"there's no through trail" —Han-Shan, translated by Gary Snyder

Chameleons by K.C. Mead-Brewer

Issue: Spring 2016

The doctor didn’t have time to be worried for Clara during her labor; it was over before he got there.

“I guess the speed of it makes sense,” David said, looking up at his wife from across the kitchen table. A pile of books sat stacked between them, Human Oddities: Then and Now, Ten American Alien Abductions, The Wild World of Cephalopods— “It says here that octopuses don’t have any bones, so they can squeeze themselves through just about any opening without much trouble.”

Clara blushed and waved the information away as she pored over an encyclopedia of birth defects. She didn’t like talking about the delivery itself. And even if she did, how could she ever make David understand what it’d been like for her? He didn’t even like calling Octavius their child. To David, Octavius was only ever an octopus. A that instead of a who.

And though David still didn’t know it—would never know it, if Clara got her way—their child’s birth had been unique in more ways than one. There was a name for it, which had surprised her right down to her toes: ecstatic birth. Orgasmic.

Ecstatic births are rare—all the books and websites say so—but Clara figured there wasn’t anything quite as rare as a grown woman giving birth to a baby octopus, so who was to say what was rare or common in her case? Who was to say that every human delivering an octopus wouldn’t get a little bit ecstatic?

Probably all those suction cups, she thought, and blushed all the harder. Truth was, it’d been better than anything David had ever managed in bed with her, and for weeks she found it all but impossible to look their child in the eye without going stuttery and embarrassed. What kind of a woman gave birth to an octopus? Worse yet, what kind of a woman gave birth to an octopus and enjoyed it?

#

The doctors let them take Octavius home the same day as the delivery, not knowing what to do for an octopus in a human hospital.

“I thought they were supposed to hatch from eggs,” one nurse said, tilting her head to watch Octavius slink up the side of his tank. (One of the brighter nurses on staff had thought to fashion a makeshift habitat for him out of an old preemie incubator.)

“I thought they were born teeny-tiny,” another nurse said, smiling as Octavius stretched out his eight speckled legs. “Like the size of a dime. But this guy’s almost as big as a soccer ball.”

“I wonder what color ink he’ll have,” a passing gynecologist mused.

They all cheered as Octavius used the funnel on the side of his head to rocket himself from one end of the incubator to the other.

“I wonder if his parents will call him Scamp or Scampi,” another doctor joked, and all the gathered staff had a good, long laugh at that one.

Clara and David tried to seek help from other professionals, but found that rural Nevada wasn’t known for its aquatic veterinarians or marine biologists.

California, it seemed, was their best option, so they stuck Octavius in an old twenty-gallon aquarium they found at Good Will, filled it up with water and little plastic baby toys, and buckled him into the backseat of their station wagon. They considered stopping first in Vegas to look for help from one of their many exotic animal vets, but decided against it. They wanted an octopus expert, a specialist. (Clara insisted on it.) And after a full week of submitting countless calls and requests, they finally managed to ambush a biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as she headed back from lunch.

Dr. Stacey Harun was her name and, according to her, their Octavius was healthy as a horse and shockingly well-behaved.

“Octopuses are often little escape artists,” Dr. Harun explained, reaching her hand into Octavius’s tank to let him wrap a friendly tentacle around her arm. Not unlike a baby gripping an adult’s wagging finger, Clara thought, and felt her stomach settle a little. “They like to climb out of their tanks and run all over the place. Natural explorers, octopuses. And much, much smarter than most people give them credit for.”

“You mean you have octopuses that can get out of tanks themselves and then just…wander around?” David asked, stunned and more than a little disgusted. He spared a glance to where Octavius was gripping Dr. Harun’s forearm. The skin across the little tentacle wavered in color from its usual bright pink, first changing to a soft, creamy white and then to something darker, something close to the warm, deep brown of Dr. Harun’s skin.

“Oh, honey, look!” Clara gasped, grabbing onto David’s elbow. “Octavius—he’s changing colors!”

In moments, Octavius was every bit as black as Dr. Harun, from head to suction cup.

Clara gaped at the display. It was as if her son was taking his first step or babbling his first word. But David had to force himself not to look away. Where had this thing come from? Had Clara cheated on him? Had she been experimented on by the government? By aliens? How could she not have known this thing was inside her? —And how could she not have told him?

“Oh yes,” Dr. Harun said, smiling pleasantly. “Plenty of octopuses can change color to match their surroundings. Chameleons, these guys. Only they don’t change color by sight.”

“What do you mean?” Clara asked. “How then?”

“Actually, an octopus’s eyes are essentially colorblind. They don’t see color; they sense it through their skin—almost like they can taste it and feel it. Isn’t that something?” Dr. Harun chuckled as she gave Octavius a tickle. The touch sent him shooting off to the other end of the tank and then back around to where her arm still lazed in the water.

They can taste it, Clara thought, amazed. They can feel it.

She realized then that she couldn’t remember the last thing she’d actually tasted. When had she last thought about the taste of her food before simply swallowing it down like gas into a car? When had she last even wanted to kiss David, never mind linger over the taste and color of him? And here her child, her Octavius, could taste and feel things that she’d never even considered might have textures and flavors to begin with.

“But like I was saying, you’ll want to be careful should this little guy ever decide to come climbing out of his tank.” As if in response, Octavius flipped a trio of boneless arms over the lip of his aquarium. Dr. Harun watched as David frowned down at the water that had splashed across his shoes while Clara, charmed and cooing, carefully tucked each tentacle back into the blue. “Some poor octopuses have ended up killing themselves that way,” Dr. Harun continued. “They escape their tanks and then get trapped somewhere. If they aren’t found in time, they can dry out and die.”

Clara splayed an instinctive, protective hand against Octavius’s tank, as if Dr. Harun had described the horrid deaths of little girls and boys. Of little babies. To Clara, there was nothing worse, nothing more terrible than the death of a child. She looked back to Octavius and found herself smiling with relief at the sight of him. But if she’d looked to her husband, she’d have only seen a deepening frown. To David, there was nothing worse, nothing more terrible than what he’d seen back in that delivery room—his eyes wide and expectant of a delicate, human crown, only to be greeted instead by something out of a B-horror movie. Something he’d never agreed to be a part of.

“And I doubt Octavius here will keep being so well-behaved if you don’t give him a larger space to swim around in and more things to play with.”

“But he already has so many toys,” Clara said, looking to Octavius’s stash of colorful plastic rings and balls.

Dr. Harun smiled again, kindly. “It’s good that you’ve got him started out with a few simple things, but he’s likely already bored with them. Remember, these guys are smarter than you think, and they can get real bored real fast. Try giving him puzzles, games. Things that pose a challenge. Just make sure you don’t give him anything that’s sharp or might go rusty.”

#

“Clara, it’s just not working,” David said, scooting out from under her. He pulled the covers tight over himself and stared up at the popcorn ceiling. “I’m tired, alright? That’s all.” But he wasn’t tired. They both knew it. He was angry, and he didn’t know where it began or ended.

My boy, he thought, and blinked back a sudden burn of tears. Then it snuck up on him like a shadow: Clara, what have you done with our little boy?

Clara sat on her side of the bed and pulled the covers up around her naked body. The whole world seemed suddenly cold, and even the cotton sheets felt rough and rude. “Why won’t you talk to me, Dave?” She pouted out her lip, hoping to charm him. “Come on, tell Mommy what’s wrong.”

“Don’t say that,” he snapped, but was immediately sorry for it. The way the amusement fled from her face, like a light turning off, it all but broke his heart. Still, he’d be damned before he’d apologize for being upset. Before he’d apologize for being scared of what might happen should she manage to get pregnant again.

She had to have known their baby was growing strangely. Wrongly. Had she eaten something she wasn’t supposed to? Had she relapsed and started smoking again without telling him? Why hadn’t the ultrasounds showed anything amiss?

“Please, Clara, let’s just go to bed, alright? I’m tired,” he said. “Exhausted.”

#

“Why on Earth should I join a support group for mothers of disabled children?” Clara wanted to know, her hands fisted high up on her hips. “Our son isn’t disabled. He’s perfectly healthy. You heard Dr. Harun.”

“It’s not for Octavius, Clara; it’s for you. You’re not taking this very well,” David said, and sat down heavily at the kitchen table.

The table was laden now with even more books, and Clara had learned from them about whole hosts of new things, about fairy changelings, stone babies, and the differences between zygotes and blastocysts. And she’d learned about herself as well. She’d never before imagined just how immense and multitudinous her own body could be—how powerful she could be, how many cells whirred in her make-up and how much artistry buzzed in her design. Yet David remained convinced that Octavius had come from somewhere beyond her—an alien, a rapist, a curse—and that Clara was nothing but a victim, powerless and secretive. Self-destructive.

I’m not taking this well? It looks to me like you’re the one refusing to deal with things, Dave. You’re the one who can’t even be bothered to touch his own son.”

“Sons are human, Clara. Sons dream of being astronauts and cowboys when they grow up! Sons go to cookouts and Boy Scouts and build model airplanes! Octavius is not a son. Can’t you see that? Can’t you see that what you gave birth to isn’t a little boy?”

“Being a son has nothing to do with being a little boy!” The words sounded ridiculous even to her, but she smiled all the same. They sounded a bit revolutionary too.

It wasn’t long after that that Clara started putting together color-sensing experiments for Octavius. She would give him a series of objects—an orange, a green-covered book, a black Guinness beer can—and see what colors he took from them. It surprised her just how nervous she felt as she watched him roll the orange around from one rosy-pink tentacle to the next.

“C’mon, baby,” she whispered, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside his tank (which they’d upgraded to the size of a very pregnant bookshelf). “Mommy knows you can do it.”

It looked like a margarita’s idea of a sunrise the way the orange spread up through his long, loopy arms. Clara burst into such applause that even her legs joined in, her bent knees flapping against the carpet.

Octavius picked up the book next, and his suction cups got lost in the pulpy-wet pages until he ended up a murky hodgepodge of green and parchment white.

“That’s my talented love!” Clara cheered. “But know that you don’t always have to see things the way everyone else does, Octavius,” she counseled. “This is America, after all, and in America we take pride in seeing things our own way sometimes. In having vision.”

Still, when Octavius picked up the beer can, his tentacles only turned a dark, agreeable black.

It’s because I’m not seeing things the same way he’s seeing them, she realized. How could she expect him to ever fully understand her, if she didn’t fully understand him as well?

But as soon as she started trying out the color-sensing experiments for herself, David panicked and called for her mother to come stay with them a while.

“I just don’t understand why you didn’t talk to me about it first,” Clara said, striving to remain calm. “I’m glad to have Mom over, but I wish you’d at least told me about it before ringing her up and scaring her like you did. She’s an old woman, Dave. You can’t just call an old woman and tell her to come quick because her daughter’s gone crazy.”

Glowering, David slouched deeper and deeper into his recliner, a hermit crab into its shell. “I didn’t say you’d gone crazy, just that you needed some extra support.”

“Except I don’t need Mom’s support right now. I could sure use yours though.” She took a deep breath in through her nose. “Your son could sure use your support too.”

“If only I had a son,” he said. Clara jerked backward as if she’d been struck, but David refused to yield. “He’s not even a damned vertebrate, Clara!”

“So what?” she shouted back. “Neither are ninety-five percent of the other animals on this planet!”

David blinked at her. She’d never used a statistic against him before. He hadn’t thought it was something she knew how to do.

#

“What would you like to be called now, Mom?” Clara asked one night after putting Octavius to bed. (It’d cost a lot more than David yet realized, but Clara had commissioned a local artist to build a massive, waterproof, childproof castle to fit inside Octavius’s bedtime tank, giving him someplace sheltered to sleep since he never seemed to know what to make of all those blankets she’d knitted.)

“What do you mean, ‘What does she want to be called now’?” David asked. He tossed the question over his shoulder as he rooted through the fridge, wondering where his last beer had gone.

Now that you’re a grandmother,” Clara said, sliding an annoyed glance David’s way, “what would you like to be called? Nana? Grandma? Grammy?”

David turned away from the fridge slowly and placed a quieting hand on the Yet-Named Woman’s shoulder. “Clara,” he said, as if to a confused puppy. “We’ve been over this.”

“Bugsy.”

Clara and David both looked to their elder as if she’d belched from both ends.

“What?” David managed.

“Bugsy,” Bugsy said, straightening her long, hippie-colored skirts around her old knees. “Ever since I was a little girl and my brothers got to play gangsters and I didn’t, I’ve always wanted to be called Bugsy.”

Clara laughed so hard some pee escaped, but David only took a cautious step backward from the both of them.

Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be, he thought, and felt lonelier then amid their happy company than he’d ever felt before. A rock at the bottom of the ball pit.

David took to burying himself in his work, anything to keep contact with Octavius and the other humans to a minimum, while Clara went around each day gathering new things for her color-sensing experiments. Bugsy took to watching Octavius when no one else was home, which suited her just fine; she loved finally having someone clever to play cops and robbers with. Octavius seemed plenty pleased with the arrangement as well. Bugsy knew all the best games to play.

For such an old, slow-moving woman, she could hide in the kookiest of places and sometimes it’d take Octavius all afternoon to find her again. And Bugsy always had the best, strangest-tasting treats to give out to good little octopuses who didn’t take things from Dad’s office without permission or squirt water at Clara’s old upright piano.

Neither Bugsy nor Octavius seemed at all bothered when Clara started coming home a different color than she’d left in. She’d go out in the morning, pink as a Scandinavian, and come home that evening the color of blue jeans or someone else’s lipstick. She even came home lavender once, and that was when David caught himself studying his own skin.

He was touching the body of an old lamp, just letting his hand rest there on the curved, porcelain belly of it. It was painted a deep cerulean with bright magenta flowers vining across it. It had belonged to his mother or to his mother’s mother—he couldn’t remember, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was that he couldn’t taste the lamp. He couldn’t feel its blue. And as he watched his skin keep to its own color, he felt something rattle loose inside himself. Nothing changed, he thought. He was still the same. He would own that lamp till the day he died.

“I think I’m getting better at this,” Clara told Bugsy, cheery as the bird-dotted wallpaper she blended so perfectly into.

David shrank further and further away from them. Why couldn’t anyone else see what was going on? Why wasn’t anyone else disturbed by his color-tasting wife and the cephalopod that’d squeezed out of her?

It’s all just one big mistake, David assured himself. A prank. A fluke. They’ll all see sense soon enough.

But the weeks ticked by and Clara only came home each day in increasingly bolder colors, her smile wider and brighter than it’d been in years.

“You don’t have to be so afraid all the time,” she told him one morning at breakfast. Her body was a bright sky blue, but her mouth and right hand had begun to take on the silver sheen of the spoon she was eating her cereal with. “And I’ve been meaning to tell you for some time…I’m grateful you called my mother to come stay with us.” She reached over to hold his hand with her still-blue one. “She really has been a great help.”

David didn’t know what to do or say, so he only took his hand back, unnerved at the idea that she might be tasting him as well as feeling him.

David curled further inward, wishing he could shrink down small enough to hideaway inside one of his books where no one could find him. Where Clara wouldn’t look at him sadly at night, wishing he’d make love with her. Where Bugsy wouldn’t shake her head at him for not being a better father. Where Octavius wouldn’t peer up at him longingly with his dominant, unfathomable eye. Where Octavius wouldn’t exist at all.

And when they finally found David later that week, Clara couldn’t believe just how small he’d managed to make himself.

“He must’ve hidden away in there and gotten trapped,” the EMT said, chattering her tweezers together. Delicately, she used them to pry up the flattened, desiccated body of Clara’s husband out from between the pages of his book. “It’s sad, but it can happen this way sometimes. They just don’t realize how small and dry they’ve gotten till it’s too late. And suddenly the world is all too big and the water’s all too far away.”


K.C. Mead-Brewer Author Photo

K.C. Mead-Brewer is a writer and editor living in beautiful Baltimore, MD. Her writing appears in a variety of publications, including Natural Bridge (forthcoming)Apeiron Review (forthcoming)Litro Magazine, Menacing Hedge,and SQUAT Birth Journal. She also serves as an Editor-at-Large with Cleaver Magazine and is a proud member of The Roving Writers, a small group of wild women artists who got their start together at Hedgebrook: Women Authoring Change. For more information, visit: www.kcmeadbrewer.com