Mollusk

Madeleine Leznoff

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Like an octopus' tentacles, Madeleine Leznoff's short story "Mollusk," originally published in vol. 3.1, seems to move in multiple directions at once. But all comes together swimmingly at its core: a moving story about childhood wonder and fear.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

Sam’s come for the octopus. 

The other girls on the bus trill about otters and seals, the wrinkled pups they liken to the plush animals perched on their beds. The boys recite trivia about sharks from the back, slinging secondhand stories about their size and appetite, comparing hypothetical survival tactics. They declare all the money in their cargo pockets, and debate whether it’s enough to buy a shark tooth necklace at the gift shop. 

Sam’s dad poured coins from his pocket into her palm that morning. She stood in the hall while he wiggled into his dress shoes, their heel-spines forced into forgiveness. “There’ll be a vending machine, no?” he said apologetically, before slipping backwards out the door. 

Octopuses aren’t even Sam’s favourite animal. She watched a TV program once and was disgusted by how their tentacles moved like tethered snakes. Then such a snake darted over her foot in the yard by the old shed, which she thought she might ask to turn into something else, a playhouse or place for crafts. Seeing the snake’s tawny, slender head propel through the grass made her feel lightheaded. 

Sometimes before bed, though, Nana reads her the book she plucked from the free bin at the library last year, its spine now cracked and white-veined with barely enough glue to hold the pages together. Secrets at the Bottom of the Sea. Sam’s now old enough to know Nana isn’t her mom, but sometimes she lets herself pretend, like when she waits to see her wide hips round the brick corner of the school before her long, silver hair comes into view. 

When Nana reads, she eases herself into the bed and waits for Sam to shimmy perfectly into the slopes of her body. She catches Sam’s head in the soft space above her collarbone and lets out a content sigh, so Sam sees her breasts rise and roll like she’s floating between waves. Nana never skips words when she reads. When Dad reads, he misses important parts and keeps one foot rooted to the floor; he flips the pages with his inside hand so his shoulder is never still. Once, Sam asked him to slow down. He looked at her and said, “It’s not even a kids book. Why do you like it so much anyway?”

But Nana strings the sea’s stories into a song. Like the story of the octopus mother, she threads the syllables—chromatophores, invertebrate—into a melody of clinking beads, her low voice softening the space between sentences with a hum that reverberates through her body. Nana’s lullaby decants The Mother’s final mission to find a den, underneath coral or in a small cave, to watch over her eggs. That’s the best part: The Mother never leaves. For six months she waves her tentacles, fanning the water so her eggs flourish. The tiny spawn drift serenely toward the light when they hatch, and The Mother starves to death in the dark soon after. The coda: The Mother dies to give her offspring a chance to survive. No matter how sleepy, Sam is always wide awake then.

“What do you know, Sammy,” Nana said the first time, surfacing from her reading croon. “Maybe it’s not so unnatural after all.”

*

O-C-T-O-P-U-S, Teacher spells out slowly. Each letter rings throughout the aquarium’s underground until she releases the next. Sam copies them quickly into her notebook and springs up from the banquette, glass-bound, while the other kids loll and shove each other.

She searches—frantically. Silver fish glisten pastel pink and peach when they turn, the anemone trembles at the bottom of the tank; coral, the colour of Mars, stacks upon itself into the distance. Then, a tentacle flails out from beneath a curled, porous lip of rock. Sam’s forehead pulses where it meets glass.

But the octopus stays hidden, the one arm undulating. Sam can’t help but imagine the milky jellies rising to the surface, and The Mother’s limp body following reluctantly, catching on coral, sent spinning. A fiery nebula, losing colour and brilliance as it drifts and twirls. 

Sam closes her eyes and hears her wavering breath, her nose wet from the condensation. Finally, Teacher gently pulls her away by the elbow. “Samantha, it’s wonderful you’re so curious,” she says. “But think of the germs.”

*

The tank had felt immense during that first school trip, but now Sam sees the cruelty, the dark joke of its size compared to the ocean. She sees the fingerprint smudges on the glass and the old foot-worn carpet. Only her second time home since burying Nana, this time for a final funeral: she has no blood left. Orphan sticks in her mouth, but rings too juvenile for a woman her age to say out loud. She couldn’t press one more moth-eaten shirt into a box, and the aquarium was the only place she could think to go.

Sam lightly starfishes both hands against the tank and once again watches the electric organisms gape and purse their hairy lips, and the gelatinous orbs slyly morph. Luminous invertebrates disappear behind her fingers as if she conjured them. The freckles of light surge and sway behind the glass, approach and change their mind at the last second. Sam takes her hands off the glass and steps to the back, sitting on the reupholstered banquette to rest her feet and survey the mise-en-scène

“No, Mama! No!”

Cries ring throughout the underground chamber.

Sweetie, calm down. You’re gonna scare all the little fishies. See? They’re swimming away.”

Sam watches the mother and child, silhouettes framed by the neighbouring window pane. She takes note of how lightly the mother encircles the boy’s wrist with her fingers, how swiftly she swoops to his level and swings between the water and his soured face, pointing to the tank and grinning at him widely. Back and forth. 

“See? See?”

The boy’s cries anagram to soft coughs as he watches and juts out his little belly. Sam is envious of the mother’s innate reaction, her confident execution in grasping the child’s frail wrist without wringing it. She must know all the exact touches, the tricks to keeping both children and men in her orbit. Sam slips a finger beneath her sleeve and strokes her own wrist, the inside smooth as a conch’s mouth. 

The boy quiets and watches the schools of fish magically synchronize and weave an untraceable path in the water. What is he looking for? Sam wonders. A certain species? She tries to imagine herself, years ago, absorbed by the same world at the aquarium. Did she appear so enraptured to adults, to Teacher? The mother breaks the boy’s spell, staggering as she scoops him up with both arms.

“Oopsy daisy! Up we go!”

Sputtering, he reaches an arm over the mother’s shoulder, his fingers stretching and furling, but she straps him into the stroller with one quick motion. Instantly, he pitches forward toward the water. His mother looks around apologetically before she three-point turns the stroller and rolls him out of the viewing area. 

Sam moves to the window pane where the boy’s small circle of condensation is fading. It’s the same spot Teacher had coaxed her from—she remembers that childlike yearning so clearly. The anticipation of the reveal. Suddenly, she spots an octopus edging into frame, like an actor scouring the audience from behind the curtain. Its neon tentacles curl successively to show off rows of suction cups. A small plaque to Sam’s right is etched with cursive: Enteroctopus Dofleini - Cephalopod Mollusk - Invertebrate. And below, Hi, my name is Octavia. The octopus scuttles along the tank’s floor, spinning sand up around her, keeping her slitted gaze even. Then, her tentacles unfurl and clench. She shoots away, blushing mercurial as she arcs and disappears into the ether. 

Sam slowly pushes her body against the glass. Crabs clamber into the cloud of bubbles Octavia left behind, and she thinks of the speck inside of her. No, it’s bigger than a speck. “A plum!” the doctor had said, smiling expectantly, waiting for Sam to express joy for growing something akin to fruit. Curiously, she’s proud of her body’s uncanny ability to nurture something other than herself; of the life unfolding in an abyss she didn’t know existed. Now its own ocean, her body holds something waiting to wash ashore. 

Octopi have been on her mind again. The female’s alchemy as a shapeshifter, water dancer, escape artist, and queen of camouflage only leads to one inevitable role—one that does not even allow her to bear witness to her own creation. A duty fulfilled; a body wasted away.

Sam was told her mother died shortly after her birth, but she found the note buried in the bottom of Dad’s desk drawer: It’s for her own good that I’m gone. Please don’t try to find me. 

As a child she learned that some species have no spine—but they also have no choice, and no chance, for motherhood. What will it feel like to wrap her own child tightly in her arms? Sam imagines the two of them will drift into the light, together, and she can’t imagine any reason good enough to let go. 

Madeleine Leznoff lives in Toronto where she works as an editor and writer. Her work has been published in Grain Magazine, Broken Pencil, and was shortlisted for Room Magazine’s 2022 fiction contest.

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