OF MONSTERS is a series of flash fiction exploring what it means to be monstrous, and each piece, small and silver-wrapped, opens to reveal something different. In Dana Diehl’s “Child Star,” monstrousness is fame, and the feeling that your body is undependable, might any moment split like a seam. In “Jane Eyre,” Zach Doss explores the monstrousness of cutting someone to bits and reconstruction, of a love turned scientific and procedural. Monstrousness is having a fish in your heart, is a series a B movies where we’re just waiting to be attacked, is the pebbling in of a migraine, is being a different sort of person in your attic, is darkness, is senility, is the struggle to swallow. A topcoat of witchcraft. The hint of a tentacle in a pool. Monstrousness is being the person who wasn’t good enough to love. Is the dragon you can’t control. Is knowing how powerless you are.
The series is inspired by Melissa Goodrich’s debut collection Daughters of Monsters, a raw and magical book of spells, an honest yet harrowing look at the wonder and threat of the world.
Leon and I drive two hours through the slush to see a cardiologist because his heart feels like a fish out of water, flapping urgently at irregular intervals. We get out at a pair of black glass towers, a metal bridge strung between them. The tower on the left is numbered eighty-six. On the ground floor is a red bank, its revolving doors trickling frowning customers. We take the elevator to the seventh floor.
The cardiologist places an ultrasound wand to the left of his sternum. I watch my father’s valves chug and flutter and snap shut and wonder how much they resemble mine. Leon scowls at me. “Get me a glass of water,” he says. I head into the empty blue hallway and find the water cooler. I catch Leon saying my name but the rest of the sentence is muffled. On the counter next to it someone has left a bottle of bleach and I try to imagine what they use it for: laundering scrubs? Sterilizing the rooms? When I come back carrying a clear Dixie cup, I see the cardiologist has flipped to a view with a rainbow of electrical impulses. “That’s odd,” she says. Then she moves the ultrasound wand and we see it, curled into his ventricles, black tail flapping. “You have a fish in your heart,” she tells Leon. I hand him the clear Dixie cup, still staring at the screen, and he puts it to the side and forgets about it.
“How does that even happen?” he asks. “How do we get it out?” One long, black fin runs the underside of its body and waves with the current of his blood.
“It’s a Black Ghost Knifefish,” I say. I’ve seen it once before, when I went to Venezuela, before Leon got sick and I had to come home. “Named for the belief that the souls of the departed reside in these fish. Nocturnal. Eats insects. It’s a low-voltage electric fish.”
“I don’t care if it’s a goddamn bunny,” Leon says. “Just get it out of me.”
The cardiologist flips back to the rainbow view. “I think it’s keeping you alive. It seems to have replaced your sino-atrial node.” She waits for Leon to respond to that miracle of a sentence, but he doesn’t. She continues, “We’ll need to do surgery to remove it and then insert a pacemaker. As soon as possible. I’d like to get you in this week if we can.”
Leon nods. “That sounds good.”
As they talk insurance, I watch the screen and see the fish in Leon’s heart swim against the flow of blood into his atrium, do a graceful flip, and settle back into the ventricle facing the other direction after waiting artfully for the valve timing. “Will we be able to save the fish somehow?” I blurt out, interrupting them.
Leon’s lip curls. “Why would you want to?”
The night before my father’s surgery, I stand staring out the window in the kitchen. It’s snowing and the flat expanse of lawn and gentle mounds of the landscaping look blue in the moonlight. I remember the night I spent sleeping in a hammock by the river in Guayana City in December two years before, watching Orion rise, with nowhere to be the next morning. I think of the dark river bottoms and secret places of the Black Ghost Knifefish—think of it waking at night and sucking at the surface of the flat, slow water for its insect meals, undulating its long fin and sending flashes of electricity through the darkness. I hear Leon cough and he sounds like he’s in the next room, even though he’s upstairs and behind a closed door. I go to the cabinet and find the big steel bowl and fill it with water, lukewarm. Then I open the silverware drawer. If I can make it to Miami, I think to myself, then, fish, we’ll be even.
Hilary Gan lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 3.8 million other people. Her work has appeared in literary magazines includingJersey Devil Press, Blunderbuss Magazine, and Petrichor Review, and is forthcoming in After Happy Hour Review and The Tishman Review. Find more of her stories and essays at hilarygan.com.