My mother is an octopus. She collects our comic books, straightens collars, and slings bags across her narrow chest. She prods my brothers and me down the airplane aisle with her hard beak.
Out in the squid inky Taipei night waits a grandfather we will meet for the first time. We must call him Waigong.
My brothers and I spurt across the tarmac into a terminal that could pass for a lobster cage. We’re used to squeezing into tight places, willing ourselves into the color of slats, until danger swims by.
Passport, barks the customs officer.
My brothers and I have read about his kind in our fifteen-volume Childcraft encyclopedia. A dogfish is a shark fond of the taste of an octopus’s blue blood.
My mother squeezes her gelatinous body to fit his expectations of women traveling alone. Her three hearts beat fast as we hide inside the curls of her arms. Normally, dogfish swim in packs but tonight we are lucky. My mother speaks the dogfish’s dialect. His dorsal fin wags.
We emerge in a volcanic coral reef. My brothers and I have never seen so many of our own kind. At home, we feed alone off the ocean floor. Here, hundreds of octopi circle the baggage carousel. We fart small bubbles of inky distress.
My mother, normally so silent, speaks swimmingly to everyone in the room. They help her with the luggage, the exchange of American dollars into the Taiwan kind, the way to the open sea.
Waigong waits in the arrivals hall with hundreds of his relatives waving a thousand arms. My mother bubbles names. This is Third Uncle and Eighth Grand-aunt. These are my cousins from Tainan. My mother needs eight arms to embrace them all.
Cousin Patricia is the only relative who speaks good English. My brothers and I have read about fish with humps on their backs. She must use hers to store her foreign words. She propels us through the reefs of relatives.
Our mother remains behind in the terminal. Her beak is soft. Her body colors in love. She laughs, showing all her octopus teeth.
Tonight, my brothers and I are eels. We slither obediently among the banquet tables. We allow old aunties to pinch our scaly cheeks. Hao guai, they exclaim.
Cousin Tian Tian beckons. His fins murmur of play. We share exactly two words with him. Hello! Goodbye! We sliver out the restaurant and into the night’s garden.
Tian Tian chases us deep into the grotto, his fins aflare. We giggle as only eels can behind our four rows of razor teeth.
Deep we dive to where the rubber-lipped anglerfish live. Up we squirm toward the pale-faced moon in her robe of stars. Around we swim in ever-tightening concentric circles. We’re ready to be found but where is Tian Tian?
Our mother the octopus discovers him inside a lava well. He drags himself out, his fins heavy with sludge. Our mother laughs and we ribbon ourselves around her head. Our kisses sting but she doesn’t mind.
Tian Tian, the sea monster, returns to the restaurant. He doesn’t want to play hide and seek anymore.
Waigong is a sea urchin. He takes us to a Beijing opera. The actors camouflage themselves as demons or tax collectors or women. Waigong’s spines sway in time. Our mother the octopus beams with every screech of the jinghu. We know that octopi have no ears.
In the morning, my brothers and I are a school of sardines, devoted to the study of Mandarin. Our tutor, the parrotfish, sings to us in the four tones of bopomofo. Our bubbles break against his beaked face. Meanwhile, our mother goes shopping with her girlfriends, the cuttlefish, arm in arm in arm.
Every afternoon, Waigong naps. He arranges his poisoned spines so that they poke through the cot’s weave. As his soft underbelly rises and falls, we break the brittle tips and carry them into our bedroom.
We hurl Waigong’s spines through the rice paper doors. We spit watermelon seeds in the corners of the dining room. Through the bathroom window, we mangle our Mandarin to insult passersby.
When there are no more banquets to be eaten or relatives to entertain, my mother and my grandfather watch Beijing opera on TV. I watch them through the slits of our bedroom door. Our mother may have many arms but she has yet to touch our grandfather.
Karen Kao is the winner of the 2022 Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest and a nominee for the Pushcart Prize, VERA, and Best of the Net. Her debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (Linen Press 2017) is the first of a quartet of interlocking novels set in Shanghai. Karen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Kenyon Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, The Common and others. For more information on Karen and her work, please visit http://www.inkstonepress.com/.
What? Either I totally missed something or this fiction of some sort.
It’s a true story, creative nonfiction, with the emphasis on ‘creative.’
Her mother is not really an octopus, she’s using it as a metaphor. Telling the story of her family’s journey to America from Taiwan.
The author was indeed a child who visited relatives in Taiwan in 1969. Children see the world differently, and creative nonfiction allows for the use of metaphor and imagery to capture perception. But the situation is nonfiction.
Wow! You wouldn’t expect a nonfiction piece to start with “My mother is an octopus.” And yet, here it is, done so beautifully. Would this be considered speculative nonfiction? I’m not sure, but whatever it is—I love it!
Wow, Karen Kao, this is extremely wonderful! The rhythm of the words and flashes of scenes reminds me of sea grass waving in the incoming and outgoing tides. The children scuttling to and fro, past monsters and foe, and relatives. “We fart small bubbles of inky distress… she colors in love.” Just so beautiful, foreign but familiar. Thank you!
Wow. What a read.
Gorgeous piece. Love the metaphor of mother as octopus. The piece is so alive and colorful. Nice read before I sit down to write. Thanks for the inspiration Karen!
Yeah. Chills from reading. I never cease to be amazed by these stories! Thank you.
The last line!
Thank you for sharing this beautifully written and vividly descriptive piece about a family’s trip to Taiwan in 1969. The use of animal metaphors to describe the family members added a unique and intriguing layer to the story.