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In town - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

When Ichthyander waded out of the water onto the beach early next morning Cristo was already waiting for him with a white suit ready. Ichthyander looked at the suit as if it were a snake’s skin and with a sigh started pulling it on. It was obvious he had had few occasions to dress in a suit before. The Indian helped the amphibian with his tie, looked him over and was pleased with what he saw.

“Let’s go,” he said cheerily.

The Indian wanted to impress Ichthyander, so he took him through the central streets, Avenida de Alvear and Plaza de Vertiz, on to Plaza de la Victoria with the Cathedral and the Town Hall in the Moorish style, then to Plaza del 25 de Mayo* with the Obelisco de la Libertad in the middle of a grove of magnificent trees, topping it all with the Palace of the President.

But Cristo’s little scheme misfired. What with the noise, the never ending stream of city traffic, the heat and the crowds, Ichthyander was utterly bewildered and miserable. In vain he tried to find the girl in the crowd, grabbing Cristo by his arm every now and then and whispering, “That’s her! “ then realizing he was mistaken and again peering into the crowd.

About noon the heat became unbearable. Cristo suggested that they have lunch at a restaurant nearby. It was down in the basement, a cool place, but noisy and close and full of people in cheap soiled clothes, smoking foul cigars. The smoke made Ichthyander gasp for air. To make things worse the men were hotly discussing some piece of news, brandishing crumpled newspapers and bawling out words he didn’t know. Ichthyander drank a lot of iced water but wouldn’t touch his lunch.

“It’s easier to find a fish in the ocean than a girl in this human whirlpool,” he said sadly. “Your cities are beastly! They’re stuffy and foul. And my sides are aching. I want to go back home, Cristo.”

“All right,” Cristo agreed. “Well only drop in to see a friend of mine and then off we go back home.”

“I don’t want to see any more people.”

“It’s on our way. I won’t be a minute.”

Cristo paid their bill and they emerged into the sun-scorched street. Breathing heavily, his head hanging, Ichthyander plodded after the Indian past cactus-lined white-stone houses, past orchards with peach and olive trees onto Baltasar’s place in the New Port.

With the tang of the sea ever stronger in his nostrils, Ichthyander wished, with a sudden vehemence, he could throw off his clothes and plunge into the water.

“We’re nearly there,” Cristo said glancing apprehensively at his companion.

They crossed a railway line.

“Here we are. This is the place,” said Cristo and led the way down a few steps into a small dark shop.

When Ichthyander’s eyes got used to the semi-darkness he gazed round him in surprise. The shop looked like a corner of the sea. The shelves and even part of the floor were piled high with every variety of shell. Hanging from the ceiling were strings of coral, star-fish, dried-up crabs, and stuffed fish. There were pearls in glass cases arranged to form a counter. One of these displayed pink pearls, “angels’ skin”, as they are called by divers. Ichthyander felt more at ease amidst things he knew so well.

“Have a rest, it’s cool and quiet down here,” Cristo said helping the young man into an old wicker chair.

“Baltasar! Gutierrez! “ the Indian called.

“That you, Cristo?” a voice came from behind the door. “Come in here.”

Cristo lowered his head to pass into the other room.

It was Baltasar’s laboratory. It was here he restored to pearls the lustre they are apt to lose through dampness, by bathing them in a weak solution of acid. Cristo shut the door tight behind him. The dim light that filtered in through a small window high up a wall revealed the flasks and glass tanks standing on an old deal table black with long use.

“Hullo, brother. Where’s Gutierrez?”

“Gone to the neighbour for the iron. Nothing but lace and ribbon on her mind. She’ll be back any minute, though.”

“And where’s Zurita?” asked Cristo, impatiently.

“Hasn’t shown up yet, damn his eyes. Had a bit of a row yesterday, we did.”

“Over Gutierrez?”

“Yes. He laid himself out to woo her. But she wouldn’t have him. Now what can I do with her? She’s no end wilful and stubborn. She is that. Thinks herself a cut above everybody else. She just can’t understand that any Indian girl, fair or ugly, would jump at the idea of marrying a man like Zurita, with a schooner and a team of pearl-divers of his own,” Baltasar grumbled, dumping a new batch of pearls into the tank. “He’s somewhere trying to drown his annoyance in wine, I suppose.”

“But what shall we do?”

“You brought him?”

“There he is.”

Baltasar stepped to the door and bent down to the keyhole.

“I can’t see him,” he said softly.

“He’s sitting over at the counter.”

“I can’t see him. There’s only Gutierrez there.”

Baltasar flung the door open and entered the shop followed closely by Cristo.

Ichthyander was not there. In the dark corner stood Gutierrez, Baltasar’s adopted daughter, famed far beyond the New Port for her beauty. A shy girl with a head of her own, she had no lack of suitors but gave all of them her “no”, firm and sonorous.

Pedro Zurita had cast his eye on her one day and wanted, her ever since for his wife. And old Baltasar was not averse to become his father-in-law-and partner.

But all Zurita’s advances met the same sonorous, firm “no”.

When her father and Cristo came in the girl was standing still, her head drooping.

“Hullo, Gutierrez,” said Cristo.

“Where’s the young man?” asked Baltasar.

“I don’t hide young men,” she said and smiled. “When I entered he looked at me in a funny way, as if afraid or something, rose up, then clutched at his chest and tore out. Before I knew it he was up the steps and gone.”

So she was the girl, thought Cristo.

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