The Permanent Resident

Carol Barsi lives with her husband and three children in La Mesa, California, and is a part-time student at San Diego State College. This is her first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

The little boy who had caught the bluegill in a murky, oil-skinned pond and had fed and tended it in a brandy snifter for several years was finally given a new aquarium for his pet. But the oxygenated life in the new filtered, lighted, lidded tank proved unbearable, and after a few days the fish floated to the surface decidedly and depressingly dead. The boy was taken fishing to help him forget the burial, but then the tide went out at Mission Bay, so he and his family were left poking about in the shallows. They brought buckets and jugs of seawater home with them, and each of the three children carried a dixie cup: one held a pair of irascible crabs and another housed some snails and the third held five flashing little opaleyes. At the bottom of the bucket were three crusty-looking rocks, which the boy had added, and onto one of these was apparently welded a small fist-sized blob of squishy grayness.

After the sand had settled and the seawater had cleared in the almost new aquarium on the bookcase, the fish and the crabs were released and the light was turned on and everyone stood around saying, “Ooooh” and “How pretty!” and “Aaaah.” The little fish switched through the air bubbles, and tiny fan-topped tubes emerged from barnacles on the rocks. Then from the middle of the squishy gray blob a tiny fingerlike thing extended and waved about in the water. Another half-inch-long tentacle came out beside the first and then others as the hunched-in shoulders of the blob unfolded, the rim rolling back from the center to reveal a thick ruff of short tentacles surrounding a broad flat disk. “It’s an anemone,” someone said. “It’s blooming,” the little boy announced as he pushed close to the glass.

The short stump which had been the base of the blob stretched upward as the disk kept expanding, and the crabs buried themselves to their eyestalks in the sand between the rocks while snails oozed up the glass walls and the five opaleyes swam in formation, turning tight corners and darting at invisibles. The tentacles fringing the four-inch disk waved and stretched at other invisibles.

At the center of the disk was a white figure T, almost an inch long at times, formed by what looked to be three purple lips. Radiating out from the T were two dozen luminous green bands, narrow at the mouth but widening to pencil thickness at the rim, where the tentacles emerged. As many as ten short, thin, stretchy, fingerlike projections grew around the end of each band, but it was impossible to keep count because of the lengthening and shortening of the tentacles, each of which was a pale fawn color with a pinkish-brown tip, much like the tails of some Siamese cats. At the moment the outer edge of the disk had become thick and fleshy, and the anemone resembled a large mushroom.

The father went to the refrigerator for anemone food and found some raw liver. He pushed through the crowd around the tank and dropped a piece in under the raised lid. An opaleye streaked in underneath and swept it off to the corner behind the filter, with the four other opaleyes behind him. The next bit drifted very slowly beyond reach of the tentacles as the disk curled out, bowing on the stalk. A speckled crab hustled across the sand and dragged the meat under the anemone’s rock. The little boy took the next piece because his hands were deft in tight places, and he held his breath as he lowered the scrap to within an inch of what his older brother kept saying were “deadly stinging tentacles.” The meat floated down that last inch and touched one of the green bands halfway to the center of the disk. The T broke open, and one of the purple lips split, forming two long stretchable sides of a slanting V. A rippling motion beneath the piece of food moved it with barely perceptible nudges and shoves until it neared the cavity. Then it was jostled and shouldered into the Vshaped chute, and the purple lips closed over it, pressing the food firmly down inside.

The stalk began to shorten, telescoping into itself, and this jammed the pinpoint projections along its surface so close together that it seemed made of cream-colored plush. So slow and smooth were the movements that the stalk had cinched in its middle like an hourglass and no one had seen it happen. “It’s swallowing now,” the little boy said, and his sister made a gulping sound for emphasis. The rim just under the tentacles curled slightly upward, showing a bracelet of white dots ringing the whole bloom. then the disk reshaped itself into an oval, with one side tilting high and then curling down over its face, and slowly the whole thing swung away from the family and leaned against the side wall of the tank.

“Anemones don’t like this much light,” the older brother said, and the sister remarked that the thing didn’t have any eyes as far as she could see. The light was turned off, and the anemone hunched itself up like a hole being pulled in after itself and was again in the position in which the little boy had first found it. The mother said that this was the signal for bedtime, but the older brother said that it was only because the tide was out again at Mission Bay.

Miles away the Mission Bay tides seemed to affect the openings and closings of the anemone until it had adapted to the rhythms of the new environment and the new diet of raw meats, chicken, and fish. A mark was scratched on the frame of the tank, and when the surface of the water fell below this mark, distilled water was poured in until the level rose to the scratched place. Distilled water was all that was needed, for none of the salts had evaporated.

The crabs in the tank kept scrambling out through a crack in the lid, and one evening the larger one was stopped halfway across the kitchen floor. When it was returned, it waggled and kicked in the water until the filter current took it down within reach of the stinging fringe. The crab stiffened and lay still, and although it was rescued immediately and seemed able to crawl to safety, it lived only a few hours more. “Deadly stinging tentacles,” the little boy said, with a wise tightlipped look.

This choice location directly in the path of the current was a new one to which the anemone had moved shortly after its arrival in the tank. It had traveled with that slow, almost imperceptible, movement of the base of its trunk. For an anemone it had been racing — it left the old rock and crossed over sand and gravel to another stone, three inches away and ninety minutes later.

The anemone continued to survive and flourish with the tenacity of the old bluegill, and each day added a little to the triumph, for the rate of attrition connected with rescued fledglings, tailless lizards, and dimestore goldfish had been great and disturbing. And then one evening the boy made his routine suppertime check. He turned away to give the cat (his brother’s tenacious old pet) a sullen kick. The mother quickly looked into the water and saw that the anemone had turned itself inside out. It had spread its lips wide around the central cavity and continued spreading its mouth open as the boy watched. The rim, along with the green bands, had curled down, embracing the stump, and the curling and outfolding went on until even the lining of the cavity seemed to curl out and flow onto the rock below. The sister looked in and made one of her expressive noises. This one was “Awk!”, and the boy who knew his pet had died hid the book his sister had been reading and then sat down to supper and immediately spilled a glass of milk.

The father was mopping up milk with paper napkins when he looked over at the aquarium and saw the anemone sucking its stomach back inside the cavity and curling its tentacles up around the rim. The disk bloomed on the stalk once more, and the little brother fed the cat under the table and fetched more milk without being asked.

It was the sister who supplied them with the clinical details and the older brother who scoffed at the anemone’s “brush with death.” He insisted it was only a housecleaning, and he cited chapter, book, and verse from some library book to prove it; then he went on to overwhelm them with the details of anemone reproduction, including the growing of little ones from castoff bits of the base or even by splitting down the middle to form a pair. The little boy figured the cost of further tanks and air pumps and heard with an almost skeptical hope that anemones were nearly indestructible. His brother explained that there was a museum in Scotland which had housed a group of anemones for thirty years, and before the museum got them they had been kept by some old lady for thirty years.

He had now found the practically perfect house pet, he thought, as he pushed a tiny piece of lean lamb chop to one side of his plate for the anemone’s supper. Across the room the motionless disk was feeling the current with a single moving tentacle, as if the atoms of lamb aroma had entered the intake valve of the air pump and moved through the filter into the water.