Most years, Sano only visited the bluefin once, during an eight-day tour of the ponds led by his head culturist. On the cart ride down, the culturist bragged on the work the staff had done, reporting even the slightest improvement in growth rate or mortality, the intricacies of how the goals for this year were identified and how each one was met. His pride was infectious, and Sano enjoyed the tours, exchanging pleasantries with the men and women who worked the ponds and crewed the ships.
His first encounter with the bluefin was different. It was winter, the off-season, and most of the employees had gone home to the mainland to visit relatives or to take other work. Sano, meanwhile, had just this month come to the island with Mariko and was busy settling himself into her family home, teaching himself its old-fashioned layout—so many more rooms than his home on the mainland, in strange places unintuitive to him. One afternoon, while he was acquainting himself with some old ledgers, Mariko quietly slipped into the office, gripped onto the edge of his desk, and put her face on the level of his face.
“Bored,” she said, slyness winking in the corner of her eye. “I can tell you are.”
“No,” he said, “I’m sure it looks boring, but there is a lot to learn. As long as there is something to learn, there is no excuse for being bored.” Which was a sentiment Sano searched his memory to find an author for, which he found to his surprise he could not attribute. Surely it had come from somewhere, if he could say it so easily and not believe it.
Mariko, too, saw through him. “Come outside,” she said.
The trail she took led them forever on through the trees, deep into the forest that covered the top of the mountain, and though he asked as many ways as he could think of, she did not say where they were going. It was sundown, growing chill, when she stopped him short in front of a small, dark pond. Sano peered into it, wondering if it was empty, and if so, why she wanted him to see it. Then Mariko pointed, and in the late, low light, he just barely discerned the flickering of silver fish—two, three, or more baby bluefin, running laps beneath the surface.
“They hatch them this far up the mountain?” Sano asked.
“We do,” corrected Mariko, smiling. “Yes. They stay here until they are mature, then they are taken to the shore where they are let to grow big. It takes years. You have only seen the big ones, I am guessing, at the market.”
This was true. Sano had been reviewing the literature about their life cycles, but he had always found measurement tables difficult to build a picture from. “They are smaller than I thought they’d be,” he said.
“The staff make sure they’re fed, but a little extra treat doesn’t hurt. I come to feed them when I get bored,” she said. “Would you like to come, next time?”
They stayed until it was night, feeding and watching the fish.
Mariko had grown up running around with her relatives on the island and so did not have his unspoken fears of the forest at night, of the water’s weird echo of the double-white moon. They trekked back without a light, Mariko walking steady and sure-footed ahead of him, and he startled privately at every snapping twig, every animal rustle.
He had not exactly answered her question, and Mariko never asked him any question more than once. It was a failing he had often chastised himself for that he never could remember the route they took, to take it again.
When Rin and Sano reached the shore, the day had just risen. The sand fine like salt and pepper, littered with drift, strewn with seaweed and debris, the sun tipping the shadows of the water with diamond. From Sano’s mouth came a sort of yelp, and he ran toward the beach, hopping one-legged to remove his sandals as he went. They came free finally and tumbled behind him, landing different directions from one another; he threw his shirt to the ground after them. He marched forward into the water until it reached the palms of his hands, then launched out, swimming still farther.
Coming up after him onto the beach, Rin waited with her chicken and with Sano’s clothes, watched him get smaller, watched his head disappear; then, watched as he shot up coughing, heard the sputter, persistent, of his spit. He turned slowly in the water, treading, gathering thoughts or courage, then inhaled sharply and dipped under once more. Rin put her hand to her forehead to block the sun. The chicken lost interest, found something to peck at.
When Sano came back up, he was gasping, hands scouring his hair and eyes; it took him a while to open them again. Back to shore he swam, and Rin waited expectantly as he regained his shoulders and arms, as he emerged dripping. Instead of telling her about it as she expected, he hurried past her across the sand and hunched, shivering, in front of his belongings.
“Awful,” he said, hands on his knees. He tensed a moment, face squinched and sick, then he conjured up a huge wad of spit onto the beach.
Rin watched it puddle like a jellyfish and then soak, disappearing into the sand.
Sano picked up his shirt, held it stretched before him a long time, as if trying to see his face in it. His body shook, beaded with water and violently goosebumped. “I wouldn’t mind that coat about now,” he said, teeth chattering, “but it’s good for the character to travel this life with nothing extra,” and he thrust his damp arms into his sleeves. He kept an absent eye on the sea as he did up the buttons. “I guess you’re used to it,” he said.
Rin’s clothes were spun of wool from a herd of sheep her people later sacrificed—a first effort at petitioning the god of storm for survival. So Sano’s words confused her. If the sheep had lived, she would have had as many clothes as she needed.
“Odds are they’re gone,” Sano said. He bit his lip and picked his shirt unstuck from his skin in a vain attempt to get dry. “It’s too cold now for them, and polluted. Fish are found making their homes in all kinds of places, the deepest of pressures and the hottest volcanic vents, but there are some who are not this way, who all their lives will question if there is a new and better spot to make a home, and tuna are fish of this kind, and these tuna that were here were bluefin, the most snobbish and unsteadfast of them all.”
The wind off the sea was cold. Rin combed her hair down to cover her ears. Next to her, Sano plopped down in the sand and tied on his worn-out sandals. She felt, keenly, that there was something he needed her to say. She stood over him silent instead, shielding him from the wind so he could recover warmth.
“I quit,” Sano announced from the ground. “I was overeager,” he said, voice cracking, and he flung himself up from the sand and stomped away, laboriously, feet swallowed in the dirty sand with each step.
The chicken cacked surprise on Rin’s behalf.
Sano took them up the west fork in the cart path, into the marshy land, where water from the angry sea had made flat silver pools, now grown rank and held motionless by moss. As they traveled further, the cart path began to fade, the furrows disappearing, the tramped thoroughfare narrowing, crowded at the edges with weeds and misplaced strings of seaweed. Sano drove them onward, though what help for their situation he hoped to find here, in the ruined land, the place hit hardest, Rin could not guess.
Yet it was here, not far from the bluefin habitat, that Rin and Sano found their house.
It was little, unimposing, buried half underground. It was unclaimed by mold or insects and appeared to have survived both the disaster and any panicking thereafter. It had a sound, flat metal roof; cloudy but intact windows; a step-down porch, from which Rin and Sano appraised the world they’d come from, squinting at the light as if from inside a bunker. “I’ll go first,” Sano said, and Rin held the door behind him.
The air inside was stuffy, hot, dry from non-use. There was little left but a bed and table and a bookshelf, a few books. The possessions stripped from the walls. The knives and forks all taken, the drawers empty. It had been carefully abandoned, not fled. The person who left had been prepared. It had probably been one of Sano’s workers.
“It’s safe,” Sano said.
And they made the empty place their home.
It wasn’t long before Sano had set for them a routine. The house had at its back a small patch of arable land. At dawn they collected from the chicken the day’s egg, if there was one; they ate their breakfast; then, until noon, they picked weeds and warded pests and sorted bad growth from good. Afterward, while the sun was its hottest, they did their shade work: Sano crafting tools and vessels from driftwood or mud clay, Rin cooking yams they’d picked and changing the chicken’s nesting. Early evenings were for exploring the surroundings, for stripping useful bark and hardy leaves from the beech trees and gathering the larger broken branches. Rin pointed out anything wild that could be eaten, and Sano collected it in a basket of his own making. They returned before dark, to eat and to read, or to watch Sano read, as it happened: Rin could not manage to learn, and disappointed Sano every time he tried to teach her.
All day Sano chattered at Rin, narrating his every thought under the pretense of keeping her involved, informed, included. “The habits of fish,” he would say, “are less habits than uniformly applied instincts. Many mistake this. They see a group of fish who’ve come to live in a new patch, and they say, ‘These must be different fish,’ or, ‘Perhaps the literature has been wrong about their habits and must change.’ There is of course nothing wrong with keeping an eye for new stock, or with wanting to change literature if it is incorrect or incomplete. But fish, bluefin especially—and the literature does say this—bluefin are responsive, and they notice very quickly the little changes in their environment. They could be anywhere. They would still be bluefin, even if they changed their home, yes?”
Sano would often end his sentences in this way, waiting for Rin’s agreement to continue. Without her nodding, he would stubbornly clam up the remainder of the day, until she approached him and somehow made it unmistakable that she would like to be acknowledged, or that she would like to acknowledge him. Rin avoided touching Sano, for Sano these days softened when touched, slid to one knee, arms draping across her back; he seemed to melt over her shoulders. His face grew droopy, and he would dote on her, the most embarrassing zoologies: “Good morning, Lark,” “Hello, Bite Bug.” Once, on a dreary, late night, in a whisper muffled by her narrow chest, “I’ve missed you all day.”
Sano tried, periodically, to conjure ways of getting news. It would be nice to know the fate of the other islands, the final toll of the disaster, or the date by which the mainland would be recovered. It would be nice to make contact with some other people who had survived as they did, and to see if they could be of help to one another, and to make conversation about how to rebuild the nation, for the island was part of the nation too, if only a little piece. His ruminating always reached the same conclusion: they’d have to travel from the house, and far, to have a chance at making contact. Doing so would return them to the life they lived before, scrounging for food and wood with blistered feet, sleeping poorly, fearing the night and the open elements. With this as their choice, Sano always picked staying over going. He would commit anew to building them some furnishings, to planting new seeds. He would start over their meager supply of books. He would read them aloud.
Rin busied herself by growing. Her arms and legs strengthened. Her feet got bigger; Sano made her new shoes. Her hair grew thicker; she started keeping it clean. Her orange scars began to disappear, and the ruined eye pinched finally shut like a bitter almond.
All this, a new life, settled into their bones as if they’d practiced it for years. By a calendar, which they did not have, it was not more than two months.
In that time, they saw no survivors. Just Rin, and Sano, and the house.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.