TENTACLES by Ally Malinenko
THE WATER PARTED AROUND the house, an island in a river, before coming back together down the rushing slope of the lawn. Or what had once been the lawn. When the toucan arrived, blown hundreds of miles from the islands, Jacob was excited. He had never dreamed he could mark off such an exotic bird in his field guide. The hurricane winds must have blown it all the way from South America, he told his wife. She was less interested, focused instead on assessing the damage to the outside of the house.
“We’re going to have to call someone about the roof.” She held tiles in her raw red hands. Jacob nodded but looked down at his own hands, fat and white, like dough. He couldn’t remember the last time he had held a hammer. “There are at least a dozen tiles missing, Jacob. Next rain, even a light one, we’ll have a leak.”
“Okay,” he said, then, “Of course.”
What would it feel like now, he wondered looking at the hammer, all that heavy metal in his hand? He worried it would be too much; it would drag him down to the floor the way an anchor slices through the ocean. Work, the notion of work, of creating something, had faded long ago. Even the weight of the binoculars around his neck hung like a stone.
The toucan took up residence in the oak tree in the backyard and Jacob saw it as a Sign. You will be hearing but not understanding. You will be seeing but never perceiving. The tree was older than the house and, unlike the roof, had survived many a storm. There had been a family of blue jays in it; prior to that, robins. Jacob had checked them all off in his field guide. The guide was supposed to keep him busy, keep him away from the television, out of the chair. It was to keep him focused on living instead of the alternative. The blue jay had waited until the nest was built, until most of the robin eggs hatched and the new babies had taken their first awkward flight before raiding. He read in the book that that was common behavior for blue jays but he still felt disappointed. Jacob didn’t see the robin again, but he did find a dead chick on the lawn. It was purple, bloated, and featherless; pulled too soon from the egg. It was just a zygote of a thing, small enough to fit comfortably in the depression of a teaspoon, but he buried it under the forsythia bush anyway.
His wife struggled with the wet vac. From his seat on the chair, he watched her wide hips sway, fascinated by the size of her ass, by its heft and the stretch of her faded jeans. She yanked and grunted, like an animal dragging its prey to its cave. As she hauled the machine through the living room, the vacuum hose flopped like a tentacle. He listened to the heavy sound of her footsteps as she made her way down into the basement.
“Everything is soaked,” she yelled, her voice echoing up the basement steps. He heard her groan. She sounded like a spelunker, taking her first tentative steps in new, unsteady terrain. “The carpet is ruined.”
He nodded from his seat on the chair, as if she could see him. Jacob lifted the binoculars again, peering at the oak, waiting to see a splash of yellow or red, desperate to see that toucan. There was a faint beep from the watch on his wrist.
The pills he took each day were laid out in the plastic container. The first was red, the second orange, and the third white. Afterwards, two more yellow, the small blue and a final white. Candy-like, he placed the first between his front teeth and bit slowly, daring the capsule to break open, before swallowing one after another. Jacob thought of them as tiny army of soldiers marching in line to their death by stomach acid.
Outside there was a burst of color, a brilliant red, then orange, then the white plumage, a dark black eye, before ducking back inside the trunk. Jacob shook. The binoculars had never felt this heavy. Magnified, the bark of the oak rippled dark and light brown, pockmarked like an old man’s face. Jacob licked his lips, waiting. But the toucan was gone again. What else had the storm brought in, he wondered. What other wonders had He brought forth?
Later, his wife, returned with heavy planks of wood strapped to the roof of the car. Jacob watched through the window as she cut the rope the salesman had tied to keep them secure and then lifted each up, struggling slightly under the weight of the plywood, and loaded them into the garage.
“What are you doing?” he yelled down the basement steps.
“What are you doing?”
She appeared then; dim in the light, rubber boots on her feet, her hair matted with sweat. He could see the water now, past ankle length. It was putrid. The entire basement smelled like the bottom of the ocean.
“The basement is flooded,” she said.
“I know that.”
“I’m using the wet-vac.”
“What about the wood?”
“The guy at Home Depot said it would help. The carpet has to come up.”
“The carpet?” he asked, his voice rising, unsteady.
“Yes, Jacob. Go sit down.” It was the dismissiveness of her comment that angered him. “Go watch your birds,” she muttered before ducking back into the darkness.
The hurricane had long since passed but the storm had flooded the Manning River, saturating the valley. The mudslides followed, and Jacob watched as the slight hill in his backyard slid toward the house. He wondered briefly if the house itself was sliding. Outside the yard was a tumble of mud and broken branches leaves clumped together like fallen men. One of the trees had been felled, its roots pulled toward the dark sky in deference and praise. The wind stripped nearly all its leaves. Jacob liked that there were still some leaves left on the oak, clustered in fragments. It made him feel sane. On the news they talked about still more rain and flooding. Weathermen in slick jackets and hats stood on overflowing bridges and talked about the cataclysm that would follow.
“It’s like End Days,” Jacob yelled down the basement steps. He could see the water clearer now. It had risen. “Margaret.”
She appeared with a frown on her face. “What do you want?”
“They say the rains aren’t going to stop. The river is flooded.”
“It’s like End Days,” Jacob said, releasing what might have been a laugh.
“What? Listen, what are you doing?” She was soaked in sweat and Jacob could see where her shirt clung to the fat of her belly. She looked like a man down there in the dark, like a stranger.
“I’m telling you what they said on the news.”
“What?” She put her hands on her hips. That was the angry sign.
“They say the river flooded. The power might go off.”
“Great.” She looked down at the water at her feet.
“It’s like Revelations.”
“In the bible.”
“What? Revelations?” She looked up at him. “What?”
“Like in the Bible. I am the Alpha and the Omega.”
But then she walked away, out of the light.
“There was a shark swimming down the street in Puerto Rico.”
“What?” she said appearing again.
“A shark. It was swimming down the street. Right by a car. Incredible.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Yes it is. It was on the news. It’s real. It got washed to shore. Blown in just like the toucan.”
Then the rain came, and it felt almost as bad as the hurricane. The leak in the ceiling worsened and they lost power this time. Margaret went around the house lighting candles.
“On the news they said not to do that,” Jacob said from his seat on the chair. “They said people start house fires.”
“I’m not going to start a fire, Jacob.”
“That’s what they said. House fires rise dramatically. We should be using flashlights. I’ll get the flashlights.” He struggled to get out of the chair.
“We don’t have batteries.”
“We should have batteries. We should have prepared.” The timer on his watch went off but this time Margaret brought him his pills, slamming down the water.
“I read the Bible,” Jacob said, swallowing a handful of pills. Were they making a difference he wondered? Was my army of pill soldiers dying inside me or fighting against the tumor? “They predicted this stuff. Jesus did.”
Margaret nodded. “I’m going to the store,” she said.
“But it’s bad out.”
“It’s just raining. It doesn’t matter.” She kissed him on the top of his head. It was brisk, he thought, love-less.
“You can’t go out.”
“Jacob, I’ll be right back.”
“It’s dangerous. You should have gotten batteries before, when there was still time.”
Margaret sighed, her hand on the door. “You think everyone is made of iron, don’t you?” And then she shut the door behind him.
Later when the rain stopped, Jacob opened the back door, tentatively. He had to push against the mud that covered the back deck and only just managed to squeeze out. It was cool outside now that the hurricane had passed. Cautiously, moving through the mud and mucked leaves, he spoke to the sky and the trees and the hidden toucan.
It will come. Like a thief in the night.
He spotted it then, wedged up against a broken log. It had been impossible to see from the doorway but now, in the open air, there it was. It was pink and gelatinous. It must have come with the toucan. He approached it carefully, slowly, but even from a distance he could see that it was dead. The tentacles looked purplish, bloated, as the head of the dead robin had been, but also white and soft like down. He tried to lift it, choking back his repulsion, compelled by fascination. Its flesh was cold, gummy, boneless and as far-flung as Jacob felt. The octopus stared back at him through one split, puss-filled eye. Where had this come from? How many miles from the ocean were they? Jacob scanned the trees for the toucan but there was nothing.
Over the fence, he heard the man call. He could see the military colors.
“You alright sir? You need help?”
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
“Mister you okay,” the soldier called again. “Are you hurt?”
“What?” Jacob said, prying his eyes up towards the man’s face. He looked blank, like all military people looked, Jacob thought.
“Are you hurt?”
“Yes. Sir, do you need help?”
“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.”
“Sir? Are you alright? Don’t touch that, sir. We have a triage set up down the street. Come with me. We’ve got help.”
“Help? Not me, I don’t need help,” Jacob said, laughing. “Not me.” He tried again, in vain, to gather the dead creature in his arms.
ALLY MALINENKO has been writing and occasionally publishing stories and poems for a long time. Too long, probably. Most recently her work was published in Devil’s Arcade, Liquid Imagination and Patasola Press. She currently lives in the part of Brooklyn that the tour buses don’t come to, but that was recently voted to have the best halal food truck.