First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2019.
This story will also be published in our 2019 Summer Newsletter.
"The Octopus" by Lauren Michelle Finkle
Manuel was fourteen, then. Everyone on the island of Corvo still used donkeys to reach the outer edges of the farmland. The whale watchers still sat on the highest mountains, and still used smoke signals to tell the men in town that they had spotted a monster from the deep.
It was halfway through the summer and the air was honey-thick. Each day his aunts sat at the kitchen table and sweated in silence, using all their energy to keep their eyes open against the heat. Only his mother, Conceição, seemed to escape the stillness—she moved around her sisters as she cleaned the house and shuffled pots on the stove as if the back of her hand-sewn shirt wasn’t soaked through from the heat.
That morning, Manuel entered the kitchen to find the three sisters already awake and miserable in the sticky air. Manuel let his mother press a loaf of bread, buttered, into his hands, but he didn’t meet her eye as she ruffled his hair, slipping out the door without another word.
The harbor offered no protection from the furious midday sun, and the island’s boys were already shining with sweat from standing on the dock. Manuel ignored the crowd and dove straight into the water, shattering the clear blue. The other boys followed soon after, moving amongst the waves as if the ocean was their kingdom: the slender fish and sea crabs that scuttled below, their subjects.
As Manuel drifted beneath the flickering surface of the waves, he let the weight of the ocean push against his ears, drowning out anything except a deep, dark blue hum. But the noises of the night before lingered. When he’d woken to his father’s roar, smelling of whiskey even through the wall that between his bedroom and the kitchen. “I hear you’ve been asking for money from your sisters. Are you trying to make a fool out of me? Eh, cona, look at me when I speak!” There came the scrape of a chair flung. “I do everything for you, everything you filha da puta and all you have to do is stay in this house and not embarrass me who do you think—João please please be quiet you’ll wake Manuel—he should know what a useless creature his mother is—João please don’t it’ll scare him—”
Manuel stayed in his bed, his eyes clenched shut. He couldn’t move. He must. He should protect his mother, like a man. And this could be the night that it all ended. Everyone would finally be able to breathe again, because the secret they all knew couldn’t harm anyone anymore.
Because they all knew—it was impossible not to. The houses were built almost on top of each other, with three feet from one kitchen window to the next, to stop the ocean winds from eating away at the stone. This was why no one had ever managed to keep a secret on this island, not once in the four hundred years since it was first settled.
So Filomena, who lived across the narrow cobblestone street, was never shocked when the sound of Conceição’s tears pulled her from a restless half-sleep. Filomena hadn’t truly slept in years, ever since the aches from a lifetime of sewing had begun to flare beneath her fingertips. She would slip out of bed and kneel quietly in front of her wooden figurine of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres, forgetting that her husband had died years ago and that she didn’t need to worry about waking him with her prayers. And that her three boys had moved to the mainland as soon as they had turned eighteen, eager to find a town where their every move wouldn’t eventually drift through back doors and across laundry lines to their mother’s ears.
Her knees creaking, Filomena would run her fingers down the sparkling tears on the Virgin Mary’s face and pray for Conceição to have the strength to bear her husband’s anger. And then she would climb back under the covers, falling asleep a little more soundly.
Manuel never did get out of bed. And so, as he pushed through the water violently, he was angry with himself, with his father, with everyone. For never doing anything. For loving João anyway. For the silence. The fish scattered in his wake, as he pushed far enough away that the other boys’ laughter was muffled by the tide. Manuel began to dive, turning up nothing rock after rock. He’d probably frightened away every living thing with his splashing. And then.
It was around him almost before he saw it. A flash of red, a long tentacle reaching out. It was larger than the polvos they always saw. The white spots along its arms blurred into a streak as it curled around his leg. His eyes stung against the salty water as he watched a second tentacle wrap around his knee.
Manuel pushed up, up, up until he broke the surface of the water, fighting against the subtle tug as the octopus moved with him.
“Ajudem! Epa, homems! Help!” he yelled.
“Manuel!” It was Tiago. “Manuel, hold on!” He could feel the tentacles tightening. Tiago and the others were swimming out towards him but they weren’t going to make it in time. Manuel’s pulse thundered in his ears, over the constant thrumming of the waves. His lungs began to ache. He imagined he was crying but it was all the same in the water.
“Manuel!” Tiago had pulled him above the water’s surface, the other boys close behind. “Manuel, pull!”
They were a mess of limbs, thrashing to stay above the water. Each time one of them successfully loosened an arm, another would unfurl. It was an endless, slippery creature, its eyes white except for the pupils, a terrifying black gash through the centers. And then.
Just as suddenly as it began, it ended. They never managed to agree on what made the octopus disentangle itself from their mess of arms and legs and slip away in a streak of red, but Felipe said it was a miracle. Who’d ever been attacked by a polvo in the history of the island and lived?
They were strange, the days the followed. It was strange the way Manuel could only make it five feet before someone would stop him to inspect his bruises. The way that Filomena would whisper, “It really is um milagre,” running her fingers against the tender skin of his chest as if he were one of the wooden saint statues in the church.
But what he found strangest of all was how, even though the neighbors asked to see his bruises until they were just yellow shadows against his tan skin, no one asked to look at the ones that appeared from time to time across his mother’s face and arms and back and legs.
Manuel was fourteen, then. But even now Tiago, who’d seen the beast itself, would greet Manuel with a tug on the hem of his shirt. And then he would mutter, the way he did that first afternoon when they dragged him out of the water, “That cabrão! You’re lucky you’re alive.”
Lauren Michelle Finkle is a student at UCLA, currently completing her BA in English. She divides her time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and can be found reading or taking photos of her beloved spaniel, Annie Josephine.