by Koji A. Dae
Each morning the summer my sister was born, I followed the rest of the girls from my village to the beach and watched the breaking waves explode into hisses of foam. I collected seashells and traded stories my aunts had told me. But I no longer believed an octopus would come on our shore and snatch me to the source of the ocean. They try to get people when they’re young. Compact. Easy to transport. Twelve was the cusp of never. I was shooting up in height, growing breasts, and putting a layer of fat on my childish hips—too old to believe that an octopus would lure me to the deep.
“Your hair’s too short, Kayla,” Bonnie told me. She was a neighbor girl, barely four years old. “Octopuses like braided hair. My aunt said so.”
“Oh, if your aunt said so.” I held up my palms as if to ask what she would have me do about my boyish haircut.
She was too young to understand sarcasm. Her wide, brown eyes believed everything her aunts told her. “I’ll braid it for you.”
I sat on a rock as her fingers, still sticky with baby sweat, stumbled through a couple of tiny braids. As she tugged, I daydreamed about summers on the mainland: empty boarding houses, except for the other kids who couldn’t afford to go home, no one to talk of octopuses or braid my hair.
Bonnie kissed my cheek and I touched the lumpy, uneven braids.
“Thanks, babe. Let’s go find you an octopus.” I stood up, took her hand, and spent the rest of the afternoon splashing in the shallows with her.
When she went home for supper, I stayed in the warm water and swam out to the depths where there was nothing but salt, seaweed and me. I dove deep, opening my eyes to a world of blue-green. Not an octopus in sight.
* * *
Tempers grew short in the dry heat of summer, and come September everyone was irritated by someone. I was irritated by my aunts for lying about octopuses, my baby sister for crying through the heat of the day, and my mom for having my baby sister.
When Angela was seven days old, my mom constructed a tight wall of sheets around the porch and put her bassinet outside.
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “You’re not going to leave her out all night.”
“It’s tradition. I did it with you, too. That’s why you will carry the wisdom of the ocean, even when you leave this island.”
“It’s a stupid superstition.”
Two aunts came over to keep my mom from going out to Angela as she cried for comfort. Between her screams and the frantic pacing of my mom’s bare feet, I couldn’t sleep.
By morning my irritation reached a boiling point, and I stomped off to the beach without breakfast or a goodbye kiss.
I let the waves lick my feet, but I didn’t submerge myself.
“Come in with me!” Bonnie pulled at my arm, nearly yanking it out of the socket.
I dug my feet into the sand. “Go in yourself.”
“But what if an octopus is waiting for you?” The girl always spoke in screeches and exclamations. It had never bothered me before, but that day I wished she would speak like a normal person.
“There’s no octopus waiting for me.” I jerked my hand away from her. “Or you. It’s a made up story. You’ll see when they send you to the mainland.”
Her smooth face wrinkled with pain and confusion. “I’m going to get one. Mama had a dream.”
The brown sand tickled beneath my fingernails as I traced swirls in it. I grunted, hoping to leave it at that, but curiosity got the best of me. “A normal dream or a water dream?”
Normal dreams could be ignored. They were the fantasies of mothers or fever from the sun. But water dreams—a murky future seen by a submerged dreamer—were worth listening to.
She jutted her chin forward and looked me square in the eyes. “Water dream.”
I threw a pebble into the waves. “Even water dreams can be wrong.”
She stuck her tongue out at me before trudging off on her own.
Someone had to dash her hopes, or she’d grow into a fanatic, raving about magical octopuses. That would do her no good when she was sent to study with the mainlanders. She’d spend her last summer stripping away the silliness pounded in during her childhood, like me.
I continued throwing pebbles until Bonnie’s high-pitched shriek sounded from far down the beach. The other girls, all dark from the sun and in various states of undress, looked at the sound, but no one moved. I groaned and pushed myself up to run through the wet sand to the rocks where the beach curved around the cape.
“Bonnie, what’s wrong?” My words fell between huffs of short breath.
Her eyes were even wider than usual. She pointed with a trembling finger. “Kayla. Is that a…?”
In a large tidepool lay a pile of rust-red limbs with purple undersides. They floated like jelly, as if the octopus might be dead.
I leaned close to the surface of the pool. “I think it’s hurt.”
“But is it one? Really one?” Bonnie whispered, her voice finally tempered by awe.
The legs were too tangled to count, but I was certain there were eight. “Yeah, it’s an octopus.”
It wasn’t just an octopus though, it was a huge one. Like the ones from the stories. It could easily carry Bonnie, maybe even me.
I looked from the tidepool to the ocean. “I think it’s stuck here. Maybe we should move it into the open water.”
Bonnie didn’t move, so I stepped forward and reached my hand into the shallow pool. The octopus oozed towards me. My fingers brushed over its rippled skin, and it shuddered, like a happy dog. I moved my other hand beneath it and a sharp pinch made me draw back.
Drops of blood fell from the back of my hand. “That thing bit me.”
My mind clouded over, as if I were deep under water. Bonnie’s words were impossible to make out. But other words came to me. Let me take you.
“Stand back.” I sheltered Bonnie behind me—half to protect her from the violent creature, half to have it all to myself—and reached into the water again.
The creature jumped out of the pool. The webbing between its tentacles stretched taut as it skittered towards me. I pushed Bonnie away and two powerful tentacles, thick as my arm, wrapped around my waist and knocked me over. The beast dragged me over the hot sand and plunged into the water.
I gasped and floundered as its webbing compressed my chest and pulsated, forcing water into my lungs. The creature darted forward, and I hung limp, like an extra set of arms dangling from its head.
The sun stopped illuminating the water. My blood turned to icy slush, no warmer than my captor’s suction cups. It twisted and swirled, and we spiraled down to the depths where cold and darkness put me to sleep.
* * *
When I came to, the sun was shining on my shivering body, and I was on a different beach, with white sands instead of brown.
Sputtering, I sat up and pushed my hair from my eyes.
“Greetings, sister Bonnie.”
“It’s been a long journey. I trust Phearidus kept you from harm.”
The speaker had long black hair and dark skin. She looked to be about seven or eight. Her eyes were muted green instead of brown, but she could have been from my island.
“It’s confusing when you first come here. I’m Shauna. I’ll help you.”
Shauna guided me through a cool pine forest to a small village filled with girls dressed in long-sleeves and pants going about their daily chores.
I rubbed my hands briskly over my arms, trying to warm up.
Shauna guided me to a fire and motioned to one of the girls nearby. The girl looked down at a bundle of clothes in her hands then scurried off.
“We thought you’d be younger,” Shauna said.
The fire thawed me. “I’ve never been so cold.”
“The source of the ocean is further north than most people think, but you’ll get used to it. You’ve been chosen to be Phearidus’ rider.”
Bonnie was chosen. I just happened to be protecting the little girl at the right time. I should have said something, but my teeth chattered from the cold and that was my only answer.
The girl returned with pants and a long-sleeved shirt. They were dull brown, not the colorful rainbow outfits I’d imagined for the girls who bore the secrets of the sea, but they were warm and comfortable.
After a bowl of soup, Shauna took me to a hut. Inside, a spring bubbled up from between flat rocks. The water pooled about a foot deep and ran back down the rocks around the edges. The scent of rotting eggs made me hesitate, but Shauna waved me next to her. Around the walls of the hut hung several empty vials tied with braided ropes of seaweed.
“This is the source of the ocean. It contains the secrets of coexisting with the ocean. Once you build your water-suit, you’ll carry these secrets to babies born on our islands.”
Like Angela, crying all night last night. I thought forcing a baby to spend the night alone, wailing in the dark, was cruel faith. But it was true. Octopus riders weren’t some stupid myth. I was one. Or Bonnie was.
Somehow I kept not telling Shauna what my name was. When she introduced me as Bonnie, I didn’t correct her. I learned to turn quickly when someone called me Bonnie. As I wove seaweed, colored by the spring of secrets, I became Bonnie.
* * *
My suit crafted itself, my fingers numbly twisting until the green threads turned purple and red. Not my favorite colors, but they sparkled and shone, creating delicate webbing throughout the fabric of the suit. I tried to remember what Bonnie’s favorite colors had been. This suit was meant to be hers. But it slipped over my body and held me close, warm and snug like a hug.
It took all winter—a season I had never known—to finish my suit. By spring, when the snow on the island melted and the days warmed to an echo of my life as a child, I was ready for my first ride.
Shauna presented me with a vial to carry the water, and I filled it from the hot spring, carefully corking its secrets.
“Phearidus will take you to your first child,” Shauna told me, standing on tiptoe to kiss my forehead.
I waited on the beach alone until the heavy red and purple octopus washed ashore, dashed to me, and carried me into the current.
You’re not Bonnie. It thought to me as it dove deeper, spinning in a slow spiral.
No. I admitted. Are you going to tell them?
It swam faster, until I grew dizzy. It was my mistake.
When Phearidus surfaced, the sun was dipping down over my own island. I gasped as several boys and girls boarded a boat at the pier. One of them, with a jutting jaw and dull eyes, shared the same flat nose and pouty mouth as Bonnie. But this girl was twelve, heading to school on the mainland.
It’s not possible. Bonnie is just a little girl.
Octopuses don’t just travel the depths of the oceans, but the depths of time as well. When you ride with me, I will take you to the future and the past. Wherever and whenever you are needed, Phearidus explained.
She unwrapped her tentacles from me and I floundered in the water, reaching for the safety of her embrace until she pushed me into the shallows. I waited for the boat to leave and the sun to set before going ashore.
Once on land, my feet knew where to go. The wailing of the newborn guided me to a rickety porch. I climbed through the sheets and found a baby in a bassinet with a full head of black hair and dark, curious eyes.
He stopped crying when I approached. I smiled down at him and opened my vial. I poured three drops over his head—one to understand the creatures in the ocean, one to understand the waves in the water, and one to understand the history of his people. Then I kissed his forehead and left. He was crying again before I reached the shore.
* * *
Phearidus took me from island to island to anoint the babies. I didn’t know what year it was, or even the season. Most islands I didn’t recognize, but Phearidus took me to my island a few times. I always stayed a few extra minutes on the beach, my toes in the familiar sand. Eventually she would crawl out of the ocean and bring me back to her magical world without mentioning my homesickness.
When my vial was empty, Phearidus returned me to the source where Shauna and the rest of the riders waited for me.
I took off my suit and it disintegrated.
“You had some long rides, Bonnie,” Shauna noted.
“Huh?” I was slow turning around. I’d gotten used to Phearidus thinking of me as Kayla.
“You’ll need to weave a new suit.”
I shivered at the thought of staying on the tiny pine forest island for months. But at least it was summer, and I wouldn’t freeze through another winter. I’d have to ask if Phearidus could always drop me off at the beginning of summer.
As if reading my mind, Shauna shook her head. “We’re like the octopuses, pulled out of time.”
I wanted her to explain more, but though she knew everything the source could tell us, she didn’t understand how the octopuses’ magic worked. Not even the octopuses did.
I spent the strange out-of-time summer on the beach, weaving a new water-suit. This one was also purple and red, but threads of dark blue like the sky before a storm began to show up towards the end of summer.
My favorite color, I told Phearidus, who had taken to splashing around the shallows while she waited for me.
* * *
My next ride felt longer, though it was impossible to tell for sure. But Phearidus seemed to keep us underwater longer, selecting our targets more carefully.
Is something wrong Phearidus?
The octopus hugged me tighter and spun with precision. I’m getting old. I got you too late.
Got me too late or got me too old? With the real Bonnie would she have had more seasons? She didn’t answer.
When she took me to my island, I stayed outside the window of the house where I anointed the baby. The mother was pacing inside, talking to two other women.
“She’s crying. It isn’t safe out there. Let me go to her.”
“It’s okay Sabina. She’ll be fine. You went through this, too. All babies go through this.”
“Not on the mainland. It’s a stupid superstition.”
The third woman cleared her throat. “At least you still have this superstition. Bonnie will have her baby next month. A baby that will never learn of the ocean, that will never know where it comes from. Better to leave your baby to cry for the night than to forsake your home.”
The mother quieted. As if understanding what was going on, the baby on the porch stopped crying too. I was the only one left crying, silent tears streaming down my face.
Can you take me to Bonnie’s baby?
Bonnie’s baby? Phearidus released, and I almost fell out of her arms. No. Bonnie never has a baby.
Yes she does. Next month. I just overheard.
Phearidus rippled her suction cups—her equivalent of a shrug. A baby born on the mainland isn’t one of ours.
But Bonnie’s from the islands. If I hadn’t taken her place, she wouldn’t have a mainlander baby. Of course, she would have been a four-year-old forever and never had a baby, but I didn’t think about that. Only that I stole something from Bonnie, and finally I could give something back to her. Take me to her.
Phearidus took me to a shallow, stinking bay, filled with ships and bustling with cars. It made me shudder, and Phearidus was slow to let me go. Don’t do this, Kayla.
I pushed her arms off me and swam to shore. People pointed as I got out of the water in my dripping, skin-tight suit. I ignored them and asked my feet to carry me to Bonnie.
They took me further away from the ocean than I ever imagined an island kid could go. I walked through the city, through the wilderness, and into the next city. I was exhausted when I found Bonnie’s small apartment building, which took me three tries to scale.
The baby wasn’t laid out for me, of course. I had to ease the window open. Bonnie was sleeping in the living room with her baby next to her. I crept on tiptoes to them, trying not to wake her.
But Bonnie shifted and stirred, letting out a high scream.
I covered her mouth and recognition dawned in her eyes. “Kayla? Impossible.”
“I’ve come to bless your baby.” I held up my vial and uncorked it, but Bonnie snatched her baby close.
“You died. Got carried out to sea by an octopus.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t die. I became a rider. You always believed in us. What happened?”
Her tense biceps relaxed enough for her to lower her baby to her lap. “The mainland. It’s hard to keep believing in all the backwards island ways when faced with everyday reminders that they can’t be true.”
“But they are true. And your baby will know them.” I measured out three drops of stinking water onto the baby’s forehead and bent down to kiss it. “But it’s your job to keep them alive, too. Tell them to your child. Help them grow in her.”
Bonnie, wide-eyed as ever, nodded.
* * *
After that, I demanded Phearidus only take me to the mainland babies—the ones who came from the islands but would never know their roots. She argued with me, dragged me to the clean shores of islands. But I refused to go to the babies until she gave up and carried me to the polluted shores of the mainland.
We spent the rest of our season spreading memories of the islands to babies born out of place. I touched some of the mothers too, reminded them to keep the stories in their hearts and on their lips, begged them to take their babies, just once, to see their birthright islands.
When Phearidus returned me to the source island, she was weak. She no longer zipped through the water, and she was a pale yellow instead of her usual vibrant red.
“I think Phearidus is sick,” I told Shauna.
“She’s dying,” Shauna said. “It’s her time. You’ll get a new octopus after she passes. She’ll send one to you.”
“Let me take her on one more ride.”
Shauna said she was too weak, but I filled my vial and insisted.
Phearidus. Take me to my baby sister. Angela.
Phearidus pushed off from the rocks and floated to the depths of the ocean, letting my weight sink us rather than propelling us forward herself. She barely had enough energy to surface, and I had to kick to help us reach the beach.
I went to Angela, kissed her head, and blessed her. My heart pounded as I heard my own mother pacing the small living room. I could go to her now, see her and tell her I would be alright. But I didn’t.
I waited on the cape while the sun rose. Phearidus was too weak and tired to force me into the water. She floated next to me, and I stroked her rough head.
There Phearidus. A group of girls scattered along the shore. There’s Bonnie. You could take her now. She’s younger. Has more life to give you.
But you… Phearidus faded to white at the tips of her arms. I can’t leave you.
You were never supposed to take me. It was always supposed to be Bonnie.
Phearidus pushed an image into my mind. It was me, going to the mainland for the first time. You were the only one who would insist. Keep insisting.
I clung to the image, but her thoughts faded from my mind and her body floated limp next to me. I bit my trembling lip and released her body, letting the current take it, and a piece of my heart, back to the depths.
Before my sorrow could blossom, another octopus rushed up to me. It wrapped too hard around my waist and pulled me to the depths without pause. It bit my neck and blood spilled out behind us as we went on to the next baby.
You do Phearidus no honor by struggling.
I relaxed into a sulk. The new octopus was right, Phearidus wouldn’t understand why a human would need time to grieve. I only work with mainland babies.
I know, Bonnie.
I didn’t tell her my name was Kayla. That was Phearidus’ secret.
* * *
About the Author
A born drifter with plenty of dark stories, childbirth is the closest thing to eldritch Koji A. Dae has experienced. Now she finds herself strangely settled in Bulgaria with two kids, a cat, and a whole lot of responsibility. She writes about things mothers see from the corner of their hearts and all varieties of human relationships — with each other, with technology, and with the greater universe. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, Zooscape, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. You can find more information about her on kojiadae.ink.