David J. Wingrave is a graduate of New York University's creative writing program, where he was a Writers in the Public Schools fellow. His work appears in n+1, Guernica, and elsewhere. He lives in Warsaw, Poland.
1st place, 2017 Raymond Carver Contest
The boy sits on his parents’ bed. His mother sits on the floor. Outside, a few soapsud clouds drift against the blue.
The boy’s mother whispers, “Okay. Thank you. Goodbye,” returns the receiver to its cradle, and informs her son that she has to leave for Nicosia.
“It’s just for the weekend,” she tells him.
The boy studies her. She walks around holding one hand to the small of her back. From the bookshelf she draws an orange file, and from the overcrowded hat stand by the window a green jacket. The boy’s father, sitting in the car outside, toots the horn. The boy’s mother kisses him on the forehead.
“See you on Sunday,” she says. “Love you.”
But on Sunday his father packs a suitcase with more of her clothes and books, and the boy has to wait next door with Mrs. Adivar again. Mrs. Adivar only speaks Turkish, but the boy doesn’t mind because she always needs help gutting her sardines. With a sharp knife, she shows him how to split their bellies from the pelvic vent up through to the jaw, and then how to remove the entrails without damaging the fillet. Every so often, they find smaller fish inside of the larger ones, which Mrs. Adivar lets him keep. She even adds her own to his collection, instead of tossing them into the gut bucket.
When his father arrives home he locks himself in the bedroom for half an hour before making dinner.
“She’s in Nicosia.”
“When’s she coming home?”
They are together at the kitchen table, eating rice with tomato sauce.
“The day after tomorrow?”
His father fetches a bottle of Efes from the fridge. “Try this,” he says, and twists off the cap.
The boy lifts the bottle with both hands and takes a sip. Tasty, like bread.
“You like it? You want a cigarette too?”
“No. Go play outside or something. Go find some flowers.”
Too dark by then to look for flowers. No stars and the moon a tin fingernail. Standing in the back garden, the boy can smell the warm vinegar of the Mediterranean. The tide is unusually high. He wonders what it would be like to smoke a cigarette. His parents’ cigarettes smell like rust and old jackets. For months, they would smoke cigarettes and talk about other people: Anna, Annabelle, Hannah, and Richard.
Wandering around the side of the house, the boy climbs into his bedroom through the window. Unseen insects beat the air. The heat is close and the house is quiet.
. . .
Early in the morning he is woken by his father rummaging around in the wooden chest by the door. He has on a blue shirt, darker up the front, wet.
“I’m going to fix that tap outside,” he says, brandishing a pair of pliers. “It’s dripping. You should get up.”
The boy pulls on the clothes he wore the day before, brushing loose a few sardine scales.
Down on the rocks after his bread and yoghurt, he notices that the ebb has left more and deeper pools than usual. It’s hot, and none of the neighborhood children are about. Good. It’s better to be alone when you are looking for things. Still, all he finds today are conch fragments—sharp pottery scattered like a dropped mug. Just as he is about to abandon the rocks for the sandy length of the bay, where shells don’t get smashed, he trips over a gully. When he peers in, rubbing an elbow, the gully peers back.
A face, a bulb: It’s a little octopus. She pulsates gently through browns and reds, but is otherwise still, resting on a pebble just below the surface. The boy stares. She is smaller than the boy expects her to be, and he can tell there’s something wrong. He counts, then counts again. Six.
The boy is off, to look for a spade and a bucket.
“What do you want them for?” asks his father, who is doing something with a roll of masking tape, the hose, and the outdoor tap.
“Collecting,” he says.
“I’ve only got this big bucket. There might be another in your room.”
“When’s Mum coming back?”
“Tell you what. I don’t have a spade but you can borrow the trowel if you want. Don’t lose it, okay?”
Returning to the gully, he removes his shoes and climbs in. The octopus scoots off under an overhang, but the boy winkles her into the bucket using the trowel. Further down the beach, waves drag kelp back and forth. The boy adds a fistful of green-brown fronds to the bucket. The octopus immediately entangles herself, cowering.
He carries everything up to the house, around the front to avoid his father, who he can hear shouting at the tap. The boy sets the bucket down outside, under his bedroom window.
. . .
Again that evening, the boy’s father enters his son’s room. His clothes are still wet, and his long hair is plastered to his face like the seaweed exposed by the tide.
“Did you collect some flowers?” he asks.
“I forgot,” says the boy.
“Do it tomorrow?” his father sighs. “Or some shells or something? I think Mum would like that.”
“Good.” His father pats the boy’s legs through the sheets. “Off with the light then. Good night.”
The boy is too excited to sleep. His eyes are open to the heavy darkness, and he tosses the duvet to the floor.
But Richard does not look happy. She continues to cower behind the seaweed, even though for the next three days the boy tries to feed her the half-digested little fish he has taken from Mrs. Adivar. Where two arms should be there is a ragged pulp, like the inside of an orange.
The weather gets hotter, and then hotter still. All the garden plants begin to droop, and Richard becomes sluggish. The pulp around her injury spreads, becomes more ragged, and then on the fourth hot morning, when the boy shakes the bucket to say hello, the octopus does not respond. He runs to his father, who isn’t quite done fiddling with the outdoor tap.
“What have you got there?”
“I don’t know!”
His father peers into the bucket.
To stop himself crying, the boy bites his cheeks. His father sloshes the water about.
“This water is too hot,” he says. “Why don’t you put him back where you found him?”
“But she’s mine.”
“Do you want him to die? You need to learn to take care of things.”
“I think you should put him back where you found him.”
His father turns and busies himself with the tap, which has begun shooting a chubby jet of water up at about forty-five degrees, rainbowing the air.
The boy runs down to the rocks, where he empties the bucket into one of the new pools, the highest one, closest to the garden. The tide will not reach there again for a long time. The octopus rolls out, and after lying motionless for a few seconds she twitches, contracts her remaining arms, and crawls slowly under a rock.
. . .
The next day, his mother comes home.
She looks tired and stiff, and doesn’t bend down to hug him when he grabs her legs; instead places her hands one after the other on his shoulder blades and then on the top of his head. His father follows her up the concrete steps, carrying her suitcases.
“Mum is tired,” he says to the boy. “Why don’t you let her have a shower?”
“I’m fine,” says his mother. She looks like she is about to say something else, but instead turns around and walks off.
“She’s ill?” The boy asks, while the bathroom hisses.
“Not ill,” says his father. “Just a little funny-feeling. Be nice to her.”
The boy scratches at the table with a finger.
“I think I will get Richard for her then.”
His father looks puzzled. “Richard? I don’t…no. No no no.”
The boy’s mother, wrapped in a towel, joins them in the kitchen. The boy inspects her hair, which is short like his own, and curly from the shower. She is thinner, but she does not look ill. Her suitcases occupy all the chairs around the table, so she sits on the floor. Immediately, his father helps her up. His mother does not look ill, but she does look sleepy.
“You need a snoozer,” says the boy.
“I do,” his mother smiles, “but it’s too hot.”
“I bought a fan for the bedroom,” his father says. “Come on.”
“I like the summer. Because of the lizards,” says the boy.
“Don’t go swimming,” his father tells him.
Too rough to swim anyway, so the boy combs the rocks. If his mother does not want an octopus then he will find her some flowers. A clump of cyclamen catches his eye, but in that same moment he spots Mrs. Adivar picking her way over the beach, holding a fistful of plastic bags. Mrs. Adivar stops at the edge of his pool.
“No!” shouts the boy, but she doesn’t hear him. He sprints, jumping between rocks, scraping his elbow again. Just as the old woman bends over he reaches the pool and shoves her. She yelps, and wobbles, steadying herself with one hand on a boulder.
“She’s mine!” says the boy.
His father has seen them, and hurried over.
“What’s going on?” he says. He looks angry.
“Mrs. Adivar wanted to gut her!”
“What? Gut who?”
“Kerata!” says Mrs. Adivar. She is looking at the father but gesturing to the son.
“Gut who?” says his father.
The boy points over to the rock the octopus has squeezed behind. The three of them stare.
“Fetch the bucket,” says his father. “Then go inside.”
. . .
A cup of green almonds stands in the center of the kitchen table. The suitcases have been removed to the bedroom. The boy’s father is opening cupboards.
“Where’s the big salt?” he says.
“To be fair, she does hoover up every living thing on that beach,” says his mother, who is sat with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. “He spared this wriggly thing the pot. Not such a terrible instinct.”
“Yeah...yeah no,” says his father, reaching for a handful of nuts.
“I saw her ogling a stray cat once.”
His father snorts.
All three of them sit in silence for a moment. A few hours have passed since the rescue. The bucket, full again, is on the table next to the almonds.
“What do you want to do with Mr. Wriggly?” asks his mother.
“She’s not wriggly,” interrupts the boy. “Her name is Richard.”
His father coughs.
His mother kneels down in front of him.
“Richard,” she says. Their eyes are level. “That’s a nice name for a little girl.”
His father stands up.
The boy nods again. “Mrs. Adivar wanted to gut her.”
“Well, she didn’t know Richard belonged to someone else.” The boy’s mother tightens her grip on her son’s hair. It hurts, but the boy doesn’t make a face.
“We have to keep her,” says the boy.
“I don’t know if—” his father begins to say, but his mother cuts him off.
“Use the old goldfish tank,” she says.
“It’s a freshwater tank.”
“Does it matter? Freshwater, saltwater, it’s still glass.”
“The pump will corrode.”
“Then don’t use the pump.” Her voice is quiet and high. “Or use the pump and we’ll keep Richard until it conks out.”
The boy’s father looks at his wife. Then he looks at his son.
“The pump was expensive.”
“Are you using it?”
“Then fuck off then. I’m having a beer, do you want a beer?”
She turns to open the fridge. The boy’s father slaps his thighs as he stands up, then walks out of the house. The boy follows him.
His father sighs. “Nothing. It’s not your fault.”
They circle gradually to the rear of the house, where, as if sensing their approach, the outdoor tap stutters, dribbles, and then shoots a jet of water at their feet. His father stops, then strides over and kicks it hard with his boot. Once, twice. The grouting cracks, and the tap begins to spurt in several different directions. For a second, the boy’s father doesn’t seem to recognize anything, but then he reaches into a small box fastened to the wall. The jets slacken. The boy studies his father.
“I had to turn the water off,” he says. “The tap’s broken.”
“If you’re thirsty you can get something from the fridge. Not Pepsi.”
“Mum is just a little funny-feeling, that’s all.”
“Excuse me. I’m going to fix this.” The boy begins to wander off in the direction of the rocks. “Oh,” his father calls. “Could you get me a beer?”
The boy finds his mother on the patio. She is sitting on the floor, smoking a cigarette. She has two open Efes in front of her.
“Where’s Dad?” she says.
“He’s fixing the tap.”
“What tap? What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. He had to turn the water off. Can I have a beer?”
His mother laughs and taps some ash onto the concrete. “What do you want a beer for?”
“Dad wants one.”
His mother laughs again, and offers one of the bottles. When the boy reaches for it she snatches it away. “Tell him he can come and get it himself.”
“Okay.” The boy stands looking at his mother. “Can I have a Pepsi? The water’s off.”
His mother nods and sucks on her cigarette. “Hey,” she calls after him. The boy turns around. His mother doesn’t say anything.
Dusk is just beginning to undo the garden at its edges.
. . .
The boy wakes up. It is light in his room but dark outside. His lamp is on. But it is dark outside. His mother stands near the tank with her back to him.
“Is it night?” he asks.
His mother has one arm in the water, up to the elbow, sloshing it around. The tubes from the pump are becoming tangled with the seaweed. The boy sees Richard shoot from one corner to another, trailing black ink, his mother’s white hand in pursuit.
“No!” says the boy.
His mother turns to him. Her eyes are red and sleepy.
“No you can’t do that,” he repeats. They look at each other. “You’ll hurt her.”
His mother shrugs. She takes her arm out of the tank, walks over to his bed and sits down. Now she looks sick. But the boy likes the weight of her on the bed, by his legs.
“I’m just joking. You can hold her.”
“Wouldn’t let me,” she says.
“I’ll get her for you,” says the boy. “You have to keep your hands wet though.”
His mother isn’t moving at all.
“Hey. I said you could hold her. But you have to keep your hands wet. Like this.” He crawls past her and over to the tank, where he dips his hands. “See? Like this.”
He takes his mother’s dry hand in his wet one and leads her over to the tank.
The boy is quick and catches Richard, even though everything is murky now. He offers her to his mother, who wrinkles her face and shifts her weight from one foot to the other.
“Did she bite?” asks the boy.
Richard squirms, filling his mother’s cupped palms. Out of the water she doesn’t really have a shape, and she can’t lift her arms. She moves like many smaller things moving in a bag. Everything moves without really moving anywhere at all.
His mother sniffs.
“What?” says the boy.
His mother sniffs again.
“I think we should put her back,” says the boy.
Outside something squawks. The light from the lamp seems more orange because everywhere else is so dark.
“I think we should put her back,” says the boy, again. His mother doesn’t reply. “She’s yours,” says the boy. “I got her for you.”
His mother takes a deep breath.
“It’s okay,” she says, handing over the octopus. “She’s a bit horrible for me.”
. . .
The following afternoon: a dark green lizard about the length of his index finger from knuckle to nail, lying upside down on a breezeblock behind Mrs. Adivar’s house. Its belly is blue like flowers, and it has lost its tail, and one foot. The lizard just shuffles when the boy touches it, unable to right itself, so he gathers it up in a leaf, to show his mother. She has slept late, but now sits smoking on the patio.
His father has gone bird-watching. At breakfast, he told the boy about a golden oriole that had been spotted in the area. He loves the island, and it is the birds he takes greatest pleasure in.
Mrs. Adivar is gutting again. The air is noisy with insects, but the boy can still hear her singing in Turkish as she works.
…Üsküdar'a gider iken
aldı da bir yağmur…
It is a high song, all above him, and every few minutes, like percussion, comes the dull splat of a fish head, landing in the bucket.