Hiroshi regarded the cutting board before him with calm. Machi hit the counter bell and he broke from his reverie long enough to hand her a carton of sturgeon roe, and then went back to his contemplation.
Iku-yo! was more alone the lines of a trendy coffee shop than a sushi bar. The chef was unskilled and hacked the fish in thick, uneven wedges and crushed the sushi instead of slicing it. It mattered little to their clientele, no traditional sushi connoisseurs, thrill-seeking twentysomethings and gaijin who peppered their rolls with shoyu before even tasting it. What it lacked in staff skill it made up for in notoriety. Only last month Hiroshi had been contracted by the manager/owner to come along on a midnight “buying trip.” Thick, oily kujira rolls had been an unseen menu option for the following week, until the stench had turned even the manager’s guts. Rare, even illegal fish were their trade, but this…
Hiroshi’s official title was assistant chef, but he did little more than section up the fish meat to be handed off to the clumsy knife-swinger in the kitchen. All he had been told to do was section the fish before him and lay it out in Styrofoam cartons packed with ice. But he had yet to bring himself to touch it, let alone take a knife to its pale flesh.
Ningen. He thought only old people and fishermen believed in them, but if there was a better name for the white body before him he had yet to hear it. Like a sculpin, yet oddly jointed, as if the fins served another purpose. The skin looked rubbery and tough.
Machi’s hand dinged the bell again, and her head, shaved near-bald in the back but grown in shoulder-length tendrils near her ears, poked in the window and gave him an exasperated look. He gave her a slab of salmon to stall her.
Hiroshi was used to handling odd fish. He had worked on anglerfish, the meat near jellified from pressure shock, to seahorses, taken still living from their basin, to basking shark, this time only a fin and a bit of belly meat. Yet he still couldn’t bring himself to touch the fish directly, so he turned it over by using his knives as makeshift tongs.
The resemblance was even more uncanny on this side. Beady black eyes and a “nose” that he knew was just a bump of cartilage or some sensory organ, but together they formed a face that seemed to gaze at him with dumb shock. Two mounds between the pectoral fins. Hiroshi realized he was looking for nipples and made himself pick up his knives. It had no visible gills, yet the manager had called it a fish. He found himself wondering if the distinction was important. Oh well, it was easy enough to figure out…
He called the restaurant from home an hour later and told them he was never coming in again.
In the weeks that followed he avoided any mention of raw fish. He found a job in a trendy hipster café, the closest things to sushi were the sweet rolls they served with coffee. He served college kids with dorky hairstyles and tried to forget he had ever worked at a place called Iku-yo!
He ran into Machi once, on the street. Her trendy hair now had streaks of green, and she’d removed her lip stud. They’d crossed paths on the subway, she’d spotted him on her way into a car and her mouth opened to call his name, or perhaps ask him why he’d quit, but the doors shut between them. He was not sure he’d have an answer for her anyway.
He had a reason, of course. And nightmares. Endless, wet nightmares after he’d massaged the abdomen to express roe and something, not a mermaid’s purse, not roe, but most closely resembling a human fetus complete with umbilical cord slithered from the genital slit.
Hiroshi could still smell fish under his fingernails. He hoped it was psychosomatic since none of the customers complained.
Just once, his daily errand path led him past the restaurant. The little six-seat room had a line stretching out the door, and the sign now read Ningen-Yo! Though it sometimes added hours to his commute, he avoided that part of the city entirely.
Nights he’d stay up, thinking about that damn fish. Was it possible for humans to evolve alongside something at the same rate, but never seeing the other? Was the ocean really so unfathomable that something like this could go unseen for so long? Then he wondered why it would keep itself hidden for so long, and why it would let itself be caught. Let itself. He tried to turn off his thoughts after that.
They received a new food shipment that day.
“It’s so healthy!” the counter girl gushed, “and so yummy! It’s s got, like, some kind of super protein in it. It’s really popular right now.”
Hiroshi regarded the box. Beneath balloon lettering, there was an illustration of a white fish with oddly jointed limbs and a smile.