Fiction · 09/09/2015

Coelacanth

An aquarium is just a container of containers.

When we arrive at the Great Kelp Forest, I realize how wrong I am to bring you here. I have forgotten how tanks, occupied by slow-moving organisms, are womb-like. These galleries crowd with the noise of children. In an alcove, a pregnant woman sits on a bench. She rubs her bare feet.

You will never forget how it happened — you hit a child and lost your job. This is something you never imagined that you, a teacher, would ever do. You can’t bear to watch the news because children suffer everywhere. Harming a child is your greatest fear. An unexpected life lesson: the biggest fears are magnetic, horrifically indulgent, like a car accident or a documentary about genocide.

Ever since the incident, I’ve been keeping a catalog of sorts. I haven’t entirely worked out what this means yet, but I’ve walked into our kitchen on three separate occasions to see you reasoning with an onion. The onion rests on the cutting board, root side up. You hold up your hands and say, “Okay, okay.” In these moments, you appear to be a hostage to your own life.

Perhaps I’m partly to blame for bringing reminders in. Ariel comes over twice a week now, her mother insisting that she learn “Clair de Lune” by her next birthday party. It’s too difficult, I say — her hands aren’t big enough, and there are too many flats — but her mother’s face is always the same hard face. And Ariel is motivated, so here we are, attempting a physically impossible task.

We stand on the ocean floor. The kelp forest towers above, weightless despite the crushing pressure of water. I’ve always loved water. Visiting parks as a child, I ran to bridges that spanned creeks. I looked over every railing with excitement, hoping to see depths below. Water was interesting. Water held complexity.

You turn away from the wall of glass and point to a dark corner. “Let’s go over there.”

One fish in the entire aquarium is dead. In the corner you’ve chosen, one that absorbs all light and sound, the fish sits in a tank, preserved in what appears to be olive oil. I squint to read the placard aloud and you listen. Sometimes, when we lie in bed talking, I like to imagine that we are bats. I fantasize about living through sound.

Here is what we learn: The coelacanth is an ancient fish that was believed to be extinct until its discovery off the coast of South Africa. A museum curator found the fish in an angler’s net. She was crowned the discoverer, and the new genus was named after her, even though locals, who considered the fish useless, had captured it for centuries. The flesh was inedible, pungent with oil. In scientific circles of the Western world, it is widely known as a living fossil. I like the way that term sounds, even though I feel sorry for the locals.

We lean in to examine the coelacanth. We furrow our brows and adopt the poses of television detectives.

None of the coelacanth’s teeth touch. They are white and perfect like piano keys. I wonder if the aquarium hired a dental hygienist. I wonder if a toothbrush was used.

I say this aloud. You laugh and say that actually the fish looks like your mother-in-law, my mother. She used to be dying. We visited her in the home, a house with clapboard the color of skin. She didn’t say words, just “Mah. Mah. Mah.” She said this in between sips of club soda and as she was falling asleep and waking up. On drives back home, we debated the physiology of these utterances. The highway had the most beautiful trees. We talked until our mouths went dry. We chewed the sweet out of gum. I felt helpless during these discussions because I never saw the point. My mother was dying; your mother planted mint. But I lack the ability to argue, to strategize a fight. I regret not pursuing a career in a more concrete, logic-based field. In another life, I will be a scientist.

I consider the coelacanth’s dental situation and admit that my mother did have impeccable teeth. But I notice that the fish resembles me, too. Animals in the wild are lean. Nature does not waste space. This creature appears to be constructed of bone. When my mother’s health began to decline, I embarked on an unspoken mission to lose weight. I’ve heard of men suffering from pregnancy symptoms out of sympathy for their wives. In my head, a thought survives: that I was jealous of my dying mother’s cheekbones, the way she seemed to have too much skin.

Lately, I have been incomprehensibly determined about losing weight. When you leave the house, I stand in front of the full-length mirror, sucking in, and say, “Ooh, skinny skinny skinny.” I personally believe that these words contain more power than any religious text.

I link my bony arm with yours and, because we are taking turns deciding where to go, gesture towards the gift shop. “Let’s buy something.” I wonder if the dieting is preventing my brain from constructing more complex sentences. We leave the coelacanth and don’t look back.

In the gift shop, I comb my hand through senseless toys. I contemplate buying Ariel a clownfish keychain with her name on it. I could make up a story, one that places her at the center of my life, and this object would acquire meaning. I could change the fingering of “Clair de Lune,” and that would become her reality. I could tell her that she has the potential to be a professional pianist.

You sneak up behind me with a shark puppet and bite my ear. The shark has felt lips. Under the influence of your hands, they open and close. “Mah. Mah. Mah.”

We walk out of the aquarium and find our car in the parking structure. My thoughts are breaking like water on a shield. As we drive in circles down to the exit, murals of anthropomorphic fish on the wall wave goodbye. These fish have lips, too, straight square teeth. We turn another corner and down there, waiting at the bottom of a ramp, is the coelacanth. The exit is just beyond, but the coelacanth stares so hard that I pull the car to the side of the lane to stop. We live in a world of mothers and children. The mother of the child that you hit, who followed you in her car to the gas station after school. We started noticing changes in our mail, the covers torn off our magazine subscriptions.

I reach for my car door, and you immediately understand. You reach for yours, and we switch seats. I feel more at ease in the passenger seat, like I know the future. We’ll leave the aquarium. We’ll spend the rest of the day in a small distant town. We’ll eat at places that aren’t even that good. We’ll go back home. Ariel will turn twelve. Consequences will be dealt, and then dealt with.

Pyramids in ancient Egypt were built with tunnels lined up with the stars so that the soul could escape to heaven. There is a degree of mathematical precision to ancient Egyptian architecture that one can only ascribe to extreme paranoia. I learned about the pyramids in my fifth grade world history class, and I remember the nausea I felt immediately afterwards. When I got home, I ate half a loaf of bread. I felt chaotic, occupied with the fear that nothing in my life would ever be that exact, that perfect.

Perhaps nothing has changed since then. I am riding in the passenger seat of a car to an unknown destination, the same way a pharaoh lies in the sarcophagus, relying on paths of waves and particles, awaiting new consciousness. I am living the fear of kings.

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Daniel Enjay Wong is currently a first-year medical student at Brown. His work has appeared in Tin House, The Baltimore Review, Spork Press, and Monkeybicycle. You can find him online at dwong.net and on Twitter @danielenjaywong.