Elizabeth Gonzalez’s short stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the Midwest, SolLit Selects and numerous literary journals. Stories featured in this collection received the 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Prize from Hunger Mountain and the 2012 Tusculum Review Prize. Gonzalez works as a freelance writer and editor in Lancaster, PA, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. The Universal Physics of Escape is her debut collection. Learn more about Elizabeth on her website and Twitter.
The Universal Physics of Escape
© Elizabeth Gonzalez 2015
Excerpted from the story “The Universal Physics of Escape”
Like Pluto, the big extinctions have seen a bit of a demotion lately. Some scientists now believe that even the P/T, the “Great Dying,” which extinguished around 70 percent of land-dwelling species and 96 percent of sea creatures, may have been not so much a massive catastrophe as a series of painful adjustments.
Life persists, and errors just become new code.
Octopus is old, even by the Earth’s standards, and it has therefore seen its share of disasters. Its roots reach back into a common nautilus ancestor some 500 million years ago. It’s hard to believe, but at the time, nautilus was a top predator, a terror of the sea, with some growing as big as millstones. About 400 million years ago, for reasons that are still unclear, the cephalopods gave up their shells and branched off from nautilus. Some scientists believe that both species survived the Great Dying by taking to deep water and, in the case of the nautilus, seriously scaling down its ambitions. When the ocean acidified and oxygen levels plummeted, shelled animals and those near the surface were hardest hit. Octopus and nautilus, buried in the depths of the waters, survived on the fringe.
Today, octopus have moved back into niches throughout the oceans, from shallow waters all the way down to the abyssopelagic zone. One species of octopus has been captured at depths of 7,000 feet. While the species has diversified widely, its basic body plan bears the mark of its time in deep water. Their blood is blue, based on hemocyanin, which carries oxygen effectively in the cold, low-oxygen conditions found in deep water. Hemocyanin is only one fourth as efficient as hemoglobin, however, so while humans can oxygenate all of our systems and extremities with one heart, octopus requires three.
Creatures without shells or bones, of course, leave a poor fossil record, so octopus’s deep history, like a lot of things about the octopus, is speculated rather than known. But even the briefest look at its body plan makes one thing clear: by any standard, the octopus is an alien creature, one whose path wandered a long way from our own.
“For thine is the,” Claire murmurs, hears Lily’s fork drop, leans down to grope for it, chin to the table, swiping once, twice while they work through the power and the glory, picks it up, brushes it against her pants leg and places it quietly next to Lily’s plate just in time to say, “Amen.”
Gets that puzzled look from Nathan, just a glance—it might have waited, of course, she is distracted. She is always distracted, which is why there is that little bit of hurt behind the look.
“We saw an eel that looked like a pickle yesterday,” Lily says. “And a fish that looked exactly like Yoda, didn’t it, Mom?”
“A grumpy little Yoda,” Claire says.
“That would be disconcerting,” Nathan says, smiling.
“They had an octopus,” Claire says. “It was so strange.”
“It changed colors, just like a chameleon,” Lily says.
“I didn’t know they changed colors,” Nathan says, dishing up some mashed potatoes.
“I know, anyway,” Lily says. It’s one of the speech patterns she’s recently picked up from Samantha.
“By the way, Greg told me today they lost a helper in Kindercare,” Nathan says, passing the mammoth potato bowl. “You could work three mornings, or even more if you wanted. He says they could be flexible, too, with the hours. You could just come after Lily makes the bus. We wouldn’t have to worry about schedule conflicts.” With Claire’s museum schedule, Lily has to go to the neighbors’ three mornings a week for about ten minutes to wait for the bus.
Claire nods, reaches for the salt. How can she tell him she doesn’t want to work with children anymore? That she is tired of toys, of picking them up and cleaning them off, tired of sorting all these odds and ends into endless bins here or at church or—well, yes, at the museum—only to see them scattered across the carpeting again. Although at home it is no longer toys, more books and hair bands and doodads and hoodies and shoes let loose around the house. But she doesn’t want to do it anymore, not for a living.
He shrugs as if it doesn’t much matter, but adds: “They pay about $10 an hour.”
The museum pays her minimum wage. In fact, she started as a volunteer two years ago and has only recently graduated to a paying spot, something they had celebrated with dinner at Friendly’s.
“Mom’s an astronomer, Dad,” Samantha says.
“Well of course,” Nathan says, graciously nodding, while Claire runs the math on the pay difference. It’s painful: $50 a week, possibly. $200 per month; $2,400 per year. Two-thirds of a trip to Disney.
“I’m not sure I should give up the museum,” she says. “They’re talking about a new exhibit, and I might be able to help. It could be big.” But as the talk turns to school, she is still doing the math. $2,400. Whatever the exhibit will be, she knows, it won’t be that kind of big.
– – –
Why is it that the chameleon is so famous for its camouflage abilities, while the octopus, the true master of the art of disappearing, is hardly known for it? Unlike a chameleon, which relies on chemicals to change colors, an octopus can change colors and patterns almost instantly using special colored cells called chromatophores that work just like pixels in a TV screen. An octopus can take on an almost unlimited range of pictures and patterns, imitating everything from sand and algae to parrotfish and coral, and can move the patterns at will over its skin. It can show one display on the part of its body facing prey (or a potential mate) while leaving the rest in camouflage. In one common display, the octopus will flash dark stripes over its body in rapid succession; the octopus seems to use it to mesmerize or distract prey. Sometimes, octopuses seem to change patterns merely out of boredom. One study found that the Indo-Pacific day octopus, Octopus cyanea, changes body pattern more than two times per minute while foraging.
The octopus’s skin can also change texture, from sponge-like and lumpy to smooth. Add to this the octopus’s nearly infinite ability to change shape, to flatten and stretch into a sheet or curl up into a ball, and you have a creature that can disappear in almost any environment.
But there’s a final element that is essential to the octopus’s disappearing act: it is not above acting a part. When threatened, an octopus usually employs a series of coordinated countermoves, some of them reminiscent of old cartoons. The octopus may eject ink, sometimes in the shape of its own body, while it jets to a point nearby and disappears into the scenery. Mimicking a rock, octopuses have been known to creep across the sea floor and freeze every few steps like kids playing red light, green light. When imitating seaweed, an octopus will raise a single, leafy arm into the air and wave it gently in the water like an undulating frond. Some divers have even reported seeing octopus vulgaris gather up six of its arms and tiptoe across the sea floor on the other two.
Looking at a picture of an octopus tottering across the sand on its two makeshift legs, the rest of its arms hiked up like frilly skirts, one has to wonder what creature it means to mimic. A can-can dancer? Yosemite Sam? But then the answer is simple—it means only to communicate “biped,” as in, “non-cephalopod,” which is to say, anything but me.