Tianli Kilpatrick



Minos Kalokerinos was the first to find marine styled pottery at Knossos in 1878. By 1940, many of these Minoan octopus amphoras moved to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum on Crete where I traced their shapes into a notepad. I found octopi curled inside tires on the ocean floor on Bonaire in 2013. The conservation teams recycled tires to the sea floor where they provide homes for marine life and corals. I don't want to be in my own body anymore. Do opposites really attract? When a shark swims overhead, the network of chromatorphores and specialized muscles protect the octopus. Tentacles hug black rubber, cells learning how to mimic this foreign texture. Outside their tires, fish have already memorized the rubber maze. I wonder if the octopus trusts its body's ability to remain unseen. Every ten days or so, the octopus darts from rock crevice to tire to hollow coconut shells, changing colors as it goes. Each new home with new threats, new sharks, same body. I wonder how long it takes to find a home.
      The tarpon doesn't know its protruding jaw and bulging eyes make it fearsome. The Latin name for tarpon is megalops, meaning "large-eyed." Fly fishers, since the 1880s, sought out these fish for the challenge of wrestling an eight-foot long, two hundred pound body. I know all the ways I've tried to not be me. If the tarpon knew of the reputation of its black eyes, would it be afraid of itself? The hissing sound of my dive regulator and the stream of bubbles rising from my tank scare the tarpon easily. I think the burn from fire coral more resembles stinging nettle, not poison ivy. Tarpon are air-breathing fish. They gulp air to fill their swim bladders, rolling their bodies against the surface to exchange gases. I peer into the greenish shadows under the docks, hoping to catch a glimpse of silver scales, a waving tail fin. I envy the way their scales disguise them under docks. I too want darkness to hide me.
     How do we forgive the parts of ourselves we hate? At night, nurse sharks become thirteen-foot bottom-feeding catfish. At night, a quick snap of teeth, another dead fish. They flash in and out of moonlight, but always return to the reef by dawn. I wonder if somewhere there is a shark that does not want to be a shark. The origin of the name "nurse shark" is unclear. Nurse sharks have adapted to perch on their fins in the sand, pumping water in through their mouths and out through their gills to breathe. They hunt by sucking prey from the sand, like a human baby nursing. During the day, they nap on top of each other under ledges or within crevices of the reef. The shark that gets bored probably daydreams of deeper reefs, or of the warm shallows where she was born. The archaic word nusse means cat shark. I wonder if love can save us from life. The Old English word for sea-floor shark is hurse. I swim over their group huddled together watching the world pass by from under the same rock.
     I try to stay close to the things that make me glad I am alive: horses, oceans, autumn, poetry. When northern lobsters migrate south, they march single file, pushing the body in front of them to keep the line moving. Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Amy Tan, Philip Lopate. Steam whines through the lobster's shell when its body is boiled alive. There's a reason you put the lid on immediately after; lobsters spend the three minutes it takes them to die, screaming. Inferno, Paradise Lost, Maggie Nelson, The Shining. Anatomy explains lobsters don't feel pain the same ways as humans. We assume the act of a body curling in on itself is a pain response, but the research of electrically shocking crustaceans is inconclusive. Se7en, Fuel, Prufrock, Girl Interrupted. It does not mean they don't feel pain in other ways. In parts of East Asia, kitchen shears cut the lobster apart, while it is still alive. Blue blood stains white flesh, and the separated legs twitch of their own accord. Tails curl under, a reflex, a last attempt to stay whole. February, Greece, Bonaire, Virginia Woolf. In grocery stores, they suffocate in tanks, antennae pushed against the glass, tails uncurled, relaxed, waiting. Language, travel, rain. I've never liked the taste of lobster meat. I cringe watching my southern cousins snap lobster shells, using their thumbs to squeeze the last bits of meat from legs.
     The Abdopus octopus, or algae octopus, pulls its body out of tide pools, feels the pressure of gravity hug its bones. It crawls across the rocks looking for crabs and shellfish, holding its breath until skin feels tight and suction cups dry. Can I stop time when I move from land to sea? When a fish is caught in a net and rises out of the water, do the other fish think it becomes nothing more than a soulless skeleton? I don't want to remember the first time I learned things don't come back. What do barnacles write on rocks before they die? I wonder if the pattern suction cups and slime leave is a poem in iambic pentameter.
     The picture I take on Bonaire of the ballyhoo, swimming near the surface in the evening, outlives the fish itself. I wonder by how much. What should I have said to save you? Hagfish are the first to tear at a whale carcass that's sunk miles to the ocean floor. Fishermen nicknamed the humboldt squid "diablo rojo" for the way they flash red in anger. I sometimes think like personalities attract. I should have recorded your voice singing pop songs in our high school hallway. I should have recorded the sound of your laugh because now I don't remember it. I flip through my childhood photo album of fish, and only fish. Each blurry photo resurrects its own memory, and I remember how long it took to get the perfect picture of the transparent squirrelfish, the fear from almost swimming into a four-foot barracuda, its scales turned from silver to black with rage, its mouth opened slightly in warning. Again, I came too close. I remember what the tree looks like where you died. Hagfish chew a hole in the whale's side, making a home sheltered by ribs. I want to feel as safe on land as I do in the water. I love the crunch of a parrotfish beak biting at coral. It's loud against the crackling of sand against sand, the distant hum of a boat, and the constant whir of waves. In 2016, I argued with my uncle because he showed off his saltwater tank like it was a trophy.
     Standing on the beach in front of the Turtle Nest Inn on Grand Cayman, the moon wakes in me and I become the horseshoe crab, the nesting turtle, the stingray moving in the sand. When I see scars in straight lines, I always assume they're self-inflicted. Baby barracudas grow up in mangrove nurseries; the trees provide sanctuary from predators, from stray currents. I wonder if a mangrove is what it means to be truly safe. My friend has fresh cuts on the back of her hand and she tells me this is the lowest she's ever been. I think about how I cage myself: the bars that bleed that I've etched into my skin. When I was six on this same beach, I found a bone with miniature rows of teeth. Someone at the inn told me it was the lower jaw of a baby nurse shark. Seventeen years later, I Googled it and learned it is actually the pharyngeal jaw of a parrotfish. I think about how the moon jellyfish doesn't apologize for healing itself after an injury. Within two days, it's rearranged its cells to compensate for the loss. It's taken me years to understand trauma can form scar tissue. There's sea magic in the humpback whale's eerie song, the sneakiness of morays as they weave through coral heads. There's magic in the way currents shape the sea floor, the rock beds. I see contrapasso in the whiteness of scars, the comforting red of blood, the intentional gouging of an organ whose purpose is to protect. Eventually, the barracuda has grown too big for safety. I wonder at what age the confines of the mangroves start to feel like a cage.
     Each octopus decorates their home with shell fragments and small rocks. Dig in the sand and scatter treasures. Cut your skin on rock. Spear the octopus between the eyes to sever the nerve. On shore, beat the carcass against a rock, again and again and again, to tenderize the meat and wring out the water. Grill over charcoal. Season with fresh lemon. Serve with raki. Eat. Eat and be at home.





When I struggle with my identity and its meaning, I turn to the animals I grew up loving and wonder if they question their lives in similar ways. This essay is a product of those musings.