Under the Sway
By Ayden Crosby
It was late winter, and he was standing in the passing rain. It was cold – an acute, trenchant type of cold– and he was waiting for the bus, which would soon take him 10 stops to the botanical museum. As he waited there in the rain, a sharp light caught his eye on the periphery. He turned to the side and then down, catching its source on the ground: It was an aluminium bottlecap, wedged in between the cobblestone, refracting sunlight back at him as a hole in the clouds was opening up. The light appeared to disrupt the material of the street and of the city; as if a dehiscence had emerged not just in the clouds but in the scene of life itself, in the fabric which had been stitched over the gap between reality and illusion. He often noticed things like this – little disruptions – when, for example, a trick of light or a warped sound would shove him up against the edges of his perceptual powers, making reality and illusion difficult to parse. Although it was late winter, the crepuscular sunlight was slouching, loitering, as if the darkness were running late from a prior engagement. He was going to the botanical museum to escape the cold.
The botanical museum was housed in two palatial greenhouses, connected in the center by a low hanging glass hallway and surrounded outside by nearly a square kilometer of gardens. The buildings had soaring glass ceilings held up with cast iron vaults, so high that one could forget easily that it was not the sky. When he got there he could barely breathe: the air inside was sultry, and it sat heavy in his airways. But nevertheless he liked it there, in that little cultivated reality. That’s because at the botanical gardens there could be no rupture – no dehiscence – since there was nothing stitching together reality and illusion at the seams in the first place. It was a world by and for the deciphering of the human mind.
He took in the warm air and began walking aimlessly from plant to plant, from the section on the American West to South America and then to the South Pacific. He tried to remember their Latin names and other labyrinthine categorizations, but thinking made him feel hot. He realized he had not taken off his thick jacket, and as he reached down to unzip it, a bright yellow color caught his eye on the periphery. It was a large yellow sign hung on the side of a low pool of water in the hallway that connected the two greenhouses. Vorsicht Piranhas it read, beware of the Piranhas.
He had read a lot about Piranhas. He knew, for example, that they are an omnivorous fish from the freshwaters of South America; that they are banned from private possession in many jurisdictions; that they entered the public consciousness in the U.S. through the publication of Theodore Roosevelt’s Through the Brazilian Wilderness, a book on his post-presidential colonial escapades in South America. The book contains, notably, a description of piranhas written just after its author bore witness to a school of them eating an entire cow. He knew a section of this description by heart, too: “The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark’s, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head, with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks.” It was published in 1914, which he knew was the same year Charlie Chaplin began his film debut, the same year commercial flight began, the same year the Archduke of Austria was shot.
He also knew that this description was based on an entirely false premise, that what Roosevelt had witnessed was a drummed-up spectacle. In an attempt to put on a show, local fisherman had blocked off and starved an artificially large number of piranhas for days, leaving them with no other option but to eat the whole cow. Such attacks, he later read, are very rare, and usually only result in minor injuries. This was precisely the thing that caught his attention. He did not care so much about the fish itself or its biology. He was mesmerized instead by the proliferation of its fictitious reputation; its becoming a floating signifier; the public’s credulity in believing the fantastical, the outlandish; how, through one man’s use of descriptive liberties, an entire country could fall under the sway of this single fish.
He had read all of this about piranhas after his sister died that one day. It was a warm winter day – unseasonably warm – and many years ago by then. He and his sister had trudged laboriously through the heavy snow, thick and crystalline from the previous day’s thaw and freeze, down to the reservoir not far from their childhood home.
In the wide-open basin of the reservoir the sky had seemed boundless, its extent dappled with little clouds, its azure sublime. His sister had put on her skates and hobbled onto the frozen water; he had watched dazedly from the shore, drunk in the sun’s heat. The reservoir was slick and shiny, its ice was sinuous and the wide methane bubbles frozen into it were thylakoidal, each one further revealing the depth of the ice frozen below.
He had been shaken suddenly from his daze when, in an instant, the frozen lake let out a loud creak, and then a roar. It was a piranha, with its stunted, underbitten mouth and small eyes, had thrusted up into the ice below her, its force sending cracks across the lake. With its teeth it had lodged itself into the ice, and it writhed back and forth in horrendous panic.
Seconds later he heard another loud boom and then a crack. He looked across, his sister was looking down. Then, her body slipped serenely into the water and for a second everything was silent. He tried walking across the ice, but it was too late: He heard splashing, that of which he thought could only belong to piranhas. The lake was always safe in the winter, he thought to himself.
So he decided to walk past the section on the South Pacific and into the connecting hallway to get a better look at the sign that had caught his eye. Vorsicht Piranhas. There were four of them, actually, one on each side of a swampy pool that was filled with mucky water and flowering Nymphaeaceae and PVC pipes caked in calcium carbonate. The air was hot and sticky– enough to forget that it was late winter in the northern hemisphere– and the water, despite all appearances, all that muck, was entirely transparent, so much so that he could see right through it. And that’s just the thing: the water was actually very shallow, and there weren’t any piranhas at all.
Ayden Crosby is a Fulbright Researcher based at Humboldt Universität in Berlin, where he’s doing research in environmental history. He’s from the US west coast and speaks English and German.