Roiling the Waters
Translated by: Paul Curtis Daw
Artwork by Özgür Güvenç
With the tip of her toes, Pauline nudged the doormat back into place, realigning it perfectly with her front door. “Anarchists,” she growled in the direction of the neighboring apartment.
The door unlocked with just a turn of the key. A single turn, whereas she always locked it with a double turn. Why is the… Clutching her handbag against her meager chest, the young woman advanced into her entry hall and froze after the first step.
In the foreground a scarf that just that morning had hung on the fourth hook of the coat rack now formed an ungainly, shapeless mass on the floor. A little farther along, the hall table where she normally set her keys had been moved: the legs were not quite as close to the baseboard, and the table was no longer centered beneath her grandmother’s mirror. On the right, the partially open door to the bathroom broke the perspective of the abbreviated corridor. Pauline breathed slowly, forcing each intake and expulsion of air for fear she might otherwise forget and then suffocate.
“Is anyone here?” she asked in a hollow squeak.
The absurdity of the question surprised her the moment she asked it: what intruder would have stayed around to straighten up after rummaging through a sixth floor apartment, and how could he have entered without forcing the lock? Besides, only her sister had a spare key.
“Is anyone here?” she repeated just a bit louder.
The silence answered her, or rather a faint but nagging mechanical hum, coming perhaps from the street, perhaps from the barbarous anarchists in the next apartment, or perhaps from the living room.
Pauline set her handbag on the hall table and opened the bathroom door with a hand so bony it resembled a very old woman’s. Toilet seat up, drops of urine splattered on the rim, as well as a nasty, curly black hair, a dry sink basin… A man! One hand on her stomach, the other over her mouth, she choked back a regurgitation and fled to the living room.
The “thing” in the room was so overbearing that she actually noticed the letter first -- an unstamped beige envelope, addressed to “Pol” and left atop an orderly pile of diet and health magazines.
As agreed, we’ve brought you Bernard’s fish tank.
I’ve filled the freezer (very small, I find) with food to be given once a day.
We return on September 10th. Meanwhile, take good care of our five babies!
Big kisses, little sister, and thanks again,
Hélène and Bernard
Enclosed with this were three double-sided sheets of typewritten instructions in a dense, rambling style that must have been the work of her brother-in-law: maintenance of the filter, elimination of waste, treatment of the algae, cleaning of the glass walls and the gravel bed, changing of the water and plants… What a lot of work for a few miserable fish!
Pauline raised her eyes and the papers fell from her hands. The source of the humming noise extended the entire length of the low wall in her open-plan kitchen, in the exact spot where her oak table and six chairs had stood that morning.
The young woman tottered and then slumped into an armchair across from a fish tank as big as a bathtub, filled with cloudy water, a pebble bed and tentacular plants. It was equipped with a powerful filter that was producing equal amounts of noise and bubbles. How could this monstrosity have made it into the apartment, and what had become of her dining room set?
She knelt before the glass structure, wondering why five hapless fish, invisible from the look of things, required so many hundreds of liters of water. On all fours, her nose pressed to the glass, she finally saw them. Horribly protruding jaws, more evocative of a shark than a guppy, with coal-black sides, red bellies, and silvery eyes, watching her as they hid behind rocks or algae. Letting out a scream, Pauline cursed her sister and her pathological art of understatement. She had described the task to Pauline as fish-sitting for a few days; little fish revolving gracefully in a modest fishbowl, not these monsters to tend for a month.
“Learn to say NO,” Pauline kept repeating to herself, shaking her head. She picked up her brother-in-law’s notes and perused them while striding around the room.
Pygocentrus nattereri, a strikingly pompous name for such ugly creatures…
After a meal with no carbohydrates or animal protein, Pauline, seated in the lotus position facing the fish tank, was practicing her breathing exercises. Feeble lighting, little candles scented with incense, soft music: breathe in, breathe out, breathe in… The young woman fingered her Buddhist prayer beads; inhale, exhale, inhale… She contorted herself into the lizard position; inhale, exhale… Sigh. Where were harmony, calm and inner peace?
A little slip of a thing who could have been pretty, with her short black hair, gray eyes and round face. Yes, pretty if she hadn’t been so skinny.
Was she alone because she was too thin or thin because she was alone?
Pauline gave a start and stared wide-eyed at the tank. Drifting at medium depth and bunched together against the glass, the five fish were avidly following her movements. When she raised her arm, they swam toward the surface; when she dropped her arm, they dove lower. When she turned on the overhead light, they hid, and when she turned it off, they reappeared.
Unable to resume her meditation, the young woman stood up, rifled through several drawers, scoured the shelves and finally unearthed a blank Moleskine notebook with a black leather cover in which she wrote:
D1 -- Very ugly fish, rather skittish. They’re huge!
In the ensuing days, Pauline adapted. The five-cubic-yard fish tank imposed a drastic revision of her well-regulated daily routine. Deprived of her table and chairs, she started eating her breakfast -- fruit, non-fat yogurt and ginseng tea -- standing up in the tiny kitchen, and her dinners -- generally variations on the theme of raw vegetables and tofu -- while sitting in the living room armchair. After doing the dishes and dimming the lights, she would drop a little cube of frozen fish food into the tank, and during the time it took her to execute a series of yoga positions, she would follow the ravenous choreography of the fish. Now and again, a few notes would be added to the Moleskine:
D2 -- They are voracious, devouring their meal in moments.
D3 -- They eat together but separate as soon as they are finished.
D4 -- Mostly dormant in the light. They watch me as soon as it’s dark. Nocturnal?
D5 -- Do they sleep, and if so, how do they manage it with all the noise?
Although in the evening the drone of the filter and the to-and-fro motions of the fish gradually became part of her meditations, she was tormented at night by the buzzing motor and by the nettlesome sensation of being spied on, of not being alone. Often, she awakened sitting up and in a sweat, her hands pressed against her ears or her eyes transfixed on the bedroom door. In the morning, her anxieties dissipated little by little, so thoroughly that by midday she no longer thought about them.
D8 -- The biggest eats first, is it a hierarchical group?
D10 -- The water is increasingly green and the stench is becoming unbearable -- it’s repugnant.
D12 -- My back is killing me, I cleaned the tank. It took me all evening.
D13 -- Are they aware of being in captivity?
Pauline was not even surprised by how quickly something she had at first regarded as a nuisance had become part of her everyday routine. After overly long workdays, she hurried home, savoring in advance the moment she could call out, “I’m home!” -- with an audience at last. To be sure, her boarders were not talkative, but they were far from deaf, and they pressed up to the glass in wait for her.
D15 -- They recognize me, I’m sure of it.
D17 -- Certainly more captivating than the TV! [Author’s note: She didn’t own a TV.]
D18 -- Where do they come from? Europe, Africa, Asia…
It was only toward the end of the third week, after a break from her job, that she became interested in the background of the Pygocentrus nattereri. Wikipedia informed her bluntly that she was harboring a species of piranha, those swarming predators that infest the Amazon and its tributaries. Carnivores… Killers…
Pauline left the office like a ghost and spent the afternoon at the local ice cream parlor, where she indulged in multiple servings of sugarless ice cream.
It was long after nightfall when she decided to return home. And what now?
Lying on her stomach, her chin cupped in her palms, Pauline stared at the piranhas. She shook her head. The creatures undulating behind the glass -- she had imagined them in her own image: gentle, peaceful. How had she gotten it so wrong? The young woman raised herself on one elbow and scraped the glass with her right index fingernail. The five fish swam nearer.
“What are you thinking about, my dears?” she asked them.
She suspected the response: “The fish doesn’t think because the fish knows everything…” sang Iggy Pop in a film soundtrack.
A fish had no reason to think, since it instinctively knew everything it needed to know and saw only what it needed to see: eat or be eaten, predator or prey.
”And I who feed you,” she added, “who am I in your eyes? The executioner or the main course? The assassin or the victim?”
Pauline sat back on her heels, pondering those questions. With her left hand she rolled up her sleeve above her elbow and plunged her hand into the tank, right in the midst of the little school. In the face of such a dilemma, she needed a response.
Hélène had opened the door of her sister’s apartment, and Bernard had hurried to the living room window. Leaning over the balcony and shouting in frustration, he was following the movements of the hoist to which he had had attached Pauline’s dining room set. The platform, agitated by the wind, was swaying so much he was afraid he couldn’t use it to lower the fish tank. He hadn’t noticed the silence in the living room or seen his wife turn pale. Behind him, Hélène was gaping at the fish tank and neither moving nor comprehending. No more water, no plants, no fish, just a white envelope addressed to her and placed on the dried-out gravel. Eventually, she read it aloud:
My dearest sister,
When you read this letter, I will probably have already left for Brazil. After much reflection, I’ve decided to return the fish to their own country.
After an equally long hesitation, I’ve resolved to thank you for this experience, which has taught me, among other things, to say this to you and Bernard: the next time, you can go f*** yourselves.
Hugs and kisses,
“Your sister is completely nuts,” screamed Bernard as he threw a chair across the room. “And what a silly bitch!” he added, smashing a second chair on the floor. “Our piranhas come from a German fish hatchery, not from Brazil!”
Pauline, at that moment, was being guided through the depths of the equatorial forest toward a bend in the Amazon. She stopped on the riverbank, motionless, overwhelmed, her gaze drifting with the current. She took a box from her backpack and emptied it into the ocher water: the skeletons of five fish that, when they were alive, must have measured about eight inches in length and weighed at least four pounds.
She had to honor these valiant adversaries by returning their remains to the land (or rather, the waters) of their ancestors. Pauline smiled as she massaged her right hand swathed in a bandage. It was a true, sincere smile, even a soothing one, and it broadened as she recalled a certain meal and the oh-so-delicate flavor of piranha flesh.
Maureen Pitz is a French-speaking Belgian writer. Before becoming a full-time author, she worked in marketing and public relations. Her first novel, Le goût du rat, was published in Paris in 2011. Well-received critically, the book was also shortlisted for the prix Senghor du premier roman francophone.
Paul Curtis Daw is a lawyer-turned-translator. His translations of stories and other texts by French and Francophone authors have appeared in Words Without Borders, carte blanche, Subtropics, Cimarron Review, Nowhere, and Indiana Review. Authors have read his translations of their works at public events in New York, London and Accra.