by John Waterfall
2020 Ember Chasm Review Fiction Contest
The spaceman is a long and confusing black shape, rubbery and clumsy, a probing curiosity that visits me every dusk when the sun goes down and the other creatures flee the sharks. He shines a bright light into my eyes. He tries to touch my brooding eggs. He extends a limp hand and waits for me to wrap a tentacle around an equally limp finger.
The spaceman circles around me, the falling sun red and burning in his strange glass eye, glamouring the bleached coral and pearlescent scallop shells of my nest pink. Sometimes the spaceman points a black box in my direction for purposes unknown, far be it from me to understand the glory of the spaceman. Perhaps it is a threat, a warning that I better start accepting that limp finger of communion. Perhaps the spaceman wishes to ravish me and I am rejecting said ravishment. My goodness!
When the darkness comes, when the sun sinks beneath the waves, the spaceman returns to his space ship, a dark curvature floating high above. I am left alone with my future children, my little octopi who will slither out into the world and forget me. Who will eat my decaying body when I start to fall apart. The other octopi from my generation have already started disintegrating, shedding tentacles and skin as they tussle and limp around our brooding-ground, their lifespans dwindling. I could use a good ravishing before I dwindle. Perhaps if I brooded again I could live again. Perhaps the spaceman will take me far away.
I always knew there was life up there amongst the stars, separate from the water which is all I know there to be. The other octopi think I’m crazy, think my obsession with the spaceman is wrong and unnatural. They do not understand. They are not beloved like me. They do not understand that it is not an obsession but a courtship, that if he asks I will attempt to give him beautiful spaceman babies. The other octopi ask me how I know the spaceman is from space. They say, “Ophelia, have you ever seen his spaceship rise from the water and fly up, up and away? Because we sure haven’t.” I tell them I do not need to. I tell them I have faith.
Oscar the Cuttlefish shares my belief in the spaceman, although I think there is nothing that Oscar does not believe in. He says he was once abducted by the space people and experimented on in a place called Effervescent Gardens. He says the reason he covers his tentacles with scavenged tinfoil is to prevent the space people from reading his thoughts. He says he wants nothing to do with the spaceman and neither should I. Oscar is not supposed to be here, he is supposed to be with the Cuttlefish. He says that is the first place that the space people would look. He says he is hiding in plain sight.
The spaceman comes to visit me and I accept his finger. I wrap a tentacle gently around it and crawl my way along the spaceman’s body, allowing him to twirl us around the soft, glowing waters. We dance across the reef, the hungry barracudas shimmering in the hazy distance, the looming shadows of sharks unsubstantial in the glow of our entwined hearts. I always knew I was meant for more romantic things than brooding, for waiting out my flesh in a nest of bones with the rest of the idiots. My spaceman will take me away and make me a cosmic bride and we’ll live in a castle made from starlight filled with half-breed children who never gestate.
The spaceman returns me to my nest and struggles to remove me from his embrace, prying my tentacles away one at a time. Coquettish, I refuse to yield. I do not want our dance to end. His breathing grows deep with excitement, flailing his body, unable to control his arousal at my forwardness. He uses both hands to throw me away, tearing my smallest tentacle slightly. So chaste! The sun departs leaving our reef in gloom. He floats just beyond me, recedes into dimness, dark rubbery skin fusing with the velvety surface of the sea and the dark stellar beyond.
When he is gone I puddle into my nest and swoon. Oscar watches me from the dark edge of the reef, where the coral falls in a sheer drop into the fathomless beyond. He flashes colors across his body: blues, greens, and reds spilling and curling around each other in hypnotic patternless patterns. Not entirely bad to look at, that Oscar. I wonder if he is suicidal in addition to being crazy, watching me out in the open like that, surrounded by hungry mouths, moonlight glinting off his tinfoil. He probably just loves me. They all love me. Brave knight, know that I am promised to another. Sigh.
Oscar has reluctantly agreed to be my go-between as long as he does not have to be physically present during any torrid rendezvous. He warns me to reconsider any association with the spaceman. Jealous Oscar. He says the spaceman will expect something on the third date. Oscar’s knowledge of the space people is overheard and incomplete, built upon his sleuthing in captivity, but he believes that whatever happens on our third date will make the spaceman very, very happy. He suggests I feel the situation out, when I ask him to clarify he changes colors very quickly and scoots away which clarifies nothing.
The spaceman has brought a spacewoman into the mix and, suffice to say, I am a little upset. Perhaps he is just nervous, perhaps he needs her to confirm for him that I am indeed receptive to his charms. I’m sure it is nothing to worry about. She mostly just holds the blackbox while the spaceman and I dance.
I am unsure of how to progress things. Our third date came and went like all the others, pleasant enough, but with no change to our romantic routine. Honestly our dancing is starting to get stale, the reef less and less magical with each twirling go-around. When will we take me to his great beyond? I don’t have long before I too start to disintegrate. The males are already dying en masse. Loosing tentacle after tentacle, spiraling into the shallows or the depths till something hungry makes a meal of them. Oh poor boys of my youth, the anonymous father of my brood still out there among you, dead or dying.
My young squirm beneath me, I can see them coiling their little tentacles through the yellow, glowing translucence of my eggs. Children, I’ve sworn Oscar to your protection should I be spirited away. If anything, he shows more interest in you than I ever have, watching over me as I sleep, watching over you. Shameful as it is, I have often viewed you as a simple side effect of my life. A thing that would have happened regardless of my choices. I would have woken up with you one day, my slithering brood, as sure as death. You’ll be little monsters regardless of who’s here to watch you become. Try not to eat Oscar little ones, he is a simple soul.
The blackbox is a thing called a camera, a magic device that the space people use to own and manipulate reality, to hold things as they are so they don’t become what they will be. The spaceman is using his camera to make me a star, to keep me from growing into death with the rest of my generation. Yet, I feel ill every day. Oscar begs me to stop, to go away with him, to swim into the deep blue, just the two of us, before the spaceman has sucks me dry. He says what good is posterity if it kills my present. Poor Oscar, he doesn’t know, he’s never been in love. I give of myself freely to the spaceman, so that he can gorge himself on my life while we’re apart, and leave me none of it. He captures me for me, and devours for the both of us. Silly Oscar, he must be tired of being wrong all the time, must be sad that he is dying too.
The spaceman is coming to break my heart. I feel it. I have felt it coming for some time. Since the spacewoman arrived and our dances went stale. He is swimming towards me and already there is something different. Gone is his black rubber skin, replaced by pale and wimpy flesh. Perhaps he is molting? Perhaps this new unsightly softness will harden into the dusky firmness I was once so smitten by?
His shedding has revealed a new appendage, one even limper than his finger, growing from between what Oscar calls legs, two wrinkly sacks hanging beneath it.
The spacewoman follows behind him, grasping him as they descend as one. Her body is different, lacking that central tentacle but owning two massive swells that the spaceman cannot keep his hands off.
They circle around me and glow, gold and crimson light caressing their pale bodies as the sun sets. Am I to be part of this? They start to entwine. Am I to join? The spaceman’s limpid finger becomes un-limpid, joins with the spacewoman in the place where she does not have one. I guess I’ll try, how bad can it be? Perhaps this is how space people take wives. Anything to get away from here. From my children. From my decaying body.
The spaceman places his camera on the coral boulder where the clown fish live and turns the spacewoman around to look into it, thrusting into her curved backside. My word! I know brooding when I see it. I will not be left alone. I will not be denied my stars. Not after giving so much.
I grasp the spaceman’s ankle and coil around his leg, pulling upwards and squeezing his sacks to show I mean business. The spaceman screams, the sound ugly and tremulous in the salty water. He struggles to look, removing his tentacle from the space woman, who also screams, and starts laughing. She points the camera at me as I squirm, as I do my best to please the spaceman as she does. But my love, he is struggling, squeezing and tearing my delicate body. Was it all just a game? Is what he has stored away of me enough to discount my future? Am I not to be protected to the end as the world grows dark?
I feel pieces of myself break, see my tentacles spiral away from me, my blue blood clouding the glowing pink water, small fish emerging from the coral to feast on my remains. I feel them all over. I am being eaten alive.
Broken, I float down to my nest reaching out for a final chance. The stars, the stars. The stars wait for me. I find the spaceman’s tentacle, gone limp again, and squeeze. He really loses it then, thrashes and squeals, his cries muffled and dense in the vibrating brine. The spacewoman laughs harder, chest orbs undulating in rhythm to her merriment.
I am pulled upward. I am ascending towards the surface, to the sky beyond. Riding the spaceman to his waiting space-ship, his spacewoman next to us, trying to remove me from the tentacle, not finding my involvement funny anymore.
As we rise the sun dips below the curve of the sea. A great green flash erupts, blinding us, igniting the reef with phosphorescent lambency. Through the quivering surface I can see a saucer hovering above the spaceman’s humble craft, spinning with impossible light, the green beam pouring from its humming center. The spaceman is frozen, his limbs unmoving, jaw slack in disbelief, and yet we rise still, the three of us borne upwards, weightless in the green shining. I should’ve known. He is no spaceman, he is as earthbound as I am. But unlike him I am not afraid. The true space people have arrived.
As we break from the water I give the reef one final look, the spread of peaked coral spectral and beautiful in the saucer’s strange glow, close to the castle of light from my dreams. Oscar watches me, his tinfoil glinting green. But of course it’s not tinfoil. It’s armor. Oh brave knight I will never forget you.
Outside the water the man and woman’s screams turn shrill and harsh, unpleasant to say the least. They do not deserve the space people as I do. The man and woman cling to each other, squishing me between them. Free of the ocean their jerky motions are violent, damaging me further. I can’t breath. My body becomes heavy and brutal, the ocean pulling me back, stretching me apart.
The bright center of the saucer is so close, the green light destroying my vision with its brilliance. I am nearly blind. Blood is draining from my body. Dripping down and pattering on the surface. I never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t make it.
“Take me with you!” I scream with the colors of my body, “Take me with you!”
But they wont. I am melting on the cold floor of the spacecraft. The man and woman huddle nearby as strange chattering voices echo around us. Grey, hunched forms lurk in the dimness, blurry to my singed eyes. The man and woman scream, animal and deep, my conceptions of them unmade in the depravity of their sound. I beg the space-people for mercy, as I am nudged away, nudged and nudged until I am falling, falling back to sea. And overhead, the great saucer spins into a horizon line of light and departs forever with my dreams.
Oscar finds me in the shallows, carries me gently back to my nest, my pile of bones and shells, my unfeeling brood that will never love me as a mother, although I guess I never gave them the chance. He sings to me as I die, his armor crumpling against my flesh, a crinkling language of the heart. He is missing tentacles too. He too is falling apart.
“They almost got you,” his skin says, “they almost got you.”
“Oh silly Oscar,” my skin says back, “Always looking for love in all the wrong places.”
John Waterfall is a writer living in New York and a graduate of the New School’s creative writing MFA program. A proud father of two cats and one baby girl. His work can be found in Jersey Devil Press, Underland Press, The Colored Lens and others. Twitter @JohnCWaterfall.
Check out our interview with John by clicking here.