by MD Maurice
a real-life encounter with the inspiration of a child's biggest fear.
|The steel green door looked unwelcoming and my insides twitched with anxiety as I drew closer. It was my first day at the Bernardesville Marinelife Park as a Sea Urchin Volunteer. As a Sea Urchin, I had elite status as one of the most experienced volunteer posts, fresh out the latest training session to prepare me to work “back stage” assisting the aquarists and aquarium biologists. It had taken me a long time to work up to the Sea Urchin level, having passed the last in a series of educational and performance testing. I was armed with a comprehensive working knowledge of the aquarium, more than ready to take on the new responsibilites demanded of my new status. What did I have to be nervous about? I straightened my new name badge and walked through the “authorized personnel only” doors as I had done every summer for the last three years.
As the familiar smell of chlorine-tinted air came over me, it triggered memories from my younger days. I had stared enviously at the backs of those aquarium workers and Sea Urchins in their bright red shirts, as they disappeared behind these same, impenetrable doors. My mind longed to know what lay beyond them, to be closer to the amazing collection of creatures I admired so much through the glass. Everyone aspires to be something; a rock star, an artist, a dancer. I wanted to be a world famous marine scientist. I planned to be the female version of Jacques Cousteau, boldly exploring the world’s seas discovering new species. The summers spent here were part of that continuing dream and becoming a Sea Urchin Volunteer was a necessary stepping stone on my path to scientific greatness.
I looked around, now finally on the other side. There were rows of tanks, of all different sizes, open at the surface and lining both walls. Masses of pipe and cables ran over, under and between them, carrying air and essential chemicals throughout the aquarium. There was a constant humming of machinery that after a few hours, your ears would become immune too. Against the far wall was the food prep area complete with a massive stainless steel refrigerator and a wide double sink. On the far right was the locker where all the scuba gear was housed and beyond that, the private office of the animal husbandry department.
I spotted the head aquarist, Rachel, leaning over a smaller reserve tank. These were tanks that housed new or sick fish, animals that required observation before being turned out into the exhibits. She greeted me warmly, told to make myself comfortable. I dropped my jacket and coat and stood waiting for my first assignment.
“Okay, first day? We’ll start you off with something easy. Why don’t you go ahead and clean F1?” Rachel said, smiling.
She handed me a clipboard with all the tanks numbered; she’d circled F1 for me. I looked down at the list, eager to get started, that is, until I remembered just what was housed in tank F1. My heart skipped a beat. F1 was the first tank in the Pacific Seas section and it was home to the aquarium's resident octopus.
Everyone has his or her childhood fear, it’s a normal part of growing up. Eventually, we learn there is no boogieman or monster lurking in our bedroom closet. Maturity usually aids us in overcoming those fears. My childhood fear however, was still very much alive and well. It revolved solidly around one animal and one animal alone, the octopus.
My fear may have been easily rooted after I’d watched the movie, “Giant Squid”, at the impressionable age of seven. I had sat there, immobilized in terror, watching boat after boat of screaming innocents meet their doom at the arms of this demon of the deep. It was horrific, those fat pink tentacles whipping up from the depths, plucking victims at random, dragging them down through the waves toward a sharpened beak-like mouth buried in mounds of slippery flesh.
As if the animal’s gruesome appearance hadn’t been enough, the very idea that something like that could be living down there tormented me. I’d lain awake that night, and many others, seeing myself entangled in those awful suctioned arms. My lungs blazing and the pressure crushing me, pulled ever closer to that ugly clamping beak. I woke up from nightmares but not before I had seen my own doomed reflection in that monster’s dead eyes.
As I got older, I realized movies were movies and as such, given to exaggeration. I learned that while giant squids had been discovered, they lived legions below the surface and had never been documented as having attacked anyone, ever. This knowledge did little to alleviate all my reservations however, as I can also come to understand that their close cousins, the Octopi, were very plentiful and lived well within the range of my potential exploration.
“You can handle this,” I assured myself, giving the aquarist a weak smile.
Rachel led me back into the shadows to a rather isolated tank with a heavy wooded cover. The tank top was beyond reach. Rachel produced a small stool, hopped up on it and lifted the tank lid. She explained that I would need to remove the octopus’s feces. They would look like small, white strands of yarn. She stepped down and invited me to take a look. I stepped onto the stool and peered over the edge. It was very dark. I could not make out anything below me in the rippling water, let alone little white strings, but I could not bring myself to tell her that.
I could just make out a blur of pink flesh pressed in close against the far wall. I had to admit it looked a great deal less threatening up close, but I was not going to give it the benefit of a doubt. The creature’s apparently docile behavior did nothing to put me at ease. In all the years I’d been coming to the aquarium, it had seemed that it had never moved from that spot. In fact, I had seen people overlook it, mistake it for a piece of the decor and move past. I prayed silently that he’d stay exactly where he was.
The aquarist handed me a long, netted pole and left. I was alone, staring down into the dark, churning water, looking for those elusive white strands. After a moment’s hesitation, I dipped the pole in. To reach the bottom, I had to scramble up the side of the tank on my tiptoes, bracing myself at the top on one elbow. From my new, higher vantage point, I probed the bottom gently, staying far away from the pink thing in the corner.
As time progressed, I got a little braver. I branched out further into the tank with my search. All of a sudden, my net came into contact with something soft. I recoiled. I had accidentally poked it. I froze, waiting for a reaction. Nothing happened. Stupid animal. I resumed my work after a few more minutes only to be distracted by a loud conversation below me.
Two of the other aquarists were having an animated debate about the resident lungfish. I eavesdropped a little, yearning to know more about their heated conversation. I looked down again to see one; long, wavering arm reaching out amid the depths. Eewww! I must have drifted too close to him again/. I cursed myself for not being more careful. I took a few deep breaths and concluded my sweep of the tank.
I realized I was about as done as I was ever going to get. I was in the process of withdrawing my pole and stepping down when I suddenly felt an amazing amount of resistance. Looking down I found, to my ultimate horror, that the octopus had indeed moved, very rapidly and was now directly below me. Its flowing body undulated and twisted as it rose up through the water column toward me, my pole firmly in its clutches. Slimy tentacles broke the surface in every direction, gripping for purchase as it advanced on me. I tried to quell my rising panic, telling myself it merely thought it was being fed. I knew differently though. In my heart I knew it was coming after me.
It was ugly, in every possible expanse of the word. It was huge, sinister and foul. The very sight of it, at this close of range, drove my panic into overdrive. I let out a loud, choking sob and wretched my pole free in one powerful motion. The momentum I generated created a chain reaction. The pole, suddenly released, flung up and connected with a hanging light above my head. The impact knocked me off my stool and on to the floor with a thud. My pole clanked down beside me, a wash of stale smelling water splashed down over my head and shoulders. Somewhat dazed, and extremely embarrassed, I pulled myself up and turned back to the tank just in time to see several tentacles snaking free over the rim. Water sloshed over the side as it started to pull itself up and over the edge.
Without thinking, I grabbed my pole and scrambled over. I rammed it back down into the water, grimacing with the fleshly feel of it and gagging on the foul, fishy smell. I reached up and slammed the wood lid down with a loud bang just as the last of it's tentacles disappeared back down into the murk. I looked around nervously; thankfully, no one had seen my escapade. I was shaking from head to toe and my hip felt like it was on fire. I hurried back to the clipboard and checked off the box marked F1 indicating the job had been taken care of.
I was quickly assigned to my next task, something involving the far less threatening sea horses. Still recovering from my ordeal, I struggled through the rest of my day. I went home sore and very humbled.
The confrontation left me forever impaired. Every time I had to pass by that tank, and believe me, I took as many detours as I could, I could still see it, pressed into that corner as if it never intended to move. I knew better. I did my best to fully apply myself to every task I was assigned, but I waited, with suppressed terror, for the aquarist to once again assign me to tank F1. Even today, years and years later, I cannot help but shudder with the remembrance of that horrible encounter. I know it is still there, waiting for me in those dark and rippling depths, staring up at me with those black, lidless eyes and snapping its cruel beak in anticipation.