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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
In the second year of his life, a fish of the species Betta smaragdina found himself in the center of a strange drama which transported him from his home in a swamp on the Khorat Plateau in Thailand to a market where the strangest commodity of all was sold. In later years for he survived the adventure he struggled to add his tale to the oral tradition so that other fish might learn from his experience, but even with the great eloquence of his race he could never quite convince others of the existence of the market where fish came from clay pots.
The Khorat Plateau is a high tableland bordered by mountain ranges and the Mekong river to the north. Two rivers drain the enormous plain, the Chi and the Mun, and from April to November the plain is a swamp where rice is grown. Then, for the rest of the year, it is a parched desert, except for the twin rivers, and for the little lakes and bogs where fish of the genus Betta live their lives. They don't mind the poor oxygen or the bad water or the cramped conditions. Bettas can live happily in a cup of water. The home territory of this young Betta was, and had always been, a nest-like concavity formed by many entangled stalks of rice which had spread from a nearby paddy and taken wild root in a ditch. The ditch was nearly waterless most of the year, but the runoff from a nearby hill, and its proximity to the Chi river, prevented it ever drying up completely. The fish was tiny, with metallic blue and black scales, and red tips on his short pelvic fins. Like the catfish that left the rice fields in droves to ride the river to the lake after spawning, he ate water fleas, mosquito larvae, daphnia, ostracods, amphipods, snails, aquatic worms, and the scum that grew on rice stalks. He rarely needed to leave his little dimple, nor cared to. Living at the base of the ditch were giant water bugs, which could suck the life out of a mid-sized frog, and dragonfly larvae, who pounced on anything that moved throughout the wet season, and, when the swamps became barren fields in summer, unfolded their wings and traveled to unknown destinations. The Betta passed his days and nights eating, dreaming, and telling himself stories.
When Its work was done, the great river Sunda needed a place to rest, so It created the Ocean out of mountains of frost. Sunda placed the Ocean at the border to the universe, where all rivers flow. The Ocean is a place with nowhere to hide, but is so large that the little rivers of today can flow into it for eternity and it will never fill up. There is enough room in the Ocean for every species to live without ever meeting each other.
Bettas, particularly betta males, are a mercurial species, deeply divided down the center of their minds. One side is peaceful, occupied with the rich storytelling tradition of their past, and they are forever reciting events passed down through the generations all the way from the Pleistocene ice age. This requires a temperament of great tranquility and a propensity for reflection. The other side of their minds is where their darkness lies, and it is a strange, brooding darkness, that makes it nigh on intolerable for them to withstand the company of others (not counting a brood mate or offspring) for more than a few seconds. They call this darkness simply the anger, and they have a great respect for it and a great many myths concerning its origin. As the little Betta came to learn in the market where the fish came from clay pots, the anger was put to an unheard-of use by another species, homo sapiens sapiens.
It was a summer morning when the Betta was captured. He was scooped up in a net made from a discarded nylon stocking and dropped, wriggling, into a jar which was then tightly capped. The jar was placed in a bag, where it clinked against other jars, and the drawstring drawn up tight. After a long, disorienting period in the dark, his jar, and the others, was brought into the light and set down on something stationary, a table. Through the glass he could dimly see the shapes of large homo sapiens sapiens all about, and they were making loud noises at each other. He wondered if they were fighting. To calm himself, he told himself a story while they performed their noisy ritual.
Back when the river Sunda was still above the surface of the ocean and cut across the great land mass that has vanished today, the many species of Bettas were at war with each other. The anger was so strong in them that a Betta had only to catch sight of another Betta to attack him so ferociously that they often both died. After this had gone on for an age, all the Bettas called for a truce to question Sunda why this was so.
"Sunda," asked Betta imbellis, "why are we always at war?"
"Because you are still shaping the world," replied Sunda, "as am I. When My work is done, this land will be broken into many smaller lands, and each land will have its own species of Betta, and you will have to endure each other no longer."
"Why," asked Betta splendens, "must we have so many predators?"
"Because all things must eat," replied Sunda.
"Then why," asked Betta smargadina, "do we fight each other when we don't eat ourselves?"
"I will give you colors," said Sunda. "Then, instead of fighting, you can show the colors on your fins and gill plates. This way the anger will be transformed from something violent into something beautiful. The Betta with the brightest colors will be the victor, and the other will concede his territory, and no one will be hurt."
Sunda turned to the female Bettas. "I will start with you. What colors would you like?" It asked.
"We will have no colors, mighty Sunda," replied the females.
"I don't understand," said Sunda.
"Make us the color of mud. Then, while the males fight with colors, we will not be a threat to them, and we will live peacefully alongside everyone." And Sunda bowed to the wisdom of the females. It then turned to the males, who were already bickering amongst themselves over who would have which color.
Amongst the giant creatures, some kind of conclusion was reached, and the jar containing the Betta was scooped up and placed back in the bag. By the end of the day his jar was placed on a shelf. He had time to glimpse, before the jar was shielded on all sides with pieces of card, dozens of similar jars on the shelf, each containing a single male Betta.
Where am I? he thought, wishing he had some way to communicate with the fish in the next jar, but knowing it was not possible. Even if he could cross to the next jar, the anger would come out and make talking impossible.
The small square jar was the Betta's home for the next month. He knew its corners, the imperfections in the glass, the scattering of grit on the bottom, and he grew used to his new territory, and loved it. He came to recognize several of the large creatures that passed by the jar during the day. One of them, who seemed to be a juvenile and was normally bright blue but sometimes striped or red, fed him with a substance that looked like flakes of dried mud but was quite delicious. Eventually, he was content again, though he missed the cool green of the rice stalks and the varieties of worms and larvae he once fed on. He wondered if perhaps he had been eaten by a predator, and was on his way to the Ocean where there was so much space no creature ever ran into another.
His last day in the jar was the longest and strangest one. His jar was taken off the shelf, and he was carried over to a table where many of the big creatures were being very noisy. In a rush of water he was emptied out of his jar into a small tank, and then, before he had time to grow accustomed to his new territory, another male was emptied in after him.
It was the first time in a month the Betta had been in the presence of another living thing. He was bursting with curiosity to see what the stranger knew about their situation, but with growing dread he realized that there would be no escape from the tank when the anger became to take a hold of him.
The other male had seen him instantly and was already flaring his gill plates a brilliant red. He was a Betta splendens, with longer fins and a smaller head than the smargadina.
"Wait," said the Betta. "Don't fight. Neither of us can concede territory in this tank."
"It's my territory," said the Betta splendens.
"I was here first," replied the Betta automatically, circling the other fish. "Where are we?"
"How can it be your territory when you don't even know where we are? You're an outsider, a Plakat Thung, a swamp fish. I was raised here." The two fish faced off, each stretching their fins to appear larger than the other. "The other cohorts of my brood and I are descended from champion fighters from Udon Thani, south of Nong Khai Province, home of the best fighters in the world. We are Plakat Thai, the famous Siamese fighting fish. And this is my territory."
The splendens made a fake charge at the Betta, who ducked out of the way and came up against the limits of the glass walls. The noise of the creatures outside increased in volume.
"I can't yield to you even if I wanted to," said the Betta. "We're both trapped here. So I tell you this is my territory." He tried to match the brilliant flaring of the splendens red fins, but his own were short and dull black.
"You don't stand a chance," said the splendens, darting at him again. He ducked out of the way. As he did he saw that, due to his short, neat fins, he was faster than the splendens. But he couldn't keep ducking out of his way forever, so the next time the splendens lunged at him, he twisted quickly and bit a chunk out of one of the trailing red fins. This action was accompanied by a cheer from the creatures outside the tank.
"I'll fight you for that," said the splendens, but his voice sounded hysterical.
"Yield up this territory."
The fight was over quickly. The splendens was greatly more aggressive, but the Betta had a bigger head, a stronger jaw, and his small fins were less of a target. In a matter of moments he had rendered the trailing red fins into tatters, and, after immobilizing his opponent, had killed him with a vicious bite to the head. The dead splendens drifted to the bottom of the tank. The Betta was flushed with the euphoria of victory, but knew that he had been lucky to have it over with so quickly as he hadn't the heart to go on fighting.
After the fight, he was scooped in a net out of the tank and transferred back to his familiar jar. He didn't have time to rest, though, because after he was fed he was taken to the next stage of his strange journey. He was poured from his jar into a new kind of container made of clay, a dark, round bowl with a lid that was closed after him. The floor of the clay pot was lined with twig and leaf litter. There was another fish in there with him. A female, a Betta smargadina like him.
"Hello," he said. "I just won my first fight ever."
"You won't ever have another," she replied.
"No. They only fight each fish once. Then, if it wins, they breed it."
"Oh. Is that why I'm here?"
"Can you tell me where we are?"
"We're in a human market," she said. "It's a market where they breed fish for fighting. The Plakat Lukmoh the Fish From Clay Pots. It amuses them."
"They didn't breed me," he said. "I came from a ditch next to a rice field."
"I know they didn't breed you. Anyone can see you're not a natural fighter."
"I beat the fish they put me with and he was a Plakat Thai, a Siamese fighter, from Udon Thani, south of Nong Khai province, the home of the best fighters in the world."
"What did he look like?"
"He was a Betta splendens, with big long red fins, much longer than mine, and a small head."
In the dark he heard her laughing.
"What's so funny?"
"He wasn't a fighter, then. He was a Plakat Cheen, a Chinese Robe, a fish bred for beauty. Fighters don't have long fins or small heads. They probably put him in with you because you don't know the first thing about fighting. Swamp fish haven't been trained and they're not aggressive enough."
"I fought better than he did," sulked the Betta.
"Don't get upset. I'm sure you did well. It must be very strange here for you."
"Very strange. Were you really bred here?"
"That's right. All I know about the world is that sometimes they bring new fish in and they usually die in their first fight."
"What happens if they don't die?"
"They are bred and released again to wherever they came from."
"Back to my rice field?"
"What is a rice field?"
"You don't know what a rice field is?"
"No. All I know is jars and clay pots."
"So we're not on our way to the Ocean?"
"What is the Ocean?"
The Betta was flabbergasted. "The Ocean," he repeated. "The resting place of the great river Sunda."
"What is the great river Sunda?"
"You don't know what a river is? You don't know what Sunda is?"
So the Betta told her. "You have forgotten, but we are a noble fish with an ancient lineage. During the later Pleistocene, the age of Ice (Ice is very cold water that gets as hard as this clay pot), the lands of Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia were still all a single land mass. It was the entire world, and it was drained by one giant river, the ancient Sunda. The Sunda was where the Bettas began, all the separate species in one river, and the Sunda carried them all over the land as far as it extended. When the work of distributing the Bettas was done, Sunda created the Ocean as a place to rest. The Ocean is like a jar of water so big that the world floats in it. But when Sunda was sleeping, It forgot to drain out the Ocean and it filled higher and higher until It drowned, and the one great land mass became the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali, and other, smaller islands. The place where Sunda had Its banks is now underneath the surface of the Ocean, and the species of Betta are isolated all across the land, never to meet up again."
"I never knew," said the female. "Do different species really not meet each other in the world?"
"Never. The great Sunda saw to that."
"I have met them," said the female. "All the species of Betta live here in this market."
"They do? I've never met them, other than the Betta splendens I killed this morning."
"Well, I've met them all and more. Smargadina, like you, and splendens, and also imbellis, pugnax, prima, and pi. Sooner or later they all meet each other in this market."
"So the homo sapiens sapiens are undoing the work of Sunda!"
"Perhaps. But perhaps Sunda made a mistake. Perhaps Sunda is sad that the species no longer meet and the homo sapiens sapiens are bringing them together again to make It happy."
"But they make us fight."
"Yes," said the female. "But perhaps you are meant to fight. Perhaps this is why you have the anger."