From an ostrich farm in Arizona to an octopus handler coming to terms with the disappearance of her brother, the short stories in Abby Geni’s debut collection, The Last Animal, explore human-animal relationships that support and nourish us through the challenges of modern life. Here Geni talks about first encounters with the world as “a wild place, unknown and untamed.” The Last Animal is just out from Counterpoint Press.
The turtle was almost as big as I was. It looked like a relic from the deep ocean, or perhaps the distant past—a cruel, hooked beak and a shell studded with sharp points. The alligator snapping turtle was theoretically benign, but its broad maw and vicious claws were a bit too reminiscent of dragons and dinosaurs for my taste. It fascinated me. Whenever it stirred inside its tank, kicking off the bottom, sipping the air, I would bolt across the room to find my mother.
As a child, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium was my favorite place in the world. I visited it whenever possible, moving through the wide, darkened rooms, peering into the glowing tanks where jellyfish, eels, and clownfish drifted among fake rocks and cartoonish anemones. The tanks looked like television screens, but they were so much better. There was the big red octopus. There were seahorses. There were whiplike gars and sleepy nurse sharks, dozing on the tank floor.
People often think of Chicago as the landlocked midwest. They forget that the city is pressed up against what is essentially a vast inland sea. Lake Michigan is big enough to change the weather. On a clear day, you can see the smokestacks of Indiana on the other side, vague and ephemeral, like a mirage. For the most part, however, the lake claims the whole eastern horizon. Its smell fills the air. The crying of the seagulls is as much a part of city life as the rumble of the train.
The Shedd Aquarium capitalizes on this oceanic vista. The building sits on the coastline—at the edge of the world—and one whole wing is fitted with windows. The dolphins perform their hourly shows against a backdrop of whitecaps and sailboats. It gives the impression that the lake and the aquarium are somehow connected, as though the stingrays, the electric eels, and the otters, tumbling in their artificial river, might slip out when the place closes for business and frolic in the silty blue.
My frequent encounters with octopuses and beluga whales certainly colored my impression of the lake itself. The coast of Chicago is strewn with beaches, which are packed in the summers—volleyball nets, sandcastles, gaudy umbrellas, people sunbathing on towels, children crashing around in the surf. Yet the lake itself is not quite safe. There are patches of undertow and riptide. The water is always cold, even in August; the native Chicagoans splash happily, accustomed to the chill, but the tourists tend to dip their toes in and turn tail, shivering. Every so often, a boat will be lost on the water. Every so often, someone drowns. I spent my summers at the shore, turning brown, building drip castles, and rescuing the ladybugs I found floating on the surface, unable to get themselves airborne again. I loved to swim, and I was afraid of it, too. Lake Michigan is opaque and strange. Seaweed wafts on the surf; minnows flash in the shallows. I was never entirely sure that there weren’t sharks out there. Poisonous rockfish. Alligator snapping turtles. Sea urchins. Squid. I liked that fear, the uncertainty. I liked swimming out past the buoys, my heart in my throat, wondering what might be moving through the cool depths beneath me. I liked believing that the world was still a wild place, unknown and untamed.
My collection of stories, The Last Animal, explores the connection between human beings and nature, and the first piece I wrote for the collection, “Captivity,” is set in a lightly fictionalized version of the Shedd Aquarium. I still remember the magic the place held for me when I was small. I remember walking through the sedate, graceful halls, down echoing corridors. Sometimes it seemed as though, in the aquarium, nature was contained and controlled. Each fish was labeled correctly and caged appropriately. But if you were there for long enough, your sense of these things would start to shift. There were so many tanks, shimmering in the darkness. Eels leered from caves. The octopus wound its tentacles along the glass. In strange, unexpected moments, my perspective would be altered. I would no longer see a building, manmade and sturdy, with pockets of nature sealed up inside. Instead, I would see nature as the ruling force, immense and unrestrained. I would see the aquarium as a ship at sea, with a thousand portholes, each revealing a different glimpse of an infinite ocean.
Abby Geni is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the recipient of an Iowa Fellowship. She lives in Chicago, where she is at work on a novel.