I am fifteen the first time my mother pays for me to see the octopus. Inside those yellowing tents with their black-stitched tears we are not supposed to see, my mother pushes coins toward the mustachioed attendant who looks at her breasts and then at mine. Smiling, he tears off two tickets and points in a vague direction through the crowd. “You’ll be in time to see the escape. If you hurry, you’ll be able to watch it eat. An entire rat today,” he says, but my mother does not lift her eyes to his, and she pushes me forward so that my skirts tangle against my boots, and I stumble. The attendant laughs, and I know his eyes are on my bottom. I straighten, and Mother and I find our way to the center tent where there is a detailed illustration of an octopus in a large, glass container with a filigreed copper top that resembles a cake dome I once saw in a bakery when I was a girl.
We settle ourselves into our seats, and Mother goes very still, her hands folded on her lap and resembling marble or porcelain or any other thing through which blood does not flow, and when the assistants wheel the octopus’s dome onstage, Mother leans over and breathes into my ear, so low, so quiet, that I have to shake my head because I cannot hear her, and she repeats herself again, and then again, and over and over until it is impossible to not understand what it is she’s said.
“He is your father.”
Inside the dome, the octopus clings to the sides, pushes itself away from all of those eyes that would demand something of it, that would ask it to be something it was not, and I follow its dim grey and brown form as it circles through the water. It is not beautiful in its skin, but in its movement it is heart-achingly lovely. I am not beautiful and neither is Mother, but I do not move with grace in the way the octopus does. Over my tongue, I roll those two syllables—fa-ther—until they lack any meaning at all.
At school, there are girls who explain in breathless tones what it means to have a husband, how a baby squirms its way into your belly through him, and then out again in a bright mess of blood and pain, but there is a promise of comfort and companionship in a husband and a baby, and I wonder if the octopus promised these things to my mother. If in those tentacled arms, she imagined a future that was more than dishes and laundry and breathing up into the dark and counting backward from two hundred to keep her heart from falling out of her with a wet slop.
We watch as the octopus squeezes itself in and out of various small places as the crowd applauds politely. If the octopus sees my mother sitting there among all of those blank faces, it does not betray itself. It is tired, and there is a job to do. My mother has withdrawn her handkerchief. She crumples it in her fist, and her cheeks are flushed, but she does not cry.
There are questions I want to ask her, my lips burning with the terrible weight of them, but the attendants on stage are in the height of their performance, the octopus spread wide like a star as it covers the glass, and my mother has gone still as death, the color drained from her lips. I swallow down ten years of girlhood taunting of how I had no father, and that he hadn’t died in the war after all, but that it was likely my mother was a whore who had never learned how to sponge, and I was a smeared mistake.
If there had once been a father in my life, I had never known him, and Mother had never spoken a word of who the man was. When I asked, she turned her eyes away and said that it had been a long time ago, and the hurt inside of her was still sharp and to please not ask her again. I did not want to cause pain for my sweet, quiet mother—who sometimes forgot who she was and had to spend mornings in bed, a damp cloth over her eyes—and so eventually, I stopped asking.
Onstage, the octopus rolls one great, translucent eye toward the audience, the unnatural pupil seeming to rove from face to face as if taking measure of those who’ve come to see it—a memorization in banality. When the eye passes over me, I feel nothing, but there’s no sadness in it. I have not known him. There’s nothing to mourn in that ambivalent stare, and if Mother stiffens beside me, it does not matter, because the octopus is looking elsewhere, and the attendants are scuffling about, their gloved hands concealing a small box cloaked in what is supposed to look like black velvet but isn’t. Inside, something breathes and shifts, and I close my eyes because I do not want to see; I close my eyes because there is the taste of death and fear already thick around those seated, and we all take a collective breath, waiting for the moment to come.
But the exhalation does not come, and I peer through my lashes, willing my heart to slow, telling myself that there will be no blood, no ropy tangle of muscles exposed to the air, and when I finally allow myself to look, the rat is swimming in the dome, his claws scrabbling at the edges without catching purchase, and the octopus is tucked into a corner, his tentacles drawn beneath him.
“Oh.” Mother’s voice is breathy and high, and she twists again at the handkerchief. I can feel the attendants growing nervous, their smiles cracking under the strain as they tap at the glass, as they dip their hands into the water to shove the rat toward the octopus, but it ignores their silent pleas, the threat trembling in their fingertips. The rat is flailing now, his legs beginning to tire so that he has to lift his nose higher and higher, and the crowd shifts uncomfortably, a muttering starting up from somewhere in the back. We have come here to watch a feeding, not to see an animal drown. There’s a difference in that sort of violence. We are not those kinds of people.
“Oh,” Mother says again, and the attendants move quickly, their smiles and waving hands a distraction as another scoops the rat from the dome to deposit him back into the box. There is an exclamation and a blur of hurried words—something about the show concluding and how we’d be granted an extended ticket to return to see a feeding if we’d just step this way—and through all of it, the octopus watches the audience rise and flutter about, all of them remembering that there were things to do before they came here.
Mother does not move at first. I don’t expect her to, and I stay seated with her, and the attendants ignore us. There is the rat and the octopus and so many other people to contend with, and so they do not see when my mother reaches for the dome, her hands trembling, and the octopus reaches back.
Before the attendants can cover the dome, Mother and I watch as the octopus curls a tentacle upward and seemingly into itself. When the tentacle comes away, floating for the briefest moment before vanishing into the maw at the center of the octopus’s body—eaten as the rat should have been—Mother stands.
“Please,” Mother says, but the octopus moves no longer. The glass dome vanishes behind more black cloth, and Mother is walking quickly toward the opening in the tent, so I have to hurry to catch up to her. For the rest of the night, she does not speak to me no matter what questions I ask or how I lift my voice until I am shouting. She only turns away, her hair swept over her face, as I demand to know how an octopus could be the father of a girl, as I ask why she took me to see such a thing only to leave with no explanation.
There are still accusations lying rough across my lips when I drift into sleep. I dream of dark water and the tight, panicked sensation of drowning, but the octopus is not there, and I cry out for him in the way a child would cry after a fall, but I am alone in all of that water and there is nothing warm to grasp, and I wake, gasping beneath dim sunlight.
Mother stands at my door, her fingers curled against the frame, and her eyes are wet. “Breakfast,” she says and then turns away, and a deep hurt flowers in my belly. There is pain in her past I cannot understand, and yesterday was a confusion, another episode similar to the days when she forgets her name and remains motionless in bed.
We do not speak of that day ever again.
Mother’s last breath comes when I am twenty-two. I am not there when she takes it. It is a neighbor who found her. Popping by to see if they could share a cup of tea only to discover Mother’s body spread over the floor, her dress peeled open from the throat as if she’d been trying to tear it off of herself, her shawl cast away, and her lips bloodied.
They do not tell me about what’s missing from my mother’s remains when I go to see the body—those doctors with their grave faces and smiles that do not reach their eyes—and I am forced to look at my mother’s hands, forced to see the missing ring finger, the loose, jagged skin.
“What is this?” I ask, and the doctors only shake their heads.
“She may have cut it and fallen and not been able to call out. While cooking, perhaps?” The doctor who speaks is heavily mustached, so that when he offers an actual smile, I cannot see his teeth.
“This is not a cut,” I say. I am not stupid, but still these doctors smack their lips and tell me how sorry they are for my loss and usher me from the room. I do not see my mother’s body again, and my mouth tastes of iron and salt, and my hands shake with the transparency of their lie. It is only when skin tears that it appears in such a way, but there is no one else to question, so I go quietly back to my mother’s house to clean up what remains. I look for her finger, but I do not find it, and I imagine terrible things. The blood on her lips and what secret was traced in that crimson bloom.
I bury her in a closed casket and tell myself it was not my fault, but they are empty reassurances, and in the night I think of her teeth closing over that finger, how she would have bitten down to take herself apart and then gobbled down what came away. I blink against the thought, light a candle and stare into its dim light, but the vision will not leave me.
A fortnight passes, and the house is emptied of its furniture, the floors swept and scrubbed, and cobwebs brushed from the corners. I cannot abide the silence, cannot continue waiting for my mother’s footstep to sound just behind me, and so I lock the house behind me, intent to walk until my muscles ache and my fingers are numb with cold, and I’ve forgotten that she has vanished from this world.
I do not know how long or how far I have walked when I find the tents. They are still yellowed, still stitched together with dark thread, but there are no crowds, no children chasing after each other, their voices rising into excited shrieks, no attendants milling about trying to entice passersby into coming inside to see something extraordinary, to break away from the drab world they know and to enter into a world of fantasy. Here, there is only wind and the whipping snap of the tents and what feels like a silence greater than the one I’ve left behind in my mother’s empty house.
My skirts are heavy with a chilled damp, and I am tired in a way that has leaked into my blood; it courses through me in dulled throbs. I make my way through the tents, looking for a scrap of color or a blur of movement, but if there is anything living in this place, it is hidden away. I shiver, and draw my shawl closer, my boots scraping against the hard earth as I make my way further into the great mass of tents.
The signs indicating what marvel lies within are gone, and I stop at the entrance of each opening to peer inside. Most hold nothing more than a few chairs and the deep smell of animal sweat and refuse, but ahead, almost in the center of the tents, is a lone placard. It boasts a dark swirl of text and an illustration I cannot make out from such a distance, but my skin crawls, and I think I know what I will see drawn there. I close my eyes and remember, inching forward, and, when I open my eyes, I see the long, curling tentacles; that great single eye opened to stare out into an infinite, blanked out world.
I tell myself it is not the same place my mother brought me to all those years ago. I tell myself it would be best to turn and leave these tents to crumble into the dust. In the deepest parts of my mind, I believe neither of those things. I part the opening of the tent and step inside.
The chairs are as I remember them. Set in a semicircle around the small, raised dais and close enough together to make it seem as if there is no separation between the bodies, but one continuous mass that goes on and on, their eyes forever watching. I do not look up to see if there is anything on the stage. Not yet. If I do, I will understand that it—that he—has been here all of this time, waiting, and such knowledge would unravel all that is still keeping me sane.
It was a story. She was confused and tired. This is the glass memory I have constructed for myself about that day. The one that became truth because I willed it to be. But I am here, in this tent, and I know that when I lift my eyes, I will see that same dome, the water perhaps murky and scummed against the glass, those tentacles shifting and moving in shadowed, graceful arcs.
And so I look. And I see.
The dome is there, the copper top streaked in patina, but the glass is clear and the water clean as if someone had placed the dome on the small stage just moments before I entered the tent. Inside, the octopus has stretched itself wide, and it floats, ambivalent to my presence, and I remember again the heat of my mother’s whisper. He is your father.
Suddenly, the tent is stifling, and I pull at my shawl, at the collar of my dress, but then stop, my fingers trembling as I recall my mother’s dress, how it had been torn open at the throat, and I bring my hands together and press them palm to palm as if in prayer. But this is no holy place; this earth is not consecrated ground.
“You are not the same. You are not,” I say, and the octopus rolls an eye towards me, and I flinch under the heavy gaze.
Slowly, the octopus draws into itself, the tentacles curling upward as they did before, and it is so hot, and my lungs try to draw in air, but the air is damp, and I am choking, reeling forward so that I fall prostrate beneath the dome. The octopus shifts so that I am looking up into that maw as it feeds, tentacle after tentacle vanishing until the thrashing in the water is frenzied, the octopus jerking through this violence against itself, and I feel the heat deep in my belly. Remembering my mother’s missing finger, I fear I will be sick, that I will vanish in this place, this father-creature devouring its own body above me.
I wonder if perhaps she thought it was a kind of offering. If, remembering that day I saw the octopus the first time, she imagined it would call him back to her, if spilling her blood and reabsorbing what she’d lost, would mean he would return.
I tremble, my mouth forming words I can no longer identify, and the churning water slows until it is again quiet in the tent.
I repeat myself again and again until I remember what it is I’m saying. “I’m sorry.”
The octopus only watches, the damaged tentacles floating beside it, and then it opens its mouth once more, and before everything falls away, before the world blinks out, I see the pointed tip of a finger emerge from within.
“You found her,” I say, and then there is only darkness.
When I wake it is to the sound of coarse voices and rough hands against my cheeks, my arms, and then my body is weightless as someone lifts me upward. “S’all right now, Miss. Can you hear me?” My head lolls backward, and a female voice shouts.
“Mind her neck, John. She’ll be sore, I expect. What she was doing out walking this time of night in the middle of nothing, I’ll never understand.”
He turns then, and I look out over a wide, moonlit expanse of rough field. There are no tents. No glass dome. No octopus.
“There she is then. We’ll have you warmed up in a bit, Miss.” The man is silver-haired but clean shaven, and he smiles down at me with tobacco-stained teeth. “You get lost out here, love? Is that it?”
“There were tents,” I say, and my voice is thick and stupid, and I wish to be away from here. From this man and this woman I do not know and this place that still holds the smell of decay and animals.
“What’s that, Miss? Tents, you say? Nothing out here but grass and sheep.”
The woman appears, her head wrapped in a heavy scarf, and she clucks her tongue. “Poor dear. Half addled with cold.”
I do not speak further, but keep my tongue still and let the pair fuss over me. Their home is warm and filled with the scent of stew that they ladle into thick bowls and spoon into my mouth. They assume I got lost in the fields, and I do not correct them, and only when I can tell them my name, where I’m from, do they agree to let me leave—chaperoned, of course—and return to Mother’s empty house.
“If it hadn’t been for Bennie, we mightn’t have found you. Whistled and whistled, but he wouldn’t leave your side, so I had to go hunting for him. It’s the creatures that have a sense of things that are wrong, don’t they?” the man says as he walks beside me, and I smile back at him and force myself to nod.
“The creatures. Yes,” I say and hope he cannot see how my shoulders have begun to shake.
“Take care of yourself, Miss,” the man says when we are on my mother’s doorstep, and he presses a hand to my wrist. “Out there, in the dark, the earth can look mighty strange.”
I lift my hand in a wave and wait for him to vanish around the bend, and then I go inside and lock the door behind me. I wait for sleep, but it does not come. The inside of that house sounds like a glass dome filled with water or like fingers tapping against wood.
When the sun rises—the rooms filled with grayed light—I leave my mother’s house. I will sell it, and there will be another family who fills it. Another mother and father and child who will live and sleep and dream inside those rooms, and perhaps they will hear the water and wonder what it could mean, but the water will not be meant for them, and so they will continue on under its sound, and eventually, they will forget to hear it.
I go back to my own little house, with its small herb garden, and its tiny bedroom, and its smells of clean air and rosemary. I open the windows and stare out into the sky and wait, but there are no sounds other than wind and birdcalls and the slow, creeping sound of things growing.
I stare at my fingers.
I tell myself I am not hungry.
I tell myself I am not like my father.
Originally published in The Twisted Book of Shadows, edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore.