, Ink seemed to jerk out of his daze and began a feeding frenzy.
"No, Ink, no!" I commanded uselessly as he surfaced again and again to gulp down another piece of food, and then another.
Now you've done it. Now you've really done it! cried the nag. If Ink doesn't eat himself to death, the protein in the uneaten food will break down into ammonia and nitrites, and Ink will be swimming around in a toxic wasteland!
As much as I hated to admit it, I knew the nag was right. I needed to clear the food out of the tank. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a cup from the cupboard. By the time I got back to the tank, however, the food had become saturated enough that it was sinking. Ink's tank was a blizzard of fish food pieces, some already beginning to blanket the blue pebbles at the bottom of the tank like a sort of eerie red carpet.
I dipped the cup into the tank in an attempt to catch some of the food, but all I really did was successfully terrify Ink, who darted behind the plant in the corner.
With a knotted, panicked feeling in the pit of my stomach, I knew the only way to save Ink would be to clean his aquarium. But I wasn't prepared to clean it--yes, it was just a little one-fish tank, but I had so many questions! Where should I put Ink while I cleaned the tank? Would he be able to survive a sudden environment change to a tiny glass of chemically-treated drinking water and no oxygen tube? Would he get claustrophobic? What temperature did his water need to be? Would the shock to his system be too much for his tiny fish self to handle? Perhaps the nag's warnings of a heart attack or insanity hadn't been so far-fetched.
You claimed resilience stems from modest beginnings. Well, here's your chance to prove it, said the nag smugly.
Seconds ticked by. I knew that any further indecision on my part could cost Ink his health, his sanity, or even his life. I had to act.
Carefully, I unplugged Ink's tank, removed the oxygen tube, and swiftly carried the aquarium from the living room to the kitchen sink. I then dipped the cup back into the water and coaxed a very frightened Ink into it, carefully setting the cup on the counter.
The nag began to dramatically hum the funeral march.
"Ink is not going to die," I said.
The nag ignored me and continued humming.
Turning my attention back to the tank, I carefully removed Ink's fake plant, rinsed it off, and set it aside. I then dumped the food-filled water of the aquarium down the drain. The blue pebbles at the bottom were still covered in bits of red flakes, so I began a tedious process of rinsing and dumping, rinsing and dumping. Every few moments, I would steal a glance over the rim of Ink's cup, making certain he was still alive.
At long last, I refilled the tank with fresh water. As I did so, however, I realized I had no idea what temperature the water was supposed to be. I dipped my finger in and decided that the water was too cold.
Out with the cold water, in with the warm. As the tank began to fill, the water from the faucet began to grow increasingly warm. Though I tried to regulate the temperature by shifting the handle on the tap, by the time the tank was filled, steam was wafting out of the tank.
Death by boiling. A mode of demise I hadn't even considered, the nag interrupted its funeral march drone to snootily remark.
As I had no intention of informing my friend I had boiled her fish, I dumped the water out and tried yet again.
At long last, I achieved what seemed to be a desirable water temperature. I placed Ink's plant back in the corner of the aquarium and then immediately picked up Ink's cup and carefully introduced him back into his old habitat.
After plopping into the aquarium water, Ink remained motionless for a few moments. Both the nag and I held our breath as if waiting for a verdict from the little betta.
Slowly, Ink began to swim around his tank.
I exhaled a sigh of relief.
Well, he's alive, but he's definitely moving much less energetically than usual. Not a good sign, observed the ever pessimistic nag.
I wondered if the chemicals in the water were causing Ink harm. What could I do?
With a troubled air, I carried Ink's aquarium back to its original spot in the living room.
Ink had become motionless again.
"Please don't die, little Ink! Please don't die!" I mourned as I replaced his oxygen tube.
"Since I took all his food away before, perhaps if I give him a little more now, the trauma will pass," I thought to myself.
Not likely, said the nag.
I picked up the fish food bottle and glanced at its considerably diminished contents. Now a veteran fish feeder, I sprinkled a few flakes into Ink's tank with great care. I waited, motionless, to see Ink's reaction. Ink ignored the food. My heart sank.
I replaced the cap on the bottle and set it next to the tank. And then I noticed something else. A bottle--a small bottle--near the tank that was not food.
I picked it up and read the label. Ah, the fish fairy had smiled upon me! The bottle was none other than a fish tank chemical regulating liquid! Joyfully, I squeezed eight drops into Ink's aquarium, adjusting the dosage for the size of Ink's tank, as the label indicated.
I placed the bottle of droplets next to the food and then realized with a glance at the clock that I needed to get on with my day. Only time would tell the fate of dear little Ink.
That evening, as I inserted my key and unlocked the deadbolt of my apartment door, a sense of dread began to fill the pit of my stomach. I stepped into my living room, closed the door behind me, and removed my shoes.
"Please be alive, Ink. Please be alive," I pleaded as I plodded toward the fish tank.
The aquarium came into view and my eyes swept the tank. No Ink darting to and fro. No Ink hiding behind his plant.
This could only mean one thing.
I removed the opaque aquarium lid and tearfully gazed down onto the surface of the water.
And there he was.
Ink. Poor Ink.
So much for resilience.
I couldn't believe my eyes. Though I'd had my doubts and fears, I had not been expecting this.
Diminutive, innocent creatures certainly have a knack for losing their lives around you, the nag observed. A bunnyrabbit...a betta fish...what's next?
Sorrowfully, I peered down at Ink.
And then I peered more closely. Could it be? Were Ink's tiny fins moving?
I peered closer still.
Yes, yes they were!
Ink gave a wiggle, and with a sudden swiftness I did not expect, he darted to the bottom of his fish tank.
"Ink! You're alive!" I cried in elation. "You're alive, you're alive, you're aliiiiive!"
What! exclaimed the nag. Unbelievable! It can't be.
But it was.
I replaced the lid of Ink's tank and did a victory dance around the living room.
The nag's incredulous outcry was to be its last.
Ink frankly forgave my caretaking ignorance, and to this day, we remain amiable acquaintances. When my friend came to reclaim her beloved betta, it was with fondness that I bade farewell.
As I closed the door behind them, I gazed into the now empty corner of the living room where the aquarium had been. And I smiled to myself.
"We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails." --Anonymous
*Meijer (pronounced "my-er") is a basic equivalent to Wal-Mart that I've only encountered in the more eastern states of the US.