The Mysterious Case of Fighter the Fighting Fish

We are pleased to welcome Garth Stein for today’s guest post. Garth is the author of Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog. Enjoy!

The Mysterious Case of Fighter the Fighting Fish
by Garth Stein

As a boy myself, and again as a father of three boys, I can tell you, I’ve had some pets in my life. Dogs aside, I’ve tended to plenty of small mammals and reptiles in my years, and have seen some pretty interesting things.

When I was a kid, I caught a lizard on the street outside my house; it soon gave live birth to baby lizards in my terrarium (important lesson: some lizards give live birth!). I’ve seen a mouse die of an epileptic seizure in my son’s hands. Once, while on vacation, a mealworm molted into a beetle and ate my lizard. (Gruesome, I know.) But there was never anything as fascinating as the Mysterious Case of Fighter the Fighting Fish.

My sons and I have had little luck with Siamese fighting fish. We started with Boo, whose short life was followed briefly by Boo Two and then Boo Hoo. So we took a break from the Betta Experiment because, honestly, I was getting tired of digging fishy graves for them and writing fishy eulogies.

And then came Fighter.

He was a party favor at a birthday party. (Note to self: never give a living thing as a party favor.) He didn’t look particularly healthy when he came home in his sandwich baggie, but I dutifully got out the blue marbles and the fishbowl, the net and the special water treatment powder. “What’s his name?” I asked my son. “Boo Man Group Tube?”

“His name is Fighter,” my son said, “because he’s a fighter.” So he turned out to be.

I kept him in the kitchen, between the cutting board and the kitchen sink, and I began to look forward to spending time with my friend each evening as I cooked dinner. When he saw me, he would swim to the top of his bowl and do a few circles for me. It was likely just a Pavlovian response to his food source, but I dubbed it friendship nonetheless.

For more than two years, Fighter and I were together and formed a close bond. Well, as close a bond as a man can form with a Siamese fighting fish. And then disaster struck.

It was a bad winter storm in Seattle. Snow and wind and freezing temperatures weighing down tree branches and causing cars to skid recklessly into ditches. Large swaths of the city were submerged in darkness as power outages were rampant.

Our neighborhood–one of the oldest in Seattle–lost power, and we didn’t get it back. We abandoned our house for the safety of my parents’ house on the other side of town. Figuring we’d be gone a night at most, I put Fighter in the basement near the furnace, wrapped his bowl in a blanket, and told him to hang in there. If only I had known….

We were the last neighborhood in Seattle to be reenergized. The news counted down the problem: one night they announced that up to 250,000 people had been without power, and only 41 houses remained in the dark. One of them was ours.

It was seven days before power was restored and we got back into our house. I recovered Fighter from the basement. His lifeless body lay on the marbles of his bowl.

I didn’t have the heart to tell my boys. With some distant hope for a reprieve, I changed Fighter’s water and left him on the workbench in the warm room. Maybe, I thought….

A few days passed, and Fighter was clearly dead. I changed his water again. I left food for him. Nothing would revive him. Finally, I brought him upstairs and placed his bowl in its usual spot on the counter, and I began preparing dinner. I would tell the boys that night that we had lost Fighter.

But something happened. I was preparing to pound my veal for some scaloppini. I gathered my meat mallet from the drawer, dropped it forcefully on my veal, and the shock of the blow on the counter did something, maybe it acted as a fish defibrillator, I don’t know, but suddenly Fighter leapt to life. He zoomed to the top of the fish bowl, swam three quick laps, and then, as if surprised by his own vigor, listed portside, slowed, and sank to the bottom. Morte.

Death throes, I thought. Some strange occurrence of momentary reanimation. But still, I didn’t give up on him; I changed his water.

And so it went. Each evening as I made dinner, Fighter would go through his throes, zoom around the bowl, and fall again, settling to the bottom. As the days passed, I noticed that his moments of lucidity were growing longer and more frequent. And he sometimes ate some food.

I like to think that Fighter missed me. That his will to live was so great, he couldn’t stand to leave the world just yet. I took great care of him and paid him much attention, and a week later, he was swimming at full strength and to the casual observer, he looked like any other fighting fish.

But I knew he was different. Something had happened to his tiny brain. Post Traumatic Fighting Fish Stress Disorder or something. For he didn’t greet me like he used to, and he never quite swam straight–always listing slightly to the left.

Fighter lived for six months after the Big Freeze; he hung in there as best he could. We’d had him for over three years at that point, so it came as no surprise to anyone when he passed away one day, sinking to the bottom and settling on his blue marbles for a final rest. It was time for one last fish eulogy.

People have offered me explanations. The primitive fish brain, I was told, can live through an ice age, and that’s just what happened. Perhaps. But at his funeral, I told the departed spirit of Fighter the Fighting Fish–as well as my sons–that he would be our last Betta. That he was irreplaceable, as a fish, as friend, as a cooking partner, and as an inspiration. Yes, as an inspiration. For I cannot believe that any man or animal has ever shown a stronger will to live than Fighter the Fighting Fish. I only hope that I can show the same strength when it comes time for my own trip to the blue marbles at the bottom of my bowl.

A few years after Fighter’s departure, I ran into a neighbor bringing her son home from a birthday party. She was holding a sandwich baggie with a Siamese fighting fish in it. “A new pet,” I remarked, knowing the feeling. She rolled her eyes.

“We need to get a bowl for him,” her son said.

“I’ve got one for you,” I offered. “It’s a good bowl. It’s got nice blue marbles at the bottom. It was the home for a very special fish for a very long time.”

“My fish is special,” the boy said.

“Well, then,” I replied with a smile, “he should have this one. I’m sure Fighter would love to see his old home put to good use.”


  1. SM says:

    such a spell-binding piece of prose…reminds me of my 4 goldfish who swarms on to the flank of the tank where I could see them as their Pavlovian response 2 their prime food source!!! 🙂

  2. Anna Parker says:

    Loved this story! My husband lost two of three dogs this week and was very sad..I gave him this to read and it made him smile. We love ARR and can’t wait for the movie!

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