Photo by La Toya Crittenden
The grant year is going okay, you will say if anyone asks. The only thing is that the cool girls live in your building.
These are the students you want to love, but whose withholding glares bring you slam-back to when you were fourteen and covered in acne and painfully out of place in your own body. Have teens always been this put-together, always this beautiful and seemingly unflustered? You duck your head as you see them in the mornings, walking to school arm-in-arm, their sneakers gleaming white, the keychains on their backpacks jangling almost tauntingly.
During class, if they become distracted, you sometimes confiscate the makeup mirrors that sit on the corner of each desk. You hope that you do this because of your desire to better their education, and not because some small, irascible part of you resents them for doing a better cat-eye eyeliner than you ever could—at an age when you once wore fishnet gloves and purple skinny jeans, and straightened your greasy bangs to a crisp.
Again, one of these students raises her eyebrows as you take her mirror and place it on your own desk. Very well. Let the teens be teens. It must be for their own good—you think, rather austerely, rather plaintively.
The lesson goes otherwise smoothly. You reach the final stage of the class where they break into pairs for an independent activity. You take a seat at your desk, take a breath, congratulate yourself for another trainwreck-free thirty minutes.
The students are hard at work and not likely to see, so you allow yourself a single glance into the confiscated makeup mirror.
When you glance into the glassy surface, there is movement. Like a fish under dark water. Something is moving. You blink, but you haven’t imagined it—a shadowy figure stares back out at you, its eyes pale and mournful.
It takes a second, but somehow, you know—it’s you—from another dimension, the other universe where you were acne-free by age fourteen and avoided a goth phase and made all the right friends and never developed the complex of someone living day-to-day, running from something maybe nonexistent, maybe self-created.
“All the wrong choices you’ve made,” the figure groans. “I have helpfully outlined them for you in a decision tree.” The figure rifles around in its pockets, produces a folded note, and holds it up to the surface of the mirror. You hesitate, but when you touch the mirror, your hand sinks through the glass like it’s warm water.
You want to ask the alternate-you—why now? Aren’t you now millions and millions of miles away from those wrong choices? Wasn’t that the point?
You want to ask, but when you look in the mirror it’s your own reflection staring back. And the folded note, upon opening, is nothing more than a worn piece of blank paper.
On the walk home to your apartment building, you decide to turn the news notifications off on your phone. You’re in a new country, after all, and it’s only right that you give 100% to this experience. You subscribe to The Korea Times but delete the rest, muttering the word “experience” over and over under your breath as the apps tremble with fear and disappear in a puff.
This time of day, you always hope to see your favorite stray cat who sometimes stretches himself out in the yellowing grass in front of your apartment.
“Hi baby,” you coo to him, crouching down and scratching him under the chin. He closes his eyes contentedly, raises his head.
People pass by and give you confused, slightly disgusted glances. You stiffen. You understand your kinship with this stray marks you as even more strange and clueless, even more out of place. Your host mom has warned you about stray cats and disease and you know she’s right, but in this strange new state of again being someone’s child, someone who must learn from the very beginning of things like a newborn, you allow yourself some moments of childish rebellion.
“You’re a good baby,” you tell him, because he is a good baby. You stroke the matted fur along the ridge of his spine, and then notice something strange—a piece of paper tied around the base of his tail.
“What’s this?” you ask him. He lies still as you untie the string and unfold the piece of paper.
It’s a headline, a notification. ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION? 10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE CLIMATE SUMMIT.
You look down at the cat. He gazes back unflinchingly, eyes round and ancient as the moon.
Your students are improving. You had reservations about how effective you would be, a first-time teacher with no worldly experience, but you’re proud of how well they (and by extension, you) are doing.
Today, your lesson is on the language of dates and times. When it comes time for speaking practice, a supernatural quiet falls over the room as each student gets to her feet and stands beside her desk. In unison, in a deep and hellish voice that belongs to no thirteen-year-olds of this world, the class predicts in perfect English future tense the exact time and date you are to die.
It’s one of those winter days where the sun is nearly set by 5pm. You stand on the steps of your school and watch it sink into the city spread out before you, an egg yolk breaking into the apartments and slope-roofed houses, convenience stores and government buildings, the port crowded with fishing boats and the sea beyond that.
Today, you are walking towards the park next to the port when you hear a panicked voice, hoarse and distant: “Excuse me!”
You freeze, turn around. Nothing appears out of the ordinary: a woman with her dog, a mother and father walking with their son between them, three old men sitting on a bench pouring each other paper cups of makgeolli1.
Then, again, the voice: “That’s right!”
You scan the area around you—nothing—the old men on the bench silently sipping at their drinks, the nearby empty seafood restaurant, the bubbling tanks outside filled with fish and octopus and various sea creatures.
You fix your eyes on the seafood restaurant. And that’s when you see it—among the many tanks crammed with sea creatures awaiting their inevitable fate, inexplicably, the biggest tank holds only one fish—long and red, its scales glimmering in the dimming light. It stares at you. And you understand.
“Bingo!” the fish spits. “Now, please, will you help me?”
You make sure no one is looking before stepping forward towards the tank. “What do you want?” you ask.
“What do you think?” the fish asks, an edge to its voice. “Get me out of here!”
You glance around, and the fish seems to read your mind: “No one will see.”
“I don’t know….” you trail off a little. “I’m a guest here, I don’t really want to be seen stealing something—”
“Something?!” the fish exclaims, thrashing its tail. “Do you know who I am?”
It just looks like a fish, you want to say, but you don’t want to cause offense. The fish widens its glassy coin eyes.
“My family has ruled these seas for millennia. There are some who would even call me the Prince of the Fishes. Do you understand?”
You don’t reply quick enough and the fish exhales in frustration, causing a stream of bubbles to trickle up the wall of the tank.
“If you were to rescue me from this unlawful prison, my family would reward you handsomely. You say you are a guest in this country. How would you like to be a guest—an honored one, at that, a hero!—in mine?”
You look into the round, unblinking eyes of this great fish and realize, yes, you would like to find a place under the silky folds of the waves, far away from the responsibility and alienation and routine that you could not escape even here, in this strange new country—and again the Prince of the Fishes seems to read your thoughts.
“Excellent,” it says.
You dip your hands into the tank and remove the large red fish, its scales slippery, cold to the touch. You walk, arms outstretched, all the way past the men on the bench and the happy parents and couples and dogs on the sidewalk to the park near the port, where you kneel to the ground by the water. The sun, nearly set, glimmers on the surface of the waves like oil.
The fish slides out of your hands and splashes into the water.
“Now,” the fish says. “ Are you ready to take your reward?”
You feel a prickle in the back of your hand. You raise it to your eye-level and watch as one by one, the tiniest, silverst of scales begin to form there.
You live for many years in the kingdom of the fish-prince. You become friends with the fish gentry and they laud you for your bravery, your brilliance, your selflessness in saving their beloved prince from an unspeakable fate. You want for nothing. You fall in love and marry and together raise many fish-children, watch them proudly as they grow up and go on to do great things.
You become old and venerable. Soon the younger generations come flocking to your sea-cave. They ask questions in reverent voices, fall before you in worship. Some of them stay camped out in front of your sea-cave, hoping to get a glimpse of the fish who once walked on land, never leaving you enough space to breathe.
You become old and cantankerous. You resent the fact, now, perhaps too late, that you are in a place in which you have no past. Who you were on dry land has no bearing on what you are now. They have made you into something different—a symbol, something that once deciphered loses all value. A lifetime ago in the dry place, this had been the ultimate goal—to shed the long, trailing hem of all your past mistakes and naivety. But now, that blankness chafes against you. And you realize that you want out.
When the crowd outside your cave is resting and quiet, you embark on a swim outside of the city. It’s dusk—even from where you live at the very bottom of the sea, you can see a sliver of light from far above, the sun drifting on the surface of the water.
And suddenly you are swimming towards the dim light. A casual swim becomes something fast, almost feverish—your elderly fish-body aches as you move back and forth, back and forth, racing towards the surface. The sea-kingdom where you have built a life for yourself grows smaller and smaller, and soon you aren’t looking back at all.
The light grows bigger. And then you are staring up through the thin membrane that separates sea and land.
You push yourself out into the air.
The years fall off of you and you are twenty-something again and stupid, standing on your own two feet.
In the park by the port, some of your students—the cool girls—are gathered, sitting in a circle in the grass. They lean against their backpacks, taking selfies, playing on their phones, braiding each others’ hair.
One of them glances up. She sees you standing there in your work clothes, sopping wet, still ankle-deep in the water. She looks back down, pretending not to see you, but subtly alerts her friends of your presence.
Soon they are all staring at you.
You smile, wave. They look back at you uncertainly.
You suck in your cheeks, bring your hands to your face and wiggle your fingers to make gills. Universally recognized, a fish face.
The girls smile. They suck in their own cheeks and wiggle their own fingers, laughing with the effort of it, grabbing their phones to check what these faces look like.
The empty park resonates with their laughter, and soon, preoccupied with themselves as they should be, they aren’t looking at you at all.
You step out of the water and begin the walk home.
Madisyn Mettenburg was a 2019-2020 ETA at Mokpo Hyein Girls Middle School in Mokpo, a port city in the southernmost part of Korea. She is a 2019 graduate of Oberlin College, where she earned double majors in Creative Writing and Political Science. Though she has returned home to quarantine with her family, she misses her city and her students very much; even when confronted by talking fish, or the eerie silence of a room full of teenagers, her time in Korea was, so far, the best of her life.