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Original Issue


What conceivable motives could have prompted me to enter a Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) in a tropical fish show? It was simply the less-than-logical conclusion to a journey begun on an idle visit to a Dallas aquarium shop, an impulsive esthetic response to crimson fins and flowing lavender tail. Once bought, this painfully bright, bloody bit of flesh was christened Biopsy.

Later, having surmounted the sidelong glances of seatmates on the flight home to Oregon (hourly removing the lid of the Styrofoam carrying case and furtively blowing in fresh air), one felt an urge to justify this taste in pets. I sought out fish people.

The Emerald Aquarium Society of Eugene was conducting a show in the vacated rifle range of the local National Guard armory. Lured on by the apparent innocence of a contest that found it necessary to publish such rules as, "If a fish dies before judging, it may be replaced," or, "Withdrawal of leaking tanks will be required," I arrived with fish and bowl on the ordained setting-up day to be confronted by a man of beatific expression siphoning water into a tank from a Clorox bottle balanced on his head. Dozens of categories of aquariums were to be judged, and their curators were engaged in a frenzy of planting, arranging minute gravel paths over ceramic bridges, wrestling with tubing.

The Bettas were ranged in tiers of half-gallon bowls with cardboard sheets slipped between. A glimpse of another Betta, even distorted by the curve of cheap molded glass, sends the fish into a flaring dance. The partitions were to be removed during the judging, "that one might evaluate the specimens' deportment," said an official.

When all was ready, we exhibitors were shut out of the hall and the inspectors went to work. It was whispered that the 20 Betta entries were privileged to be judged by a member of International Betta Congress (an unfortunate title; a congress of Bettas would be a boiling, snapping fury). Perhaps its members have adopted some of their fish's habits, however, and travel singly. The state of Oregon has only one IBC member. But then it did not seem that the area held many impressive Bettas. My Texas-bred stallion was at least a third larger than any other entrant, with far more spacious fins. And that unmatchable lavender tail.

At length the ribbons were awarded and we rushed into the room. A small vicarious death. Third place, with 63½ of 100 possible points. The judge had written, "A beautiful body and fins upon which to place a clean color pattern." The victor and other place winners were all of solid colors, either cornflower blue or deep red. A case of uneducated taste undone by lettered snobbery. At that moment it seemed that the appropriate contest between Biopsy and the little blue champion should be one to the death. How easily we transfer our competitive drives to objects over which we can have no control. Bettas, horses, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thinking there must be a point beyond which we ought to resist these urges, I carried Biopsy home. Returned to his community tank, he flared threateningly at a peaceable golden ram and had his tail neatly slit in half.