What can I say? I’d always been a solitary creature.
I thought I would spend my life alone, like my mother did, and my grandmother, and all my female ancestors for the last 300 million years or so. I won’t claim I was happy in my solitude, but I wasn’t unhappy either. After all, I was busy. I didn’t have time for friendships or amorous pursuits, my nights full of stalking and hunting and eating, then cleaning my suction cups. And that’s to say nothing of my den – its upkeep became a constant chore.
It’s because of my den that I met Brandt.
My den is in a rock crevice. I took to it in the first season of my adulthood. No longer a rambunctious paralarva, I was ready to settle down with a place of my own. It was a terrific find – not too large, not too small, and with a narrow entrance that I could just barely squeeze myself through so I knew no one bigger would come in and eat me. An ideal location on all accounts.
But then the sea snails showed up. At first it was just a few of them, clinging to the walls. I wasn’t looking for roommates, but they weren’t a bother, initially. Then one morning I came home from hunting and suddenly there were hundreds of them! I was mad. It was my den, not theirs. I tried eating them, but they were too much effort so I settled for plucking them from the walls and flinging them out of the crevice.
The snails just came back. I flung them out again and again. They always returned. Pests. But they also posed a risk I didn’t realize. You see, just because I didn’t want to eat them doesn’t mean no one else did.
One morning I was so wiped out after hunting I didn’t have the energy for anything – not for cleaning my suction cups, and definitely for not excising the snails. So I just burrowed in beside them and went to sleep, cursing their tiny rigid shells. I’ll admit in my frustration, I did almost wish for someone to complain to. But that was not my life.
I was jarred awake by the terrifying sound of something entering my den. It was a giant crab. He had pushed the rock that formed my entryway aside and was snarfing snails like my den was a snail buffet. I shot him in the face with my ink and he scuttled off. Victory! But a minute later he was back, clawing at the rocks around me. I heard clattering and thought my home was falling down. I fled, a trail of displaced snails tumbling in my literal wake.
I swam around for a while, then just gave up and floated. I was terribly sad. I loved that den. I thought I would live there forever. It’s where I wanted to lay my eggs someday, all sixty or seventy thousand of them. I had imagined tending to my brood in that cozy space, cleaning them over and over until they hatched and were whisked away by the current. Then I was going to die in that den. It was the perfect dying den!
After a while of floating and moping, I told myself to buck up (since there was no one else to tell me such a thing) and returned to my den to see what might be salvaged. I thought I could at least gather my belongings: my collection of nice pebbles and a shiny jar lid I’d found. I liked to look at my reflection in that lid. But when I got back, I was amazed to find my den still standing. The crab hadn’t knocked it down after all. He’d only scattered some other nearby rocks. I inspected the damage and discovered a new crevice just inches from my own. I went to look inside and was surprised to see an eye peeking out. It was a familiar eye, the same kind I saw when I looked into my metal lid. I felt my anger flare. Another octopus. Worse than that, a neighbor.
I stared into the eye as I contemplated my rage. This would mean competition for prey, competition for nice pebbles and shiny things. Not to mention the noise. That’s when the eye did an infuriating thing: it winked.
In the days that followed, I watched my neighbor carefully. He was not an unattractive octopus. He had reddish skin and long arms. He swam in a jaunty way, bopping along with the current as if it was a toy. I hated him with all my three hearts.
He kept to himself at first. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid me. A smart choice, I thought. After all, it’s a known fact that we females can be quite aggressive.
But his timidness didn’t last. One evening, just as I was waking up, I heard a tapping at my entryway. I looked and there was a single red arm, inching into the crevice: the customary introduction of a male octopus looking to mate.
“Hi! I’m Brandt,” a voice called from the new den next door. “What’s your name?”
In answer, I opened my beak, not to speak but to chomp the intruding arm, which I did, severing it from the rest of Brandt’s body in a single bite. I know this may sound harsh, but it is also a customary gesture – a way to say No Thank You. Plus, he could just grow another one, no big deal.
“Okay!” Brandt said, “I get it! Maybe another time! Can I try you again tomorrow?”
Still I said nothing.
Then after a moment, Brandt asked, “Can I have my arm back?”
This gave me pause. “What for?”
“I’d like to keep it as a souvenir.”
“No,” I said. “I’m going to eat it.”
“Okay!” he shouted again. “Enjoy!”
He didn’t shout anymore after that. Though I was relieved, I also felt something else. Disappointment? It was so unusual to hear a voice in my den, indeed there’d never been one before. Once it was gone, I was acutely aware of its absence.
I looked the arm over closely before I devoured it. The suction cups had been neatly groomed. He was making an effort. For that, I hated him even more.
You see, this was the true source of my anxiety about my neighbor, not that he would take all the good fish and good pebbles. Because there are, as the saying goes, always more fish in the sea. And that’s even more true of pebbles. No, my real anger stemmed from one simple, selfish fact: I was not ready to mate.
It is true I had happily imagined the day I would lay my eggs, and the day my thousands of offspring would hatch and make me a proud mama, and the day, very soon thereafter, of my death. But I thought of all that as far off in the future. After all, I was only a year old. If I was careful and took care of myself, I might still have two more good years ahead of me. I didn’t want to surrender that time just because some clean, nice looking guy moved in next door. I vowed I would eat all his arms if that’s what it took to protect me from his advances.
But he did not send another arm the next evening. Only his voice.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m sorry to bother you. Do you have snails over there?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have several. Would you like some?”
“No. I also have several. More than several. How do you get rid of them?”
I told him about my method of plucking and throwing.
“And do they stay away?”
“No. But isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?”
He didn’t answer and I wished I had asked a less abstract question. Because even though I didn’t want him to keep talking, I really did want him to keep talking. It was confusing.
The following evening, his voice appeared again. This time he asked after my collection of nice pebbles and shiny things. He had lost his own collection when he moved dens and missed them. Might he come over and see mine, he asked? I said no, but I did offer to describe each item in detail, which he accepted. He was a good listener. After I was done speaking, it was well into the night and we were both hungry. We left our dens at the same time. I thought he might invite me to hunt with him, which I would refuse, but he didn’t. As soon as he saw me, he swam quickly away.
For a while after that, we spoke every evening. He asked about my favorite kinds of fish, my favorite directions of current. He asked deeper questions, like did I remember any of my siblings, and what did I think my mother might have been like. We shared our laments about the snails. We schemed anti-crab defense plans. It was pleasant, to have such discussions, and when I went out, I was always ravenous, eager to feast on any being I could fit in my mouth. But of course I knew we would not carry on like this forever.
One night, after talking for some time about our feelings regarding squid (dumb cousins, we both agreed), Brandt said, “I think our conversations have been going well, don’t you?”
Then, of course, he ruined the very conversation we were having by asking if he might send over a semen-laden arm for the purpose of fertilization.
“Why would you want to do that if you like talking to me?” I asked.
“Because I wanna mate with you!” he said.
But male octopuses die soon after mating, just as females die once our eggs have hatched. With him dead, we would not be able to talk anymore.
“If you wish for your corporeal end, why not bring your whole body over here and let me eat you?” I asked. “At least then you’d be doing something nice for me on your way out.”
Brandt was quiet for a long time after that. So long I thought I might not hear from him ever again, that he would likely pack up and move to another den in search of a more willing female neighbor.
Finally though, he did speak.
“What if I come over and you don’t eat me?” he asked. “I won’t bring any semen. We could just … hang out.”
I quickly straightened up. I arranged my pebble collection decoratively and swept as many snails from the crevice as would go.
“OK,” I said. “I suppose we could give it a try.”
I was not prepared for what it would be like to have another octopus in my den. It was, after all, a space intended for just me. We had to press against one another to fit. At first, I didn’t care for it. Brandt was firm and squishy all at once. His skin was soft though and I liked getting to look into his eyes. I asked him to wink and when he did, I was not angered at all.
We stayed in my den for hours, not cuddling exactly, just being close. Then when we got hungry, it seemed only natural that we would go out and hunt together. We caught so many fish! Brandt startled them out of their hiding places and I grabbed them. It was much easier than hunting alone, and much more fun. Why, I wondered, didn’t octopuses always work in pairs? I resolved to share this revelation should I ever meet another octopus.
But I still did not wish to meet other octopuses. I had Brandt and that was enough.
After that, we met in my den as soon as we woke each night. Brandt made an effort at eating my snails to be polite. Then we hunted. Eventually, he started coming back to my den to sleep as well. We’ve been cohabitating ever since. I’ve learned to like the feel of his body smooshed against mine. But I still make him leave when I clean my suction cups. A lady needs some time to herself, after all. Other than that, we are always at the other’s side, arms often entwined. Sometimes I forget which arms are mine and which are his. And how funny is that? It is good to have someone to laugh with. Someone to hunt with. Someone to gripe about snails with.
Will we ever mate? I don’t know. I love Brandt. That’s the feeling now, I’ve decided, when I look into his eyes and ask him to wink. I do not want that love to end, just as before I met Brandt, I did not want my solitary life to end. I guess I’m that sort of octopus – the sort who wants to keep going.
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