Margaret gave birth to the octopus in a wading pool in her own apartment. The midwife, who thought she’d seen everything and nearly had, took it in stride. It had been an easy birth. The creature had come out head first, a boneless mass that they at first mistook for an intact caul. No umbilical cord to cut. No blood, no squalling. He was the size of a loosely closed fist, or the bloom of a peony. He rested at the bottom of the pool, one flexible arm looping softly around Margaret’s left ankle like a long pearl necklace, and looked up at the two women through trusting, amber eyes. Next thing they knew he was climbing out of the pool, reaching for the midwife’s medical bag.
“Oh no you don’t,” she said, gently prying his sucker discs from the leather handle. She filled the tub in the bathroom and corralled the octopus, closing the door behind her. “I guess you’ll have to exchange that crib for a tank,” the midwife said, nodding toward the corner of the studio apartment Margaret had designated as the nursery.
Margaret named the baby Matthew—it was a family name, and she’d always known that’s what she’d call her child if she had a boy. Matthew’s father, Dave, was a no-show for the birth, just as he’d been for the pregnancy. “I’m too young to be a father,” he’d said, and he’d tried to convince Margaret to have an abortion. She’d made an appointment at the clinic the day after she told him, but she hadn’t been able to go through with it. She already loved the microscopic creature growing inside her. When she told Dave she was having the baby with or without his support, and he’d answered, “do what you want—this is your problem now,” she’d realized she didn’t really care if he left her. Two weeks earlier she’d been ready to jump out a window when he didn’t call, but now nothing seemed to matter except the delicate little life they’d made. She shrugged, and Dave had thrown up his hands in disgust and frustration.
Margaret slept deeply after the birth, and had strange dreams, and when she woke the next morning she was disoriented. The blue wading pool still sat, surreally, in the middle of her floor. It wasn’t until she heard Matthew in the bathroom, banging a shampoo bottle against the wall tiles, that she remembered what had happened. Matthew raised two uncoiling arms in greeting when she entered the bathroom. Before she’d left, the midwife had helpfully gone online and printed out a page from the internet on octopus care, and she’d found a can of clams in Margaret’s cupboard which she’d emptied into a plastic bowl and put beside the tub for Matthew. He’d eaten them during the night and the bowl now floated in the bathwater, and he’d also pulled all of Margaret’s soap and shampoo bottles into the tub to play with. He’d apparently explored the rest of the room, as well: there were suction cup marks on the mirror and toilet seat.
Margaret went to the Animal Emporium and bought a 50-gallon tank with a light and a smaller tank to hold crabs and feeder fish. “Octopus, huh?” said the lanky young man in a stained yellow apron who helped her. She described Matthew and he told her he sounded like a California Two-Spot. Along with the other supplies he suggested she buy a book called Caring for Your Cephalopod, which had sections on octopus lore and basic care. She flipped through the pages as she was waiting in line to pay, and learned that octopuses have three hearts, and that Hawaiians once believed the octopus to be the lone survivor from a previous universe.
Back at home she broke down the crib and put it away in a closet for storage until she had a chance to sell it on eBay. She set up the tank near her bed so she’d be nearby if Matthew needed her in the night.
When her maternity leave was over, Margaret went back to her job at the jewelry counter at K-Mart. She was relieved that Matthew didn’t need day-care, but it was a hard transition for both of them. For the first two weeks, especially, Margaret was depressed and preoccupied at work, and she would sometimes sneak away to the women’s room to cry in one of the dingy, obscenity-covered stalls. She took the bus to work and it was too far to go back and forth on her lunch break, so the days felt very long. When she returned home, Matthew would rush to the side of his tank and press himself against the glass in greeting, and Margaret would open the lid so he could twine a pliant arm gently around her fingers and wrist. She’d read in the Cephalopod book that octopuses have chemoreceptive sucker discs, meaning that they taste what they touch, so she felt that their hand-holding was also a kind of nursing—her beautiful son taking sustenance from her very skin. She’d coo to him and offer what comfort she could, wracked with guilt over having left him alone all day.
From work she brought him Lego blocks and rubber bath toys, and she loved to watch him play with them: releasing them into the circular current of the tank and then catching them as they came back around. She also loved to give him baby bottles filled with ghost shrimp and watch him unscrew the tops to get at the food inside. He was clever and learned quickly. Twice he escaped from his tank through a half-inch gap under the lid and glutted himself on fish from the feeder tank. She bought him a bigger tank with a sealed lid and moved the feeders out of sight so as not to frustrate him. She also took to feeding him from her hand, much as she disliked the feel of the squirmy carp and pinching crayfish. Once Matthew bit the meat of her palm accidentally with his bird-like beak, a sensation like a small electric shock, and he rushed away to hide behind a coral at the back of the tank as though ashamed. Margaret had jumped from the pain of the bite, but she lured Matthew out with forgiving words and a chunk of fresh fish.