THE GLASS OCEAN
My daughter is trying to get to me by killing off the fish of the world, one fish at a time. This started when she was a child. It started in the frozen foods aisle at the grocery. She wanted me to buy a package of fishsticks. All of her friends ate fishsticks, she said. She ate fishsticks with her friends when she went to their houses after school. Why couldn't she have fishsticks at home, she wanted to know. Why couldn't I buy a package of fishsticks and keep them in the freezer?
It didn't end there. She began to choose tuna at cafeterias, salmon at expensive restaurants, and if we went to a hamburger place, she would order a fish sandwich and fries. She took a job at Pirate Joe's the summer she turned sixteen, and she would come home after work reeking of fried clams and cod, of oil and haddock and oysters. When she was a junior in college, she dated a boy who worked on an Alaskan salmon fishing boat. She lived with a lobsterman after she graduated. She painted miniature watercolors of the lighthouse near their cabin while he was out on the boat, and she'd cook up the fish that he brought home.
She claims it is not intentional. She says she means no harm. "Come on, Mom," she'll say. "Do you think I knew Craig would buy a speedboat two years after I married him?" Craig is her ex-husband. He's one of those guys who races around the bay off the coast of Florida, leaving permanent scars on the manatees. She lived in San Francisco for a while after that, and made paintings of the bridge. Now she lives with me. She's the one who set up the fish aquarium in my room. The empty one, over there in the corner.
All the fish in it died.
I have spent over five thousand hours underwater, and I have seen glorious things down there. I have led a glorious life. I've had the pleasure of finding new kinds of plants and animals, and of being the first person to swim in some places under the sea. I've had the pleasure of reporting my finds to the public.
I will not say I am famous, but I am well known in my field. My daughter still takes phone calls, at times, from people on the other side of the world who have a question about a particular form of marine life they have discovered. My daughter always tells the callers I am not able answer the question, and in its own way, this is true. I lost my ability to speak four years ago. I can grunt and raise my eyebrows and wrinkle my nose; this is how I tell my daughter that I am too hot, that the show on television is no good, that my nose has an itch. This is how I say what is most necessary to say. I cannot say anything else.
They have devices for people who cannot speak and, for a while, I used those. When I could still use my hands, for instance, I communicated via the computer by tapping out messages on the keyboard. When my hands went, I gripped a stick in my mouth—clenching it between my teeth—and I pecked out messages letter by letter by bobbing my head. As it got harder to lift my head and hold the stick in my mouth, I knew my time to say anything at all was running out. I pecked at the letters on the keyboard so furiously, some days, that it left my jaw bruised and sore. I had things I wanted to say. I wanted to get them down. In the end, however, all I was left with was a screen full of letters that could never begin to say what I wanted to say. What was within me. And then it gradually became too difficult to lift and lower my head and the stick kept slipping from my mouth. I gave in then. I accepted that I had moved to a new plateau in my disease.
I lie here for hours, sometimes, and think of what I would say if I could.
I made my final dive nine years ago, three years after the MS was diagnosed, but even now, I can close my eyes during a quiet afternoon, and I can be there. Falling through the warm water. The rest of the world passing. My companion divers hanging like marionettes along the coral wall. I have seen things underwater you will never see in this world that we inhabit. I have seen moray eels bare their teeth in warning, and lion fish explode into a burst of bristles at the slightest touch. I have looked into the unseeing eyes of sharks.
All this I can imagine still, but at the sound of a car passing on the street, or my daughter's footsteps in the hall, I come back. I come back to this room, where I'm weighted down by bed sheets, and where I sometimes stare for hours at the ceiling. I have mapped the shapes in the plaster. I have given them names. Each night I review the ceiling-scape. I listen to the water circulate in the aquarium until I sleep.
The neon tetras were the first to go, killed off by neon disease. They had been my daughter's favorite. She always wondered how it was they glowed. I was tickled that she liked those fish. I could have told her the glow was caused by a complex chemical reaction involving a substance known as luciferin. I could have told her this if I were able. I could have told her to add some Methylene Blue to the water when the spots began to form in the blue-green line. The medicine might have hindered the parasite. It might have helped. But I could not tell her this. I could not say a thing. All I could do was watch her bend to examine the first tetra when it floated to the surface of the water. "I think it's dead," she'd said. I nodded. She scooped the dead fish out of the tank with a net and flushed it down the toilet. The next day, I watched her discover the second tetra floating on the surface. I had noticed it soon after the sun came up. That afternoon, another fish drifted to the top. The tetras all went like that, one after the other.
My husband was a bird man. His specialty was the Northern Pileated Woodpecker. He spent a large part of his adult life crouched inside a blind in the woods near our home, documenting the nesting habits of these birds, and he spent the rest of his life within the walls of the university, teaching the basics of ornithology. There was a time when I could come back from a dive and the two of us would sit at the kitchen table and compare notes. I'd look at his photographs of eggs and twigs, and he would look at the samples I had collected. He'd tell me of a confrontation with the Park Administration, and I would speak of shark encounters. Our daughter moved in and out of the room, sitting at times in one lap or the other. We brewed coffee. We made sandwiches and tea. We watched the rain or the snow move beyond the windows. It was always warm in the kitchen.
Eventually, however, my husband lost interest in my fish, and I no longer cared about his birds. He had a young graduate assistant who shared the blind. I had a cameraman. Still, we stayed together. My daughter, forced to choose sides, drifted to his. I returned after two months at sea one time to find the top of her bureau littered with the small bones and skulls of birds. Tiny drawings of beaks and feet were tacked to the wall. She bought a canary that month and kept it in her room. When her father expressed outrage at the idea of a bird being caged, she set the canary free. I don't think she understood that the bird would die out in the wilderness, that it could not survive the cold. For a while, she kept the empty cage in her bedroom, but at some point she carried it to the basement. Most likely, the cage is still down there, its thin gold bars encrusted in rust, mold growing on the little food dish and on the mirror and the blue plastic swing.
My daughter says, "How about some angel fish?" I nod. Angelfish would be nice. They are elegant and graceful, and I like the way their coats shimmer silver. I want to tell my daughter to change the water first to clear out the parasites that killed the other fish. I want to tell her to maybe plant some Amazon sword plants in the tank. Angelfish like sword plants. They like to have a place to hide. But I know she will just buy the fish and put them in the tank and they will panic every time she walks by. They will try to hide, but there will be nowhere to hide. My daughter is clueless when it comes to fish. But, despite this, she is trying. I think she is trying for me.
So, yes, angelfish would be nice.
Years ago, the tank was filled with coral fish—Blue Damsels and Clownfish and Yellow Tangs. Those are the fish with personality. Those are the fish with the colors and patterns that could cause the most hard-core atheist to consider the existence of God. I used to stare into the tank for hours when I was at home. I kept it beside my desk. One of the fish I named Prince Mary. It is a strange name for a fish, I know, and I don't recall why I gave it that name, but I do remember whenever I approached the tank, Prince Mary would swim to the glass and stare out at me. She was a little puffer fish. She had google eyes. She lived for years, and then she died. I missed her after she was gone. I used to sing a song for her when I sprinkled food into the tank. "Little yellow fish," I'd sing, "Are you blue? Are you blue?"
My daughter used to complain that I gave more attention to that fish than I gave to her. Of course she was a teen-ager at the time. I'd say, joking, "When you flutter your fins and twirl in circles, I'll sing to you, too." But she didn't take it as a joke. She'd stomp down the hall to her room and slam the door. She'd stay in there for hours and when she came out she would not talk to me.
"Angelfish would be nice," I try to say to her now, but the words come out as a tangle of sounds.
"You want your blanket pulled up?"
She pulls the blanket up and tucks it under my chin, then stands beside the empty aquarium and peers into it as if there were something in there only she can see. She taps the glass with her fingertip. "How about some black mollies?" she says. "I kind of liked those black mollies."
"No! " I want to say. "Not black mollies! "
The black mollies' deaths were the most horrific to watch.
"Or some swordtails, maybe," she says. "Swordtails would be nice."
Angelfish, I want to say. Buy Angelfish. But I know she'll buy whatever strikes her fancy when she is at the store. I just hope she doesn't buy fish that fight one another to the death. I couldn't stand to watch that again.
I liked collecting samples best. I lost track of everything when I was collecting samples. I'd pry entire animal colonies off the coral wall with a small crowbar and tuck them into a string bag. I'd make notes on a plastic tablet. Sharks circled overhead, and the air in my tank ran low, but I had a bodyguard—someone who gave mind to the distractions—so I paid no attention. I pressed my mask against the coral and peered in at living creatures I had seen only in formaldehyde filled jars, bleached and disfigured. They were living in the wall. Moving. It was better than television. Better than sex. It was better than anything I've known in this life.
Later, I'd try to say what it was I saw down there. I'd try to explain it to the cook, to the deck hands and the technicians. I'd smear thick slices of bread with butter and pour wine and I'd stutter, "You should have been there." "It was magnificent." "It was so vast." " It was blue and moving and alive." "It was—" But these were not the right words.
I used to lie here some afternoons and try to fix on the right words to describe what it was I had witnessed beneath the sea. But it seemed the more words I put together, the further what I had known retreated. I began to lose my grasp on the experience altogether—its purity—so I stopped. I can still close my eyes and be there, but I've come to believe there are no words I could ever say to make what I have seen seen again. I don't think those words exist. I don't think they're out there. It's my own private thing. Enclosed in me.
One corner of my ceiling-scape reminds me of the continental shelf off the coast of Madagascar. I try to point this out to my daughter when she brings me a cup of broth in the afternoon. I raise my eyebrows, grunt, look at the ceiling.
"What?" she says. "What is it, Mom?"
I try to say "Madagascar." She looks at the ceiling.
"There's a spider?"
"Like a map," I try to say.
"You want me to clean down the cobwebs?"
My daughter rolls her eyes. "I'll get the dust-mop," she says. She sets the cup on my bedside table. Some of the broth sloshes over the edge. I can smell it. Chicken. I hear her rummaging in the kitchen closet, hear her slam the door. When she comes back, she has a broom. "There is no mop," she says. She lifts the broom bristles toward the spot where the Indian Ocean would be, takes a few swipes. "Happy?" she says.
"No, " I want to say. But she is offering the broth to me now, slipping the tip of a straw between my lips. So I don't make a sound. I just drink. I want to ask her if she is happy. Is she happy being here with me? Is she happy changing my sheets and sponging my bottom and cooking these simple meals? Is she happy spending her days with a woman who cannot speak, who never said a word that mattered when she could?
Some evenings, of course, she fries up fish. I can hear them sizzling in the pan before the smell drifts in to me. It always reminds me of her sardine phase. This was when she was thirteen or so. She'd buy several tins of sardines at the delicatessen near our home and stack them on the pantry shelf. Every day after school, she'd come home and eat sardines on saltines as a snack. She'd put the sardines she did not eat in the refrigerator, and through the plastic wrap covering the tin, I could see the little fish lying side by side. "Use aluminum foil," I'd say, but she never did. That was when I first began to realize she was trying to get to me.
For a while after she came to take care of me, she'd tell me what kind of fish she had eaten for dinner. "There was a special on salmon today," she'd say, or "That was good haddock." But lately, she hasn't been saying what kind of fish she buys, and I smell it cooking less and less. These days, I often smell chicken, or beef. I smell onion and garlic. She eats her dinner at the dining room table, and when she has finished, she brings in the baby food for me. She lines up the small jars on my bedside table—creamed asparagus, puréed veal, mashed bananas—then turns on the television and pulls a chair beside the bed. While she feeds me, we watch the evening news. She will give me a spoonful of food, look at the TV while I swallow, give me another spoonful. Sometimes, during commercials, she'll offer information about what is going on in the world; she will tell me, for instance, that the daffodils are up now, or that the Millers down the street had the big oak in their front yard removed. But more and more these days, she doesn't say a thing. She just sits there in between bites with her arms folded and stares at the TV.
The two of us are quite the animated pair.
The headlights of cars passing my window at night bring to mind flashlight fish. I was among the first to bring a living sample of this species up out of the sea, and I was a member of the team who gathered the specimens used to fill the inaugural Photoblepharon exhibit at the New England Aquarium. We dived at night to gather the fish. We used no lights for fear of frightening them. We worked our way along the wall in darkness, and guided ourselves by the bioluminescence of the coral outcrops and the sea fans, of the fish swimming nearby. The fish we gathered eventually came to inhabit an un-lit tank in a dark hallway off the main concourse of the Aquarium. All you can see looking into the tank are the crescent pouches of light beneath the eyes of the fish—a multitude of half-moons blinking in the dark.
The fish use the light pouches for defense. Say, for instance, an enemy fish approaches. What will the flashlight fish do? It will turn off its lights and swim into the face of the enemy, then abruptly flash on its lights. This sudden burst of light is meant to frighten the intruder away. And if that doesn't work? The flashlight fish will veer away from the enemy and swim in a swift straight line, then blink off its lights and make a sudden turn to throw its pursuer off course.
It's not a bad tactic.
But do the fish communicate to each other via these lights? Do they carry on conversations? I am among those biologists who believe they do. A few years ago, a group of researchers got the idea to set up a dummy flashlight fish rigged with blinkers that could be remotely controlled. They varied the signals from their dummy fish and recorded the responses of the live fish. I do not pretend to know what it was they hoped to deduce from this investigation, but I do like the idea of a group of humans attempting to talk to a group of fish. I have no doubt it can be done.
I once held a mirror up to a flashlight fish during a night dive. It responded by blinking its lights faster. I managed to get the fish to separate out from the school it was in and to follow its mirrored image for some distance along the wall. It seemed intrigued by its blinking reflection, in the way a parakeet with a toy mirror might be, but eventually the fish became so frantic in its blinking—desperate, I would say—that I covered the mirror with the palm of my hand. The fish hovered for a moment, then swerved to rejoin its school. I imagined what the fish had experienced was similar to what I might have experienced if I were to meet a stranger on the street and speak to him, only to have every word mimicked. If I were to say, for instance, "Don't I know you?" And the stranger were to respond, "Don't I know you?" If I were to say then, "You look familiar." And the stranger would say to me, "You look familiar." I'd say, "Do you have a sister named Marge?" He would say, "Do you have a sister named Marge?"
"I'm only trying to see if I know you," I'd say.
"I'm only trying to see if I know you."
I used to spend my afternoons watching the fish in the aquarium my daughter set up, but since the last fish died, I've had nothing to watch. I stare out the window at the clouds passing over, or at my neighbor's roof. Sometimes I run my eyes over the ceiling-scape. I try not to look at the aquarium. But when my thoughts begin to wander, my eyes drift automatically in that direction, and I'll discover myself staring through the glass at the last of the scraggly plants, at the pieces of coral and shell, at the tiny treasure chest that opens at regular intervals to release an effervescence of bubbles. There is a plastic yellow diver at the bottom of the tank, anchored by its feet in the gravel. The fish used to jar it loose from time to time, and it, being hollow, would rise to the surface. Now that the fish are gone, the diver stays put. The last time my daughter replaced it, she positioned it to face in my direction. I don't think she did this intentionally. Still, every time I look at the aquarium, I see that little mask peering through the glass at me, and I can't quite shake the notion that I am being observed.
I did not expect my daughter to care for me after my husband died. I did not expect her to stay on after the funeral. I surrendered, in the days following his death, to the reality of spending the rest of my days in a nursing home, to the idea of a life filled with touch of strangers, institutional odors, and silence. People would think that since I could not speak, I could not think. They would not ask me questions, or give me choices. Gone were the days when my husband had asked whether I wanted the banana pudding or the tapioca, whether I wanted to watch the sit-com or the movie. I would be shifted and carried and bathed and composed. I would be sustained. I knew it was only a matter of arrangements to be made, of my actual physical transport.
I listened to my daughter's half of conversations when she was on the phone, expecting to hear her version of the grim details. I examined her face each time she came into my room to discern if this were the day she would tell me. But when she came into my room, she only looked sad. And when I caught bits of her phone conversations, I realized they were discussions with her friends in California. She asked if they would pack some of her belongings and ship them to her, if they would sell the rest. She called her landlord and made arrangements to sublet her apartment. I heard, "It's my mother," "illness," thank you." "It's my mother," "thanks," "yes, she was." "Thank you," "yes, she is," "thanks."
She never told me she was staying; she just stayed. She bought new sheets for her old bed and she had her mail forwarded. We settled into the routine we still maintain. She comes in the morning and opens the blinds, feeds me breakfast, then bathes me. She gives me soup for lunch. I don't know what she does through the afternoon, but often, when she brings my dinner, I notice flecks of paint on her forearms and her hands. I want to ask her what she is painting. I want to ask her what else she does during the day. But of course, I can only look at her and make my sounds. Yes for the pudding. No for the television show. Any other sound only frustrates her.
When I think on it, my daughter has always had a talent for attracting sickly fish. When she was five, for instance, I bought her a goldfish in an attempt to get her to take an interest in marine life. She named the goldfish Hal. She was given the duty of feeding Hal every morning, and to help change the water in the bowl when necessary. Occasionally she had to be reminded to feed the fish, but she always performed the task good-naturedly. All went well with the goldfish until I returned from an excursion one time and saw that both of the fish's eyes were missing. "Did she do that?" I asked my husband. "Did she do something to the fish's eyes?"
"No," he said. "They popped out. Just swelled up, at first, then popped right out of the orbit."
"Exophthalmus," I said.
Still, the goldfish lived for years. It adjusted to its blindness easily, once it understood the limits of its bowl. It learned how to sense the position of food in the water. "How come Hal never runs into the walls?" my daughter asked.
"He knows where they are," I told her.
I discovered her a few hours later, walking in circles in the hallway with her eyes closed. When she'd come up against a wall, she'd say, "Oops! Glass. Didn't see that."
"Are you being Hal?" I said.
"I can't see," she said.
"Are you swimming?"
"The walls are here," she said. "I know the walls are here somewhere."
This is my daughter's idea of a joke: she has installed a plastic dinosaur in the aquarium. She wedged it into the gravel behind the little diver. The dinosaur rears on its hind feet, with the claws of its front feet hovering above the diver's head. Bubbles emanate from its open mouth. I think it is supposed to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If I squint, I can make out the raised letters on its belly: MADE IN CHINA. My daughter sneaked it into the tank while I was sleeping, then waited to see my reaction when I woke.
It was tail rot that got the black mollies. It was a horrible thing to watch. Bacteria invaded the water and ate the tails away. I knew what it was. I knew there were steps that could be taken to prevent the bacteria from spreading. In the early stages, for instance, when the fins and tails first began to show signs of putrefaction, an acriflavine solution could have been applied, and the water changed. If this didn't work, more drastic steps could have been taken; the infected tails and fins could have been snipped with a pair of scissors and the wounds brushed with a solution of silver nitrate or potassium dichromate.
As it was, I could not tell my daughter these things, and she did not know. So together we watched the fish rot. "What could be wrong with them?" my daughter kept saying. "They seem to be losing their tails." The bacteria ate away the tails and the fins and finally moved into the bodies. My daughter stood near the tank in the mornings, looking hopeless and tired. She'd remove the fish that had died and tap food onto the surface of the water. "Do something." I wanted to say. "Those fish are being eaten alive." I wanted to say, "There are drugs and treatments. There are antibiotics, for God's sake." But I knew at that point my daughter was too tired to care. She put all of her effort and energy into my care. Into caring for me. The fish were simply in the room to keep me entertained. I suspected that, since there was nothing to do to save me at that point, my daughter assumed that nothing could be saved. She had given up.
I knew the fish suffered. I lost my appetite and I could not sleep. Constantly, I was aware of the work the bacteria were doing in that aquarium, eating through skin and organ and brain. I was so relieved when the last black mollie finally died.
My daughter went out the following afternoon and purchased ten zebra fish. They somehow managed to resist the bacteria that had killed off the black mollies. They were hardy little things. They managed to hold on for months.
It is true that none of us can predict our manner of death, but I can be fairly certain my death will not be an easy one. Not for me the quiet death that comes to one during sleep. Not for me the swift and painless death. Most likely, I will die in a hospital, surrounded by tubes and machines, or en route to an emergency room in the back of an ambulance. It is not unlikely I will die here, in this bed, in this room. It is possible it could happen like this: my daughter will come into my room one morning and ask me if I want oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. I'll make the appropriate gesture to signify the Cream of Wheat. I'll look out the window while I wait for her to prepare it, or I will stare at the empty aquarium. I'll smell coffee, and hear the slap of her slippers on the linoleum in the kitchen.
She'll carry in the bowl of Cream of Wheat and she will feed it to me while she looks at the newspaper and drinks coffee. She might mention an item she reads in the paper—something small, like the plans our city has to erect a monument for one of our founders, something like that—or maybe she won't say anything; maybe it will be one of those mornings when she sips her coffee in silence and just reads. I'll eat the Cream of Wheat and drink some coffee through a straw, and when she spoons up the last bite and asks me if I want it, I will indicate Yes. Yes, I'll say, I'll have one more bite. She'll give me the bite, then leave the room. And what will happen? That bite will lodge in my throat. It will lodge there, and I won't be able to expel it—I'll be too weak at that point, too ill. My lungs, even now, are filling with mucus. I hear my chest rattle when I inhale. They are filling with fluid and I can't cough it out. After all the dives I've made, after all of the times underwater when my breathing tube snapped and I made it to the surface—red faced, desperate—but I made it to the surface, in time; after all of that, it will be something so simple as a bite of Cream of Wheat.
My husband died in the driveway. A heart attack. He had just fed my lunch to me and had gone out to change a tire on the Buick. I heard the tire iron hit the pavement; I heard him moan and fall. I laid here for hours waiting for someone to find him, listening to every sound I heard.
I'd like to think that death will be like Rapture of the Deep—that intoxication that comes from the residual carbon dioxide of nitrogen when you dive to great depths. It's like being drunk, but better. It's like being a god. Everything takes on a great beauty and perfection, and you can do no wrong. You just want to stay under the ocean. You want to stay there forever. You get the sense that if you tear out your air pipe or your mouth grip, you will come to no harm. You can look above and see the light of the surface. You can look before you and see the deep boundless blue.
Perhaps when you die, you can surrender to that rapture. You can tear away the air pipe. You can walk into the blue.
The zebra fish hung on for months—all ten of them—and then they died, one by one, over a six-day period. Each fish died in the same manner: first, red patches appeared on the skin of its belly and fins, and the fish began to swim slower. Within hours, it would be unable to move its tail. It would drift to the surface and hang there, breathing rapidly, eddying. The remaining fish would dart up and nip at the paralyzed fish. This would go on for hours. Finally, the sick fish would die, and my daughter would scoop it out of the tank and flush it down the toilet.
The final fish, though, eddied for days and it would not die. It just about drove me over an edge, watching that fish. I began to imagine I saw fear in the fish's eyes, or horror. I began to imagine I could hear the fish during the night, circling in the tank.
I thought, sometimes, I could hear it moan. A little moan.
Then finally, on the sixth morning, my daughter netted the fish and carried it to the bathroom. She did not ask me if she should do this; she did not look in my direction. She simply scooped it out of the water and carried it away.
The fish was alive when she flushed, but we both pretended it was dead.
"The Glass Ocean" came about through a combination of real life experience, reading the books of [Jacques Cousteau], and a visit to the New England Aquarium, where I saw a [flashlight fish] exhibit. When I was at somebody's house to take care of their cat and feed their fish, I looked into the fish tank and saw a plastic dinosaur with MADE IN CHINA stamped on its belly and all of the disparate pieces came together. A vivid scene with that dinosaur in the fish aquarium of the mother in the story clearly formed in my head. Once that was in place, I was off and running.