Short Story: The Insect and the Octopus
This is a short story I had published in the University of Sydney literary magazine, Hermes, back in 2004. My first ever fiction publication, which was pretty exciting, and I got some prize money for it too. 🙂 I still have the dress I bought with that money too…
Note: It isn’t erotica (gasp!) and there is an act of animal cruelty.
Word count: 1800
They lived in a house by the ocean, and on the weekends, when Liliana and Gabriel didn’t have to go to school, Seth and Janey sometimes let them go down to the beach and play. This day, when Seth had told them it was alright, they squealed wildly.
Janey rubbed some white sunscreen into their backs. “Now remember-”
“Put the sun-scream on every hour,” Gabriel said, eyes rolling.
Liliana laughed. “Its sunscreen, not sunscream, you silly.” Gabriel blushed a little.
Under their feet, the sand was so hot that they had to skip and hop down to the water. Liliana ran around in circles, pretending to be a bird, while Gabriel slowly padded down to the water’s edge.
“Dueling Game!” Liliana declared, standing ready with the eucalyptus branch she’d torn off the tree earlier that morning. Gabriel nodded, but his arm shook as he held his much thinner branch against hers.
Each time, Liliana won.
It was a fun game, Liliana decided. Only they had to stop; Gabriel had thrown his away, stuffing his hands in his pockets and stomping away. What was she supposed to do? Let him win?
Gabriel and Liliana were not brother and sister, but they had known each other since they were babies. Their parents had been friends, but one day, both their mothers and fathers had been killed a great fire in the city five years ago. That’s why they moved in with Seth and Janey, and Seth’s brother Miller.
He behaves like a stupid brother, though, Liliana thought.
She ran up to him, dragging her branch along with her.
“You always beat me in card games, you know.”
Gabriel looked at her, but tried to walk away from her. Liliana was faster, and rounded on him, hands on hips. For a moment, they glared at each other. Liliana was angry that he couldn’t see that it was fair. Boys normally were better than girls at fighting. Shouldn’t it be okay if she, just one girl, was a better than a boy, then?
Still frowning, Gabriel looked out to the sea, and kicked at the foamy water. He then sighed.
“Yeah, I do. Sorry.”
Nodding to seal the situation, Liliana then grabbed his arm, and began to run towards the far end of the beach.
“Let’s go the rock pools now.”
Gabriel’s eyes grew very wide. Liliana knew why; he’d almost drowned near the rock pools one day. She stopped, and said huffily, “You know how to swim now! And we don’t have to go in the water.”
He creased his forehead a little, but in the end allowed himself to run along beside her.
The tide was low, and retreating further out to sea when they got there. The uncovered rocks glistened black and the green seaweed strewn across it made it look like a mermaid’s garden. They skipped across the shallower ones, splashing each other playfully. Then they carefully made their way to a deeper one, and stood above it, looking down into the calm water.
“Looklooklooklooklook!” Gabriel pointed, almost bouncing at his discovery.
It was an octopus, with long, wavy tentacles. Liliana had only seen them in picture books before. It seemed to grab the water to pull itself along, and soon it came to rest on some rocks, each of its eight legs wrapping around the tiny mounds and holes.
Liliana was transfixed, and crouched down on the edge of the pool. Slowly, she swung her branch around, and stuck it in the water, moving the knuckled end towards the octopus. When the branch was a hairs-breath away from it, she gave it two easy pokes.
Ignoring Gabriel, Liliana continued poking the octopus with the branch.
The octopus twirled one speckled arm round the knuckled end of the branch. Liliana grinned, and gave it another push.
“Stop it! That’s mean.”
“I want to see what it does!” She tried to make her voice sound important and grown-up, but Gabriel frowned, and thumped down on the rocks next to her. Wrapping his arms around his legs, he looked like a tight ball of string.
What Liliana was really curious about was what it looked like on the inside.
She had discovered already that insects had different coloured blood, depending on what kind it was, whether it crawled, or flew, or scurried, or had bright dots on its wings, or long, spindly legs. At first, she had learnt this quite by accident. She’d trod on a beetle, only realizing that she had done so when she heard a delicate cracking and felt a new lump under her sandals. Gabriel’s lower lip had folded inward, and he’d sniffled a little. Liliana, however, knelt and looked at the crushed insect. Gooey orange liquid oozed out of its split body. With her nail, she lifted away parts of its back. Intersecting lines of black, white, and brown revealed themselves, and she stared in rapt attention.
Gabriel had soon pulled her away.
“Poor thing,” he’d said. That puzzled Liliana. It was only an insect.
Soon she learnt it wasn’t simply an insect. It, and all the other insects, were endlessly fascinating pieces of blood, legs, and tentacles. She found a thick brown leather book on Seth’s bookshelves called “Insects Anatomy.” Anatomy was a very difficult word, but Seth explained it to her when she asked.
Inside were yellowed pages marked with complicated diagrams, and arrows that had complicated names written under them. When she tried to pronounce them, they produced more spit then sound in her confused mouth.
It didn’t take her long to figure out an easy way to catch all the insects she wanted.
Gabriel always left her along when she cut them up. He stopped sniffling, but not frowning at her, stuffing his hands in his pockets, and stomping into his bedroom.
She tried to show him once, but he threw up.
Another two tentacles twined around the branch. Liliana wondered if she could try and lift it now, see what would happen if was out of the water. With two hands, she began to lift.
“What are you doing now?”
“I’m seeing what its like out of the water.”
“Because it will be interesting!” she snapped, hoping he might go away like he always did.
Gabriel swallowed. “How do you know?”
Liliana glared at him. Just because, she thought. Because I haven’t seen it before.
The octopus was heavier than she’d expected, but eventually she had it hanging above the rocks on the other side of the pool. Those rocks were much sharper than the ones she and Gabriel sat on, jutting upwards with a fierce insistency.
Nothing interesting was happening, so she began to lower the octopus back towards the water. Then, the octopus lost its grip, unfurled its tentacles, and hit the rocks with a heavy squelching thump.
The octopus didn’t move. Next to her, Gabriel was quietly heaving, choking, trying not to cry.
“I didn’t mean to!”
Lying limply, the octopus began to secrete a blue-green blood. At first, Liliana wanted to swim over to it, pick it up, and take it home. She’d have to borrow a sharp knife from the kitchen.
But round tears were falling from Gabriel’s eyes.
“You killed it! Why are you so mean?”
Liliana looked at the water, tears threatening to prick at her own eyes. She didn’t want to look at Gabriel, didn’t want to see how much he hated her.
Gabriel sniffed again, then ran, sand flying as he pelted down the beach. When she was sure he was gone, Liliana sobbed. Occasionally, she looked at the motionless octopus, speckles and blood now blurry through her tears.
She did swim across to it and pick it up. However, she didn’t take it home. Instead, she buried it in the sand, in a deep hole. She made sure that the sand looked like no one had been near it.
Later, that night, she crept along the corridor, to Gabriel’s room. She didn’t go near his bed. She clung to the door frame, half expecting him to leap out and slam the door shut.
“Do you hate me?” she asked in a small voice.
Sudden loud snoring made it clear he was only pretending to be asleep.
“I didn’t mean to kill it, I swear I didn’t! Please Gabriel, I’m so sorry…”
She found a small lump forming in her throat. She told herself sternly not to cry. A whimper betrayed her, and she ran back to her own room, throwing herself onto the bed.
For the next week, they played by themselves at school, and sat at opposite ends of the breakfast table, not looking at each other.
“Aw, have our two little love birds had a fight?” Miller asked, looking intently from one to the other. Liliana held her nose high, and looked away, which made Miller chuckle, while Gabriel stared intently at his bowl of oats.
Janey tried to talk to her about it, but that would have meant telling her about the octopus, and then Janey might have hated her as well. The insects she’d collected stayed in he jars. She didn’t go to her room when she came home from school, preferring to sit on the beach instead. That way she could avoid looking at them.
The next Saturday, when she was attacking a piece of paper with a pink crayon, trying not to get sand on her picture, Gabriel came and sat down next to her. She didn’t look at him. For a while, he just sat there, and she almost tore the paper with her effort. Then he grabbed her hand, and put something small and furry in it.
She looked. It was a dead mouse. Its black, shiny eyes were still open. She stroked its stomach, feeling the soft fur against her finger.
Gabriel spoke in a quiet, rapid breath. “Seth said that…maybe if I helped you find things that were already dead, then maybe you wouldn’t want to…you know.”
His arms were wrapped around his knees, and his eyes were happy, if a little nervous.
Liliana smiled at him, and flung her arms around his neck, though keeping hold of the mouse made it a little awkward.
“Yeah, I like that idea, too.”
Gabriel nodded, and quickly kissed her forehead. She blushed, which was rare, but the kiss was…
The paper suddenly flew out of her lap, and flipped around in the wind. The two of them were on the feet in a flash and chasing it. Gabriel ran ahead of her, and Liliana stayed back and watched him snatch at it, jumping and hoping at it. She clutched the mouse in her hand, and stroked it carefully. Maybe she’d show him the spot almost where she’d buried the octopus. Maybe she’d get rid of her insects. She didn’t know.
Suddenly, he caught the paper, but in his enthusiasm, it ripped. He looked mortified, so scared that Liliana had to laugh. Then, he did as well.
They held hands when they went back into the house.
Picture by photeka, found on flickr, and used under the Creative Commons License.