When wildlife conservationists released a dozen axolotls into the waterways in an abandoned town not far from Guadalajara, they were surprised to see the pink salamanders swim within the water for less than a minute. The endangered creatures jumped out of the pool on their own.
Eleven of them moved to the side and chose to die rather than learn to live again in this human-created habitat. Their smiling mouths stayed that way as they flopped along the dirt. Meanwhile, the last survivor came out of the water. It regarded its dying friends and marched down the road. The conservationists could not explain what was happening, but this last axolotl popped into a stranger’s home and, though they later tried to find it, they could not. The attempt to save the species was deemed a disaster.
Some years ago, on a flight from Tokyo to Guadalajara, I gave in to the cardinal sin of air travel—I spoke to a stranger. In the middle of the flight, when all those around me were asleep, I saw a slow set of tears fall from a Japanese woman’s eyes and disappear into her jeans. Hours to go, the short aisle between us was an insufficient chasm. I could not ignore the scene. So, I asked her what was wrong, and she confessed in carefully selected English that she was on her way to bury her son.
“But I’m not blaming Mexico,” she pleaded, as if I thought she was the type to blame a whole nation for a single incident. “He loved the country and the cities. Never had a bad thing to say.”
“What did he do there?” I asked.
“He learned to cook. He studied the cooks in the kitchen and the cooks in the home. Always, he said, Mexico produced the greatest food. He wanted to know why; so, he moved there the moment he became an adult. Would have been three years in a couple of days.”
“I think I would agree with his assessment. It’s a wonderful food culture.” The way I said it, with a remove and a distance, must have exposed my relationship to the country as also removed and distant. She had a wrong initial impression.
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s terrible. I assumed because of your being on this plane and your…your look…you were from there.”
“I have family and friends I visit in Mexico. But no, I’m not from there.”
“It’s terrible of me,” she said. “I could have asked. I’ll…I’ll do that now. What takes you to Mexico? Those friends and family?”
“A cousin of mine passed away. One minute Alfonso was talking, then someone noticed him stutter. His heart was giving out. Then, it did.”
“Seems the airline put the grievers together.”
I looked around. We were the only ones awake. She might have been right.
“Weird, isn’t it?” she wondered, aloud. “To be on a flight to claim a dead body? I have never been to Mexico, and the moment I go it’s because I am on my way to see to my son’s death.”
Strange way of putting it, I thought, but she was right about it being weird.
Alfonso was a favorite cousin, an adult while I was a teenager and a teenager while I was still a child. Separated by less than four years, our minor gap in age nonetheless left him wiser and more experienced. When he was around, I ran to him for the sort of advice one is ashamed to steal from parents. He was dead at thirty-two and it seemed I’d lost a lifeline. Navigating a future without his guidance left me feeling adrift.
“We don’t need to speak about our dead,” she said. “One should remember them while one is happy to remind oneself they’re gone, or when one is sad to remind oneself of what one had.”
If that was true, then which emotion was she experiencing? What attitude toward her son possessed her that she preferred to think or speak less about him?
“Did you enjoy Tokyo?” she asked.
“It was a disaster of a trip, I’m afraid. I never saw it.”
Disaster was an adequate term. After a fourteen-hour direct flight, I’d landed in the airport, found the exit, and noticed on my phone’s home screen a long list of missed calls and texts. I sighed as I listened to each voicemail, and as I read each text. All of them were variations of the same sad news. I went to the bathroom, found an empty stall, and started to cry. I let that pass and then found a flight out.
Nine months of planning and fighting for this trip fell apart. It was a fight to get the time off from my data entry job, the courage to do it, and the money for two weeks abroad saved. While the first requirement wasn’t initially approved, a set of company layoffs I couldn’t escape made it all possible.
I booked the trip for no purpose other than a want to get off this continent. I suppose what I wanted more than anything was to go somewhere I could be lost, where I did not speak the language, and where I did not possess an overshadowing familial history dictating each sight or town. My journey was to see how I would adapt to a different culture—and if I could. When I called Alfonso to tell him about the trip, he described his favorite film Ikiru and said I should search out locations from the film. I didn’t bother to argue most of the film was shot on soundstages. I replied that my knowledge of Japan came from horror films and books by Ryū Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. None of those, I prayed, were accurate precursors to my trip.
Alfonso had not traveled much within Mexico, or outside of it. But there was one story about Japan he could share. He once heard reports of travelers who visited. The first Mexicans to the country reported arriving on the land, journeying from one place to another, town to town, until suddenly, they were unable to continue along a path. Blocked by a wall which could not be seen. Some claimed the wall was the product of spirit. Some said the travelers brought this fate over, and others said it was a uniquely Japanese magic. They learned there was one solution. Secrets could bring the walls down. The travelers had to give some truth about themselves up, else their journey was over, and they had to return home.
“Did they give up a secret?” I asked Alfonso.
About to tell me, Alfonso stopped to laugh, and suggested a different ending: “Would you?”
I did not explain my relationship with Alfonso to her. No, she wanted to get away from grief. We moved on to different topics with ease—like a spell had fallen upon us. So few people in life make conversation easy and pull from your soul the language and books and narratives you want to share. I almost lamented losing her to the nation once we landed. Even now, for comfort, I can close my eyes and imagine her listening as I confess my troubles and dreams. On that plane, in hushed voices so as not to wake anyone, we ceased being strangers.
As we landed, there was one final ritual to perform, one I nearly forgot.
“It’s Song Wei,” she said.
“My name. All this time and we never asked each other for our names.”
Of course, something as wonderful as a song, as music, defined her name.
“Mine is Carlo.”
The lights rushed on. Passengers quivered from the sudden transformation of noise and energy, the attendants raced down the aisles, they reminded us of the rules, and we prepared for landing. An orchestral track played over the speakers. Slow, it nonetheless had a familiar quality. Bernard Herrmann? They had to be joking. The score belonged to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Its eerie sound continued after we hit the tarmac and as we exited the plane.
Taking care of Alfonso’s relatives, hearing them talk, and listening to plans for the funeral throughout the day took a lot out of me. That first day, I fell asleep early and easily when I returned to the hotel. By my third day back in Guadalajara, I had adjusted to the time difference and managed to stay awake long enough to enjoy a drink at the hotel bar. I sat across from the bartender, whose long and curly hair bounced as she prepared drinks. After finishing my cocktail and paying my tab, I crossed the lobby to the elevator, and suddenly there was Song, her arm wrapped around a man’s. Dressed in light linen, he looked local enough, while Song Wei wore a blue floral summer dress. We locked eyes, and she waved without an interruption. She hoped to see me later. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
“Excuse me.” I returned to the bartender. “There’s a Japanese woman by the name of Song Wei staying here. If she asks or if she sits at the bar, could you hand this to her?” The bartender nodded, her curly hair falling into her eyes.
I left a note with my name and a suggestion that Song have the concierge call my room. Including the room number felt too intimate, implicating myself as interested in only one thing.
Upstairs, in bed, I mentally reviewed the look the man on Song’s arm had given me. In between these thoughts, I wondered if the bartender would know Song from all the guests in the hotel and if the note would ever be delivered. To my surprise, an answer came at four in the morning. The hotel’s telephone rang. I put the receiver clunkily against my ear.
“Carlo?” Song asked.
“It’s me,” I said through a mistimed yawn. “I saw you earlier and thought if you’d ever like to talk—”
“—Yes,” she interrupted. “I’m in the hotel bar now.”
“Yes, it’s not open, but I have a story to tell you.”
I must have yawned—an instinct from the hour—because she began to sound a bit more urgent.
“Please, Carlo, I do think I can trust you on this matter.”
Two in the morning, seven in the evening, or three in the afternoon. I would have come to her no matter the hour.
Down the elevator, through the lobby, and toward the bar, I passed the bartender who was mopping the floor. She smiled, but I missed her eyes because her hair fell over them again. I turned the corner.
Without people, the bar was anything but a marvel. Brown chairs surrounded three empty glass tables. Earlier, these were occupied by working businessmen and their laptops. The bar itself was a wooden platform with a golden top and a long mirror behind the bottles. Seven barstools fit along it. All but two were flipped up, and Song Wei was sitting on one. Her dress had a quarter-open back. Long, black hair obscured much of her bare skin. If others could see us, it wasn’t hard to fathom Their impressions: questions or snickers about the older woman and a man half her age gathering so late in a closed hotel bar.
Amber light from dusty overhead bulbs filtered the whole bar into filmic twilight. It had the effect of rendering her body as the one piece holding all of reality together. She leaned forward, and in the mirror, I could see her hands resting on the bar, one over one another, her eyes darting forward.
A few seconds passed before I said hello. She turned, and though she had invited me down, and though she should have noticed me in the mirror, she acted a bit startled. The following smile seemed an afterthought.
Her hands did not come apart, and as I came closer to take the seat beside her, I realized it was because her palms held the thin ends of a transparent plastic bag together. Water in the bag came up to half the length of her arm, and in it was a pink axolotl. The salamander looked away from both of us.
“I’m glad to have found you, Carlo,” she said. “I don’t know if I can trust anyone else. It’s not like I have friends or family here.”
I could have snapped back: What about the man? Two of you looked cozy enough.
I stayed quiet.
“I went to visit my son’s living quarters when we landed. Talked to his landlord. Talked to nearby neighbors. Talked to them all in a terrible Spanish that should have me arrested. He was such a quiet and professional man that they didn’t have much to say about his life, personality, or hobbies. All his friends were local cooks at nearby restaurants, and that is where he spent most of his time. I thanked the neighbors and was let inside. A spartan, my son did not seem to give dust a fighting chance. Not that it was hard, the way he lived. Books about food and notebooks filled with recipes were the only real sign a person lived there.”
The axolotl in the bag started moving. Small arms pushed against the bag’s bottom. With a large and wide yawn, it reminded me of the hour.
“I pored through the notes and the writing. My son possessed a variety of talents. Penmanship was not one. Recipes and ideas for dishes require an academic to translate his handwriting. I’m not one. All I have brought back are the legible notes.”
She pointed her nose down. The encouragement led me to notice a small dark purse on her lap. Not wanting to release her grip, she used her nose again to direct me to open it.
“Please, look at the first recipes,” she said.
I opened the purse. Doing so felt intimate. It was filled with banal clutter—makeup, tissues, and tampons—and I had to dig to pull out the papers. Two condoms almost fell out of the bag as I did so. Those did surprise me, and I wondered if she intentionally brought them to Mexico despite the trip’s despondent purpose, or if she always carried those around. I remembered the man on her arm from earlier and shivered to burst the bubbles forming in my loose imagination.
At last, I found the index cards and loose sheets. Most of the recipes described or listed the ingredients of common cuisines. Mole. Aguachile. Cochinita pibil. None of these were so unusual as to require physical study. As local and delicious as they were, these were familiar dishes—a mere Google search away for anyone interested in the nation’s culture. But then I stumbled on the second to last recipe. The poor script would render any interpretation uncertain, and it was difficult to make out what the writer described. All I could decipher was one word: axolotl.
The axolotl in the bag seemed to read my mind. When I looked up, both the amphibian and Song were staring at me.
“I have to ask you a favor,” Song started. A real sense of urgency stole her voice, as if my decision could save or defeat her life. “I found this axolotl in my son’s room. Please watch over it. You saw the card listing it as an ingredient. I must know what my son wanted to make, what he wanted to use it for. It’s the last way to understand him. And, already, there are others who want to know too.”
Song released her hands, and unless I wanted the water and Axolotl to splash to the floor, I had to reach out. With my right hand, I did just that, and caught the top of the bag as the water threatened to spill. My palm became wet. The axolotl swam back to the bottom.
“Thank you,” Song said. She placed both her hands over my left one, looked me in the eye, and said it again. “Thank you.”
Retreating to the room with the bag in hand invited stares from the few night-shift workers. Kind smiles and professional grins from earlier disappeared into accusatory scowls. What could I be doing with such an endangered animal?
Online, I researched how to care for the axolotl. I filled the bath a quarter high and placed the creature inside. I stood there and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Song promised she would see me tomorrow night, when she had dug around her son’s house a bit more, and when she could confess more about her findings. But what did I know? Even now, I had not learned her son’s name, who that man was, or why she felt the need to turn the axolotl over to me. Not that I was in the practice of asking questions at the right opportunity. Wouldn’t most men have pushed back against a stranger—even one like Song—thrusting a responsibility on them? Wouldn’t most have wondered why a chef from Japan felt the need to cook the poor, endangered amphibian?
Back in the U.S., the axolotl is largely banned. The level of damage they pose to environments outside their own is catastrophic. I did not know if these warnings or legal boundaries applied to Japan. If so, was it the danger or exotic quality of the axolotl that drew in Song and her son?
There were other matters to attend to. In the morning, Alfonso’s mom wanted me to speak with a florist, and a caterer, and a priest to settle the ins and outs of payment. The outsider, she thought, might best negotiate the price. Terrible logic. All she wanted was me to pay. Alfonso, you bastard, if you weren’t my favorite cousin—
The hotel telephone rang. I wondered if Song forgot to mention something, or if she would maybe want to come here. But it wasn’t her. I picked up and sat at the far edge of the bed.
“You’re wrong if you think her son wanted to eat him.”
A woman’s voice? Strong and stern, it wasn’t familiar. The caller continued:
“Her son liked to cook and loved to study recipes, but he wouldn’t eat the axolotl, not after getting to know the little guy. He had common sense.”
From where I sat, I could peek into the bathroom. Over the tub’s edge was the axolotl’s tiny head and pink hand-like claws helping it to hang on. It appeared to eavesdrop.
The caller continued. “Did you know axolotls were named after a god capable of breathing fire and lightning and regenerating its body? Believe it or not, an axolotl can still do two of those things.”
“I believe you.”
“You don’t sound so impressed.”
“I’m more curious how you know so much. How you know I have the axolotl? How you know about Song’s son?”
I rummaged through my luggage on the beside floor. The Death of Ivan Ilyich lay on top of my clothes. The book was the basis for Ikiru. Earlier, I planned to tell Alfonso I read it while in Japan.
“Do you know how important axolotls are in Mexico? You don’t carry one off without half the country speaking about it. People talk. People gossip. And some people? They’ll fight to save the axolotl. Or they’ll fight to kill it. Song’s son attracted all kinds of attention with what he wanted to do. That card in his collection? It is only partly a recipe.”
“What was he doing, then?”
“Attempting to recreate their habitat.”
“Did it work?”
“Not at all. But at least he tried. His home resembled something between an aquarium and a mad scientist’s lab. They have one native habitat left back in Mexico City. Hey, you heading to Mexico City any time soon?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Well, if you do, drop him off in Lake Xochimilco.”
“If you’re so interested in returning him to the lake, why trust me—a foreigner?”
“Because it’s your choice. She entrusted the axolotl to you. The lake is on its way out, you know. Too much pollution over the years. Because the axolotl can clean it up, and because there are so few things in life like the axolotl that can erase a history of human error.”
“To be honest, it’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that I can’t quite see how one axolotl is so important. All Song wants is—”
“—Song. Song. Song. Get your sex-deprived mind out of the gutter and listen to me. Unless you want Lake Xochimilco to dry up and die, you can’t give the axolotl to anyone. It’s your choice whether you get him back to the lake. Until you decide his fate, don’t leave him alone at all. And don’t let Song eat him.”
The caller promised she would call each evening to ensure both the axolotl and I were safe. Part of me liked having a discussion to look forward to—even if I didn’t understand it all. Since Alfonso died, I hadn’t talked in-depth with someone.
Well, except for Song.
Because of this lack of practice, I forgave myself for having lost the habit of learning names. The caller came and went without one. I had almost done the same with Song on the plane until she offered it to me in an equal exchange.
But names are important. They are spells unto themselves. Take Lake Xochimilco. In the language of the Aztecs, the name refers to a flower field. (And no, I didn’t just know that. I had to look it up.) My point is that the name—Xochimilco—endures to tell us what was once there. Even if the land no longer looks like that, even if time and evil corrupt the earth and prevent flowers from growing, Xochimilco reminds us of what once was there.
That wasn’t all I found. Unable to fall asleep, I scanned stories about the place.
Lake Xochimilco is the last of a beautiful water network that survives a history prior to Spanish contact. Colorful boats float along the water and gardens grow along these vessels to sustain a forgotten and beautiful agriculture. Once a common sight, the number of boats has dwindled, and the tradition has declined with the lake. I watched a video on YouTube of a farmer who explained the lake was a living and breathing being, dying by coughing its last breaths. The water turned black and wondrous gardens burned up. What was left was all that was left…
The morning came, and with it came the lightheaded hangover of inadequate sleep. But there was no time. I had to visit the florist to prepare the bouquets for Alfonso’s funeral. Unable to shower because the axolotl occupied the bathtub, I simply changed and dressed. I was halfway out the door when the stranger’s warning from last night struck my brain: don’t leave him alone. All I had was the plastic bag from yesterday and, as I transferred him over, I felt the need to apologize.
“I’ll find something more comfortable for you later,” I said.
I walked through the town’s empty streets to a soundtrack of water slapping. Shuk. Shuk. Shuk. Holding onto the axolotl this way, I imagined that the bag would simply slip from my hands. Every few yards, I looked down, saw his smile, and felt relief he was alright in there.
After meeting the pastor and the caterer, I had one last task: ordering bouquets from the florist. Above the blue shop, a bright yellow aluminum sign was half faded, and the business name Flores looked to have been replaced green letter by green letter multiple times until each letter was oddly sized and shaped. On the window was written in white a common slogan: digalo con flores. Say it with flowers.
The inside was anything but falling apart. Black and white tiles looked new, and an art deco chandelier was touched by the sun, sending short shimmers of gold in the few open spaces between orange marigolds and pink dahlias. If Alfonso had a favorite flower, I had no clue. Who knows something like that about their cousin? Marigolds felt too stereotypically Mexican, and I didn’t want to choose a pink flower for a funeral. The florist ignored the axolotl, heard my concerns, and brought out several more plant types and said names I could not catch. The last one she brought out was purple, and she said the name in English: “Mexican petunias.” I agreed to it immediately and was happy to see that she could supply enough for the service. Not many people are interested, she said, and that surprised me given their beauty. Of course, once I paid, she told me the truth. Many in Mexico consider them a weed.
I decided to take a roundabout way back to the hotel, through dusty streets and over incomplete sidewalks. As I passed a bank a block away from the florist’s, I saw a familiar face leaving its entrance. He wore the same linen shirt as the man who held Song’s arm.
The man did a double take upon noticing me and seeing what was in my hand. He squinted to believe what he saw was real. That was all. I kept waiting for his attack, for a word, for him to rush and attempt to steal the creature. It never happened. I watched him move down the street, turn, and disappear.
Inside the bag, the axolotl’s pink face grew worried, as if it sensed what was coming, as if warning me. I was too loose, too carefree, too eager to see Song’s lover turn away. Suddenly, I felt my feet stumble—I had been pushed hard from behind. The bag never had a chance of being saved or held tight. Out of my hands it went, and by the time I regained stable footing, a puddle had melted into the ground. The axolotl flopped around.
“No!” I shouted.
Behind me, two men in wrinkled t-shirts ran forward. One knocked into me and started stomping hard. The other aimed a punch at my face. All I could do was fall to avoid being hit, and the attacker flew forward. The stomping man did not have much luck in crushing the axolotl. He resembled a rhythmless dancer. I stood and charged headfirst. Not much strength was needed—and a good thing because I don’t have it—to launch him back. He staggered into his partner, and the two collapsed to the ground. Their falling reminded me of goofy vaudeville akin to the Three Stooges. But this scene didn’t exist for me to laugh at. While the partners helped each other up, I grabbed the axolotl—a bit too roughly—and started running.
How long could an axolotl live without water? The number was not something I had looked up, or something I wanted to discover. Luckily, I was not far from my hotel and, like a madman, I raced to the fire stairs for the third floor. In the frenzy and worry about reviving my friend, I did not notice that I never used a key to get inside.
The door to my room was already open.
Alone, I drew the axolotl a fresh bath, dropped him in, and relaxed when he dashed from one end to the next. I cleaned a large red lunch container that could replace the plastic bag and better hide him. Surviving the attack evoked my mystery caller’s warning: some people will fight to kill it. I wondered if Song had already cracked this mystery when she forced the axolotl into my hands. When the phone rang, it was the mysterious caller, keeping her promise.
“Are you disappointed it’s not Song?” she asked.
“Only because when I see the axolotl, I think about her, and her son, and this man I saw on her arm. I saw him again.”
“She’s finding all those who knew her son.”
“To get to know him?”
“To know herself. She’s a biting and corrupting force. Part of that is because she’s lost her son, the other part is because when she had him, she took it for granted. She didn’t know how much she polluted the world with her sour thoughts.”
“Isn’t that just grieving? You judge so harshly when the same can be said about me. I lost my cousin, Alfonso, and when he was around…well, I didn’t always realize how important he was to my life. Are my opinions polluting the world?”
“Oh, yes,” said the voice. “And it’s terrible for the environment. Think ill of life and eventually you make life around you sick. You begin to lose sight of what’s important. You begin to forget who you are. You begin to lose your name and the names of others.”
“I keep forgetting to ask for names.”
“Would you like mine?”
I paused. “I don’t deserve your name now because I think…I think I’m sick, if I follow your definition of illness. I think about my cousin who passed. I don’t know what life will be like after the funeral tomorrow. That puts an ending on things, and I’m not like Song. There’s no mystery to unravel. He simply died while I knew him—knew him better than anyone.”
I worried the caller had hung up because the line was too quiet. All I heard was the wave of bath water from the axolotl swimming around. Then, at last, the caller’s breath.
“You’ll remember,” she started, “that there is a tomorrow. Each time you close your eyes, you will get closer to it. Until then, your thoughts are harmful. Remember that.” With that the line was disconnected.
A peace existed in the idea of a tomorrow without the sting of grief. But I also remembered how quick of an intimacy grief inspired on the plane, when Song and I overshared thoughts this caller might classify as pollution. Believing in the caller became much harder when there was a power to sustaining grief, and a time for it.
I didn’t want to leave the axolotl alone to head to the bar or take him away from his happy place. I regarded his smile as a reason to keep my promise to protect him. I ordered a mezcal sour to the room. Before long, there came a knock, and the barwoman handed me the cocktail. I watched the woman leave. There was a couple at the end of the hall. They were embracing, holding one another close, and when they kissed it was as the last step in a procedure. Now they could stumble inside the room. The woman, while I wasn’t sure, looked like Song.
Song was immune to normal, waking hours. She came to my room exactly twenty-four hours after our meeting in the bar. She marched straight in and looked toward the bathroom.
“The axolotl is alright?” she asked. She watched it swim back and forth. “Workers in the hotel told me you had quite the scare.”
“Two men attacked me and tried to take him.”
“Word gets out when it comes to these strange things. A woman at the bar told me she saw you run inside without the bag and I…I guess I worried.”
“You couldn’t be too worried,” I snapped. “To come at this hour. To not even ask about my state.”
“I only heard the story a few minutes ago. I was preoccupied until then.”
“Bet you were,” I let slip, succumbing to a jealousy I had no right to claim.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Song cried. “I am searching for something my son uncovered, something to bring me closer to him in this foreign place.”
“Maybe…” I sighed. “Maybe I just didn’t know that watching the axolotl was going to invite some people to attack me—and it.”
“My son wrote in his notes that the axolotl cleans the world. It eats the very things that poison humanity. For some, it’s easier to see the world suffer.”
“And yet, you still want to eat it? I heard your son wanted to save it. He tried to build it a habitat. He tried to—”
“—My son wanted to eat it…and…I am close to understanding my son. Another day. I promise Carlo…I promise it’ll be worth your while.”
Song did not stay over. We did not collapse into the bed as I imagined she’d done. She simply hugged me close, and in that embrace I felt strange. Intermixed with a lust for her I recalled the longing to speak with Alfonso, to share criticisms about life, and simply laugh.
I brought the axolotl to the funeral. What else could I do? Dressed in a black suit, I must have seemed a strange sight with the red container like a toy in my grip. However, the guests, perhaps simply polite, never said a word as they passed me, apologized for the loss, and regarded Alfonso’s body at the far end of the church. The exception was Alfonso’s mother, who asked to look inside the container. She smiled when she saw the axolotl’s smile, and confessed a truth:
“The axolotl is named after a god. In some stories, this god guided people to Mictlān—the underworld.”
I didn’t ask her what happened there because we were summoned forward. Alfonso’s funeral began.
My hotel room was trashed. Did I expect anything different? Sheets thrown to the ground, the bed torn apart, my suitcases searched and clothes everywhere. Books open, laptop gone, even the lint from my jacket inspected. I was thankful they had left my passport—stealing was not their goal. I should have hurried out, except I knew the axolotl needed to breathe again. I had brought new water to the tub and did not want to risk removing him too soon. I shoved the dresser near the door for security and waited out the rest of the day.
The female stranger’s call came in that short hour before evening.
“Everything is heading toward ruin,” I said. “Someone searched through my room!”
“Your thoughts!” she cried.
“All this for a single, damn axolotl?”
“Didn’t you hear me? They’re important to the country and its history. Some people will—”
“—Yeah, yeah. Some people will fight to kill it. They’re not so innocent. They’re banned back home in the states because of the environmental danger they pose. I’ve had enough of your warnings. I’m tired of strangers attacking me for carrying him around. I’m tired of not having help. I’m tired of a stranger calling me.”
“Control your thoughts.”
“What is that doing? Nothing I think will kill the lake or the axolotl or even me. What’s there will be there tomorrow, and if it’s not, it won’t be my doing.”
“I can’t speak to you if you’re like this. You’re twisting my words.”
I sighed. It calmed me. Alone, I didn’t want to lose this companion too.
“You remind me of Song.”
“Remind you? Earlier you mentioned her son, and you talk about her like…like you know her well.”
“Do you still trust me?”
“I just want less mystery. Everything in Mexico so far is mystery after mystery.”
“That’s life for you. Take Song as a warning. She’s disappeared into her thoughts and that made her disappear into others. She needs another’s touch to remember reality.”
“She told me the best time to remember someone is when you’re happy or sad.”
“She’s wrong. The best time is when you need to.”
“All I know is I saw her again in the arms of another guy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with love. There’s something wrong when it’s used to distract from the pollution you’re creating.”
I closed my eyes. Lake Xochimilco came to mind, and I pictured colorful flowers decorating boats slowly skimming along the surface. As the scene played out, the ship broke down, the flowers lost their color, and the lake its water. Left was waste and sewage and dirt. Flopping in this disaster were several other axolotls. If I opened my eyes, then the sad state of the lake would have convinced me of the caller’s wisdom. But I didn’t.
The scene continued to unfold. Alone beside the lake, I pictured myself leaning over its edge. The waste and sewage vanished. Water started rising. The floating gardens returned. And soon, the water’s deep hue reflected my face.
Song’s son wanted to recreate the axolotl’s habitat, the caller had said. Achieving the goal would have given them another chance for survival. It didn’t work but he tried, and that was the beauty of it. Song may have been wrong for simplifying her son’s ambition, wrong for ignoring how he aspired to heal a piece of the world, but the caller was just as wrong for pushing me to focus foremost on the disasters we humans create. Some may want to kill the axolotl, but some—the caller said—would fight to save it.
To hell with both of them—I decided—I was going to save it.
The caller said nothing else. She hung there, her breath audible until it wasn’t, until she hung up.
Song came again at four in the morning. A large grin stretched across her face, and she held up an index card filled with neat Japanese script—her own hand. In this state of enthusiasm, the room’s mess never crossed her mind.
“I spoke with another of my son’s friends. Through them, I was able to comb out what my son wanted to make with the axolotl.”
Her voice grew increasingly excited. Her plan was becoming complete.
“I also spoke with the hotel. They agreed to let me use the kitchen. Come down in thirty minutes with the axolotl. Everything must be fresh.” She squealed like a child and hugged and kissed me on the neck. Days ago, I would have been relieved to see Song take the axolotl, to have felt myself thrown into the game of chance where my desires might be met with reality. Instead, I watched her leave and was even sadder.
I waited in the room, watching the thirty minutes shrink on my phone’s clock. I don’t know why I waited as long as I did. Did I expect the stranger to call me? She never did. I picked up the hotel phone to request a car from the concierge, as fast as possible.
I never heard from Song. I wondered what thoughts crossed her mind as I betrayed her wish. Perhaps failing at the recipe, being unable to cook the axolotl, made her feel closer to her son. I never heard from the other strange woman, though I glanced often at my cellphone, half-expecting to read unknown caller on the screen. I would smile because I knew otherwise, because I knew I would lift it up and hear her again. That vision never transpired.
I drove to Mexico City and chartered a bus to take me to Lake Xochimilco. When I stepped off the bus, the air was cool, refreshed by an earlier rain. Sad-looking trees swayed away from us. The sight resembled what I saw in the video: beautiful but vanishing.
A man I recognized stood at the edge of a short pier. It was too late to retreat. I tightened my grip on the axolotl’s container. Dressed in a white linen shirt, sleeves folded high onto his arms, he regarded me with equal familiarity.
“I recognize you,” he said. “From?”
“From a hotel outside Guadalajara. You were on the arm of a woman I met. I saw you again near a bank.”
Instinctively, my arm came halfway across my body, reliving the suddenness and survival of the earlier attack against me. He waited for my anxious energy to slow before continuing.
“That’s some memory. You saw me on the arm of Song?”
“Well, I do remember your eyes—jealous and mean. You loved her?”
“I didn’t know her. Actually, I just met her days before.”
“She was a strange woman. It would be easy to say yes. Even, as you say, without knowing her.”
“And you hardly knew her?”
“She was the mother to a friend of mine. He was a curious fellow. Came from Japan and swore he would learn all the recipes of Mexico and perfect them and study them and bring them back to Japan. He was a hell of a cook. But he stumbled on an ancient recipe from the old world. Axolotl. None of his friends wanted him to cook one. He believed it worth trying. Where would he even get an axolotl, we wondered? Well, turns out at his front door. He found one that had escaped from a failed sanctuary.”
“I kept hearing he didn’t want to cook him, that he had other plans.”
“You’ve got it. That’s what happened. My friend changes his mind. He swears he won’t cook or eat him. He swears he’s looking into a way to save him. There’s just one place for him, though. Here, at Lake Xochimilco. Axolotls don’t have a natural habitat beyond it.”
The lake spread before us. A yellow boat floated along, and a worker on board put the tips of his fingers to the surface. Tiny ripples dragged along. My new acquaintance continued the story:
“I told her what I knew, but Song did not believe her son came to this conclusion. She liked to think he was simply a cook, not someone caught up in the world’s struggles. Completing the recipe might just…I don’t know…I don’t know what she expected. I have to confess; I watched the axolotl after his death. Yet she found me, and she took me to bed, and convinced me to surrender him to her.”
“She woke one morning, and I remember her crying about her son. I never felt worse for sleeping with my friend’s mother than that moment. She cried and cried. The water fell to the floor. But here’s the thing, I tried to hug her, to help her, and couldn’t. The room around me looked like this lake a hundred years from now. Tainted. Gone. Everything became dust. She ran out with the axolotl. When I saw her again the following day, she was almost a different woman. She looked at me the way one might upon the world ending. Do you think she could move past the heartbreak of her son dying?”
I paused. “I think she’ll have to,” I said. “A stranger recently told me enough disaster, enough pollution in the mind, can destroy one from the inside. I’m learning the same is true for me and my loss.”
I would be heading back to the U.S. soon. No job and no story about Japan and no cousin to call when I needed.
I opened the red container, lifted the axolotl carefully, and released him into the lake. Not a moment passed before he disappeared beneath the dark water. I stood watching, and after some time, the man shook my hand and left.
Boats passed. The moon came out of hiding. Under its glow, the lake and its floating gardens already looked that much greener. I stayed watching. Not because I thought the axolotl would return, but because I realized I had never felt so alone.