The Aquarium: A short story

Pixabay/Creative Commons

It’s only after the muted light begins to steal into the bedroom that you give in and toss the blankets from the bed and lurch upwards, stumbling across the cold floor to the porcelain sink where you run your face over and over again in the blast of water. When you can no longer breathe, you fumble for the steel spigot, and there, dripping in the predawn blue, you understand it’s time to visit the aquarium.

You turn back and hunt for your wallet, but the only thing on the nightstand is an inert lamp and a pile of smoky bulbs, so you shrug and dress and descend the stairs to the kitchen, and while the toaster buzzes and the coffee machine coughs and spurts another dark Americano, you inspect the jar of loose change perched on the windowsill. It should do. You wash the dishes and, clutching the jar, approach the front door and twist the knob, but the door won’t open, and that’s when you see the tape, the hundreds of plastic strips crisscrossing the gap between door and doorway like a seething white crust. You return with scissors, and a few snips later, the door blows open.

The wind enters, wrapping around your ankles, enveloping your skin in slippery tendrils while hints of sunlight glow on the clouds. You drop the scissors and leave. The wind flows fast over the ground as you walk, brisk, fresh — a current that dips and swells until you’re finally compelled to look up and are met with the gray aquarium sprawling across the coastland like the relic of a primordial shell.

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At the window, the receptionist points at the prices typed up behind her and asks for $15. You pour out the jar, and she stares at you for a few moments before separating out a small stack of coins, which she shoves toward you along with a ticket, a blue wave stamped into the background. You leave and merge with the crowd, pushing up the stairs to the towering glass entrance, and the doors open to reveal an atrium brimming with people, their murmurs echoing up to the high colossal swordfish hung on a rope in the trembling air. Enshrined in the floor-to-ceiling window across the space is a view of the massive bay and its dark brilliant waves with the sun now fully up, glinting off the water. You are buffeted by people moving past you, in front of you; the glare is uncomfortable, and you turn your head away from the inviolable light of the atrium toward the dark of the exhibits.

You exit under an arch topped with plastic coral reefs and plunge into air-conditioned darkness. The only light comes from the marine windows that glow in the carpeted walls, heavy with black water. A faceless audience presses against the glass. You push through the largest crowd, and when it’s your turn, you peer into the magnifying glass that contains just the faintest green dots floating in the darkness. You wait for them to do, well, anything, but they just hang there like lost holiday decorations. You walk away, frustrated at having wasted your time, and push through into the next room.

Dim tanks glow in the walls. You elbow your way up to a window. Silver fish dart through the water, wearing huge eyes that loll lazily in different directions. Brownsnout spookfish. You laugh because the brownsnout looks strange, and your fellow audience members stare oddly at you. You lean over the small description in the wall, and in glowing text, the aquarium explains that the mackerel’s diverticular vision has supported the species’ millennia-old ability to avoid predators. You look back at the brownsnout, plug your thumbs into your ears and stick your tongue out. It blinks dumbly, unimpressed. You leave the strange-looking fish and push into the next room.

In the first tank that attracts you, bloated yellow fish drift slowly. Hickory shad. Apparently, the shad is on the brink of extinction, a consequence of rampant overfishing in the Rappahannock River region. Someone beside you murmurs how the shad is rumored to be the tastiest kind of fish still living, and everyone swallows as you walk away in the dark.

In the next room, jellyfish bob slowly in a blue window that stretches along the whole wall. You squint at the name. Black sea nettle. The curators have installed orange lights that accentuate their tentacles in the water. You learn they are carnivorous, and the fact unsettles you. You watch as small fish are surrendered into the waters from unseen heights; it is feeding time, and the jellyfish swarm them quickly until they’re lost in orange hoods and sharp enmeshed tendrils.

The next room is massive. The ceiling is lost in darkness. The other end stretches away unseen. In lieu of a wall, there stands only one tank the size of a theater, and floating idly in the center, a blue whale. You join the outskirts of a tour group, where the docent is speaking quietly: “Blue whales are the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant. Their hearts, as much as an automobile…” You step closer.

The behemoth swims by, in front of the glass. It looks at you as it passes, its eyes glowing, as if it hopes you understand that by looking at you it is saying something incredibly important, and maybe you, the mortal, wouldn’t understand, but maybe you, the human, would grasp what this staggering presence here dreams so deep down in the dark waters away from the light. An ache surfaces in the bottom of your stomach, and you exit the room as quickly as possible, pushing and shoving your way through the crowds back toward the aquarium entrance.

The light in the atrium is dazzling, and you rub your eyes as you walk. The guard out front tells you to have a nice day and stamps your hand with a blue fish. You can’t stop looking at the stamp as you walk out of the aquarium and onto the beach with the wooden pier. Your final bit of cash buys you a fishing rod until sunset but bait for only a single fish. You fork over the money and walk out onto the end of the wooden pier. You cast your line; it disappears into the shifting waters. You sit down and wait. Time passes. Children scream as the white waves rise up to nip their toes. They dig complex ocean canals to create moats in the waterfront sands. The sun beats down on you, and hunger growls in your stomach. The line bobs languidly as the sun inches lower and lower in the horizon. Parents roll up their beach towels and whisk away their families. Seagulls rise and dip in the sky. Ships crisscross in the water and disappear into the horizon. The sun is sinking below the water when you finally feel a tug at the end of your line, and you pull sharply. There is only limpid resistance, and you turn and turn and turn the coil until the line rises up out of the sunshine waters, and you bring the catch to eye level. It’s a scaly fish, the angry metal hook puncturing a bloody hole in its silver skin. Its eyes stare dully at you, and its gills flap weakly. You unhook it carefully from the line, and its wriggling skin is cold — so cold — and slimy as you hold it. You stare at it. It stares at you; so does the fish stamp on your hand. You stretch back and hurl it far, far upward into the dying light and scream at it to fly.

Contact Benson Yi at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @bensonyi3.

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