Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
The Law for the Wolves
Now this is the Law of the Jungle,
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk,
the Law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
It’s Thursday the first time I see it. I know that it’s Thursday because Thursday nights are the nights my dog, Lily, and I set aside to talk about boys we think are cute. She’s twelve in actual years, which is eighty-four in dog years. I’m forty-two, which is two hundred and ninety-four in dog years—but like a really young two hundred and ninety-four, because I’m in pretty good shape and a lot of people tell me I could pass for two hundred and thirty-eight, which is actually thirty-four. I say this about our ages because we’re both a little immature and tend to like younger guys. We get into long debates over the Ryans. I’m a Gosling man, whereas she’s a Reynolds gal, even though she can’t name a single movie of his that she would ever watch twice. (We dropped Phillipe years ago over a disagreement as to how to pronounce his name. FILL-a-pea? Fill-AH-pay? Also because he doesn’t work that much anymore.) Then there’s the Matts and the Toms. We go back and forth between Bomer and Damon and Brady and Hardy depending on what kind of week it has been. And finally the Bradleys, Cooper and Milton, the latter of whom is technically way older and long dead and I’m not sure why my dog keeps bringing him up other than she loves board games, which we usually play on Fridays.
Anyhow, this particular Thursday we are discussing the Chrises: Hemsworth and Evans and Pine. It’s when Lily suggests offhandedly we also include Chris Pratt that I notice the octopus. It’s not often you see an octopus up close, let alone in your living room, let alone perched on your dog’s head like a birthday party hat, so I’m immediately taken aback. I have a good view of it, as Lily and I are sitting on opposite sides of the couch, each with a pillow, me sitting Indian style, her perched more like the MGM lion.
“We don’t have to include Chris Pratt, it was just a suggestion,” she says.
“No—what’s that on your head?” I ask. Two of the octopus’s arms hang down her face like chin straps.
“What do you mean, where? There. Over your temple on the right side.”
Lily pauses. She looks at me for a moment, our eyes locked on each other. She breaks my gaze only to glance upward at the octopus. “Oh. That.”
I immediately lean in and grab her snout, the way I used to when she was a pup and would bark too much, so excited by the very existence of each new thing encountered that she had to sing her enthusiasm with sharp, staccato notes: LOOK! AT! THIS! IT! IS! THE! MOST! AMAZING! THING! I’VE! EVER! SEEN! IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE! Once, when we first lived together, in the time it took me to shower she managed to relocate all of my size-thirteen shoes to the top of the staircase three rooms away. When I asked her why, her reply was pure conviction: THESE! THINGS! YOU! PUT! ON! FEET! SHOULD! BE! CLOSER! TO! THE! STAIRS! So full of ebullience and ideas.
I pull her closer to me and turn her head to the side so I can get a good, long look. She gives me the most side-eye she can muster in annoyance, disgusted with both the molestation and unwanted attention, and my gaucheness as a big, stupid human man.
The octopus has a good grip and clings tightly over her eye. It takes me a minute, but I gather my nerve and poke it. It’s harder than I would have imagined. Less like a water balloon, more like . . . bone. It feels subcutaneous, yet there it is, out in the open for all to see. I count its arms, turning Lily’s head around to the back, and sure enough, there are eight. The octopus looks angry as much as out of place. Aggressive perhaps is a better word. Like it is announcing itself and would like the room. I’m not going to lie. It’s as frightening as it is confounding. I saw a video somewhere, sometime, of an octopus that camouflaged itself so perfectly along the ocean floor that it was completely undetectable until some unfortunate whelk or crab or snail came along and it emerged, striking with deadly precision. I remember going back and watching the video again and again, trying to locate the octopus in hiding. After countless viewings I could acknowledge its presence, sense its energy, its lurking, its intent to pounce, even if I couldn’t entirely make it out in form. Once you had seen it, you couldn’t really unsee it—even as you remained impressed with its ability to hide so perfectly in plain sight.
This is like that.
Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it, and the octopus transforms Lily’s entire face. A face that has always been so handsome to me, a noble and classic dog profile, betrayed only slightly by a dachshund’s ridiculous body. Still, that face! Perfect in its symmetry. When you pulled her ears back it was like a small bowling pin covered in the softest mahogany fur. But now she looks less like a bowling pin in shape and more like a worn-down bowling pin in occupation; her head sports a lump as if it had actually been the number-one pin in a ten-pin formation.