Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jake's Pet

Today tastes like salt. Grey mineral-laden salt, earthy underneath the salinity. And pink peppercorns. It's a basic day, with a twist.

Hence, time for some fiction. Presenting: Jake's Pet.

Even in our eccentric little group, Jake had a bit of a reputation. See, we all have our areas of expertise–Mary can recite the jingle of every toy of the year going back to the Cabbage Patch Kids. Roy is the sea lawyer of Dungeons and Dragons–no, the classic edition, pamphlet bound in paper. Tom has been on a mystery walk since he was nine, and he’s picked up more than the Nag Thomas in that time. But Jake–Jake is kinda weird, and I don’t mind who hears me say so. Even though he’s my best friend.

See, Jake is into aquatic life. He’s fascinated by fish. And not bony fish, the squoogy kind. Slugs and anemones, cucumbers and jellyfish. And octopuses . . . octopi??? Jake would know for sure what the plural is, and it’s probably some bizarre Greek declension. Octopodes, maybe.

Jake never wanted a cat or dog, so far as I know. Or a horse, or other fantasy pet when you live in the city. He agitated for an aquarium when he was four, he bragged. A saltwater aquarium that he could fill with the strange floral animals of the sea. His folks bought him a goldfish bowl, telling him that if he took good care of it, he could have a bigger, better set up next year.

I don’t know what they were thinking – well, actually, I do. They were thinking that this desire would burn hot and flash over shortly, like kids’ whims often do. Jake would realize fish weren’t like dogs or cats; you couldn’t pick them up and give them a hug, they couldn’t sleep on the foot of your bed, they wouldn’t play with you.

Except, well, Jake had the touch when it came to fish. That goldfish not only made it through Christmas and past the Fourth of July, this fish grew to the size of a carp and lived a long life–years!–until it finally died. Jake trained it to leap out of its bowl and turn a somersault like a little orange dolphin when he waved his hand over the bowl. I’ve seen the pictures with a tiny cowlicked Jake in overalls, grinning with oversized teeth flanked by gaps, and a goldfish tumbling through the air behind his outstretched hand.

He did it for me once, live, when I said that it was photoshopped, or that he tossed the fish somehow. Theodore Sturgeon, the goldfish, rose slowly to the top of the tank when Jake waved his hand over the still surface of the water. I swear the fish heaved a sigh when Jake waved more insistently. “He’s old,” Jake said, apologetically. “I haven’t asked him to do this in years.” Ted sank back down a little, then exploded out of the water, shining scales gleaming, heavy head lowering till his barbels touched the water, tail waving as it arced up over his head in a flip, then creamy belly down and headfirst back to the bottom of the tank to doze. I’ll never forget that moment.

My folks didn’t care much for Jake. Too quiet, they said. But I overheard Mum talking to dad one night about him after Jake had spent the weekend with us. “His hands are always clammy,” Mum whispered. “And his eyes are too far apart.” Dad muttered something about prejudice and superstition half into his pillow, but Mum continued, “His mouth–have you ever looked at his mouth? He has too many teeth.” I was glad she’d never met Jake’s mother. He looked a lot like her, sharp white teeth in a little bee-stung mouth, small ears flat to her head, eyes wide-set with a broad nose between them. Her skin was a deep olive, even slightly blue, and her hair was pure white. Long and flowing, and somehow always in motion around her head as if she were swimming. Jake was paler, with short black hair that always looked wet. Like a seal’s, short and shiny. He took after his dad that way.

So, anyway, that was Jake then. And he really hasn’t changed since then. It’s like he was born an adult, just a small one, and now he’s just become bigger and stronger. Like one of his beloved invertebrates. But then he got religion, and things really became strange.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Animal sacrifice on the beaches at the turning points of the year, leather-bound books that moan and whimper in the night, fetishistic jewelry. Ok, you got me on that last one. Jake took up Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and started wearing a crucifix.

He asked me and Tom to help support him in his new beliefs. Just as witnesses, you might say. Jake’s family, hard-boiled agnostics all, took a dim view of his retreat to superstition, as they referred to it. They celebrated Christmas in the grand old pagan style–any excuse for a party, especially ones that featured gifts and food. But as far as setting foot in a church? Never. Not even for Easter and Christmas. Jake attended every Mass, and soon knew the calendar of holidays.

I went with him one October for the Blessing of the Animals. Pretty much ever family had a little yappy furball on a leash, a cat in a carrier, a bird in a cage. I saw some big dogs sitting in the pews, and even a turtle in an aquarium. Jake, of course, had a bucket of seawater and tentacles.

When he took his animal up for blessing, the priest looked into the bucket. I can only imagine what he thought when he saw those slit-pupiled eyes looking back at him. The father was a trouper, though, laying his hands on the bucket to bless the creature inside. He didn’t scream when an arm reached out of the bucket to reverently touch his hand, but I saw him leave the nave shortly after Jake turned to go, beaming.

This last Christmas was one for the books, though. Jake had read about how animals were supposed to be able to speak at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. He wanted to hear for himself, but see, Jake is solar-powered. Seriously; as soon as the sun goes down, so does he. So he asked me to help him stay up till midnight, watching by the light of the aquarium so he wouldn’t miss it.

Well, Jake’s mom makes the best eggnog and fruitcake in Christendom, so I had nothing to lose by spending the night with my friend. If the beasts actually spoke up, I’d have a story to go drinking on for months. Maybe years. If nothing else, I could stuff my face with seasonal goodies and claim that the sugar would help keep me awake. Win-win, right?

So there we were, on the floor of the aquarium room–really. The little tank slowly grew to eat up a whole wall of the house, but only one animal lived there. An octopus nearly the size of a footstool, cruising slowly on the bottom, hauling itself along by its arms as thick as mine.

Jake never named his animals. “They have their own names,” he said, looking me in the eyes. He made eye contact only sparingly, only when it was really important that he be heard, that he communicate. “They have their own names, but I can’t understand them. It would be rude to call them by the wrong name, so until I understand their names, I won’t call them anything.” Maybe this year, I’d get to know this one’s name.

The minutes ticked by. I felt the same sense of anticipation you get when you finally get to stay up past midnight on New Year’s Eve–before you realize that there’s nothing magic about that moment, about the first few seconds of a new year. There’s no threshold to cross, nothing really changes. The champagne tastes the same. But that first time, why, anything could happen!

And in a way, it did. At midnight, the octopus surfaced, pulling itself head and two legs up out of the tank, leaving its body and six legs dangling in the water. It smiled. It had human lips and teeth on its underside, whereas I thought they had some beaky thing.

It smiled and it spoke to us, although I didn’t see its lips move, I heard it clearly. It said something about the forthcoming aeon of the Great Old Ones, then slid back into the water. Funny how I don’t really remember the words it said, just the sense of it. Just the feeling of the hair on my neck standing up, just the feeling of foreboding, like right after you wake from a nightmare.

And this morning I read that the elected Palestinian president has been assassinated, and troop withdrawal has been postponed again. And I remember what the octopus said, about the aeon of the Great Old Ones, and I wonder just what it meant by that.

I’ll have to ask Jake.

1 comment:

Judy H in NC said...

I really like the story. I'm glad your Jake's friend, or he's yours. But how does he feel about eating fish?