It wasn’t like taking a bath. It was like waking up to find yourself in a room at 200% humidity. Yet this wasn’t the strangest thing. The strangest thing was watching myself get out of bed, completely unaware that I was watching, that I’d apparently been divided during the night like an amoeba splitting into halves.
“Hey!” I tried to yell, watching me dress, deliberately, depressed. No sound came out of my mouth. I had no vocal chords. My mouth opened and the 200% humidity flooded in as if it had never left.
I tried to shake my limbs, to move my head, to assert control over myself. I did nothing of the sort. The best I could do was frantically swim up and down the glass. I opened my mouth again to scream, but I couldn’t do anything, and the person who looked like me on the other side of the glass failed to notice.
I tried to wave my arms but only flapped my fins.
I tried to leap out of the top but there was nowhere to leap, and all that happened was I brushed the top of the waterline, beyond which the atmosphere was dry and blisteringly cold.
I realized with horror that I had turned into a fish!
I watched the other me, the real me, as I finished dressing, then sat down at what I knew was my desk, where I would find my laptop, and where I would check my e-mails, ostensibly for responses to the infinite job search, and then I would job search some more. I knew my sad and sorry unemployment routine. I had been locked into it for a while. I remembered everything about myself. I still knew who I was, only I wasn’t me any more.
“Hey! Hey hey hey!” I tried to yell again and again, panicked, darting about the over-humid tank. Why was it so warm? Oh God it was warm.
My body ticked against the rocks on the bottom. I felt the cool obstruction of the aquarium glass between me and the suicide of air beyond.
Then I noticed, with all the commotion I was making, a large goldfish bearing down on me, mouth opening and closing, gills and fins flapping. He looked huge and warped by the effect of the glass and water.
It was the silver one that I called Long John Silver. He settled in to swim alongside me. I stopped my frantic back and forth. Silver hovered next to me opening and closing his mouth.
I slowed and waited and Silver waited with me as if sizing me up.
I turned to watch myself again, making phone calls, typing, then leaving the room no doubt to go to the kitchen to make myself a pot of unemployed coffee, toast and half an orange, while, back on my side of the glass, Silver fell back a stroke behind me, and a short flash of searing, tearing pain engulfed my upper back as Silver nipped my dorsal fin.
I swam even faster and in a larger circle; dinged again against the rocks on the bottom, making that muffled snicking noise. Terror overtook me. When I realized Silver wasn’t following me it didn’t help much, because I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t know what would happen when I gave him a chance to catch up. I remembered that it was a small aquarium.
But when I did slow down, exhausted, Silver was nowhere in sight.
I’d caught him before, chewing on the smaller fish. Then, just as now, there had been nothing that I could do about it. Silver had the deaths of several fish on his conscience. I might well turn out to be his next victim.
I had to get out of here, I realized, settling into a far corner of the tank.
I must be quite small, or else Silver would show me more deference.
What kind of fish was I? I couldn’t think. I’d seen one of the two goldfish but I hadn’t seen the third major fish I owned, the Oscar. I couldn’t be that, or Silver never would have fucked with me. Had my consciousness materialized into an entirely new fish during the night? And what had taken place in my old body in my absence? Sorry and unemployed I’d already been a bit of a sad sack.
These were all questions that called for answers, but none were forthcoming, and there were more pressing concerns right now, such as absolute survival, and not catching the attention of Silver, the Oscar, or anything else until I had figured some of this out.
The rocks on the bottom of the tank felt hard and sharp on my belly. I remembered reading somewhere that the course of a swimming fish was even more fragile than that of a bird in flight. I felt acutely my tummy pressing on the rocks, while Silver circled overhead, casting an amorphous shadow.
“Help me! Help me!” I wanted to scream at myself, walking about my room in front of me. I watched me sit down again at my desk, no doubt, this time, for the long haul.
Then I saw one of the catfish come out from within the little fake rock ornamental cave I’d purchased when I’d first established the aquarium several years ago. The catfish, small and gentle, was a welcome sight indeed. One reality of aquarium life that you don’t hear about often is the ruthless nature of its pecking order. The weaker fish, in tight quarters, seldom survive. The question, which I had no ready way to answer, was what kind of fish was I?
I tried to calm my racing thoughts. I decided it was time to assess my situation. I could feel my fishy little heart jackhammering in my stomach.
One step at a time, I told myself. I’ll deal with this situation one step at a time.
The catfish had appeared in my peripheral vision, sorting through the rocks nearby. Catfish had little to nothing in them in the way of aggression. They were the ones that I’d always been most worried for sharing space with the goldfish and the Oscar.
Would the old me notice me when he saw me? Would such a worthless human as myself have the presence of mind? It was a crapshoot. Some days were better than others. I didn’t look especially active today, that was for sure.
I should try to catch my attention. Feeding wouldn’t happen until the nighttime, but with Silver and the Oscar lurking about the question might arise as to whether I’d even last that long. The catfish could camouflage themselves, at least. I felt no confidence that I could do the same.
I decided to do what all doomed fish inevitably do: wait and hide. I knew that there was an ornamental cave, and that the catfish slept there. I told myself to go to this cave.
My mind still seemed to be mostly human, and I had another advantage, I told myself as I rose up from the gravel bed and started my search for the cave: Though I’d purchased this aquarium several years ago, it had become more important to me during this period of unemployment; I’d spent many a fruitless hour staring into its watery confines. I knew the habits of the fish. I knew, for instance, that there were five of them: two goldfish, one Oscar, and two catfish. I knew that the larger fish favored the right side of the aquarium most of the time. I knew when we would feed, and I knew that there were two kinds of pebbles making up the rock bed: pink and blue.
I threaded my way slowly between the fake, and, from my new vantage, totally unconvincing plastic plants to the close, dark confines of the cave, warm oh so warm. If ever I got out of here I would have to remind myself to turn the heat down.
I snuggled in against the wall, my belly resting on the gravel, and I watched out the front opening. Beyond the curved glass my bedroom was strangely magnified. The human me was still seated at my desk. From what I could tell he seemed not to have been affected by the transformation. Perhaps not much time had passed — I had no sense of it. Yet if I were to survive here I would have to catch the human me at just the right moment — at feeding time or the next time I sat down in front of the aquarium. I would have to make a show, catch my attention, though I would also, no doubt, end up doing the same in regards Silver and the Oscar. But I didn’t know what else to do. I was convinced that my only way out was to make the old me see what had happened. Maybe then the dreams would come back and I’d find myself transmogrified right back into who I was before. Maybe a part of me on the outside was missing too and needed to be joined. Maybe the me out there had an idea, conscious or subconscious, what had happened, what had taken place.
Anyways, it wasn’t an especially thought through plan.
I watched the light outside the cave change with the passage of time. At one point the two gentle catfish came into the cave to uneasily join me, our mutual refuge from the predators. I made room for them. I didn’t want them to leave. They surely knew more about survival than I, and if they stayed with me in the cave, that meant I was doing something right. After a while I didn’t even notice the feel of the water, and began to forget that of the air. My mind was slipping away. I had to get out of here.
It began to grow dark, and I heard the heavy footsteps of the old me, then a brief but deafening click and the light outside grew bright again, white and artificial. Footsteps again, walking away.
Still I didn’t make my move.
I was afraid. How much time would it take to catch my attention? The shadows of what might have been Silver and what might have been the Oscar played tricks in the artificial light on the rock bed from time to time.
If only all of this had been a dream, but no, what in fact were becoming dreamlike were my memories of life before: The boredom, the rejection, and the fruitless cycle of resumes and cover letters. Maybe I would even forget why I wanted to be human in the first place. I would have to make my move decisively, and I would have to do it soon.
I would wait until I fed us.
Wait wait wait until we feed.
Wait. Wait. Wait.
Water so warm; belly sore scraping on the rocks.
The time had to be growing nigh, but I had no sense of it.
This wasn’t so big an aquarium anyways. Eight gallons? Ten? Five? I couldn’t remember. For that matter what was a gallon?
Slipping into the humidity. Oh but it had to be time now! It had to be almost time!
I flapped my fins. I emerged from the cave and through the warped water aquarium glass I saw the human me, resplendent in sweat pants and wife beater, approaching the tank.
It was feeding time, at last.
What kind of expression was on his face? I couldn’t see. My eyesight was going, but I could still see colors. The pink and blue canvas of the gravel stones. Pink and blue, pink and blue. They reflected pleasingly in the aquarium light, I remembered. And they fit perfectly in my mouth, one at a time. I could pick them up and move them.
I got started on drawing an ‘H’. Pink rocks, find the pink rocks, and do so noisily. I remembered the sounds, back when I was me watching the aquarium, of the tiny pebbles striking each other — such sounds were audible beyond the glass.
It felt strange and a bit dangerous taking the pebbles into my mouth, as if a wrong move or a jarring motion might cause me injury. Whatever kind of fish I was, I was clearly not designed for bearing loads.
Shadows of the larger fish flitted about below me, excitedly, waiting for the food.
I finished one side of my ‘H’. I hoped I had room enough for the rest.
I paused a moment to see what I could see: And there I appeared, so sad and huge. I opened the lid of the aquarium, mammoth sound of creaking plastic, and started to crumble flakes of food into the water.
The big fish were already there, eating their fill. Now was my chance.
I started swimming fast in circles, darting from one side of the aquarium to the other as if in great distress, my half-finished ‘H’ beneath me. But after some time it became apparent that the human had failed to notice. He was already walking away.
I went back to work. I reassured myself that my break with personhood was only temporary. The me out there needed the me in here, I was sure of it.
I built my ‘H’ with fervor completely foreign to the laconic nature of fish. I reveled in my determination to remain un-fishlike.
I completed my ‘H’, then I paused. My mouth was sore and chaffed from carrying the pebbles. Up above the two large, scary fishes had finished feeding and were now drifting in place as if already anticipating their next meal. If I continued on my mission they would surely take notice eventually. They would come down and attack me and eat my fins away, and I would die on the rock bed, upon the very sign I’d spent my life building, the sign asking the old me for ‘HELP’. But I had no other choice. I would not accept what had happened to me. I didn’t want to be a fish, trapped, cowering in fear for the rest of my life. Perhaps this experience had forced me to appreciate the merits of freedom. Perhaps I would never, even while unemployed, take such for granted again.
When I finished the ‘E’ I went to work on an ‘L’, but my mouth felt so raw, even down my esophagus, as if I’d been coughing up steel wool. But I probably didn’t have an esophagus, whatever that was. Who, after all, is expert in the anatomy of a fish?
I supposed that even if the human me heard the commotion, the clicking of the pebbles and the desperate plea for ‘HELP’, neither I, nor the human me, might ever know it in our fishy brains.
I finished the ‘L’ and began work on the ‘P’. I passed perilously close to the Oscar as he lumbered about, as if investigating my actions.
Click click click as I picked up pebbles and dropped them, a message in pink.
Click click click.
Click click click.
The Oscar was following me now. My fishy brain knew the meaning of this at least. Fish-like instinct kicked in, telling me to flee, while my last vestiges of humanity, at the same time, told me to finish what I had started.
But then it was too late … OUCH!!
Searing pain in my already wounded dorsal fin as the Oscar took his first healthy chomp.
Darting about the aquarium now (I remembered seeing fish do that before. Remembered netting dead things out of this very aquarium, killed by the creature now stalking me).
I slowed and stopped at my ‘P’. I went back to work. I was so close to being finished. Wasn’t I?
Click click click.
Click click click.
The huge creature had remembered his taste for live flesh.
Have to finish have to finish. I wouldn’t last another day.
The Oscar was lingering just above my ‘L’ as if waiting for me.
I went back to work. Click click click.
This time he’d bitten my left paddle fin. My body throbbed with pain. I couldn’t bear another chomp. I couldn’t even dart about any longer; must limp back to the cave. I was wounded. I was defeated. My humanity had proven a liability. The prospect of desolate, brainless subjugation stretched out before me.
And then I heard it:
“What the hell?”
Booming vibrations that struck me as somehow familiar. The stuff that words were made of.
I stopped. I rested on the rock bed.
A huge, pale face descended before the glass and water like a giant cloud. The Oscar fled. Silver fled. I stayed. It was just me and the face.
Ouch ouch ouch. I flapped my fins uselessly.
“What the hell is that?”
The words boomed around me.
I swam in wounded circles before him.
Who was that man? Why was I swimming before him?
TAP! TAP! TAP!
Fingernails, disturbing, muffled assaults on the edge of the water.
I heard words that only a small part of me could understand.
The face floated before me, a lone bust of Mount Rushmore (Of what?).
“What are you doing in there?” the voice asked, smiling, and I pondered a moment, slowing, that, to ask a question so stupid, was truly to wonder how much fish brain I had inherited after all.
I slept uneasily that night. What did it mean? How was it possible? I was afraid, going to bed, that I had done something wrong. But what could I? Death in the aquarium was so common. I briefly wished that I had somewhere to put the ones at risk, but I had never put much thought into it before. I had never expected a fish to appeal to my conscience: HELP, it had written.
I had the dreams again. Dreams of becoming a fish; part of me felt it again when I woke, as if something had happened during the night that validated the dreams that had disturbed me, and the call for HELP I had seen. So vivid, the humid, clammy feel of a place apart, with its own ecology of food and terror; and, that morning, one small white goldfish floating lifelessly on the water’s surface.