Remarkably Bright Creatures

Title: Remarkably Bright Creatures

Author: Shelby Van Pelt

Read In: 2023

Quoted In: Octopus brain


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Tova has always felt more than a bit of empathy for the sharks, with their never-ending laps around the tank. She understands what it means to never be able to stop moving, lest you find yourself unable to breathe.

These women have always worn motherhood big and loud on their chests, but Tova keeps hers inside, sunk deep in her guts like an old bullet. Private.

Tova wonders sometimes if it’s better that way, to have one’s tragedies clustered together, to make good use of the existing rawness. Get it over with in one shot. Tova knew there was a bottom to those depths of despair. Once your soul was soaked through with grief, any more simply ran off, overflowed, the way maple syrup on Saturday-morning pancakes always cascaded onto the table whenever Erik was allowed to pour it himself.

Secrets are everywhere. Some humans are crammed full of them. How do they not explode? It seems to be a hallmark of the human species: abysmal communication skills. Not that any other species are much better, mind you, but even a herring can tell which way the school it belongs to is turning and follow accordingly. Why can humans not use their millions of words to simply tell one another what they desire?

Humans have few redeeming qualities, but their fingerprints are miniature works of art.

You know I have three hearts, yes? This must seem strange, considering that humans, and most other species, have only one. I wish I could claim a higher level of spiritual being on account of my multiple vascular chambers, but alas, two of my hearts basically control my lungs and gills. The other is called my organ heart, and it powers everything else.

She drifts into a strange world. A dream, it must be, but she’s not entirely sure, for it feels so mundane. In the dream she’s lying right here on her firm bed cradled in her own arms, then the arms start to grow, weaving around her like a baby’s swaddle. The arms have suckers, a million tiny suckers, each one pulling at her skin, and the tentacles grow longer until they’ve created a cocoon and everything is dark and silent. A powerful feeling washes over her, and after a moment Tova recognizes the feeling as relief. The cocoon is warm and soft, and she is alone, blissfully alone. Finally, she succumbs to sleep.

Quoted In: Octopus brain

She kneels on the grass and traces along the engraving on his stone. The smooth, polished rock is warm under her fingers, basking in the hot July sun. WILLIAM PATRICK SULLIVAN: 1938-2017. HUSBAND, FATHER, FRIEND.

When she’d submitted the epitaph to Fairview Memorial Park’s coordinator, the woman had the nerve to ask if she was sure she didn’t want to add more. The package included up to 120 characters, she explained, and Tova had only used half. But sometimes less is more. Will was a simple man.

Sea creatures are masters of deceit. I am sure you are familiar with the anglerfish, which lurks in dark waters behind a luminescent lure that attracts prey right into its maw. We do not have anglerfish here (and I cannot say I am sorry for that), but there was once a fascinating display poster about them in the lobby.

We all lie to obtain what we need. The seahorse, who impersonates a strand of kelp. The blenny, who poses as a cleaner fish, biding its time to take a bite of its gracious host. Even my own ability to change colors, my camouflage, is a falsehood at its core. A lie that’s on its last legs, I am afraid, as I find it ever more difficult to shift to my surroundings.

Humans are the only species who subvert truth for their own entertainment. They call them jokes. Sometimes puns. Say one thing when you mean another. Laugh, or feign laughter out of politeness.

I cannot laugh.

“You’re working very hard here.”

“I guess I am.” The words seep through him, slow and warm like hot chicken broth on a cold day. It might be the nicest compliment anyone has ever given him.

All of these things had been stored away for her to pass along someday, relics to be carried up the branches of the family tree. But the family tree stopped growing long ago, its canopy thinned and frayed, not a single sap springing from the old rotting trunk. Some trees aren’t meant to sprout tender new branches, but to stand stoically on the forest floor, silently decaying.

“Not my fault I was dealt a shitty hand.”

“No, the deal is never anyone’s fault. But you control the way you play.”

Entering someone’s home is always an intimate act. She looks around for photos, but there are none. Instead, the walls are decorated with beautifully framed concert posters: Grateful Dead, Hendrix, the Rolling Stones. The style should befit a teenager’s room, yet somehow, it seems to match Ethan perfectly.

She closes her eyes and takes a grounding breath. For now, she ought to focus on the dishes.

“You haven’t heard from her? Not even a birthday card?”

The words twist like a knife in his gut. How many times has he thought the same thing to himself? Aunt Jeanne always insisted his mother loved him. That she left because that’s what was best for him. That maybe someday she’d conquer her demons and be ready for a relationship. But what demons are so powerful they prevent someone from buying a ninety-nine-cent birthday card and slapping a stamp on it? How often has he convinced himself she’s actually dead, because that hurts less than believing she could care about him so little?

It’s a crappy, fitful nap, but it’s better than nothing. Aunt Jeanne always said, when shit starts to go sideways first thing in the morning, go back to bed and start over.

“You knew, didn’t you?” she says to Marcellus in the bucket. “Of course you did.” She leans down and touches his mantle again. “You’re so much more intelligent than we humans give you credit for.”

Cameron’s lips part, soundless. Tova waits. She can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Erik was just like that, how it showed on his face when the gears were grinding in his brain, which they always were.

Erik’s old bedroom had been the most difficult to clean. Three decades, it sat empty. She swept the room regularly over the years, and even changed the linens on his bed occasionally, but after the men from the secondhand shop hauled the furniture away, she found herself balking at the ancient dust bunnies gathered in the corners. As if one of them might contain some fragment of him, still.

Tova has begun to retreat from the room to give him a measure of privacy when he says, “I wish I’d met him.”

She steps back in, placing a hand on his elbow. “I wish you had, too.”

“How did you, like, go on?” He looks down at her and swallows hard. “I mean, he was here one day and gone the next. How do you recover from something like that?”

Tova hesitates. “You don’t recover. Not all the way. But you do move on. You have to.”

At first, I sink like a cold bundle of flesh. My arms no longer function. I am a chunk of jetsam flung into the sea on a comatose journey toward the seafloor.

Then, with a twitch, my limbs awaken, and I am alive again.

I do not say this to give you false hope. My death is imminent. But I am not dead yet. I have time enough to bask in the vastness of the sea. A day or two, perhaps, to revel in darkness. Dark, like the bottom of the seafloor.

Darkness suits me.

Humans. For the most part, you are dull and blundering. But occasionally, you can be remarkably bright creatures.

Quoted In: Octopus brain