A Fish Out of Water
Part 1: Bruno, a Decapus
I am not an octopus. Octopuses have eight arms, and I have ten—a decapus, one could say. And as everyone knows—all the sensible folk who live beneath the ocean’s waves, that is—my two extra arms give me the power of prophecy.
At the moment the whole mess began, however, the only thing I could foresee was that it was going to be a very long while before I enjoyed my dinner.
Mucking oysters, I thought, rasping my spiny tongue against the creature’s hard shell. They take forever to drill into. My second left arm curled and twisted, desperate to taste the succulent lump of meat inside.
A shadow passed overhead, interrupting the pattern of the light filtering down from the surface. Shark? I sank to the seafloor, raising papillae on my skin to mimic the clumps of red-brown seaweed waving about me. My second left arm, however, obstinately refused to let go of the oyster. That arm’s particularly single-minded arm when it comes to food.
If that shadow does turn out to be a shark, I’m going to let it bite you off, I thought at it fiercely, trying to convince it to release the oyster.
Before I succeeded, the currents carried the shadow-caster’s taste to my suckers. Not the bitter-sour tang of shark after all. Something oilier, closer to tuna. My skin smoothed as caution gave way to curiosity. Stretching up my eyes, I recognized the weirdly unbalanced shape of one of the merfolk from the refugee camp—young Hudson with the blue-green tail and sand-colored strands flowing from his head. He swam to the rotting wooden skeleton nestled in a cleft in the seafloor, coiled his tail about a barnacle-encrusted lump of metal, and heaved a sigh of bubbles.
Odd. The merfolk rarely visited the old wreck. I pondered, taking an internal census. My second left arm thrust the oyster—still unshucked—at my beak, demanding that I keep drilling, but my first right arm, my best searching arm, reached out towards Hudson. Most of my other arms either clung to the rock or curled noncommittally, but my third left and right arms, my special prophecy arms—tingled.
A shiver ran through my mantle. I knew what that quivery feeling meant. Mucking prophecy. Folk always get so worked up about the future. I don’t understand why, even though it’s my special gift. It would be a different matter if my arms foretold anything useful, like where to find the tastiest crabs, but they never seem interested in that sort of thing.
I clung to the rock a moment longer, hoping the sensation had just been the tickle of sea grass.
Hudson reached down, sifting his stubby webbed tentacles through the debris. His chest heaved, releasing another surge of bubbles.
My third arms tingled again. Giving up, I pushed off the rock. My cranky fifth left arm peeled away from it reluctantly while my second left arm insisted on bringing the oyster along. I let my own string of bubbles trickle out my siphon. Some days, I just can’t keep myself together.
Splinters clouded the water as I approached the wooden skeleton. The rotting shell reminded me of a whale that had drifted to the sand and decayed—only much less tasty. Hudson, bent over, seemed oblivious to my approach. He picked more flat, yellow-glinting objects from the seafloor and let them slipped through his stubby webbed tentacles. Released, they settled heavily back into the sand, raising small clouds of silt.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, settling on a nearby crusting of barnacles.
Hudson looked. His features lifted, tilting upwards. “Bruno!” he exclaimed.
My actual name is a flickering of alternating black and brown over the skin, followed by a raising of the papillae into a delicate, fanlike shape. But you can’t expect merfolk to speak proper cephalopod. “You taste like an old eel fin,” I told Hudson. “What’s wrong?”
Hudson’s flavor turned salty. Reaching down, he picked up one of the circular glinting things. “It’s the colony,” he said. “Everyone there is so old.”
I turned a sympathetic shade of orange.
“No one’s even sure there are other merfolk colonies out there,” Hudson continued. “It’s been so long since we’ve heard from any of them. But if there aren’t any, where am I supposed to find a mate?” It burst from him like a squirt of ink. His stubby tentacles tightened around the flat object. “I could search forever and not find—wait!” His eyes went wide. “Bruno, could you use your power to help me?”
A fresh tingle ran through my prophecy arms. I curled them tighter against my mantle. A mate, I thought. Well, it seemed a better use of my gift than some of the other merfolk’s requests, like foretelling next year’s weather, or gauging the disposition of sharks. I don’t know why anyone would bother wondering; sharks are always unreasonable. When the world was created, they’d asked for teeth instead of brains. (I’m allowed to be smug about this, having eleven of the latter myself.)
Still, there was that shivery feel. Even without using my power, I’d bet twenty of my suckers that it meant trouble.
“Please,” said Hudson. “Help me find my perfect mate. I’ll open that oyster for you.” He reached for a knife hanging from a loop of seaweed around his middle, where his human skin merged with fish scales.
My second left arm practically hurled the oyster at him while the rest of me was still debating. A mate, I told himself. Surely everyone had the right to seek a mate.
“All right,” I said, extending my prophecy arms. They wove through the water, digging into the sand and snatching debris from the currents. Each object I collected sent a fresh shiver through them: a splinter of wood with a bit of crusted metal protruding from it; a scallop shell broken into a peculiar shape with two curves and a point; a knotted twist of seaweed.
A small, glinting metal ring.
Images collected in my third arms’ brains; strange visions that made my main mantle-brain ache. “She’s young,” I said. “The weedy stuff topping her head is dark and long.”
That wouldn’t be enough for Hudson to locate her. I concentrated harder, even though it made all three of my hearts race like I was fleeing a shark. “She’s in a big, square den with…a wooden floor?” How is that possible? “Its walls are lined with clear stuff you can look through, like sheets of solid water. It smells salty and hot, and there are people perched on—there are people!” The shock almost jolted me out of the vision. “Landpeople.”
“She’s a landperson?” asked Hudson, wide-eyed.
My mantle throbbed as if bloated with fresh water. “She must be,” I said, making a final effort. “She’s close by, on shore, at a place where landpeople gather to feed. A clam den.”
That wasn’t exactly the right description, but I couldn’t bear it any longer. Sinking to the seafloor, I released the debris.
“Thank you Bruno.” Hudson offered the shucked oyster.
My second left arm snatched it and rolled it over its suckers. Mm…savory, sweet, briny… “I’m sorry,” I said, delighting in the taste. “When I recover, I’ll try to find you a mer-mate.”
“I don’t want a mermaid,” Hudson replied.
I froze; the oyster pinched between two suckers.
“Why would I want a mermaid when the land girl is my perfect match?” Reaching into the sand, Hudson started gathering up the heavy glinting things he’d played with earlier. “Landpeople value these,” he muttered. “I can trade them to find her.”
Black spots blossomed on my skin. “What about the treaty? You’re not supposed to go on land.” I hesitated, suddenly uncertain. “Are you?”
The war happened long before I was hatched. Neither I nor Hudson had ever seen the lost mer-city of Atlantis.
“No, it’s all right, so long as I don’t use machines,” Hudson replied. But he didn’t look at me; just kept his gaze focused on the sand as he hunted out the glinting things.
“Machines,” I echoed, letting the unfamiliar word bounce between my eleven brains. My fourth left arm helpfully picked up a corroded thing with dull spikes like an urchin’s along its rim, and then I remembered. “Those nasty metal things that click and spill filth into the water?” I asked as the fourth arm poked an exploratory tip through the object’s center.
Hudson’s fleshy beak parted to flash his teeth. Shark! I paled and flattened before remembering that merfolk did this to indicate humor; not an intention to attack. Well, the poor things can’t raise papillae, I reminded myself, turning brown again.
“Not all machines are nasty,” said Hudson, putting the glinting objects into a pouch hanging from his belt. “Some are like big shells that landfolk travel inside. Others—but I haven’t used any,” he finished hastily, cinching the pouch closed. If he’d been a cephalopod, I’m quite sure he’d have gone a defensive shade of white.
“I should hope not,” I replied, popping up a few spiky papillae to emphasize my opinion. I’d remembered the reason for Atlantis’ fall. “Machines are what set off the war in the first place.” Some of Atlantis’ merfolk had started dabbling in machinery instead of proper magic, and the resultant muck had polluted the water, causing sickness among the sea-folk.
Also—it was whispered; never stated, but I believed it—the sharks feared that merfolk using machines would make them too powerful.
“Not my ancestors,” said Hudson, and it was true. He was descended from the merfolk who’d agreed to give up machinery and live in isolated colonies scattered under the sea. The others—well, they’d been exiled to land, and no sensible person cared what happened in that desolate place.
Except, apparently, Hudson who seemed to know far more about the world above the waves than he should. Rolling the oyster along my suckers, I watched him prod the sand a final time, find a blue stone with a flashing center, and add it to the pouch’s contents.
Trouble, trouble. It pulsed through my mantle. “This land-girl won’t be able to live under the sea,” I cautioned. “Why not look for a selkie, if there aren’t any mer-girls available?”
“Because this land-girl’s perfect for me. You said so.”
So I had. I squirmed, struck by a desire to ooze into a gap between the rotting wood and the seafloor.
“Anyway, I’ll change her into a mermaid.” Hudson brought out a string of seashells and ran it through his webbed tentacles, fleshy beak bent into a curved line.
“Change her?” I suppressed a squirt of ink. “That’s big magic. The sharks will come sniffing around at the scent of such a powerful spell. And if they object to what you’re doing, there could be war. Teeth. Whirlpools. Even…” Frantic blues ran over my skin. “Even the Great Sucker might feel compelled to rise.”
Hudson tucked away the seashells. “The sea’s not going to go to war over a single land girl.” He looked up at the faraway, shimmering surface dividing land from sea. “Thanks, Bruno. I owe you a dozen oysters for this.”
With a powerful surge of his tail, he pushed off from the wooden skeleton. I followed his silhouette with my eyes for long seconds, too disturbed to eat the oyster now that it was bare and defenseless.
Was Hudson right? Would no one care? Sharks were always looking for a reason to use their many teeth. One had bitten off my original fifth left arm, merely because it had tickled the shark’s gills. I missed that arm. It had been playful, unlike the new one that grew; always moping and clinging to rocks.
No, if the sharks heard of this, it would be bad, very bad indeed.
Still—oysters. My second left arm savored the shucked one. A dozen oysters; think of that! Besides, I reminded myself, sharks can’t swim on land. They wouldn’t—couldn’t—find out, so long as Hudson didn’t touch any machines.
Would it matter if the land girl used magic?
Of course not. Her kind wasn’t included in the treaty.
Doubt nagged inside ten of my brains. It was only a small nagging, however, and mostly eclipsed by my eleventh’s brain delight in the prospect of a meal. Dismissing worry from my thoughts, I settled comfortably on a rock to enjoy my longed-delayed oyster dinner.
— By BWG member A.E. Decker
Top 10 Reasons Octopuses Are Amazing
In light of the BWG’s group story featured this month, your kindly chief editor has decided it’s time to enlighten the readers with some facts about the ocean’s most incredible inhabitants.
10: It’s well known that octopuses can change the color of their skin to match their surroundings, but it’s less well-known that they can change its texture as well by raising bumps and flanges called papillae.
9: Octopuses have rectangular pupils which gives them control over how much light they let in as well as allowing them a wide field of vision—octopuses have no blind spot! These strangely shaped pupils might also fragment light into prisms, allowing them to see color. Science is still studying the possibilities!
8: Although some studies suggest octopuses should be color blind, they can match the color of their surroundings. Some studies suggest they might be able to see light or even color with their skin.
7: Octopuses have three hearts. The two peripheral hearts pump blood to their gills, while the main heart takes care of general circulation.
6: They have blue-green blood!
5: If you think you’re brainy, imagine being an octopus. They have nine—one central brain and another located in each of their arms. Some scientists have observed that each arm of an octopus seems to have a different “personality,” and the octopus might even favor one arm over another for certain tasks.
4: One single arm of an octopus can have up to as many as 240 suckers on each of its eight arms. These suckers can smell and taste. Imagine smelling something with your hands!
3: Octopuses don’t have tentacles—wow your friends with this bit of trivia at your next party. Tentacles are appendages strictly used for attacking prey, while octopuses use all their limbs for various functions. Technically, an octopus has six arms and two legs. Some species even “walk” across the sea bottom.
2: Although most octopuses are solitary, a species of octopus called the gloomy octopus had been discovered living in cities in the scallop beds off the coast of southern Australia. These cities have been dubbed Octopolis and Octlantis.
1: Octopuses are incredibly intelligent. Many escape their tanks. One, named Inky, famously escaped back into the sea from his New Zealand aquarium. They can open jars, figure out puzzles and mazes, and remember the faces of humans they met months ago. So, don’t tease an octopus, or the next time you meet, you may get a squirt of cold water from their siphon!
Loved reading your creation. So glad to have come across you and your craft.
Thank you, Leyla. I appreciate it very much. DT
Your descriptions make me want to visit Nevada! We loved Joshua Tree on our February trip to California!
This story For The Love Of Dottie had my attention from the start. So many themes to consider- aging, dementia, jealousy, love.
A beautiful love story with a suspenseful mystery- I want to read more!
A terrific story and so believable!!! Very enjoyable read!!!