Tengo knew quite well that Japan might drown in the next couple of days. It had been the only thing on the news for the past week; just off the Southern Pacific shore, the Tropical Storm Babe was cooking into the most threatening typhoon to reach Japan in 18 years. Anyone who could leave the island did, and those remaining buckled in for months without electricity or water.
Tengo had nowhere to go. He decided the storm would come with determined punctuality whether he was there to greet it or not; either way, the life he had come to know would be lost. Rather than wait around at home and watch the reports on TV, he took a walk.
The city was the calmest Tengo had ever seen it. There was hardly anyone on the street, and the thickness of silence and the unknown hung heavily in the air. Tengo felt himself beginning to compress, uncomfortably sandwiched between the past and future. On one side was everything he had experienced: the other, infinite possibility which meant only nothing. Right in the middle, in the small amount of space Tengo occupied, there was an existence which, in the end, amounted to something very little.
The sky was low and gray and tumultuous, like looking up from under a giant crashing wave. It was windy enough to justify a coat. He had a beer in each of his front pockets, which he tried to prevent from shaking up by walking in sort of a sway, allowing his heavy coat pockets to pendulum slightly without bumping into his thighs. The fluidity of this motion made it easy for Tengo to imagine the whole city underwater.
Tengo decided he would see the aquarium for what might have been his last time. (The beers were a backup plan, in case the aquarium had already closed; he could sit on the bench under the tuna sculpture and drink them in peace.)
Although he lived within walking distance, Tengo hadn’t visited the aquarium since a fourth grade field trip. One of his classmates had gotten lost in the jellyfish exhibit. For an hour, the lost child ran in circles through the dark corridors while the rest of the class waited on the bus. Of course the teachers found the child eventually, but he was pretty shaken up. Since then, Tengo had never felt an overwhelming desire to visit an aquarium. These many years later, Tengo felt an implacable desire to have at least one pleasant memory of the place before it was destroyed.
He arrived to find a number of shipping trucks parked in the entrance courtyard. Beneath a sculpture of two seahorses kissing that served as the gateway to the aquarium, one of the trucks was being loaded with boxes, some the size of refrigerators. He asked a person who looked like an employee if he could buy a ticket.
“Well, there won’t be anything to see, unfortunately. We’re taking all the animals to the Kyoto Aquarium. It’s safer for them there. Anything that’s not endangered or expensive enough was put into underground storage. You should be evacuating, anyway. Now is no time to be sightseeing.”
“You’re probably right. Thank you anyway,” Tengo said. The man gave a sidelong glance and checked his wristwatch as if calculating something. He spoke quietly.
“Hey, I don’t think anyone would mind if you just took a quick look around. I don’t see what harm that would do. I mean, there’s no one here, and it’s not like you’d be seeing any fish for free.”
Tengo walked past a truck being loaded with boxes, and into the coral reef habitat exhibit. The large room was completely dark except for the bluish light coming from the tanks. He could hear the hum and trickling of the water filters. All around him, colorful cement coral reefs sat uninhabited. Tengo wondered how they were able to collect all the fish in such a short period of time. He wondered if they might have missed a camouflage fish somewhere, hiding in a rock. Reef fish are especially good at evading sight, and it was entirely possible that one of them slipped through the diver’s net without anyone noticing. Tengo was sure a forgotten fish must have been swimming all alone in one of these tanks. He searched every tank but could not find a single living thing.
He decided to drink one of the beers he brought along as he wandered deeper into the aquarium. Descending a marble staircase, he came to a glass tunnel, surrounded on all sides by water. This was where the manta rays used to glide gracefully through the tiny bubbles in the beams of light over the families and vacationers and schoolchildren. The spotted eagle rays could grow up to ten feet across, their backs sprawling with brilliant white spots like an ancient sky. Now, there was nothing—only the pale light dancing in ribbons on the marble floor. Twelve inches of glass separated Tengo from a half a million gallons of lifeless water.
He moved carefully through the tunnel, imagining the immense pressure of the water on his body. It would collapse his ribcage like an aluminum can. Each step got easier as he accepted the idea. By the time he reached the other end of the passage, the fear of this idea gave way to a comfortable apathy. He proceeded into the jellyfish exhibit.
The walls were decorated to resemble an underwater cave. Tengo finished his first beer and opened a second, stuffing the empty can back into his coat pocket. He wandered by the quiet, massive tanks, reading the descriptions of the jellyfish that used to live behind the glass. Tengo could have sworn he heard footsteps from somewhere in the exhibit.
He called out. The footsteps seemed to be moving away from him. He walked through the winding corridors, calling out again and again.
“Are you lost?” he asked. Tengo was beginning to think he had imagined the footsteps when he heard them again, this time clearly. They were small and hollow and rhythmic, like rapidly dripping water on ceramic tile. They sounded urgent and hopeless, and Tengo hurried toward them.
“I can help you find your way out of here!” he said.
Tengo rounded the corner and faced a floor to ceiling panel of glass, behind which he distinctly remembered there being a field of moon jellies. Now, a young boy floated in the water on the other side of the glass. He gently exhaled bubbles, and slowly sank deeper into the darkness. Tengo shouted for help, and ran at the glass, pounding and kicking with all the strength he could muster. There was no way into the tank from inside the exhibit. As the boy brought water through his mouth and nose into his small body, he sank lower, his black hair flowing beautifully in the water as Tengo tore his knuckles open against the glass. There was no bottom to the tank. He sank lower and lower, until his ribs snapped one at a time, shrinking his chest into a compressed mass of flesh and bone. Tengo tried to run out of the exhibit, and, disoriented from all the shock, found himself lost. All around him, in every tank, the corpse floated peacefully toward the darkness, tenderly imploding until all that was left was a gnarled morsel of flesh drifting slowly out of sight as the rain began to fall on Japan.
James A. Mentz is an artist and writer planning to attend medical school in the near future. His work addresses themes of isolation, contentedness, and the unknown.