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Unagi

On July 16, 2009, a young woman who was dining out with her husband in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Montreal died instantly when a concrete block fell from the front of the building and landed exactly where she was seated. This is not her story.

She looked at her watch (5:15 p.m.), then brought to her lips the glass of water the waiter had just set in front of her. There was a small stain on the cuff of his white shirt that could have been soy sauce. The smell of chlorine filled her nostrils; she raised her hand to order a bottle of Perrier.

Around her, in the half-filled dining room, businessmen eating alone, a few couples, and some tourists, who were easy to identify from the combination of elation and slight bewilderment on their faces and, for some, the sunburn on their nose. Of course, in a hotel such as this, there were hardly any children. The Perrier was barely tepid but she gave up on the idea of calling the waiter again and studied her neighbors—two Asians, a man and a woman in their early twenties silently sharing a colourful sushi platter that looked like an assortment of candies.

On the other side of the window, Maisonneuve Boulevard, traffic slowly oozed by as rush hour lingered. The skyscrapers were now empty but the still-lit windows studded their gray surface with a multitude of small dim rectangles. She checked her watch again (5:23 p.m.) and rubbed the back of her neck. An air-conditioning vent installed right behind her spewed cold air, and she regretted having left her coat at the bank. She had come early once again for fear of being late, even though this had not happened in years. Only a handful of seats had been occupied when she arrived; the maître d' had first showed her to the center of the main dining room to a table where a little laminated paper sign read "Reserve" in printed characters to which had been added the letter D in blue pen. She had frowned, then pointed to another smaller and mostly empty room that was separated from the main dining area by a set of steps; it looked like a glass sunroom lined with large windows through which shone the last shimmers of daylight.

"Would you have something over there?”

The maitre d' had looked upset for a few seconds, then went to find the manager; both of them had held a long discussion during which they had turned around to examine her, alone in the middle of the dining room, shifting from one foot to the other. She had been on her feet all day wearing new shoes, first at her bank teller counter and then in the metro, and her little toe was hurting. Finally, the manager had rushed over to her with a big smile that had appeared so suddenly it looked like he had slipped on a mask, and had offered her a table by the windows, gesturing as he pulled out a chair for her, being careful not to touch the seat. As soon as she sat down she noticed the cold draft on the back of her neck. 5:29 p.m. She felt a tickle in her nose. She could not tell whether this was caused by the industrial cleaner used to clean the carpet or because she felt a rising urge to cry. She picked up the purse she had propped against one of the table legs, set it on her lap, and pressed her thumbs on her closed eyes; red circles started to dance behind her eyelids.

He arrived almost immediately, sat down and declared, “I am hungry!” He took her hand and lightly brushed her fingers with a kiss. He was wearing a blue shirt with the top button undone, and his wavy hair curled on his temples. His cheeks were still flushed from running to make sure he got there on time. They had been married for over two years and had dated for about three years before that, and still, every time she saw him she was almost surprised, and her heart did a funny little somersault. This was all that mattered; everything else was trivial, short-lived . . . accidental. She just had to tell him. He would understand.

The bottle of sake he ordered arrived wrapped in a thick napkin. She covered her cup with her hand as he started to pour; a single drop fell at the base of her thumb. She licked it off. The sweet yet slightly tart liquid was the exact same temperature as her skin. He had already started to check the menu and was making suggestions out loud. To be completely honest, she had never really liked sushi, those little pieces of cold fish wrapped in sticky rice. The way their soft flesh gave under her teeth made her feel like she was biting into something that was not completely dead, or that had never truly been alive. It always conjured images of swollen fish guts and made her think about slimy, slippery underwater creatures, like the ones that slither between your legs when you go wading in the ocean or some murky lake. She did enjoy the vibrant colors, though. Coral pinks, mustard yellows, and the contrast of creamy avocados against the white rice and the green seaweed, so dark it seemed black; little wheels edged with golden or chocolate-brown sesame seeds that reminded her of the candy sprinkles used to decorate children's birthday cakes. The best way to proceed was to swallow each piece whole, without chewing, and admire the delicate flowery shapes of the sculpted vegetables.

Outside, a light rain had started to fall and the drops traced snail trails on the window panes. Traffic had eased a little and pedestrians hurried under their umbrellas. On the ground everything had turned the same gray tinge; the buildings stretched their concrete silhouettes toward an almost yellow sky that shed a strange light on the city. Maybe a storm was brewing. More patrons had filled the restaurant and the muffled hum of their conservations rose from the tables; the melody of their voices blended with the pitter-patter of the raindrops on the glass roof.

“I'm thinking hamachi, uni, masago, tako, maguro and unagi; how does that sound?”

“Perfect.”

“Do you even know what those are?”

“No, but I trust you.”

Which was true. She smiled at him. Not yet. Let this moment last a little longer, when their thorniest issue was deciding what kind of raw fish to order.

The Asian couple had finished their meal and were now deep in conversation; she did not understand a single word but the singsong quality of their speech reminded her of a lullaby. They were now drinking tea; wisps of aromatic steam wafted from the teapot into the room. The woman held the tiny cup in her hands as if to warm them. These two looked like brother and sister.

“I have some bad news . . .” he blurted.

She looked up to meet his eyes, feeling oddly hopeful.

“What is it?”

 “Terry officially quit today. He's accepted a job in Vancouver. We were kind of expecting it but still . . . We’ll probably have to postpone our trip to the lake by a week. I checked with my parents and they said it was no problem . . . I’m sorry.”

Her in-laws owned a log cabin on the shores of Pink Lake, which they were welcome to use for a week or two every summer. When she thought about them, this is always how she pictured them: sitting together on the covered porch overlooking the lake; the wail of the loons rising from the mirror-still water and ringing through the misty dusk. One summer, a long time ago—maybe when they were the same age she was now—the two had sat on their rocking chairs to watch a thunderstorm raging over the lake. They had told this story a thousand times. The rain was falling in thick sheets and thunder clapped so near and so loud that it kept shaking the porch and they could have sworn it was coming from the ground. The sky was streaked with huge disjointed lightning bolts that hit the ground like giant pitchforks, casting, for a split second, a supernatural glow on the surrounding forest. Her father-in-law had spent the day tearing down a half-rotten shed and was now having a beer on the porch, still in his work clothes, when he was struck by lightning. A thin white finger had come down from the sky, irresistibly drawn to the steel of his work boots’ reinforced toes. He had been thrown backward and his head had hit the log wall behind him. At the time, his wife's first thought had been to tend the head wound he had received, as copious amounts of blood trickled down his neck. Once at the hospital, the staff wouldn’t believe their story and thought it must have been some sort of domestic dispute gone wrong; the nurses and doctors changed their mind when they saw the charred soles of the work boots he was still wearing.

“One chance in a million,” is what he kept repeating over and over, “It's like winning the lottery!” Hearing him talk about it, you’d think these two unlikely events were mysteriously linked. He had kept his steel-toe boots but she had never seen them. To this day, and in spite of the numerous coats of paints that had since been applied to the porch, the circular shape etched by the heat of the lightning was still visible.

The nigiri and sashimi platters were brought to the table, a complex array of fish and seafood piles that threatened to fall apart as soon as they removed the first piece. She now thought the stain on the waiter’s cuff might not be soy sauce after all, but a drop of brownish dried-up blood. The octopus tentacles on her large rectangular plate were arranged in a star pattern, their tiny suckers like so many unblinking eyes staring back at her. With his chopsticks, he picked up a piece of pink salmon streaked with thin lines of fat. She tentatively poked at a piece of cucumber with the tines of her fork. Through the window, a siren could be heard, then another, close by. She realized there was no good moment for this kind of thing. She had thought it would be easier to do this in one of his favorite restaurants, as if being in a public place could protect her, or him; or somehow avert, lessen or undo what she was about to tell him.

Terry was moving to Vancouver, on the other side of the country; might as well be the other side of the planet. At least, his leaving came as a relief. It changed everything, and it changed nothing. She needed to think, some peace and quiet, a little bit more time to set her thoughts in order.

“Did you know,” he started, “that after spending many years in salt water, salmon return to the river to spawn, at the exact spot where they hatched?”

She vaguely remembered having seen a documentary about this on TV or hearing about it in biology class at school.

“When they built all the big hydroelectric dams, they blocked many of the creeks and streams; this created insurmountable obstacles for them; thousands . . . maybe millions of salmon died trying to swim upstream. I've seen pictures . . . dead salmon as far as the eye could see.”

“Why didn’t they go back where they came from?”

He shrugged. “They were probably not programmed for that.”

“So why didn't they spawn at the foot of the dam, then?”

He thought about it some more and admitted he had no idea why; he then picked up a purple slice of octopus with the tip of his chopsticks. She put a piece of avocado in her mouth; a bit of barbecued eel had been hiding under it and the slippery texture of its grayish flesh made her gag. She spat it out in her napkin.

”Are you OK? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m fine. I’ll be right back.”

She got up and almost ran to the bathroom, sat down in one of the stalls—not before carefully placing pieces of toilet paper all around the seat—and forced herself to take deep breaths. There was no hurry. They were married. That counted for something. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes. This kind of thing happens every day. That's life—unpredictable and fraught with perils, a succession of random decisions. She grabbed the plastic tube she had been carrying in her purse all day and went to throw it out in a metal trashcan that read “Napkin Disposal Only” when a wave of dizziness hit her and made her lean on the rough and cool surface of the paper-towel dispenser. The slender plastic tube fell to the floor; she blocked its path with her foot, picked it up and cleaned it off carefully. The white-tiled room smelled dank; in the stall next to her, the toilet gurgled and sounded like a neverending sigh, or like faraway waves breaking on a shore. Through a vent near the ceiling, she could hear a muted cacophony of utensils and barked orders in which she could pick up a word here and there. One chance in a million. She returned the plastic tube to one of her purse pockets and closed the zipper; she blew her nose, left the stall, reapplied her lipstick, and let the water run in the sink. The pink soap coming out of the metal dispenser in long opalescent filaments smelled of bubble gum. All she had to do was wait . . . that’s what she had to do. Nothing at all. Some sign would come along to point the way. She pushed the bathroom door open and almost collided with a busboy. The huge brown container he carried was filled to the brim with food scraps, dirty plates, and teetering towers of translucent fingerprint-smeared glasses.

She made her way back to the table. The rain had stopped; Maisonneuve Boulevard gleamed under the streetlights. The sidewalk mirrored the skyscrapers' oddly distorted silhouettes, tilted and quivering as if they were about to collapse in the middle of the street and shatter in a thousand pieces. She sat down in front of him and declared, “It’s OK by me if we have to postpone our holidays by a week. While we're there, maybe we should spend some time fixing up the porch, it's long overdue.” She could see herself stripping and sanding the damaged wood to remove the charred mark before painting it anew. Nothing would show.

He took her hands in his again; they remained still for a long time, without saying a word, their interlaced fingers in the middle of the table; a few grains of rice and the wilting rose of the pickled ginger were the only things left on the sushi plates. The waiter soon came to clear the table and asked if they wanted to order something else.

“I would like one of those almond cookies,” she said, "the ones with the fortunes.”

The waiter looked at her with a blank stare.

“Those are Chinese, hon,” said her husband, “. . . this is a Japanese restaurant.”

“Then I'll have some of that tea,” she replied, pointing to the now empty table where the young Asian couple had dined.

“Kombucha,” announced the waiter with a slight bow as he set before them a teapot from which emanated a strong fruity and musky fragrance.

“What is it?” asked her husband to the waiter as he poured the amber liquid.

“Green tea and honey fermented with a mother.”

They looked at him inquiringly.

“Just like vinegar,” he explained, “it's made from a bacterial culture mixed with yeast that is sometimes referred to as Kombucha mushroom.”

Right away, images of mold came flooding in, cells growing uncontrollably and multiplying to birth limp and fuzzy alien creatures. Disgusted, she pushed her cup aside and looked up at her husband, who was carefully sipping from his.

“Healthy bacteria,” explained the waiter with a slightly insulted look before quickly leaving their table

Her husband swallowed a small mouthful. “It’s delicious. But there are things we'd rather never know, right?”

“I agree.”

She finished what was left of her mineral water while he drank the tea she was now refusing to touch, its mere odor enough to make her feel slightly nauseous. The majority of diners who had arrived early had now finished their meals; the tables were instantly cleaned and dressed again for the main service of the evening.

Outside, dozens of emergency vehicles sped past, their sirens blaring. Intersections were blocked to traffic which was being diverted by policemen freshly dispatched at the scene. In the distance, the usually impressive red and chrome fire trucks almost looked like toys. She checked her watch again, 6:25 p.m. The waiter brought them the bill and she realized that they had forgotten to charge her for the bottle of Perrier. She considered mentioning the omission for a second and then decided to keep it to herself, which gave her a certain sense of satisfaction. They split the bill, tip included, and each paid half.

Maisonneuve Boulevard, they pushed their way through the rapidly growing crowd of gawkers trying to figure out what was going on and coming up with the wildest stories: a mini-tornado had touched down at this very street corner; not one, but two suspicious packages had been discovered; a piano had fallen from the twentieth floor. Rushing ambulance and police car sirens could be heard coming from all directions; their spinning, flashing lights cast a supernatural glow on the cityscape. On the corner of Metcalfe Street, yellow tape surrounded a security parameter and a white-gloved policeman blocked their access in no uncertain terms.

“No one can get through, turn around.”

“My car is parked on the corner,” explained her husband as he tried to walk past him.

The policeman didn’t budge.

“But it’s right there,” he insisted, pointing at his car just a few hundred meters away.

The policeman answered by crossing his arms across his chest and staring them down.

They turned around, walked one block up and tried to cross Peel Street but their path was blocked there too. The crowd kept on growing and he had to hold her hand to avoid losing her in the melee. As people streamed in from everywhere to converge on the scene of the accident, they finally gave up, retraced their steps, and went home on foot; she with a slight limp because of her sore toe.

“They would have died anyway,” she said after they had been walking for a few minutes.

“Who?”

“The salmon, they would have died anyway, even without the dams.”

She remembered now: their color changed once they arrived at their spawning grounds, they stopped feeding, their physiognomy altered, their jaws turned into something that looked like a beak, and humps grew on their heads; they morphed into sea monsters like the ones in Middle Age bestiaries. They died as soon as they laid their eggs.

Translation of “Unagi.” Copyright Dominique Fortier. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Paloma Vita. All rights reserved.