Octopus

Christie B. Cochrell

Anna opened her eyes to find Saint Peter looking down his long nose at her over some of those effete Armani half-glasses.  He made a note on his clipboard and asked her a sharp unintelligible question which she chose not to try to work out.  (Probably “So—Does not calamity befall the unrighteous?” or some such.) With his equine nose with flared nostrils, brown ruminative heavy-lidded eyes, and hair balding into a kind of nappy tonsure, he looked for all the world she thought like a camel—a camel fancying itself Jude Law.  Not stupid maybe but stupidly without humor.  She looked away to avoid the cool assessing eyes and volleyed questions.  (“Can you name the books of the New Testament?”)

Oh damn, she thought, her heart sinking.  It is just as hellishly tedious as I always suspected it would be, heaven.  All white—a little institutional and indeed parochial— that dreary bilious kind of white like cream gravy, or the ponderous wedding dress of an unconsciously unhappy bride, or table linens left you as the dearest wish of that sadly uninteresting spinster friend of your Aunt Jane’s in Bryn Mawr whose name you never can remember when you use them with your second-best silver.  If it has to be white (and maybe people do expect it), there are so many other possibilities.  Of all the whites in the world to choose from. . .  Argent, pearl, thick cream on Easter strawberries; the exhilarating white of wind-filled sails off Cape May; the impossible white of breakers after a good storm; the white of the new whitewash on my walls against the larking blue; the breathing white of alabaster, or Pentellian marble; the sheer white columns of Sounion on its high promontory from which poor King Aegeus leaped from despair (from not seeing white sails—there you are, then); the dazzled white of Skyros or Oia against sky and sea . . .  Those are all about contrast, and in heaven, the point is there is nothing to contrast with.  No relief from the eternal pappy sameness.  Oh God, eternal?  She felt the heavy hand of disappointment push her back into the pillow, threatening to smother her.

And the pachydermatous Peter here was certainly not going to sympathize with that, let alone accept any constructive criticism.  You could see right away in him the absence of any answering devilment. A stubborn unimaginative docility. Not the face of a man you would want to have an interesting talk with over a second glass of ouzo about the sins of the flesh, and high-paid flesh in high places in particular.  She felt sad for a moment thinking about the corporeal goodness of gruff old Giorgios at the ouzeri and of her friend Marcella’s unsuspecting generosity of heart, both full of life (instead of this popinjay of a saint with his prim pious clipboard).

Well, yes, life—there was the rub.  This was death, remember.  Quite a different proposition.  No more ouzo or resin-scented wine, no purple eggplant—“the garden egg,” as the Greeks called it—or Libyan oranges jaunting in the little basket on her bicycle, no seductive blue-eyed octopus wooing her.  And all the whites in the world were just that:  in the world.  Instead, out of it now, she was stuck with dead white.  Stuck with, stuck in—what?—she did seem to be stuck, certainly, immobile, wrapped tightly in a sheet (surely not mummified?), while Camel-face completed her entrance examination.  He continued shooting questions at her, and she continued ignoring him.

If that man was ever a fisherman, I am Saxo Grammaticus, she thought.  Well, no, perhaps a sport fisherman (I can’t remember, who was Saxo Grammaticus?  I used to know so many useless charming things), paying an obscene amount of money for the weekend to impress people with how he’s gone out on some fancy boat and manly caught some whopping big tunny or swordfish which was so hard to land he got his film star glasses all spotted with nasty sea water.  His eyes were those of a sport fisherman, too, a brown that isn’t really brown, the kind of scummy yeasty brown of Nescafe made into a frappé with one of those little hand-beaters the Greeks are all so mad for (God knows why; give me a good strong sedimented metrios varis any day), and quite devoid of humor, without a glimmer of a smile to take the chill off them.  Pity the poor fish.  Hope they were mighty enough for him.

For Marcella’s sake, her fascination with the myths, she regretted his having turned out to be Peter and not Charon, the ferryman, though he could easily be Greek. No, of course, what?—Galilean. Not far away, though; almost due east of Crete, and probably related.  She regretted, too, not having gotten the ferry trip or, better still, a final sail across to the last, furthermost island.  One with windmills.  Some kind of better transition.  The ancient Greeks had so much more panache than the Episcopalians. She had bet on the wrong horse, as it turned out, and lost it all when he romped home the winner—Saint Peter in the homestretch. (Not mixing metaphors:  was that one of the commandments?)  But, certainly, heaven was not the same perfect place that had been promised in the ads.

However, am just the same, she thought, which was another disappointment to her.  She had hoped the Saints would be finally, undeniably, stronger, able to take the great burden of strength off her.  Saint Peter the fisherman; Saint Paul, the letter-writing one (like in the old joke, “Dear Corinthians:  You never answered my first letter . . .”), the one she’d had some hope for.  Paul, the saint intriguingly called Hermes, from the street called Straight, let down through the wall of Damascus in a large basket, who had some interesting dealings with, in turn, if she remembered, a sorcerer, a silversmith, a fortune-teller, a seller of purple (an occupation she especially liked; she could imagine a whole series of specialty stores for each color, the way the French have separate butcher shops for beef and pork and horsemeat), and then the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the Areopagus below the Parthenon where she had stood and painted just a few short months ago.  (Was it really only that?)  He’d been a traveler through Greece, who tried to harbor once on Crete—a kind of Christian Odysseus, rather than Hermes, surely.  Marcella could have said.

Yes, she’d like to talk to Paul.  The man who exchanged one passion for another, who demonstrated the ability to change.  Who didn’t just give up his passion altogether, as she had, and make a sort of life out of its denial.  Oh, she’d been clever about it, keeping people who might come looking for her at arm’s length or longer with her ferocity—all an act, really, devised for just that purpose; a kind of theatrical production if you will, all trapdoors and rain machines and scrims and copious manufactured smoke, to distract. Sheer bravado had proved a fine defense against anyone who might want to get too close, her poor longsuffering husband among them.  And she had for as long as she remembered deliberately surrounded herself with less capable people, so she could always seem to be the strong unflappable one. But, after all, she thought, I have no defenses, save that—my ferocious old lady routine.

Am I even old anymore?  Are dead people all the same age?  Am I to have no advantage?—Some kind of gamesmanly handicap?  Or, she suddenly thought, shocked—might I even now be young again?  That was dizzying, the possibility of meeting again face-on the girl whose life she had taken—her younger self, beaten so easily into submission.

And in the end, for nothing, she thought bleakly.  For an indecently long run of years without a redemptive act or accomplishment.  No possibility of that now.  For even as she ranted (with an increasing edge of desperation), she had known and put off acknowledging the even more depressing certainty that this was not heaven but a hospital.  Why was she here?  Was she to be helpless and bedridden from here on out?  Was she already completely incapacitated?  Had her frail only-human flesh finally betrayed her?  She couldn’t move, she knew, she’d tried that (but only once; not daring the failure again).  She couldn’t understand the questions the doctor—for such he was; it was rather a relief—had been asking her; couldn’t find the means to talk, even when she thought she might want to say something after all.  It seemed so complicated, the whole speech thing, she wasn’t sure what she remembered of it.  How did you get your tongue out of the way of the words, for one thing?  Had she forgotten all of that, in a sudden single moment on the hard, indifferent pavement of Chaniá, Crete, where she (ridiculous old woman) had no good reason to have been at all, taking what would perhaps have been her last steps on this earth?  To pay her back for thinking she could start having adventures at her age.

***

The last thing she remembered she had gone down in the morning to the harbor looking for her octopus. Oh, and she had seen it, too, its miraculous, absurdly beautiful colors in the sunlit water, its shape fluid, all ooze and flow—even asleep, just breathing—swollen and languorous in turns like one of her cobra lilies, beautiful and dangerous, or like God’s testicles, she’d fancied.  (Oh, so that’s it.  I’ve been struck dumb for sacrilege.  And unable to move just as a little joke.)  The delicious little suction cups; what they said was called the copulating arm.  All of those arms—what couldn’t you have done with so many arms to do so many different things at the same time.  But with only four years to live, the life span of the octopus, you’d jolly well live fast, efficiently, simultaneously; not waste a minute let alone sixty years. Color-changing, shape-shifting, iridian creature, with its beautiful cheeks and paralyzing eye, its siphon, its mantle, flushing, blowing water, dissolving crabs, tangling, knotting, and flowing free again.  It was a peculiarly gorgeous creature, even confined in the tank they had found to keep it in for her (what it must be in the wild of the ocean!), and she had looked forward to painting it into the center of her living-room mural as soon as she got back to the house.  Not stylized like the Minoan octopus on the pots, though those were graceful too, but its own fantastic being—full of the life that she would not now be able to give it.

For something must have happened to her there, after the octopus.  There was no memory of the rest, of saying her thanks and goodbyes to the young fishermen or getting on the bicycle or coming to this godforsaken place.

***

The thought of what that might mean paralyzed her, inside too, more than her own flesh seemed to have already done.  She tried not to think at all, after that, when they wheeled her off for tests and wheeled her back into the dull white room.  She let her mind go static-ey and blank (like after a film has ended but before it’s been turned off, and the children want to make those bunny ears with the shadows of their fingers against the light), a whole new level of avoidance she might not be quite so good at.  Oh no, she knew, looking ahead with cold certainty, she wouldn’t be good at this at all.


About the Author

Christie B. Cochrell's work has been published by Tin HouseNew Letters, Red Bird Chapbooks, and Figroot Press, among others, and has won several awards, including the Dorothy Cappon Prize for the Essay and the Literal Latté Short Short Contest. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she now lives and writes by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California.