Fiction

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World

Donald Antrim

It was Friday, the day of the big theriomorphism workshop Rotary luncheon out at the Holiday Inn. My wife, Meredith, and I and a crowd of red-faced Rotarians and their well-dressed wives (Rotary Anns) sat around hotel banquet tables and listened to a visiting anthropology professor at the junior college say, “Pick an animal, any animal, fish, fowl, beast. Concentrate on aspects of the animal. Is it big? Small? Cute? Does it eat other animals? What color fur? If the animal is a bird, what color are its feathers? What song does it sing?” 

“This is stupid,” I whispered to Meredith. 

“It’s your fault we’re here, Pete. Why don’t you give it a chance?” 

The anthropologist said, “Why don’t we all think about it for a minute? Okay, everybody got one?” 

“Yes,” “No,” “Wait,” people said. Meredith whispered, “What’s yours?” 

“I don’t know, what’s yours?” 

“Coelacanth.” 

“The prehistoric fish?” 

“I need a volunteer,” declared the professor. Meredith raised her hand, and the man at the podium said, “Yes, back there. Tell us your name and the name of the animal you’ve chosen to become today.” 

“Meredith Robinson. Coelacanth. It’s a kind of fish that scientists believed extinct until one was caught off the coast of Africa.” 

“Excellent. Come forward. Sit here. Would someone please dim the lights?” I watched Rotary guys watch my wife. Bill Nixon, Tom Thompson, Abraham de Leon, Dick Morton, Terry Heinemann, Robert Isaac—all the usuals, plus others. Jerry and his wife, Rita, sat up front. The professor soothingly said, “Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tell us about the coelacanth. Everybody else, let’s all breathe deeply too, and be thinking about our own animals. Go ahead, Meredith.” 

“Well, it’s four feet long, deep slate blue, with bony, protruding fins and big jaws with scary teeth. It goes back seventy million years. It moves slowly, it dwells in dark water.” The professor nodded. Audience members inched forward in their seats. Meredith said, “At night it swims upside down with its head pointed to the sea bottom, bobbing along.” 

“A feeding technique?” 

“Maybe.” 

“How’s the water?” I could see Meredith’s head settle forward as she softly answered, “Cold.” 

“Feel the cold. Breathe that cold. Inhale that water. What do you feel?” 

“Colors.” 

“Colors?” 

“Blue, black, indigo.” 

The anthropologist stepped from the stage and came forward into the crowd gathered around the tables set with plates that were littered with discarded skeletons of poached red snapper (the luncheon’s fish course, provided by Jerry and Rita); he collected white small bones from several plates and carried the bones back to the stage area and scattered them in a circle around my wife’s chair. He produced a portable cassette deck and loaded a tape that played hollow drum rhythms. He intoned along with the drums, “There is a circle of sea and you are in it, Coelacanth, bobbing above the ocean floor where the lonely crab rests on rocks where no mollusk grows. Blue squid drift on black tides lit by lanternfish. The solitary shark pays a visit but that doesn’t concern you. You are the last of the ancients. Swim your swim!” 

I watched Meredith’s head and shoulders gently moving. Rita Henderson clutched her husband’s arm. Men I knew and others I didn’t sat still with their wives, all focused on my wife’s feet suddenly dancing like bottom fish above bone-strewn hotel carpet. The visiting professor commanded, “Rise, Coelacanth. Cavort in the blue cold.” 

Meredith did rise. She hopped from foot to foot inside her private bone circle, head hanging, arms shivering, hands with tapering fingers churning air—she was working up a sweat. People in the audience swayed along with the echoing taped drumbeats. Everywhere, heads oscillated and feet tapped. Abraham de Leon was particularly into it: his mouth fell open, his tongue wagged, his body visibly trembled. I couldn’t imagine what kind of animal he was. And Tom Thompson! Unlike Abe, Tom did not tremble so much as quake. He bounced in his chair in a violent manner that caused other guests to stare at him and cough suggestively, but Tom was immersed in his own head and taking no notice; and soon the whole room was shaking to the sounds of drums getting louder and the instructor’s voice calling out, “Single-celled protozoa, insects, small birds and wildfowl; warm-blooded animals and sleepy reptiles; crustacea, fish, aquatic mammalia—everybody join in with Meredith the Coelacanth, let’s go, creatures, dance it!” Rotarians and their wives staggered from chairs and wobbled to the front of the room and encircled my wife in a bestial conga in which I alone did not participate. I remained at my table. I hadn’t even chosen an animal. 

The visiting professor came over and said, “Excuse me, is she with you?” 

“Yes.” 

“In some societies, special individuals are selected to enter alternate states of consciousness and ritually explore the spirit realm. Most of the people in that conga line merely imagine themselves as animals, but she’s actually become her animal. I’ve seen it before. It’s rare. She’s a natural. She has a gift.” 

“Really?” 

“I’d like to spend some time with her, monitor her rhythms, observe entry conditions, coach her in the methodology of closure. The novice can easily become lost between worlds and, in rare cases, suffer psychotic episodes. Trance experience is something our culture doesn’t prepare us for.” 

From the conga line: grunts and hoots rising above the rumbling of many feet. Meredith in the vortex danced. The professor said, “She’s learning to swim.” 

“I was learning to swim,” Meredith said later. Sweaty businessmen and their wives gathered around. All eyes were on my wife, who told the crowd, “Water held me. I was able to accept myself as a fish, and to feel the pain of living. I didn’t need assurances that I was worthy of love.” 

And at home that night, she told me, “As a person, I always needed someone to hold me, but as a fish I was buoyant, able to hold myself. Now I’m a little buoyant, but also I need to be held, because I feel heavy inside. I miss the friends I made in the ocean.” 

We were lying in bed with the covers pulled up. We held cups of hot milk with honey. 

“Friends?” 

“Other coelacanths. More than friends, actually. One was my mother and one was my father, and I had schools of brothers and sisters. I knew them, and they knew me. They didn’t wonder where I’d come from, because I’d always been there with them. As I am now. Even while lying with you, here, in our house, in our bed, I’m down there in cold water, swimming upside down, brushing against another coelacanth, making my presence felt and feeling the presence of another, before going off to a deep place to look for something precious.” 

“Something precious?” 

“A rock or a piece of coral. Something smooth, something shiny, something black.” 

Her breaths grew slow and deep, her breasts rose and fell. Katydids made scratchy noises in the pollenating mango outside our window. Wind blew a tree branch scraping clawlike against the house. A small time passed. 

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