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LiFTS Wild Writing Prize Winner 2021: CEPHALOPOD - Claire Carroll

LiFTS Wild Writing Prize Winner 2021

You have to braise it until it’s tender. It’s not supposed to be flash fried in the same way as a squid. That’s a mistake people make. You could deep fry it in tempura batter I suppose; that’d be quite nice. But it has to be treated differently to a squid. Totally different cellular structure. Totally different animal.


She picks up a coil of purple meat. There are suckers on it. It curls away from her fork – tapering elegantly – in a frozen gesture. The glossy sauce drips from her fork, the droplets land on the white tablecloth; bleeding darkly. She eats it in one go.


Oh yes. Very tender. I catch glimpses of dark flesh churning inside her mouth as she speaks.


What’s yours like? she says, jabbing her knife in the air near my plate. Some bottom-feeder probably. Some shit-eater. She laughs; swallows. The food here has been extolled for centuries but it’s all just citrus and fat and salt. No special wizardry.


I know better than to contradict her. People are casting sidelong glances at this tiny, frail woman as she chomps and laughs her way through her meal.


Her body has shrunk over the years. Caved in on itself. Her brain too, making her crotchety; cantankerous. She asks questions and then gets bored halfway through the answer, asking another one and then another and another, until they stack up unevenly and she can’t remember where we started. I visit less and less.


I’m so bored of it all, she says. I want a Chinese takeaway! I want ham, egg and chips! I want a digestive biscuit, for fuck’s sake!


I remind myself that she’s nearly dead. Fading away, they said. She doesn’t look it though. Right now, she looks vital. There’s a glow in her papery skin. Her movements are easy; spry. Maybe it’s the evening light playing tricks. The sun hovers – bored and bloated from the day – ready to drop into the sea.


The sea is boiling hot, nowadays.


She looks past me – beyond the other diners sitting at tables just like ours, covered with paper tablecloths that flap occasionally in the sea breeze – towards the glittering water. She’s been talking about the rising sea temperatures a lot during this stay. She likes to mention it a little too loudly when out in public, so that heads turn. I ask – quietly – that she lay off the hyperbole, but she waves away my protest with a forkful of meat.


You’re in denial, aren’t you? she says, almost gleefully. You’d really rather not know about this stuff.


She wants to talk with her mouth full. She wants to argue about how hot the sea really is, how much hotter it’s going to get. She wants me to listen to how this affects her, how this will affect her work. She talks like she’ll be around to see it; all of the marine life cooking in the sea, floating – distended, tepid – to the surface to bleach in the sun. The fishermen coming back empty-handed, people starving in the ports; the collapse of it all. She still works, in emeritus, although she’s long retired. She accepts that much, at least. She’s got more than enough money from her life’s work to last her until the end; money that she wields at me once or twice a year by booking me these trips. To get here I took the train and the ferry. I didn’t want to fly. She didn’t want me to fly.


Flying is the one thing we can all do without, she said. There’s no need for it. No one needs to get anywhere quickly anymore. Speed is a poison. Urgency is a poison.


***


They have strong, beak-like jaws but the rest of their bodies are soft. They have three hearts: one to pump blood to the head and two smaller ones to pump blood to the gills. They have a brain, but a large number of their neurons are distributed throughout their arms.


It’s arms, not legs, she would always say. How could any animal do all of that with their legs? As a child, she would shout it at me if she was in the wrong mood.


I learned how to tuck myself in at night. How to reach high up for the littlest saucepan; how to boil an egg for her breakfast. I learned that if she was still in bed at noon I was to bring her two tablets and a glass of water.


She would say: It’s my work; my baby. It was more than that. Her work was part of her; woven through her nervous system. The week after I left home, so too did she, packing up her biggest suitcase, hauling it into a taxi with her lean arms. She was offered teaching and research posts in coastal regions across the world. It was an exciting time for her, and she was still young, as she kept reminding me. She called me less and less, and when she did, it was to tell me she had moved again.


The large number of neurons in their arms means that they can exert very precise control over their limbs. Their skin is covered with chromatophores; cells that can change colour and reflect the light. They use camouflage better than any other animal. They have great dexterity and sensitivity; they can reach into tiny crevices, feeling about in the gloom for prey. Their arms have sensation for hours after they have been severed from the body.


She had friends over all the time. Working groups that become parties that would go on into the night. She collected bright minds, she always liked to tell me. I was to stay away when she was working. She couldn’t be two things at once, she said. But I learned how to creep into stairwells and hallways, feeling my way in the dark. I learned how to silence my breathing so that I could listen. I would stay in the dark shadows of doorways so long that I forgot who I was. One night, I slithered past the living room door and out into the cool of the garden as laughter and music boiled inside the house. I let my feet brush through the wet, blackened grass, right to the end of the garden. I leaned over the barbed wire fence, snagging the cotton of my nightdress, the points of rusted metal digging into my stomach as I peered out across the lane. It led to the main road which shone like a river in the moonlight. She never noticed that I was gone.


She was lauded everywhere she went. The lifestyle suited her. The research laboratories and lecture theatres were always air-conditioned, and she liked to go out in the evenings, to smoke and laugh with whomever was around. Students, colleagues, lovers. If they left her, she would just replace them, growing them back like lost limbs.


Some people found it shocking, that she behaved the way she did. That she packed up our home as soon as she could without a backward glance. A therapist once said: Your whole adult life has been about blending in with someone else’s. How can you tell who you really are? But whatever pain was there has ebbed away now. Time rolls in and out like the tide and washes everything clean, leaving just empty shells; imprints of what was once there. Memories float high above me now, bundling away like passing clouds.


***


This morning I woke up too early. Just after five, I got up and crept out of her apartment, tiptoeing past the door to her room where she lay on her back with her arms by her sides. The machines clicked and exhaled with her. I watch the thin cage of her chest rising and falling. Her mouth was open, her hair spread out across the pillow like seaweed. I don’t want her gone; I know that much. I let the door click shut and went down the communal stairs. Outside the air was delicate and dark blue. The first tendrils of sunlight pushing their way around street corners. I found myself walking towards the harbour.


The only people on the streets that early were the men and boys on the boats. I stood there, my back to a wall, watching their smooth arms hauling nets, gutting fish, opening and filling polystyrene containers, scooping ice, closing, resealing and lifting. Repeating again and again; stacking and lifting and slicing and shucking in an elliptical cycle; enacting generations of muscle memory. Old men in cut-off jeans, young men with slick haircuts, some thin, some strapping, some fat and wheezing, some smoking without using their hands, some shouting, some with shoulders that looked burdened with grief, some that sprung from deck to harbour wall as if their worries were so thin that they might evaporate in the rising heat of the morning. Everything full of grace; everything fluid.


Their intelligence is in their nervous system, she would always say. You can’t compare their intelligence to ours; not in the same way. Their intelligence is like several of us, all working together, intuitively.


The catch glistened in the boxes. Smooth flat ovals with eyes still glossy and bright; mottled torpedoes; ghostly fins. Tentacles that moved and shuddered, cascading and careening over each other as the lids that were placed on the boxes plunged them into a cool darkness. The sun inflated above me. The water danced off the hulls of the fishing boats and the metal of the men’s tools. I left, hungry and sick all at once.


She was awake when I returned, bustling about the apartment, the breathing machines all tucked away. She had made coffee. I went out to her as she stood on the balcony with her back to me. The sun was high in the sky by then and it illuminated her. I could see through her dressing gown; through her gauzy skin and straight through to her bones. A jolt of a memory: walking along a cold beach with her, my tiny hand wrapped with hers, picking up dogfish egg cases – mermaid’s purses – and holding them up to the light. They were dry and brittle. She liked to remind me that whatever had been inside the egg cases was long gone.


It’s our last day, she said, without turning around. We’ll eat something delicious.


Much later, we walked back down to the harbour. The men on the boats were still there but the activity was different, slower. Some older men sat on metal framed chairs in front of empty plates. One of the younger ones sang along to the radio. Gulls flopped on and off the harbour wall.


Too early for supper. Let’s walk along the beach.


We found the slipway and made our way through the last of the day trippers, and the locals sunning themselves after work. It’s safe to do that now, if you take the right tablets; if you accept that you will age and die faster. Along with the resurgence in tobacco smoking, it feels like this is something people do on purpose; it feels like everyone’s trying to die. As individuals we’re having a good time, seeking pleasure, enjoying the last rays of the sun. But as a species, we’re trying to accelerate our deaths. We were doing it in a way that looks casual, like we don’t really care, like it’s what we’ve always wanted.


We walked out along the headland, where the ocean scurried up the foreshore, dragging sand and seaweed and hapless fragments of crab shell back with it – repeating and repeating – making gentle progress inland each time. I wondered if the sea would look different with nothing in it; if an empty beach that was empty forever would still be as beautiful.


She tucked her arm into mine. It felt brittle, like it was already dead and dried out.


Have I ever told you about what they do with their young?


No.


The mother goes into this sort of fugue state while she incubates the eggs. Nestles down around them. It takes everything she has to nurture them during the gestation period, to the point where it causes her cells to break down.


What happens after that? To the mother, I mean.


Well, she effectively self-destructs. In order to give life to the eggs.


Oh. Wow.


Yes. ‘Wow’, indeed. Some people refer to it as a sort of ‘cellular suicide’ but I think that’s rather overly dramatic, don’t you?


I suppose so yes, I said. Suicide is something melancholic. Do animals feel melancholy?


Suicide is born from futility, not necessity. I think the mother accepts her fate and just gets on with it. Something innate and within her commands that her cells break down, and that’s it: No looking back.


I turned to look at her, with her hollow face beneath its huge sunglasses, her bobbed halo of hair ablaze in the late afternoon sun. Her legs are mapped with veins nowadays. There’s no muscle there anymore. I marveled at how she could continue to walk with such purpose.


Afterwards we made our way back up to the harbour and found this place. I ordered something that translated roughly as ‘white fish and sauce’. I had known all this time what she was going to order.

***


The sun slinks off. She’s eaten everything. I’ve hardly touched mine. I can’t stop thinking about that mother, hunkering down around her eggs, destroying herself for her offspring. Why would anyone choose that? The waiter comes and clears our plates, and she strikes up a conversation with him. She speaks the language rapidly and with absolute accuracy. She makes no attempt at an accent, but then she never has. He asks her if she has enjoyed her meal. I can’t quite keep up, but I think she’s telling him that it was the most delicious meal she’s ever eaten; that it was a most superior creature. She gestures with grandiosity, looping her sun-damaged arm in the air as she reaches into her bag for her cigarettes. The waiter’s eyes dart between mine and his colleague’s. Some of the other diners look over. Her voice grows louder and louder. She says that it was like eating a divine being; that this was a godlike creature from another world that no one will ever fully understand. She is saying that now she is godlike because this animal – this marvel of evolution, this divine creature – is inside her. I excuse myself, making my way towards the bathroom, her voice fading behind me. She hasn’t noticed I’m gone. I slide between the tables and out across the boulevard, making my way down the slipway and onto the beach. The sand is cool. The ocean is cooler still and viscous – bluish-black – as though brimming with ink.

Claire Carroll is a writer based in Somerset, UK, who writes about nature, technology and relationships. She has recently finished writing a collection of experimental linked short stories that explore the anxiety, grief and inertia brought about by the overwhelming advance of global warming.

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