~This story was previously published in Gargoyle (1988).
Jeanine’s gills were becoming more pronounced, she noticed on Saturday. Ralph pretended they were just lines on her neck, but Jeanine could feel them flap when she coughed or sneezed. They both read the paper. A woman in Miami, a man in Portland, sisters in New Orleans. A baby had been born with them in Houston. Gradually, Jeanine expected, she would need water for her air.
Ralph blamed Jeanine’s yoga teacher, though none of the other cases mentioned seaweed supplements or chlorophyll drinks. What was she trying to show him? Other wives were having breast implants, dying their hair, or letting themselves spread into elastic waist pants and baggy sweaters. Ralph could not understand Jeanine’s attitude toward the transformation of her shapely, freckled body.
At breakfast, Jeanine watched Ralph through the chlorophyll water in her glass, remembering when his unhandsomeness had been endearing. Ralph’s small brown eyes were sunk into his doughy cheeks like raisins, and his thick arms and legs stuck straight out from his torso. But he was not made of gingerbread; he was pasty white with clumps of black hair randomly tufted over his body. He smelled unshowered this morning, and Jeanine could not remember why she married a man with hair on his back.
So far, the longest they had gone without mentioning her scales or thinning bones was a full day. As a scientist, Jeannine was intrigued by these changes. In a notebook she recorded the progress of the slits along her neck as well as her ideas about their cause. I should tell him about the water supply, she thought. I’m going to say it’s a worry I have.
“What?” Ralph asked, expectant and annoyed.
“I’m going swimming,” she said and left to gather her gear.
In the water, Jeanine tried to be firm with herself. This is only for half an hour, forty minutes at most. You wouldn’t want to live in the water. You wouldn’t. Want to live. Her words floated away from her, and she swam without stroke or kick. From the bottom of the pool, she watched the executives take their oval laps while she freely moved from lane to lane. She listed reasons to stay on dry land. Ralph. Yoga class, the smell of wood smoke. More compelling was that if she were caught meandering in the Bay, they would probably scale and gut her on a university dissecting table.
The young, goose-bumply lifeguard glared at Jeanine the few times she came up for air. When she heard him blow the whistle that announced the end of adult laps, she thought only twenty minutes had passed. She flopped out of the pool, unexpectedly struck by how upright everyone was. Chlorine stung her neck, and her fine hair looked green under the bathroom lights. By the time she got home, Ralph had been to the hardware store and back.
“For Cripe’s sake,” he said. “Did you swim for two hours?”
The man in Portland was released from duty when a dorsal fin slit through his park service uniform. A case had been filed on his behalf, but he confessed to the eyewitness reporter that work did not interest him much these days. His wife and children, he mentioned casually, had left for points inland. Beneath his undershirt, his barrel chest looked striped, and he kept trying to steer the reporter toward talk of spawning grounds.
When Ralph tried to isolate what was different, he did not start with Jeanine’s body. He had often watched her thin, thin hands gesture through the air like fins, and while the changes were alarming, Ralph mostly missed the careful attention she used to pay him. He was glad the lab’s parking lot wasn’t safe, or Jeanine would probably stay at work past midnight. As it was, she left for work at dawn and came home around ten. Some weeks Ralph had to travel, but when he was home, he wanted to make sure Jeanine watched a game show or two and had normal conversations.
He remembered with nostalgia how, when he first met her, she refused to use paper money. She had personal superstitions that made her partly childlike, partly wise. No dairy products during her period; in the bottom of her purse she carried a pair of lucky pliers passed down from her father. Ralph did not quite believe that her becoming a fish was simply a new habit, although he had always felt it was to his credit that she had stayed in this sphere so long. Her work was so tiny and technical, he thought, she needed someone around her to talk about the big, wide world.
Ralph’s spice stories used to absorb Jeanine, and his success as a spice broker was partially prompted by the sweetness of her devotion. Peppercorns in India were sold by the ashna, basically a stone barrel, while paprika in Hungary was measured in chukters, the amount of paprika one man allegedly ate in one year, probably near the year 1250. When Jeanine tilted her head to listen, her limp hair hung straight down. On one side it fell away from her head, like a plumb line; on the other side the stringy blonde ends rested against her lovely scapula.
Jeanine’s scapula was pencil thin now. In bed, Ralph tried to be patient while her skin warmed up, imagining the future and the sex that fish have. He read about reproduction in their old World Book; it seemed that for most fish, the meeting of egg and sperm occurred outside their bodies. As it was, Ralph could no longer lie on top of his wife without flattening her lungs between her sharp ribs and softened backbone.
Still, when he woke to see her head emerging from a turtleneck sweater, Ralph was hopeful. Jeanine’s baby-fine hair, charged with static electricity, radiated in dandelion style around her face. The nipples of her round breasts popped out in the chill of dressing, and the only trace of her transformation was the heaviness of her brown, glazed eyes. Ralph pretended that was weariness and that his wife was still the fair-skinned, blonde scientist with the small nose and the nutmeg-colored freckles.
But as the Chesapeake died below the surface, as redfish became scarce in the Louisiana Gulf, as the Portland man was found belly-up in the Columbia River, the deep waters of their marriage ran still. Jeanine was keeping some sort of journal that Ralph imagined was full of desires he could not satisfy. She seemed so sad, and he assumed she had already decided to give up her muscular legs and turquoise rings in order to be all of one piece, swimming hard away from him.
The baby in Houston became the subject of a court battle because the mother tried to release him in Galveston Bay. The state took custody of the infant, even though doctors testified that the child could only live in brine. Jeanine said the doctors were delaying procedures, secretly hoping the baby would not survive so they could have a look at him. Ralph agreed, but not aloud.
Some fish, meanwhile, were sprouting legs. The Times thought that rather than evolving or devolving, this might be a case of revolving, where species were on a carousel rather than an ordered ladder. The New York Review of Books called it the final proof against creationism (though it worried them that fish were basically imperialists, with their policy of devouring anything smaller than themselves). Other tabloids believed it was punishment by God. The Star quoted the Lord’s covenant with Noah and asked, “How long must God keep his promises?”
On Tuesday, Jeanine stopped her lab leader from emptying a beaker into the sink, yelling, “Waste reserve! Waste reserve!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Margaret said and cleaned the glass cup properly.
In the last three weeks, scales had been forming along Jeanine’s shins like sequined stockings. Could pouring a beaker of chemicals down the sink transform people into fish? Or had we reached the tipping point that eventually broke down the immune system, scrambled chromosomes, riddled evolutionary progress?
Jeanine tried to invent experiments she could perform on herself, but she had no control group. When she increased her seaweed supplement intake, her body temperature dropped to 72 degrees, and pectoral fins unfurled from her arms like the flabby skin of a kindergarten teacher. She was losing her faith in self-examination and ritual, though she stopped short of removing her lucky pliers—the tool that had saved her father’s keys, his watch, many bar bets—from her purse.
She began to spend Friday afternoons at the National Aquarium, watching the manta rays beat their fleshy wings past hammerhead sharks. She was convinced that the explanation for her condition was submerged in those tanks. She was convinced that there was an explanation.
Looking for an excuse to set up an aquarium in the lab, Jeanine initiated bogus cloning experiments. She filled the tank with angel fish and tiger barbs and a couple of coulee loaches. As an added touch, she bought an aerator disguised as a diver investigating a treasure chest. She fed the fish flakes of dried fish food, and then she contaminated their water, hoping they would grow big and strong but no arms or noses.
This nesting routine, disguised as research, disgusted Margaret, who had overheard workers talking about Jeanine’s “condition.” In Margaret’s brain, the cells swollen with Nobel speeches, she imagined Jeanine was pregnant. All she needed was a lab assistant giving birth to an underweight or even a not perfectly healthy baby.
The sisters in New Orleans were terrified and made a suicide pact in case of actual transformation. Twice, the elderly pair had skin grafted onto their necks; nevertheless, they seemed destined for gills.
Each day in her red vinyl data book, Jeanine chronicled the state of the fish people in the news and the fish in her office, along with the mice and rabbit too. But mostly her journal turned into love letters to her new exotic self. “To me,” she wrote, “the shrinking of my heart is the beginning of a more efficient circulatory system, one that does not have to expend all energy just to sustain a body temperature.”
Afraid to find out what the lab leader knew, Jeanine wore turtlenecks and corduroys to work. She relied on the fact that Margaret was greedy and careless, observing in her journal, “M— is a flounder with both beady eyes on one side of her head.”
After work on Thursday, Jeanine went to yoga for the first time in weeks, and she stayed after with the hardcore who shared notes on allergy cures and herbal cleanses. “I’ve missed you,” Alexandra said. The beautiful older woman gave her a hug then gently ran a finger along Jeanine’s lined neck. “What has happened, dear?”
Jeanine revealed her silver scales beneath the hem of her sweatshirt; she pulled the elastic of her pants an inch away from her waist so Alexandra could see the beginning of her ventral fin. She said, “I’m kind of excited.”
“Of course you are, dear,” her teacher said. The lines on her brown face were creased with smiling, but her lithe body was a testimony to lifelong health and good nutrition. She lifted her arms in the air and swayed, fluttering her shawl like the waves. She said, “The ocean is life itself. How happy you must be.”
This was the reaction Jeanine had been hoping for from Ralph. Driving home, she replayed an afternoon from their early courtship. She was standing on her head, her legs crossed at hip level, when Ralph’s bulky entrance broke her concentration. She remembered losing her balance—how slow falls seem—and seeing Ralph’s wide face contort in amazement and affection. He had knelt down on the mat and kissed each rib through her leotard. “In Baltimore,” he had said, “they would put you in a cage.”
The Miami woman, in an interview in Outside magazine, sounded surprisingly game about becoming a black cod, though she said “sable cod.” She’d always known cubicle life was not for her and had readily tossed her pantyhose and passwords. Except for worries about the cold, cold water, she talked about the future as if she were going on a long-awaited rafting trip.
In the lab, Jeanine dutifully emptied her pipettes down the waste reserve, though she questioned her own complicity. “Assuming I am responsible,” she wrote in her data book, “fulfills the hope that our actions have consequence.”
When she believed she was contributing to her transformation, she would think about what might make her stop. Ralph could offer an incentive or two. She wanted to know she was imprinted in his thoughts enough that he might answer some question forcefully, with desire, “Jeanine.” Or even, “For Cripe’s sake, stick around.”
The next morning her eyes had scooted closer to her ears, and she had no way of knowing if she’d willed it, if it was because of Ralph’s active uncaring, or if neither of them was the missing link to her thickening lips and unsteady stature.
The baby in Houston died and the doctors began a long autopsy. The mother sold her story to Simon & Schuster and put the money in a trust for her two other children. Then she slipped into a coma explained only by the depth of her sorrow.
Jeanine heard the report on her morning drive, before switching from the news to Gregorian chants. Today, their droning sounded more agonizing than uplifting, as dire as the loop of blame playing in her head. She fiddled with genetic mutations while the ozone layer burned and an arc of carbon monoxide baked the population in its own waste.
Jeanine raced from the parking lot to the lab, expecting hunchbacked mice, fish growing teeth and claws. But when she opened the tank’s lid and touched the eyedropper against the surface of the tainted water, her unchanged fish kissed against the glass. The rabbit chirped with delight or hunger, and the three mice reached for her, stretching their pink claws through the bars of their cage. Guilt lifted off her chest like a hoisted anchor, and she moved lightly around the lab like a Disney princess, whose minions might spin data into a Speedo.
During these short spasms of relief, Jeanine could visualize her life in the ocean. She would swim without tiring through the teaming sea, a million plants and animals alive in every cubic meter. At first she might miss sleeping close to Ralph, his breath rattling in her ear, but she would not have to hear any more spice stories. When had they become intolerable? Now when he talked about buying cayenne, she imagined grouper frying in a Louisiana kitchen; the history of ginger made her throat constrict.
It is not clear whether one of the sisters in New Orleans killed herself or simply drowned in the fresh water of her bathtub. It is even possible that the other livelier sister carried out a one-sided version of their suicide pact.
On a turmeric-buying trip to Nepal, Ralph also bought a drink for a woman in the hotel bar, but even as she lifted her glass, he could picture her face thinning and her arms growing close to her breasts. The next day, he consulted a sage in the spice market. “Woman with fins,” the mystic called her. It was easy to be honest in another time zone with this stranger, who poured him tea and asked, “What is this place you call Baltimore?”
Ralph told the mystic about the Formstone exterior and painted window screens of his childhood home. He described women with too much make-up, badly applied, and men whose beer bellies had poured over their belts since their teens, men who prefaced their opinions with, “I may not have a P-H fuckin’-D. . . .” He’d grown up on these streets, the thin-walled row houses facing each other, and he was bound to them by a chain the strength of paper. He could have easily tugged free; instead, he went north for an M.B.A. and returned to the only city whose downtown would always smell to him like cinnamon and crab boil. He returned with his bride, a woman like no other, to settle in.
He brought home a geneticist who swam two miles a day, avoided paper currency, wore turquoise rings because of their magnetic pulse, and listened to Gregorian chants, only to reject her because she was different? He confessed that he secretly wished he had left while she was still herself. The Hindi pricked Ralph’s thumb and tore off his fingernail down to the quick. He said, “Wife must be given presents that a fish cannot use.”
Ralph thought about the Indian’s words and had decided he would not encourage Jeanine, but neither would he walk out. After all, if she were going to be a fish, she’d be leaving soon enough. In fact, when he returned, her gills opened and closed with her breathing. Her eyes had grown heavier, her lower lids dropped, and the ophthalmologist suggested she refrain from driving. He gave his wife satin shoes he’d bought in Nepal, high-wedged slippers with a peacock feather at each toe.
Jeanine tilted her head the way he loved so dearly. But this was not adoration, it was puzzlement. Didn’t he know she couldn’t wear heels? Her feet slapped now as she walked; it was a chore to keep even sneakers on.
Her eyes had gravitated so far that if she faced straight ahead, Ralph disappeared. Maybe he had met a real woman in Nepal, one with soft skin and a healthy pair of lungs, who would slip these shoes on over ruby colored toenails. “What are you saying,” she asked in a voice sparkling with tears, “That you want or don’t want me around?”
What he wanted was to withdraw his gift. The Hindi cured snakebites, an occasional sprained ankle. Though Jeanine couldn’t see him head on, Ralph believed she saw his every motive as clearly as if he were one of her stained smears, pressed between two pieces of glass and magnified 150 times. “I’m so so sorry,” he said, a rare apology. In bed that night, the scales on Jeanine’s waist seemed a part of her. They snagged her bathrobe when she dropped it to the floor, but rubbed the right way the oval discs glistened like mercury.
The black cod woman from Miami was caught off the coast of Alaska by some professional fishermen. She was certainly the largest catch on their five miles of trolling line; she was not conscious when they reeled her in. They didn’t know what to do with this humanoid fish—one of them had heard her on the Larry King show in the dark Alaska night—and while they debated her fate, she bled to death from a hook in her spleen.
“Didn’t know you got here so early,” Margaret said when Jeanine came into the lab on Friday.
“I’m doing some clone work after hours.”
Margaret opened her mouth wide and threw her head back, laughing with a bark. “Did you hear Anthony’s joke yesterday? The ‘Obscene Clone Fall’ one?”
“Ralph liked it, too,” Jeanine said. Margaret always gave away punch lines; she freely talked about surprise endings in movies and books. Jeanine wanted to be alone with the animals. The coulee loach darted back and forth across the tank an inch above the gravel, and the mice skittered around nervously.
Margaret stared at Jeanine’s eyes. “Your eyes are kind of glassy. You getting enough sleep?”
Jeanine felt like yelling, “These are the eyes of a walleye pike, you moron. They are six inches apart. In bright light, they become clear.” Instead, she relied on the office joke that Margaret was oblivious to anything larger than a single chromosome. She said, “I left the house without breakfast.”
Margaret had no attention left for Jeanine’s eyes. She was trying to notice if her belly was growing, and she was concentrating as well on transferring the one-legged fish in her purse to the aquarium in the lab. Yesterday she and the pet store clerk had laughed about what a great practical joke this would make. Jeanine was such a patsy, Margaret though she would see a fish with a leg and she’d get her and her fetus out of the laboratory. Jeanine left to get tea, and Margaret dumped the mutant angel fish into the tank. She netted a plain one and dropped it in the lab toilet, which she flushed twice before leaving.
When Jeanine returned, she greeted her animals anew and began, rabbit first, to check for foreign lumps or growths. The rabbit’s skin was flaky, no doubt attributable to the winter air. She frisked the mice and changed their water. Finally she picked up the fish food and began studying the tank.
In the aquarium, one of the angel fish was attacking a tiger barb. He would swim backward nearly the length of the tank then plow unevenly toward the black and orange barb. Jeanine wondered if the other angel fish was pregnant and the male was being protective. Something trailed from his body, and as the angel fish swiveled to pursue the tiger barb, she could see the small leg kicking from his side.
Jeanine’s gills began flapping wildly—she had to pull the thick cotton of her turtleneck away from her neck. She concentrated on her breath as Alexandra had taught her, allowing the thoughts to travel through her mind without reaction. This leg, a cross between a frog’s and a human’s, did not prove anything. Wasn’t the pet shop in Roland Park advertising fish with legs?
Still, she could not leave this fish to swim circles around the tank. Jeanine picked up the net, and when she noticed it was wet, began entertaining thoughts about Margaret. Her paranoia was full blown now. As careless as Margaret was at the sink, she would never introduce an irregularity into her closely watched lab. In fact, if she saw this fish, she would fire Jeanine immediately, just in case anyone tried to make a connection. Jeanine netted the creature into a bag with some tank water and pushed her widening feet out the door.
Driving to the National Aquarium, Jeanine hoped the sea turtles, slowly blinking as they glided around the circular tank, would in some way calm her down. Inside, before the rain forest, the aquarium was preparing an exhibit on fish with appendages. Jeanine tugged her collar to her chin and donned sunglasses, though the passageways were already too dark. The plastic bag in her pocket felt like a water balloon that might explode any minute.
At the big tank, Jeanine followed two manta rays on their rounds. She concentrated on their banking turns, and when a shark came between her and the rays, she yelped. A group of little kids laughed. The shark, with its jagged teeth, swung back to torment her.
“What’s your name?” one of the plump children asked her.
Jeanine hoped the sunglasses covered her eyes. The pale child had fat fingers and dense arms. Ralph probably looked something like this in second grade, on a field trip in his Baltimore, asking for attention.
“My name is Jeanine,” she said.
The child opened his mouth wide and stuck out his lower jaw. “Jeanine,” he said loudly. “I’m coming to eat you up.” He roared, the shark moved on. One of the little girls shrieked.
Jeanine stared into her pocket at the dazed angel fish, who was kicking a leg against the side of the bag. Perhaps she would wade into the Bay at Annapolis, push off from a doctor’s yacht. The fat, pale child was tugging on another girl’s purse now, telling her the funniest joke.
Jeanine would definitely get out, and though the ocean was still a bag, it was a very large bag. Even though it was sweet the way the boy half-remembered the story he so badly wanted to tell, and even though, in the same waters as the damsel fish, sharks circled round, their pea-sized brains intent on tasting a fresh kill—all things considered, Jeanine’s choice between the sea and the earth seemed like no choice at all.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
It was such a validation when Richard Peabody accepted this story in 1988 for Gargoyle. My short fiction tackles a plausible unreality that is informed as much by animation as magical realism. Alas, rejection letters regularly bounced me back and forth between science-fiction/fantasy and literary journals. I was aiming for the sweet spot being hit by Max Apple, whom I’d studied with, Angela Carter, and Italo Calvino—tall tales with as much brain and heart as inventiveness. Luckily for us, Aimee Bender and Karen Russell and George Saunders have lately been hitting fiction like this into the stratosphere.
People tell me this story is disturbing, but I don’t see that. “The One That Got Away” is my take on “The Metamorphosis” with a telling twist—Jeanine welcomes her transformation. What I remember about the writing is that I used to name all my male characters Ralph for some reason, and that I wrote the first draft in the episodic style you see here, interspersing the experiences of four other fishy people with Jeanine’s. It’s not going so well for the other four. When Ralph, on a turmeric-buying trip to Nepal, visits a mystic, his sentence came to me by surprise: “Wife must be given presents that a fish cannot use.” Ralph embraces the mystic’s advice and then deeply regrets the gift he offers her. The truth is that Jeanine is entranced by her shimmering scales, and the story’s poignancy, for me, comes from her willingness to leave land-locked Ralph for open waters, even knowing that all the other shape-shifters have come to sorrow.
ABOUT MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF
Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of three novels, Man Alive!, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls. Her most recent novel was named a 2013 Washington Post Notable Book, and her earlier work has received the American Academy of Arts Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award. She is the recipient of a 2015 DC Commission on the Arts Individual Artist Award. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of DC Women Writers. There’s more than you’d ever need to know here: http://www.mkzuravleff.com