The Other Side Excerpt: Lucy di Sartoria

From “Lucy di Sartoria”:

One day, she went to the aquarium with Cal. He was irritated. There were some kids on a field trip, some tours by Japanese and, Lucy thought, German groups. There was a sea lion show. The creature shot through the water, rising through the air, its skin like polished leather. The children screamed with delight. On cue, it roared at them behind the chain-link barrier. Cal laughed.

They walked the dark arcades. Against the glass, Cal’s form was a shadow, as she, she reminded herself, was a shadow. She watched the fish float along like little chips of colored glass in the great aquariums. The eels slithered inscrutably in the blue light. Crabs scuttled along, sometimes waving their claws in warning or invitation. Limbs dangling out, the octopuses pumped in the dim-lit water.

A guide came up to the glass, followed by a trailing cloud of tourists. “And here are the octopi,” she began in a voice that reminded Lucy of the wire of a clothes-hanger (thin, insistent, contorted as it reached through her nasal passages). “They come in a vast variety of species, reaching back hundreds of millions of years. In hunting they use their eight arms to hold on to prey and their little beaks to devour them.

“For the most common suborder of the octopus, the Incirrina, the beak is the only hard part of the creature. As such, the octopus is exceedingly flexible and tenacious. Its muscular body allows it to slip through even the smallest openings. That octopus there has been recorded moving its whole body through a hole no bigger than a silver dollar. It can exploit the slightest crack, the smallest weakness. Any opening.” She turned around, smiling. “And then it strikes.”

The crowd drew closer against the glass. Cal walked on.

He didn’t say too much. He examined a number of the creatures in silence, his eyes probing all their different qualities, like a predator or machine would. Cal admired the sharks. She could tell that from the way he nodded, his chin just a little upraised, as he watched the armada of fins and teeth float in front of him. But he grew bored and wanted to leave. She let him, and wandered the dark halls alone.

As the afternoon wore on, the crowd lessened. Her footsteps echoed a little. They reminded her of splashing water. She saw people standing up against the tanks, saw their outlines against the glowing aqua-marine glass. She felt like she was walking in a world of silhouettes. So thin, so thin. In that liquid neon world, her pulse seemed like a thin trail of flame. It burned. There was her heart somewhere, that heaving source. Within that army of shadowy veneers, passing in the dark avenues, her pulse had a trembling urgency. If only she could break free, if only she could just give over to that flame. It ignited; her head swirled in fire, feverish.

The lights flickered in her eyes as she walked. Clop clop clop. The sounds of her steps returned to her, like growing waves. Clop clop clop. It just seemed so tight, the darkness. She made it to the glass doors. The open air compounded her dizziness. She sank down to the ground. Her heart was drumming in her ears, like each flicker of the flame was the pound of a thousand mallets.

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