Luke Sutherland

“XI: [half-mouths all at once],” Caroline Harper New

My Octopus Wife

My wife and I liked to play a game. I called it the Big Squeeze, but I don’t know what she called it. Perhaps nothing. I would bring a container to her den, and she would contort herself into its shape. On stormy days when the sea wasn’t safe for me, I hunted in antique shops and dumpsters, or the aquarium aisle of PetSmart, for new objects. Once, I brought her a cookie jar shaped like a bulldog in a leather jacket. Another time, she filled the body of a large glass bong.

She was boneless and beautiful.

My wife was the subject of a documentary film. We met on set, and in the near decade I’d been a videographer, never had I been so starstruck. The first time I saw her, I was with the rest of the crew. Ari staked out the spot.

“She’s a special girl,” he said at the surface. “Gorgeous eyes.”

We three—Ari, Matteo, and I—bobbed there for a long moment. Kelp fronds kissed our legs, floating on bulbous air bladders. Herring and smelt picked at plankton just below. Ari spoke with his small eyes on me, and of course he wasn’t really talking about the octopus. He wore his desires like a child. Matteo gazed at the Pacific gray sky. He didn’t give a shit about me either way, and I liked that about him.

My wife was camera shy. Those first few days, we saw only glimpses of her: a flash of arm as she curled more tightly into her den; a stream of air bubbling from her siphon; the glint of each eye—pupils like gashes, arresting and alien. Ari was right about that, her eyes.

I chewed the mouthpiece of my rebreather. The rig sagged in my hands—its convex lens pointed towards knotted holdfasts of kelp—until Matteo elbowed me. Get the shot, said his expression, so we can get the hell out of here. He and Ari were bored. There were sea lions more charismatic, otters more endearing, all of them better actors. And our schedule was tight.

I watched my wife crawl a meter from her den. Her skin blinked through a sequence of colors and textures until she transformed into a crag on the seafloor. Matteo seized the rig and sank until he was eye level with her, setting up the shot. I would catch hell for it later, him grumbling over wasted time and Ari going on about how we were a team, or a family, how blessed we were to work at all, let alone here in this cradle of beauty.

I didn’t care; I had never wanted to shoot less. Under those waters, the camera felt heavier than ever. I needed to see her through as few lenses as possible.


Pound for pound, a giant kelp forest is as ecologically productive as a tropical rainforest. I wondered about that word, productivity. I didn’t think the forest would see it that way. The gangs of fur seals swimming circuits through the beds were not getting paid, as I was, nor the rockfish or ruddy crabs or urchins chewing at the fingery roots of kelp with slow determination.

I was finding it harder and harder to leave my wife. I stole away hours at a time, insisting Ari and Matteo go off on their own while I shot more B-roll, only to drop my rig in the sand the moment I was outside her den. The kelp was dense there. Thick, ropey stalks towered above, holding me in an unctuous sway. The water, algal green, was shadowed by leaves and the underbellies of passing fish. I waited for her.

Seeing me alone, without the men, my wife unraveled herself. She emerged in an astounding blossom of flesh, her body liquid. I floated there, stunned, as she approached and extended an arm. It wavered between us, suckers puckering like mouths. I filled my lungs with recycled air and spat out the rebreather. The tip of her arm traced my lips. My bones jellied. She touched my chin, my eyelid, played with the conch of my ear, and then it was over.

She jetted away.

I watched my wife until the forest swallowed her shape. Was she a dyke? I felt stupid for even asking. Of course she was; only a dyke’s touch could devastate me like that.


This was meant to be a rest day, and for Matteo, it was. He sat on the floor of the cabin with his back against the couch, watching limited cable reruns and crushing beers. His laugh was low and throaty, the only time I ever heard it. Ari posted up at the table watching dailies. The ambient gurgle of the ocean drifted from his laptop speakers.

He looked up at me in my wetsuit by the door.

“Gonna go for a dip.”

“No days off,” he grinned.      

The low water line revealed tide pools pockmarking the beach. I kneeled before one, head bowed, and watched the world inside. Lined chiton, small periwinkles, beds of aggregating anemone. An ochre sea star, galloping slowly across the bottom. I plunged my hand into the water, dissipating the reflected clouds in ripples, and my knuckles stiffened with the cold. I collected mussels by the fistful and slung them into my pack. Pulled on a snorkel and goggles, no rebreather, and picked my way past the pools to the open water. Waves broke across my back as I dove.

When I reached her den, it was as though she was expecting me.

I shimmied my diving knife into the crease of each shell until the bivalve yawned open in surrender of its mucus body. She was gentle when she took it from me. Her suckers passed the shell down her arm in a living conveyor belt. It disappeared beneath the great bulb of her head, and I was left only to imagine her snapping beak as she ate her meal. I shucked the last mussel, and she began to tendril two arms up the length of mine.

I felt myself vanish. There were no borders between us. Her arms were also her brain, her skin also her eyes, herself also myself. Her entire body was a thought playing out in motion.

I pulled her into the cave of my chest, and her arms looped around my back. I cradled her mantle in my hands. Softly, I kicked off the seafloor. She held me closer. We drifted up through the layers of the forest, past a school of pygmy rockfish, the sunlight strengthening, until finally we broke the surface. Kelp leaves draped my shoulders. Her eyes wheeled about wildly, taking in the surface world. I pushed off my goggles and saw her, for the first time, with no filters. Moisture pearled on her head as she cycled through colors.

I kissed her then, right on her mottled skin.

I don’t know if she loved me. What was love to a mollusk? What was love to me? I didn’t know, and I was happy anyway.


–and yet, often, I could not get her alone.

In front of the men, we had to act like strangers. We went days without touching. They wanted shots of her hunting, camouflaged and lurching, ready to kill. She gave them nothing. Ari wondered if she ate at all. My wife was well-fed, and I was nauseous with thoughts of post-production: what narratives they would edit in, the lies they’d tell about her, our complicity.

My name in the credits; hers, unknown.

Today, the den was empty, and it was taking longer than usual to find her. Ari, Matteo, and I swam in widening circles, each searching for an animal that could transfigure herself in an endless geometry. Only I recognized her. She was encased in plated armor, her suckers held fast to shards of shell and detritus, cloaking her soft body.

My wife was disguised as a rock. She was hiding.

A four-foot dogfish surged past, then looped back, moving in agitated thrashes, its face long and dumb and ugly. I stayed perfectly still. Don’t move, I tried to tell her, and she seemed to understand. Beyond her, Ari pumped his short legs in our direction. The filtered sunlight painted his face a lurid green, and I wanted to beg him to stop, to use his fucking head. The shark hesitated above her. Ari kicked, and water churned in my ears. The shark jetted by once, twice. On the third pass, it slapped my wife with its tail. The blow sent her reeling, armor dispersed, her fleshy limbs exposed and trailing, the mouth of the dogfish closing around her arm, teeth pointed and severing—

I unsheathed my knife, kicked hard, and plunged the blade between the shark’s eyes.


On shore, Ari paced and scuffed pebbles and fumed: “You want to play god, Cas, is that it? How the hell are we going to explain this to Production?”

The surf licked my legs, and all my muscles tensed against it. Matteo squatted nearby with the rig between his knees. In his silence, he looked at me strangely. I realized I was still gripping the knife. I didn’t see where my wife had gone. There was too much ink and blood, too many bubbles, and then someone’s hands hauling me up by the armpits.

Ari kept talking, but neither of us listened. “Finally we get a real story out of that thing, and you go ballistic. This is our careers, for Christ’s sake. You haven’t even apologized.”

My wife, without an arm. My wife, bleeding out.

“You can’t interfere with nature, that’s our cardinal rule. We can only observe. That’s how this works. That’s how it’s always worked.”

Matteo was standing next to me, stripped of his rebreather and with his wetsuit rolled down beneath his wide ribcage. He took the knife from me, and I let him. Over the water, a cormorant flattened its wings to itself and dove into the bruised blue water.

“It’s all bullshit,” I told him. “We’ve been making a fucking soap opera.”

I waited for the bird to reappear, forgetting how long it could hold its breath. The empty waves bobbed, and Matteo nodded.

 “You better take care of her,” he said.

The cormorant surfaced with a fish in its bill. It shook the water from its face, peered at us, and horked down its prize. I was never going to point a camera again. Nothing could make me want to, not her or money or art. Living was less real the moment it was recorded.

And she was real. My wife was real.


I didn’t bother with a wetsuit again. She was a mollusk without a shell, so I would be a human without a suit. My limbs felt aflame with the cold, then like nothing at all. The shark’s body was gone from the sandy meadow where I’d killed it. Really, I hadn’t seen where it finally died, only watched its pupils roll and the blood leak from its gills. There wouldn’t be much of it left by then. Just a mess of teeth and scavenged cartilage.

Dim light struggled to puncture the canopy. Nearly night, and whale song echoed through the water loud enough to shake my bones. Kelp slicked against my bare skin, the cold penetrating. All of me was awake, pointing towards my wife.

She cowered deep in her den, a tight knot of arms and suckers. My body cried. I held my hand in the mouth of the cave and twitched my fingers. She reached for me shyly, grazing my palm, keeping her damaged arm wrapped closely to her. I was sorry, I was so sorry, I would kill every shark, I would become amphibian, I would feed her mussels and sprout six more limbs and never touch a camera again. She inched from the den and looked at me through slitted pupils. I’m sorry, I said. She nuzzled her head into my hand. I slipped a finger into her siphon, and she blanched white.

We would be married, yes. We would invent our game.

My wife embraced me, and I was destroyed.

Luke Sutherland is a trans writer and librarian living in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in smoke + mold, Stone of Madness Press, and Delicate Friend. He was a finalist for the SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @lukejsuth.

On Pleasure: “I wrote the first paragraph of My Octopus Wife and didn’t touch it again. Who was I kidding, writing tentacle porn? Three years and a new sex later, the erotic no longer a terrifying horizon to look towards, I knew it was time to marry my wife. I don’t quite understand her, and I hope you don’t either. There is pleasure in unknowability. This story was deeply informed by Amia Srinivasan’s and Sophie Lewis’s writing.”