Mrs. Lark is dying. I think it’s the children. They’re like an algal bloom polluting her water. What I know is that when I lived with her all those years in her yellow-walled apartment, Mrs. Lark seemed healthy. Then in August, she scooped me into a plastic bag and brought me here. She said to me, “I’ll bet you didn’t know I used to teach. That was long before your time. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been in the classroom!”
Before the children arrived, Mrs. Lark hummed as she painted alphabet letters the size of the children’s skulls, each letter flanked by animals from axolotls with their pompous purple plumes to a zebu, the hump on the zebu’s back like a giant leach draining fluid from its spine.
Now she cries in the afternoons after the children assemble themselves into the shape of a sea snake and slither out the door. She cries some mornings, too, before the children arrive. Like their coming and going is what’s making her sick.
Or maybe it’s her fruitless struggle to shield the children from the brutal facts of life that gets to her. She tries to focus them on inconsequential things. The alphabet, for instance. The first time she cried was the day the children complained about the alphabet posters she’d painted and pinned to the walls back in August. The children said, “H is for honeybee?! Are you not aware that honeybees are nearly extinct? What century do you live in?” The posters came down.
I won’t lie; I was pleased to see the axolotls go.
But poor Mrs. Lark: slime oozed from her nostrils for an alarming length of time.
Children have the fidelity of hermit crabs. Trust me; I know. When the children first arrived, Mona, the one who glides (almost aquatic, that child), pointed at me and yelled, “Fish!” The children smashed their faces up against the glass of my tank like a brood of algae eaters. Not one minute later, the children had scattered like reef dwellers when a shark approaches. Their only interest in me since has been when Mrs. Lark asks, “Who wants to feed Chunk?” and every arm shoots up at once. Synchronize, synchronize.
Personally, I enjoy the lack of attention. When the children linger sometimes, after they shake the flakes into my tank, I eat too fast. I get indigestion. (If I don’t eat immediately, Mrs. Lark decides I’ve been overfed. She scoops the flakes out with a net.)
Mrs. Lark cried too the day the children asked why the cat in the beginning-readers books is always described as fat. They said, “Why does the author not emphasize some other attribute, say the cat’s shiny fur or wily character?” She said, “I guess because those words don’t rhyme.” The children said, “Is rhyming so essential that it trumps civility?” Mrs. Lark blushed. She said, “Of course, not.”
A shameful oversight on her part, for sure. However, the irony of the children electing to re-christen me Chunk, and some of them calling me The Inimitable Chunka-Lunky Butthead Supreme when Mrs. Lark isn’t within hearing, is not lost on me, I’ll tell you.
Then there was the day that the children asked about the framed watercolor hanging next to the classroom door. “What does it say?” they asked. “Don’t settle for the second highest peak,” Mrs. Lark read. The picture showed a man scaling a mountain, a rainbow overhead. The children said, “What if we want to climb the second highest peak?” Mrs. Lark said, “Oh, it’s not meant so literally.” The children said, “Is it not instructing us that the second highest peak is not worthy of our ambitions?” Mrs. Lark said, “Well.” The children said, “What kind of message does this send to Mona? She can’t climb any peaks at all.” Mrs. Lark looked as though she’d been stunned by an electric eel.
Mrs. Lark has not scaled any peaks, I’m quite sure. She knows as well as I do, I believe, that life is about survival; then you die. This mission of hers to try to convince the children otherwise is noble, I suppose, but foolhardy. She may hide her crying from them, but she can’t hide how she’s thinned these last several months. She can’t hide how she’s wilted, like the plant in my tank.
Today, after the children return from recess, Mrs. Lark holds up a ladle and says that the children will scoop water from one bowl into another and count the scoops. “Why?” the children ask. “I’m teaching you about nonstandard units of measurement,” Mrs. Lark says. Her skin is pale, her dress wrinkled.
The children say, “If you were to write a book about the wisdom you have acquired over the course of your life, would there be a chapter on nonstandard units of measurement?”
Mrs. Lark coughs. “No, there would be no such chapter, but you are children. You have your whole lives to seek other lessons.”
“Like what?” they ask.
Mrs. Lark stares at the floor. She’s close now. Three days in a row, the children have shaken out more flakes than I can eat, and Mrs. Lark hasn’t noticed. The water is so cloudy that the children are like floaters at the edges of my vision.
Mrs. Lark says, “How about you decorate the classroom walls with your art?”
The children run to the art station. They draw animals and authority figures, everything pooping or eating poop or shaped like poop. The children seem satisfied.
But sitting at her desk, Mrs. Lark looks limper than ever. Like when my fins stumble, and for a moment, I sink: My muscles feel so paltry. Death is taking nips out of us, devouring us slowly, bite by bite. If the plant in my tank is any indication, soon we will be nothing but mush. Mrs. Lark won’t be writing any books, but pay attention, children, and you will learn all you need to know.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (Moon City Press 2017). Her writing has appeared in The Common, Cream City Review, Hobart, Paper Darts, and other venues. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer and serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review. More of her writing can be found at her site.