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December 4, 2015 | Fiction

Metamorphosis

Jennifer Stern

Metamorphosis photo

The last time I saw fish swimming on the walls, I had not yet had the stroke.  We were on a college summer break.  Sam had taken me to the Shedd to see the lungfish—an ugly thing, grayish, with a shape like something between an eel and a torpedo.  It sat its girth on the bottom of the tank and moved in twitches.

This was back when Sam and I were still getting along.

“Everybody talks about quasars,” Sam said.  “Black holes.  You hear about them on the news.  But nobody talks about lungfish.”  

Hundreds of millions of years ago, Sam explained, when life was confined to the sea, this fish’s ancestors jumped out of the water to see what more there was out there.  The early ones probably didn’t make it—the ones with just the gills, bored with the swimming but not yet evolved—but the later ones got it figured out and grew a pair of lungs and crawled out of the water to sun themselves on the rocks. 

Now, twenty years later, Sam is long gone from my life but the lungfish is still around.  (They say these fish can live a hundred years.) The man I’m with is scouting out a trail on his museum map because he can’t stand the idea of not knowing what’s next.  We have just come from Greektown and we’re both filled with ouzo and saganaki. 

I am thinking about the lungfish’s two worlds—the wet one and the dry one—and about metamorphosis.  And I am thinking about strokes—about whether it’s the moment that the arm becomes weak that a person’s life goes into pause.  Or the moment that the blind spot sets in.  Or at some point during one of those post-hospital breakfasts, over coffee, over the blintzes and eggs that your mother cooks you and cooks you, your comfort a new urgency to her because her love, her life’s work, has been cheated, cut down.  (God is a man, after all, so what else would you expect?)  Over the little flourish of ketchup off to the side of the plate that makes you think, I am still loved.  On an evening spent in a blanket warm from the dryer.  Over apple cake.  Over the kischke you’re served every night for a month, because it used to be your favorite.  (You should have to cook yourself?)  During a scolding for walking up a flight of stairs even though steps are uncomfortable for you (your body’s been through enough); in the middle of one of your back rubs, great enviable massages that take the neck into account as well.

The tanks emit light the dark purple of evening, but they cast a pleasing glow.  The lungfish has not been replaced—I can tell by the spot behind his left eye.  He does not seem to remember me from twenty years ago, even though it feels like ten.  My hair is thinner now at the crown but I am slender as a girl.  

Sam ended up a professor of evolution because he had a love for things on the verge of becoming.  Here is a story he once told: over eons, most lungfish gave rise to frogs, which gave rise to birds, and then apes, and then us.  But some of the lungfish forgot to evolve and the species itself forgot to die out, so today you can come to the Shedd and see lungfish that ended up simply lungfish—pre-amphibian, totterly grandfathers, each generation stuck forever in the past.

I became a purveyor of toys at a specialty shop near the park.  My customers are loyal, and when their children have birthdays they know they can stop in for candy on the house.  Sometimes I show their kids the colored ponies whose manes I brushed myself as a child, but it is mostly the mothers who care.

But that day twenty years ago at the Shedd, Sam fit his arm around the back of my shoulders and we stood in the black-purple glow of the tanks, peering in while the lungfish peered out.  Sam said: Remember that spot—the little divot behind his eye—and when we’re older, we’ll come back here with wrinkles and paunches and see if he becomes paunchy himself.  We watched him blurble in his tank for a time, until he settled down.  Then we said goodbye to him and went upstairs to eat whale-shaped cookies in the cafeteria.

image: Bryan Bowie


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