The Octopus

My mother can only fall asleep with a hitachi wand tucked between her legs. It is big and white—the thick handle alone is the size of an adult humerus bone, and atop it rests a large bulb the size of an adult’s fist. The bulb is made of a material that is probably plastic but feels like leather, and has myriads of small indentations that collect dirt, fluid—i.e. color, yellow-brown dots that, when the hitachi is turned on to the low setting, make the whole head appear yellow, like a crude pointillism; but on the high setting the opposite effect occurs, somehow the vigorous high speed vibrations, which are so rapid as to be insensible, like strobe lights which give you the impression that a rotating object is actually perfectly still, cause the discolorations to vanish completely, and the bulb is all white, pure white all over, the same color as the handle. My mother, I know, prefers the low setting—but even so I worry that overuse will make her completely numb, which would be a disaster, since it is the only way that she can fall asleep.

Usually when I come home from school, I can hear the rumbles of the hitachi from the corridor outside our apartment door, and I know my mother has fallen asleep. She does not like to use the hitachi at night, I am not entirely sure why, but as a result she sleeps only fitfully, restlessly, for an hour or so at a time, and it is good for her to take a nap in the early afternoon while I am at school. I suspect that she feels safer using it then in the belief that, given the context of the time of day, early afternoon when nothing exciting happens, our neighbors will assume that the electric growl that vibrates the walls adjacent to our apartment is just the sound of vacuuming. When I unlock the door, for a brief moment the whine of the hitachi trapped between my mother’s legs gains voice, as if imbued with newfound hope of escaping out the door, fleeing in echo down the corridor outside, but as soon as I shut the door behind me again, closing off the avenue of the sound’s reverberant escape, it becomes choked and flat again, though still petulantly loud. I lock the door behind me and twist the handle once to check. The kitchen is right next to the door; first I go there and check that the stove is off and no faucets have been left running; then I walk back to the door and take my shoes off and hang up my keys; then I walk past the kitchen again to the dining table and set down my backpack and jacket on my chair, the one closest to the kitchen; then I go the bathroom and wash my hands; then I go to the bedroom where my mother is lying on her side, legs tangled up in a blanket that is half on the floor, and I carefully reach over her body to unplug the hitachi from the socket in the wall next to the bed.

After that I close the bedroom door softly and go to the kitchen to make some food—my favorites are udon noodles with beef and chicken stock, or waffles. If I make udon noodles, I make twice as much as I want to eat, and leave one clean bowl with two clean spoons and two clean sets of chopsticks in it next to the stove; if I make waffles, I plug in the toaster, make two waffles, which is exactly as much as I want to eat, and unplug the toaster. Then I sit down with my food at the dining table and either read, or start my homework. Usually I have time to finish all my homework and get through at least a few chapters before my mother wakes up.

Sometimes the doorbell rings, which is okay. Usually it is either the mailman coming to deliver a check or a package for my mother from her agent, or it is the Watchtower pamphlet man who comes around on Tuesdays for Bible study. But today is not a Tuesday and my mother did not shower this morning; usually my mother is happy and lively on the days she is expecting something from the mailman, on those mornings she wakes up even earlier than me and I hear her showering as I get ready for school, and when I come to the dining table she is dressed in a lovely flowery gown that is so loose and formless that it insistently suggests the nakedness of her thin frame underneath, the places where bone makes its shape known and the places where it does not, and she shows me a painting or a print from a book of art she has written, and chatters on about the people she was with when she saw the piece of art first, and what thoughts it made her think, and which bits of those thoughts she shared with the people she was with and which bits she decided not to share with those people at that time but which she ended up sharing with the whole world by including it in her writing, and which bits she had not shared with anyone for all this time and which I must be absolutely careful not to divulge to anyone because they were such naughty, important secrets. But this morning, as usual, I did not hear the sound of the shower when I got out of bed, and so I knew she would never get out of bed for the rest of the day except to go to the kitchen and eat udon noodles standing up and naked, her bones so starkly visible in their unlovely angles that they obscure the general form of her body, and she appears all over merely a quaint collection of kindling, naked because she refuses to put on clothes when she feels she is dirty, the clothes are too clean and thus too good for her sweaty, bed-sticky body.

So today the doorbell rings, and it is not necessarily okay, because today is not a Tuesday, I am sure, and today, my mother did not shower, and she is asleep. Today is not as usual, there is something wrong with today.

Today when the doorbell rang I sat very still and straight in my chair for a minute. It was five pm and the light that came through the window was very yellow and made striations in my eye, in which dust particles slid like so many Irises down the rainbow lines. Instead of answering, I watched a squirrel outside the window nibble insistently on the trunk of an oak tree, as if it would find a treasure trove at the center. The doorbell rang again, and only a second later, again. I stood up and walked through the kitchen on the way to the door and picked up a small knife in my right hand.

I walked carefully, but not too carefully; I don’t have to walk too carefully, because I know how to place my feet so they never make any sound against the floor; once I arrived at the door, I saw and subsequently remembered that the peephole was about a foot and a half above my head, and required a small lever to be pressed down on the side to open it up, so that even if I stood back to compensate for my lack of height, which I would not have been able to do anyways due to the wall of shoes and shoeboxes stacked up behind me as barrier between threshold and home, I would not be able to see anything through the small oval hole at all, not even a bit of light. Realizing this, I put down the knife on the floor next to the door and walked back to the dining table, and carefully carried my chair back through the kitchen to the door, taking extra effort this time, since the chair gave me extra weight, to ensure my heavier steps made no sound against the floor, and I carefully set down the chair between the door and the wall of shoeboxes behind it, and climbed up onto the seat of the chair on my knees, then my feet so that I could face the door, press down the lever with my right hand and steady myself against the door with my left hand as I looked through. To my disappointment, there was nothing there to be seen, only darkness that straining did not alter in the slightest, as if my eyes were closed. I could not tell if this was my error, if there was another latch somewhere which I was meant to depress, or if the peephole had been covered up from the outside. Or perhaps the peephole never worked at all; although I had seen my mother use it and she had always seemed satisfied, so perhaps it was the kind of thing that only worked when you knew what you were expecting to see.

There was nothing to be done. I had to open the door now, there was no way to delay it.

Once when I was much younger my mother gave me a book of Japanese prints by an artist named Hokusai, and she told me, “This is Hokusai, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, he was one of those people who lived in two centuries, and not just a few years in one and mostly the other, either, but nearly half in each, like me.” Then she added, kneeling down to see my face better, since I was very short on account of being so young, though even then I looked exactly like her, and even more so by now, as I have grown to nearly her height, and especially so today, on account of the flowery gown I am wearing, “You will never live in two centuries, you’ll be lucky to see the second half of this one,” which just sounded like gloating. There were many interesting prints in the book, and many pictures of naked women who looked very different from my mother, and sometimes both pleasing categories overlapped in a single, extremely pleasing, print. My favorite print was one called “Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife,” in which two octopi, one big and one small, with dark sideways-lidded eyes and bulbous heads like my mother’s hitachi, wrapped their tentacles around a reclining woman as if to make a soft bed for her with their own strong limbs so that she might have sweet dreams. It was my favorite print from the book because my mother said it was her favorite print, and she often closed her eyes and shuddered a little all over when staring at it, as if shaking off a dream or memory. Because she stared at it deeply, as if there was much meaning to be gleaned, I often stared at it too, and started to notice small details I hadn’t noticed before—for example, it took me a while before I even noticed the second, smaller octopus, which was at the reclining woman’s head and wrapped its tentacles around her neck as if to hold it up, but did so ineffectually, since the woman’s head was nonetheless tilted far back at an angle that must have been uncomfortable, and even after I noticed that detail it was a while before I realized that what the octopus was doing with the tentacle between its eyes was meant to be kissing her, and then it took me even longer after that to notice that the little octopus had the tiny end of one tentacle curled around an erect nipple. When I noticed that final detail, I became suddenly disgusted with the print, and tore out the page so I would not have to look at it again, because there was something about the insidiousness of that single thin talon curled possessively around the woman’s nipple that made me want to tear off the entire limb with my bare hands and eat it, chew it to string, as it wriggled against my teeth. As a result, it had been several years since I had looked at or even thought of the print, but I suddenly recalled it in exact detail as I stood at the door which I had just now opened and compared my perfect memory of the print to the figure I saw before me, in shocked amazement that the comparison did not fail or outshine the reality, as at the door now stood the exact embodiment of the smaller octopus from the print, in a suit, which nonetheless did not disguise his long, beaked nose and circular eyes wide open with shock, in which his pupils stood out like dark crescents, and his enormous, mushroom-shaped head, where wrinkly folds stood out on a glassy, nearly gelatinous forehead.

The little octopus cleared his throat nervously. “Excuse me, you’re not… you wouldn’t happen to be,” he whispered, so softly I could barely hear. “Not… Tamako?”

“No, of course not,” I informed the octopus. “That’s my mother.”

The octopus sighed deeply and drew his hand over his shiny, wet forehead, then held it out to me at the end of an improbably long arm. “Little girl,” he said, and hesitated when I made no motion to shake his slimy, insidious hand. “What a nice little girl,” he started again, and he lifted his long tentacle to my cheek, and licked me with it from temple to collarbone before retracting it, leaving a sweat-trail down the right side of my face. I shuddered in anger and wanted to slap the tentacle away but it was gone already, and the octopus was much taller than me and stood far enough away that to reach out and strike him, I would have had to let go of the door I was holding open and step through it, which was unacceptable.

The octopus seemed to be emboldened by my inaction and became suddenly businesslike, straightening himself up and crossing his long arms across his chest with many tortuous twists. He began to speak again, without hesitation, and, in a slow drawl that managed to convey that there could be no more surprises for him, that every word he spoke was coupled to all those preceding and succeeding by gluey strands of salivary jelly, he explained to me that he was here to see my mother, to investigate complaints lodged by the neighbors that I was too often seen unsupervised, and that if I did not want the wrath of the august governing body of the Child Protective Services to fall down upon our household, I must absolutely allow him to enter into our home and look around wherever he liked and wait for my mother to come home, so that he might inspect her to his discretion.

I told the octopus, in the same supercilious tone with which he had spoken, that he must go away immediately, that my mother was home and only asleep in bed, and that he should be more concerned for his own wellbeing as my mother and I liked to eat seafood very much and very well might eat him if he wasn’t careful.

The octopus did not take this remark very well; the color in his massive face darkened and his iris-less pupils seemed to grow larger in his wide, lidless eyes. In a sudden, violent show of strength, he shoved open the door, tearing it completely out of my hand, and it knocked over the chair that I had placed behind the door, which in turn toppled the stack of shoes and shoeboxes behind it.

For a moment we both looked inwards, past the overturned heels and half-open boxes strewn across the floor, waiting in anxious anticipation to see if the commotion had awakened my mother. When, after a moment, the door to her bedroom did not open, we turned our attention back to each other with renewed intensity. The fear that had momentarily struck me, when the octopus drove the door open with far greater strength than I contained in my entire body, disappeared in the next moment as I contemplated what disaster he might wreak on my mother if I allowed him to pass through the threshold. That was the octopus’ mistake—he might have handled me alone, a weak young girl without illusions of invincibility, if he had not reminded me what was at stake. But in the moment after his transgression I knew instantly, and the knowledge thrummed through my whole body, that at no cost could I allow the octopus to wriggle his way into our home and our lives, for my mother’s sake. I pulled the door in sharply, so that it was only open a small crack wide enough to be completely blocked by my body, and braced it with my foot, prepared to have it broken rather than give way. “You must leave,” I hissed at the octopus fiercely, letting all my anger show in my face. “Leave now, before you get hurt.”

The octopus uncrossed his arms, and the hard superciliousness vanished from his body. He became fluid, boneless, seemed to expand to twice his original girth, so that the suit nearly burst off of his body, as if he no longer cared to uphold the disguise. I gathered that he had decided to treat me as a worthy adversary, rather than a lowly gatekeeper. In a persuasive, almost sycophantic tone, he conceded that I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and had an admirable fierceness of spirit that would serve me well in the world, but that “a woman like your mother has needs, you know, needs that a young girl cannot possibly understand yet… A woman has dreams, which she can never share with an innocent young girl, and all the same she cannot help having such desires… Would you hold her back from that? Would you be so selfish as to prevent her from ecstasies you could never be a part of? I know you care for her more than that…”

“Let her go,” he whispered, his tentacles caressing my ears. “Let her go, let her go, you are not enough, let her go…”

I was afraid to move my arms from the door in case he took the opportunity to burst it open again, but his tentacles were moving over my whole face now, blocking up my nose and eyes and lips, and I shook my head madly to free myself, to breathe, but it was relentless.

“She doesn’t need you!” I gasped out, as a tentacle wormed its way next to my tongue. I could taste the salty sweat that covered it, and gagged. “I help her with everything, anything she needs,” I told him, still gagging.

“You don’t know everything,” he hissed, and swaddled my entire head as if to wrench it off of my spine in the next second. I pulled back, but he was much stronger than me, and had so many more limbs, while I had none free as long as I maintained my hold on the door. I began to see darkness, as if my eyes were closed even though I was straining to open them, and was suddenly afraid that I would die like this, a swollen head without a body, stuffed up and tossed around like a toy, and a sudden strength surged through me, borne not of my will but my body’s simple desire to remain attached to itself, to remain one whole inviolable object even if it no longer carried my life. With the sudden, nerveless strength that pulsed through me, I pulled the door open and slammed it as hard as I could against my own head, which loosened the tentacle hold on me just enough so that I could wrench my head free and slam the door closed.

But a few tentacles were still wedged in the crack, wriggling around the door to lash my hand and lick the door handle. And a voice from a head I could not see intoned, “I have owned her long before you were even born,” but it was so loud that I could not tell if it came from within, from behind the bedroom door where my mother surely lay asleep, or if it echoed through the crack in the door. I knew it must be a trick, the octopus meant to distract me, make me look behind myself rather than focus on the danger in front of me, so I did not respond, only inched the door closer and closer shut. The tentacles retreated one by one, until there was only one tiny finger left, curled in on itself as if trying to withdraw, and I realized the only reason it could not withdraw was because there was no room to. With no tentacles left for leverage, the octopus could only rely on my mercy, on my decision to open the door again and potentially sacrifice my victory.

There was nothing left to do. I braced the door with my whole body, picked up the knife that I had left on the floor next to the door, and in one swift move sliced the writhing talon off. The door clicked shut, and I swiftly locked it, twisting the handle to check. The bloody member spasmed on the floor, wriggling as if it could be reunited with its genitor if it was only brave enough to struggle a little longer.

I left it—it was a mess I would prefer to clean up later, when all the struggle was gone.

I went to the bathroom to wash my hands; then I went to the bedroom, where my mother lay still sleeping on her side facing the wall, her black hair splayed out all over the pillow, a few sticky strands glued to her pale cheek. I stood by the door watching her for a moment, a possessive urge to do something rising in my gorge, but I did not know exactly what it was I was supposed to do, so I breathed deeply to release the emotion from my chest.

I approached the bed where my mother lay and carefully set my body down next to my mother, arranging my limbs so that I was embracing her from the back. As soon as I touched her, she startled for a moment, a panicked look in her eyes, but then she realized her hitachi was still tucked between her legs and hidden away out of sight within the tangled blankets, and she relaxed. As usual, she lies to herself that she must have managed to turn the hitachi off on her own before falling completely asleep, rather than allow herself to consider the possibility that I might be willing to help her with her needs. It’s a silly instinct, but a tender one.

My mother snuggled into me with a sigh of pleasure. “My, you’ve gotten strong,” she purred, her voice husky with sleep. “Your body is so hard, like a man’s—you should not play so much with the boys, it’s not becoming for a girl.”

My mother says things like this often, but she does not mean it, not really. After all, she is bony herself, not all soft curves like the naked women in the book of Hokusai prints. And we both know she is very pretty.

I moved her hair gently off of her cheek and behind her ear.

“I think my father came to the door, today,” I whispered.

“Did he really? Did you slay him as I taught you to do?” she murmured back, half-asleep.

“I did… I did,” I told her.

“Good girl, that’s my girl,” she said, not even knowing what she was saying, and rolled over into me to sleep some more.