I called her Thamus, after my sister. When I first spoke the name to her, through the aquarium glass, she flushed in violet. “You like it,” I smiled. “Me too. I think it suits you.” As strange as it sounds, it was only once I’d considered how fitting a name it was for an octopus, that it struck me how odd a name it was for a person.
But Thamus, to think of it now: what a name! Towards what destiny did our mother and father hope to call her, with such a name? Or was the name meant expectantly, for something they already saw in her, something she was already becoming? By the time I met Thamus, the girl, it was too late to ask. Our parents were gone, dead. And my sister, though alive, was as old as she was ever going to be; she was frozen in time, between hope and expectation.
It was the spring of my first year away when my parents called, both of them on the line at once. “Aren’t you a little bit … old?” I’d asked, when they said they were expecting. “Also: gross, guys.”
Dad must have seen it coming; he replied instantly, mocking even my pacing: “when we had you, we were a bit … young. And just look how you turned out.” Sure, I was the only kid from Monroe that had gone away to college, much less to a good one; but it made no difference. And when I’d come home earlier that spring with a tongue ring, Dad reacted like I’d been irredeemably corrupted: “I just think we need to talk about this,” he kept saying, always while walking in the opposite direction and shaking his head.
After they told me about the pregnancy, we hardly spoke. Not that there was some new animus; but I think we were all happier to be apart. Besides, I was slammed with work in the lab, and they were (I presume) preoccupied with baby-proofing the house. When my sister was born, they left me a message about it — relating her length and weight, and her name. I responded with a thumbs-up emoji, turned my phone off, and didn’t think about it again for days.
After that we spoke even less. But we exchanged a few photos — of this new, shapeless, hairless person; of my new, shapely blue or green or red hair. And then, after a long gap, they left a message saying: Thamus is nearly two now, so how about we bury the hatchet?
They said: come for Thanksgiving and meet her. We’ll even pay for it. I sent another thumbs-up, they sent a plane ticket, and I went back to work in my lab, harder than before. There’s a joke you hear, in labs that study aging: you’re always on the clock.
When I got on the plane to go back to Monroe — which by then I had stopped calling home — my parents were alive. When I got off, four hours later, they were not. Monroe is a town of flat, straight, smooth-paved, and well-lit roads, but the drainage ditches on either side are nonetheless mile-marked with makeshift crosses. You wonder, driving past them, how anyone could manage to crash a car in such a place. But then someone you know does it, another cross goes up, and though it still seems unlikely, it no longer seems impossible.
“What do you study over there?” the nurse at the hospital intake asked me, as he scrolled through the records on the other side of the counter. He stopped, not waiting for my answer, his face green. “You better take a seat.”
Much of the next few days is gone, and I’m glad for that. Because what I do remember is this: in every nook and cranny there’s someone you’ve never even met, who happens to have an opinion on precisely how you ought to grieve. Someone to say it’s okay to cry when you’re not crying enough to suit them; someone to say it’s going to get better when they think you’ve cried enough already. Someone to say your parents ought to go into the ground like good Catholics, even if they weren’t. “They were, in their hearts,” this person will say. “But there’s never enough time,” they’ll say. Which is another joke from the aging lab.
I remember this: meeting Thamus. Seeing her didn’t crack me up; I didn’t cry. No: it made me angry. Someone that small, in one of those beds. My sister in one of those beds, the only place I’d ever seen her. Pink suture lines rounded one eye and cut straight back, curling over her ear like she’d worn red-hot glasses. Machines pumped and whirred and clicked, breathing for her, digesting for her, cleaning her blood. The whole place stunk of a cleanliness you only find just opposite death. All I could do was clench my fists.
“Nothing we can do now but wait, and let things take care of themselves,” the doctor said, checking in. So I waited. And he was right: if you wait and wait and do nothing else, everything has a way of taking care of itself. The hospital gets rid of your dead parents for you, and doesn’t burden you by saying how they did it. Your college takes care of everything, and kicks you out so you don’t have to go through the trouble of coming back and flunking out on your own. Even your landlord does their part, and uses your deposit to have all your possessions hauled off to the dump, so you don’t have to worry about them. It’s a community effort; everyone pitches in. At the time, I thought: y’all are assholes.
By the time Thamus opened her eyes again, I’d been erased everywhere but Monroe; it was like I’d never left in the first place. So when the doctors said that the two of us could go home now, I didn’t even correct them, because by then Monroe was home. Again.
“She’s as healthy as a horse, in a sense,” the nurse said optimistically, running me through the checklist. How to feed her, how to bathe her, what to expect. The short answer about what to expect was: not much. The really short answer, the one that was closest the truth, was: nothing.
“How long will she need to be on these?” I asked, shaking a pill bottle.
“Well, forever,” he said, as though it were obvious. They were anti-rejection meds. Half her brain was gone, including whatever she needed to speak, to walk. But she’d gained some new parts as well, parts stitched in from somewhere else or somebody else, that would only be happy for as long as she was taking those pills. It might sound funny that I don’t know what all went into her, but I also don’t know exactly what went out.
“Forever?” I mumbled to myself, remembering that conversation with my parents. “When we had you, we were a bit … young,” Dad had said. “And just look how you turned out.” In fact, I was exactly as old as they were when they moved to Monroe and had me. There’s another joke you hear in the aging lab. It’s one the older scientists tell the younger ones: I was your age when I got here.
On the road home, we passed the police station, the middle school, the dollar store, the decrepit houses and the pressure-washed brick churches. People coming the other way raised a finger from their steering wheels: hello again. Everything seemed just as it had when I’d left, as though I could have constructed the whole future of the place from nothing more than the memory of what it had been. If my leaving had changed Monroe at all, my return had changed it right back.
Which is maybe why those two new crosses seemed out of place. Or maybe they weren’t out of place, but I just didn’t want them there. Coming up on that long straight road I saw them with time enough to go from disbelief to anger to sadness and back again before I even pulled over.
There they were: side by side and almost touching, painted white as fresh linen. It was somebody’s dream of heaven, but not mine, and not theirs. There were not two that ascended from that place with hands held and robes starched; there were only two that died, alone and soiled and wholly unwilling. And so I thought I’d pull the crosses up, and figure out what to do next once I’d done that.
Across the ditch by the crosses was a creased old man, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup and selling fresh-caught shrimp out of a cooler. That’s where they crashed: by the shrimp man. He’d been sitting there unchanged for all my life, but for all the times I’d stopped I didn’t know his name, or anything else about him but that every morning he went out on the boats and every afternoon he came back in.
“Do you know who put these here?” I asked him from across the ditch. He shrugged, jawed at a plastic-tipped cigar. I stomped over to his side of the ditch, pulled out the crosses one after the other, turned to him, and found him watching me, still jawing. “They weren’t religious,” I told him, suddenly feeling like I had to explain myself.
“Two pounds of royal reds, if you have them,” I said, still feeling like I was explaining. Was I trying to buy his silence? I don’t know. He shoveled a plastic bag full of shrimp for me, dropped it in another bag full of ice.
“Sorry,” I said to Thamus, once I’d shoved the crosses and the shrimp into the car next to her. She smiled, looking curiously ahead, like she’d never been there before.
“What’s that?” I asked at the sound, looking in the rear-view while we waited at a light. “They still alive in there, still kicking around?” Thamus laughed, looked right through me. I laughed too, though I have no idea why.
I wheeled Thamus into the house, with those wooden crosses laid across her lap, and a bag of twitching shrimp in my hand. Inside, I moved to the kitchen, to toss that bag of buy-off shrimp into the freezer. But once I was out of view, Thamus began to yell; it was the first I’d heard her since all this began, outside of her laughing. I wondered whether I used to sound like that, when I was making a fuss.
So I walked back into the living room, and it was only once I was there, and saw her looking at the bag, that I realized the twitching wasn’t from the shrimp. Pushing and shoving its way through the melee was an octopus, its body no bigger than a marble and no sturdier than a nose-blow. Thamus had her eyes locked on it like she knew the thing. So I did the only thing I could do: I untied the bag, and held it over Dad’s fish tank — his prized saltwater tank, the only color in the whole house, with all its ridiculous and absurd neon fishes — and let the octopus make its way out. She — we’ll call her she — sank down to the bottom, her color flashing as she went, sending the fish scattering.
When she hit the bottom, she just sat there, looking right at me for a minute. Then she flitted around, laying her suckers across the stone, the reef, the plastic seagrass, the tank’s corners.
I nodded. It’s a strange thing, if you haven’t done it, to walk into a house that’s suddenly yours, that’s suddenly looking to you to be the grown one. It’s stranger yet to do it the way we did, moving into a house that belongs to people who didn’t know it was about to be somebody else’s.
I looked at Thamus watching, smiling, and asked: “Well, what’ll we call her?” Thamus laughed. I looked back at the octopus. “Thamus 2,” I said, and the octopus flushed in violet. “You like it,” I smiled. “Me too. I think it suits you.” I looked back at my sister, saw her flushing in rose. Thamus 2 retreated into a hollow in the tank’s reef, reeled her arms in after her.
The first day, the first two, go by very slowly. New beginnings are always that way, even ones you choose. But the next month, after those first two days, went by in a flash. We found our routine: meal-out-of-a-jar-time, medicine time, tv time, feed-the-octopus-time, bath time, bed time. The octopus stayed in its hollow, and at feed-the-octopus-time would just unroll one arm, pull the food back into the hollow with her.
An auto insurance man came by, had me fill out some paperwork. He said plenty, and said it nervously, embarrassedly, but the only thing I remember from his visit are the words: “operator error,” which he said like the words were a square peg and the world were a round hole. He kept pounding on those words, but they wouldn’t seem to go, and every time he said them again Thamus would laugh, like it was a joke he was telling.
A life insurance man came by, and had more paperwork, but nothing at all to say. A lawyer came by, and at the end of every sentence he asked, “do you understand?” I shook my head, and Thamus nodded with me. We understood: Thamus was not going to a hospital. She was staying right here, with me, with Thamus 2.
Not long after that, the checks started to come. When I saw the number on the first life insurance check, I turned it over, but I could still see it through the thin paper. I’d felt a spark in my gut just seeing it that I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling guilty about. When the second one came, it was different from the first. Not by much, just enough to make the point that they each had a number, and the numbers were not the same.
I was still carrying that second check in my pocket when I saw that the crosses were back up. There was no reason to go up that road except to go to the pharmacy by the hospital, which I’d have to do once a month: even if you’re on some medicine forever, even if you need it so your body doesn’t reject itself, they’ll still only give it to you a month at a time.
I pulled over, madder than I’d been since the ride home with Thamus. And just like before, there they were: white as fresh linen. White as they bled out on that spot. The shrimp man jawed at a cigar while I pulled the crosses out and threw them into the back seat of the car. “Who’s putting these in?” I asked him.
“Who’s putting these in?” I ask him. It’s part of the routine now: I pick up a month’s worth of anti-rejection meds, I stop by the shrimp man on my way back, pull out the new crosses, white as time’s ended or not yet begun. The shrimp man’s part of the routine is this: he shrugs, and jaws. And he shovels a couple pounds of royal reds if he has them, jumbos if he doesn’t. The bags never twitch like the first one.
The rest of the routine is this: back at the house, Thamus is waiting, sitting in her chair and pointing right at the fish tank. Thamus 2 comes out, and Thamus laughs, claps. Every month Thamus 2 is bigger, sturdier. By the fourth month she’s as big as a nectarine. By the sixth she’s big as a peach, and she’s eaten everything else in the aquarium. I think we all like it better, with just her in there.
And it’s something, to see her grow. Because another part of the routine is this: Thamus doesn’t grow at all. Every day is just the same, like starting over on the first day we came home. Meal-out-of-a-jar-time, medicine time, tv time, feed-the-octopus-time, bath time, bed time.
Thamus 2 is the only thing in the house that changes. When she sees the shrimp, she flickers through a chaotic landscape of color, like she’s a watercolor painted on an axis out of time.
Looking at her while she does it, I get the sense that she’s trying to say something, or that I’m trying to hear something. It’s the sense I get when I look at a fire, or at water. Eventually I look away, knowing there’s something, but that I’m not meant to understand it. Thamus doesn’t look away. She sees it, whatever’s supposed to be there. She laughs, understanding. Outside of hope and expectation, outside of time, the structure of things is different, communicable.
If there’s a way to cross that line intact, I don’t know of it. I don’t even try. But Thamus 2 does, I think because she wants me to see something. It’s in the eighth month that she does it: she takes on the color of my hair, from before. Those colors I meant to separate me from Monroe.
My hair was blue, green, red, in that order. By the eighth month the colors have grown out, faded; my roots are taking over. But she takes on each of those colors in turn, not faded, but how they were when I chose them. One paints over the next. I watch her, and I smile for the first time in I can’t tell you how long.
“Now do the last one,” I tell her, but she stops on red. The last one, the one she won’t do, is the roots. The way it comes in, when I’ve stopped choosing it. She runs the cycle again, and again stops at red. That’s as far as she’ll go. It becomes part of the routine, a part of her and us, fixed.
This is how the routine ends: with another cross. It’s been a year. When I pull over on my way back from the pharmacy, there aren’t the two new crosses in the ground for my parents. But there is another one, white as fresh linen. This one I leave in the earth, between the tire tracks in the oyster shells, in grass grown long from melted ice. It isn’t mine to pull.
I don’t have to say anything when I come back. I don’t have anything to say. They know already that the routine has ended, when I walk into the house and I’m not carrying the two fresh white crosses, or the bag of shrimp on ice. Without that routine, time is set free again to wander, and I hope it won’t go too far, nor too slowly. Thamus sits in her chair, smiling. She looks right through the aquarium, laughs.
Thamus 2 is waiting; she’s still, set atop a stone outside her hollow. She’s yet the size of a peach, but I’d rather not put it that way anymore. We have satsumas here, in Monroe. To hear us — it’s us now, and I notice that — to hear us tell it, they refuse to grow anywhere else. Thamus 2 is the size of a satsuma, and flattened out a bit, and dimpled. That’s as big as she goes, and anywhere else she wouldn’t go at all.
“Do the last one,” I’d told her before, as part of our routine. Now that it’s not part of the routine to ask, she does it, the last one. She turns the color of my roots, and stays there. There’s no color anywhere else, not with her staying there.
I’ve all but faded back to that color, too, like I’d never left Monroe. But I had, and it wasn’t the new color that marked me while I was gone. I think back to my time in the aging lab, when I was gone, when I’d stopped even calling this place home. When I’d stopped calling home. I’d wanted — we’d wanted — to end aging. To cure it, like a disease.
These are the stories we’d tell: about how people used to only live to twenty. Now seventy, sometimes even a hundred. Sometimes even a bit more: a Frenchwoman made it to a hundred twenty-two, if you’d believe it. But we’ll never get much more than that. There’s a limit, no matter what you do.
We’d tell about the sharks off Greenland, who live five hundred years, alone and in cold water, and in the dark. We know that, know their age, from their eyes. Eyes in the dark change less, it seems. Having those eyes now, we thought, we might live forever, or learn to find the limit. We’d tell about Darwin, who found a whole island of centenarian tortoises. Some might be alive now, that knew him. Probably not, but it’s possible, and that’s so much of what the lab was about. Not what is, just what’s possible.
Those sharks and tortoises, and even people, are on the very far end of what’s possible. On the near end is most anything small. Mayflies are on the near end: they only have two days. Possums and mice, who spot all over with tumors if they pass two years, are on the near end. They do better than the octopus. An octopus that lives for more than a year has done well, especially one that’s just the size of a satsuma.
We used to joke about what might happen if they were with us, on the far end. We’d say: they’re too smart, and are not at all like us. And: if they made it for much longer, they’d find the weight of their own memory, and would have to answer to it. As we do. They’d have to take over for us: it would be left to them, to decide how to run things. They’d flicker at us from the outside of the tank, and wonder at how we bauble, and what we’d do if we got out, or if we lived as long as they did.
I don’t joke about this when I see her, having taken on the color of my roots. Her tentacles no longer explore; the space is her own now, is known now. As strange as it sounds, my first impulse is to ask her why things are that way, why one would be at the near end and the other at the far end. Whether it’s something in us that we can change. And I shake the bag, with the bottle of pills inside. Is there some kind of poison, I want to ask her, some part of us that’s from somewhere else, or somebody else, that we can only reject for so long?
Would these help you, I want to ask. But she’s back in her hollow.
I shake out a new pill: it’s medicine time. Some parts of the routine are still there. Thamus laughs at the sound of the bottle, and smiles. “Thamus, it suits you,” I say to her, helping her get the pill down. I didn’t think so before, didn’t think it could suit anyone. Thamus: what a name! I’d thought. But it does: it suits her. I’ve come to know that smile, that laugh, the detail in them. They say more than they used to, or else I can see more in them.
Featured image: Octopus (Library of Congress)
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This is an unusual story told in a unique way. I like your writing style. It takes you into these people’s lives with unexpected events early on that change the whole dynamic of what would have happened otherwise.