Fish Tank Creatures
by Dorothy Tse, translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce and Nicky Harman
I’m not talking about those streamlined aquatic creatures covered in glistening scales; I mean something transplanted from its original domain and ensconced naked and unadorned in a glass container. For example: a middle-aged man, minus his crisp, well-ironed business suit.
Through the clear glass sides of the vessel, we see his male flesh: flabby through long neglect. It has begun to droop in soft pendulous folds from his chest to his belly. Lumps and bumps of fatty tissue on his arms and his thighs have caused a web of pale stretch-marks to erupt on the skin. The man looks uncertain as to why he is there. There is a timid expression in his puffy eyes, his lips have lost all definition and color, and long creases bracket his mouth, giving him a comical look. We are on a street in a bustling downtown district and the man-pet in the tank seems to compel other men strolling elegantly along the street to speed up as they pass, as though afraid to spare such a specimen another glance.
In truth, however, the people of V City do not really see these creatures on their streets. It’s only in my dreams that the women in bright-yellow rain jackets drive their heavy trucks along tortuous mountain roads, rocking and swaying down to the city center. There, they skulk in dark corners, huge butterfly nets at the ready, and capture middle-aged men whose facial skin has just begun to slacken – they plan to turn them into decorative pets with atrophied brains but highly developed musculature….
It has been raining in V City for more than a month without a break. During this time, middle-aged office workers have been reported missing every day. Sometimes they disappear on the way to the toilet; other times it happens when they go into a back alley for a quick smoke. There is no forewarning, and they leave no trace. These men vanish as if swallowed up in a dark whirlpool. So far, the only clues collected by the black-raincoated police officers are fragments of the city dwellers’ dreams. And even though they’ve stepped up their street patrols, all they find is a uniformly grey city where passers-by bury themselves under mushroom-shaped umbrellas, their hurried footsteps splattering like radio static, making the city sound like a dreamscape broadcast over the airwaves. Amid the chaos, the officers glimpse their own hazy reflections in shopfront windows; they don’t say a word, but seem to accept that, at times like this, it is inevitable that some people will quietly disappear.
So, it’s only a matter of time before my father disappears, Mr. N’s daughter thinks suddenly. But she is soon distracted by her friends’ chatter and spasmodic laughter.
They are in a coffee bar on the top floor of a brand-new high-rise in V City. It is deserted most afternoons except for high-schoolers drawn in by the student discounts. Four girls sit in banquette seats around a table by the window, their identical makeup making them hard to tell apart. If you step closer, however, you will see that Mr. N’s daughter is the only one to sport a ring in her right nostril. Mischievously, she has painted her finger and toe nails a poisonous black.
Mr. N’s daughter puts her half-smoked cigarette into the metal ashtray, and flips through the latest fashion magazine, yawning lazily from time to time. The June issue features models in summer outfits practically identical to what the girls are wearing. The difference is that these still-growing girls are bored, and it is to escape this boredom that they have bunked off school.
At three in the afternoon, the city is deserted, as if they are its only inhabitants.
There’s a momentary lull in their chatter. Mr. N’s daughter seems about to say something more, when the waitress ambles over to them, holding a glass of bright red liquid with both hands. The glass is in the shape of a flower vase, and its rim is stuck full of oddly-shaped fruits. Lips parted, Mr. N’s daughter extends a cat-like tongue to lap the vivid red juice. Her tongue goes numb, and she instantly forgets what she was going to say.
Mr. N is a typical office worker, managing to arrive home every day too late to catch his daughter awake. If, by some miscalculation, the pair do bump into each other, Mr. N grabs the chance to trot out his oft-repeated homilies. Even worse, he’s still enthusiastically buying his daughter the same kind of presents he’s been getting her for years. More than once, the girl has complained to her mother: ‘He must think I’m a doll in the children’s clothes department!’ Apart from this, Mr. N makes only the vaguest impression on his daughter. She thinks of him today, not so much because she is concerned for his safety, more because his connection to the latest topic of conversation makes him newly interesting.
Her real attachment, however, is to Mr. N’s black molly.
On his writing desk, Mr. N has a fish bowl, about as big as his head. It is made of clear glass and wavelets ripple slyly at its rim, threatening to spill over the edge. The sole inhabitant is a black molly, its color the same lustrous black as Mr. N’s favourite suit. When she is bored, Mr. N’s daughter likes to glue a rice noodle to one moistened fingertip, then dip it into the icy water. The fish swims over, its lascivious lips close over her finger and it sucks greedily. If she suddenly jerks away, the fish bangs itself helplessly against the glass. The girl bursts out laughing.
Everyone looks forward to summer, but the June rains are annoying. For Mr. N’s daughter, not even her friends are enough to dispel the gloom aroused by the silvery rain that snakes down the window panes. Then she looks outside, where the downpour has blurred the contours of the city.
‘Look! What’s that?’
Through the coffee bar windows, the junior high-schoolers can see that the city has been submerged. Only the high-rise where they are ensconced sticks above the waters like the tip of an iceberg. From where they sit, they can see men in business suits leaping from their office windows and fluttering downwards, their hair and ties streaming around them like seaweed. It’s been a long time since they took any physical exercise, and in spite of their frantic efforts to swim, their exhausted limbs are powerless to save them from sinking. Only a very few pale-faced survivors succeed in reaching the coffee bar building.
As the men cling desperately to the slippery metal balls that adorn the walls of the high-rise, and beat on the window panes, the girls are overcome with spiteful laughter. In the thick glass, the reflections of their laughing faces precisely overlay the terrified faces of the middle-aged men outside.
When Mrs. N awakes from her dream, her bleary eyes settle on the slender body of the black molly, flitting back and forth. The phone must have been ringing for quite some time. The voice on the other end tells her that Mr. N left the office at three pm, and hasn’t been back since.
Mrs. N hangs up. She can’t help it: she’s indescribably furious. He must have snuck down for a smoke.
Don’t smoke, don’t sneak off by yourself, stick with the others when you get off work… she’s warned him time and time again, but he never listens, just like he always makes up excuses not to eat fruit or fish, or use mouthwash before bed. Mr. N has brought this upon himself, because he wouldn’t listen. Angry tears leak from the corners of her eyes.
But, this aside, there’s not much to cry about.
Some time ago, she secretly went through Mr. N’s bank records and life insurance policy, which names her as his beneficiary. With the pay-out from that, this disappearance certainly won’t make much difference to her or her daughter (in fact, life might be a little easier). She’s even thought through what to do with his belongings – sell off the suits, finally scrap that shabby, falling-apart old desk of his and put up a full-length mirror in its place, tear down all the grey wallpaper and paint everything a nice, milky white; the curtains could do with replacing, too… Mrs. N dabs at her tears, feeling very content indeed.
She glances at the black molly on Mr. N’s desk.
He never had any particular hobbies, but every so often he liked to sit at his desk, completely entranced by that fish. Mrs. N has never understood the attraction of keeping a fish; she prefers cats. Cats might be arrogant, but at least you can give them a little kick when you’re angry, and listen to them whimper. Pets behind glass don’t even look at their owners, just swim pointlessly around and around, trapped in their own little worlds. Mrs. N can’t resist poking a forefinger into the tank, swirling the water as though mixing cake batter, slowly beating it into a whirlpool. The black molly doesn’t know what to do with itself, and swims frantically against the current. Mrs. N feels her pent-up frustration unwind.
“Never mind about your husband, just get a pet to keep your mind off it.”
That’s what Mrs. N has heard the other wives saying, to cheer each other up. Get a pet? She shakes her head; a daughter is trouble enough.
At three pm, the doorbell rings. She remembers making a date to go to the mall with two other wives, who live nearby. The end-of-season sales are on and, with her husband’s clothes all gone, she’ll have space in the wardrobe to fill. Hurriedly, she dries her eyes.
She’s very well-acquainted with the layout of the mall, and knows the clothes shops are on the second and third floors. But, when they enter the lift, a finger reaches past her and presses the button for the basement.
“First, we’re going to buy pets,” says the wife to her right, with a smile.
The wife to her left nods. “Where did you think all the husbands went?”
The lift doors open, revealing an expanse of flabby flesh. At first, Mrs. N thinks they’ve walked into the meat aisle of a wet market, but then realises it’s a row of fluorescent-lit display windows. Inside the windows are men with paper bags over their heads, their snow-white, fleshy bodies on show for all to see. Quite a few are slapping their palms urgently against the glass, but it’s clearly no use. The two wives walk ahead of Mrs. N, and she listens as they nonchalantly continue to discuss these “pets.”
“Mrs. N’s husband isn’t bad, but I’ve always quite fancied the hair color on yours. What should I feed him?”
“Stick to quick-cook oatmeal, unless you want him to get fat.”
At three pm, when Mr. N leaves his office, he’s only planning to nip to the convenience store opposite, to buy painkillers for his headache. There’s a cheap canteen just next door and, as he crosses the road, he sees a few girls inside, smoking and shaking with laughter, sharing gossip over some guy or another. With the window blocking the sound, their smiling faces look even more exaggerated than usual. Instinctively, Mr. N checks his own reflection in the glass: a middle-aged man with a so-so complexion and sagging muscles, his hairline receding a little. Is something wrong? He hurries into the store, feeling his headache worsen.
But once he has his pills, he doesn’t go straight back to the office. Instead, he heads for an abandoned lot nearby – it’s where he parked his car. It’s still raining incessantly, as though it might never stop. He looks up at the gloomy sky, thinking that his head has never hurt like this before. A little rashly, he decides not to phone the office, but neither does he prepare to go home to his wife. He climbs into the car and reclines the driver’s seat.
Lying there, he has a clear view of the photo of him, his wife and daughter, which hangs from the rear-view mirror. “They could be sisters,” friends always comment admiringly, whenever he gives them rides. Usually, those pretty faces make Mr. N puff with pride, as though congratulating himself on prime specimens in his collection. But this ferocious headache means he’s out of sorts today. He suddenly feels like he hates them.
The photo was taken years ago, back when his daughter still wore the clothes he bought for her. She’s wearing an Alice in Wonderland-style pinafore, and has a sweet, innocent face. He looks years older than his wife, like some old pervert standing there with his arms around the two of them. The longer he stares at their smiles, the more it seems like they’re mocking him. Angrily, he flips over the photo and closes his eyes. Mr. N hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in days, but now he falls abruptly into a deep, peaceful slumber, like a princess in a fairy-tale.
In his dream, Mr. N turns into a fish.
He’s in the glass tank where the black molly used to live.
Aside from him, everything seems double its normal size. In the glass, Mr. N sees his muscles, taut again after all this time, and his skin, a rich, glossy black. His waist has become exceptionally small, so tiny it doesn’t seem like a man’s waist at all. He doesn’t find this strange; quite a few breeds of fish change sex at random. He’s more surprised by how huge and innocent the faces of his wife and daughter appear, viewed through the top of the fish tank.
As though playing some new and exciting game, they compete to sprinkle fish food into the tank, instantly dyeing the clean water a dark, mossy green. They seem to think he likes those little, fishy-smelling green flakes floating around above him. Mr. N flails his slender legs in protest, splashing their faces, but they just keep smiling their blank, wide-mouthed smiles.
Mr. N feels a rush of pride. Now, no one will recognize him. Not his wife and daughter, or his friends, or anyone on the street – not even that woman in the yellow raincoat, still out there waiting on a dark corner, or the patrolling policemen. They think Mr. N’s gone the same way as any other of those unfortunate middle-aged men, disappearing quietly in the V City rain.
Dorothy Tse is a fiction writer from Hong Kong. She teaches literature and writing at Hong Kong Baptist University, and is a co-founder of the literary magazine Fleurs des Lettres. Tse is the author of the short-story collection 《好黑》 [So Black] (2003), which won the 8th Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature. Snow and Shadow, a collection of Dorothy’s short stories, appeared in English in May 2014, translated by Nicky Harman, published by Muse, Hong Kong.
Natascha Bruce is a literary translator from the UK. She was a joint winner of the 2015 Bai Meigui Award (Writing Chinese, Leeds University) for translation of a story by Dorothy Tse. She has translated short stories and personal essays for Asia Literary Review, Pathlight, PEN America’s Glossolalia, BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016 anthology, and elsewhere. At the moment, she is working on Lonely Face, a novel by Singapore’s Yeng Pway Ngon (forthcoming from Balestier). She lives in Hong Kong.
Nicky Harman lives in the UK and is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors). When she is not translating, she works on Paper-Republic.org, the website promoting Chinese literature in translation, organises translation-focused events, mentors new translators and judges competitions. She won first prize in the 2013 China International Translation Contest with Jia Pingwa’s short story ‘Backflow River’. She tweets as @NickyHarman_cn and China Fiction Book Club @cfbcuk