The aquarium tank for the big octopus was twenty feet on a side, very big for a little seaside establishment but not really big enough for a Giant Pacific Octopus. At least it might not offer enough growing room since they’ve been known to go to thirty feet. He was floating at the moment, spread out and almost touching all sides like a big pink silk parachute or parasol, except for the blob of a head with its two eyes and pumping gill slits. He had three hearts: one for each gill slit and one for his head. They weren’t working hard now, because he was just listening. Funny that humans had finally figured out that the whales were singing opera to each other, but still didn’t know about the wave lengths the octopuses used.
It used to be that sailors thought octopuses would come with their giant tentacles and rip up their ships, devour their crews, so that they were called Devilfish. But now one scientist said they ought to be called “primates of the sea” because of their brains. The fact that octos have blue blood, based on copper instead of iron (but then why does copper in their water kill them?) and that they have 500 million neurons, distributed throughout head and body, compared to the 100 billion neurons in human brains, just doesn’t compute to humans.
Dexterous as their tentacles are, suction cups made them alien; and they didn’t live long enough to evolve. At most they had a half-dozen years and some species only a year. They simply don’t have enough time to build experience and are too solitary to share a culture from one generation to another.
It was a small seaside town, but had an excellent small aquarium run by a old retired biologist. She saved her allowance to buy tickets and lingered at each tank of small fish, typical hobby fish except that they were salt water species since the establishment was on the board walk, close enough to pump in water from the sea. The tanks were actually in a back room with the pumps and supplies, but the front glass wall of each was a window. In the middle of the darkened space was an open pool full of sea anemones and for a while the octopus was living there, until it learned how to climb out, how to open the door to the back warehouse, climb the stairs and plunder the tanks.
Now he lived in a tall custom tank, bigger than a clothes closet and under a metal mesh lid. Rather fine mesh since an octopus can slip through anything the size of cyclone fence, but he was very strong and they had to check the edges of the lid often to make sure he wasn’t prying it up.
She had loved him from the first moment she had seen him in that pool of fabulous anemones in all the colors and beckoning-finger allure of chorus girls. They didn’t sting him — nor did he ink them as he drifted among them. But she couldn’t get very close until he was in the tall custom tank.
But then the girl showed up, in that apparitional way humans had, appearing white-faced out of the gloom, and somehow he was able to make mind contact with her. She knew things and she knew he could access them. She even offered her mind to him. And she could hear his. He folded up and roman candled down to the bottom of the tank to confront her.
The first time she walked up to the glass, he was so startled that he changed color, turning mustard covered with red polka dots. She couldn’t help but laugh, which made him slip to the bank of the tank where a little cave had been arranged for him. It looked too small, but he handily shrank down until he fitted. After that, she came to the tank slowly and spoke to him, which he seemed to hear through the glass.
This girl, about twelve or thirteen, was a great reader. At home she got out the encyclopedia (this was before computers) to begin studying cephalopods, so she would understand her friend. She learned that his first amazing color change had been meant to scare her, so he must have been a little disgusted that she laughed. It’s called “deimatic behavior", she informed him, though he didn’t care at all. That was the first time she felt him in her mind . . . and her belly.
When she’d been coming for quite a while — in fact, so often that the owner biologist stopped charging her admission — the octopus would come down to the glass to meet her. He still changed color, but not so dramatically, — rather like someone with fair skin blushing and blanching. Once she thought he had escaped but he was only practicing his camouflage. His eyes were big; they gazed across at each other. She often felt that they were attuned enough to hear thoughts, though his were rather — well, floaty. Their very difference seemed to be part of their relationship, with the main aspect that they were so interested in each other. Then there was more.
She longed to touch him, to stroke him. She was sure that those suction cups on his tentacles would feel on her skin like kisses, little smooches. But she was aware that the tentacles themselves were quite brawny and could squeeze her as though they were pythons. Plus she had read about the beak and the poison.
He finally took her hydrosailing with him — in their minds — through the Pacific and into the tropics where the fish were bright as candies. He warned her about the blue-ring octopus, so pretty but carrying bacteria that secreted a poison so intense that it would paralyze her, prevent her from breathing. He himself could breathe air for short periods of time. But this was a mind trip, so both were safe, of one mind, a shared virtuality.
It took almost a year of him searching her mind and character before he got to his goal. He wanted back into the sea. He’d been born in the jumbled and sharp-edged debris under the long pier out from town, where the dark timbers under the walkway were coated with algae and festooned with kelp. That’s where he wanted to go, not to the wide open miles of water beyond. Home is what we know.
At the beginning of every day he used the tips of his tentacles to feel around every edge and corner of his enclosure, looking for a way to get out. He’d heard all the stories about octos slipping out when drain covers were loose or a pump hose was a little wider than it should be. They were his hope.
But now he saw that humans had imprisoned him here and so he should look for the crevices in humans. This girl had just such a point of entry. She called it love. He told her about the early days when he was the size of her hand and she seemed to understand. It made her maternal and protective.
People liked the old biologist and brought him things to explain, so he was not surprised that the girl brought him crabs to feed the octo. In fact, he showed her how to unpadlock the lid above and behind the tank, so she could toss them in. After a few months he began to let her sell tickets out front while he went home to grab a nap, and then he made her a key of her own. The octo was careful not to let her know how interested he was in all this, because he began to realize that she would interpret freeing him as losing him. Human beings, with all their warm-blooded hugginess didn’t like to be separated. But if she didn’t love him enough, she might not set him free.
He searched through her mind for clues to human attachment and pair-bonds. He asked her things and found intimate places, little crevices for the small ends of tentacles where even human fingers couldn’t go. Indeed, his suction-cupped arms learned to kiss except for one that balked. He threatened to tear it off and leave it behind.
As for the girl, she was not a fool. She knew he was alone because octos are cannibals and it was not unusual for males to be eaten by females they had just fertilized because the females would linger to defend the eggs, starving, and they could use the protein. But this octo didn’t give her eggs; he gave her powerful dreams that stained her nightgown in ways new to her.
Freeing an octopus was neither kind nor idealistic. Taking it back to its birthplace, even though the pier wasn’t far away, would be a logistic nightmare because he weighed a LOT. But she thought, “I guess maybe I could use a shopping cart,” and the octopus knew he had her. They both understood that he was about out of time. He was nearly at the limit of his growth and would have maybe only months or weeks to be under the pier.
They just did it. It might have been a more dramatic story if they had used a bit of poison from a blue-ringed octopus to put the old man to sleep forever, but that was too complicated. She was no killer. She just came one night with her key, unpadlocked the feeding hatch, lugged the octo out to the cart, and pushed him down the walkway to the long pier.
The only glitch was that about a fourth of the way down, a wheel came off the cart. The tide was way out, which at Seaside means a mile of sand. She carried the octo as far as she could, then sprawled, dumping him out of her arms. He set off to get there on his own, which was difficult on sand, a crawling glob of Jello thrashing his arms side-to-side with nothing solid to grab. She hated to see him that way. It was the cruelest part of the adventure and it haunted her later. He was far from the tall bright swimmer she was used to in his tank.
Finally he came to an outcrop of rock and then a backwash of tidewater that took him under the pier so he could grab the pilings under it. There was no goodbye. But there was love and remembrance. She never saw the octo again and was grateful, because he would not have been alive.