In the lobby I gathered the girls and boys together. I addressed them all: Andrew, Ella, Tommy, Marco, Hypatia, Sophia, Oliver, Martha. And Piper, the birthday girl, my daughter.
Boys and girls, I said. It’s time to establish some rules.
Rule #1: There will be a buddy system. I am your buddy—that is the system.
Rule #2: There will be bi-hourly bathroom breaks. Plan accordingly.
Rule #3: There will be a guide rope attached to my harness; this guide rope branches off into mini-guide ropes, which will be clipped to your own little belt loops; this network of guide rope and mini-guide ropes will ensure safety, unity, and orientation as we proceed through the poorly designed aquarium.
I held up the system of harness, guide rope, and mini-guide ropes, which I had designed myself. I said, Now, children, it’s time to clip you in.
“I don’t have belt loops,” said Sophia. “I just have a waistband. See?” She snapped her elastic waistband to prove the point. “Tommy doesn’t have belt loops either. And Oliver, and Martha, and Hypatia—they don’t have belt loops. But Marco and Piper and Andrew and Ella do have belt loops. See?” she said.
I told Sophia she made an excellent point; she was very observant. Fortunately, I had brought some twine for this very situation, and I would make twine-belts for the four children without belt loops.
“I want a twine-belt,” said Andrew, scowling. “It’s not fair.”
I wound the twine around their waists and fastened them to my guide rope. I clipped in the four belt-looped children. As a final precaution, I attached small sleigh bells to each of the mini-guide ropes. After letting the boys and girls jingle the little bells for a few seconds, I introduced a new rule:
Rule #4: Do not jingle the bells for the sake of jingling; their function is to assure me of your proximal presence. They are not toys; they are not musical instruments.
Andrew gave a disobedient yank, and his bell jingled.
Finally, I reminded them of the towering importance of caution, and said that even though we were visiting a sub-prime aquarium, there would still be many specimens to, if not admire, at least consider. Yes, there would be many examples of the hidden, subaqueous realm. And lastly, I stressed that the sub-prime creatures at the aquarium should be honored and pitied, never teased or belittled.
Rule #5: Do not tease or belittle the sub-prime creatures.
Yes, we would honor the unfortunate creatures, no matter how disappointed we were by the absence of more exotic fare. At least there was RICHTER the orca, a fine specimen. I told them that no matter what, Piper would be content, and that was what mattered—a happy birthday girl. Because Piper is not picky. No, no—she is content with so little. Just look at me! I joked. Sometimes, for instance, she just likes the hands-on section where you can feel a manta’s flaps or upend a horseshoe crab. Sometimes she just likes to look at the water lights inch around on the floor, or follow the sad muddy fish that tumbles at the tank bottom like a worn lunch-bag. Sometimes, for dinner, she just likes to eat celery and peanut butter and tortilla chi—
“Daddy,” said Piper. “I think we can go in now.”
“Mr. Harrison,” said Andrew, pulling at his mini-guide rope, bringing it to his mouth to chew on. His bell jingled again. “Can we go in now?”
Nearly, I said. One more thing. And this was a final rule:
Rule #6: Be your most responsible selves. Be your best versions. Children, even if you’re not naturally responsible, find it in yourself. Piper, for instance, is a natural: a vegetarian with an absolutely enormous heart, an excellent self-washer and clearer of the dining room table—
“Daddy,” Piper said sternly, her hand making a horizontal chopping motion in the air. “Enough.” Her mother had made that same gesture, though Piper wouldn’t remember that.
“Daddy!” And she did it again, a good chop, planked fingers, outstuck thumb. She jabbed that same thumb towards the depths of the aquarium. I’d never seen another child point with a thumb. I was terribly proud. She was a marvel.
A gentle breeze rolled in from outside, ruffling the little twine-hairs of the mini-guide ropes and nudging the aluminum bell-clappers into delicate motion, urging us to burrow into the branching blue depths of the aquarium.
And so we did. We left the lobby and made for the hands-on section. I told the children I might as well take this opportunity to apologize for the aquarium’s appearance, though it certainly wasn’t my fault; I would have done things differently. From the outside it looked more like a stomped-on cake box than a place to tune in to the reverb of underwater life. On the inside, it looked like a dented pot covered in a residual crust of cooked rice. Welcome, children, I said, to the Stonington Locks Aquarium, our neighborhood neo-Brutalist bad dream. Its IMAX is defunct, its wall-to-wall carpeting is damp with mildew, and its maze of gray plaster boulders is nearly unnavigable.
“IMAX!” said Marco.
“What’s a Brutalist?” asked Oliver.
Yes, children, keep your eyes peeled for water stains—not to mention harsh right angles and obtrusive blocks of concrete, the hallmarks of the Brutalist folly. Because you see, Oliver, a Brutalist is someone who believes that conviction is raw, unadorned. But conviction comes in many shapes and hues; its purest form does not always occur in gray concrete. A Brutalist deals in absolutes, but so does a vigilante, or a terrorist—not that their motives aren’t compelling, but aesthetic merit—any merit, really—relies on complexity and nuance, not on intransigence. The concrete was still strong, but here, Oliver, look here, at this rusty streak of water damage—getting quite discolored from poor upkeep.
Oliver nodded, touching the rust-stain. He said he knew what old looked like. His grandpa was old. “His face is like this,” and he tried to wrinkle his face by smushing its two halves together.
“My room has a leak,” said Martha, her finger plugging her ear like a long cork.
Ella said she used to have a grandpa, but didn’t anymore. She had called him poppa. He was in heaven now. “One minute he was eating his oatmeal and the next he was with the angels.”
“Heart attack?” asked Hypatia. “Aneurysm? Stroke? He’s not in heaven. He’s dead and his body’s in the ground and it’s full of worms. It’s decomposing and helping the plants grow. There are no angels and there’s no heaven because heaven is a construct.”
“My poppa’s not in the ground. He was cremated,” said Ella. “We sprinkled his ashes in the river. I saw a fish’s mouth come up and some of the ashes went in there.”
“I have a fish named Homer,” said Marco. “He eats fish-food.”
“I’m telling you,” Ella said, tearing up. “I dropped my poppa’s ashes in the river. I saw them floating. My mommy said I could be the one to drop them in the river. I did it, and she said I did a good job. Then I saw a brown fish open its mouth and some ashes went in. I told the fish to go away, but it kept eating the ashes. The fish’s mouth was pink and the bits of my poppa were gray, and they went in there.” She began crying softly.
There, there, I said. Don’t cry, dear Ella. I’m sure you did a fine job of dumping your grandfather’s ashes into the estuary. I’m sure the burnt dust of his remains were very nourishing for the fish whose luck it was to consume your poppa’s remains. Perhaps your poppa’s spirit lives on, infusing that lucky fish. Or perhaps your poppa was reborn as a fish.
“That would be unlucky,” said Hypatia. “Fish are not very smart.”
“Maybe your poppa is my fish!” said Marco.
Ella’s lip wobbled as she tried not to cry. I led the children to the heart of the hands-on section, where they would be surrounded on three sides by tangible sea-life. Come, children—let’s see what they have! I said it with enthusiasm, picking up what I thought was a large horseshoe crab, but was in fact a fake rock of porous foam.
“Maybe there are fish in heaven?” said Ella, lightly brushing her hand over the spindles of a sea urchin. “With poppa and the angels?”
I told her that heaven didn’t matter right now because we were on Earth, at a birthday party. I asked her rhetorically, with some frustration, Do you think there are birthday parties in heaven?
She frowned; she was puzzled; the other children began to discuss.
“When is God’s birthday?” asked Marco.
“Maybe heaven is only birthdays?” said Andrew. I told Andrew that made no goddamn sense. The children fell silent. I apologized; I said sometimes a daddy gets frustrated and uses a no-no word.
“Piper, your daddy is funny,” said Marco, squeezing a sea cucumber.
“He used to be an architect. Right, daddy?” said Piper. I nodded lovingly. And some would say I still am. For you see, children, once you swear yourself to a vocation, particularly one that requires an aesthetic stance, once you become a bit of a public intellectual with the publication of “Ornament and Its Discontents” in a small but reputable trade journal, there’s no turning back, there’s—
“My mom is a doctor,” said Martha.
“My dad is a lawyer,” said Andrew.
“My mother is an Associate Professor of Preclassical Greek Poetry,” said Hypatia.
“My poppa liked boats. He had a boat in the harbor,” said Ella, downcast, her mind still whirring with sadness. “I hope he is not a fish.” Piper put a hand on her shoulder.
Andrew, taking advantage of the hands-on section, grabbed a crab by its claw and lifted it above the surface of the water. With his other hand, he unclipped himself from his mini-guide rope and began to run around the tanks, holding the crab aloft. But he tripped on something and vanished from view.
As we went after Andrew to see if he was all right, I reminded the children that Andrew, who was crying noisily around the bend, was lucky to be alive. He had made a mistake, and he had forgotten that some mistakes lead to tragedy.
“Tragedy,” said Ella, her eyes welling up. She couldn’t contain herself, cried more forcefully. Perhaps one of the flappy mantas reminded her of her poppa. A certain pale specimen reminded me of my poppa, or Grandy as I’d called him. Grandy had favored a grayish rain-slicker like manta-skin; he’d even had small recessed eyes near the sides of his head and a mouth that, in later years, gaped open, not unlike the manta’s toothy hole. But he’d always presented me with small crumbly candies, and he taught me all the different kinds of freight trains. I said to Ella, You see? I miss mine too, and patted her shoulder, but she wouldn’t relent; she shook her head and tears sprayed out, spotting the tank water and splashing on the backs of several mantas.
Andrew had tripped over two men who had chained themselves to the base of the open-air tanks. They eyed Andrew warily, but one of them was trying to comfort him. “It’s okay, little boy, it’s okay,” he said, hovering his hand over Andrew’s shoulder but never letting it land. The other man was sternly reminding Andrew that it was forbidden to remove a hands-on creature from its hands-on habitat. He held the crab in his hand and seemed to be contemplating throwing it over his head, back into the hands-on tank. But he stopped his scolding when he saw me. “Are you his father?”
I laughed. Jesus, no, I said.
The first man frowned. “I’m Ralph,” he said.
“I’m Michael,” said the second. Noticing that I was staring at their chains, he jangled one and said, “And this is an act of defiance.”
Under the chains the men were wearing bulky vests. All that weight was making them sweat. Seams of perspiration ran from their scalps to their jaws.
I told them I admired their principled bravery. Good for them. It was about time people took a stand against slapdash design work. Brutalism was, after all, just shorthand for radicalism, ideological packing peanuts for those who lacked the substance of true aesthetic vision.
“What?” said Michael. “Brutalism? No, we’re here for the animals. We’re protesting the incarceration of animals and the fetishization of captivity. Raoul says humans are disturbed creatures who try to commercialize the natural world. We’re against that.”
Taking notice of my adult conversation, the boys and girls made to disrupt it by yanking at the chains to try to free them.
“You should get the kids out of here,” said Ralph.
“It’s not safe for them!” said Michael, as the children continued to pull at the chains and the straps of the vest. “The statement we’re making could… could do them harm.”
“Physical harm,” said Ralph.
Well, gentlemen, I said, I appreciate your concern, but Brutalism, in its squat right angles, actually lent itself to structural soundness. That was its one practical merit—and that you could clean its poured concrete with a power-sprayer. This building was not unsafe. And sure, the aquarium was understaffed, and home to dozens of creatures capable of killing a small child by way of stingers, or venoms, or mandibles, or even a well-placed flipper-smack or head-ram, but still I didn’t see any imminent danger, so long as the children stayed out of the tanks. At that moment, I saw Marco swing his leg over the lip of the tank, and I gave his mini-guide-rope a sharp tug. He fell back, shouting “Gahh!”
“No, no. You’re not listening. It’s us,” said Ralph. “We’re dangerous.” He pointed at his vest.
Michael pointed at his vest, too. “We’re the ones who are dangerous. And Raoul. Raoul is dangerous, too.”
“Yes. We’re the danger,” said Ralph proudly.
“Raoul has something… planned. He wants to make a statement this time. A permanent statement.”
“What’s the statement?” asked Hypatia.
The two men just looked at her. They seemed embarrassed that she’d been listening.
Well, Hypatia, I said, a statement like theirs isn’t always something you can just say.
“I can say it,” said Ralph. “It’s about the means of advancement, commingled with the need for direct action and the disproportionate allocation of economic mechanisms. It’s about this place—this place being a crime. This place being unnatural.”
Well, that’s exactly right, I said. I was glad the men had noticed. An unnatural place. A place that defies the natural order of things. A place that violates the elementary principles of line and form. Just look around, boys and girls: no light, no natural curvature, no sense of transition between the organic and the contrived. This style, this brutalist style, with its modular redundancy, its grayness, its poured concrete—sure, perhaps it recalled a desiccated coral cave, but it was no tribute to the splendors of the water realm. And the lack of natural light—my god, a crime, a crime worthy of protest, certainly, I said, saluting the two men. Why, even in the ocean, light penetrates as far as a thousand meters, yet here the squinty windows rimming each room hardly let in a singly ray.
Ralph and Michael seemed troubled. They exchanged glances. “You know,” said Ralph, “we’re here for the animals. The sanctity of life.”
“Yeah,” said Michael. “We’re here because humans use innocent creatures to commit acts of economic malpractice. Not because the building is made of concrete. What are you, anyway—a developer?”
“What’s a developer?” asked Ella, whose sleeves were soaked in tank water.
Ha ha. Ha ha. A developer is a non-visionary hack, I said. And no, I wasn’t one. And no, I didn’t appreciate the comment, Michael. And if he wasn’t amenable to fomenting solidarity between us, to pushing together our landmass causes, the ethical and the aesthetic, well then he could go, he could just go—and really, Michael, the aesthetic is the ethical, nothing is more a system of value than an aesthetic order, particularly one that dictates our physical landscape, that decides the structures to house our books, our children, our food, our institutions in which we, around a sun-limned atrium, attempt to comprehend the ocean realm. The aesthetic is the ethical, and—
“Um, Mr. Harrison?” said Marco. “I think I need to use the bathroom.”
“Yeah, me too,” and the bells tinkled as they grabbed insistently at their guide-ropes.
Many of them were now holding their little groins, and some did showy dances to express the urgency of release. Not Piper, though. She looked at me serenely and whispered, “I have to go, too.”
Bathroom break, I announced.
Ralph grabbed Hypatia’s hand. “Tell your daddy to take you home,” he said, sweating even more. A single droplet hung from his lobe like a crystal earring. “Tell him it’s important. Tell him—” but Hypatia hacked at his arm in a well-rehearsed self-defense maneuver. “Agh!” Ralph let go with a yelp of pain.
“You’ll regret it,” said Michael, “if you don’t get them out of here. You’ve been warned. If anything happens to them…” But then he just frowned, eyes darting.
“We’re complicit,” said Ralph, nursing his arm and glaring at Hypatia. “But so are you. Raoul won’t spare them. Only you can spare them.”
The children looked slightly alarmed, except for Hypatia, crouched in a fighter’s pose, ready to counter Ralph’s next move, and Marco, who bobbed up and down with the need to pee.
“Spare us from what, daddy?” said Piper.
That’s right, I said to the men. From what, exactly? If not from wrong-headed aesthetic dogma, or from the subjugation of non-human species, then from what? What was the threat?
“Raoul,” said Ralph.
“Raoul,” Michael agreed.
Raoul? I said, considering. Raoul? I’d heard enough. I turned to the children. These men are lunatics, I announced.
“What? No, listen,” said Michael.
Yes, children. Lunatics. And it is appropriate to disregard what they have said. Let’s make our way to the lavatories without giving them another thought.
“You’ll regret this!” said Ralph.
“Run, children, run!” cried Michael. Excitable and ready to pee, the children obliged, breaking into a run for the bathroom. They began giggling with joy as they pumped their arms and legs. Dutifully I kept up, unclipping them one by one, releasing them from my orbit. Yes, children, run! I said, encouraging the game. To the bathroom!
After the bathroom break, it was snack time.
Snack time, I announced. I led the boys and girls to a quiet nook with a single recessed tank in a wall of fake rocks. Here we could sit and enjoy some granola bars, some nuts, and the fruit I’d dehydrated for the occasion. The tank was KIRBY’s—the sad muddy fish who was the closest thing to a mascot this rundown aquarium had. He and his display were rundown, too; someone had even scratched off most of his species name.
The children ate the snacks good-naturedly, but kept an eye on KIRBY. A large stain on the carpet matched KIRBY’s size and shape; the stain had metastasized beyond the point of removability. We sat away from it.
“Ew,” said Martha, eyeing the stain. “I don’t like KIRBY.”
“He doesn’t like you either,” said Marco.
“What is he?” said Oliver.
Well, I don’t know, I said, glancing at Hypatia, who expected adults to know everything, and who in her own right possessed a formidable knowledge of animals. But she was busily gnawing on a strip of dried mango. I couldn’t identify him, but I could identify the telltale signs of sadness: his mopey turns as he trundled from one tank wall to another; his unmoving eye; his limp flippers that hardly stirred the filth-misted waters. Perhaps the protestors had a point. Even now, sitting in this awful though pleasantly private nook, I felt that nothing could be more righteous than freeing KIRBY, setting him loose in some crystal pond, watching him swim to the surface to feel his first warm clasp of real sunlight. Or, as the protestors proposed, freeing him from this world—ending his confinement by releasing him from the cage of his mortal body. Maybe that was what he wanted. No, not maybe: it was, it was what he wanted. Look at him! He looked so desperate.
“Or maybe they just look like that?” said Sophia.
I told the children to take a moment to express a consoling thought for KIRBY.
“I love you, KIRBY,” said Ella. “I wish you could have everything you ever wanted,” said Sophia. Hypatia recited a poem she’d memorized. Marco pressed his lips to the glass and kissed it repeatedly. Oliver bowed at the waist with his hands pressed together, but he leaned too far forward and hit his head on the tank. “Ow,” he said.
Piper looked at KIRBY with her little eyebrows canted up and was, I’m sure, saying something beautiful and pure and genuine in her good little mind. Piper, whose roomy heart has space even for a sad, bottom-scraping fish. “I wish you could be free and see the sun,” whispered Piper. Yes, me too.
“Poke,” said Andrew, his finger jabbing the glass. “Poke, poke.”
That was not a consoling thought. I reached for the finger but Andrew pulled it away. He tried to run but the twine went taut. He fell back and landed on my shoes. I said if he poked a tank again I would snap his finger right off.
“Daddy!” said Piper, but Andrew just giggled and poked my shin.
The boys and girls, those of them capable of pity, could only feel pity for so long; they grew impatient, and expressed it by tinkling their bells. They were ready to see more of the aquarium.
Still, I took another moment to look into KIRBY’s tank, with its little drifting flakes of debris—whether they were flakes of food, or crap, or scratched off bits of his exterior, I wasn’t sure. I would do my consoling thought as well. His tank was dark: one of the bulbs intended to backlight his blue-green polymer home had burned out. He swam up to the glass, close to where my face was positioned, and slid along the surface. I put my ear to the glass and heard the lumps of his brown body squeak against it. The sound moved through the glass and into me, and I felt—I think I felt—for a fraction of a moment what it might be like to be him. I felt the particulate water of his unchanged, crap-cluttered tank. Did he know what it was to be me? To be a daddy, a chaperone? We were not so different, KIRBY and I. I might as well have a placard with a map and an eighty-word paragraph about my life.
JEREMY, a 42-year-old semi-employed former architect, is Piper’s daddy. While daddies can range in their bearing from overprotective to negligent, this daddy is attentive and scrupulous if somewhat pedantic. He wears corduroys and makes many omelets. JEREMY believes in classical principles of open floor plans, natural lighting, and large communal spaces. His partner, Teresa, left him to join a painting colony in Sonoma County. She sends Piper postcards full of love, insofar as a postcard can contain the sincerity and privacy of love.
ORIGIN: JEREMY is from Indiana, a place to which he will never return.
DID YOU KNOW? FUN FACT: A daughter makes you less lonely and more frightened, and vice versa.
“Piper, what is your daddy whispering?”
“Why is his face on the glass?”
Just then, the lights flickered, then went out. The emergency lights came on, dim and orange. The children screamed with delight.
A voice came on the PA system. I was shocked the aquarium had a working PA system, but here it was, talking to us in the voice of another protestor. It was an impressive voice. It hummed with the tone of certainty, rose and fell with an intonation of control. Its paced articulation suggested the speaker was well-versed in delegation, persuasion, and possessed a firm grip on the knob of the rallying cry, a steady finger on the button of summons. It was a low voice fringed in sadness. It was a voice from the body’s depths. It was the voice of a preternatural leader, one unmoored from time. A voice for the ages. This voice could lead a charge of hunters, a French brigade, a coal miners’ uprising, an anti-orthodoxy rebellion. I thought of woodsmoke, and cloves, and dew-grass, and a gray-rocked battlement rising over a thick fog.
“This is Raoul,” the voice said. “The time has come to destroy the institutions that perpetuate the gross pleasures of capitalism. The time has come to de-prioritize the human race. The time has come—”
“Who is that?” said Oliver. “Who’s talking?”
So this was Raoul, and he was one of the protestors. Their leader, in fact.
“All of you should leave,” said Raoul. “Leave at once.”
I said to the children, boys and girls, his voice, though strong and assured, is of no consequence. He was not in charge.
“The time has come to make a fractional sacrifice on behalf of our brothers and sisters underwater.”
Yes, boys and girls, ignore this Raoul. It is to my voice, my voice here, that your ears should be trained.
Then the fire alarm went off, intermittently drowning out Raoul’s voice.
“Fire!” screamed Marco.
“The time for action, precipitous action…” said Raoul.
“Daddy?” said Piper. “What do we do?”
It was time to enter a state of emergency. I tightened the guide-ropes, did a head-count. I looked at each of the children individually for no fewer than ten seconds to form a fresher and stronger mental imprint. I tried to account for the possibility of lost identifiers, such as Hypatia’s hat, already perched at a precarious angle. I would need something else: Hypatia’s flaxen ringlets, for instance, or her oddly long neck nape. Marco had his signature chocolate-bar eyebrows. Martha, her garish dress; Ella, her electric blue sneakers. Tommy, his audible respirating, his shiny metal allergy bracelet, his aura of malady. Oliver, his oval ears and knock-knees, his aroma of wet grass. Sophia, her rigid posture and adult haircut. Andrew, his short mean arms, his low-lying skull.
Piper, my light, my glory, my star.
I said casually, so as not to alarm the children, that we might as well begin looking for an exit.
“Exit,” said Martha, pointing at the sign. Yes, Martha, that was a start. We stepped through the doorway and back into the main hallway.
People were hurrying for the front exits. A large crowd had already gathered there.
Another rush of people came down the hall. I guided the children against the wall to let them pass. “That’s right, a bomb,” I heard one woman say. “He’s got a bomb.”
On the PA, Raoul’s voice continued. “You heard me correctly: I have a bomb strapped to my chest. I am willing to give myself to the cause. And I am willing to release these creatures from bondage into death. It would be better for KIRBY and RICHTER to die than to have to spend another day encased in their glass prisons.”
“He’s going to kill RICHTER and KIRBY?” said Sophia.
“Daddy?” said Piper, tugging at her mini-guide-rope. “Can we leave?”
Yes, we were leaving. But there was no way out that way, I said, pointing to the crowd. There were other emergency exits.
“So is this an emergency?” asked Marco, as we walked quickly down the hallway, away from the crowd.
“Consider the wrongness of your ways, aquarium patrons…”
“Is the bomb going to blow us up?” asked Oliver.
“…consider the hypocrisy of your moral posturing…”
“It could just be a bomb threat,” said Hypatia. “Or a bomb scare.”
“…contemplate the true shape of your cowardly character…”
Tommy took my hand, and I let him hold it. “Mr. Harrison, can I go home?”
A mock-wood sign with dangling strips of fake seaweed told us we were going towards the CAFETERIA, which, as I recalled, had several points of egress letting out onto the parking lot.
Raoul’s voice was growing louder and angrier. “RISE,” he yelled. “RISE UP…”
I told them it was time to move a little faster, and that I would have to jog us down the hall. I picked up Tommy, who can’t jog, and off we went, the bells jingling as we ran. Immediately I was tired. There are many kinds of aquatic creatures that carry their young with them for relatively extensive periods of time, but I, JEREMY, was not one. As we jogged, I told the boys and girls that I would understand if they found Raoul’s speech compelling. It was stirring stuff. Sure, there was much to learn from such extremists—about ecology, and economic systems of inequality, and agendas. But my job was to get them home safely, and keep Piper safe. Did I sympathize with Raoul’s cause? Of course, of course. Why, at another time in my life I might have followed Raoul, acted as one of his disciples. But not right now.
Tommy and Ella were crying. As I carried Tommy, I could feel the wet sobs detach from his throat; he muffled them against my corduroy blazer. I could tell Marco might be next: there was a hitch in his breathing, a cry ready to rip out.
Piper held her head up. She was using her soothing voice for Ella, who nodded but couldn’t stop.
We turned a corner to follow the CAFETERIA signs. The hallway ahead was darker, but something glimmered ahead. A wobbly spear of light danced on the carpet. We kept on down the hallway, following the spear. We’re close, I said to the children. We’re almost there.
I pushed open the double-doors to the cafeteria and stopped short, nearly dropping Tommy. I let his legs hit the mini-guide ropes, setting the bells into tinkling unison. The children, trailing behind me, softly bumped into my backside. I could feel them look up at me, puzzled, wondering why we had stopped so suddenly.
It was RICHTER the orca. RICHTER’s tank had been gerry-rigged just for him: the plexiglass sheets were bowing out; little sprays of water escaped the corner-joints. The whole thing looked like a parcel of packing-tape. The tank was on a kind of dolly, and two young men were trying to push it. RICHTER watched them, his black eye rolling in its white rim.
“Shark?” said Martha, her face wet with tears. She was scared.
“Orca,” whispered Hypatia.
“RICHTER,” whispered Andrew.
Against the wall, a man was sitting at a soundboard, talking into a microphone. He was wearing a big black vest with a rectangular bulge in the center, some wires poking out. He was beeping like a smoke detector.
“Is that Raoul?” whispered Sophia. My guess was yes. He looked up from the controls. When he saw us, he put the microphone down.
“Yes?” he said.
Hello, I said, stepping forward. Hello, Raoul. We want no trouble. We respect the mission. We’re just trying to go home. I have these children with me, and I’d like to get them home.
Raoul blinked lazily. “And we are not trying to hurt anyone. Certainly not innocents. Enough hurt has been done, don’t you think?”
Oh yes, I completely agree, I said. In fact, we were just coming from KIRBY’s tank. Such a sad case, KIRBY—don’t you think so, Raoul? We had expressed some consoling thoughts on his behalf—hadn’t we, children?
“Is KIRBY okay?” asked Ella.
Oh, yes, KIRBY is just fine, Ella, I said, patting her head.
“Fine? KIRBY is anything but fine,” said Raoul. He stood up from the soundboard, and turned his back to us to look out the window. “Is the perpetual abuse of animals fine? Is animal enslavement for the purpose of sadistic voyeurism… fine?”
Oh, I agree, I said. I completely agree. He is not fine. It is not fine. It is downright awful. The children clustered behind me. Piper leaned her head on my hip.
“Why, I would rather kill KIRBY than see him suffer any longer. It would be an honor to release him. To ensure that he could no longer suffer. Yes, I would rather kill KIRBY—”
“No, you won’t!” yelled Andrew.
“Excuse me?” said Raoul, speaking over his shoulder.
“You’re a bad man!” Andrew detached himself and ran at Raoul.
Andrew! I yelled.
Raoul turned just as Andrew got to him. He put his arms up, but Andrew easily dodged them, and hit him several times in the chest as hard as he could, also yanking a few wires out from the vest.
Raoul pushed him away, and Andrew fell hard to the floor. “I hate you!” screamed Andrew. “I hate you I hate you I hate you!”
Raoul smiled and opened his mouth, but then the beeping from his vest sped up. He looked at me, puzzled. He began to tug at the vest. He looked at me again, pleading.
“Raoul?” said one of the young men. The beeping stopped. Several sparks flew up from the vest, which made a soft sound like a small furry thing kicking inside a duffel bag. Nothing more than a warm wump. Then a puff as the vest began to smoke. I could hear something dripping.
“Raoul?” the young man said again.
But Raoul was screaming. He fell to the floor, writhing; one of his legs kicked out and twitched.
Tommy pointed to what looked like blood. “Look,” he said. “Blood.” They all saw it, and I saw it too. The young men were tugging at Raoul’s vest, tucking bits of cloth under it to soak up the blood. For a moment we just stood and watched.
I realized that horror was sinking into their young minds. Raoul’s screams had subsided; now he moaned. Now he was quiet. I looked at their small heads. I put my hand on Piper’s, on her soft dark hair. She looked up at me, puzzled.
They shouldn’t see this. No one should see this.
No, I said.
And I grabbed at all the mini-guide ropes and tugged the children into me. Their little faces softly planted on my jacket. They folded in like a seaflower closing up. Andrew still stood near Raoul’s quivering body.
Andrew, I said. Andrew, come here, please.
Andrew, still staring at the puddle of Raoul on the floor, turned and looked at me. Then he walked over, reattached himself to his guide-rope. He buried his face in my jacket. Sophia put an arm around him.
We’re leaving, I said.
“But what was that?” said Marco.
“That was blood,” said Tommy.
“Shh,” said Sophia.
“Is he hurt?” said Ella.
“Is he dead?” said Martha.
I thought of Piper having dreams of exploding people, of rivers of blood, of coats that dumped guts on the rug when you turned out the pockets.
Raoul trembled on the floor. His men had removed his vest, but that was worse—he was leaking out everywhere. Bits of red and pink and gray.
“Can we help him?”
“What about RICHTER?”
“What about KIRBY?”
We’re leaving now. I held onto their ropes, kept them close so they couldn’t see what had been Raoul. They stumbled with me as I shuffled to the exit, and out into the parking lot.
It was quiet in the van for the first minute or so.
Then: “Mr. Harrison?” said Oliver. “Was that real blood?”
You know, boys and girls, I said, a van is kind of like a fish tank, isn’t it? And we’re the little fish peeping out, aren’t we? Really, a tank is not so bad. It’s safe, and you can see out of it.
I drove the van and thought about this little tank of creatures I had to take care of. Maybe a tank was wrong, but at least it was safe. Because yes, Oliver, as to your question, that had been real blood. In the tank, no one gets hurt, no real blood. No one gets hurt, and all the boys and girls get to go home to their mommies and daddies.
“Did he blow up?” said Andrew. And then, softer: “Did I blow him up?”
Yes, Andrew, Raoul had exploded somewhat. But Andrew, it was not your fault. No, Andrew. You see, he put himself in danger. So it wasn’t your fault.
“Why did he do it?” asked Marco.
Great question, Marco. Great question. He did it because he believed in it. He believed animals shouldn’t be in zoos.
“That’s not a zoo,” said Martha, crying. “It’s an aquarium.”
“Was Raoul a bad man?”
Was Raoul a bad man? No, I don’t think so, Ella. You saw KIRBY for yourself. You saw that Raoul’s beliefs were not groundless. Maybe one day you too, Ella, would grow up to be like Raoul, and sacrifice yourself for such a cause. Actually, no—no, no, no—I’m sorry, Ella, that is not what I meant. Because you should grow up, Ella, and have children, and teach them to respect the natural world as you respect it. You are all very respectful. It was my idea to go to the aquarium, and I was wrong to do that. You see, I come from the breed of exploiters, pillagers. From the horde of voyeurs. Forgive me. But I do know one thing, and I’m so glad to know it. I know—I looked at Piper—that you are the respectful ones, the ones who don’t want to see all the varied forms of nature crammed into boxes and tanks. You are the ones who sweetly held the hands-on creatures. Who said consoling thoughts for KIRBY. Who took action against the men hurting RICHTER.
And Andrew said, “I would like…” He frowned, then continued. “I would like to free the animals.” He was trembling. He petted his own arm as if it were a small creature.
“Isn’t that what Raoul wanted?” said Sophia.
Yes, that’s what Raoul wanted. Because it was horrible; so many things were horrible. RICHTER, KIRBY—they suffered. They hurt. The only life they knew was circumscribed by pain. And KIRBY, despite his gimpy fin and his low chance of post-release survival, deserved freedom. But detonating yourself was horrible, too, I said, watching Andrew’s face in the rearview mirror. Raoul was a thing that deserved to live, too.
“Daddy?” Piper, seated behind me, put a hand on my shoulder. I flinched, then clutched the hand and kissed it. I have never loved a hand so much.
Andrew was crying now. “I’m going to free them all. Every single one.”
And maybe you could, Andrew, because, really, you could be anything. A thought occurred to me, and I tried to dismiss it, but it had already occurred, which was, Even you, Andrew. Even you could be anything. You, who will likely be a bully, or a cheater, or a gamer, or the leader of a post-apocalyptic cannibal band who wears a bit of chain-link fence as a crown or, or, or—come on, I said to myself, or—I looked at his tear-coated face—or, or… a loving husband. A citizen. A builder. A visionary. A, a, a dad. A daddy. Yes.
“Daddy? Are you okay?”
Did I want Piper to free the animals? To care the most? Yes. No! To care a lot, yes, but not the most. The most meant Raoul.
I imagined Piper sitting in a corner office with river views, modernist furniture, a pearl-string and long charcoal skirt and her dark hair piped with silver strands, picking up the ringing phone and saying, “Be home soon.” I could hardly stand it: it made me unbearably happy.
“I wish,” said Oliver, looking out the window, but he didn’t finish his thought.
Yes! I said. Yes, I know what you mean, Oliver. I wish it too. Because RICHTER, and KIRBY—they deserve life! And Raoul deserves life too. And, you, boys and girls, you deserve life too! The most! And what if—but I stopped. I stopped myself. I wouldn’t say it. They were quiet, all of them watching me. What if that had been each of them? You, Martha, or you, Marco, with an explosive vest attached to your little body? Would that have been good? To have you blow up like Raoul? No. Not for me. Not for your mommies and daddies. Not really for anyone, not even RICHTER or KIRBY. But they all love all of you. They do. The mommies and daddies, the fish, the shark, the mantas and eels, all of them, all of them love you. Like how I love you, Piper. Because you are a little wonder, my baby girl. You are all little wonders.
“Daddy? Are you okay?”
You are visions, children. You are testaments. You are the new edifices.
You sturdy shining structures. Andrew, you are the eel. You are the long green corridor. Run down it and into the waiting arms of those who love you. Martha, you are the rolling starfish and its branching doors, with love at every turn. Sophia, you are the shark, its vaulted ribs, its angled beams. Tommy, the domed jelly, its drifting ribbons. And Marco, and Hypatia, and Oliver—the chambered nautilus, the turtle with its gabled shell, the sea crab and its corniced hull.
And Piper, you are, you are—the ocean, my love. The whole damn sea.