A Touch of Something Else
by Bertil Falk
She was all dressed in white, except for that big lilac safety pin attached to her cheek. Salmon Badfish guessed that her silvery hair was a wig. He spotted a blot on her whiteness. A brown blotch showed that she had put her white high-heeled shoes in some dirt.
She seemed fully absorbed, taking a keen interest in the game, now and then directing her binoculars at the spot where the action was at its peak, a peak moving here and there across the soccer ground.
“I’ll introduce you to her after the match,” his friend said. “I’ve told her about you and she condescends to see you.”
“Remember, this is her day off. She’ll be wasting her precious time seeing you.”
Salmon Badfish regarded Billie Occasion and smiled inwardly. Will she really be able to assist me? he thought.
At that, she turned around and nodded at him as if to say “Yes I would” and then resumed observing the game.
He was not surprised when, at The Grey Dog’s Coffee Coffee, Carmine Street branch, she brought up the topic of coconut-carrying octopuses, who took halved coconut shells and used them as shelters. Nobody had mentioned his subject and position to her, but Salmon Badfish knew about her talent. Her bringing up the coconut-transporting octopuses confirmed that she possessed some kind of unusual mental powers of a kind that less informed people would describe as occult.
“No, it’s not occultism” — she vindicated his thoughts — “it’s a rare ability, perhaps a mental property all of us possess but few develop. I understand that you’re studying octopuses or, as my grandmother said, ‘octopussi’. Even ‘octopods’ has been used.”
Two days later. 2Pac Thakur singing “Changes,” you know “things will never be the same,” was streaming out from a bunch of invisible loudspeakers in the empty room. But there was not only sound. Light from small headlights amputated from a bunch of scrap-yard cars flooded the big cushion that spread out on the floor. A depression in its midst suggested that someone had been sitting there, preferably no less a woman than Bille Occasion herself, the mistress of the abominable art of bilocation. That is, abominable in the eyes of those who hate what they do not understand.
At this very moment, there was no sign of life in that room, from which the Empire State Building equally floodlighted in the red-white-blue colors of the star-spangled banner could be seen. But no one was there to look through the window of 503 Fifth Avenue, where once upon a time the editorial office of The Saint Mystery Magazine and Fantastic Universe Science Fiction had been situated. But that was in another time and in another, dilapidated and now demolished and replaced building.
The headlights emitted an eerie glare of a sinister kind. The room was like a graveyard illuminated for a nocturnal interment. Had it not been for the sound of 2Pac, the place would have seemed to be out of its mind. Yes, you know, rooms have minds and there are states of those spatial minds, and rooms can be out of them. But at this very moment, there was expectation in the air, a strange pending.
All of a sudden — an expression that should not be used, but there is no other fitting sentence around to be applied for the time being — it all changed. It was not a slow materialization into the soft cushion. Neither was it a sudden dump. She just was there, trembling, her eyes filled with fear and sadness.
There was no doubt. Billie Occasion was over head and ears possessed by terror and regret. She shook her head like a wet dog shaking its body, but the dread did not disappear from her appearance.
As usual, a lilac safety pin penetrated her left cheek. She was dressed all in white, like a corpse. Her hair was white with a yellowish tinge, as were her eyes, eyebrows, lips. And whitest of all was her face. White things hung from her ear lobes. And she was shaking all over with fright. This was not the usual, self-assured lady. This was an unusual, not at all assured Billie Occasion.
She had been somewhere else, all of her, body and mind, standing — no not at all, for she was sitting, for Salmon had brought her a chair and put it in front of the big aquarium. She had her eyes closed and covered her tear glands by putting the thumb and the forefinger of her left hand over the root of her nose.
She was surrounded by floating realities, unforgiving colors, melting appearances. It was not like entering a human mind, certainly not, for this mind was inhuman; it was an invertebrate mind, like an intellect without backbone.
And it detested her presence. Forms of utter repugnance surrounded her, radiating indignation and animosity, and that aversion took the shape of blistering diatribes of a kind that she never could have dreamed of. She had taken on an assignment that was too much to endure. She fled, seized with panic, and ran into a slippery wall, a vertical quagmire, a quivering instability of flowing quakes.
It had all begun when the biologist Salmon Badfish approached her at the football stands and they later shared a cup — actually two cups — of coffee at the Carmine Street branch of The Grey Dog’s Coffee Coffee.
“I have a strong feeling that Edward is not only a sensing thing but an individual with a certain capacity,” Salmon said. “It is both fascinating and alarming. I want to know for sure what’s going on in his mind and you’re the only one who can possibly penetrate the barrier that separates us from him.”
Edward was an octopus, born in captivity.
Salmon paused. “You know,” Salmon said, “Edward is intelligent. And like all of his kind he is a loner. They don’t survive their parents. They are on their own and have to learn by training, studying and remembering, by trial and error. That’s the reason they’ve not created a nation or developed a culture. To create a culture you must be more than one individual.”
Salmon paused. “Edward is like a scientist, a researcher. He takes an interest in us. He’s studying me and he’s scanning what I’m doing. His big eyes are turned on me and I have the feeling that his gaze is trying to crucify me.”
“You must make up your mind, Salmon. Is that thing trying to study you or to kill you?”
“Thing! Did I say thing?”
“You called it a sensing thing!”
“Did I? Edward is an individual. And to answer your silly question, I would say both! He’s a spineless spine-chiller.”
That was why and how she got there. And seeing that agile dough of eight tentacles sprinkled with suckers, she could not avoid looking into that big hooded eye that tried to nail her. It was then that Salmon had brought her a chair and she sank down.
The slit-shaped pupil was held in horizontal position trying to focus on her. The concentration on the part of the cephalopod was so powerful that Billie could almost feel it racking its brain. The hypnotizing eye of that moving flesh must not numb her mind. She closed her eyes, covered her tear glands and moved straight into the thick of things.
She was absorbed into a presence of squirming inquisitiveness, stressed with greed and guardance and this act of guarding took the guise of evil, no not evil, something beyond evil, at the same time sinister and prowling, not really evil, rather something on the edge of evil, like a twin or a sibling of it, but not exactly evil as we know it, instead a different and somewhat similar phenomenon.
She felt detested. She was inside a mood of total repugnance and at that she fled and hit a greasy wall. It swallowed her and she staggered out on the other side of slashness and saw a form through what seemed to be a stupid kind of glass. The shape was familiar but in a peculiar way. It was distorted, possessed a certain whiteness, a picture seen through a retina of a different kind. And she, with a gasping sense of unwelcome understanding, she knew that what she saw was herself sitting there, her eyes closed and her tear glands covered by the thumb and the forefinger of her right hand.
Everything around her was wriggling in a tumultuous uproar and she jumped to the correct conclusion that Edward felt her presence and was at least as upset as she. She tried to pull herself together and look at her position in a scientific way. She knew what all this was about. Edward most probably had no idea. Or did she underestimate the monster?
Shivering she turned around and moved into a labyrinth of slushy tunnels until she reached what turned out to be a storage of memories. And the memories consisted of all kinds of prey seen through the same retina, and therefore she regarded the distorted shapes of all kinds of fish and sea-things. And she could not avoid the horror and the terror.
Billie Occasion took away her thumb and her forefinger from her tear glands and opened her eyes. What she saw was an octopus who seemed to be possessed. It behaved like madness itself, all that spinelessness boiling and the feelers whipping and beating.
“What have you done?” screamed Salmon Badfish.
“I’ve obviously disturbed your pet,” she replied, her voice unstable, her hands trembling. “Listen to me. I’ve been inside its mind. I was not invited. I broke into it like a thief. I was not welcome. I don’t think that it knew what happened to it, but I’m sure that it knew that it had something to do with me, that strange thing outside the aquarium.
“You want to know how it is feeling? Well, now you’ve seen it. It has made a display of its mind. One thing is for sure. We’ve a long way to go before we will understand each other. I may sound balanced, but I’m shaken.”
Yes, she was shaking and she let herself be sucked back into her Fifth Avenue apartment. And there she hit the cushion. She was head over heels upset. The being was intelligent, oh yes, yes, but its intellectual capacity was limited to its ability to trap prey or to use things like coconuts as tools to improve its own security.
Limited by its environment and its eternal solitude, it was condemned to social isolation. Not that it was an asocial being, nor could it be antisocial; it knew nothing of society. It was just unsocial by nature and unsociable by uncontrolled habit.
Edward never invited anyone to a birthday party and its lack of a nation made syttende mai, June 6 or July 4 impossible to celebrate. She had found no sign of interest in beauty of colors or of sound, to say nothing of music, or storytelling, let alone literature.
Billie had occasionally bilocated in time and space and even into the minds of her fellow creatures but she had never before had a reason to penetrate the mind of another species. She shivered. She was quite sure that she had caused Edward to experience something akin to a post-traumatic explosion. And she realized that she had actually left the scene with her tail between her legs.
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, covered her tear glands and returned to the theatre of drama. She came at the very moment of catastrophe. Like a torpedo of eight wings, Edward propelled itself towards the thick armored glass, only to rebound. The next moment Edward hit the top of the aquarium, climbed over the edge and from that height it broke free, hitting the floor outside its home base with a thud and a splash as its gelatinous lack of balance struck Salmon Badfish, who stood paralyzed with dread.
And then it was all over...
Copyright © 2011 by Bertil Falk