The Octopus Curse
by Anna Caro
"Do you remember when they had that octopus at the cinema?" a mate of mine asked the other day.
I shrugged and said "yeah, I guess so" or something equally inane. He wouldn't have believed me if I'd explained the tragedy it led to, and I didn't blame him.
I worked there two summers ago, clearing tables in the food court, wiping up free refills of coke the kids always seemed to spill, all the usual shit work for even shittier pay. The octopus was over on the other side, some sort of promotion for the new aquarium, surrounded with posters about marine life protection and ten things you never knew about the octopus.
It wasn't the type of place you had regular customers. Everyone passed into a blur. Kids running round screaming, teenage girls in tight jeans and tops tied up above their belly buttons, young couples with their limbs intertwined and older ones looking exasperated. People say that the more people you see the less you stereotype them, but I reckon the opposite is true. The more you see of them, the less you can be bothered looking for the differences between them.
Anyway... This one woman, June I later found out her name was, I noticed her. She had four children with her, a girl of about nine, two boys, possibly twins though not identical, aged around four, and a baby. I'm not good with ages; don't know many people with kids myself.
They were quiet kids, not like the usual brats we had running wild in there. They hardly ever ordered anything, and I don't think they once went to see a movie. But the girl would have a book and the twins toy cars or diggers, and as their mother gazed absentmindedly away from them, the three would take turns looking after the baby, feeding it from a bottle, soothing it when it began to cry. I wasn't sure whether I should do something, call someone; it made me feel uneasy that she didn't seem able to look after her youngest child, and was leaving it to such young children. But they always seemed clean, well dressed, not hungry; I figured that with all the reports that had been on the news, reporting them to the authorities would probably do more harm than good.
June seemed too young to have kids that age; she appeared only a few years older than me, twenty five at the most. Yet at the same time, she seemed terribly aged, as if burdened with too much worry and responsibility. At the time I just supposed this was the inevitable result of having children young and being left to bring them up alone.
Despite this, there was still something... striking about her looks. A sign that if things had worked out differently, she would have been beautiful. While the kids played or read she did nothing but sit and stare at the octopus. She seemed oblivious of everything else; the children who would tap on the glass and marvel at the unfolding tentacles, the tiny swarm of zebra fish circling the tank, the little note that reassured anxious customers that despite appearances the octopus had all the space he could want, and more, and was perfectly happy with his lot.
I assumed that there was something not quite right with her, depression or something. But to be honest, there are a lot of people around with some sort of problem, and I didn't give it that much attention. But she kept coming, day after day, spending the hours just staring at that tank. It might have been pity, or sheer curiosity, but one Sunday morning, when things were quiet, I sat down next to the taller of the twins.
"That's a great helicopter you've got there."
He looked at me completely bewildered.
"Is it a rescue helicopter?" Still the same blank stare. "Or what about a police helicopter which chases after the bad guys?"
The corners of his mouth eased gently into something approaching a smile and he quietly imitated a siren as he swept the helicopter along the table and up into the air.
"No mate. Vertical take-off. That's why helicopters are so useful. They don't need a runway." I noticed his brother was staring intently at me. I took the helicopter in my hand, flicked the blades with my finger and made it take off from the table. Then I looked at June, smiled at her, though she appeared to be looking straight through me. "Nice kids," I said, nodding in their direction.
She looked flustered at first, as if she had not expected to be interrupted. Then she returned to staring at the tank and replied slowly, as if distracted: "Thank you. But they're not my kids. My sisters take all the credit."
"Well, looking after them is really important. So you take care of them while your sister is at work?"
"Sisters. Elissa is Clare's daughter. Jacob and Jason, they're Sonia's boys. Twins you know. She got to have two, which hasn't happened in my family for centuries. And the little one, Lily, is Sarah's. They died." She spoke the last two words matter of factly, without emotion.
I was yelled at to get back to work, and could only murmur a brief expression of sympathy as I left.
As I wiped the tables, I wondered what sort of tragedy could have befallen her family. I ran through the possibilities; an accident, a car crash seemed the most likely, but I'd have expected it to make the news. Three sisters, all leaving behind young children; the local papers just lap that sort of stuff up. A hereditary disease, then, but it didn't seem right; too close in the timing, and would they really have taken the risk of having children?
I didn't really know to make of it, but the sympathy I felt for, the knowledge of what she had been through, definitely influenced my behaviour next time I saw her.
And this time, she made me notice her; her screams echoed right around the building. I ran across from where I had been wiping trays, to see her being wrestled down by security. A balding man, maybe in his fifties, was standing a couple of metres from her, shaken, his suit ripped. As I came closer I could hear what she was yelling; "Murderer! Murderer! He murdered my mother."
The kids were sitting nearby, averting their gazes. I tapped one of the security guards on the shoulder. "Look, mate. You mind if I take her outside? She's got kids... Just might make things easier."
He looked me up and down. I tried to make myself look trustworthy, authoritative, and he relented. June had gone all limp on the floor so I helped her up and walked with one hand on her shoulder, keeping a close eye on the children following mutely behind.
When we sat down on a bench on the waterfront she was shaking with rage, but quietly. "Women in my family... they die after having children. They have done since always." She twisted a lock of long, lank hair around her finger. "Oh, we handle it. Same pattern always, each generation. The older sisters die after having their babies, and the youngest has no children of their own, so she brings them up. And so those cousins become siblings, and it happens again. And again, always the same."
The whole thing was making less and less sense to me but I listened anyway.
"See, the women have no choice about it. Even if there's no man involved they somehow get pregnant anyway. But for the men -- well, they can choose to get a woman pregnant and have her die, or they could swear a vow to never do that. They did that because they knew eventually there would be a generation of all boys, and our family would die and with it this... curse.
"And the family got smaller, and they -- my grandparents' generation -- thought soon, just a few more generations, and it would be over. And then my father..." She said his name with venom.
"But," I ventured carefully, "if he hadn't then you wouldn't exist."
"Do you really think that matters? He killed my mother who wanted no part in this. He abandoned me to be brought up by my aunt, just like the men always do."
I felt a little uneasy at this, as if she was blaming me as well. Maybe she was. In any case this whole thing was way more than I could handle, and once I was satisfied she had calmed down I went back to work.
"Who was that crazy bitch?" Rob asked me as I got back to wiping down tables.
I shrugged. "She's been having a hard time lately, seems to just have flipped. Just wanted to get rid of her, seemed easier than kicking her out; she'd just scream and cause more of a scene." I knew it was disloyal of me to put it like that, and believe me I felt guilty, but what choice did I have?
The octopus went, released to a happy long life in the open seas or some shit. June was technically banned from the cinema, but the next time she came back no-one would have recognised her anyway. Her hair had been washed and cut -- perhaps even dyed because before it had given the appearance of being grey even though it wasn't -- and it bounced in a dark bob. She was wearing stonewashed jeans and a dark pink top with a plunging neckline. She smiled, introduced herself properly for the first time.
"I think I owe you an explanation. Do you have a few minutes?"
I nodded, silently.
"There's an old story in my family," she continued. "Well, sometimes stories are made to explain things we can't otherwise explain... It's said that many years ago two men of my family -- little more than boys, really, caught an octopus in their fishing net. They didn't get them often in those parts, and they didn't want to eat it, but instead of throwing it back they kept it in a barrel. For weeks they tormented it, prodding it with sticks, chopping off small slices of its tentacles."
"And as you might expect, it died. The next night, the village was woken by the screaming of the two who had caught the octopus. Shaken, each of them separately told the same story -- the octopus had told them, they said, not spoken or anything like that, but got a message in some undefined way, that they would pay. They had brought human curses, pain and suffering to the octopi, and so they would bring them to the humans.
"And that's where it came from, all the death..." She looked wistful for a moment and then straightened herself up. "But anyway, what I've come to say is... it looks like a solution's been found. So I wanted to thank you for listening; I'm sure you must have thought I was crazy. It's too late for my sisters but for Elissa and Lily... well maybe now they'll have a chance."
That was the last time I saw her. A few weeks later they pulled her decomposing body out of the sea. Tormented by grief they said on the news. I saw it differently; she was correcting the balance between land and sea, paying the price for the crimes of someone else, long ago.
© 2008 Anna Caro
Bio: Anna Caro lives and writes in Wellington, New Zealand. For more of her work, including links to stories published in Antipodean SF, The Shine Journal, and Backhand Stories, visit her website at Pterodaustro Dreams.
E-mail: Anna Caro
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