The Fisher Princess II

The Fisher Princess I

The stranger hovers above the water, perfectly upright, as though her body were an ornament hung from heaven. Her toes point down, rippling the surface ever so slightly. Max stops moving. The cold water laps at her as she stands at the edge of the red-orange square, looking up almost shyly, like a child encountering an imposing work of art. The stranger’s chin is tucked against her chest, and her long hair obscures her face, but the breeze shifts the strands and Max catches a shard of her unconscious, inanimate expression, a glimpse of her plummy, veined eyelids. Max breathes in sharply. The spell instantly breaks. The stranger, consumed by gravity, falls like a rock, straight into the water. The red-orange square vanishes.

Not thinking, Max rushes forward. The lake bottom drops underneath her, and she is submerged. Blind, she swings out clumsily, her open hand making contact first with the stranger’s hair, which she grabs by the fistful. She finds a limp arm, and then a shoulder, and Max reaches in to encircle the stranger’s waist and prop her up so her face is above water, just like Cal had shown her on the first day. Max pulls the body in towards her own; the stranger is warm to the touch, like peaches left in the sun. At this depth, Max can just barely touch the lake bottom, but she finds it in the blue-black darkness and she pushes against it hard, swallowing water in her exertion. The shore is hardly ten feet away but it takes all her energy to half-swim, half-drag, the stranger there.

Max leans down on the sand, her ear above the stranger’s mouth, and one hand on her throat. She waits there for a moment that feels like it expands like elastic into an eternity. But eventually she hears how the waves beat in time with the stranger’s heart and improbably steady breathing, and she sighs with relief. The rush of adrenaline that powered her disappears, and the weight of her exhaustion drops hard onto her mind and buckles her legs. She allows herself a moment’s rest, her chest heaving. A bird cries out somewhere on the other side of the lake. Max fishes out a walkie talkie from the zippered-up pocket of her canvas pants and presses the large central button. It buzzes, and a voice appears on the end of the line.

“Max? What’s taking you so long?”

“Hey, uh, C-Cal…” To her surprise and horror, Max discovers that she can’t answer without her voice breaking.

“Where are you?” She hears the creaking swing of the cabin’s front door as he steps outside.

“The l-lake, just off the path. N-Not far. Can you bring the truck around?” Her teeth chatter loudly. “And blankets.”

“Stay put, OK? Don’t go anywhere.”

Max laughs bleakly. “Where would I go?”

The line beeps, and Max sets the communicator aside. She drops onto her elbows, next to the stranger. Looking over, she remembers with a start that she is naked, and quickly she removes her t-shirt and drapes it over her. Unsure what to do but convinced this is not yet enough, Max arranges her arms alongside her body, and gingerly brushes the remainder of her wet hair onto her shoulders and chest. The glacial stillness of her features, freckled with water and sand, seem to suggest a rest far beyond dreaming. Max reassures herself that the stranger is breathing and then returns to the path, shivering in her sports bra, to watch for the truck’s headlights.

Sarushima Summer

Every year, during the summer months, I develop a taste for pickled fruit and vegetables. I eat pickled plums in bowls of rice: they are round, soft, and purple-red, like gluey, zombified eyes. I buy trays of kimchi from the supermarket: lasagna-like layers of briny cabbage and chili spice. I think longingly of my year in south India, during which time I ate pounds upon pounds of chunky, fragrant Andhra-style mango aachar. Though I’ve always had a sweet tooth, sourness manages to linger more indelibly on my palate and in my gustatory memories. It makes me wonder what types of sensory experiences overpower others in my mind, and quickly I draw up a classification: Darkness over brightness, sharpness over softness, silence over sound, foul and fecal over faint and flowery. I don’t enjoy many of these experiences, but they resonate deeply enough to end up splashing onto the timeline of my life. When I recall a day I’ll fill it in with its strongest sensory impressions, as though possessed by a single-minded algorithm designed to prioritize attention-grabbing content. But that is likely too simplistic; maybe what I consciously remember is not all that has left its mark on me. I have never been the best curator of my own feelings and memories.

I think of my life immersed in brine, or preserved in resin. I think of my life as a terrarium: A miniature, individualized world encased in a glass globe, featuring a mismatched assortment of color palettes, textures, and shapes. Clay figurines of friends and family cast into different poses. Striped-and-spotted flora and fauna rustling in the underbrush. Decorations handmade out of styrofoam, yarn, and tinfoil hanging from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. A fully formed climate system inside, defined by cloudbursts punctured by glossy sunlight. All of this hidden underneath a thick veil of vines, because I’ve always been secretive.

Sarushima, a tiny island located in Tokyo Bay, also holds its secrets close to its chest. Though the island’s main purpose–to serve as a military battery for various wars–is clearly described on the many explanatory placards placed alongside the main path, the general atmosphere is one of mystery, not clarity. We wander around, from the moss-covered stone fort to the frothy, rocky coastline. I circle the remains of a massive artillery unit constructed on the island’s high point, situated at the perfect angle, I am informed, to shoot enemies at sea. Unexpectedly, the glass terrarium that holds my life fractures ever so slightly, and I cup my hands around it to contain the sudden tide of confused, sad anger. There’s many facts about our world that fill me with a brew of dark, quiet, sharp, sour emotions but I feel that blend press against me acutely as I stand there, in a place that locked and loaded meaningless death, that mounted devices to strip breath from bone, now overrun with tree stumps and bathed in sea spray.

Jungle Body Horror

Clicking through online clips of documentaries, I find myself entranced by the lusty, dynamic collaboration between danger and nature. Springing from a tree like Aphrodite through the foam, a bird cuts through the reddish air to escape a dusky-eyed jaguar just behind. A velvety penguin zooms through crystalline, pale blue seawater while a dove-gray seal awaits him on a chunk of ice. In a viral video, a scaly iguana evades a wave of lithe snakes, while a lively voice-over narrates his brush with death. I watch a mantis crawl delicately over a leaf, only to be promptly devoured whole by another mantis.

The camera pans over the savanna, under the ocean, and into the desert, grasping at anything bright, textured, and high-contrast. My human eyes track all over the screen, energized by that insatiable desire to be everywhere, to capture and contain everything, to see the natural world open up like a flower and release its mysteries. Many of the mysteries, once revealed, are painful to watch. Prey caught by the nape and dragged through the underbrush: its life immediately pacified in a single stroke of oxblood. Eyes bulging out like lotus bulbs poking through pond water. Flesh glimmering juicily in the grass. A limb parted dispassionately from a razed torso. Elephants walking miles to arrange themselves into a funereal semi-circle around a rotting body. Their eyes, ringed with flies, huge, wide, and scarlet-tinged. I freeze the frame and search for a flicker of understanding within me; but it is not possible for me to really understand their sorrow. Grief hits differently in the kingdom Animalia.

The painterly hands of evolution have produced a terrestrial environment that blushes in a million different colors. But in the city I live in, that palette is reduced to a few sad hues: sidewalk-gray (peppered with dark, gluey stains), tar-black hot from the sun, and the occasional blot of dirty green from a malnourished tree growing out of concrete. Walking to a friend’s house in a bordering neighborhood, I try to find the other colors, and sometimes succeed: cherry red and ocean blue looped around a barber’s pole, muted yellow emanating from inside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. On the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, I find, to my surprise, that the glass barriers are covered in coiling, royal purple and bright orange graffiti.

I scan the Yamanote trains as they pass below; their final destinations flash by, written in glittering kanji above the sliding doors, and I remember what it felt like to learn to read them for the first time. The mystery contained within that introductory encounter no longer exists. I now regard many Japanese characters with the same mechanical familiarity that I do my native alphabet. The replacement of naivete with knowledge is expertise gained, but it also means recognizing that something–maybe ignorance, maybe innocence–has been lost. Many kinds of loss have been personally useful; they have led to the scabbing over of pain, the vital life lesson. But other kinds of loss are so cruel so as to serve no meaningful purpose. I don’t know how to manage the realization that there are so many experiences I can see no reason for, and that I wish I had never had, or never inflicted upon others. Life might be just a protracted, melodramatic, gamified maze in which I keep secrets, process anger, leverage meager talents to collect paychecks, and struggle to locate enough luck to avoid the gory dead-ends with the biggest predators and the truest horrors.

Evening has fallen over this year’s first true summer day, and my body buzzes with a bitter cocktail of apprehension, contemplation, and longing. While waiting for the lights to change, I pull my unkempt hair up into a ponytail and roll up my sleeves. The breeze is a balm, but still my mind resists the calming effects of the cool air and wan moonlight. I walk under the underpass thinking of death and grief. I know that, one day, the opportunity to know both these intimately will arrive on my doorstep. If I focus, I can see them in the distance, twin blurry mirages in lustrous, rainbow colors. They are always two steps ahead, waiting along the path of the jungle.

What we see is not what we see

I’ve written extensively and enthusiastically about all my temporary places of residence: rural and urban Japan, the southern coast of India, the American Midwest. But rarely do I describe the place where I was raised, and where I have spent the majority of my life thus far. If I am unreasonably reclusive about it, maybe I have some excuse in the double edge of a hometown.

A hometown contains formative experiences but these are also, inevitably, and sometimes necessarily, accompanied by memories of heartache, tragedy, and bad behavior. I both love and loathe returning to this town, with its endlessly tall palm trees, dry, yellow plains, and blue-skied mornings off the speckled sea. As I look down from a flight home onto the churning, foaming Mediterranean, I am filled to the brim with a numbing, bubbling, phantasmagorical sensation too akin to dissociative stress. Waiting at baggage claim, dazed beyond jet lag, I experience my return as though forcefully ejected from my own body. In the front seat of my mother’s car as she leaps onto the highway, I am swept away by a wave of blisteringly black magic that chucks me back into twisting histories I would rather not relive. In the end, I cannot divorce the pain from the place.

It has always been easier to remain tucked away in the comfort of other towns, other countries, other lives. In my case, maintaining distance is nothing but cowardice, but, like most cowards, I feel as though there is there is no realistic alternative but running away. Bumped from continent to continent in childhood, I grew up pinned between competing parents, colliding cultures, and displaced heritage; I experienced deracination before I knew what putting down roots could even come to mean. I live now like Baba Yaga: alone, ambiguous, moving through the clouded forest in a house that walks from place to place on chicken legs.

Five Minutes to Midnight

For obvious reasons, I have been thinking a lot about sickness lately. The sweet-smelling sweat, the gunky vomit, the hacking cough, the hushed room with the shades drawn at noon. Foil packets of pastel-colored pills, alphabet pasta in thin broth. A body existing only in stasis, waiting powerlessly for healing. The terrifying hypotenuse formed by joining death and life at the hip.

Sickness has a way of kidnapping me from this time and place and plunging me back into the misty dreamworld of my childhood. I am again surrounded by the arcane, occasionally goofy artifacts of medicine: the toy-like stethoscopes, the multi-colored tubes snaking into the bed, the intricate anatomical charts, the clunky machines whose beeps, clacks, and dings live in my mind so obstinately I recollect them better than symphonies. As sickness escalates, every feeling is eclipsed by pure panic; rationality topples headfirst into heightened vulnerability. Red-hot bile, chilling fever, and the wails of an ambulance speeding through the velvety, all-encompassing darkness.

In Tokyo, shorts weather begins. I shed my layers and eye the A/C. In a surgical mask and denim overalls, I walk to the convenience store to check if the change in season has prompted an update to inventory. With glee, I spot kakigouri, a dessert of shaved ice, condensed milk, and fruit jam, in the 7/11 freezer. I buy three cups, paying the cashier by sliding coins underneath a sheet of heavy plastic, and walk back home, irradiated by an early spring sun that feels stolen from midsummer.

(A confession in this luminous Tokyo interlude which no one wants to hear: I know from experience that, for some, healing from sickness is impossible. You don’t realize it at first, and even when you do, you do not recognize it as truth. Hope is so stupidly human, it might as well be chemically baked into DNA. You watch someone ride the wave of recovery high, inching away from pain and towards life, before throttling down into relapse. This has to happen a few times before you stop hoping they can get better. Comfort and cure become alien words. You sit alone at the bedside, as still as a potted fern or a pinned butterfly, an observer to the palliative trance of a forever sickness. You watch someone die in real-time.)

Back in the world of the living, Strawberry and I sit at the table and dig into the kakigouri. The jam gleams, slippery and delectable, as reflective as gemstone in the light pouring in from our dusty balcony windows. I watch Strawberry quietly, resisting the usual urge to leap into irreverent conversation. The glossy sunshine glances off the blond tips of his thick eyelashes. I think of the family gene for dementia, living by the billions in the body, strewn across the bloodstream like ashes carried by a river. I think of tumors cropping up in soft tissue like explosions of dandelions in a field. Underneath Strawberry’s right eye are five perfectly round, fawn-brown freckles: a tiny segment of Ursa Major cupping his cheekbone. I think of viral particles studding the air. Strawberry scrapes the bottom of the white plastic cup with a stainless steel spoon, and I think of bone-bleached hospital sheets and the metal, cool-to-the-touch rails surrounding the cot. He smiles at me, guilelessly. I think of how some sicknesses are invisible; how they replace the mind overnight with a dagger, perched in the skull, the blade pointing downwards, revving up.

Plague Doctor

Shinjuku, at night. The lights from the blinking cinema marquee are a funky, druggy rainbow of fuchsia, indigo, taxi cab yellow, sunset orange, and baby blue. On the screen above them, the mayor of Tokyo speaks into a standing microphone; the chyron below her displays the municipal virus helpline in rounded white numbers on a background the color of mint-green medical scrubs. In a printed ad, a tattooed, gray-scale male model reclines, frozen, with one hand in his hair. In another, a charmingly cartoon woman in a tube top poses behind bright coral-pink Japanese characters decorated with stars. The windows around them are dark with drawn blinds and unlit interiors. The rain shines on the tarred road like shattered glass.

I go downstairs, in a secondhand sweater and Strawberry’s old sweatpants, to check our mail. I find, to my dismay, a healthcare bill that I thought we’d already paid, but not the government-issued cloth masks we’d been expecting. Listlessly, I return upstairs and go through the textbooks lent to me by my adviser and find, like a good luck charm, an old postcard celebrating the Year of the Rabbit (2011). Bushy-tailed, bright-eyed, pencil-drawn Sylvilagus. I think, for maybe the millionth time, how reliant we are on the unknowns midwifed by the nebulous future and I imagine a new essential service: a forest oracle, a rabbit soothsayer, who could divine these outcomes. Located between the grocer and the 100-yen store, an oracle with the head of a hare, diving 24/7 into a slipstream of contingencies in order to fan out the future on a bed of predictive cards placed on pine needles. Emerging from a trance to assure me, most importantly, that I will be forgiven for making the wrong choice.

The tall concrete-and-tile buildings in central Tokyo seem gloomier than ever. At sunset, their roofs and upper floors are limned in clouds, steely, cool, and gray, while their massive lower halves are radiated by the dark rose glow of a dusky sun, looking for all the world like an enormous glass half-empty. I check video feeds of Tokyo’s prairies of zebra crossings; they are now drowsy, inert, bare. Occasionally, a masked pedestrian scampers across in slow motion, their movements translated inelegantly into staccato by the stuttering bandwidth. A municipal truck outfitted with a loudspeaker, driven by a pair of volunteer firefighters, blares the same message every Saturday and Sunday: “Please refrain from going outside. Please refrain from going outside.” The sound bounces off the buildings, pulled apart by the Doppler effect, and arrives to me as totally garbled, breathy, dystopian crooning.

Maybe I just don’t pay enough attention during the day, but now it seems like earthquakes always happen at night. A little past 1 AM, Strawberry and I are jolted out of sleep by the shaking of the bed frame. In the dark, we stare at each other wordlessly as we decide, in that critical split-second, whether to stay put or move.

Lavender Beringia

Around 20,000 years ago, what is now the sea between Siberia and North America was a land bridge. For several thousand years, during an ice age, a small population of humans lived there. A pause in history as a handful of men and women billowed into perfectly habitable hinterland, locked between two forbiddingly cold continents.

Today, the land bridge is submerged in hundreds of feet of water, but at the time it would have been lush, temperate, and coated in high grass and clusters of fragrant purple flowers. Pleistocene horses, oxen. American mountain lions. A now-extinct species of pine tree. Artemisia, willow, and woolly mammoths.

Imagine a young woman in this time. Living at the cusp of prehistory, in the years before the Holocene glacial retreat. Imagine her 30 years of killing, collecting, and cloud-gazing on the Bering Strait. There would have been nothing glamorous about her life; after all, there’s a reason we don’t make period pieces about the Pleistocene. Likely nasty, brutish, and short, in the words of one coiffed philosopher. Undeniably painful, and undeniably hard. Those many thousands of days are distant now, dissolved into strands of dirt and DNA.

None of us would trade places with her, not least because our depictions of cavemen have never been particularly flattering. In our stories, they moan and limp, dragging misshapen clubs through dust. Illiterate, un-Enlightened, and as vapidly ignorant of their semi-nakedness as boorish Adam and Eve.

But I can’t stop thinking about the land bridge, and the young woman who lived there. In my fantasy, she is strong, focused, sharp. Her body and mind, part of a chain of forebears forever lost. Not any less gifted than modern Man, and not any less flawed. Gathering bouquets of fireweed on the steppes with gray stone chipped into a hand ax. Watching the wind glide moodily through the grass. Her imagination spilling out like guts when she casts her gaze onto the lavender landscape. A mind not primitive, but boundless. Moving through the world like magic.

El mundo en que vivimos

At the drugstore while purchasing lock-down provisions, I spot a bar of chocolate wrapped in pink tinfoil. I devour it whole as I walk back home, carrying kitchen bleach and soy milk in a plastic bag. It tastes almost exactly like the strawberry yogurt cups of my distant childhood. I am drawn to the familiarity of that flavor, rather than its taste.

Familiarity anchors me in place. I work from home, and, at four in the afternoon, I call my parents and brother. They are spending their days indoors, enduring cycle after cycle of furious cleaning followed by listless channel-surfing on the couch. With all the investigative ardor of an archaeologist discovering a tomb of relics, my mother regales me with a litany of Hollywood-lite tinfoil-hat theories collated from WhatsApp chats. Gently, chidingly, I try to act as the counterweight to conspiracy, but frequently find myself an unsuitable challenger against its muddying, maddening rhetoric. My brother, sporting long hair and the beginnings of a scratchy beard, tells me he will use his time in quarantine to compose a sea shanty.

I drink endless cups of coffee and then, when that runs out, I start on a 100-bag stash of cheap, powdery Ceylon. I trawl through survivalist forums. I idly ponder if I have enough time to start a vegetable garden on my poorly-lit balcony before the apocalypse hits. I conclude that I will have to make do with four cans of red kidney beans and a liter of Aquarius. I answer e-mails, though not with much gusto. I write, though not particularly well. When Strawberry asks what it is I say “a travelogue about staying inside.”

Routine forms a chain that orients and re-orients me toward important tasks, though my thoughts tend to want to wander from the path. I think about my birthday, which was this Saturday. I turned 26, meaning that I have officially outlived Keats. I think about my dreams, which have become progressively darker and more wild. When I wake, it is with the sensation that my mind has trawled through wet, damp sludge, and made it through, but not unashamed, and not clean. I pull back the heavy curtains. The sun is shining, and chubby clouds dot the spring sky. I am riddled with fear. I have woken to a beautiful day with my heart already extruded into bloody pulp. How wrong it seems–that the weather should be so picture-perfect, at a time and in a world like this.

Deadly Cherry

Sitting on the subway, I notice, for the first time, the tartan pattern on the train seats: maroon diamonds, with tiny, dark pink blossoms in the center of the repeating design.

The trees sprout fistfuls of white flowers. I stare up at the boughs, mesmerized. The color instantly reminds me of the vivid, graphic white of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painted ram skulls. My brain connects it to another secluded memory, and suddenly I remember, with unbelievable clarity, my elementary school art teacher helping me tie-dye a shirt in a bucket. She was the woman who first showed me how a painting can operate on the mind: painful, striking, stinging. A rebuke meant to pull me out of stillness. The ram’s head, a many-petalled flower emerging from a bone socket. I blink as the cherry blossoms, small and charmingly delicate, flutter in the breeze. I imagine reaching out and wrenching them from the branches.

An elderly man approaches me and Strawberry as we admire the multi-colored (red, pink, white) blossoms growing from a tiny tree at the center of a roundabout. “Peach,” he says gently, when Strawberry idly muses that the flowers might be cherry blossoms. He walks us over to an authentic cherry flowering by the roadside. “This is a Yoshino cherry,” he tells us in Japanese. All Yoshino cherry trees, he continues, cannot produce seeds; they are not descendants but clones of an original cherry tree. I furrow my brow, unsure that I’ve understood correctly. He joins his two fists and then parts them so each hand heads in a different direction. He repeats the motion, looking at us expectantly. I am still cheerfully confused, but Strawberry understands the pantomime: the cherry trees don’t grow unassisted. They have been propagated by man via grafting.

Grafting: uniting tissue from two plants so that they continue their growth together. There’s something both unexpectedly happy and sad about that. I sit at my desk, in front of the computer, scrolling through photos of cherry tree after cherry tree. Each time, I click through images of the same tree placed in a different setting, a different fable, accompanied by a different cast of characters. Yoshino gilding the river in petals. Stippled around a school yard, providing tree cover for new graduates posing in their cap and gown. Part of a curated assembly, Yoshino slotted between radiant Japanese wisteria. Vapid Yoshino, overseeing a picnic. Growing fitfully, Yoshino awash the mountainside.

I video chat with my father, ten thousand kilometers away in quarantine, and he gasps aloud. “You’re outside?” he says, unfazed by my attempts to show him the cherries in bloom.

Time horizon

A gulf yawns between the past and the future. Supposedly, this space is meant to be filled with the present, but I’m not confident I know what this means nor entails. A wide view of the present contains yesterday, today, and tomorrow. A narrower view contains only a single fleeting, blistered millisecond: the now. The now is capricious. Sometimes she hovers above and below me, a current of gilded roses, rippling forward and saturating my perspective in optimistic golden tones. But at other times she is brattier and less eager to please, sticking to my soles and palms like dark, rapidly solidifying lava and pulling me deep into the Earth’s soft, burning-hot mantle. Either way, the now cannot be trusted, though irrevocably I am swept up into its deviousness, which has the same effect on me as impossible, fantastical dreaming.

I am always trying to pierce the waves of shifting transitions. I am always looking for the anchor that reaches from my heart (located so perilously in the now) into the securest version of the future. But I look at my life and can’t detect where now and present become past and future. Instead, I feel like I am swimming at the mouth of a river, unable to comprehend where I am located in the stream, and unable to see how to get out the sea.

I’m repeatedly told to “plan for your future” but, at what point, in “the future,” will I know the planning is done? When I try to settle on a personal deadline, the time horizon in my mind moves and smears like dragging a hand through a still-wet stripe of thick oil paint. There will always be something yet to plan, and something yet to decide. Past and future disappear, replaced by a constantly vacillating, wounding present.

I walk past the shuttered nature conservatory, the empty coffee shop, the quiet, sunlit park, and take two trains to campus, where I discover that the school library has been closed to avoid the spread of disease. On my way back home, I wait on the platform and stand underneath the Japan Rail digital announcement panel. In oddly spaced, blinking green 8-bit letters, the panel reminds me to wash my hands, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. Later, I read online that “for the time being,” public facilities will remain closed. Two weeks later, my brother flees his college dorm and returns home, to a country that closes its land borders only days after his arrival. A sense of dread shoulders into my apartment and watches as I line the walls of my kitchen cabinet with canned red kidney beans, “just in case.” My father texts me to tell me he isn’t busy during the day anymore, which is his way of asking me to call to check up on him. I think of the fish in its struggle to reach the sea, its scales like gold coins, surfacing, belly-up, on the shores of the river delta. The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.