MONDAY: Down to Ashes and Up in Smoke


Copyright is held by the author.

IN THE dim, chilled air of the London Zoo’s nascent aquatic vivarium, Amelia toiled diligently, checking every nook and cranny of the iron-bound glass tank. Ensuring the plants thrived was important, not for aesthetics, but for the very life of the extraordinary being held within. The constant clatter of her tools was a comforting backdrop. Every so often, she would allow herself a brief pause, pull a cigarette from her pocket, and indulge in a momentary smoke-filled reprieve.

In the tank, a breathtaking spectacle floated like an ethereal phantom, a startling fusion of the splendid torso of an albino woman and the striking body of a white lobster. Journeying across the Atlantic, concealed in a wooden crate, cryptically labelled “White Creature,” it had arrived not too long ago from the obscure shores of Maine.

Amelia’s heart smoldered as she watched the creature, which looked fatigued and bewildered, with a pallor eerily reflected in the water, her movements languid. Drawing a half-smoked cigarette from her pocket, she deftly lit it using a match, and then broke the silence, “What’d you think of this, love? Reckon you might fancy a name? Call you ‘Ava,’ that all right?”

Ava blinked, her spectral blue eyes mirroring a deep ocean of memories. “A-va?” she repeated, her voice a delicate murmur.

“Yeah, Ava. Like the first woman, Eve, just a bit more posh,” Amelia countered with a steady voice that concealed her internal worry.

A smile tugged at Ava’s lips, soon dissolving into discomfort. Her hand slid up to her throat, her breath becoming ragged, her gaze imploring.

Shocked, Amelia dropped her cigarette and rushed forward, her chest tightening, “Ava, can you breathe underwater?”

The siren shook her head, white tresses swaying, her eyes wide with fear.

“Air . . . smoke . . . bad . . .” Ava managed to whisper, her slender fingers gesturing toward Amelia’s fallen cigarette, and looking downward, added, “Water . . . crush . . . no life.”

Amelia looked at her hand, the haunting scent of smoke lingering on her fingers. A sense of dread washed over her. She had been poisoning Ava.

Amelia crushed the cigarette beneath her boot. “Right then, no more smoking it is,” she muttered. A sudden realization dawned on her: the plants in the tank, contrary to the belief of the vivarium’s designer, were far from sufficient for Ava’s survival.

Amelia knew she had to act urgently. She would need to delve into the knowledge at the university, seeking a way to save Ava.

* * *

Back at her janitorial duties in the halls of University College London’s Anatomical Studies section, Amelia carried out her tasks with a renewed sense of purpose. As she cleaned out the well-used ashtrays, she grimaced at the clinging scent of the smoke she was trying to quit.

In one such moment, her hands full of discarded tobacco and ash, she spotted Professor Rupert Godfrey, a renowned scholar in Natural History. A new idea formed in her mind. She had observed him discreetly, noting his routine, especially his smoking breaks. She would engage him then, gather the wisdom she needed, and he would be none the wiser. After all, who would suspect a janitress of plotting to rescue a suffocating lobster-mermaid?

With an ember of apprehension lurking beneath her resolve, Amelia set her plan in motion. Intercepting Professor Godfrey during his afternoon smoking ritual when he was usually undisturbed. Taking a last look at her modest reflection in the dim light of the maintenance room, she pulled on a clean uniform, tied her hair back neatly, and rubbed away the soot on her cheeks. It would have to do.

Professor Godfrey was a handsome man, intelligent and worldly, a stark contrast to the working-class life Amelia was accustomed to. To engage him in conversation was no small feat. Amelia approached the courtyard, holding her breath as she spotted the man standing near the fountain, pipe in hand, smoky tendrils swirling around him.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Amelia began, stepping toward him. The professor looked at her, a hint of curiosity in his eyes.

“Well, hello, miss. Might I assist you with something?”

“Would you mind if I joined you for a smoke, sir?” she asked. Amelia knew it was a bold request, but the circumstances demanded it.

Professor Godfrey raised an eyebrow, astonished. He scrutinized her for a moment before responding, “Very well, miss. Do you have a preference? I have a pleasant Virginia blend or a stronger Turkish one.”

“Turkish would be fine, sir,” she replied, her hands slightly trembling as she accepted the pipe and the fine-cut tobacco he offered. She recalled the words of the old smoking men at the taverns, pinched the tobacco, stuffed it into the bowl, tamped it down with the flat of her thumb, and sparked the match, bringing it close to the rim.

The Professor watched in mild amusement as Amelia took a ginger puff, the acrid smoke catching her off guard and making her eyes water. She choked, then broke into a fit of coughs.

“Are you quite all right, miss?” he asked, a trace of unease in his voice.

“Yes, I . . . I’m just not used to this blend,” Amelia replied. This was not entirely a lie; she was more familiar with the harsh sting of hand-rolled cigarettes than the rich fragrance of Turkish tobacco.

After a few moments of silence, Amelia ventured the question she’d been meaning to ask, “Professor, how do marine animals breathe?”

“Why, through their gills, miss,” he replied, surprised by the sudden change of topic. He launched into an explanation, “Much like our lungs, gills extract oxygen from the environment. However, in the case of aquatic creatures, the environment is water, not air.”

“And how does the air get into the water, sir?” she ventured further, puffing on her pipe earnestly now.

“Ah,” the Professor mused, “that’s a good question. There’s a natural process, of course. The undulating waves, the stir of the water’s surface . . . they all aid in the exchange of oxygen.”

“And bubbles, sir?” Amelia probed, the hopeful spark in her eyes hidden behind a veil of smoke.

“Bubbles?” he echoed, considering it, “I suppose they might help in the process. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious, sir,” Amelia responded, smoke escaping her lips with her words. With renewed hope and a plan beginning to form, she took another puff of the Turkish blend. This time, she didn’t cough.

* * *

Transforming a castoff steam pump, Amelia began the process of retrofitting it, adjusting the pump to force air into Ava’s tank. As the machine roared to life, streams of bubbles poured into the enclosure. Ava blinked at the sudden torrent, then her body started moving with an ease it had lacked. Her pale eyes locked with Amelia’s, overflowing with gratitude.

“Thank . . . you, A-me . . . lia,” Ava whispered, her speech sounding clearer than before. Pride engulfed Amelia’s chest.

* * *

As the English winter settled over London, the frost seeping into the very bones of the city, Amelia found herself facing a new challenge. The cool waters of the tank had grown colder, visibly affecting Ava. The mesmerizing creature’s movements became sluggish, her usual radiance replaced by a dull lethargy. Amelia felt a burst of distress. She needed to ensure the water temperature was regulated. Relying on her understanding of stove mechanics and pipe systems, she devised yet another plan.

Amelia cobbled together a contraption to raise the temperature of the water in Ava’s tank. She replaced the usual fill and drain pipes with a long, coiled copper pipe, which she carefully descended into a repurposed boiler under the tank. At a lower level still, she positioned a small coal stove, where she heated water in a large copper kettle, connected to the boiler. Amelia’s design hinged on the physics of hot water, as it naturally rose, creating a circulating flow that passed through the kettle and ascended into the boiler. Cooler water would flow back to the kettle, completing the cycle.

The water in the tank warmed slowly, and as it did, Ava began to ripple more, her movements becoming less lethargic. Just as Amelia was basking in the triumph, a knock at the door startled her. It was Professor Godfrey, drawn by his intrigue. Smitten by the captivating Amelia, he had traced her footsteps and likely suspected her pursuits here.

Amelia stepped outside to meet him, her heart fluttering. He held out his tobacco pouch and some rolling papers, an unspoken invitation.

As they smoked together in the frigid winter air, he attempted to unravel the mystery that was Amelia Archer. He marveled at her expertise in maintenance work, and his inquisitiveness grew when she mentioned she couldn’t allow him inside due to her contract. His fascination was further aroused when he inquired about how they managed to maintain the proper temperature for the creatures at the zoo, especially during winter. He cited the example of American lobsters, which could only thrive within a narrow range of 59 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit.

Amelia’s breath caught as she heard this. She was startled out of her ruminations when Professor Godfrey probed, “Are the . . . marine creatures here accustomed to these cooler temperatures?” Her face grew ashen. Without a word, she dropped her cigarette and bolted toward the building.

The professor, taken aback by her sudden departure, followed her into the vivarium room, where a harrowing sight met their eyes . . .

The room was filled with a warm saltwater mist, heat emanating from the unattended tank. Ava’s mouth hung open, a silent plea for help, her eyes clouded and lifeless, all shimmers of hope extinguished. Ava’s upper body emerged from the scorching water while her lobster lower half remained submerged in the searing heat, her flesh blistered and boiling.

* * *

In the late spring that followed, Amelia and Professor Godfrey found themselves once again sharing a smoke break at the university.

“Did you catch the news? The London Zoo . . . Aquarium,” he paused to enunciate the unfamiliar word with an odd emphasis, “has at long last opened.”

The professor drew deeply on his pipe, releasing a cloud of fragrant smoke into the mild air.

Then, he lowered his voice to an almost conspiratorial whisper, “However, they’ve chosen to house, well, more . . . conventional creatures this time. Smaller tanks, smaller worlds . . . but each uniquely fascinating.”

He encouraged Amelia, patting the back of his hand on her arm, “You should pay a visit, dear Amelia. It’s a sight, still, despite the humbler displays.”

Amelia, her gaze distant, replied, “Haven’t made my way back since they put me out.”

The professor, his concern piqued, posed, “Amelia, what became of Ava’s remains?”

Amelia took a long drag from her cigarette, her expression hardened. “They fancied makin’ her into a taxidermy piece. But she spoiled too quick, they had to incinerate her.”

“I see . . .” the professor mused, “You worked wonders with Ava. Your potential would be extraordinary if applied to the yet-to-be-established tanks here at the university.”

Amelia exhaled a cloud of smoke, watching as it rose and dispersed into the air. “Perhaps,” she said, “but my dreams seem fated to turn to ashes and go up in smoke.”


Image of Frank Alvarez

Frank Alvarez is an engineer from Monterrey, Mexico, who combines words, illustrations, and technology to craft stories reminiscent of role-playing games. His lifelong passion for storytelling has led to the creation of vivid worlds and memorable characters. Currently, he resides in Washington State, U.S. Having his stories published in the three countries in North America — in the U.S. by Androids and Dragons, in Mexico by Editorial Palabra Herida, and now in Canada with — represents a personal milestone, an honour to connect with readers across this diverse continent.

1 comment
  1. Different and Intriguing, but surprising that the prof told Amelia she worked wonders with Eva. She killed her.

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