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A Ballad of the Lost Octopodes, by Karen An-hwei Lee

 

One morning, a day not apparently unlike any other since I arrived in this small place, I woke, and after a few minutes, with slow-dawning realization, understood I was no less than an octopus. No less, no more. You’re not whoever you thought you were yesterday. You’re an octopus, I mused. I lay sprawled across my waterbed, half-kissed and half-wretched from the rain that pounded through my open window in the night, moaning to myself, perhaps this is all there is. Make no bones about it. In fact, I have no bones. No matter what my aspirations and prior accomplishments once were, I finally know what this is all about. My dear heavenly stars, I’m an octopus. In a melanin-rich cloud of sepia, I inked these lines:

Spring sings green through my window facing the sea.
Green is the scent of the air, a grove’s upturned leaves.
Green glimmers under iridophores in my skin, a lagoon
of tranquility without sailboats or pearl-divers in sight.
Green is the color of matcha steaming with promise.
It’s eternal green here, always. Doesn’t this fact alone
drive a suspicion that all is not what it appears to be?
The soft, balmy weather without a cloud in the sky,
and your multifarious limbs on the floor, inching out
to the rock garden. This is a small place sans mirrors.
You don’t fully realize who you are until you wake
with rain kissing your skin, your iridophores shimmering
under emerald turning to the grenadine of pomegranates
and hairy rambutans. My stars, you’re an octopus, dear.
Forget about the strange fruit you thought you could be—
breadfruit, pawpaw, starfruit, even the noxious durian
with its reeking, creamy innards spooned into a glass
as a challenging treat. Not a woman, you’re an octopus.

What is the art of being an octopus? As it goes, I said to my octopodean self, I’ve lived for years in a sepia cloud of denial, this melanin-colored illusion I was a woman entitled to certain privileges such as weddings and birthdays, or at least a tea biscuit once in a while with a steaming cup of matcha at eleven o’clock or elevenses, and maybe an occasional letter sent by family and friends. If I wish, I’d respond to these letters with postcards handwritten in kind, speaking of a lost art, if I may; postcards eventually discarded in a dead letter office due to changes of address never reported to me, missing cards never delivered out of a sea of lost letters. An accidental octopus, I have no livelihood and no kin, no letters or postcards to mail because there’s no one to receive them. Alas, nothing I currently do for a living would grant time off work. I don’t work, and I pay no taxes, which is undoubtedly one of the odd perks of this octopodean existence. Rather, I spend my days soaking in a hydrotherapy bath or pushing rocks around in my garden.

An octopus, I echoed into my bedchamber where my rolltop desk sits an arm’s length away; one arm’s length out of eight, not the sum of all arms, I mean. This routine isn’t what an ordinary citizen of the cosmos might imagine it to be, in other words, a life of relentless monotony, reclining on an undulating waterbed, pushing stones the size of pomelos around in a garden, devouring brine-cured olives and slices of sashimi, fishing ounces of hyaluronic acid out of jars and rubbing big drops of it onto my arms as well as my head. As an octopus with rogue designer genes, I live out of water, you see. The hyaluronic acid is an emollient, a hydrophilic skin moisturizer, if you will, that plumps up my epidermis and makes it appear more youthful by keeping it hydrated. Without it, I’d shrivel into a prune, and that would be a quick end to this tale.

 

Without a neck, my balloon-shaped torso is fused directly onto my head. My flesh is a swirled nest of nerves, a giant ganglion in each of eight hands. Arms, I should say. Why can’t I navigate life as a starfish and relinquish all octopodean possibilities, I wondered, or drift aimlessly through a brackish lagoon as a filter-feeder? Thanks to the molecular scissors which snipped my genome and spliced in octopodean codes, I have three hearts: a systemic one that circulates blood throughout my body, and two branchial hearts, a double blessing. The systemic heart looks forward to the future while holding my parcels of memory together; the lesser hearts nudge my wishes out to sea while gazing inwardly to a sequence of yesterdays. It’s an act of faith, if you will. Finally, I’m gifted with a brain of above average intelligence. Not a fish brain. Nine brains total, to be precise, but not to brag about this. I’m an oddity, by all means. Please let me reiterate this thought. Not a fish brain, my dear heavenly stars.

One could say I harbor nine brains in sum, as the neurons in my arms outnumber those in my head. These lovely, flexible limbs enjoy autotomy—not autonomy but autotomy, of fleet-footed geckos casting their tails from kitchen walls, twitching after severance, waving with irrepressible life; new arms sprout out of my body, slender as the pekoe buds of tea shrubs, green as new bamboo shoots. Imagine if your hands could do all this, eight simultaneously. I have a mouth under every arm, which a casual observer would not ordinarily see. And the blood coursing through my veins is coppery blue as the horizon of an ink barrel. If you cut me, although I hope you won’t, I’ll bleed midnight ink while I grab you with one of my suctioned arms, my musculature shot through with nerves.

As an octopus, I love sashimi.

Octopuses in the wilderness gorge on seafood. I say, however, enjoy a little bit of everything in moderation, even what you love best. If you can set boundaries for yourself, paradise isn’t too bad. It’s like a spa resort without the loud tourists and spying staff. On the other hand, it’s also the dearth of kindred, no extended family within my sphere of intimacy, a sense of not belonging to anyone else, and that’s the heartache. To be honest, not knowing my mother or father doesn’t bother me on a daily basis as I go from task to task, cleaning out my lair or rearranging stones in my garden. I am a solo act in this universe, a one-octopus performance without an audience. An accidental, I’m erased from the archives of the mothership corporation, the only traces of my genome logged in its archives as errors, i.e., accidental nucleotide sequences of my molecular identity, eradicated. The blueprint of my genome, especially the base pairs disrupted by the molecular scissors, are tagged as mistakes never to be replicated. Copies of my genome must be strictly destroyed, not to undergo cloning by the corporation’s polymerase chain reactions.

My colors change like a mood ring.

Happiness is the shade of eggplant; fear or excitement, the color of hairy rambutan peels or cranberries in a bog; and everything else from envy to sadness on a spectrum of green to gray. And if I feel tranquil, I’m almost the same color as a dish of skim milk with a bluish tint, like a snowbank. How could you expect less of an octopus who resides on an isle of garbage, the refuse of the world? I’ve risen above the categorical imperatives of shell-arranging or water-siphoning in front of my humble lair, my prefrontal cortex overriding the obsessive-compulsive habits of some octopuses with loopy limbic systems. As you can see, I come equipped with a modest encyclopedia of coded information, and love to write using the ink sac lodged under my digestive gland, colored by melanin. A literate octopus, at regular intervals, I jot down gratitude lists as a tangible way to improve my outlook. It’s not so hard to maintain a positive attitude in paradise, but life does get a little boring out here. The weather doesn’t change much, for instance, perpetually sunny with a small chance of showers. Instead of focusing on what I do not have, I focus on what I do have, that is to say, a glass half-full, in a manner of speaking. And while I’m on the subject, please indulge for me for a minute as I expound upon my choice of the plural octopuses and less frequently octopodes rather than octopi. A citizen may or may not already know that the singular octopus derives from the ancient Greek oktopous, and octopus is a Latinate form of the Greek.

A translingual drift across languages, if you will, with a hint of a lyric therein.

So it logically follows in the Greek that oktopous would become octopodes, not the Latinate octopi. However, nobody ever says octopodes, although it is a nifty term, so I prefer octopuses, even if it not quite Greek. Why would anyone in their right mind wish to refuse the lyric-sounding octopuses over the enigmatic octopodes with a strong emphasis on the second syllable, not much different to the editors of the corporation than progeny with designer genes, I suppose? I prefer octopodes as a reference to an isle on the other side of the universe or down under like the antipodes, yet octopodean.

 

Wish I could say I woke up one day, looked in the mirror, and found a woman looking at herself rather than an octopus. On the contrary, the reverse is true, and there are no mirrors here. Now I understand why no mirrors exist in this small place. I also understand that I’ve actually lived as an octopus my whole life, a cephalopod in this glossy wetsuit although every inch a human with the intelligence and humor that go with it. Why else would the editors on the mothership of planet Earth dispose of me in one of their portable black holes, like tossing grapefruit peels onto a cosmic compost heap? In the wink of an eye, after traveling at light speed through a black field with the redolence of rhododendrons, I found myself in this small room, a quiet new life arranged around me with a waterbed and a rolltop desk with a chair, plus a window with a reading nook facing the sea. What shall I read here? Or what shall I write? Without books, there’s nothing to read. There’s a basket, but nothing to lower into a garden except bananas, which I don’t like. My abode is only one story, anyway, and it’s at sea level. Who lived in this place before me, and who else will follow me? Only the maker knows. An assumption, perhaps. Maybe there’s one of these lagoons for each accident, a gazillion lagoons for every single accidental.This small place is akin to ghost fishing and upcycled garbage, a tureen of plentiful goulash abandoned by shepherds who’d rather eat flesh, a bonfire of glorious insects, a bog of sunken parlors and lost piano keys, the splendor of surf-tumbled pebbles, an asylum of coral sand—a world on fire inside another world set apart from the rest of the universe. Or completely outside it. No one knows exactly how big this venue is, and no one knows quite where it exists, or which midnight train to catch in order to visit—not the northeast express, nor the southwest railway. Migrant caravans lose their way in the outer darkness with the weeping and gnashing of teeth, as the ancient texts once said. No one can travel to this lovely place without a quantum passport, but nobody knows how to obtain one. What’s the currency in use, besides? No maps are sold for cash. How do you ask for directions? This is far beyond a cartographer’s pen and a surveyor’s compass. There’s no starlight to illuminate the way for you, no guide to take you by the hand, nobody to show you to a window or aisle seat.

You must figure this out on your own in the rainy darkness, awake.

 

On the other side of the universe, I believe men are rare birds, in a manner of speaking. Not actual birds, I mean, just rare. Bird. One male for every four hundred seventy women was the ratio at the last demographic census, conducted not long ago, I believe. Or maybe it was a projection of centuries into the future, I don’t know for certain. Let’s say, for fabulae’s sake, once upon a time, on the other side of the universe, males were very scarce, and women rented them as ossans, a moniker for middle-aged men, short for ojisans, the word for uncles in Japanese, a holdover term from the economic recession—followed by a rebound after the fiscal cliff—at the turn of the millennium. Dinner alone at a bistro, and no male friends available to enjoy the grilled asparagus with black olives and a side of mango chutney or jicama slaw? Hire an ossan for an hour, one who’ll eat at your pace and ask if you’d like to order watermelon sherbet for dessert. Or coconut flan and crème brûlée? Raspberry-glazed ricotta cheesecake with a mint leaf?

The moonlight delivers a raft of water-stained letters from the other side of the universe, envelopes nearly illegible in a basement archive of the cosmos, I imagine, the largest dead letter office in all creation. Who writes letters nowadays? Isn’t it a lost art? How old are these letters? How far did business-size envelopes, postcards, coin wrappers with string, catalog packets, and oversized manila envelopes journey across a starry river of time to this small place? Some of the letters are cancelled while others are not. The faded postmarks do not necessarily correspond to the time of handling in terms of simultaneous events, especially if we’re operating in a context of relativity. In a fundamental sense, I’m talking about time dilation when we approach the speed of light. The letters are blank signifiers set adrift into the attraction of a black hole. Only the moonlight in the octopodes, this small place, touches them. Even an envelope sealed with a piece of chewing gum is refreshed in a lunar ray, as the sea of lost letters continues to flower with the obscure pulp digested in the bellies of a thousand paper moths, drowned.

 

Dear heavenly stars, I wonder what life would be like as a poet on the other side of the universe. Why was this ink sac designed, anyway, if I don’t have enemies to befuddle with clouds of ink? Apparently, paradise is antagonist-free, so I don’t have any foes. Salvaged out of notes piled on my reading nook is a fragment of my ballad, an octopodean siesta, an afternoon nap not to be confused with a sestina, a poem of six stanzas with six lines each, concluding with a three-line envoy. The first line says, paraphrased, welcome to a sea of lost letters in a turquoise room of pearls and sapphires. The second line says, let’s see if we can decipher these letters by using our supersensory arms. However, I’ve never composed a ballad before, and I don’t write in closed forms. I get stuck. The limitations of meter, rhyme, and one-word repetitions annoy me. I write in free verse instead; then I can breathe. This poem aspires to be a ballad but isn’t one:

If black holes are the size of pinheads where angels dance,
lively portals in motion like revolving doors or elevators,
imagine how stanzas might illumine the halls of time
like a starry night of words in a flock of carbonized dots
reversed in a bright alphabet of eternity. Is this why poetry
endures in seasons of love and war, in promised forms
of feathered plumes and flames? Love is blind, after all.
We say the opposite of what we mean, but in the spaces
between the words, our hearts know what is true.
Even the octopus in its lair feels the world chime in
through the ganglia of its nine marvelous brains –
This lyric is not a ballad, yet it dances and sings.

 

Sources

Courage, Katherine Harmon. Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea. New York: Penguin, 2013.  

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Reprint Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017.

“The Many Plurals of Octopus.” Merriam-Webster Usage Notes. Accessed 5 March 2019.  https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-many-plurals-of-octopus-octopi-octopuses-octopodes

Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus. New York: Atria Books, 2015.

“What Are the Plurals of ‘Octopus,’ ‘Hippopotomus,’ and ‘Syllabus?’ ” English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Accessed 3 March 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/what-are-the-plurals-of-octopus-hippopotamus-syllabus/

 

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy, Ardor, In Medias Res, Sonata in K, The Maze of Transparencies, God’s One Hundred Promises, What the Sea Earns for a Living, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations. Her volume of Song Dynasty translations, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose by Li Qingzhao, is the first in English to collect Li’s poetry & prose in a single volume.

Her work has also appeared in Pearson’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, A Public Space, Crab Orchard Review, Fourteen Hills, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Salamander, Third Coast, Versal, and elsewhere.

Currently, Lee serves in the administration at Point Loma Nazarene University in Southern California.

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