As children, my brother, sister and I were warned to avoid the tiny, startlingly beautiful, blue-ringed octopuses native to the rock pools that pepper the Australian coastline. “If you so much as brush your skin against them, they’ll kill you-like that,” my father told us, snapping his fingers for dramatic effect.
Truth be told, my father’s warning was not entirely scientifically accurate. In fact, one has to be bitten by a blue-ringed octopus to be envenomed. That being said, they are deadly: each octopus contains enough venom to kill twenty-six adult humans. Once bitten, motor paralysis and respiratory arrest take effect within minutes, usually resulting in death. But in any case, his warning had the desired effect upon our malleable, kindergarten psyches: we were terrified.
This piece of advice was delivered at a point in my life when basic arithmetic skills, like counting, were still a mysterious, rote-learned class-room activity that had no bearing on my day-to-day life; I couldn’t instinctively tell the difference between, say, a creature with five legs and a creature with eight. Also, being colour-blind, I don’t move through the world confidently distinguishing one thing from another on the basis of its colour, particularly when my life could be at stake. As such, one result of my father’s warning was that, for a period of my childhood, whenever I was frolicking in a rock pool and I spotted a benign, five-limbed, orange starfish basking, I would halt in a state of abject terror, and slowly back away, fretting that it could be the death of me.
You can imagine my shock when, years later, I was lolling in a rock pool on Tasmania’s east coast and was confronted by an actual octopus—not a blue-ringed octopus but an orange monster. Trapped in a confined space, it was erratic, curling and unfurling in every direction at once; it was unanchored, and it was big – nothing like the stationary starfish with which I had confused it.
There was a large swell that day, and my wetsuit-clad siblings, cousins and I were pretending to be posh ladies reclining in a Jacuzzi. Every time a wave washed through our rock pool we would brace ourselves against its currents, raise our pretend champagne glasses and yabber, like posh ladies, “Yars, yars, oh yar? Oh real-ay? Isn’t this ja-coo-zi just dee-vine? Yars, yars, yars,” to one another while the white water bubbled and foamed around us.
The first wave of an especially large set rolled through, inciting many joyous ‘yars’. But as the turbulence subsided, we realised we were no longer alone; a mess of orange limbs was undulating in the space between us. We squealed and flew from the rock pool as the next wave washed in and frothed the water opaque. We perched like cormorants on the granite boulders that framed the rock pool and waited impatiently to see the monster below. But, to our disappointment, when the water became clear once more, we saw the pool was empty. The octopus had hitched a ride on the next wave back out into the surf.
If I could bellow words through the tunnel of time, I would shout to my child-self: “STAY IN THE ROCK POOL!” I would urge her, in whatever way I could, to take this opportunity to meet an octopus.
Maybe if she hadn’t scrambled, shrieking from the water, it would have lingered to watch her. The filmy surface of the water would have circled her middle like the waistline of the crystal and silk gown that she had been luxuriating in as a pretend-posh-lady just moments before. And she would gaze at it, just as it was gazing at her. It would have retreated to the other side of the pool, where it would have lurked for a moment or two, before swarming towards her. She would have let out a little gasp but she would have stood firm. It would have stopped a metre shy of her and gathered itself into a pulsing knot. Then, slowly, it would have loosened itself and unfurled one of its arms towards her. It would have touched her lightly—scraping its suckers on her neoprene thigh to test her—to see what she was. Octopuses are notoriously curious. (Or some are. Others are notoriously paranoid.)
If I could bend words back to her, I would reassure her that this creature is not a monster, but a distant cousin—different, and yet not so different. If I could, I would inform her that her ancestors, and the octopus’s ancestors, were both primitive, tube-shaped creatures which had neither brains nor eyes. I would explain to her that, more than half a billion years ago, the lineage that would lead to octopuses and the lineage that resulted in humans had separated.
“And yet,” I would tell her (taking care to emphasise my words, to encourage her to grasp just how fascinating this fact is), “despite our divergent evolutionary paths, both humans and octopuses have evolved independently to develop eyelids. Look at the octopus,” I would urge her. “See if you can spy them.”
“You said it wrong,” she would accuse. “It’s not octopuses; it’s octopi.”
“Well, actually,” I would tell her, “the etymologically correct plural isn’t octopi, because, technically, you shouldn’t add a Latin suffix to a word derived from Greek, and the word octopus comes from the Greek word oktōpous.”
I butcher the pronunciation—perhaps this is why she’s frowning. She opens her mouth to say something more but we’re getting off topic, so I cut her off. “Go on,” I urge her again. “See if you can spot its eyelids.”
She peers down to the arm still winding around her leg and traces her eyes along to where the soft fruit of its head floats, and she notices that indeed, it does have eyelids. She also notices that unlike her pupils, which are like black little full stops, its pupils are dashes.
“I’m so pleased you observed this!” I exclaim. I tell her that if the octopus had pupils like hers—pupils that focus light through a narrow pinhole—it would have been colour-blind, just like her. But because it has these dash-like pupils, it can distinguish colours in a completely unique way.
“Cephalopods are completely unique in this!” I repeat. “They’re unlike any other creatures on earth—or unlike any other creatures that we know of. What happens is, their unusual-shaped pupils act like prisms, scattering light in all directions.”
She looks a little confused by this, so I explain: “Kind of like a kaleidoscope. And once the light has been sorted into its component wavelengths, octopuses do things like change the depth of their eyeballs, or alter the distance between their lens and retina, in order to focus different wavelengths of light individually and as such, distinguish different colours.”
She still looks confused, but she’s clearly thinking about what I’ve just said.
“So, if I had pupils like this octopus,” she says slowly, still gazing intently at the octopus, “I would be able to see colour like a normal person and so be able to tell whether a banana is ripe or not?”
“Yep,” I say. “Except you wouldn’t really be seeing colour like a normal person, would you? You’d be seeing it like a normal octopus.”
I then explain that while their pupils are indeed different shapes, she and this creature both have eyes with lens-based focusing and transparent corneas, irises that regulate light, and retinas in the back of the eye to convert light to neutral signals that can be processed in the brain. Again, I tell her, this is a remarkable coincidence given their independent evolutionary path.
“Scientists call this convergent evolution,” I say. But as I say it, I notice I’ve lost her a little. More than a little, actually: I’ve lost her a lot. Her attention has wandered to the surfers who are paddling lazily to hold their position at the head of the rip that’s coursing along the edge of the rocky point and teasing the kelp into streamers. I follow her gaze and notice the way the rip is sitting the waves up into steep ledges as they hit the sandbank, causing them to curl into thick-rimmed cylinders as they break. There hasn’t been a bank like this at this beach in years.
But enough. There will be plenty of time for surfing when she’s older.
“Brush your hand against the octopus’s arm,” I urge her, in an attempt to regain her attention.
She hesitates, and then reaches down and gently strokes a finger along the orange arm that is still coiling about her legs. The octopus stills a little to let her, and it almost seems to butt up into her touch, much like a cat arching its back against its human’s hand.
“Guess what? The octopus just touched, tasted and saw you in that moment of contact. Scientists in the future have just discovered that octopuses can also see with their skin—or do something very similar to what we regard as seeing.” (I go easy on the physiological particulars here; I don’t want to lose her again.)
She looks from me—because in case you hadn’t noticed, the present, adult-me is now some kind of ghost from the future—to the octopus, and back to me, and her eyes and mouth turn to “o”s in awe (at the octopus, not at the ghost-adult-me; the child-me is suddenly very good at staying on topic).
She strokes it again, and grins widely as it turns its arm so that she can run her fingers along its suckers.
It is then that I observe my hand flicker. I peer down at it, and watch as it ghosts in, then out, of being. I look from it, to her. She is completely absorbed in the octopus and I realise what is happening: this brand of information I’m feeding her in is nudging her down a path that will lead her to a career in marine biology, and where will this leave me?
As if on cue, my entire presence flickers. This version is about to become obsolete.
“What does this make you think?” I blurt, desperately. “The octopus is looking at you. What does this make you think?”
She looks at me, confused.
So, I tell her: “A famous philosopher once said, ‘An animal looks at me. What should I think of this sentence?’”
She looks at me, confused.
“He emerged naked from the shower and his cat looked at him and he didn’t know what to make of it,” I continue.
She looks at me, confused.
I’m fading, fading.
“When you touched it, the octopus looked at you with its skin. What do you think of this sentence?” I cry.
But her colour-blind eyes—with their lens-based focusing and transparent corneas, irises that regulate light, and retinas in the back of the eye to convert light to neutral signals that can be processed in the brain—glaze. This tack isn’t working. She’s too young, too under-read in the fields of poststructuralism and critical animal studies.
I’m fading. I am nothing but a half-thought of a life that will never be lived.
And then I have a crafty idea. She doesn’t know it yet, but her colour-blindness means that she will never have a career as a visual artist. But if she nurtures her kernel of creativity by dabbling in different mediums, she might one day turn into the writer she’s already dreaming of becoming. The creative arts move and act analogously. Art’s commonality, as Elizabeth Grosz writes, drawing upon Gilles Deleuze, is in the way it “produces sensations, affects, intensities” which can be understood as compositions of materiality; while sciences is in the way it seeks to chart and contain materiality in order to dissect it and thus come to know it through a knowledge of its composite parts. By art, Grosz means ‘all forms of creativity or production’, including, amongst others, painting and creative writing. So, if my child-self were to, say, get busy with some paints and brushes, she would be taking half a step towards a life of creative writing, which would mean I could exist as I am today.
Slyly, I suggest to her: “Why don’t you go home and paint a picture of the octopus?” She smiles at the idea, and suddenly my own clarity is so sharp I’m nearly palpable. “Make sure you include its eyelids,” I call after her, as she climbs from the rock pool and trots off to find her paints and brushes.
The octopus and I are left in the rock pool, blinking at one another.
Erin Hortle is a Hobart-based writer of fiction and essay and a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania. Recently, her writing has been featured in Island, Overland and The Picton Grange Quarterly, and in 2017 she won the Tasmanian Young Writer’s Fellowship as a part of the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.