Octopus time with my dad
|The last I’d seen of my dad had been on his fishing boat two summers ago. He had worn a faded blue life jacket over his bare chest, the intricate fishing rod and diving gear draped over his shoulders like an exoskeleton. He’d handled his tools slowly, each movement precise and controlled. “It will come with time,” he told me, laughing as I fumbled with the heavy rod.
Now I barely recognize the thing through the hospital doors. His shoulders are narrow and bunched. He looks shorter and frail, swallowed head to toe in a baggy T-shirt and jeans. Gray hair stands from the backs of his blunt fingers as he opens the doors. But when he raises his head, that spark of recognition hits. Something heavy squeezes my chest.
“Andy!” He booms, wrapping me in a hug. “Look how tall you’ve grown.” He thumps my back proudly.
“He plays soccer now,” Ron said, leading us to the car.
“Oh does he?” My dad throws his arm over my neck and pulls me close again. “What position?”
“Center,” answers Ron, staring at me through the rearview mirror when I didn’t answer. “Starting lineup at the university. Very good.”
They ease into easy conversation, catching up with each other’s lives. Ron is now a carpenter and his coworkers are gruff but kind. “Not a single sailor among them,” He grumbled. “And not a speck of water in the city. Miserable!”
The hospital, in turn, has its windows open during evenings and Dad enjoys the salt wind blowing from the beach.
“What have you been doing?” Ron asks. Dad read to pass the time after his eyes recovered. “And the food?” Just last week, they’d started feeding him solid food. He could even hold a fork.
And finally, the question. “Did it hurt?”
I watch the waves rise and split on the surf. I’d expected the question but now my heart clenches; I can barely breathe. The waves, crashing down. I can see yellow eyes, under the water, like lanterns in the abyss.
Dad laughs. “I barely felt it.”
We’d caught salmon and roe that day, tiny silver fish, and colorful flat ones further up. Dad knew all the best spots, knew all the habits of every fish in the water. “The hardest to catch is the octopus,” he said, unrolling something from our pack.
“Octopi don’t swim in shallow water.” Ever since I moved to the city, he thought I was an idiot.
“Most don’t.” He winked. He handed me the poster from the pack. It depicted a photograph of a black octopus coiled in the corner of an aquarium of sorts above a block of text.
“New Gene Labs?” I asked, frowning. There was something strange about the octopus that I couldn’t pin down. “Weird name for a zoo.”
“They’re a research facility,” Dad explained. “Moved to the beach a few months ago. Looks like they lost one of their star subjects.” He wagged his finger. “Octopi, Andy. They’re almost impossible to trap. To contain. They can squeeze their bodies out of or into anything. Those fancy scientists will never find it in their electric boats.”
I could see the passion in his eyes as he rolled up the poster. He would catch the octopus, show the new settlers who really owned the waters.
“The beach isn’t what it once was,” Ron sighs, kicking a pebble. We’re walking down the gangway, amid erections of ice cream stands, fast food facades, and tourist nicknacks. Rude wooden staircases wend past the rocks down to the sandy beaches which are alive with tourists like multicolored termites.
“That’s alright.” Dad’s eyes trail to the glass blue sea. “Could we go for a swim?”
“Of course! Andy, why don’t you show your dad the way down to the surf? I’ll check the rental on our boat.”
My dad drags his arm over my shoulders. I imagine I can smell it: that gamy rot; the wet putrid cloud forcing its way inside me.
“A swim,” Dad breathes. I watch him wade towards the water. His movements look unfamiliar, almost repulsive in their weakness. Turning away, I stare hollowly at the crashing waves beyond.
We’d chased it horizon to horizon. At first Dad was confident, then gamely, and finally the quiet focused blaze of concentration entered his eyes. We first skirted the dangerous zones, and then we began diving right by them, weaving headlights in the darkness for clues.
I couldn’t help thinking - for it was easy to imagine then - that the octopus knew it was being hunted. That it watched us, sometimes from afar as we crested some deserted crag, its huge tallow eyes mute and sinister in the freezing shadows. That it was leading us just like it’d led the scientists, deeper and deeper down.
Because the photograph haunted me. Its sinuous black tendrils wrapped endlessly together. Those luminous yellow eyes like alien moons blazing in the abyss. They can squeeze out of or into anything. In those gray mornings, I sometimes screamed, seeing black tentacles snaking from backpacks and opaque bottles. I was here all along. On the boat. Watching.
Dad called it quits when we saw the body.
“A New Gene employee,” he said, as we turned it over. An awful smell hit us: the reek of rotting garbage on the seafloor.
As we drove back to the beach in silence, I felt more than ever that horrible certainty of being watched. Dad stepped down the ladder as I lowered to him the fishing gear. Suddenly the smell rose so bad, I nearly chocked. It was the stink of decay, of death mixed with the gamy slick of blood and vomit.
Dad’s eyes widened in horror. His hands caught me, shoved me away into the water.
As he laughs freely, bobbing in the water, I remember it as clear as day. I can see the rising shadow, sinuous black tentacles as the octopus crawls from the corpse’s mouth, its eyes and ears. The smaller holes elongate, stretching impossibly wide as the bulk of the octopus slides out. It is like a tarp unfolding itself in the billowing wind, suddenly huge.
I scrambled up the dock as it slammed into Dad, taking them both in the water. I tried to scream and scream but all that escaped my throat was a thin whisper.
A hand erupted from the depths, clasping the dock. What followed could hardly have qualified as human. The octopus had left tracks of glistening red flesh, cutting through hair and eyes and nose. Paramedics later called it a miracle.
And yet I watch him now and I still wonder: how had the corpse moved to the side of the boat? Had those tentacles dragged it? Yet I’d heard no sound of puckers, heard no heavy sliding.
Or had the octopus moved it from inside the body, filling it up like a container, squeezing its heart, pushing its limbs?
Because the last thing I remember had been that squirming mass of tentacles dragging Dad down, fighting to climb up to his neck. Its huge black limbs cupping his face, and then with awful fluidity, it began to recede. Out of or into anything.
I cannot recall the color of Dad’s eyes. It has been too long. But I am sure they are not bright yellow.