Saturday 16 June 2018

'First Author' by Jan Stinchcomb

The female octopus gets a valentine in a bottle of ruby glass. It’s from a male who’s completely unremarkable, stubbornly cream colored, never varying. Eight-legged. Forgettable. The valentine is an offer of sperm. She can’t say no.

She can’t refuse because her body tells her that death is near and she must reproduce. It’s more thanantos than eros. She is neither sentimental nor philosophical, just plain tired. She starts looking for a den. From the time she was little and unlikely to survive, she already had a den in mind. It is an ideal cave, with a dagger-rock entrance, located not far from where she was swimming when she found the valentine. Off she goes.

In the cave she shatters the bottle and little fragments of paper drift away. Her sweetheart’s penis is inside, his detachable hectocotylus, filled with sperm. She inserts the organ and fertilizes the eggs before releasing them.

Now her life begins again. Everything, all the living and surviving, the motion and evading, has been leading up to this. She will never have another meal. She’ll guard the eggs, cover them with soft sand, and keep a current going so that these babies always have fresh air and moving water. It’s a fact that she will kill any predator who draws near, but it doesn’t take much to scare off a crab. The bigger fish are another matter. Sometimes she is forced to shoot a glorious spray of ink that blacks out the sea.

The cave is world enough.

The octopus loses her beauty. Her skin goes from violet to white, and her eyes, once coal-bright spots of intelligence, become milky, but she can still see her eggs. A miniature octopus is visible inside each one; every baby has eight quivering legs that look capable of pounding their way out.

One morning a fragment of red glass catches the light at the mouth of the cave. The first baby shoots out, chasing that red light. There is another baby, and then another. Endless babies. An ocean’s worth of babies.

Only one of these will grow to adult size and make it to a marine laboratory. At the laboratory is a scientist, an inspired researcher, who will shake each of the octopus’s eight long legs in greeting. There will be much discussion of touch, communication and consciousness. There will be grants. There will be octopus T-shirts for sale. The octopus will have a human name. He will be famous. He will evolve into an escape artist who can pass through a coin-sized hole. He will become an accomplished thief, a collector of shiny objects. One day he will steal the scientist’s favorite pen.

And the story he writes will be his own. A blistering family history. A shocking tell-all. A best seller. Beyond the realm of the human imagination.

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