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My tank of joy and discontent

"W" is for watch, "O" is for octopus

By Alina ZPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 10 min read
Octopus in aquarium - Midjourney

Today is difficult. I’ve already spent half a day in the lab, lying on the surgical tray. The spectacled man keeps showing me white scribbles on his thin, black glass wall. I have seen similar signs before. On kids who press their noses and tongues against my aquarium wall. They wear clothes and caps scribbled like that. Tiny pebbles clumped together, aligned in rows that remind me of the sand ripples carved by the undertow in the seabed.

Some signs are oval, shaped like water puddles at low tide. Others are linear, like the boring stripes of a zebrafish and some are curved, like the sea kelp stalks that undulate in the water currents. I used to play hide-and-seek in the kelp forest, with my friends the squirrelfish and the blacktail.

I don’t want to look at the dark glass today. The thing I want the most is for Lab Girl to wrap me around her hand and carry me to my tank.

The spectacled man shows me a group of those little signs, then points at himself. Like wiped out by a wave, the signs disappear. New signs form on the black glass and the spectacled man points this time at Lab Girl. On and on it goes.

I associate the first group of signs with him. Do those signs belong to him, the spectacled man? Then, the other group of scribbles must represent Lab Girl. Five little pebbles for him, three little pebbles for Lab Girl. I memorize the signs. I take a break, and let the new things sink in. I look away from the screen. They painted the ceiling blue, with white clouds, and I wonder how could they find such a meaningless azure shade, from all the blues out there.

This must be an important experiment, I think, since there are so many people in the lab. They abandoned me on this cold tray and forgot to spray me with water. I flash a few waves of pink to signal my moderate panic. The spectacled man walks around his black glass wall and gesticulates frantically. Lab Girl comes near the tray with a bucket and wants to pour water on me. He doesn’t let her. He keeps showing me the signs, again and again. Yes, I know. Three pebbles for her, five pebbles for him.

The air doesn’t vibrate, so they’re all quiet, and tense. We, octopuses, don’t live long anyway but death by desiccation is not something I want to watch myself go through. I send ripple after ripple of burgundy pigments across my body, but nobody helps me. With her arms holding tight to the little bucket filled with seawater, Lab Girl cries.

Do the humans understand I will die? Why do I even ask?

Five pebbles for him. I lift a flaccid tentacle and point at the spectacled man. The signs on his black glass wall change to three. With the same tentacle, I point at Lab Girl. I do that a few more times, while he alternates the white scribbles and my arm tremors.

Everyone in the lab relaxes and jumps from their chairs. I did well. Lab Girl soaks me in water. According to their arm movements–so limited, so stiff!–and the air vibrations, they’re excited, they must be loud. Sometimes I wish I could hear the humans. That would be wrong. How could they sound better than the sea waves?


Today I unscrewed a plastic jar with a fish inside it. I ate it, stale as it was. Oh, the little perks and frenzies of being experimented on.

Unscrewing lids is my new routine. They throw different jars at me, different lids. They try to trick me. In the beginning, I was slow. At least five minutes to open a plastic jar with a half-loose lid. How do I know? There’s a watch attached to the aquarium wall, on the outside. Before a test starts, the symbols are all the same, round as the octopus eggs. They change while I unscrew the jar, stop changing when I’m done. Then, on the other side of the glass wall, Lab Girl drops me a snack and scribbles down on a white block.


I like the experiments. I crawl glass bridges, from one tank to another, with my body raising half out of the water. It’s worth it, there’s always a snack waiting for me on the other side. I squeeze my arms into tiny little tubes, looking for the stale fish in tube number three. I press buttons and the light turns green or red, which frightens me. In time, I learn that green light is neutral and I resist the urge to cover my face with the tentacles. The red light is different. It flashed only once.


On our short trips between the experimental lab and the aquarium, Lab Girl walks with me wrapped around her hand. In the beginning, she placed me in a mobile water tank and wheeled me along corridors, and that’s how I see how many other labs and aquariums are here.

To her boss’s fury, she doesn’t use the mini tank anymore, just covers her hand with me and dips me in water. Today, she leaves the lab and waves at the spectacled man from the door. I shake my tentacles too, which makes our little tandem a bizarre incarnation of a semi-scientific cheerleader. The spectacled man frowns. She defies him like that but she’s scared of him. For a fraction of a second, her sweat acidifies.

Lab Girl has the velvety skin of a sea anemone and she always tastes like saltwater, what a bliss. When I fold around her hand, I change my colors to light brown, to match her skin. Then she would go next to a window, raise her arm, and look through me, into the light. Her dark hair shines in the sun and I can’t resist touching a strand with my arm-suckers neutralized, of course.

She lays me down in the water tank with caution. The other lab workers just dump me. Not her. I cling to her pinky with the filament-thin tip of a tentacle. I squash my arms under me and I pack my body in a little heart that pulses in shades of blue and red, in synch with her heartbeat. Our nightly ritual.

By Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

Today I visit the lab but they haven’t planned any new experiments for me. I get a pin prick deep through my mantle, above the left eye. I don’t know what it was, but it changed me. When Lab Girl wants to wrap me around her hand, as usual, I throw myself back on the surgical tray. Her skin is hot and coarse, it pokes me like a sea urchin. I change to a somber green I never thought I’d use, the color of decomposing algae. Lab Girl looks at me startled. When she returns me to the aquarium, her fingers linger in the water. I ignore her.

From the injection comes the sudden urge to tidy up my tank. I pile up the sand in the middle of the aquarium, in desperate need of symmetry. I move around the barrel in which I sleep. I shovel the rocks. I align the metal rings. I roll over the tunnel. I tear down the fake coral and throw it out of my tank–who needs that plastic trash? The tunnel catches my eye, all covered in goo. I rub it for a long time with my tentacles. I rub it until I hurt myself, and tendrils of blue blood float around me in suspension. At this point, the water sensors trigger the alarm, I don’t hear it but I see it flashing. I’m wheeled to the lab.


They throw me a jar whose lid cannot be unscrewed. They make me squeeze through a narrow pipe towards a boring tank, devoid of any food or fun. Glass tube number three has no fish in it, no matter how much I explore with my tentacles. Lab Girl is nowhere to be found.

When I press the button, the light changes to red. The water temperature increases quickly. When it becomes unbearable, I prop my tentacles on the top ridge of my aquarium and jump into the neighboring tank. I know what’s there, I don’t like it but it’s better than boiling water.

I float in the foreign tank, hoping that the shadow in the corner won’t see me and that it’s not hungry. Time passes and there’s no movement. I give up first. I glide on the glass wall towards the corner. The moray eel is right there, half hidden by rocks, looking straight at me. I freeze, waiting for the deadly jump. Nothing happens, he’s alive but apathetic. If they tried to boil me, I wonder what they did to him?

The spectacled man is watching both of us from outside the tank.


I remember the first days after being snagged from my lagoon and shoved into the aquarium. I hid in the barrel, squeezed in the most compact form, a useless, breathing golf ball. People would bang and knock in the aquarium glass, and occasionally I would unfurl my tentacles and squirt water into their sleeves, little bastards.

What brought me back to life was the Lab Girl's subtle presence. Undeterred, she came every day, offered me freshly cut fish heads, and once in a while, brought toys. The best was a book with plastic pages. “B is for baby, book, and bath”. And “W” is for a watch, like the one attached to my tank. And “O” is for octopus.

The funny thing is, I remembered it just now, after two inoculations of some weird orange mixture administered by the spectacled man. He’s not a bad guy after all. After each injection, I felt better and better. I experience these–rememberings. My beautiful lagoon–I remember it now, any time I want.

We go through the plastic book every day. I learn more letters and I wonder why humans are so attached to words, to their names. When he lowers me in the tank, the spectacled man doesn’t wait for my tentacle to curl around his pinky for that pathetic ‘Good night’.


I don’t have urges to ruin my tank anymore. I enjoy going through all kinds of mazes and obstacles even if there’s no fish at the other end. Every day, at the lab, I have learning sessions with the spectacled man. He shows me things directly on the thin, dark wall. It’s not a wall at all, just a screen, as in screen-starts-with-s.

Other changes are going through my body. For instance, when I press the button and the light turns red, the water still warms up to boiling temperature but doesn’t have any effect on me. Except for the smell of hot skin, which is a bit suffocating. I can survive one whole week without them giving me food by catching the occasional micronutrient from the water. And I owe all these improvements to the orange vials the spectacled man is injecting under my left eye. They don't even hurt.

Almost forgot to mention, Lab Girl is back.


I can’t wait for my next lab check. Gentle as always, Lab Girl will pick me up from my tank with bare hands. She’ll think rubber gloves are unnecessary, she’ll think we are still friends. She’ll carry me to the surgical tray, and will slip her delicate palm between my folds.

I’ll glove her hand.

She will smile and I’ll be changing my color to replicate her glowing brown skin. I will match even the little black speck on her index finger. The birthmark. I will recreate the grey line of her cheap silver ring and she will smile,"Look, my ring!". By then, my deadly, newly synthesized neurotoxins would have permeated her skin and would have already paralyzed a few motor nerves. I can’t wait for my next lab check.

I can't wait, Jen.

Sci Fi

About the Creator

Alina Z

Alina likes psychological thrillers that happen up there, on the orbit. She lives in South California, loves to read and prefers writing in third limited.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  1. Eye opening

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Comments (4)

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  • Madoka Mori3 months ago

    That was incredibly engaging! It pulled me right along. Great stuff.

  • Alex H Mittelman 6 months ago

    This was great m!

  • Jordan Twiss7 months ago

    I really liked your execution of the octopus’ perspective here. When telling a story from an animal’s perspective, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of giving the animal so much understanding of human concepts that it just comes across as human. You struck just the right balance, and left the story in just the right spot. Well done!

  • Max Russell7 months ago

    I loved the perspective of this story! The caged test animal makes a great anti-hero in their circumstances. Great pacing too, and I felt I was learning what the character was capable of right alongside the trapped octopus.

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