Linda Ann Strang
"It isn't easy being haunted by a fish," said Mark, peering intently through his John Lennon spectacles.
"Nor, I imagine, does the fish find you a piece of cake," said Miranda, winking.
The nightclub was filled with the kind of greenish light that made it easy for patrons to imagine they were underwater. But, just then, someone turned the music up so loud that the illusion was spoilt and the four young people had to start shouting at one another. "Maybe it's a daemon floating around in your office," yelled Miranda.
"A what?" said Itai.
"We already thought of that," screamed Roopa, her throat burning with the effort.
"Yes," Mark decided to elaborate. "We thought of that, a kind of St Anthony's messenger. Sent to test us. Of course, the demon messengers in the paintings I've seen don't look anything like what we've got. They're fantasy creatures really. Like Hieronymus Bosch. Although one or two of his creations do look like fish. There's a sinister mermaid, for example."
"No, you don't get me." Miranda said. "I mean a daemon like in that book, whatsit? The Golden Knife or something. Amber Compass?"
"Oh. She means Pullman. The Northern Lights, a fantasy series for children" Mark explained for the sake of his companions.
"Okay, so I got the name a bit wrong. I mean those daemons like animal spirits that go around with you everywhere," Miranda paused to take another swig of her daiquiri, "Your external soul, kind of. Your soul manifested as an animal."
"Oh," Roopa understood. "So how come there's only one, then? Don't the rest of us have souls or what? What are you saying then?" Roopa's face darkened with resentment; she leaned across the table as if she were about to climb over it.
Miranda ignored her. She put down her unfinished drink and scanned the nightclub. "Oh, there they are. I wondered where Danny and them were. They probably went outside for a quick one. Nice seeing ya."
"Are Danny and his friends homosexual?" Itai asked as Miranda disappeared.
"No," Mark shook his head, "they probably went outside for a joint. I'm sure that's what she meant." He looked at his watch and mouthed at them, "I think we should call a cab."
The next morning it was just the same: there was their ordinary office with three desks crammed into it—and a clown fish. A clown fish in an office is not an unexpected thing, given the influence of Disney and the ubiquity of little Nemo, nor is it unheard of to have an office aquarium. The clown fish in the office shared by Roopa, Mark and Itai was not a toy, however, and it wasn't in an aquarium either. That was the problem. It swam around in the air. No one knew where it came from, and, even worse, no one could make it go away.
"Yes," Mark said, as Roopa came to work that morning, "It's over there near the top shelf."
Itai was opting for denial; he tapped away at his keyboard, a picture of stoicism.
Roopa, though, was no stoic. She put down her purse and stared at the little fish; it flicked its fins and tail beside the box files, just as if the air-conditioned atmosphere were seawater. "You guys, I don't think I can take this anymore."
"Just sit down, Roopa," Mark said, calmly but firmly. "I'll get you some coffee."
"This has been going on for two weeks," Roopa said.
"Yes," said Mark, like someone humoring a child, "I know. Drink your coffee. It's good."
Roopa had been the first to notice the clown fish so perhaps she blamed herself. It had been amusing at first, like a scene in an offbeat art movie, the kind one watches at a film festival, another 'Amelie', perhaps? Go back two weeks and look at Roopa typing away, her hands flying across the keyboard, back and forth. When she looks up to ask Itai something, there the creature is, suspended in the air about twelve inches from the end of her nose. Unmistakably, it is an ordinary clown fish, just in the wrong place; she manages to be silent for about half a second as her brain tries to make sense of what she is seeing, and then she screams.
The three of them cry out in clichés: "What!" "What is this?" "I don't believe it." "What the hell!" "No." "It can't be." "This is impossible." "Christ, I must be dreaming." "Do you see it too?" "No way, man, no fucking way." They call in their manager, Madeleine Fry, Fry's impersonal personal assistant, and their colleagues from the next-door office. "Come and see." There are more exclamations and stock phrases from everyone and then there is a farcical hour or two of people trying to catch the fish, as if it were an escaped canary. The office workers stand on chairs or desks throwing things at the sea creature, their coats, books, pencils, pens, coffee mugs, cell phones, and even, in desperation, a pot plant or two. Someone goes out and comes back with a butterfly net, but even a seine net, it seems, wouldn't help at all because, besides its more obvious peculiarities, the clown fish seems to have a supernatural ability to evade capture. Objects do not pass through its body as if it were a ghost; it simply gives every grasping hand and flying missile the slip.
In the end, the manager becomes angry. She looks at the mess on the floor, takes stock of her underlings and their upturned, wondering faces and shouts, "That's enough. Get back to work, all of you. We have a business to run." Her eyebrows are knitted with indignation. Later she sends an email to All Staff: "No further pranks will be tolerated by management."
"Is that the passive?" asks Roopa.
"She isn't passive," says Itai, thinking that Roopa says some pretty stupid things.
Roopa drank her coffee now and tried to go on working. But she couldn't stop looking up to locate the fish. "Where's that goddamned thing?" she snapped at last. Mark and Itai hadn't ever heard Roopa swearing before, not even once.
Itai stopped typing, "You know what," he said, "Jenny and Rupert and the others hardly greet me these days. It's almost like they can't stand the sight of me." Mark had also noticed a decided coldness from their co-workers, but he said nothing.
Itai went on, "That fish is something like a curse. It's making us obscene to other people." Roopa was scarcely listening. Her eyes were on the clown fish, tracking its movements as it swam about near the ceiling. Itai took a deep breath. He usually didn't have much to say, but when he decided to talk he liked to give a speech. "Six days ago I telephoned my mother in Harare. She is a good, honest woman and a strong Christian. She has spoken to her religious leaders about our problem here, and she even went so far as to talk to the traditional healers. She phoned me last night to give me advice. She has it on good authority that this thing is an evil spirit sent to test us. A messenger of Satan. It's like what happened to Saint Paul in the bible. We must pray, Roopa. We must not be frightened. We must confess our sins, pray, and put our trust in God. We must defy the works of Satan." He thumped his desk with his fist for emphasis. Then he turned his eyes to Mark, "If you will agree, let us bow our heads." Mark, who was known to parade his atheism, did not demur; he closed his eyes, as did Roopa, while Itai prayed with much lamenting, in the African way: "Father God, please hear us, we are miserable sinners and we are unworthy of your love, unworthy of the Christ, your only Son. Oh, Father God, please pity us …" The prayer went on for a long time but afterwards the clown fish was still there. "Our faith is being tested," Itai said.
The next day Mark said, "Why don't we just resign."
Roopa's eyes filled with tears, "What if the fish follows us to somewhere else?"
The three of them gazed mournfully at the air swimmer from their desks. Tacitly, they agreed that such a thing would be unbearable.
"Maybe the little thing thinks we are sea anemones," said Roopa, giggling nervously. She had a sudden vision of herself as a woman with a crown of tentacles instead of a head.
"Perhaps we should try an insecticide," said Itai, "for flying insects."
"From prayer to pyrethrins," Mark said, "why not?"
But the can of pesticide gave Roopa asthma and the fish went on swimming above the printer and the shredder.
That night they found themselves huddling in a bar again, drinking heavily. Going straight home seemed to have become impossible for them. By midnight they were confiding in passing strangers, catching hold of them like three ancient mariners.
"Dude, we have a fish in our office. I know it sounds crazy, but a fish!"
"Oh yeah," said a young lawyer with blue eyes and a cow's lick, "You're lucky. We have a couple of sharks."
"It's isn't funny, dude. I hope you end up with an ocean sunfish," even dead drunk, Mark couldn't resist showing off his superior fund of general knowledge. The lawyer he had caught hold of shook Mark off and walked on, blissfully unable to tell a sunfish from a goldfish.
"Mark," Roopa asked nastily, "why do you call everyone 'dude' when you're inebriated? Do you start thinking you're cool or something?"
"Shut up," said Mark.
On their way out to the cab that night Roopa would have fallen over if she hadn't been clinging to Itai's arm. Her stiletto heel became snagged in a piece of torn carpet and she twisted her ankle badly. Itai stumbled and nearly fell over too. "Tonight we're clutching at people like drowning men," Mark muttered. In the back of the cab only Roopa was talkative; Itai was befuddled and Mark was morose. He sat between his two companions like a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
"So, Itai, when you were so generously confessing your sins to us in your moment of prayer the other day, who was this Caroline that you wronged so badly? What did you do to her, hey? I want to know? Caroline, Itai?" Roopa insisted.
Itai opened his eyes and said, "Caroline!" as if this mysterious woman had suddenly appeared before him. Then he closed his eyes again, mumbling, 'Caroline ish my wife."
"But you said your wife's name is Thula; Thula with braids as thick as my arm. Now there's Caroline. Do you have two wives? Are you a bigamist?" Roopa went on, relentless.
"I married Thula sho I could live here. I left Caroline in Shimbabwe."
"You left your wife for a fucking green card," said Roopa, as though she herself had been deserted. "You bastard." She stopped talking for a moment and fumbled about. "Christ, where's my shoe? One of my shoes has disappeared. Go back. I want my shoe." Roopa turned her attention to the cab driver. "You go back now," she yelled.
"Don't you do anything of the sort," Mark said in his most authoritative voice and the cab driver obeyed him, although Roopa went on shrieking about her shoe and going back to the nightclub. It occurred to Mark that the three of them were turning into stereotypes.
When they dropped Roopa off at her mother's large seaside home she held onto the open door of the cab and spat venomously, as if confirming his gloomy thoughts, "Don't think I haven't noticed you always pay for our trips back, you fucking white male patriarch." Then she slammed the door in Mark's face and limped up the long driveway to the front door, a tiny Indian girl wearing one stiletto.
Releasing a snore, Itai slid sideways across the car seat, resting his head on Mark's shoulder.
Roopa removed her remaining shoe as soon as she opened the door. Even walking as gingerly as she could across the marble hallway, she came close to falling a couple of times before she made it to the stairs. She had to pass her mother's bedroom on the way to her own room, and, judging from the groans therein, that overwhelming woman was entertaining Roopa's stepfather. He was often away on business and when he wasn't, Roopa's mother made a point of "fucking him silly". Roopa had overheard her mother saying as much to a friend once: "When Robert gets back from Chicago I'm going to be fucking him silly. I always do." The two friends had giggled like schoolgirls while Roopa wanted to be sick.
The next morning she switched off her alarm clock and rolled over, unable to go to work and face the fish. When she considered it safe to go downstairs, she put her bathrobe over her pajamas and headed for the kitchen. She was cautious as she approached, clearing her throat noisily: once she had walked in on her mother and stepfather pumping away on the kitchen table. On this morning, although they were somewhat dishabille, they were doing nothing more ribald than eating breakfast. "Shouldn't you be at work?" her mother asked, between bites of boiled egg.
"I don't feel well," Roopa snarled.
"Quite some party you had last night, Roop," her big, blond stepfather boomed and his voice seemed to split her head open. "I found your shoe at the front door this morning. Just like Cinderella, right?"
"Right," she said, giving him a poisonous smile.
"Got a prince after you?"
She left the kitchen without answering him.
"What's her problem?"
"Who knows?" Roopa's mother rolled her eyes, as if the ceiling held the answer.
By the evening her stepfather was gone again, to Miami on business this time, so she and her mother took out some DVDs and watched 'The Good Wife' together. "I like this show," Roopa said.
"Mmm," her mother said, her attention focused on the delicate task of painting her own toenails shell pink.
"I think Kalinda is wonderful," Roopa went on.
"She isn't wonderful. She's a lesbian. No real Indian girl would carry on like she does. Those television people are making fools of us."
"She's … ballsy."
"Ballsy? What a word to use," her mother snorted, waving the brush that she was holding. "That low life job you have is making you common"
"I like my independence …" Roopa protested, feebly.
"You're twenty-seven. I was married for nine years at your age. If you like your independence so much, why don't you move out ?"
"I can't afford to move out."
"So where's your argument? Why don't you get a better job?"
If only you knew, thought Roopa.
They both became silent as the television caught their attention.
Roopa tried talking again. "Mommy, what does it mean if you start seeing things that can't really be there?"
"Schizophrenia, most probably. I need some more crisps," her mother jumped up from the sofa nimbly and smoothed her T-shirt over her flat stomach
"I see things. Things that aren't there," Roopa said and, seeing her mother stop dead, was pleased to have arrested her at last.
After a week and a half of medication, Roopa went back to work: nothing had changed there. Her hallucination, as she now called it, had not diminished in the slightest. The fish swam in a circle around her head as she tried to finish typing up a report. She swatted at it as if it were a fly. But the fish, who had always kept its distance, now seemed to have set its mind on tormenting her. After some more unsuccessful swatting she jumped up so violently that her chair slid backwards and crashed into a filing cabinet. Roopa chased the fish, taking swipes at it, and knocking a pile of papers off Itai's desk. Then she burst into tears. The fish hovered near the ceiling, opening and closing its mouth, out of breath after its narrow escape.
Mark stood up and helped Roopa back to her desk. Going over to the coffee machine and using it as a kind of podium, he announced, "I don't know why we haven't seen it before."
"We didn't see it before because it wasn't here," Itai said, sounding irritated for the first time since all this had started.
"No," Mark was patient, "I mean the explanation. But I've figured it out." Roopa and Itai looked skeptical but they were listening. "We work for what must be the biggest software company in the world, don't we?" he asked.
"Although we are just at a tiny branch of it," Roopa said, blowing her nose.
"Yes, well. Here's the thing: this fish is a computer generated image."
"What?" asked Itai.
"They're experimenting on us. It's obvious. I mean that fish can't be a real fish, and I, for one, don't buy the supernatural explanation. They have found a way of introducing a computer-generated image into our environment, without any obvious source: the leap in miniaturization. Unless," he narrowed his eyes," it's being run off one of our computers here without our knowledge."
"The bastards," said Itai slowly
"But why?" asked Roopa, her eyes filling with tears again.
"No doubt they have their reasons," Mark said, darkly.
"Maybe it is a prank, like Madelaine said, a hoax," Roopa brightened, "and here we've been going cuckoo about it."
"Yes, of course," said Itai, slapping his forehead, "CGI."
They were all cheerful after that. They scarcely noticed the fish. They even went straight home after work, instead of to a nightclub or bar.
"It would be Mark who figured it out," Roopa said to Itai as they were leaving the office. "He's so clever."
But as it turned out, they only had about five weeks before their brittle peace of mind was shattered.
One afternoon, the three of them were drinking coffee in the office, gazing at the fish, and chatting in a desultory way. "It look so real doesn't it," Itai said.
"Doesn't it, though," Roopa added with a sigh.
"Very convincing," said Mark.
But then, as though exhibiting a sense of comic timing, the fish turned on its back and fell to the floor below, with a faint but audible plop.
They were speechless.
All three of them could feel their pulses starting to race, but Roopa was the one to make the fatal move. She edged around her desk and knelt on the floor, reaching out a trembling hand. She felt cold, wet scaly skin, a pectoral fin. She pushed her fingertip between the chilling lips and saw the glossy eye glazing over. "It's real. The fish is a real fish," she whispered.
Then Mark was there beside her, taking it from her, weighing the creature in his hand.
Uttering a howl, he threw the fish with all of his strength. It hit a wall and stuck there for a moment before sliding to the carpet.
"I'll flush it down the toilet," said Itai. He was a practical man.
That night their drinking was vicious. They chose some back-street bar where they were unlikely to meet any friends or acquaintances and started with tequila. As the evening wore on, Mark, usually so reserved, asked two women to join them. One, who called herself Elaine the Second, wore bright green earrings, big as coasters, which contrasted with her red hair. The green coasters jiggled as she talked. Roopa could not stop staring at them. The second girl, Savannah, had blonde hair, puffed up eighties style, and bright red lipstick that made her mouth seem as if it were floating slightly in front of her face; nearly everything that Savannah said was prefaced with, "When I lived in New York."
"When I lived in New York my mom was always baking cheesecake."
"I'm from Indiana. My old man is a doctor and my mom bakes brownies," said Mark.
"I can bake too," said Elaine the Second eagerly. The two newcomers were vying with each other for Mark's favor, shoving their cleavage at him, and they were plainly uninterested in anything that Roopa or Itai had to say.
Itai kept quiet after a while, staring glumly into his whisky and soda.
Roopa, in contrast, became loquacious, although no one was listening to her: "We had a big house in New Delhi. A beautiful house. We had roses and roses in the garden. But no, my mother had to leave him and come here. My daddy was a handsome man. Everyone said so. We had a very beautiful garden with a swing. My daddy had beautiful eyes. I had two nice grannies. They were always playing with me …"
"Why don't you go play with yourself?" Elaine the Second snapped suddenly. She was irritated because Savannah was monopolizing Mark and she wanted to take it out on someone.
"I was very happy in India. Why are you being rude to me?"
" Ooh, I was very happy in India," Elaine mocked, mimicking Roopa's accent. "Why don't you jump into the sea and swim back there then if it's so fucking wonderful. You immigrants make me sick …"
With that, Roopa threw her drink into Elaine's face and Elaine slapped her—hard.
Mark, tipsy but still diplomatic, managed to calm everyone. He helped Roopa to the ladies' room so that she could wash her stinging face. Coming back, he explained, "Look, she's going through a hard time lately and we've all had a bit too much to drink this evening. Please try to understand." Accepting a peck on the cheek from Savannah, he dismissed the girls, promising to call both of them later. At Mark's suggestion, they went to another bar down the street.
They were all blind drunk when they took Roopa home that night. Both Roopa and Itai had their heads resting on Mark's shoulders this time. When the taxi stopped, Roopa slid her arms around Mark's neck and kissed him ineptly, her tongue all over his nose and chin before it found harbour in his mouth. He threw some money at the driver and followed her to the house. They were at the front door before either of them realised that Itai was with them. He half fell onto Mark and kissed him too. He couldn't help noticing, even through a haze of alcohol, that Itai's kiss, while rough, was more practiced than Roopa's had been.
Roopa fetched a bottle of whisky from her mother's drinks cabinet. Raising a glass to the men, she said, "The bitch is out of town for a week."
Then, as if in competition with one another, they took turns at kissing Mark all the way up the stairs. It was only when she had switched on her bedroom light that Itai finally kissed her, almost out of spite.
They all had each other, with a kind of desperate greed, the men tireless in their efforts because they were too drunk to come.
Roopa had been a virgin up till then so there was blood all over the sheets in no time, the three of them rolling in it. She didn't care, at first.
Mark was insisting, "Wait, Itai, wait; I want to try something," and re-arranging Roopa's legs when, abruptly, she decided that she had had enough, She begged him to stop but it was a long time before he listened to her. Itai also, it seemed, was someone who could go on forever. Mark, she noticed, was bleeding too.
Finally, Mark got up from the bed, saying, "I hope you aren't going to be my millstone now."
She didn't say goodbye to them, or even see them out, when they went home. Alone at last, with her drunkenness receding, Roopa realized that there was only one thing to do.
So she ran down the path to the beach, as though intent on taking the advice of Elaine the Second. Leaving her bathrobe on the sand, she swam out to sea. But the ocean didn't want her either. The tide pushed her back to the beach, the waves knocking her against some rocks and making her bleed more. Eventually, she gave up fighting the current and swam back in, shivering with cold as she hunted around for her discarded bathrobe. After another stumbling walk back up the hill, she entered her mother's house. Drawing back the curtains in the living room, Roopa looked over the bay where the sun was just cresting the distant hills; the sunlight made her feel profoundly sad. She sighed as she remembered the combination of the gun safe, and decided that technology was the best option after all.
After Roopa's suicide, there was investigation. The blood in her room and evidence of sexual activity aroused suspicion. Manhandled by police officers, Mark and Itai were released mainly because of the statement of the taxi driver who had dropped them off at the house that night: "She was all over them. I could see her grabbing the white one while she was still in the cab. I thought they were going to do it before I even got them home."
Shunned by everyone around him, Itai simply stopped coming to work—absent without leave. Mark never found out what became of his partner in crime; truth to be told, he preferred not to know. He imagined him wrapped up in his American bride's boa constrictor braids.
Week after week, Mark sat alone in the office, not giving in to social sanctions. Often he didn't even bother to switch the lights on. Then, one day, there was a shadowy movement at the door. Mark looked up from some documents, his body tensing while his mind struggled to accommodate the evidence of his eyes. Nosing its way into the confined space was an ocean sunfish, Mola mola, 8.2 ft in height, 5.9 ft from head to tail, a monster of the fish world, more moon than the sun, when the moon is full and pale in the sky. The fish hovered in the middle of the room, opening and closing its mouth, its fins threshing an unimaginable current. "Atlantis," Mark murmured, trembling uncontrollably, and he felt that he understood at last.
Linda Ann Strang is the author of the poetry collection, Wedding Underwear for Mermaids (Honest Publishing, 2011). Her work has been published in many journals, including Orbis, The Hollins Critic and Yemassee. The editors of Poetry Kanto nominated her work for a Pushcart Prize in 2007. Linda teaches writing at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.