Octopus Guts: A short story
YOUR FAVORITE MEAL was hash browns with tangy ketchup and it takes me three days to gather all the ingredients. I made the ketchup, making sure to add extra vinegar and dried chiles the way you liked before pureeing tomatoes from the garden.
I wake early in the morning to shred the potatoes and soak them in water. Jali, with two braids behind her ear and a mini apron with the words “Oceanside Diner” printed on it, shuffles behind me. She almost-skips, giddy and ready to be of assistance. I am about to disappoint her. We both know it.
I move the cast iron that has been in our family for eight generations from the orange side-door. I chuckle at a memory of you grabbing suddenly, your only weapon, when customers got too rowdy. It’s at least seven pounds. How did you do it? The pan needs cleaning. I grab your favorite chain scrubber, spreading it across the body that houses fresh memories. As oily brown suds dance around the sink, the scrubbers’ sharp groove nicks me hard, and I drop the skillet suddenly. I am bleeding and quickly wipe away hot tears.
It is raining out, and the diner is closed to give us a semblance of privacy. The mirrors aren’t covered, though they should be. I hear a bird outside and still, legs locking in place, heart trying to remember where I am, where you are.
Before I’ve summoned her, Jali is wiping my blood with a clean, damp cloth. I tilt my hand in thanks. Jali gestures for me to step away so that she can finish up instead. But the pan is stuck between both of my hands: one alive and clutching, the other dead and judgmental. I stumble from trying to shuffle my feet into a rhythm that’ll move the blood along. My feet are stuck in place. The pan falls with a clang, its echo bursting in my ears.
Jali is right on me, bending to pull me up with the too heavy skillet. Her braids are anchored into the restaurant floor, the left one closest to the loose floorboard where we keep the money on days when the cash register is too full. She holds us together like that, my child. The girl with galaxies in her eyes and sun in her throat. This girl who can recall all birds by memory. The one who is checked on by no one. Not even me.
I want to blame your death for that, but the truth is she and I are different. There is no point in trying to mind the gap anymore. No point in mimicking what I never saw.
One of Jali’s braids comes up to wipe the tear I vowed to exile if it ever escaped, and I suck my teeth in quick disgust, ripping the pan from her grip. She yelps like a lost dog searching for shelter. It cuts me. A little.
“Don’t waste the magic. I don’t need your help.”
“But, Ama, what if it’d fallen on your feet? What if-”
“It won’t. Leave now. I can do this. I must do this,” I say quietly.
Jali heads towards the exit and kicks over an empty bucket while looking directly into my eyes. I know that look. It’s how I looked at you every day of my life. Like something sour rising into the nose and settling there without air or company or warmth. Like that one day you and I shared the kitchen to make sourdough bread and the stench lava’d into our bellies, making us say things we didn’t mean. Or did.
My hands cramp up before I’m halfway done washing the pan, but I continue, wincing as I go. Jali will not go home straight away. She is somewhere close wishing she wasn’t. Somewhere scratching off the stink of me.
I will make you hash browns today and it will be the last time I ever cook for you again. The last time the smell of hot grease welcomes me in its bosom. The last time your apron slices the air. I will get my own. One that smells of crisp clouds and earth in ecstasy.
TODAY IS JALI’S BIRTHDAY and we plan to bake you a cake. She is at school. The diner has quieted, and I have a reprieve from our regulars until they return at dinnertime. Busying my hands, I wipe the counter and assemble the ingredients. Then, feeling the butter on my tongue before tasting its soft feathered wetness riveting through edges of teeth, my back rolls in gratitude, my hips roar, mouth agape, the caramelized fat bordering between my bottom lip and front teeth. I am sliding down into something else. Something monstrous.
Today I smell of cake, and crowded sugar crumbs that make themselves expand with sweat. Outside, the sky drifts between shadows and birds floating in a forgotten bowl, their feathers turned to dancing fountains. That old promise of mine glitters in the back of my throat and for a split second there is heat, lavender, cardamom and fairytales.The claggy aftertaste is a combination of acid rain and burnt hair. I swallow.
Jali’s new teacher suggested she bring in something for her birthday, something that would help the students get to know her better. The “students” have known Jali all her life, but this is the first school she’s been to that isn’t yours.
She entered the medium sized gray-walled room in her best yellow dress and smiled, silver teeth shining off of the metal window sills. She presented lemon balm in a powder blue ceramic oval, with one lone purple flower crawling to the top. This plant-urn is sprinkled with your ashes.
Did you tell her to do it? Did you feel it when the red-headed girl kicked the whole of it like she was about to get an award and you were thrown across the room, gathering in all the places, the spider webs, the extra shoes where the white boy hides his candy, the fan, the principal’s brochure? Were you there when he touched my ass three times during back-to-school night? Was it you that made him sick?
Everyone says Jali is cursed. I want to tell these people that curses don’t work like that but I don’t because they hurt her. They hurt you.
I left the diner early after I got the call. There were three customers still inside, Silus, Mach, and Helena, our newest and most consistent customer. The young girl with black skin bit her nails incessantly and always left a tip. I have the feeling that she is always on the verge of trying to tell me something, but we don’t know each other and I don’t take advice from strangers.
You’ve seen her once. You’d just pulled the cornbread out from the oven, and we all felt better because of it. The sweet air, the butter-like breath, a perfect mix of home.
Helena’s hair was in a turquoise and gold headwrap, her lips painted white, an upside down triangle underneath each eye. Large, purple earrings. Haunted laugh. Curved spine. Broken song.
I know the secret, the thing that brings people here. It isn’t the creamed corn you’ve pulled by hand. It isn’t the fresh fish, or your eel cider. It isn’t your spices or your teas. It’s this place. The way the floor lights up and signals just what they need. The way you know to make extra because someone else is on the way. The way you called your mother by a lover’s name. The hush of the waves.
I leave the three of them there, Silus, Mach, and Helena to go get Jali. She is hysterical, screaming. Her grandmother has just been killed.
“Wasn’t your mother dead already?” Ms. Lepa asks, with a brief hint of sorrow and confusion.
Jali screams then, tearing through the room to get at Nancy, the red-head. I stop her, even though I don’t want to. While staring at my chest like his life depends on not blinking, the principal suggests a limpia be performed on Jali, to get her anger in check. I imagine burning the place down, but assure principal Herne that there will be consequences.
And for what? They’ve killed my mother. Again. They’ve killed you.
I take Jali home, and forbid her to enter the diner until she’s thought up a proper apology for her behavior. She knows I’m not angry at her, I hope. I don’t know. While folding the quilt you made, I settle myself into Jali’s rocking chair and start humming. Jali closes her door. She’s angry. It’s her birthday. It’s her birthday! What am I doing?! Am I really about to go back to work? But all of the cake ingredients are there, I tell myself. The air is too thick here, I hum. I’m tired.
BEEP. SWOOSH. My phone alerts to a new notification. I’ve just received an email.
TO: Ina Matem <firstname.lastname@example.org>
FROM: Chiara Lepa <email@example.com>
SUBJECT: Returning your mother’s ashes
DATE: August 30th, 2071 11:27 GMT+2
My apologies for today’s interference with your busy schedule. The food at the diner is delicious and I know everything happened so fast in the classroom. I don’t know what to say. I swept up what I could and put the contents in a cloth bag. Would it be alright if I dropped it off at the diner around 6pm? I’d like to chat about Jali and see how we can make her feel more at home on campus.
See you later,
You must know this already, but when I return to the diner, it’s empty. I finish baking Jali’s cake on my own. She wanted it made for you. Thought it’d get you to come back to us. I’ve told her that it won’t work, but I don’t tell her I’ve tried everything, even the re-animation spell for your return. To no avail.
It has been thirty two days since your death and the diner still hasn’t recovered. Yes, there was a flood. Yes, I checked and rechecked everything before I left. The impossible happened. Our diner won’t hold heat. What I can see of the floor is wet, blue-black and swollen, like a forgotten body held too long in heat. The ceiling is covered with deflating balloons that say, “Rest in peace.” If they weren’t so high up, I’d burn them myself.
The light grandpa never replaced is blinking, a tennis ball totters up and down, laughing with its head held back.
I am alone. A bubble scratched and inhaling fire. A thing that shouldn’t be. Fish scales, sediment, persimmon skin. Do you know this version of me? Are you watching? Was it me?
The last time I did magic was before your first stroke. Jali was still in my belly when you told me I needed to get ready. I thought you meant for birth. That my body would change, would shift, would shudder into an irrevocable shape. I said yes to visiting the octopus village you loved below the sea. But you wouldn’t stop with your death talk and I wanted so badly to hear about life, beauty, good things.
Jali kicked in my belly and I bled for a month but she never left. You prayed in the way you do, silent, reserved, fierce. I wasn’t afraid, not yet.
You were still alive for me. Always a shield, calling me into the earth, to your bosom, to fire whenever I needed more protection. Do you remember when I paused the sea and threw it above our heads because I wanted you to see the starlight from my view? Do you remember how everything in it stilled, except for your favorite octopus? How she came alive and remained all colors at once? Do you remember her blowing us kisses, the sea clouds she gave us moving around the garden, watering what had been forgotten?
That is what Helena, the new customer, reminded me of. I haven’t seen her since the flood.
I saved the cake but Jali wouldn’t eat it. When she learned of the flood, she looked at me the only way she can: heavy with disappointment, shoulders heaving, eyelashes wet, shuddering. The metallic gold happy birthday banner that takes up half of the house falls a second after Jali closes her door. I eat the cake in one night while staring at your picture and bellowing, “why?!” It made my belly chaos, made all the things I thought I knew invisible. My daughter lay in her bed wishing it had been me and not you that was thrown into the fire of the world. Our wish is the same.
When I arrive in my bed, with Ms. Lepa tucked underneath the corner of my pillows, just in case Jali could sense her, I imagine the weather and the time I threw the sea into the shape it wanted. Do you know this, mama? What should I do? The salt is stuck on my tongue. The earth scrapes at my back. I call for you and you don’t answer. My daughter calls for you and not me. What am I to make of this world that has maimed you into itself? Did I do it?
I STARTED going into the water on my seventh birthday, six years before my grandmother died the second time and the entire classroom looked away. I will never forgive their weakness. For a while, I ached to be them, rehearsing what it’d be like to live in their bodies, to eat their food, to smell with their noses.
I’d put my colored tea cups in two lines, and have them talk to each other, beaming ceramic that pushed out sound, a lover’s salute.
Then Ama put me in school and I saw them like she saw them, half alive and without tradition, without magic, their conversations sharp and crushing what would have been lullaby. And then Ms. Lepa, during my second week demand-questioning, “if you don’t plan on cutting your hair, could you at least tie it up so that the other children don’t trip off of the braids? I worry.”
I stared at the ugly gray mat, begging the braids to behave so I wouldn’t have to tie them up. They’d begun tripping the children and I liked letting them hang free, signaling thoughts up to my brain. Every now and again they told jokes. Ama says I shouldn’t mention this to anyone, but you’re not a person, so technically we’re in the clear.
I want us to know everything about each other.
When the water first called me, I covered my ears and head with whatever I could. It was too loud and gave me the creeps, like the way Mr. Mike stared at my tights whenever I arrived on campus. That night, the water bellowed out a screech-moan not unlike those that come from lost wolves when they’re dying. This is before I knew what death was, really. Before Ama made me kneel on a tower of rice, my knees bleeding and tearing open, sharp, awake.
I tried to count each grain, the ones that dug into my skin and the witnesses who’d be washed and then boiled into a sugary stew that’d make my breath catch whenever I was made to eat it. I’d done magic at school and this was punishment. Ama wouldn’t look or speak to me for a month.
While on punishment, the water stayed quiet in solidarity. So quiet that I thought it was a dream. After thirty days of silence, Ama came home and shared what happened in her day with me, as if no time had passed at all. Earl burned his right hand pulling artichokes out of the oven, the burn shaped like another hand atop his real one.
That night we ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes, with apricot soaked sticky rice for dessert. I fell asleep in Ama’s bed after she tickled me silly, our pillow fight marking a release of tension, a fracture in the thick air. When I awoke in her bed the next morning, she was already gone. Near the sink was my favorite: a bowl of grits, with a still warm fried egg and four avocado slices.
It was back to school night, where parents met their kids’ teachers for the first time and heard good things, even if they were lies, I heard Mitch tell Nancy. Ama had work, and as usual, I was alone. I could have gone on my own, it was my first back to school night, but I was tired of going places that Ama should have been.
Instead I watched stories and listened to music all night, even though tomorrow morning I’d need to help out in the kitchen. It was Friday and punishment time was over! I swung my hair back and forth, letting it grab my face in a black mask, smiling at the way it warmed my body, the windows kicking up a breeze. I would’ve spent the night like that: opening the front door and slamming the screen shut every time “Joyful Girl” by the Dave Matthews band ended, but something shifted and the sound was back.
I blasted the music again, like grandmother did with the kitchen fire, trying to seal in the flavor of the steak. It kept coming at me, booming in my ears, shaking my body, a dizzying thing. The music couldn’t compete. I lay in bed for hours, fighting against sleep, my whole body curled into a ball beneath the blanket grandmother made me, convinced the sound would come and gather me up. I didn’t want to be its food.
Ama returned late, her lips red and swollen as a flower, body slightly bent, wearing shoes that hadn’t seen anything but the moldy closet in years. As I told her what happened, she laughed, throwing her head back over the couch, a brown, beautiful cloud untouched by my fear. She shushed me, brushing my hair through her fingers and fell asleep, the shoes still on her feet.
Ever since then, the story has been between me and the water. I hadn’t met you yet.
There’s a boy I like, Dagi. His classroom is across campus, the distance only broken when it’s time to eat. Sometimes he tells me about his dreams, but mostly we stay silent, our primary contact is passing our lunches to each other in the large, loud, smelly cafeteria. We couldn’t hear each other if we tried, the table we sit at is in a corner nearest the pickup counter. No matter what day it is, there’s a dying flower at the center and all the awkward loners on an overpopulated planet pretend not to notice. The table legs are weighted, not just by our bodies, but also our fears, our soy milk, our heavy heads and elbows as we try to hide our lunches and selves.
Once, Dagi’s finger, the gnarled one, rubbed the surface of my hand before curling away. My braids responded with a tingle, orbiting tight, soft steady circles that got bigger as they inched towards him. We both pretended not to notice, the phantom habits bordering, forced back into their own universes. I give him different things: apricot souffles, delicata squash pasta, chicken and waffles, pastrami sandwiches. In return I get soft eggs marinated in soy sauce, fresh fish and pickled radish.
The day that grandmother is killed again, my birthday, I plan to tell Dagi about the water. Someone needs to know what happened, that I was gone for eight hours once. But the moment is gone when grandmother’s ash body is kicked in slow motion across the room, Nancy smiling menacingly, Ms. Lepa making excuses, and Ama accepting them. I hate them all, everyone but Dagi.
Ama goes back to the diner, hiding, pretending not to be hurt at being faced with death so soon. Again.
Once I no longer hear her car on the road, I say goodbye to this home. I won’t see it again. I rub lemon balm on the walls of my room, asking it to cover my most recent scent. Ama’s magic is gone, but she can still smell. Can still find me if she wishes.
I will miss this place and its song rocking me to sleep. The ticks on the wood marking my height. The only womb I’ve never been afraid of. I leave my favorite thing hidden here, below the fireplace, the core of its earth. A heart. Ama will search for me and ask that no one burn a fire, no matter how cold it gets. Fire covers smells and she will need her nose fresh, her tongue alive, her mouth wide to catch me, even though I am gone to a place so deep even she will not think of it.
I leave to say goodbye to Dagi, but I don’t know where he lives nor if he’ll agree. Are we really friends? Did I imagine our connection? Was there any open space at the table where he could sit, somewhere not next to me?
It’s cold outside, I throw my forever cloth across my shoulders, wondering what magic protects it, what spells cause it to shift its length and thickness depending on the temperature without its weight increasing. What was it called before? Was this one grandmother’s? Did she know I would use it like this?
I head east, to the water, and when I enter it, it bubbles up to my knees. Greens, blues, yellows, and oranges spread out across my vision. My braids get excited, whirling four feet above me in a spin that reminds me of hummingbird wings. Like all the times before, I get nervous as they pull me up, the briefest head massage. Then, just like that, I see a green orb deep into the not-ground, gigantic waves settling into their rhythm, welcoming me back.
The braids ask if I’m ready. They know Ama too, and will miss home. She doesn’t know about the water and is convinced there’s no more magic, no more hope left in her bones. I signal out one more goodbye, and feel my own scalp tug in response. She is looking for me, devastated, frantic, angry, apologetic. Before my braids respond in kind, I wipe my wet face, the tears stinging the water like powerful fireballs. I take one more look towards our house, the quiet chimney, the outline of our garden, the lone light in the kitchen, and then inhale sharp, twisting my face back to the present and dive deep deep deep deep deep deep down into the lap of the sea.
I make sure I always have a backup way to breathe down here, just in case these fluorescent pink gills decide to give out. Every hour, or what feels like an hour because of sea-time, I practice winding my braids so that they make large, elastic air bubbles that I can grab onto and shape across my head.
The sea isn’t new to you and you find my practice irritating. I still don’t understand how my body has adjusted so thoroughly to living here. Somehow I don’t miss being out in the open air. I didn’t think about staying here through, how sustainable it’d be to get sea vegetables and fish. How content I’d be eating them. My hands aren’t quite fins yet, and sometimes they and larger parts of my body get pruney, but after a higher speed swim to the upper level of the middle sea, they smooth out.
Water is a friend to me now and I only think about grandmother, Ama and Dagi occasionally. I hope Ama is safe and has found a life worthy of her, one that doesn’t include a child she never wanted. Initially I resented her for this fact, but it’s freed me. During every full moon, I rise to the surface and ask my braids to drum out a message to Ama. My scalp doesn’t tingle anymore.
I DIDN’T WANT TO DIE. That was Chiara, Ms. Lepa’s doing. Yes, your Ms. Lepa. The one that pulls you into the mouth of her and dances. The one whose yolk you lap up and spit fire. That one.
You will have to decide whether or not to believe me. I tried warning you as much as I could. I didn’t recognize Chiara at first but something in me grew alert whenever she was around, like a dog with ears that turn sharp at certain sounds. I know now that Chiara used her shapeshifting gift to get through the double threshold at the diner. The one meant to protect our family, the bones, our recipes.
The first threshold spreads from the base of the diner to its peak, slipping electric and imperceptible currents through the whole of the establishment. The second is damp with life, magic and opium. It is harder to describe and while I hope you’ll keep this secret between us, history isn’t on our side.
Know this: I watched without watching as she charmed you with her bright smile and large bosom. Three months of spending hours at the diner, ordering the same thing and “lesson planning.” I listened to the trees tsssk loudly once she succeeded in getting you to agree to sign Jali up for school.
Think you knew I’d be lost without my grandchild, lost in a way I had never been with you. And so you said yes to Chiara. That was the end of me, that moment when I saw you, my child, ferry my granddaughter to a demon because you were aching for attention, and something deeper: revenge. Jealousy. Sorrow.
My newest protector, Helena, was outwitted on the very first day of her job. I didn’t report her foolishness because I didn’t need her and she isn’t at fault. I have always protected myself. In the letter I received that detailed Helena’s role, the warrior’s council advised I take her on as a mentee, if not security.
Helena couldn’t control her magic and was always causing storms. She’d bring too much attention to me. I needed to stay under the radar if I were to continue my work.
I taught her in secret because long before I knew Ms. Lepa’s true identity, someone followed me into town everyday. I could smell them, the sickly combination of mushrooms, dung, death, rot and finally, peppermint.
On these days, I popped a peppermint in my mouth in an attempt to coax my stalker out of their hiding place. I wanted to rip their belly open, collect and then cook the contents over an open fire. My mouth watered for it. Sometimes, late at night I’d imagine it as I made Jali dinner. Where were you then? Where were you when lightning struck out of the serpent’s mouth and made me into something that would die soon?
Helena protected me as best she could. But when I “died,” something in her broke. She was the one who started the flood. I’d tried to contact her that day. When she sensed me, she became afraid. Ms. Lepa to her left, was eating a fried egg soaked in eel juice and black rice. The juice clung to Ms. Lepa’s beautiful thick lips and her eyes rolled back, turning to slits in ecstasy. For a blink Helena saw her true self, the snaky core wriggling in a human shell.
It wasn’t safe for Helena to reveal her status as protector. Not to you or to anyone in the diner. It wasn’t clear where your allegiances would fall. But Jali knew. That child has gifts even the eldest amongst us have no words for.
I need you to know this and I wished you’d known it your whole life: I love you. I chose warrior over motherhood every day until it was too late for you to love me again. I am sorry for that. And, I’m sorry for calling Jali to me. I tried so very hard not to. But we were losing her. You were losing her.
Ms. Lepa, Chiara, would have killed her and cried at her funeral. She would have taken us all, if she could. Instead of killing me first, she tried turning me into a mouse. A mouse that would live in her belly for three days before being completely devoured by acid and larger animals clawing to get out. I still had some of my magic then. We were half a mile from the water. The lightning mark still covers the road.
When she turned me, I used what was left of my magic to shape myself into an octopus. Yes, I am the octopus watching over Jali. She is well guarded.
Being human is painful and I’ve had enough pain for seventeen lifetimes. The crawl back into the water took hours, my tentacles nicked and bleeding from the road. Chiara’s vision was momentarily obscured in the fight.
In our world, people are able to speak beyond death. It wouldn’t be an anomaly for me to speak to Jali from the grave but alas, I am not dead yet.
She and I are learning to speak to each other in the only way we can. Through vibrations in the water, somewhere deep in the salt mountains. She misses you, child. She aches for her mother as you ached for me.
Remember how you felt when my bone powder spread across a classroom? Please, lift up the ocean again and return to us. I am alive and ready to be your mother.