When Isabel walked up to the huge glass tank at the aquarium, she motioned for the giant manatee to come forward. She did so like a small queen beckoning her subject to advance without the slightest doubt that he would. And maybe it was because of that confidence that the Manatee, who never went anywhere he didn’t want, swam toward her. “You have a secret,” Isabel said through the glass, and the Manatee, who actually did have a secret, looked surprised. He was surprised by two things, actually:
1. That a little girl could speak Manatee so well, and
2. That this same little girl also knew he had a secret, which as far as the Manatee was concerned, was a secret in itself.
“I know who you really are,” Isabel said in perfect Manatee. “And I’m not falling for it.”
The Manatee looked around his tank to see if any of the other animals were listening. Some seals were swimming in the far corner of that giant tank, uninterested in anything but the fish being dropped in by Jim, the caretaker. Aiko, the Killer Whale, was fuming in the solitary confinement tank next door, but Aiko wasn’t interested in others when he got into one of his moods. “How do you know I have a secret?” The Manatee asked.
“I know things,” Isabel said.
“Who are you?” the Manatee asked.
“Isabel,” Isabel said as if that were the explanation the Manatee was looking for.
The two stared at each other for a good few seconds until the Manatee broke. “How, exactly?’”
“My friend told me,” Isabel interrupted. She pointed over to a far corner. The Manatee’s eyesight wasn’t so good, but still, he could tell no one was standing where Isabel was pointing. “He’s not an imaginary friend,” Isabel said. “My mom says he is, but she’s wrong. He exists and he tells me people’s secrets.”
The Manatee was about to turn away when Isabel got up close to the giant tank. Her breath was quick and shallow and formed a perfect circle on the glass that separated her from the Manatee. “I know your secret,” she said again. “Don’t ignore me, or I’ll say it out loud.”
The Manatee turned back toward Isabel. “I bet you don’t know my secret,” he said.
“You’re not a fish,” Isabel interrupted.
The Manatee yawned. “I’m a mammal, not a fish, and that’s not a secret.”
“You’re a man,” Isabel said. “You’re a man in a big swim suit. You’re a fat, lazy man, and you ran away from your family.”
The Manatee started feeling bad at that point. “I’m fat; I can live with that. And maybe because I’m a little bit heavy, I’m a little bit lazy, too. But I’m not a man. That’s not my secret.”
“You are a man!” Isabel called out, and when the Manatee yawned, she said it a little bit louder. Isabelle didn’t like being ignored. She hated it, actually. And when she felt the Manatee was doing just that, she yelled louder until no one in the aquarium could ignore her. “You are a man! My friend told me and my friend doesn’t lie. You are a man!!!”
Isabel was so loud and so upset at this point that the people around her were split on what to do about her. Some wanted to pick her up and hold her and tell her she was ok while others did what people often do when they see someone yelling in public, even a child. They backed off, hoping that they wouldn’t catch whatever it was that this little girl obviously had.
Isabel’s mother, who’d been in the bathroom washing her hands, came running in and swooped Isabel up. But even as her mother carried her off, Isabel screamed at the Manatee and anyone else who’d listen. “You’re a man! You are!!”
As soon as Isabel was gone, the room forgot her and the Manatee went off to the corner and tried to forget Isabel, as well. It wasn’t easy, though. He couldn’t figure out how this little girl learned to speak perfect Manatee, and how she knew he had a secret. She wasn’t right about the secret itself, but she knew something. The one thing that the Manatee didn’t let himself ponder was why Isabel was so adamant that he was a man. That was ridiculous.
And yet that night, after Aiko finally settled down and the seals in the corner got their last bunch of fish for the evening, the Manatee dreamed about Isabel. To be more accurate, he dreamed that Isabel had not actually been speaking perfect Manatee—rather that she’d been speaking English and that he, the Manatee, understood every word.
The dream was unusual for the Manatee. Manatees are very bright and they have dreams, but this one was so vivid that the Manatee wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe he was a man.
Was that possible?
The next morning, the zoo staff was aflutter. In the big tank where the seals and the Manatee lived, there was no Manatee. When Jim came by that morning to feed the seals their breakfast, he found them barking at a fat man in a swimsuit floating face-down on the water like a giant, fat leaf.
The man, as it turned out, had gone missing a month before. His family said he had a fascination with manatees, though they could never understand why. Why would a grown man ever dream of being a manatee? What was the allure?
It was ridiculous–as ridiculous as a little girl speaking perfect Manatee.