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from the October 2018 issue

Aquarium

A frustrated wife and mother finds life in a fishbowl instructive in this story translated from the Mongolian.
 

I've been in here for exactly one year. My once fair and delicate skin, the envy of all the other ladies, has hardened into scales mottled with red and pink splotches. A year, exactly one year. People have thought that I have been a fish for exactly one year. Regardless of what other people say, what really matters to me is that three hundred and sixty-five days have passed with the children I bore playing with me as a pet.

When I bought this aquarium I didn't realize I was preparing my own casket. Of course, if I had known, I would have chosen a bigger one. I am an inherently anxious person. Even beyond the little aquarium, this room feels like it is closing in all around me. Though everyone says this room, the office in our four-room apartment, is quite spacious and bright, it is stifling me. Even my homeland in the vast Mongolian steppe, praised in song and poem as endlessly vast, is all too small for me. The one thing I need now more than anything, more than anything else, is more space.

Though I wish for more space now, when I bought the aquarium I could never have foreseen all that God had decided to set before me. An aquarium. Despite all of my wishes for space, all I have is this small vessel. I first awoke as a fish when my daughter decided to decorate the aquarium, placing all of the beautiful seashells that I had gathered over the years in the tank one by one. The tiny shells that I had collected from my lake by hand were now ten times larger than I. I panicked and cried out. I rushed about, scared to death. As I was pacing, my daughter giggled and tossed a shell over me. A mother's fear had become her daughter's delight. My God! What have you done! But no, no, in truth this was not His work. God doesn't concern himself with this kind of thing. Ah, God wasn't involved in this from the start. This was all Gregor Samsa's work. It seems as though I love Samsa even more than Kafka himself. When I was a child I used to love Quasimodo. Maybe that is why I'm so strongly pulled to Samsa. Either way, Samsa is . . . oh I don't know, I don't know. While I sleep I hear Samsa's name whispered in my ear throughout the night, until I awake. But I'm a woman, and vehemently squeamish, so instead of a centipede he's made me into a scaly, goggle-eyed fish. Of course, he must have taken into account my intense fear of insects.

I do have one other difference from Samsa. My family does not know that I've become a fish. I have been declared missing, and the police have instigated a thorough search. My poor husband has poured all of his wealth into finding me. Every night he drinks alone, whispering my name. I can tell that he is crying. Weeping. This knowledge does little to comfort me.

I have no complaints about my siblings. Before I would see them only once in a while, at Lunar New Year's celebrations, for example, but now they all come over nearly every day. They have created a schedule, taking turns visiting and taking care of my two children. Two of my older brothers even came and took my husband aside to interrogate him next to the aquarium. They conspired in hushed tones to investigate my poor darling. The elder of the two said that he thinks my husband may have killed me. They decided to mortgage their own houses to fund their investigation. When I heard that, my eyes filled with tears. People say that fish have no tears, but that is a complete lie. There are so many people in my life who love me. When I think about how ready they are to do anything for me, my tears subside. There are a lot of things like this that calm me. Though, of course, there are many more things that unsettle me. The only person who takes care of me is my daughter. She always used to demand that I buy her a pet fish. But she's only six years old, so she doesn't know to adjust the water's temperature.

Also, one time instead of food she put black ink into the tank and nearly killed me. Sometimes she goes without feeding me for two or three days at a time. Still, I've never starved. When Samsa transformed me into a fish, he must have taken starvation into consideration, as my need for food has disappeared completely. It's just the memory of how I could have never gone two days without eating as a person that keeps me jumping for the fish food my daughter brings me.                                        

Yes, my transformation into a fish has been a metamorphosis for my family as much as it has been for me. After twenty years of striving and struggling, my husband has fallen from grace. In other words, he spiraled into a long-term depression over me and totally gave up on his work as an executive. Secretly, this was really, truly, good news. He embraced our daughter, and sat down right next to the aquarium. He told her, “Daddy is home, and from now on I'll be with my kids all the time. I won't go back to work.”

Our son stopped misbehaving. He never used to listen to anything I said. I couldn't deal with that willful, foul-mouthed twelve-year-old at all. If I told him “Come straight home from school,” he would linger. If I told him, “Fine, stay after school and play,” he would come straight home. His stubborn temperament used to drive me nearly insane. But he is no longer like that. Not one bit. My daughter likes to talk to herself while she sprinkles mealworms in the tank, and I heard her whispering that my son has started taking off and polishing his muddy shoes and putting on indoor slippers when he gets home from school. Moreover, he then goes on to wash his hands and sit down for supper, quickly finishes his homework, and walks the dog. He has started taking care of that dog just as I used to take care of him. He stopped quarreling with his younger sister. With that, all of the ruckus, the crying and bawling he used to stir up, fell silent. I once even heard him demand of his father, “Let me comb my sister's hair.” My daughter has totally changed as well. Every day she passes the time talking to her fish (dear me, I mean to say her mother). Before, she spent every day clinging to the hem of my dress and pouting, demanding candies and fruit. She would ignore whatever tasty treat she already had. No matter what nice treat or toy she had, demands would stream out of her mouth. It wouldn't make a difference if you gave her ten pieces of candy or ten bags of it, either way she would tell you that it wasn't enough. But now, she refuses to eat whatever few pieces of candy her relatives give her out of compassion, instead collecting them for some reason. To my delight I'm finding that all of these metamorphoses have been transformations for the better. At first my aquarium felt dark, chilly, and cramped, but lately, as I have become accustomed to it, it has come to feel less confined, less dark, and less cold.

After three months had passed, I totally forgot my regret about not buying a bigger aquarium while I was still a human. This little, bell-shaped glass bowl came to feel spacious and deep. I have been pleased to become intimately familiar with each edge and corner of my glass bell jar. No matter where I look, everything on the outside of the glass is clear. I was placed on the schoolwork table in the middle of the children's room, so no matter where I look from within the jar I can see my daughter or my son.

I am touched to see how my husband spends his days, to see him helping our children with their homework, to see him comb our daughter's hair, to see the canvasses from his art lessons with our son. In the evenings he tells the children our favorite stories until they fall asleep. I can tell when his grief from missing me overtakes him from the sound of his sighs. But curiously they never speak of me among the three of them, and, except for my daughter, I have never heard them say “Mother” once. I don't like that one bit. But what can I do? Everything is out of my control.

Once I swam up to the very top of the glass jar. I peeked out from the water, pushing as far as I could toward my daughter. I hoped maybe she would recognize me. But it was an idle hope. She gazed at me, not understanding. She earnestly pleaded, “Golden carp, grant my wishes!” Then she whispered these three wishes. “First, return my mother who was taken from me! Second, give my mother my collection! Third, I want to sleep in my mother's arms again!”

It felt as if my heart crumbled. Yes, even fish have hearts.

She never once asked her father about me and never cried about my absence, so I didn't worry. But . . . my poor baby . . . she thought I had run away with someone, but though I racked my mind I could not find the reason why. The collection she mentioned was all of her candy.

I pity my daughter tremendously. But a fish is just a fish. I can't talk to her. Anyway, think about it, what if I did talk to her? What if I told her I'm sorry and tried to explain the situation? Then what? That's it. Truly nothing would come of it. Eh, most people can't handle more than their own share of sorrow. So what is the difference between telling her and not telling her?

Ask yourself, do aquarium fish think? You might laugh at the idea, but those tiny creatures are sad. They mope about, feeling lonely, but of course you are grinning ear to ear when you look at them. I have been truly sad, lonely, and bored. But the most, most, most unfortunate, most tormenting thing is the fact that nobody knows. I pass the days trying to get used to the depression, loneliness, and unusual suffering. I didn't really strive to acclimate, but it is in the nature of all creatures to get used to their circumstances. I stopped feeling pity for my son and daughter, and for my husband. No matter what, they are learning how to live without me; it is clear that they are getting used to this strange kind of separation.

One night, eight months after my transformation into a fish, my husband came home with a dear girlfriend of mine. The children had been sent to stay with my one of my older brothers. My girlfriend sat down on my daughter's tiny bed and . . . well, they had sex. I was totally shocked to see my husband so eagerly, aggressively doing that with someone other than me. But the most interesting thing about the situation is that it did not make me feel jealous or possessive. Truly, one of the differences between fish and people must be that fish never feel jealous of others. Only humans are possessive.

After that, they told each other so many lies. When my girlfriend said, crying, “I don't love my husband,” my husband replied, “I know. I've known all along.” Back when I was a person, not a fish, there's no way he could have known something like that about one of my friends. From the way my girlfriend was talking, you would think that my husband is only the second person that she's slept with. “Don't lie, he's more like the fifteenth man you've slept with,” I exclaimed hotly. Of course, I did not see that with my own eyes, that's just the consensus from gossip. They didn't hear me. There are no creatures on this earth as deaf as humans.

If you listened to what my friend was saying, you would think I have some kind of secret lover. “If you think about it they are probably together now,” said my only friend in the world, without a hint of sorrow on her face. Then my only soulmate in the world jumped up and made his desire to have sex again known with a strange grunt. In response my friend readily agreed, giggling in a way that proved that she was never really my friend after all. I spent the night unable to ignore the noises they made, the scratches they left on each other's backs. My husband had totally changed. No, rather, he was a completely different person. As dawn broke, I thought about this and sighed.

One morning after my son finished his classes he wrote a poem in his diary. It was a poem about a tree. Once he finished writing he read it softly aloud. Suddenly he tore that notebook up into tiny pieces, scattered them about, and ran off. My daughter picked up those scraps of paper and spent the rest of the day throwing them up in the air above herself like confetti.

Only when he tore up his notebook and left it in such a state of disarray did I understand why he was angry so often when I was human. My God, I had decided to make him into a mathematician. I swam around from morning until night brooding over what he would have wanted while I was a human, thinking, hmmm, is he acting like this because he wants to be a poet?

Later my son came in from outside with an odd, exhausted look on his face and sat down looking about for a moment. All of a sudden he jumped up and approached the aquarium. He seemed to have mischief on his mind. Then he took the watercolor paints out of their container and one by one started pouring them into the water. So I flounced about, fleeing from jets of horrifying red, green, and yellow colored poison. My son amused himself at my expense until my rescuer, my little daughter, came in.

Suddenly . . .  ah yes everything happens suddenly now . . . suddenly I realized how incredibly tired I am. A whole year has passed. Fish don't do much, but I am truly exhausted. I am worn out from watching all of the things I shouldn't see. Witnessing the secrets of the people close to me with these fish eyes has led me to feel worried, ashamed, afraid, and regretful in front of them.

Everyone has two sides. In truth, it is usually sufficient to show just one of those two sides to the rest of the world. People find what is good and attractive about themselves and in order to show off just that one side they make those qualities into a mask. Though everyone has another, totally different, side, in order to face other people, you have to wear that mask. Is it really necessary to take that mask off and show the true face underneath? With these last deep thoughts, I am happy to find that I am not a normal fish, but a meditative fish. At first, being a fish appealed to me. To be without responsibilities, to live for no one but myself. Loving no one and never being jealous, never annoyed or angry with anyone. Blaming no one and being blameless in turn. People should have lived like this in the first place. I have been brooding like this, worrying for my own sake, as well as for everyone else's sake. Oh dear. But . . .

In the aquarium my days and nights as a fish are becoming simpler and simpler, slower and slower. At the beginning everything felt like a new discovery. No longer. I've already become accustomed to the same old story, same old life. As soon as a person . . . (No, a fish. Well, but a person regardless. Of course I'm still a person. A human. Though I'm talking about fish, in truth there's no difference.) As soon as people get used to something, they grow tired of it. We tend to make the mistake of thinking that we are uncomfortable with things that we are not accustomed to, but truly to become used to something is to become sick of it.

I awoke, not in my glass jar, but lying on my soft couch. As I woke up, everything that had occurred came rushing back to me. I tried to convince myself that it was all a dream. My husband was at work. My son was getting frustrated and hurling insults at me. My daughter started begging for candy and fruit. My girlfriend was calling me, giggling about how she loves her husband even more now than she did before. As for my husband, he was just the same as before, continuing to meet my needs and wishes. Even in sex he maintained his courteous and gentle disposition. However, I started dealing with my son totally differently.

I stopped trying to drill math into his head and bought him books of poetry instead. Life went on, but our lives were different than before. Life seemed more delicious, and my son seemed more introspective. A person who regains what was once lost wishes above all to never lose it again. I started to think that our lives were heading in a good direction. One day I told my husband that I wanted him to tell me everything that had happened while I was gone, without leaving out a single detail, though I already knew everything that had happened. Ah well, are these people really people? My fate is not to live as a fish. But what was I hearing?

I was truly taken aback to hear my husband's story. My brothers had been extorting money from my spouse. They threatened to have him thrown in jail and to take custody of our children themselves. They threatened to take all of my wealth and put it in their own names. My husband was forced to leave his job, because they would come to his work every day and start a racket. My husband began to weep openly as he told me that his spirits had fallen so far that he had turned to drinking alone every night.

He told me that every day when our daughter came home she would sit in the bathroom and cry, whispering “Mommy, Mommy.” As for my son, not only had he decided to become a mathematician, he dedicated himself fully to pursuing those studies. In this way, my husband told me about all of the things I knew and didn't know had happened. The only thing he did not mention was what happened between him and my girlfriend. Nor did I ask. I knew without his having to say anything.

I was so offended for my husband's sake by my horrible, mean-spirited brothers that I wept for a long time. My aquarium was small but I thought I had seen everything that had happened. It had felt like the aquarium's four glass walls were the four corners of the earth, and I could see the horizon from eight directions. But! An aquarium is just an aquarium. There are other aquariums in the world. I could not see the life going on outside of those three rooms of mine. There is so much beyond our four-room apartment, so much . . . So much that I cannot speak of.

As the knowledge of my brothers' behavior sank in, I cried tears of indignation. Once I calmed down I asked my husband, “Did you leave anything out of what you just told me?” Of course, I did not expect a reply. It was just a question I need to ask. But how did my husband reply?

“I slept with your best friend! That is how this chapter ends. That is all there is left to the story.” 

As the words left my husband's mouth, I found myself becoming despondent. I already knew as much. I was hoping my husband would lie to me and not utter the truth. But! He is an honest man. So though I did not search for the truth, nor did I wish for the truth, I think it is more practical to acknowledge the truth than to ignore it. Everything I had seen in secret was a lie. This, this is real life.

Maybe I was not asking to find out about what had happened with everyone else, maybe I was asking to decide something for myself. He asked me, “Do you miss the aquarium?”  I thought about this for quite some time, before deciding to become a fish again. “The aquarium, though small, is nice,” I told Samsa.
 

© Ölziitögs Luvsandorj. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Sainbayar Gundsambuu and KG Hutchins. All rights reserved.

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