That morning I hated my boss. He reeked of sweat and stale aftershave. There was dandruff all over his shirt and polyester trousers, and his fingernails were yellowed from too many cigarettes. He stood behind the shiny counter of his hardware store on the lower ground floor of Kuala Lumpur City Center, waiting for customers who would not be put off by his lurking presence. There were a few of them who still existed. In particular, I hated a family of customers on that morning. I hated the clothes they wore, overpriced and yet casual, and the rubber flip-flops and loafers on their children’s feet, as if the parents had spent so much on their clothes they had little left over to spare for the quality of their shoes. I hated them for being stalwarts of my job, like my boss.
The shop was unbearable and I had to get away after working there for the last two months of my college vacation. I had taken the job at the behest of my parents, who wanted me to obtain some practical experience in the real world. But would it be time well-spent for a student of zoology? Languishing among shelves of piping, carpentry tools and toxic solvents?
To hell with the job.
As I made my way to the storeroom, one of the children knocked over a teetering stack of metal buckets. They fell on top of me but I avoided the majority of them landing on my head. I saw their parents’ mouths open, not in admonishment, but amusement at my expense. Their laughter reminded me of the chimpanzee troupes I had seen at various zoos, and the urge to escape seized me.
Like a mudslide, the drudgery built up over the last two months pushed me out of the shop and into the cavernous mall. The floors of the mall were polished to a tourist-brochure sheen and were yet to be overrun by the weekday lunchtime crowd. Here was the center of Kuala Lumpur where anything might happen — and I wanted something extraordinary to happen to me. This sudden desire led me to the arapaimas, residing in their tank deep inside the Aquaria.
The public park outside the mall, with its koi ponds, manicured bushes and tamarind trees, held no wonders for me. There was nowhere to go except for the Aquaria, yet another artificial construct. I returned inside and took an escalator to the basement level. At the entrance to the Aquaria I paid for my ticket and the turnstiles admitted me into a carpet-lined tunnel lit by green track lights. The Aquaria was separated into three biotopes: coral reef, Malaysian rainforest and mangrove swamp.
When I turned the corner I saw a pair of arapaimas swimming behind acrylic glass. A placard mounted on the wall next to the tank proclaimed them to be The Largest Freshwater Fish in the World.I had studied the animal kingdom on my course, but these arapaimas appeared to be more engineered, and less the result of piscine evolution or biology.
Both arapaimas had eight foot-long streamlined bodies covered in scales that had more sheen than burnished silver, rust-red smudges daubed like war paint on each diamond-shaped scale. The dorsal and anal fins were set back near their tails, and their down-turned mouths made them look perpetually disappointed about the size of their last meal. At the same time, the protruding black eyes moved independently of each other in their ridged sockets, on the prowl for their next prey.
There were other fish in the Aquaria — as ferocious as the sharks and barracudas or more colorful like the clownfish and groupers. But none of them possessed the martial presence of the arapaimas. When I observed the two specimens swimming in perfect sync with each other I understood their unflagging vigilance and their singular duty to themselves, although it was only within the confines of a tank.
Whenever one swam close to where I was sitting – on the railing in front of the tank – I tapped the glass. But the arapaimas never reacted and continued to swim back and forth in front of me. Up close I could admire the raised markings on their tapered sheet-metal heads, the embossed curlicues reminiscent of the decoration on the armor of medieval knights.
Unlike most other fish, arapaimas possess lungs and must surface for air at regular intervals. One arapaima swam up towards the top of the tank, where the water rippled and the spotlights glared. I saw the jaws of the fish open as knotted tendons performed the motion. All the while, the fins and tail flexed like pumps. When the arapaima had its fill of oxygen it dove down to the rocky substrate at the bottom of the tank. The other arapaima kept its vigil at the viewing window, oblivious to the stares, the pointing fingers of children, and camera flashes.
At that moment I recognized that the arapaimas and I were both imprisoned — I was stuck in my job while they were kept in the artificial environment of their tank. In both of our situations the slow passage of time was made more tolerable by routine.
After an hour I returned to the hardware shop, expecting questions from my boss and my imminent dismissal. He made no mention of the morning’s incident, except for a cryptic statement that was meant to suffice as an indirect apology. My boss offered me a cigarette but I politely declined – my mind still with the arapaimas in the Aquaria.
“Are you in love with the arapaimas?” joked one of the janitors, who always found me sitting on the railing, while the interplay of light from the tank imbued my skin with yellow and aquamarine hues. The janitor must have thought my daily visits rather eccentric but he was right; a connection had started to form between the arapaimas and I. What began as thin delicate threads which had caught and drawn me to the Aquaria soon developed into chains.
Everyday I pressed my hands on the acrylic glass of the tank in a futile attempt to touch the arapaimas. But I did not need to touch them to know of their suffering. Every time their strong elongated bodies swam past me the true horror of their predicament was revealed to me little by little. They became gradually aware of my daily presence (how could they not?) since both fish always slowed down and came to a rest at the bottom of the tank, in front of where I sat. Both stopped behind the glass and floated in the water at eye level.
One day, their glazed-over eyes fixed me with terrible, all-knowing stares and I was never the same again. Surrounded by the humming of the water pumps and chattering of visitors, time stood still for me as I clearly saw that the arapaimas were suffering. Not because they were in captivity, as I could see from the arapaimas’ pristine spacious tank and regular feeding times that the Aquaria did not neglect or ill-treat them.
Their agony was so palpable that it needed no words and gestures to communicate it. I dared not call what they did to me telepathy — it was more like sensory deprivation. I lost all awareness of my surroundings and became an empty vessel into which the arapaimas poured their history.
The arapaimas were burdened with knowing that they were the last of their kind, for the species in existence today, surviving in polluted rivers, fish farms and aquaria all over the world, are the last remnants of an epoch of an ancient land. Older than Atlantis or Lemuria, but with similar advancements in science and technology, these ancients hacked out and cleared swathes of primeval jungles to raise city states more magnificent than Venice. The glory days of that civilization had been all too brief but what mattered was that it had once existed.
The main cause of the civilization’s downfall was constant warfare between the city states, and I learned the role the arapaimas played in it. The scientists in the city states manipulated the flora and fauna of the surrounding jungle. At first, it was for the benefit of the citizens: to control floods or to improve crop and livestock yields. But when their leaders clashed the scientists were commanded to concentrate their energies into creating weapons.
The cities were surrounded by rivers which provided strategic advantages in terms of defense. For a while, each city was reluctant to lay siege to each other, since the rivers were deep, wide and fast-flowing. But the scientists experimented on a common fish found in the rivers and soon engineered monsters.
Some of the arapaimas were massive enough to carry troops on their backs, and for a while, battles were fought at sea by navies to spare the civilian population. As in any arms race, more cunning variations of the same weapons were developed. Some arapaimas were made to attack the submerged foundations of the cities, by demolishing them with tails like wrecking balls. Others, dubbed ‘Bone Torpedoes’, possessed massive bony skulls, large and strong enough to ram warships.
When the cities fell and the ruins reclaimed by the jungle, the arapaimas were abandoned. Most of the fish died out, their unnatural over-sized physiology unable to adapt to the harsh jungle. But some had survived, and their ancestors are still living today. The pair of fish looking at me from behind the glass were the last of the Bone Torpedoes.
The arapaimas’ martial appearance made all the more sense to me now. Overwhelmed by their secret, I left the aquaria and returned to the hardware shop. My boss warned me not to take any more extended lunch breaks, and to my surprise, I agreed with him.
Upon waking, I knew the message in the dream was urgent, for I did not doubt the arapaimas’ power to communicate with me remotely. As soon as lunch time came, I quickly went to the Aquaria. I observed the arapaimas floating at the top of the tank. One was deathly ill, most likely with severe swim bladder disease, judging from the listless way it swam on its side and its pale, distended belly. The other arapaima was under the flank of its sick tank mate, easing the suffering by supporting some of its body weight.
I finally understood their request. Of why they did not conceive of jumping out or breaking the glass walls of their tank, although they were more than capable of doing so at any time. They were warriors once, created to die in battle, and suicide was a coward’s death. When the ill one died, the other would also want to join it, unable to bear the prospect of living alone in the tank.
I went to the Uniqlo store in the mall to buy a long black coat from the latest winter range, incongruously sold in Malaysia according to the fashion seasons in Japan. Back at work, I told my boss that I wanted to use my staff discount to purchase a fiberglass-handled sledgehammer. He did not ask why I wanted such a huge tool, being all too happy to open the first bill of the day.
Nobody noticed me in the black coat when I returned to the Aquaria for the last time. Perhaps the staff thought I found the air conditioning too cold for my liking. As I approached the arapaimas’ tank I saw them floating at the back, resting under a maintenance pipe set into the upper wall. The arapaimas knew I was coming and did not want to get in my way.
The force required to break acrylic glass is formidable but not impossible to summon. It dents first, before it cracks without shattering. When I struck the sledgehammer on the glass, the head of the tool bounced off the surface with a percussive ring. I steadied myself with a wider stance and swung the sledgehammer three more times, ignoring the fleeing screams of the other visitors. On the second try, a long hairline fracture appeared in a dent on the section of glass in front of me, and I knew where to concentrate the rest of my blows.
All this while, the arapaimas waited for me to complete my task. Behind me, the staff were shouting at me and a security guard was calling for back-up on his walkie-talkie. As an alarm went off, a burly member of staff wrested the sledgehammer away from me but the damage had been set in motion. A large shard of glass and a jet of water burst from the tank and flooded the floor of the rainforest biotope. I ducked to evade other pieces of flying glass and drew the coat over my head to protect my face. As the water level steadily went down, both arapaimas swam to the front of the tank and dipped their heads towards me in gratitude.
Lee Ee Leen is the editor of KL Noir: Blue and has been published with MPH, Monsoon Books Singapore, Solarwyrm Press, Intellect Books and Mammoth Books, UK. Her debut book 13 Moons was published by Fixi Novo in June 2014.
This story was previously published in the short story collection 13 Moons by Fixi Novo.
Illustration by Akira Lee. Akira is a Universiti Malaya student by day, geek and manga enthusiast by night. Drawing and writing by the moonlight. Accepting commissions at motesandshadows AT gmail.com.