Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart

When Dr. Carver made his rounds, clipboard in hand to check every lab’s progress, Walter held the eyedropper high, tended fastidiously to the octopus’s dietary needs, and checked the aerators to ensure that enough oxygen passed over her eggs, a thousand small pearls beaded beneath her tentacles. Yet after Dr. Carver peered over his glasses, nodded stern approval, and closed the metal laboratory doors behind him, Walter set down the eyedropper and stared into the tank, sometimes curled himself into a ball with his kneecaps settled into his eye sockets, and tried to remember how the world felt in the womb.

The small female—which Walter had named Sedna, though he never spoke the word aloud—hung a laced cord of eggs along the ceiling of her lair, a makeshift cave made of plastic and store-bought rocks, and splayed her tentacles across the roof to protect them, though Walter saw the satin globes anyway through the translucence of her suctioned feet. There were thousands of them, a caviar of test subjects, and Walter knew Sedna would die once they were born. He’d tried to feed her, an eyedropper full of sugar water, no substitute for crabs. She’d ingested one of her own arms instead, a behavior Walter knew was common among mothering octopuses, but he regarded this as protest nonetheless, Sedna stretched thin across the roof of the cave.

What they’d done was wrong. Walter felt the wrong rattle the marrow of his bones, standing there in the lowest reaches of the labs, hidden away where officials from the National Academy of Sciences would never find them. Up above, tanks upon tanks of zebrafish filled the labs, creatures within the realm of regulation—their capacity to breed in enormous numbers, their small, lucent bodies fertile for the type of research Dr. Carver wished to conduct. The study of cardiovascular disease, he’d told the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, to further human understanding of the organ that sustained us. But within the cloaking anonymity of night, Dr. Carver had caught an octopus himself, had pulled Sedna from the wild-dark sea, beyond the reaches of the labs, and had locked her beneath the ground for Walter to oversee and for Walter to ignore the experimental regulations on octopuses. The laws mandated that no surgery be performed without anesthesia for the many nerves they held.

We are groundbreakers, Dr. Carver had told Walter once as they locked up the lab. Any scientist can find a cure for heart disease, but we, we will find the origins of love.

Walter had looked away, eyes sliding toward the tank, had disavowed any 'we’ Dr. Carver intended.

The complex nervous system, the neurons in their arms, their problem-solving capacities and their ability to find a way through mazes—for all of these reasons, Dr. Carver had said, octopuses were the perfect animal candidate for exposing the human mystery of love. In the neurons, the synapses, the brain activity blinking blue, he would find that love was nothing more than a firing of electrical impulses, a Petri dish of tangible chemistry.

We can eradicate divorce, Dr. Carver said. We can match synapses perfectly, brain to brain, no messy guesswork involved. He’d laughed and looked at Walter. Animals don’t have feelings, and neither do we. It’s all just biology, nothing more.

Walter peered over the edge of the tank, watched Sedna’s tentacles creep along the edges of her cave beneath the wavering surface of the water. Dr. Carver fixated upon the cephalopod’s brain but ignored her multiple hearts, one of the only organisms with more than one center. Walter imagined her three hearts pumping lucid blood, three hearts to sustain her weak body, to beat above her pearls of children and to perish when they were borne into this world.

 

When the thousands of eggs hatched and Sedna withered away, weak and feeble, Dr. Carver told Walter to dispose of her down the laboratory toilet and separate the small octopuses into containers. Walter donned latex gloves, divided the babies with a fishnet, and placed them in bowls no bigger than baseballs. They would be dispersed among the basement labs to be overseen by other attendants who would prep them for an adulthood of surgery without the costly expense of numbing agents. Walter did as he was told, kept a hundred fishbowls in his own lab to watch and aerate. But he slid Sedna into a plastic container and stowed her quietly inside his briefcase.

At home, Walter waited for Roseline to return from work before they stepped outside together, past the backyard to the frog pond, a saltwater remnant of the sea that had once washed over the land but had retreated, miles away from their home. On quiet nights they could hear the distant hush of waves, so faint Walter thought he imagined them. Roseline observed with solemn poise as Walter lowered the octopus into the water. She crouched down and patted Walter’s shoulder as he watched Sedna float away, disappear.

A sad day, she said as Sedna’s tentacles receded, hovering on water as if waving goodbye. It’s a shame they die after childbirth.

Walter gritted his teeth and stared at the water.

You know, honey, you can quit. Roseline rubbed her palm across his shoulders. We don’t need that money. At least, not that bad.

Walter pulled her hand across his chest. She knew everything about the animals, the zebrafish and octopuses, and now she knew what was illegal, what constituted his crimes.

I can’t leave them. He sighed, breath rippling the water. God, it sounds so stupid, but I can’t. All those eggs.

Walter thought of the marbled eggs, creatures balled inside their tiny wombs until they would burst to mollusks, their tentacles stretched and splayed beyond their shells. Roseline’s hand squeezed his, the squeeze of the childless while babies bloomed all around them, a grip that breathed I know.

That man is a fool, she said. You do what you can. Those eggs, they’re in no better hands.

And Walter squeezed her palm back but wondered, if only for a moment, what she saw when she looked at him, what pheromones and oxytocin swirled through her brain to blind her from the trespasses he allowed, the mistakes he sidled alongside, complicit.

 

As the baby octopuses grew, Walter fed them sugar water pumped full of vitamins and antibodies that would mask the lack of crabs, provide the nutrients starfish could not. Walter prepared them, documented their growth and size upon clipboards for Dr. Carver, but in the quieter moments in the lab, between feedings and aeration, Walter settled into his chair and blinked at the small mollusks through their bowls.

Little suction cups, no bigger than pencil points. Tentacles waving, testing their own movement, a fluid blanket of only muscles, no bone, but just the beak Walter imagined squeezing through small spaces, the only hard place on their whole jelly bodies. Some of the octopuses began shifting colors, from their mottled pearl to muted yellows and orange that blended into what Walter didn’t know, their shapes the only substance in a lab of endless water and metal.

One morning, as Walter held the eyedropper over the fishbowls, he accidentally squeezed three drops into one bowl instead of the regulated two, and he watched as the tiny mollusk below him swelled in size and color, muted gray to bright green. Walter crouched low, examined the little octopus through glass, a billowing emerald circling the bowl. The octopus punched the water with tiny tentacles, then floated down to the floor of the bowl and lay there, skin flushed green back to gray.

Walter blinked at the octopus. He dropped another sugar droplet into the water. The mollusk pulsed key-lime green and leapt, then receded back to the color of rain.

Walter looked around the room.

In moments he held a rock poised high, the same that had adorned Sedna’s cave, and dropped it squarely into the bowl, a splashing meteor hurtling through the water. The octopus darted to the rounded edges, flattening itself thin against glass as the rock settled to the floor, and turned the darkest red Walter had ever seen, a red angrier than poison oak.

Walter stood in the middle of the lab, surrounded by fishbowl upon fishbowl, a room full of snowglobed pods. He walked on tiptoe among the bowls, peering cautiously down into the stilled surfaces, and dropped another pebble here and there, breath suspended in his lungs. But none of the other babies reacted—they simply darted away without transforming shades—and Walter picked up the fishbowl with the irritable mollusk inside—faded pink, sliding back to blemished gray—and set him apart, placed his sphere of a home beneath the lamp on his desk.

As the baby octopuses matured, Dr. Carver rounded the labs, made notes in his charts, studied their small anatomies for the best angle of incision, the ripest points of entry into their developing, fertile brains. He drew diagrams, held them side by side, pointed to the vertical lobe of the octopus brain and murmured yes, hummed the word beneath his breath, trailed his finger from there to the amygdala sketched inside the human model, where he believed the ghost of love resided.

This must be it, he told Walter, the place that holds all those electrical impulses. Those firing synapses that tell you to buy your wife flowers, to do the dishes.

Dr. Carver laughed, a wheezing cough to Walter’s ears. Walter knew nothing of Dr. Carver’s home life, his family, what would bring him to pull Sedna from the sea, to risk the end of his career. Dr. Carver had never spoken of his own paths through love, and Walter imagined only strain and scorn, relationships full of contempt.

They are almost ready, Dr. Carver said. He stared at Walter through the glass of his spectacles. Are you ready for a windfall of press? Think of all the heartache we can prevent, the broken relationships to thwart.

Walter nodded and looked away, and, when Dr. Carver left the room, he pulled the fishbowl on his desk out from behind the lamp, a hiding place for the small octopus when the doctor entered.

In the weeks since Walter first set him aside, he’d watched the growing octopus shift through a spectacular rainbow of colors, an array that none of the other babies displayed. He turned banana yellow when Walter shined the lamplight above him, and pumpkin orange when Walter placed other fishbowls near him, tiny tentacles splayed against glass toward his siblings. He even turned deep purple once when Walter placed a handkerchief over the fishbowl and left him alone for two days.

Dr. Carver will operate soon, Walter told Roseline that night, over dinner plates filled with noodle stew. On Peabody, too; he’ll know the count of one hundred. I can’t keep him hidden forever.

Peabody? Roseline blinked, noodles suspended on her fork.

Walter sighed. Our little shapeshifter.

You named him?

They were only three words, but he knew then what Roseline did. He’d become attached, just like Sedna, and like baby after baby until Roseline finally said enough, no more names and no more trying, we will just have to let this go.

Walter set down his fork. I don’t know what to do.

Roseline touched his arm. You’ll figure it out. She looked at him a moment longer, her voice quiet. I have faith in you.

Walter watched her across the table, that word 'faith,' what it could possibly mean. Walter stared into Roseline’s eyes and strained to see their corneas, small retinas, what prism refracted the complicated ways that love bent and illumined itself, and how it looked from the other side, the impossible side of a heart not his own.

After Dr. Carver locked up the labs the next day, moseying past Walter’s room to tell him he could head home, Walter flashed a spare key, said he’d lock up himself after finishing the day’s notes. After the reverberations of the doctor’s footfalls fell silent, Walter pulled a plastic bag from his briefcase—not unlike the ones he’d used as a child, to take goldfish home from fairs—and slipped Peabody inside, bright crimson through the tide of water, then a little red balloon circling the bag, irate in his new environment.

Walter strapped the bag into the passenger seat, too small for full protection by belt buckles, and glanced over at stoplights anyway, a red cloud still blooming through the bag, as if Peabody held his breath in ruby-cheeked protest.

At home, Walter moved quickly to the frog pond, unable to wait for Roseline. He untied the plastic bag and unfolded its contents through the ripples of the pond’s small shore, watched Peabody float a moment as if confused, tentacles stretched out into the strangeness of vast water. His color shifted quickly, cherry red to cobalt blue, and he zipped away into the water, so fast Walter thought his small organs might have seized beneath the weight of new surroundings, but then a fountain-like squirt shot up from the center of the pond, a spray from Peabody’s tiny beak.

When Roseline at last came home, she found Walter squatting by the bank as the sun dropped behind the trees, as frogs began to croak.

Is that him? Her arm extended toward the pond’s center, where an egg-sized flash of blue splashed playfully through the water.

That’s him. Walter watched as two frogs kicked their way toward Peabody, curious.

Roseline sighed, and Walter wondered if she disapproved. But she stooped down beside him, troubled the water with her fingers.

You did a good thing.

Roseline rubbed his back and headed inside, and Walter watched the trees swallow the last of the sun, a death stained in streaks across the darkening sky.

 

Walter watched Peabody swim, mornings before work and some evenings beside Roseline. Peabody grew quickly, no longer confined by the edges of fishbowls, and propelled himself around the pond, sometimes floating along the banks to absorb the last of the sun, and other times poking the frogs with wonder, tentacles pulsing lemon yellow when they responded and played.

One morning when Walter opened the doors of his lab, Dr. Carver already stood inside, holding a needle over one fishbowl. He looked up for a moment, sharp tip poised above water, then pushed the needle slowly into the trembling octopus’s head.

A dye injection, Dr. Carver said, pushing fluid through the syringe. It will color the brain, so we see what we’re operating on.

But they’re not ready yet. Walter dropped his briefcase and stared at the small octopus, their tentacles shuddering. They’re still babies.

All the better. Dr. Carver pulled the needle from the fishbowl. Now we can see how love begins.

Walter stood, stuck to the floor tiles, while Dr. Carver moved around the lab prepping steel instruments, waiting for the dye to soak through cells. Walter stared at the eyedropper on his desk, a daily duty of care, inconsequential, meaningless now. Dr. Carver pulled the octopus, now immobile, from its tiny snow globe coop and pinned its tentacles to the bed of a Petri dish, filled with just enough water to keep it alive, the top of its head exposed to air.

Walter looked away when Dr. Carver made the first incision, an exactitude of scalpel sliced through membrane and tissue. Without vocal cords there were no screams, but Walter imagined them anyway, piercing shrieks that percolated the nerve endings within his arms, spread down the length of his legs. He envisioned the vertical lobe that Dr. Carver penetrated, so close to the insular cortex—the center of pain for both human and invertebrates, of unanesthetized sensation, of heartbreak.

When Roseline walked through the front door that evening, Walter sat in an armchair, room darkened, every light extinguished as dusk settled through the windows and across the floor.

He sacrificed an octopus today. Walter looked up at Roseline. This started too soon. They’re still so young.

Walter felt a pressure then, some darkened cloud filling the space beneath his ribcage, ballooning through his lungs.

You can’t save them all. Roseline stood before him, bent down, and touched his face. This isn’t your fault.

Walter gazed at her cheeks, just shy of her eyes. He strained to see skin cells, blood coursing beneath them, the way they could brighten and stain her face red when she laughed too hard, or when she lay flushed and still, just after they made love.

After dinner, as Walter scrubbed the dishes, he heard the back door open and bang shut, and found Roseline at the edge of the pond, hugging her sweater around herself, breath clouding in swirls. He watched as she threw shrimp, pulled from the freezer inside, into the water and let them thaw on the pond’s ripples until Peabody pulled them under.

Walter stood beside her. Her shoulders came only to his chest.

Why do you love me?

She threw another shrimp. Because I do.

He considered this, what reason or logic might hide in three words, and stared out above the pond toward the pockmarks of stars, pinpoints letting in light. Walter felt blind, unable to see them, and closed his eyes where the dots of a thousand octopuses swam against black, all the particles of children that never were.

I am not a good man.

Walter opened his eyes and watched the water. He could not look at his wife. The doctors never said why, what mystery brought them here just to wash them away, but in the waiting room that last time he knew he’d failed her somehow, that, maybe with another man, Roseline might have enfolded soft skin, tiny hands in her arms.

Roseline set down the shrimp. She turned so she was facing him.

You are the best of men.

Her voice filled his ribcage, rattling against bone. Peabody crept to the shore, extended a short tentacle, touched Roseline’s ankle. She bent low and slid the remaining shrimp into the water, and as Walter watched her silhouette he yearned to know what it was that brought her such calm, this other half of marriage, this impenetrable wall that slid beneath the shade of the known world.

 

When Walter returned to the lab in the morning, Dr. Carver again stood near the fishbowls, suspended above them until he settled on one near the edge, and plucked the rounded glass to transport onto the examination table.

I thought yesterday was a test. Walter watched Dr. Carver pull the octopus from the water, pin it roughly against Petri dish.

They’re ready, Dr. Carver said. They’ve been ready for a long time.

Walter tried but could not look away. He watched as Dr. Carver pushed the last of the pins through the octopus’s waving tentacles, their tips curling and recoiling, attempting movement, failing. He watched Dr. Carver slide the needle through tissue and push the syringe, saw the octopus squirm and flinch. He watched the steel knives and scalpels come out, lined up along the tray. And he watched Dr. Carver slice through skin and organ, plunging the scalpel deep into the vertical lobe, even as the octopus blinked and trembled.

Walter watched everything, stood motionless, waited until Dr. Carver at last pulled the scalpel free, until the octopus slumped unmoving and died.

You’re a good man for observing. Dr. Carver snapped his latex gloves free, threw them in the trashcan with the Petri dish. The more you pick up, the closer you’ll be to making these incisions yourself.

Walter stared at him, imagined him driving home after work to what, he couldn’t guess—the image stopped there, blank and clear as the vacant sea.

We’ll get it right; don’t you worry. Dr. Carver waved a hand over the rows of fishbowls. It’s not like we don’t have room for error.

He laughed, rough sandpaper, and slipped out the metal doors. Walter listened to his footsteps recede down the hallway, standing immobile before the lines of fishbowls, watching their fluttering shapes, tentacles undulating like banners through the fluid of their tanks.

Walter moved to the trashcan, peeked over its edge. The Petri dish lay among the discarded gloves, biohazard waste, dirtied rags. Walter reached down and pulled the dish out, held the unresponsive octopus to his face, its limp body no bigger than a tiny, pale heart. Even without Peabody’s colors, shades to expose joy or sorrow, Walter could see that the octopus had died in pain. No tint or hue was needed, no dye to stain what was evident there inside the octopus’s ashen tentacles, in its pallid suction cups. A center unknowable, one Dr. Carver would never find, the secrets of sea and land, locked flush inside a safe, bolted tight.

Walter slid the Petri dish into a plastic bag, tucked it securely inside his briefcase. He stared at the fishbowls, watched their silent small vibrations in the water, heard the hum of the laboratory refrigerators, the oscillating currents of the ventilation system.

Inside the laboratory closets, Walter found a stack of cardboard boxes, the same the fishbowls had arrived in. He laid them out on the floor, a hopscotch grid of boxes, then moved quickly to stow the fishbowls inside of them, covered with plastic wrap, packing tape, everything to transport them carefully away. He stacked them, one above the other, then steadied his briefcase on top, a tower of revolt.

He waited until he heard Dr. Carver move into another lab, then he hurried down the hallway, out the laboratory doors to the sunshine, to the bedrock shelter of his car.

Through bumps and potholes, Walter heard the fishbowls rattle against one another, glass knocking glass inside his trunk. But he sped up anyway, moved hurriedly away from the laboratory until he’d at last arrived at home, threw open the trunk, and hastened the pile of boxes quickly around the house, through the backyard, toward the frog pond.

Dr. Carver had surely stopped by the lab now. As he pushed open the backyard gate, Walter pictured how wide the doctor’s eyes would be, the lab empty, all the fishbowls gone. He would lose his job, he knew.

He would be fired. He would be free.

But when Walter reached the pond, he stopped short, feet planted, gaze frozen. The weight of the boxes pressed down into his arms and he set them down, stared, felt his entire body collapse, all haste expelled. A blackbird called from somewhere above, some high branch or tree, disembodied, every noise and hum fractured, skewed impossibly from grass, from bark, from prickled air on skin.

There, in water once clear, floated hundreds of frogs, all dead, spots of color in a boundless pool of black. Emerald specks, points of light, a constellation made terrible, illumined by the night-dark torrents they drifted silently upon. Walter’s eyes moved over the mess, over what could have possibly happened here, and he moved toward the shore, crouched down and touched the water.

His fingers came back black when he pulled them away. The shade stained the ridges, the patterns of his fingertips as ink would. Ink for a lineup. Ink for escape and for defense. Pure melanin, poisoning the water, ejected from ink sacs embedded inside Peabody’s intestines, small pouches filled with enough toxin to destroy a whole sea of predators, if the right impetus provoked. Walter scanned the water, finding only frogs upon frogs, but then he squinted, out toward the center of the pond, and found some floating texture, a black matching the water’s darkened midnight.

Walter stood, strained to see, and his whole body went limp, his eyes closed upon their own aim when he saw what was there. Peabody, lifeless and floating, stained as black and dark as the water. And his tentacles, curled around Sedna’s drifting body. Preserved by the cold water, unearthed by Peabody from the clouded mud of the pond floor. All of this sometime that morning, as Walter stood by watching another octopus perish in the lab, as Peabody poked curious at the mud, as he searched for frogs at play and found the collapsed shape of his mother instead.

Walter sat upon a log, clasped his hands to his mouth. How stupid. He closed his eyes, remembered he’d buried Sedna in the pond, a careless mistake turned to grave error, that he’d failed Peabody as easily as Dr. Carver, that he’d underestimated an octopus’s love. How irresponsible, how reckless, how incautious he had been, and now, all those frogs, Peabody’s colors gone, so much death and so much black.

Walter opened his eyes, looked at the boxes. He imagined the baby octopuses, all 97 of them, hovering and blinking in their bowls. He pictured all the other fishbowls, still inside the lab, mollusks suspended in their small tanks, waiting. He stared out across the water. He held his head between his palms.

When Roseline came home, she found him still and silent on the log, head bent inside his hands, the boxes stacked against the shore, briefcase still perched precariously on top.

She stood, breath suspended, eyes pooling across the pond.

What happened?

Walter didn’t look up to hear her say again, This isn’t your fault. He would shut it out and away until she met him eye to eye, until she finally breathed, Yes, you are not a good man, you are not the man I loved.

But she only sat beside him. She pushed her palm across his knee. Her sweater rustled against the log, caught on the rough edges of bark. Walter listened to her breathe in and out, lung membrane, air sacs, cells. He felt her heart pulse through her fingers, through his jeans, just one muscle-strapped core instead of three, but beating hard all the same, strong, steady. All the eggs, all the frogs, all the mollusks and unborn children and here she was, her solid shape, all skin and cell that masked what she’d hide forever, some impenetrable core she held beneath bone.

What are we going to do? Walter’s voice faltered, breath broken.

Roseline’s gaze swept the pond, the boxes, the frogs and floating dead.

We will do what we can.

Walter looked at her. He would fail; they would fail. Again and again. You can’t save them all, and he knew that, though his chest burned to even think it, every egg, every cortex. He exhaled. He fell into her weight. He curled his fingers around her hand and held her, cupped in the shelter of his palm.

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