First appeared in ASM 93

A month after Elijah and Olivia are supposed to return from Mexico City, I text, 

Where are you? Everyone’s talking.

There is a pause. Then Elijah types, We found something. I don’t think I can leave it.

What do you mean? I say, What did you find? And then, I’m coming.

Don’t, he says immediately. It might get you too.

I look up from my phone at the spreadsheet on my monitor. Across the room, my colleague, an ecologist, eats salad from a plastic container at his desk. I book my flight the next day.

He picks me up at the airport. He has grown out his hair, and it fans out behind his ears in a feathery cloud. “How are you?” I ask as soon as I see him. “Are you okay?”

His smile is broad. “Of course I’m okay.”

“What’s going on? Why haven’t you come back?” 

He waves a hand vaguely. “We just wanted a little vacation after our research was done, that’s all.”

I try to look him in the eye, but he avoids my gaze. “What aren’t you telling me?” “Come on,” he says, turning.

He insists on taking an early exit from the train to show me their neighbourhood, Zona Rosa. I know he is trying to distract me, but it works; the city is intensely beautiful, and I am bowled over by the lush greenery, which drapes everything in growth. Behind and in between, there sprawls a profuse riot of architectures, shiny newness curling up with decaying grandeur like so many May–December romances. There are a thousand tiny shops crammed into each block, selling every shade of household supplies and freshly cooked food, and the aroma of corn and meat and lime rolls over me in breathtakingly heated waves. And there are men looking me up and down everywhere we go, which surprises me for some reason, even though I’m not complaining.

Olivia is standing at the counter, chopping vegetables with practised ease when Elijah lets me in. The knife flashes when she puts it down. “Scott,” she says throatily and comes toward me with open arms. I hug her briefly, then step away quickly under the aegis of needing to put down my bags.

We have dinner on the sidewalk outside a restaurant, the table glowing in the streetlight. I drink beer and mezcal, while Olivia and Elijah drink copious amounts of water—it is the heat that does it, Olivia says—and eat guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers. I do not want to seem like a prude, so I try one, but a leg gets stuck in my teeth and I struggle to extricate it, panicking while Olivia giggles.

She puts one of the insects in her mouth and eats it lasciviously and looks at me. “How long are you here for?” 

“Just a few days.”

She smiles. “We’ll have to make the most of it then.”

I am tempted to ask her why the two of them won’t come back; but Elijah is watching carefully, and I do not want to anger him already. There is time to unpick the mystery here—to understand why Olivia’s interest in me seems something more than polite; why I cannot shake the feeling that I am being evaluated; and why Elijah seems intent on pushing me away.

I wake in the middle of the night. The apartment is astonishingly humid; when I stand and walk to the door of my room, the linoleum peels from my skin like tape.

The doorframe to Olivia and Elijah’s room glows a dull orange, and when I pass it on my way to the bathroom, I feel a blast of damp heat streaming out. On my way back, I hear a strange sound from their room. I pause, and then hear it again—a thick tearing, like wet cloth being ripped—and it unsettles me enough that I crouch down and creep closer.

When I press my eye to the crack in their door, it is like my face has been doused in water. It is only after I wipe my eyes that I see the two of them writhing on the bed, a lamp casting their shape into monstrous shadow on the wall. A leg thrusts toward the ceiling, an arm toward the ground, and it is difficult to make anything out clearly; but then I see that Olivia is pulling Elijah’s fingers farther and farther back as she rides him, so far that the flesh is coming apart at the knuckle and his bones are cracking as his fingers finally snap as he moans— 

I pull back from the door and stand. I return to my room and lie on top of the sheets, flush with the fluorescence of the light across the street, and do my best to ignore the squelching sounds of their sex. I did not see what I thought I saw, I tell myself; it was dark, and I am still drunk.

When I blink my eyes open in the bright light of the morning, the previous night feels like a dream. I hear the clink of dishes in the kitchen. I cautiously get dressed and go out to investigate.

“Good morning,” Olivia says brightly when I walk in. “Someone’s a late sleeper.”

“Jetlag, I guess.” I eye Elijah’s hand around his mug as I sit; it looks whole and unblemished. Elijah catches me staring and I turn away quickly, saying, “So, what are we doing today?”

We are not doing anything today. I have things to do, so you two are on your own.” Olivia leans forward and kisses Elijah briefly on her way to the door, and I feel a swell of jealousy; it takes me a moment to realize I am not sure which one I am jealous of. “Have fun today, boys,” she says and winks, then grabs a bag and goes.

The silence without her feels heavy; aside from our exchange in the airport, Elijah and I have barely spoken. After a long silence, Elijah finally says, “I think we should go to Coyoacán today.” 

“Then let’s go to Coyoacán,” I say.

He tells me about Coyoacán as we wait for the bus. It used to be a village of its own, he says, and is most renowned for being where Frida Kahlo lived. I ask if we can go see her house, but he says, “It’s a tourist trap,” and I stifle my disappointment.

But it turns out it does not matter, because her aesthetic runs through the neighbourhood itself, which is private and lush and romantic. We sit in a particularly lovely square strewn with boldly coloured flowers and bracketed by walled buildings whose balconies glimmer above the street, eating mango drenched in lime juice from a plastic cup and talking. The mango is fresh and delicious, and I want the plaza filled up with nothing but slices of mango until we are neck deep and squirming in their sticky flesh while lime juice rains down from the sky.

I wonder what it would be like to live with Elijah in one of these houses. The balcony of the nearest one glimmers in the sun and, over it, I can just see the edge of a tall bedpost in one room on the corner with long, flowing green curtains; that is where we would sleep. He is a sprawling, easy sleeper, one of those people who can sleep in any position and who wears few clothes. I have never been like that myself but, in this fantasy, I imagine a sheet carelessly weaving through the tangle of lean and healthy limbs on the bed— —and I catch Elijah looking at me. “What?”

He says quietly, “You’re beginning to feel it, aren’t you?” 

“I’m beginning to feel what?”

For a moment I think that my slow seduction has worked, that he will open up to me at last; but then something closes down in his eyes, and he shakes his head and turns away, and I feel a flash of frustration at being rejected yet again.

The rest of the day he withdraws even further, responding to my questions only in curt, pointed sentences. It makes me even angrier, so I ice him out in turn. By the time we meet Olivia for dinner, we are barely speaking.

When Elijah is in the bathroom, Olivia turns to me. “What happened with you two? What’s wrong?”

I start to say “nothing,” but then my anger flares again, and instead I say, “Why won’t you two come home?” I can see her hesitating and I cannot help needling her. “Elijah told me not to ask you,” I say. “He said it would upset you.”

Olivia takes a long sip of her water and then says quietly, “I’m not the one it would upset.”

I open my mouth to ask more but then Elijah sits back down and Olivia smiles brightly and carries on as though nothing has happened. Except that when we finish dinner and Elijah turns back toward their apartment, Olivia does not. “Let’s go out tonight,” she says, eyes glinting in the streetlight. “Let’s have some fun.”

Elijah turns toward her slowly. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Positive,” she says. “Come on.”

She leads us on, street after winding street until I am completely lost, and into a ramshackle but tasteful apartment filled with people who all seem younger and more sophisticated than me. Despite Elijah’s earlier reluctance, he seems to know everyone, and within minutes both he and Olivia have been absorbed into other conversations and I am left to fend for myself.

So I drink until my half-Spanish grows more charming, managing to make some jokes that are at least recognised as jokes, and end up sitting on the floor with one skinny young man who eyes me in a way that I like. I have nowhere to go, so when he passes me a joint, I take a hit even though I usually do not, which means that I am unprepared for the wave of paranoia that follows; but the next moment the paranoia passes and it is like I am in a movie of my own experience, the mood shifting dramatically from moment to moment. I like it, so I take hit after hit, until suddenly the joint and boy are gone, and I am alone on the floor surrounded by colours and sound.

I stand and stumble through the party until I find Olivia in the kitchen. I take her hand in mine. “What did you find,” I shout over the music, but I am not sure she can hear. She grabs my arm and pulls me until we are outside on the sidewalk and walking in the cool night air.

“What about Elijah,” I mumble, but she doesn’t respond.

Then all at once we are back in their apartment. Olivia goes to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of water, drains it, pours another, drains that one as well, and then pours a third and brings that one to me on the couch. I nearly drop it when I take it.

“Poor baby.” She seems amused. “Had a little too much?” 

I cannot bear to stand still so I sit . Olivia shifts and my mouth ends up at her neck. I can feel her flesh hesitate. Her skin gives off the precise smell of thinking and then it capitulates to my lips.

Olivia tastes of caffeine. I did not know how caffeine tasted until now—chalky and bright. The muscle in her calf bulges outward with a violent sharpness. I am afraid to touch it, but she says it does not hurt. There are stripes of muscle at her groin that contour her legs into shapes I have never seen. I give my life to those shapes. I mortgage my future to where her thigh meets her hip. 

She is telling me how to move and I am eager to listen. I want to do for her what no straight man ever could. When she groans, I groan. When she whimpers, I whimper. When she turns around as though searching for something she has forgotten, I help her to look. I am confident that together we can find it.

I wake in the middle of the night and look around, bewildered; then I see Olivia in bed next to me. It all comes back to me in a rush. I blanch and begin to scramble from their bed.

I am still scrambling when Elijah walks in.

He is naked and very beautiful. “I’m sorry,” I find myself whispering.

He walks until he is very close. “Don’t be,” he says quietly. “After all, it’s why you came here, isn’t it?”

I want to say no, that I came here for him; but I cannot, because he is right. He sees this and smiles, and then lies down next to me and puts his body to mine.

The next morning, when I stumble to the living room, Olivia and Elijah stop talking as I enter. They exchange a look.

Olivia turns to me. “Do you still want to know?” she says. “Because there’s no going back once you do.” 

I have never felt so depleted. I look at Elijah and, for what feels like the first time since I have arrived, he meets my gaze. I can tell he wants me to say yes but is trying to hide it. I nod and feel a swell of satisfaction when his face lights up. 

Olivia stands. “Then put on your shoes.”

“Water,” I rasp. “I’m so thirsty.”

Elijah shakes his head. I swallow. My throat is like sandpaper. “Where are we going?”

Elijah stands and answers, his voice shimmering with suppressed excitement. 


It is a long bus ride and, on the way, Elijah sits next to me and tells me about their research. They have been studying the axolotl, an animal whose only remaining natural habitat is in the canals, the final remnant of the lakes that once covered the valley of Mexico. The axolotl is an amphibian, he says, but unlike most amphibians—even when axolotls grow legs—they never develop full lungs but keep their gills instead. They stay in their larval stage forever, never fully one thing or the other.

I can see his face lighting up as he talks, and I smile; his excitement is becoming. He tells me how the axolotl can regenerate lost body parts with astonishing ease and rapidity, even replacing parts of its spine or its jaw, the new parts growing seamlessly out of the old without any scarring at all. This quality has made them prized as research subjects, which is how they were able to obtain funding for this trip. He shows me a picture: They are strange animals, dark and naked-looking, like little dinosaur salamanders. Their gills sit outside their head like feathery, fleshy trees, which strikes me as vulnerable.

My eyes linger on those gills; they remind me of something, but it is not until I follow Elijah and Olivia out of the bus that I realise it is their hair, which fans out around both their heads the same way as the axolotl’s gills. 

Ahead of us, bright lines of water sear in the sun behind overlush growth. The day is boiling, and I am thirsty like I have never been thirsty before, panting and shuddering; however, Olivia and Elijah seem somehow enhanced by the heat, practically shining with good health and striding forward with renewed vigour. 

They pay extra to get a barge to ourselves. It is painted in bright primary colours and has a table in the middle but no food or drinks. “Water,” I croak again.

“Not yet,” Olivia says, and signals to the man piloting the barge that we are ready to go.

We push off slowly and drift through the canals, water sloshing against the side of the boat. It is high noon and I feel like I am dying. Smaller boats with individual vendors begin to float up to the barges with food and drink for us to purchase. Elijah leans over the edge and consults with a stout woman in the small boat, and my mouth waters as he grabs a large cup and passes it back. I grab it greedily and take a long, deep draught; but then I splutter and spit it back out because it is not water at all but something acidic and sour. “Drink up,” Elijah says, watching carefully.

I stare at him, but he seems to be serious, and Olivia is watching me too. So I drink.

The alcohol hits my stomach and I feel woozy immediately. Everything shines—the water shines, the eyes of the vendors in the boats shine, the sweat on my arms shines. I feel my stomach expanding, liquid boiling up and gushing out my pores in steam and sweat as the alcohol drives out the last remnants of water inside me.

My t-shirt is unbearably sticky and so I take it off. Elijah and Olivia glance at each other and strip off their shirts too, Elijah talking to the man poling the barge at the back and paying him extra money. But I cannot focus on what Elijah is paying him for because my stomach is churning. I stumble to the side of the boat, then my head is over the side of the barge and I am vomiting dark clouds into the canals, my face mere inches above. I feel Olivia and Elijah come up and each put a hand on me, and I think it is to keep me secure— —until they push me and I fall into the water.

I gasp and splutter for air. Something lands on top of me and drags me toward the bottom, then another one follows; it is Olivia and Elijah, swimming easily, too easily, each of them wrapping an arm around me and pulling me down as I struggle. I thrash until the sunlight is just a glimmer on the surface far overhead and the oxygen is gone from my lungs, and then as I finally open my mouth and prepare to draw in dark water in a futile attempt to breathe, Elijah draws me close and puts his mouth on mine.

Water pours from his mouth into my throat. My first impulse is to gag, but somehow this water is sweet and full of oxygen and quenches my thirst like nothing ever has before, and I swallow it down eagerly. As soon as the flow stops, I begin to gulp for more. Elijah hands me to Olivia, who fits her mouth to mine and pours her own water into me; hers tastes brighter, almost citrusy.

Olivia and Elijah hand me back and forth, filling me up with their water. I can feel my body changing bit by bit as it makes its way through me. My vision becomes refracted and sharp, and in this new clarity I can see a metamorphosis happening to Elijah and Olivia as well, their bodies melting and accruing in strange and similar ways.

At last, when there is no space in me left to fill, Olivia lets me float free.

My body flexes and moves independently of me, turning until I am facing Elijah. I see that he is auburn with golden spots with an olive undertone that is both roguish and sophisticated; while, beside him, Olivia is a fetching beige. I catch a flash of burgundy paw in the corner of my vision and flinch, but it flinches with me, and I realise with a start that it is mine. I laugh, opening my mouth wide and letting water stream in, and Olivia and Elijah open their mouths wide and laugh in joy too.

Then I forget entirely about the strangeness of being an axolotl because there is a new world to explore, and I am two times a tourist.

The water is no longer dark…it is pure ether. The three of us move through it effortlessly, wiggling our long tails so that our fins catch the water, swinging ourselves on the grass at the bottom of the canal as though dancing. Something catches my eye and without thinking I open my mouth and suck, creating a vacuum with which to draw in the shrimp that was darting past. Nothing in the world will suffice except to do it again, so the three of us hunt together, employing astonishing instinct and consummate skill to catch various small critters and swallow them down.

This is where we belong, some part of me thinks. We’ve been axolotls all along.

I remember when Elijah and I first moved to the city together. I remember the nights we spent together in bars and apartments, me feeding him women and him feeding me men as the line between friendship and loveship grew increasingly blurry, and me becoming more and more hopeful that whatever we were growing together would at last quench my thirst for something wild and new— —and then he met Olivia, and our love died on the vine.

Elijah took to her like a fish took to water, nuzzling her neck in public, a hand on her arm like he never did me. I resented her so much that I obsessed over her: her dark, curly hair, which she wore unusually, with bangs and a rough chop at her shoulders; her dancer’s bearing, that lean, long elegance and ferociously upright posture; her precise, talented sketches, which she left around his apartment carelessly, like they were trash, or treasures to be found. I obsessed so much that the line between resentment and desire began to wear disturbingly thin. 

And then we went dancing.

The bar was crowded and sweaty and the band very loud. Elijah went to get all of us drinks and Olivia and I ended up hovering at the edge of the dancefloor awkwardly, not talking, not touching, until at last she turned to me and shouted, “Let’s dance.”

I have never liked dancing salsa with ballerinas; their bodies are too pliable, too elegant. When you pull on a ballerina, everything falls into place in a way that looks lovely when pliéing but gives you nothing to hold onto.

Somehow with her it was different. I remember the feel of her body in my hand beneath the damp, thin fabric of her top. Like silk over warm steel.

Elijah watched us, and when the song finished, he took Olivia and they danced. He was always an acceptable dancer, someone who had been taught all the right moves but had to recall each lesson before taking a step. I watched them, drinking beer quickly until another girl asked me to dance, and I took her hand and spun and lost myself in the music. When the song was over, Elijah leaned in and said, “I didn’t realise how good a dancer you are,” while Olivia’s smile had an edge to it that sent a flush of blood to my gut. I found more and more people to dance with, making sure to stay close to Elijah and Olivia, and where I could see the two of them leaning close and shouting indistinct things to each other over the blare of the music with both their gazes trained on me.

I started wanting something that night that I didn’t know how to name: something that involved them and me in a way that was neither all of us together nor all of us apart but something far stranger; something so far from the realm of everyday possibility that even my imagination lacked the vocabulary to bring it to life—

—until now.

We emerge from the canals late at night, gasping as the fluid perfection of our axolotl bodies is overtaken by the clumsy, staggering movements of humans on land. We make it out of the water and lie on our backs naked and covered in mud, drawing in long, shuddering breaths. The air feels like fire in my lungs.

I look over at Elijah and Olivia. “Why didn’t you tell me,” I whisper.

Elijah shakes his head while Olivia reaches for his hand. “He didn’t want you to have to give it up too,” she says.

I am confused. “Why do we have to give it up?”

Elijah takes a deep breath and says, “Because this is the only place axolotls can live. Once we go home, we can’t be axolotls anymore.”

Olivia shudders, as do I. At last I understand why they’ve stayed so long; the thought of leaving my axolotl self behind fills me with such grief I can hardly bear it.

But I think about what Elijah told me before, and an idea occurs to me; it is so obvious that I am surprised they have not thought of it already. Perhaps it is their knowledge that has blinded them to it. Perhaps it is the danger.

I do not care about either.

“Why can’t we have both?” I say.

They look at me, faces streaked with tears and mud. Elijah says, “How?” I open my mouth to answer and realise I am so exhausted I can barely talk. “Later,” I say. “Home first.”

Olivia nods and staggers to her feet, her body glimmering in the moonlight. Her feet squelch in the mud as she walks off and returns with the bag she took with her the day before, which turns out to be full of clothes and towels. The three of us clean ourselves as best we can and make our way back to the bus, then home.

We sleep in their bed in a tangle of limbs, and in the morning, I explain my idea to them over coffee. They stare, and then they shout. We debate it all day, then late into the night. We sleep, and when we wake up, we discuss it again. 

But it is a foregone conclusion, despite the debate; I know we will all try anything, no matter how dangerous. 

I delay my plane ticket more than once. Olivia and Elijah stall, and dither, and it is only when all three of us have received the most urgent of entreaties from people back home that they finally commit.

We prepare and gather our supplies. On the appointed night, we go to the canals.

The canals are dark and empty, and it is not hard to find a place out of sight. We creep into the mud to the edge of the water. Elijah and I look at each other, both of us as scared to go first as to be the one left behind. “I’ll go,” Elijah says 

finally, voice bright with adrenaline. “I brought you here.” I begin to protest. 

“I knew what I was doing,” he continues. He kisses me, then kisses Olivia too. 

She is doing her best not to cry, I can tell.

Elijah takes off his clothes and dives in. For a moment, there is just the sound of splashing, then no sound at all. I reach for Olivia’s hand, and she grips mine back tightly. 

After what feels like hours, I see a faint brown glimmer at the edge of the water moving toward us. “There,” I whisper, and both of us crouch down to look.

It is Elijah. He is a curious thing, a slippery reddish salamander with two trees behind its ears, not quite one thing or another. His black eyes look back up at me, and I can see myself reflected dimly in them.

Olivia’s hand leaves mine, and I see a flash of silver in the corner of my eye.

There is no time to hesitate. I take Elijah in my hand and place him on the rock between Olivia and me, holding him in case instinct forces him to run. But he just waits placidly as Olivia raises the knife.

Then, tears streaming down her face, she brings it down and cuts off Elijah’s head.

It takes three days to grow back.

Olivia and I leave in shifts to get food and supplies, hiding from the sounds of laughing tourists in the distance, clinging to the darkness of the mud and the reeds. On the third night, Olivia shakes me from my half-sleep and points at the tiny cove in the water where she had carefully placed Elijah’s separated head and body days earlier.

I follow her outstretched finger to see the water stirring. A moment later, Elijah’s axolotl head breaks the surface, shiny and new and attached to his body, whole once again.

A few moments later, a second axolotl follows. The body of this one looks younger and fresh, the head older.

The two Elijahs look at each other, then the one with the newer head turns and dives back into the waters of the canal. The other comes toward us and begins to transform. The transformation is grotesque, but I do not avert my eyes and am rewarded at last with a gasping human Elijah lying naked in the mud.

Olivia falls on top of him, laughing, crying, and I follow. When all of us have regained some semblance of composure, I ask him, “How do you feel?”

Elijah takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He looks more content than I have ever seen him. More content than I thought it was possible to feel. “It worked,” he says quietly. “It worked.” I look at Olivia, and her disbelief is a mirror of mine.

Her expression grows determined. She stands and strips off her clothes. “Come on,” Olivia says. “Let’s see what he’s talking about.” 

I strip and follow her into the water, becoming an axolotl as I go. When we are ready, we return to Elijah and wait on the rock neck in neck.

The knife flashes down. It only hurts for a second.

When I return to consciousness, I am myself again. But I am also something more.

I can feel the other me as we pack up the apartment and head to the airport. I can feel him all through check-in, and all through security. I look at Olivia and Elijah next to me as we board, faces full of satisfaction, and know that they can feel it too.

On the plane, I lean my head on Elijah’s shoulder and close my eyes, and I dream of myself.

My body is just as I remember—lithe and powerful and infinitely pliable— and I follow Olivia and Elijah excitedly into the depths of the canals. We explore and find other axolotls, a diverse community of different shapes and sizes and temperaments, and they welcome us into their fold. We make friends, lovers, family; our community has a rich culture of sounds and forms of affection that are impossible to put into words. Olivia and Elijah and I stay together all the while, a nucleus that will never break up. 

When the time is right, Elijah and I deposit our seed capsules together, keeping our eyes on each other as we swoop toward Olivia, who leads us on a playful, verdant chase amidst the grasses before taking the packets into herself. This happens throughout the community, and for days afterwards our home is filled with transparent, gemlike eggs that coruscate in the light. Soon, all too soon, our children are moving and eating and growing, and although many die, there are some that survive, and those survivors join our community or take off to explore on their own. 

Then, all of a sudden we are old. Though we never discuss it, the three of us know that we do not wish to fade into weakness and be picked off one by one by the invasive species that increasingly plague our world. So we make our goodbyes—they do not last long, axolotls are not sentimental by nature—and swim together to the top of our world and the brightness beyond the ether, ready after a long and satisfying life to finally gulp down air again— —and I open my eyes as the plane touches down in New York.

I turn to Olivia and Elijah, who are both waking up. They look back, faces still foggy with sleep, and reach for me; and I know at once that we have all shared the same dream.

Forever, I think desperately, holding their hands in mine. Let us share it forever.