The Octopus’ Lover

THERE WAS AN OCTOPUS on Lily Mackie’s front porch when she arrived home from work, keys jingling in her hand and hair slipping from the sloppy bun it was pinned in ten hours earlier. The thing was dead, sprawled across the warm concrete in a small, shriveled slump of arms. Its head was flat, gluey, slick like a placental sack stinking in the late afternoon sun. Setting down her purse and jacket beside the heels of her red pumps, Lily crouched to it with a held breath and a cautious hand. She brushed her index and middles fingers across the sloping crest above the animal’s eye, now a wad of yellow jelly in a round socket, crowned by a swarm of greedy flies. Scrunched her face at the wet, soft sound it made when pressure was applied, and touched it again.

It was nothing, Lily decided aloud. Surely it ended up here by way of some practical joke by the neighbor’s children, or even a bird, scooping the creature up from the bay and dropping it while flying to its nest. Perhaps it was some unstable vagrant, drifting through the neighborhood breaking into homes, or hurling things at peoples’ houses. Like the ones her mother was always going on about, wringing her thin hands while watching the six o’clock news.

They were everywhere, after all. Lily was often reminded of this on Sunday afternoons spent with her mother after church. Since moving to the city that was all Lily ever heard about from her mother, the crime rates and tabloid television. It was depressing sometimes, but Lily never said anything of it. Whatever it was that brought it to her doorstep, the octopus stared up at Lily with cloudy eyes, wet and dead. For a moment, sitting on sore knees with creases of dirt forming in her black pencil skirt, Lily stared back.

#

Lily was seven-years-old when she saw an octopus for the first time. It was a family trip, just Lily, her mother, and her father. The ones they used to take before he left them for the promise of another wife, in another town, with two children that Lily would never meet, packing a suitcase three nights before Lily’s ninth birthday. But that did not matter, looking back. Holding onto her mother’s hand in a patterned green sundress and a small, toothy smile, things were still good and that was what counted.

Lily had only ever known of octopuses as caricatures in children’s cartoons, with brightly colored faces and soft fat bodies with curly-q’s for arms. Octopuses were supposed to smile with blocky white teeth and blue eyes and sing songs about sharing. Instead the octopus at the Gladewater Aquarium stared at Lily, eyes dead through the deep glass plate of its invisible cage like something from Mars.

It did not smile; Lily did not know if she wanted it to, even if it could. Its face lacked the playful mouth and wooden teeth, and all of the other loveable features of its Saturday morning counterpart. The eyes were yellow starbursts or inverted fireworks, giant glass marbles beneath exaggerated brows, ageless and unkind. Molasses-slow, the octopus moved like a billowing sheet or unfurling umbrella of bumpy, pigment-dotted flesh, an alien in black water, drifting in unreal time.

Squeezing her mother’s thin hand, Lily thought it was beautiful. For her ninth birthday she would ask for an octopus, to keep in a tank on her dresser. Hearing of her plans, her mother simply laughed at the time; after her father left the laughter stopped altogether. When Lily was thirteen she would discover boys. Then high school, college, broken hearts; things wanted and left behind. She would never think of octopuses again.

#

Lily put the shriveled body of the octopus in two white plastic grocery bags and set it in the trashcan on the curb. It had seemed somehow undignified at the time. She knew she had a hand shovel sitting on the floor of the kitchen pantry by the dustpan, and a small spot in the garden by the driveway. Lily did not know if she could explain to Mrs. Hume across the street, sitting on her front porch with her daily crosswords and reading glasses, why she was burying an octopus in the flower garden.

Instead she threw it atop two empty boxes of Cheerios and some used AA batteries. It was another piece of trash, Lily assured herself, and closed her front door and switched on the porch light. She made pasta for one, watched television alone and went to bed. The shadows on the wall above the headboard curled like tentacles in slow-motion over her cold sheets, but Lily paid them no mind.

#

On Monday Lily took lunch fifteen minutes early. Mr. Berkley could not say no, after all, waving her off with a nod and the beginnings of a smile. Not after the nights spent at her desk when everyone else had gone home, and the holidays she had worked because Sally and Rachael already had plans. It kept her from having to spend them in an empty house, but Lily never mentioned that.

Instead of the cafe on Fifth and Chambers, where Lily usually picked up the Monday tuna on rye special, she parked outside the Gladewater Aquarium. Hands tight on the rubber steering wheel cover, she stared up at unassuming brick face. The tiny squares of windows dotting the building’s exterior in perfectly lined rows were now a tired green under the television-colored midday sky, not at all like the ocean blue of her memory. For it Lily swallowed tightly, and thought of her octopus.

Her octopus was long dead, and Lily knew that. It had either been tossed out in the trash, or left to rot on the floor of its tank until picked clean by fish. There was something fragile about the thought as Lily walked through the corridors of tanks, inexplicably nervous. Her stomach knotted, tight with a slick, strange fear that she could not name, her red pumps clicking against cold tile. Octopuses lived brief and solitary existences. Lily knew that, too, living long enough to produce their young in clutches of perfect eggs, then dying. There was something noble in that, she thought; the kind of tragic beauty that came with living up to one’s purpose so perfectly. Lily could admire that.

Animals swam by in a shimmer of scales and Technicolor. Sharks roamed the tank in circles like trained dogs, following tropical fish with angular faces and gaping mouths in a slow rainbow of eyes and motion. Lily stared at the ink black of water lit by man-made light, and felt somehow worse for it.

“Are you waiting for something?”

Lily looked up. Saw the woman standing at yard’s length from her left in a layered black outfit, covered in buttons and straps. Dark hair framed round features in a sharp, heavy fringe, cut like an inverted crescent above her brow line. The rest of the choppy length was pulled up into loose buns on either side of her head, falling strands held in place by sections of red ribbon. Her eyes were light and spotted, like fireworks, her mouth matte-black pulled into a curious smile at one corner, lit up by the fake blue glow of the tank lights. Then again, the smile could have just as easily been a trick of Lily’s imagination.

“Oh.” Lily flinched, swallowed, and smiled weakly. “No, not really,” she half-lied, and shuffled slightly in her red pumps. “Just felt like watching the fish for a bit. It’s supposed to be calming…I could use some calming today, I think.”

“Oh,” the woman mimicked, although in a lower affectation. Her eyes did not leave Lily’s face. “I guess we all could, these days.”

There was a pause between them, settling in the distance between their bodies and the fish swimming around them in their manmade sea. “You just looked like you were looking for somebody,” the other woman said, disregarding the silence. It made Lily’s fingers tighten around the strap of her shoulder purse. “Maybe a friend.”

Lily only smiled. “No.” Looking at the glimmer of passing blue scales, Lily said nothing of the octopus. “Not today.”

#

Lily did not speak of shadows, or dead octopuses. She took her tuna on rye at her desk and did not ask Mr. Berkley for any more favors. She did not contemplate strangers at aquariums, or rotting flesh at the bottom of the sea or in her trashcan. No one could know of that, because there was nothing to explain.

It would be three days before Lily saw the shadows again, curling from behind the bedroom door in broad black arms. She paid them no mind at first. Blamed it on an overactive imagination or bad late-night television and willed herself to sleep, face buried in her pillowcase with a determined sigh. Instead of finding sleep behind closed eyes Lily’s mind conjured visions of black water and leather flesh. The creak of the bedroom door–old hinges, she assured herself –gave her goose-flesh and she sucked in a breath between her teeth. She blamed that on the television, too. Perhaps she should be more like her mother and only watch the news. Her mother would like that.

Some nights Lily could feel the bite of toothy suction cups on the tips of her toes, the wet slither of cold arms around her thighs, but said nothing of that to anyone. Other mornings, on the street, with cups of designer coffee to chase away these waking dreams, Lily passed a woman with fireworks for eyes and ribbons in dark hair. The woman offered her a black lipstick smile, like she had in the aquarium. Small and elusive, as though Lily had painted it there herself with the blade of her finger, and she would say nothing of that either.

#

For days Lily drove passed the exit ramp to the Gladewater Aquarium on her way to work, staring at the highway sign as though it held some answer, or small parcel of knowledge. She knew better than that. Palms damp with nervous sweat on the steering wheel cover, Lily bit her lip and watched the sign speed by in a blur of green metal. For it she felt nothing, only a hollow pit in the core of her belly; just as there had been when her father left.

On the third day there was a note sitting on her cubicle desk, yellow notebook paper folded twice over. Words in a short, feminine hand, scribbled in black ink. What are you waiting for? Lily stared at the slip of paper, and thought of the dead octopus’ jelly eyes. She tucked the note inside her purse and told no one, waiting for five o’clock to come.

Across town it was already near dark by the time Lily arrived at Gladewater Aquarium, just as the doors were locked for the night. She put her car in park and sat, hands on the steering wheel and hair already slipped free of its haphazard bun. She did not know what she was waiting for, what had brought her there at all, as though it would bring her some peace. Her octopus was long dead, and what did any of it matter? There were no answers, for the shadows on her walls, the octopus on her stoop or the letter left on her desk.

Blinking, she caught sight of plastic and straps from under the stoplight across the street. The woman walked towards her car with black-gloved arms, her heavy boots carrying her dark-swathed frame, seemingly unchanged from the first time Lily had seen her, but of which she could not be sure. Instead of shrinking back like she wanted to, and starting the car and driving away, Lily held her breath. Smiling curiously, the woman lightly rapped on her passenger door with a single thin digit.

“You got my letter.”

Swallowing, Lily did not hesitate to unlock the door.

They did not speak, creeping through the congestion of uptown traffic after dark. The woman in Lily’s passenger seat wore black lipstick and looked like she fell out of some exotic fashion magazine, flowing black and pristine. Perhaps one of the Japanese or Italian journals Lily had often seen while in line at book store, but never picked up. Lily did her best to watch the traffic ahead of them and not the play of jaundice streetlight across the woman’s smooth features.

“You were waiting for me.” Lily’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Why are you doing this?”

“What am I doing?”

“You’re…” Something tightened in the pit of her chest. Feeling her eyes dampen Lily bit her bottom lip, and felt vulnerable for it. “You’re frightening me.”

“I’m sorry.” The gold between the yellow seemed to change colors in the other woman’s eyes. “That’s not my intention.”

“Then what are your intentions?” Lily asked, knowing better of it.

The mimic canted her head, features smoothing of any sliver of smiling or ill will. “To care for you,” she imitated Lily’s dry murmur, black lips catching the glint from the lamps outside. Gloved fingers reached up to curl around the curve of Lily’s chin. For a moment she did not notice the tears swelling in the corners of her eyes as they slid wetly down her cheeks.

#

Lily did not ask the woman’s name as they walked up the steps to her house, silent save the hitch of her own breath and the click-clack of her red heels on concrete. Neither did she ask her name as she took the other by the hand and led her to the bedroom. They were beyond the point of questioning when the strange woman’s fingers threaded through Lily’s, and Lily caught a breath and held it.

The woman’s mouth tasted like salt water when Lily kissed it; beyond the point of anything else as she slid her fingers into black hair. Hands found Lily’s hips and waist; her back and her breasts, plucking her blouse open gingerly, gloved digits sliding inside and pushing it from her shoulders. Black lips kissed Lily’s cheek, chin and collarbone, and for it her thighs felt weak beneath the fall of her pencil skirt. Her fingers struggled with buttons and snaps, layers of fabric and texture as Lily brought a free hand back to the other’s hair and tugged, wanting to pull her somehow closer, until their flesh and clothing melted together.

When she finally bared the woman of the outward layer of her top, hands came to her chest and pushed. Lily let out an abrupt cry as she fell back, bumping into and sprawling across the bed behind them. Without a pause or a breath the woman’s mouth was on hers again, slender black body stretching over Lily’s and fingers slipping beneath her skirt. Lily moaned, an unnatural sound, the tips of her well-manicured fingers pulling at the last fastens of the other’s shirt and tossing it aside.

The skin beneath it was cold to the touch, pulled tight over a thin framework of bones. For it Lily gasped, pulling away and looking over the woman’s chest, thin, frail, her breasts smooth of anything resembling a human nipple. It was then that Lily noticed the spots of rough skin, dotting the nearly translucent expanse of the woman’s long torso. The change in pigmentation travelled from the crook of her arms in a leathery hide, down to her extended fingertips in textured flesh rather than in the gloves they had appeared to be. Touching it now, Lily thought of the dead octopus and shivered.

Her hand still tangled in black hair was now made slick, caught by the toothy suction cups of tentacles hiding between the strands. They curled around Lily’s fingers, up her wrist and along her arms in a half-dozen spindly limbs, keeping her there as though she would wrench away in rejection. Another arm curled around her chin, others still between her thighs and around her hips, wet, sticky and unreal.

It was then that Lily realized the tentacles’ origins, the boots and bottoms of the octopus lying on the bed in a heap of fabric. Eight tendrils, thick and winding, sprouted from her waist where her legs would have otherwise been, writhing around Lily of their own will. Each limb was wide and fat like the length of an eel, black and leathery to the touch, all musculature and no bone, pulling, holding. Like a writhing mass of flesh, engulfing Lily in her small cold bed, all touch and caress.

“Is this what you wanted?” the octopus asked. Her voice was a loving murmur, low and heavy and pulled from the depths of the sea itself.

A single tentacle pushed stray hair from Lily’s brow, wet and cold. For it she held a breath, and melted away into the creature’s embrace. “Yes,” she whispered, if only to hear herself say it.

THE END

© MAGEN TOOLE


Author Profile:

Magen Toole is a student and odd-jobber from Fort Worth, Texas. Her work has or will be featured in Every Day Fiction, Literary Fever, MicroHorror and The Battered Suitcase. More of her work can be found at her blog: Eonism

4 comments


  • [...] The Octopus’ Lover. [...]

    1, October 2009
  • [...] went and got herself published, again. So show her some love and respect and good things by reading The Octopus’ Lover. It’s worth it. Cancel ReplyWrite a [...]

    2, October 2009
  • This story was a real fantasy adventure for me. At first, I thought, “Where is this story headed?” As I read on, I realised that supra-natural was happening here. I am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Toole’s work. Keep on writing!!!

    23, December 2009
  • Jack

    Amazing story. I loved the ambiguous tone of it. It could be read as a really touching supernatural romance, but Lily’s thoughts make it seem almost like Lovecraftian horror in places – nicely done!

    I was wondering if any of it was inspired by the Hokusai woodcut “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”?

    6, January 2010

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