The Immortal Jellyfish
by Amy Bergen
When Albertine was only seven, she could jump as far as a baby cheetah. She and her babysitter Tom came to the zoo one Saturday, like they always had, and Albertine went to the Wonder Wall and practiced her running jump and her short jump and the cartwheel that burned her hands. Her long gold ponytail flew in front of her face and into her mouth.
“We’re not built to jump. We don’t need to run away from predators,” said Tom, who studied biology when he wasn’t with Albertine. Tom was sixteen and already going to college. He had egg glasses and egg-yolk eyes. Albertine thought her parents might like Tom (not even their kid!) more than they liked her. She jumped all the way from the playground to the garden where the rhinoceroses and elephants and hippopotamuses were. When Tom stopped for water, she jumped in place. She tried to walk a few inches above the ground.
Could Tom walk like this? She looked back at his tiny rumpled steps. No, he could not.
“Look Tom,” she said, and jumped over a rock and fell. When she got up she had polka-dot gravel knees, racer-stripe red legs.
“Maybe it’s time to walk like a normal person,” said Tom. He cleaned off the blood with a tissue.
At the hippo cage, the sleeping hippo opened one eye to Albertine. “Who do you think you are?” he asked her.
She bounced back and forth, sneaker to sneaker.
Green water soaked into the hippo’s folds. He’d been sleeping in water; Albertine’s parents said that was a good way to drown. He made a gargling sound and shook his head. Brrrrrrrrrrgle. Albertine laughed. The hippo laughed too.
“Hippos have bulletproof skin,” said Tom.
“Bang,” Albertine made a gun with her thumb and pointer finger.
“Don’t do that,” said Tom.
The hippo eased to his pancake-spread flat feet. He walked, each step strange and wonderful to watch, as if a year passed between one step and another, people were born and people died, fruit fell off trees and rain flooded towns, and the hippo only moved one step in all that time. When he reached the fence he said, “You have no idea how lonely it gets in here.”
“You have no idea how lonely it gets out here,” said Tom.
Albertine did a cartwheel. She slapped the fence with her nubbled palms. “I’m a really good gymnast,” she said. “I can climb up any ladder and any branch and any gate.”
“Don’t you dare climb up that gate,” said Tom.
She stuck her red hand out for the hippo to lick, flexed her fingers and tickled his tongue. “How long have you been in here for?” she asked.
“Four hundred thousand years.”
“That’s not a real number,” said Albertine.
“Don’t be too proud, little gymnast,” burbled the hippo. “You’re going to die before I am.”
Albertine looked at the happy specks of blood on her knees and then at Tom. He lifted his hands in his nothing-I-can-do shrug. Egg-eyed, helpless Tom. She hadn’t ever thought there was any way to be but alive. “You probably won’t die for a long time,” he said.
“But maybe,” said Albertine.
“Most likely not. Ninety-nine percent not.”
The hippo said, “You’re welcome to bounce up the gate and come in and live as long as I will. Another thousand years. Give or take.” His voice was gravel and rocks.
A thousand years to play, Albertine thought. She didn’t like the sound of a thousand or a million, it rang with false importance. Tom had assured her there were many more than a million stars. More than a thousand people in the city. Why so many? she thought. Why so many of anything?
Tom knelt to look her in the eye. “You won’t have fun,” he said. “You’ll be trapped and bored and no one will bring you things to eat.”
“What do you eat?” she asked the hippo.
“I ate the mumbling tortoise and the idiot raccoon and the lost butterfly. And after a thousand years I’ll eat you. But only after a thousand years. You have my word and my word is good.”
“I’d want to see something in writing,” said Tom. He reached for Albertine’s ponytail.
“Slowpoke,” she said and hauled herself up the gate and jumped on the hippo’s back. He Brrrrrgled again with the surprise of her little weight. And Tom, she thought happily as her babysitter fell to the ground like he’d been hit, Tom wasn’t going to do anything. He couldn’t! “You’ll come visit, right?” she asked Tom. “Can you bring me my kaleidoscope and my shirt with the galaxy on it?”
He reached for the gate rungs but his hands slipped and slipped again.
“I guess someday I’ll be alive and you’ll be dead.” She looked so regal and small, up on that hippo.
The hippo nodded at Tom. He turned and Albertine waved at her babysitter with splayed fingers. They rode to the end of the fenced-in plot and turned back around again. A zookeeper swept up some mulch by Tom’s feet. “We’re closing,” the zookeeper said. Tom wiped his glasses on his sleeve and held them to the sky to see if they were clean. And there, up behind the capricious trees, coming out from hiding and staring him into a puddle, there it was, the sun.
The hippo walked a few circles, sat and let Albertine slide down his aching skin. She killed a mosquito. “What is there here?” she asked.
“Food and sky. Water and dust.”
“Are you bored?” She was bored already. The sandbox-lumpy ground didn’t have enough sand to write her name in. The water was grey and disgusting.
“Animals don’t get bored. That’s a human affliction.”
“Why would you want to eat me?”
“Why indeed,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
“I’m hungry too,” she said with a flick of her colorless tongue.
“Catch a frog,” said the hippo. He smoothed his body into the water with the rough grace of a very old man. Albertine, realizing there would be no dinner, found a person-sized ledge on a rock and fell asleep. She smiled in her sleep, the hippo noticed. A snake in the grass used to laugh at him, a snake who had that kind of smile.
The immortal jellyfish, turritopsis nutricula, can surge back within itself and revert to sexual immaturity once it becomes an adult. “It’s like a human that way,” Albertine’s teacher said, drawing a few dry chuckles from the fifteen-year-olds peering into the aquarium. If a turritopsis didn’t get eaten, it could repeat the process over and over.
“Does it have sex?” someone asked.
“If it doesn’t, it’s selfish,” said the teacher. He was tall and slim as a water snake, and he liked to rock back and forth on his heels. “A species doesn’t just need to survive, it needs to what?”
“Survive and reproduce,” the class said lazily. They laughed, mostly out of duty; they’d used up all the reproduce –related jokes they could think of that year and they were restless. Albertine took her lab journal from her canvas bag and wrote jellyfish that can in theory live forever in the wavering light of the tank. It wasn’t a bad term paper topic, if she could get ten pages out of it.
Some of the fish could light themselves. Bioluminescence, a word that sounded as beautiful as the act looked, glowing colors like Christmas lights against faded weeds. The students took pictures that came out like black sky and low street lamps. They shrugged and took more pictures that came out the same way. A few kids in Albertine’s group slipped out for a cigarette break. Albertine didn’t smoke, but she needed some respite and went with them.
They were talking about a schizophrenic woman in Washington who had climbed into a lion’s cage, whose face had been mauled off, who was bafflingly still alive. “It was two hours before anyone found her,” someone said.
“How do you live without your face?”
“I think half of it was still left. Her nose and mouth maybe.”
“I used to think it would be so cool to play with the baby penguins and the baby otters,” a girl said. “Remember when you were little? And you would go to the zoo?”
Albertine, despite herself, believed that life was magical. These girls in the smoking circle believed it; their voices were airy, they were still sort of children. Albertine had a lower voice, long gold hair and a long neck, and she carried herself with a quiet serenity that made people surprised she was only fifteen. She felt sure-footed in class, and she had enough friends. But she worried, often, that she was too far away from people. “Do you cry? I’ve never seen you get upset,” a friend asked her once, and it was true she rarely felt upset, not by little things. It was good to be respected – though she didn’t think she deserved it, really. Albertine coveted the freedom it took to bubble and squeal for attention, to giggle at the touch of a boy.
That happened to me once. I went into a hippo cage, she’d say. The smoking circle would turn to her, all of them believing. They would call her Houdini for the rest of the day and then forget about it. But she didn’t tell them. She walked to where the large animals lived. Her hippo looked about the same. There was a wrinkle above his eyebrow that hadn’t been there before. Her dad had a new wrinkle in the same spot. It made her dad look older and sadder. It made the hippo look a little pissed off.
“So your word is good as well,” he said. The chambers of his voice spilled dark, into the dirt.
Albertine shrugged. “I do what I can,” she said. “Didn’t you eat a guy? I can’t believe they didn’t stun-gun you.”
“Apparently that newsman was not much liked,” said the hippo.
A breeze ripped through Albertine’s hair. She imagined she was going back to an old lover, a terrible lover, abusive and dozens of pounds overweight but still magnetic in that way certain people are. “How have you been?” she asked.
“All the same,” said the hippo. “But you. You look so god damn tired. What do you do all day?”
“The boy I was with? Tom?” she said. “Right after that happened, he….”
“I believe that you came willingly,” said the hippo.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t.” She took a step back. Before the hippo turned, she could see offense in his watery eyes.
“You didn’t seem very young,” he said. “You seemed like you’d been through your share of years.”
“Old soul? Yeah, I get that sometimes.”
“Hardly. Cocksure little idiot. You knew what you were doing on this earth. And you knew you were never leaving.”
“Fuck it. It’s over,” said Albertine, surprised to hear herself curse. Her silly classmates crept out of the trees, slowly and in pairs, in shadow.
She went home to her pet bearded dragon and sat with him in her lap. His claws poked delicate holes through her jeans. She picked him up and felt the tender guts under his scales, the flesh and somewhere the bone.
After Attempt II: 1 glass whiskey, 25 Tylenol, Hypothesis: uncertain, she went to visit Tom in the hospital.
He looked good. His dark hair was even cut the same way it had been. They hadn’t seen each other since the day at the zoo.
“You look good,” she said.
“Tell that to the staff, would you,” said Tom. “They don’t think I should be let out of here anytime soon.”
“Do you think you should be let out?”
Tom smirked. He stretched his hand over the table that separated them, the skin spreading wide. Albertine had asked her parents what she should say to Tom. They told her it would be impossible to say the right thing, and very easy to say the wrong thing.
“I’m glad you’re doing well,” he said. “I hear you’re a National Merit Scholar or something like that. Good for you. Go to a small college. That would be my advice. I think you’ll be fine anywhere you end up, but at a big university, you kind of have to educate yourself. Do you have to do a thesis for high school? We had to do a thesis. What’s yours about?”
“Hardcore,” said Tom. “Are there actually any immortal animals?”
“There’s a jellyfish with infinite capacity to reproduce itself. But I’m focusing more on whether or not animals can grasp the concept of an afterlife.” She felt sick. People were sliding by in hospital gowns, doctors were calling out to each other.
“Geez. I’m not even sure humans can grasp the concept of an afterlife,” said Tom. “I can’t. I mean, I tried to go there early, so I guess I should have some conception of it. But you know what, I really don’t. I really don’t.”
He’d been looking past her the entire time. Albertine reached up and pulled her hair into a ponytail, then shook the ponytail loose. Her hair tie stuck to her fingers like a barnacle, trailing golden strands.
“What do you think?” he asked her.
“What do you think about the afterlife?”
She’d never been asked that question. She could have been sitting in the water, with pure long hair. Forgotten her name. Eaten frogs, nestled in mud. Thought only of cold and warm and hungry and full, forgotten the words for such feelings. Her only responsibility to herself, forever and ever. The feeling when she looked at brightly-dressed visitors not longing, but pity.
“I think we get one,” she said. “I don’t know what it is,”
“That’s good enough for me,” said Tom. He looked at her face. She wasn’t sure if she believed what she just said, and she worried her disbelief might register in her expression – but he was looking so hopefully at her, with those glasses, those eyes.
A zookeeper found Albertine in the morning. She was snoring, her elbows jutting out in front of her head, her body awash with little-girl sweat. The sweat-shine made the zookeeper think of his own daughter. “I’ll be back,” yelled Albertine, as the zookeeper carried her away.
“My word is good,” said the hippo. He didn’t care what this little girl thought, but he had a reputation for keeping his word. The child, though. She would freely lie. Humans were liars, and he didn’t blame them; if he were human, he’d lie too. Newspapers said he watched over her through the night, and that poor disgraced Tom had lost her, let her run into the cage. When they brought the cameras, the hippo stuck his mouth through the wire and ate a newsman. He did not want his picture taken. He had nothing to be proud of.
Amy Bergen is an Ohio girl made good in New York, recently transplanted to New England. Her work has been published in Drunken Boat, The Rumpus, Forget Magazine, InDigest, Elimae, Diagram and other publications. She has an MFA from New York University and is at work on a young adult novel, among other projects.