La Natura è Brutale
Mia loved cephalopods more than humans. She loved their sticky suction cups that hugged and pulled her into the tank, towards their sharp black beaks. She explained to me, on a good Facetime call from Italy, how she taught them tricks, more complex than a dog's. She spoke to them through her skin, whispered into their tentacles, and they understood her when others didn't. Peanut better than all her other research specimens, she said. She loved Peanut.
I loved good Facetime calls more than Mia loved cephalopods.
When Mia plunged her hands into Peanut's bin, the tiny octopus did an eight-legged dash to her dangling digits, sucking at her, flashing colors and patterns in secret code. Mia sent videos to accompany pages of research papers. She understood by listening with her eyes, her fingers, and the smooth skin on her forearms. Peanut desperately needed to return to the sea, Mia explained on a bad Facetime call, her face twisting like a wringer, tears running, hysteria creeping.
"How can they do this to Peanut?" she asked, missing the irony of her participation.
An octopus vulgaris' lifespan averages three years. I don't know how long Peanut has been in captivity. Mia never mentioned her age, if she knew, only her diminutive size. I don't want to get there too late, as is my habit, and since Peanut lives in a Naples laboratory, I book a ten-hour flight to visit an octopus, desperate for whatever answers she has.
The facility director found Mia. The lab-girl called because of the language barrier. I already knew, but I let the young woman tell me anyway. Each word punctured me. Reason ran through the ragged holes, until she asked if I was still on the line. The lab-girl stole Mia's last words without my permission. I slapped at the universe in retaliation, the second stage of grief. She said she was sorry for my loss.
"We didn't know of her fragility," she said carefully.
"You should have," I spit in the phone, meaning I should have.
Time ceases on flights. I linger in that space between now and then.
The laboratory overlooks ancient waters where Sirens sang. The air thickens in quivering heat as I approach. Palm fronds brush against walls the color of a happy octopus. I hand over my carefully translated letter, the Italian version of an insane plea. The uniformed guard calls the director, who comes in a long white coat. He's a busy man, but he makes an exception. How much weight does my foreignness, fractured-ness, and frenzy add to my request? He reads with expressive eyes that glisten in the final sentences before leading me down a white marble staircase, wordlessly, where the air becomes cooler, and wetter, as we near Peanut's bin.
Mia wrote post-doc experiments to measure the intelligence of cephalopods. They could escape through openings the diameter of a pencil. One expired alone on the floor of the lab where Mia discovered him. The director found her cradling the spaghetti-limp escapee, inconsolable. He coaxed her to put its corpse in the sea, to join the circle of life, where we all return.
"La natura è brutale," he admonished.
Mia took the blame, having failed to turn the pressure locks on one of the holding bins. Everyone promised her it wasn't about fault, it was about learning. But, in Mia's mind, which wasn't working all that well so far from home, she might as well have been a fisherman with a bat. Another brutal Facetime call.
Pumps grind and gurgle, an echo of what Mia described of the white tiled lab where once she flourished. A girl in a white coat, like the one Mia wore, feeds minced catch-of-the-day to conveyor-like arms. The same passion Mia had for their texture-changing, chameleon epithelium is apparent. The director speaks in anxious Italian, and lab-girl speaks to me in measured English, retaining all the operatic sound of her language.
"You wanna puta your hand in with the polipo?"
"To feel Peanut," I say, deep in the fourth stage of grief. My demeanor, if not my intent, is saner now. The girl nods towards the bin.
The bulbous creature floats, dead-like in the corner, doing her best to blend with the plastic. I plunge my arm into the cool water circulating in from the Mediterranean; a vague promise of the sea for the cephalopods. A sunbeam for the condemned, between bars.
Like a ghost, Peanut shoots to my fingers, sticking before I can flinch. Tasting my skin, knowing me, signaling, transforming chromatophores red-violet, bumpy, then smooth brown.
"What is she saying?" I ask, desperate for translation.
"We never know this."
"Mia knew," I insist.
—She didn't, her eyes say.
The suctioning arms argue convincingly, as they give tiny hickeys, like desperate kisses, leaving crimson marks.
—I know who you are, say the tentacles, but I cannot tell you her secrets.
—But I've come so far to hear them.
—And she came so far to tell them.
"You must be careful to the beak," warns the lab girl, whose hair is curlier than Mia's and whose skin is darker; whose eyes are happier, and whose face is sweeter. She peels the suction cups away, to separate me from Peanut, from the mystery.
"Can you let Peanut go? For Mia? To spend her last days roaming the sea?"
"She will return, yes." I know she is telling me we all return there in some form, together once again.
In the morning, I will leave Naples, without tasting Mia's favorite Neapolitan pizza; without sipping the bitter drop of espresso they sell on her corner; without understanding the language of the Neapolitans, the octopuses, my darling Mia, the delights that sustained her, the demons that took her. But before I go, I will brush the tip of a pink tentacle with a sea-salt tear, and try again.
"La natura è brutale," I say to the sea.
After 30 years in brand marketing and communications, Carol Jones began again as a tutor at a community college writing center while writing fiction for her amusement and torture. She has earned two masters degrees, raised two brilliant daughters, and finally has something to say. Since 2016, she has been published in Change Seven Magazine, Agnes and True, Dual Coast Magazine, Inwood Press, Literally Stories and Flash Fiction Press. She recently received an Editor's Choice Award and Pushcart Prize Nomination for one of her short stories.