Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
 
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Mollie

by Dennis Wild




Colin had chilling memories of the previous attacks. He hoped today would be different.

As a diver, young Colin slid rather than leaped into the tank. A splashy entrance was always more showy, more dramatic, but he was a maintenance diver, an underwater plumber. He wasn't paid to entertain. He just didn't want to alarm the occupants, one in particular.

The one occupant that Colin most certainly did not want to disturb was Mollie, an ornery fourteen-foot, thirty-five pound Pacific octopus that he had had run-ins with before. He was supposed to check the pumps and filters in the million-gallon massive aquarium and get out.

Although temperamental, Colin did recognize that she was a glorious example of her kind, and she glowed with the pride and glow of her species. Nevertheless, he didn't want to tangle with her again.

Mollie had attacked Colin more than once, for no real reason her keepers could determine, other than for her territorial demands. It was true. Mollie had certainly claimed ownership of the aquarium, but she had also taken an immediate dislike to Colin. Her ownership extended over the groupers, basses, mackerels, barracudas, and the other fish perpetually circumnavigating the huge circular tank. Even the apex predators, the seven sharks of various species, had no interest in Mollie, although any one of them could dismember her in a matter of seconds if it so chose. Ignoring Mollie's self-aggrandizement only added to the sharks' dignity and nobility. Attacking her would only degrade them.

Colin descended to the bottom, bubbles from his regulator breaking as silver sparkles on the surface. He knew that Mollie knew he was there. Even tucked away, hidden in her rocky lair, she sensed his presence--more of a taste actually--impulses transmitted to her brain from nerve endings in her tentacles. Probably the same flavors and impulses that drove her to hate him so.

Not wasting any time, Colin swam to the first filter outlet concealed by a small sunken dory placed opposite one of the many large viewing panes below the surface for the benefit of spectators. In fact, today Mrs. Shutter's second grade class had camped out on the floor and benches for lunch before visiting the rest of the park. Colin gave them a hardy underwater wave which they returned with PB & J sandwiches or apples in their hands.

Colin worked quickly, clearing debris from the intake line. He stopped to wave again to Mrs. Shutter's group as he moved on to the next filter. What he didn't see was Mollie, tinged with red in her rage at the intrusion, jetting directly at him. The children thought it was part of the little stage show until the octopus enveloped the diver with her eight tentacles in an animated, savage attack. Overtaken by the ambush, Colin spun and twisted almost convulsively, trying to free himself from Mollie's powerful tentacles. Mollie, as if she understood the mechanics of SCUBA gear, used one tentacle, lined with suction cups, to tear the mask from Colin's face and another to yank the mouthpiece from his mouth.

Mrs. Shutter managed to gather the children in a sort of huddle, as if they were the ones in need of protection. They all watched as Colin, struggling, with only the little bit of residual air left in his lungs to sustain him, as he struck for the surface with Mollie clinging and tugging at his body.

Mollie, probably sensing the surface was no place for her, decided to ditch the attack, but not before leaving Colin with a souvenir of their time together. Clamped around his chest, Mollie tore a chunk of flesh from Colin's shoulder with her fierce parrot-like beak. A puffy cloud of fresh blood encircled Colin as Mollie jetted back to her dark lair with, what one witness said, was a sort of wave to Mrs. Shutter's second grade class.


* * *

As a freelance writer Russ Stoler sometimes surprised himself at what goaded him into taking on a particular story. The Pacific octopus, Enteroctopus doffeini, as scientists called it, was an idea that he came across via a filler piece describing the attack in an online edition of a national newspaper. He knew the author from a previous life and over a drink she had filled him in on the details that didn't make it into the short piece. In the article, she quoted the director of the park as saying that the Pacific octopus, despite its size, was known to be a docile species, never known to attack humans, but for some reason Mollie took a dislike to the diver, who had quit and was now suing the park for negligence. As a result of the attacks Mollie was placed in a covered isolation tank deep within the tunnels of the marine complex, close to the labs, and far from the encroaching divers and Mrs. Shutter's wide-eyed, second-grade students.

Curious about Mollie's belligerent bad temper Russ phoned the director, introduced himself, and explained that he wanted to do an expanded piece on Mollie, helping the public to understand an animal like her. The director in turn referred him to Dr. Carl Brodsky, the chief zoologist in charge of research and care of the octopi and squid at the marine center, and, of Mollie in particular. Although hesitant for his own reasons at first, Dr. Brodsky finally agreed to allow Russ access to the facilities and to Mollie. On the phone Brodsky, initially had claimed a right to edit the piece before its publication, but Russ said that was impossible without incurring the wrath of his editor. No journalist worth his or her salt would allow a subject of their article to take a red pen to their prose. It didn't work that way. Anyway, Russ had also obtained the unconditional permission from the chairwoman of the center's board of trustees, his boss, so Brodsky's hands were tied. Seeking Brodsky's cooperation was less than a formality, but Russ knew things would run smoother if Brodsky thought he was making at least some of the decisions. Rules of the game.

Russ's introduction to Mollie was quite different from what he had expected. An intern met him in the parking lot and escorted him to the lab and tank where Mollie was kept. Immediately Russ spied Mollie in her punitive lair, knotted into a pink ball, tucked into the far corner beneath a rock ledge, away from the intruding bright lights.

He didn't realize it at first, but it later dawned on Russ that Brodsky, with his beard and intense eyes reminded him of a dour version of Ulysses S. Grant, on the fifty dollar bill. Grant, the hard-drinking, gritty professional warrior, seemed more at ease. Brodsky may have also mistrusted Russ Stoler's scrawny frame wrapped in yesterday's rumpled suit.

Brodsky stepped forward and extended his hand. They shook, but Brodsky was cool, wearing a frozen glare. Brodsky spoke first. "I appreciate your interest in Mollie here, she's quite a character. I hope I can help you and your readers understand what her species is all about, even though she has made a rather menacing name for herself. None of the divers will work when she's in the big tank. Brodsky paused, reflecting. "And poor Colin."

Russ nodded n agreement. "Where did you get her?"

"She was brought to us by a local fisherman who pulled her from one of his nets. We don't know how hold she is. The species is relatively short lived for their size, averaging three to five years in the wild. We're guessing she hit the three-year mark awhile ago." He smirked. "She probably won't be with us much longer."

"It must be hard to interact with her."

"Well, that's a tricky question. We certainly have tried. Back here, away from the large aquarium, once she senses your presence in the tank she may ignore you, slide across to investigate, or just outright attack you. If you choose to extend, say your arm to her, she will use the sensors on her tentacles to tell whether she likes you or not, but no one has figured out yet what her parameters are. If she likes or will at least tolerate you in her world Mollie's color shifts to a softer blue and you'll feel her caress."

"And if she doesn't?"

"That's a different ballgame entirely. If Mollie decides she dislike you or doesn't trust you, her movements become erratic, her color toggles to an intense flashing red, warning you to back off. She may attempt to take a chunk out of you with her sharp beak or, in the extreme, attempt to haul you into the tank and drown you. She's that strong, you know. All muscle." Brodsky related all this very casually, very indifferently in fact, yet with a conscious, knowing smirk on his face.

"I'd like to try. If it's okay with you?" Russ said, politely giving Brodsky that feeling of control.

"It's your arm, your choice."

Russ peeled off his jacket and long-sleeve shirt to bare his arm. Brodsky took a live crab from a tub covered with damp burlap and showed him how to handle it without being nipped by the claws. "It will serve as a sort of peace offering to win her over," Brodsky said. "Crabs are like Snickers bars to an octopus. Works sometimes. Sometimes not."

With crab in hand Russ slid his arm into the tank up to the shoulder. It took only a second or two for Mollie to sense the journalist's presence and to pick up the scent and vibrations of the struggling crab. She unrolled from her ball shape and glided from the far side of the tank to investigate the new arrival. Mollie's eyes seemed to widen and brighten at the sight of the crab. Russ thought he could see bright red patches of color drifting across her body and tentacles. Brodsky read his mind. "That's a normal reaction. Right now she's reacting to the tasty crab, not to you. Your turn will come. Let her take it from your hand."

Two tentacles crept up Russ's arm almost to the shoulder. He could definitely feel their muscular strength as they curled around his forearm and took a firm grasp above his elbow, anchoring him in place with their many rows of suckers. A third tentacle wrapped several times around his wrist, also pinning it in place. Russ tried to relax his strained posture and arm muscles, but the fear of being clamped in place by an overpowering invertebrate overcame any feeling of composure he could muster. A moment later another tentacle reached forward to delicately take the crab from his hand, not at all like the ham-fisted thug he had expected. No, more like a cautious wild bird taking seed from his extended palm. The tentacle shifted the crab to her waiting beak. The crushing "snap" instantly finished off the crab.

The same tentacle then swept back to explore his hand, still smelling and tasting of crab, for a second possible handout. Finding nothing there, it, Russ wanted to say "slithered," but it actually "tiptoed" up to his shoulder, stopping along the way to taste and sample his skin.

"Now we'll see," Brodsky said, laughing. "She'll either accept, withdraw, or attack." Thinking of the crushed crab, Russ took a deep breath and held it. Mollie, her pulsating body now still, seemed to follow suit, considering what to do next. Simultaneously, all four of her tentacles grasping his arm and wrist relaxed their grip. Russ released his breath. All traces of red had disappeared from Mollie's body. She flushed a sort of soothing powder blue color and for the first time Russ felt the weight of her body rather than the tug and pressure of the tentacles--not unlike holding an infant. In that same moment Mollie drew back all her tentacles, rolling them close to her body. As Russ slid his arm out of the tank, Mollie settled to the bottom, opposite him on the other side of the glass as a new companion.

"I'll be damned," said Brodsky, sounding disappointed at Russ's little conquest. "I've never seen anything like that." Brodsky stepped forward to replace the top on the tank and as he did Mollie suddenly shot to the surface and sprayed him with an aimed jet of water from her siphon. "Son of a bitch. She got me again." Brodsky grabbed a towel from a nearby cabinet. Muttering from behind the folds of the towel he said, "From her first day here that slimy bitch has had it out for me."

Russ laughed so hard internally that it surfaced as a half-suppressed chuckle. "She definitely has her likes and dislikes. Quite a character you've got there."

As hard as he tried, Russ couldn't fully reconcile Mollie's seeming intelligence, locked in a thirty-five pound, fourteen-foot body, with the fact that some of her evolutionary relatives were, well, shellfish, served up on platters with clarified butter, cocktail sauce, and lemon wedges. The thought of his new friend "aging out" hit him in an odd way, too. As a writer, and as a curious person, he needed a better sense of that intelligence that had touched him. Writer or not, he needed to learn more about what made Mollie tick before her biological clock ran down.

Russ made the point of explaining to Dr. Brodsky how important it was for him to understand Mollie's behavior and what made her special. He had already convinced his editor that Mollie's story would make good press. On top of that, Russ had persuaded Brodsky that the article would draw interest to Brodsky's work, the center, and its fundraising campaign. Russ now had to put together an engaging article, broad enough to engage the general public, yet sufficiently detailed to satisfy at least some professionals. Brodsky again expressed his doubts about Mollie being special in any way. To him, she was nothing more than the center's current specimen of Enteroctopus doffeini, and the idea of simply replacing her when she died suited him fine.

Brodsky typed out a visitor's pass for Russ, signed it, and said it would allow access to the center--and Mollie--any time of day, even after hours. He also handed Russ an insurance form to sign, releasing the center from any liability related to his on site work. They begrudgingly shook hands and exchanged thanks, yet Russ still felt Brodsky harbored some resentment of Mollie's adopting him as her new BFF. As he learned later, Russ was closer to the mark about that than he had imagined.

From what Russ Stoler eventually learned about Brodsky from talking to some of the handlers and divers, he had the habit of mistreating Mollie by spiking her crab dinners with hot sauce, tormenting her sensitive digestion, making her reluctant to feed, and thus hastening her demise. It was also not beyond Brodsky to dump fiery hot sauce or some other irritants directly into Mollie's tank, stinging her delicate eyes and respiratory system. He was often heard cursing at Mollie, as if she was his enemy, rather than his charge. Russ didn't learn of the campaign of terror until later.

Up until that time Russ's experiences with Mollie were what Russ later called "enthralling," if he had been a poet he claimed he might have called them "enchanting."

For nearly three weeks Russ came and went as he pleased, popping in to see Mollie, seldom running into Brodsky. Mollie had become accustomed to his visits, eager for her treats of unadulterated crabs. It wasn't long before she recognized Russ coming through the door and jetted out from her rocky lair to greet him. Her behavior showed that Mollie had come to relish the touch of his hand and cradled his bare arm as would a young girl hugging her favorite rag doll for the security it offered.

Russ looked forward to these encounters with Mollie, but often wondered how in the world he could put these odd emotions into words in the Sunday supplement. He wasn't sure now that the article was going to happen at all, but what he was sure of was that Brodsky was wrong in his assessment that Mollie's species had exchanged growth and size for a short, determinate lifespan. Her three-year life of a racing metabolism had not been traded for size. No, Russ thought, it was for awareness, maybe even a type of primitive wisdom.

What he was also sure of was that Mollie was aging quickly. She still had her muscle tone and strength, but her rich colors were beginning to fade and she crept a little slower across the tank floor. There was a clear sadness to their meetings that he overcame by reasoning that her dying was a natural process, after all, there was only so much space and so much food available in the Pacific Ocean for fourteen-foot octopi. They were never designed to live forever.

The last time he saw Brodsky the biologist had acted particularly cagey. He shied away from direct eye contact. When he did look up, his eyes quickly cycled between tight little squinty things fighting a bright light that wasn't there to broad disks forced wide open by some sort of internal hydraulic pressure. Russ took a moment to discuss Mollie's situation. "Mollie seems to have lost some of her energy and color. But she's still eating well, at least from what I can see."

Brodsky grinned, his eyes wide now, knowing he was tormenting her. "Well, as I said she is burning out." His grin broadened. "I don't think she has very long."

"I think she has as long as she has," said Russ. He angled his head trying to see into Brodsky's lowered face and hidden eyes to get his attention. "I'm having a tough time putting the article together. It's difficult to describe her intelligence and emotional responses to the average reader and not sound a bit like a crackpot."

Brodsky mindlessly shuffled his feet, staring down at them as he spoke. "As a writer, and as an armchair naturalist, if you want your writing to appear authentic, you can't forget she is a mollusk, with a cute name maybe, but you can't forget her relatives are calamari, clams casino, and escargot. So you may not find much public sympathy for a dead octopus. A lot of what you see as intelligence and emotion is nothing more than instinct supported by large nerve bundles. She's not a mindful being. Regardless of how or what you feel, you can't have a personal relationship with a clam. Not without coming off as that crackpot you fear so much."

"It's not about one dead octopus, Dr. Brodsky. It's about people living with nature. Without nature in our lives we've sacrificed some of our humanity. And I don't know how much humanity we've got to spare."

"That's very sweet, but the fact is that that damn mollusk has been the bane of my existence since it arrived. I'm done using gender references for it. It's a thing not a she and I'll be more than happy when it is gone."

Russ walked out, leaving Brodsky's words hanging in the air. Afterward, like after so many arguments, he thought of things he probably could or should have said to challenge Brodsky's thinking, but it was too late and he was too far along on his bent logic to make it worth the effort. Anyway, Russ thought it was time for a break. He decided to take the next day off from Mollie, from the center, and certainly from Brodsky; a time to sketch out in his mind what he wanted to say in print.

He worked at it all day, and the next. It didn't go well. It wasn't writer's block. Russ only needed an angle on the story, without which the article would read more like a dissertation, flat and boring. The piece had to have a beginning, middle, and an end, and he clearly wasn't there yet. To get there, wherever "there" was, he had to spend more time with Mollie. His editor wasn't happy about the delay and threatened to kill the assignment. It wouldn't be the first missed deadline or last.

Trying to avoid any more confrontations, Russ worked out a schedule opposite that of Brodsky's regular routine. He didn't need the aggravation and figured Brodsky felt the same. It was during this round of visits that Mollie's individuality came to light. His writer's soul wanted to call it a "persona," but he thought better of it, considering that might be reaching too far into the crackpot realm to be taken seriously.

Regardless of how you looked at it, an aging octopus wasn't the most dynamic subject for a Sunday feature or, for that matter, to study for hours on end, but Russ learned that it could bring about an inner peace, with a sort of other-worldly touch to it. Every night he pulled a stool beside the glass barrier and just sat there watching Mollie, taking notes and adding thoughts to the storyline for the article. Over time Mollie crept out of her lair and shared more and more of her limited time with him. Loneliness is probably one of the great equalizers, particularly when the clock showed three in the morning.

One night, with the lid of the tank raised, Mollie slid out of her lair and again cozied down next to him on the other side of the glass. Russ had the strangest feeling that she was scrutinizing him as much as he had been studying her. At any rate, she reclined beside him, her bluish body gently pulsing with what Russ interpreted as contentment, a very human trait.

Still hours from dawn, Russ's attention slipped and he dozed off during his note taking. First, in the fog of sleep and then, as his mind freshened, he became aware of the delicate touch of a tentacle tip moving smoothly across his cheek – touching, tasting, searching. He didn't know how to react. If he moved suddenly it would seem to Mollie as though he was frightened, which I wasn't. Or it might frighten her. Then again, if he didn't react Russ thought he could miss something amazing.

Slowly, very slowly, he opened his eyes. And there she was, eye-to-eye with him, perched atop the partition, clinging to the glass with her many suckers. With an almost conscious recognition Mollie withdrew her touch and settled again to the bottom, satisfied about something. Russ spoke in a soothing tone, afraid to break whatever mood this was, and gave her a crab. "There you go old girl, an early breakfast." Mollie deftly took the crab from his hand, but there was no "snap" this time. She didn't eat it. She dropped the struggling crab and scooted back into her darkened lair. It was then that he knew her time was short and she had just said goodbye.

Saying goodbye was only one of Mollie's last missions in life. Later that afternoon when most of the staff had headed home, Brodsky skulked into the lab, his eyes still alternating between blinking squints and wild fixed saucers. He raised the lid on Mollie's tank and greeted her in a whisper--an almost sinister whisper. "You've given me more damn trouble than any other thing that swims. Even those sharks eating expensive specimens or turning on each other weren't as much a pain, but soon I'll still be here while you'll be out of my hair, sitting in a bunch jars, on the shelf, pickled for posterity."

Brodsky took a bottle of Texas hot sauce from his desk and splashed a heavy dose on the crab in his hand. He knocked on the glass with his knuckle to summon Mollie for a treat. She uncurled in her lair, but wasn't attracted to the bait. Brodsky sweetened the deal by dropping an untainted crab into the tank. Although rarely hungry these days, Mollie was still a creature of habit and instinct, so she jetted to the freed crab, enveloping it with her entire body. The crab "snapped", but remained uneaten as Mollie crept a short distance away.

Brodsky's determination got the better of him as he plunged his hand and the crab into the tank. In her primitive but discriminating mind Mollie recognized the opportunity--her final mission. Mollie's body expanded with a huge inhalation of water followed by a tremendous jet-powered expulsion that jetted her directly to Brodsky's arm. In a flash, ignoring the crab, all eight tentacles latched onto Brodsky's arm and head, while her ferocious beak bit into his neck. Brodsky shrieked in pain, searing pain. In the same instant, using her bulk and strength as leverage, Mollie pulled the screaming Brodsky over the glass partition, into her world. Enough was enough.


* * *

Russ would never forget his next night's visit to the center. He had nearly called it off when he saw Brodsky's car still in his designated parking spot. Russ didn't want to deal with him, but he did want to see Mollie again, for maybe the last time. Walking into the lab he immediately knew something was wrong.

The scene at the tank was horrific.

On the floor around the tank lay what was left of Brodsky. His torso, sopping wet, in the remnants of his tattered clothes, sat propped up against the blood-smeared glass. Then Russ spied two arms, two legs, positioned in a precise, tidy stack farther down the divider. Bloody sucker marks covered the outside of the glass like stenciled snowflakes on a holiday window. Adding still to the bizarre scene, Brodsky's left hand, extending from the pile of limbs, still tightly grasped an opened bottle of Texas hot sauce.

Russ exhaled heavily, suddenly realizing he had been holding his breath since stepping through the doorway. He gazed into the tank, shading his eyes from the glare, to see Mollie in her lair, motionless, lacking any telltale colors, absent any signs of pulsating life. Mollie's time had run out.

Russ Stoler had no training to do it, but nevertheless in his mind he attempted to make sense of what he saw.

At that point he had no explanation for the hot sauce in Brodsky's hand. He wouldn't know until later how Brodsky had used it as a weapon to torment Mollie, so he had no clue as to motive, human or mollusk.

What he did have was a collection of seawater-soaked, bloody body parts and a dead Pacific octopus. As unbelievable as it was, it looked like Mollie had dragged Brodsky into the tank, her tank, and methodically tore him apart. Only a medical examiner could establish whether or not Dr. Brodsky had been alive through all or part of his dismemberment, but Russ guessed that Mollie had wasted no time in deconstructing Brodsky, once she was committed to action. He must have been alive and conscious through at least part of it. Russ visualized Mollie, pulsing red with untold rage, as she combined the strength of her eight powerful tentacles and the formidable crushing, cutting strength of her beak.

He could envision Molly tugging at Brodsky's limbs one by one, perhaps to a degree not unlike quartering a supermarket chicken, but alive, until they separated from their respective joints--socket joints pulled apart, ligaments and tendons stretching, fraying, popping--the beak clipping through the taut sinews, freeing the limb for Mollie's collection.

Above all he tried to imagine Brodsky's terror. And the agony. He wasn't very successful. Russ stood there, beside the tank, conjuring up the sounds of his underwater screams, pouring from his mouth in bubbles, and carried to the surface, where they burst releasing the screams. The writer in him felt almost ashamed thinking that maybe he didn't give a damn about how much Brodsky had suffered--almost. Russ pictured Mollie, in her last living efforts, pulling herself partially out of the tank and toiling to arrange Brodsky's remains in a pattern pleasing to the mind of an octopus. Some sort of message he imagined.

Then there was Brodsky's head, bloody, torn at the neck, eyes wide open in terror, which Mollie had carried back to her lair and cradled among her tentacles as a treasured trophy.

Russ didn't know, and probably would never know, if his analysis was accurate, nearly accurate, or complete fiction. He knew though that he finally had the beginning, middle, and the end of his story, but somehow couldn't bring himself to submit or even write in the first place. The story of a murderous, sentient mollusk was not Sunday supplement material, nor would it read as a piece written by someone other than an absolute crackpot. It was in no way a just or proper epitaph for a unique, thirty-five pound, fourteen-foot, Pacific octopus named Mollie.


THE END


2013 Dennis Wild

Bio: Mr. Wild's nonfiction book, The Double-Crested Cormorant: Symbol of Ecological Conflict, was published February, 2012 by the University of Michigan Press. He has authored about fifty articles in national and regional outdoor magazines as well a work-for-hire pieces for Nations Best Sports, a national association of sporting goods retailers.

E-mail: Dennis Wild

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