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Octopus Heart

Story by Latifa Ayad (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Masaaki Komori

I wake up on the first of January with an octopus in my chest. I do not know if this date is significant. I also do not know it is an octopus, but of course it is, if you have seen the way an octopus fills a jar, like it is liquid, if you have seen how an octopus suckers to the lid of that jar and unscrews it. I imagine her a black, oily thing. That morning I wake up and the octopus is squeezing my heart, she is filling the cavity of my chest, she is pushing on my stomach and it roils and roils. I cannot eat. When I do it is straight to the bathroom, my bowels loose, full of sea water. I am sea sick. I call my psychiatrist, for want of acquaintance with a marine biologist. I have had anxiety all my life but I have never had an octopus in my chest.

The psychiatrist’s nurse takes my call and promises to relay my message. She asks if I am suicidal and I say no. The psychiatrist himself does not return my call—I feel always like a secondary concern with this psychiatrist, even when I am in his chair—but the nurse tells me he has upped the dose of my antidepressant, and has prescribed something to help me sleep. Sequil? Quesac? Anyway, something that sounds like queasy or sea.

To make the octopus relax, I rub my chest. I drink hot tea. Occasionally she loosens her grip but not her hold. I call my parents and do not mention the octopus. I say, “It’s like something is squeezing and squeezing my heart,” and I have to repeat it many times, my voice is a sharp whine, my breath hitching sobs. My dad tells me to pray, which I rarely do outside Ramadan. I take out my rug and swaddle my head in a soft cotton hijab. It is a comfort but not a solution. My mom offers to fly me home, saying I must need sun, need vitamin D. Three days home, then I will be healed and can return to my students and my classes. This is what we get, my mom says, for sending a Florida girl to grad school in the arctic north, by which she means the Midwest.

When I land back home, I cry. I take my que-sea medicine and sleep a little. When I wake in the morning, I try to eat the biscuits my mom makes. And I cry.

“Did something happen?” No, nothing happened. I just woke up like this one day, with the octopus in my chest. We walk and walk and walk. If I keep moving the pain is less, it is agony to lie down and feel that any moment my heart will burst. My dad is afraid. He hugs me to him and sings Qur’an and taps the top of my head. He gives me a pouch to wear around my neck, in which he has put surahs that he has written down for me, including Ayat al Kursi. “It will protect you from evil,” he says. It is clear my dad thinks I am possessed by a jinn. The jinn can fill any space, can pour their smokeless flames to the brim of any body. My dad has come closest to the truth.

On a beach walk with my mom I throw myself into the Gulf. The sun is out but the January water is freezing. My blood vessels constrict and adrenaline zips through me, and this feels nice, but the octopus does not want what I want, which is to sense her return to the salt water and suction her way up my throat and out to sea.

We spend the hours before my evening flight at Mote Marine, where the girl I was a lifetime ago had plunged her arm into the touch-and-feel tank to stroke the shells of horseshoe crabs. A marine biologist is on the catwalk throwing lettuce to the manatees. I drift over to the octopus’s tank. It is empty. Taped to the front, a laminated card with a clip-art stethoscope that reads, “Out for a check-up!”

The next morning I stare at the gray sky sitting low over the brutalist buildings of my campus, the bare trees rigid, hunched against the wind, and I know I have missed my chance. There is nothing fluid here except the warm blood swishing in my body. I check myself into the ER. I am asked over and over, by each nurse I speak to, “Are you suicidal?” I gaze at the stomach pump strapped to the wall. I have heard there is no pain like it, but I would swallow every pill in my cabinet if it meant they would thread the tube down my throat and suction the octopus out of me.

The doctor who takes my case speaks softly, says, “People come in like this all the time.” I want to tell her no, they don’t, but the octopus unfurls an arm and sends it up my throat and around my windpipe, squeezing so all that comes out is a rasping exhale. “I’ll test your thyroid, but usually the answer is therapy. Do you have a therapist?” I nod. I imagine sitting on the stiff pleather couch, my therapist speaking not to me but to the octopus, calming, coaxing, you are safe here, this is a safe space, you can come out whenever you’re ready. The doctor asks, “Are you suicidal?” and I shake my head, no. I only want the octopus out of my chest. Give me a C-section, I will birth this thing. Open heart surgery, whatever will work. I want to cut open my chest, scalpel sharp and painless, split my sternum, pull back my ribs. Peel each sucker from my muscle and bone. For this body to be my own.


“Octopus Heart” won second prize in The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2024.

About the Author

Latifa Ayad is a Libyan-American writer who was born and raised in Sarasota, Florida. She earned her MFA at Florida State and is currently seeking her PhD at Western Michigan University. Ayad is a MacDowell Fellow. Her novel-in-progress, The Realm Unknown, was a runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. For her complete published work, please visit latifaayad.com.

About the Artist

Masaaki Komori is a photographer from Tokyo.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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