Mantle, Arm, and Tentacle

I float amongst the wispy kelp, gently buffeted by the current, and the entire world is quiet, peaceful. This is the part I like, before the fighting, before the thrashing and scratching and gasping for breath. These last few moments to enjoy the water, so clear it’s hard to tell where it ends and the sky begins, floating just under that frontier in my own private pocket of tranquility. But that’s the thing about moments: they don’t last.

The gate between the holding pool and training lagoon opens, and the squid—I call him Fluffy, but would never tell my father that—rushes at me. I feel him before I see him, a sudden subtle change in the pressure on my left side, and I twist my body, not square to the squid, but slightly angled away, left side toward the approaching squid, harpoon held loosely in that hand, short-handled paddle in my right. Tactics and methodologies that I follow without thinking, that have been drilled into me since I was big enough to get in the water. I pop my head above the water for one final breath before the fight begins, then sink back under, eyes wide and watchful. In the split second that I’m above water, I hear my father shouting instructions, but he fades away as the salt water gurgles back into my ears.

The lagoon is much smaller than the ocean arena will be, and Fluffy is much smaller than the adult I’ll fight, but that’s the point of training. It lets me prepare, bracing myself as Fluffy closes in on me, his arms akimbo, tentacles outstretched like he’s coming in for a hug. My leg muscles hum as I prepare to dodge. The better a fighter is, the closer they’ll let the squid get before spinning out of the way. People say my dad would let the squid get so close he could tickle their tentacles, kiss their claws. All without getting so much as a scratch. The instant I start my dodge, I know it’s too early—Fluffy still glides past me, but his rubbery mantle is already twisting in a course-correction—but the urge to get out of the way is just so strong. In my head, I know Fluffy won’t hurt me—his claws and beak are blunted besides. But my gut and my heart won’t be convinced. I told my dad that a few years ago after one of my first fights—I did okay, not great—and he said that if my heart and my gut weren’t tough enough on their own, then I needed to overrule them. Like they weren’t part of me. I nodded like I understood.

Fluffy swings around and lashes at me with one tentacle, but I use the paddle to bat it away, hitting the club at the end of his long tentacle like I’m giving him a high five. His chromatophores flash pink, a color that I know isn’t anger, more like playful aggression. He’s like a competitive kid, the one who always has to be first to the top of the jungle gym, who has to snatch the most rings from the bottom of the pool before coming up for air. I think he cares more about winning than I do. But squid fights are tilted in the fighters’ favor, though you’d never catch me saying that in front of my dad.

Fluffy hangs back and prods at my defenses with his tentacles, feinting with one then the other, keeping back far enough that I can’t snag his mantle or an arm. I parry each attempt.

Suddenly, he drops toward the bottom and shifts color, blending in with the pebbly gray sand below. I lose track of him, and hold perfectly still, trying to sense the flow of water he’ll create if he surges toward me. But I don’t feel anything. Despite myself, I start to panic, never good when you’re trying to hold your breath. My muscles tighten as acid builds up, first my biceps and triceps, then my quads, calves, abdomen. Damn it. I’m going to have to surface.

I kick, but barely begin my ascent before gray-and-black speckled arms wrap around me from my knees to my nipples, hugging me tight, my skin tingling where the suckers latch on. I manage to get my own arms outside of his grasp, but he has me tight.

My lungs burn, my muscles scream for oxygen. I squirm in Fluffy’s grasp, but he squeezes, his blunted claws poking me like baby teeth. The paddle falls to the bottom of the pool as the fingers on my left hand spasm and let go. Desperately, I fling the harpoon, but it sails harmlessly past Fluffy’s mantle. He spins me around, tumbling, playing. With what little strength I have left, I reach for his mantle near his eye and tap him three times in quick succession. Our secret signal. Abruptly, instantly, the pressure from his arms releases and I’m free. I quickly orient myself toward the sunlight above and kick. Moments later my head breaks the surface and I greedily suck in a massive breath, too much at once, and I start to cough and sputter, my nose running, eyes red and tearing. Fluffy leisurely swims toward his lagoon. My dad drives him from the deck with a long lance, but Fluffy is leaving on his own. He knows the fight is over for today.

I swim to the edge of the pool and haul myself out, flopping onto my back, closing my eyes against the too-bright sun, my chest heaving. A shadow falls over me, darkening the orange-brown behind my eyelids, dropping the temperature on my face a fraction of a degree. I open my eyes to see my father, lips pursed, brow furrowed, nostrils flared. His nut-brown skin is wrinkled from years in the sun and water, eroded like the side of a mountain, the same color and texture of a roasted almond.

“Two hundred and sixteen seconds, Matheus,” he says, firm, teeth gritted against fire. He knows he doesn’t need to tell me that this is unacceptable. “What the hell happened there?”

“It was the camouflage,” I say. “Fl—the squid, it disappeared on me. I’m sorry. I lost track of it until it had me almost wrapped up.”

My father looks down at me, breathing steadily. He always breathes steadily. “You missed your harpoon throw too. Did you even aim?”

I don’t answer. The question is rhetorical.

“That close, you should never miss. We’ll finish up with throwing practice. Twenty-five good throws in a row and you’re done.” He gets the target, sets up, waits for me to throw the harpoon, retract it back to myself, throw again. After forty-five minutes I manage a string of twenty-four, but nerves sabotage my twenty-fifth and it sails wide, ricocheting off the side of the target.

My father checks the sun. He’ll want to shower, prepare tomorrow’s training regimen for his other students. I may be his son, but I’m still a student. If I wasn’t his son, I probably wouldn’t be, would never have qualified for his rigorous training. But that training produces champions. And I’m almost there, just one last fight. He’s gotten me this close, and this may be the most important week of my entire training, but he coaches other students, can’t devote all his time to me. He looks from the harpoon to the target, then at me. “Laps,” he says. “Forty, mixed styles, then clean up. I’ll leave a dinner plate out for you.” Without waiting for a protest—not that I’d dare offer one—he strides off.

Once he’s taken the little solar-powered motorboat back to our house, I could shirk the laps if I wanted, but somehow he’d know. Whether from my performance tomorrow, the ease with which I stretch next morning, the speed with which I eat my dinner. Something would tip him off. Picking up on the most minute changes and disturbances, that’s what makes an elite squid fighter. One of the things, anyway. Holding your breath for a long time is another. And I still have to work on that.

So I take my laps, mixing up freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, fly. The sun sinks toward the horizon all the while. When my limbs burn and my abs flutter and spasm and my lungs feel ready to shrivel and implode, and I finally stop, only a sliver still pokes above the ocean, painting it pink and orange, the colors shimmering like a squid’s skin. I clear the filter, test the salinity and ph, mop up around the edges. Then it’s time to check on Fluffy.

There are lights over Fluffy’s lagoon that I could turn on, but I prefer the last sun, the rising moon. So does Fluffy, who drifts over to the side of the lagoon when I approach.

More than the training pool, this looks like a natural habitat. Sandy bottom covered in shells and fishbones and rotten waterlogged wood. Lush palm fronds overhanging, vines and ivy reaching inward from the haphazardly maintained leafy fringe. One end open to the ocean, save for the gate that keeps Fluffy inside while letting the fresh saltwater flow through the pools. I walk to the small solar-powered freezer, remove a block of fish, cold against my hands. I place it on the ground next to the lagoon where Fluffy’s waiting and sit beside it, dangling my feet in the water.

I pry one of the fish from the block and toss it into the pool, arcing it over Fluffy’s mantle. He reaches out a tentacle and snags it the instant it hits the water, bringing it to his beak and popping the fish in whole. He rolls on his side, one coffee mug-sized eye gazing up at me. He rolls again, fixes me with his other eye.

“You know I’m not ready,” I say. “I don’t have the fire.” I’m parroting my father, but it’s true. My skills are fine, good enough to get me to the squid fight championships next week, but I’m worried. I don’t want to actually hurt a giant squid, let alone kill one. I never have before, only training with Fluffy all these years. We practically grew up together, my father harvesting the egg Fluffy hatched from two weeks after I was born. My squid, the one I would train with until I was ready for the real thing, a full-grown giant squid, the krakens that took down boats, that were barely more than legend until the seas rose and took back so much of the land, since the famines killed so many people. After that the squid could breed, could retake their oceans. Little did they know that the people left on the new coasts and islands would take out their impotent anger with the rising tides on the animal that represented it to them. But no matter how many squid the fighters kill, we’ll never get the oceans to retreat.

The people in Ilha de Janeiro don’t seem to care though. They’ll turn out for the fights, cheering and rattling noisemakers and blasting air horns and ringing cowbells. They did it for my father, and in a little more than a week, they’re going to do it for me.

“Fluffy,” I say, dropping a fish into the water, “I’m in trouble.”

He orients himself upright, perpendicular to the floor of the pool, but with eyes on either side of his mantle, I’m not sure if he’s trying to look out toward the half-sunken buildings and spotted islands of Janeiro, or further out to sea, where the arena waits for me. Where I’ll battle one of his monstrous cousins. I’m the last competitor in my division. In a little over a week, I’ll be deemed either champion or disappointment.

White sparkles dance in front of my eyes, but that’s just a sign that I’m getting close. I can hold my breath for another twenty seconds. Maybe more.

Across from me, Jessica’s eyes shift back and forth between my face to the stopwatch. “Five seconds, Matheus,” she says, then, “Okay, you can stop now,” when I go past that. “Okay,” she repeats, forcefully. “Okay, stop. You don’t need to show off.”

I hold it for as long as I can then exhale violently, air gusting from my lungs. “Did I make two fifty?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Two forty-seven.”

I grumble. My count was off, but that’s close. That’s still a good time. Better than anything Jessica has done today, but she isn’t competing in four days.

It’s like she reads my mind. “You’re going to do good,” she says. “You’re not going to beat me, but you’re going to do good.” Her wide grin shows off all her teeth.

We’re practicing in the gym connected to my house, my father’s house, his training gym. I’m not fighting Fluffy today. Today is all out-of-water training. Weights, dry-land cardio, breathing. Jessica is just three months younger than me, the same fighting division, and we’ve been training partners since my father took her on three years ago, when we were twelve, when any serious squid-fighting contender signs on with a coach. That’s when I officially started, but really, my father has been training me since the day I was born. Our house, like so many others, is surrounded by water, part of what used to be called Copacabana, one of the most luxurious and famous beaches in the world. The beach is underwater now, of course. We live in the top floors of what used to be a hotel. The gym takes up half the lowest level, just above the waterline. He brought me down here to dip my toes in the water when I was just a couple days old.

“I’ll do my best,” I say. Jessica rolls her eyes. She doesn’t understand why I don’t trash-talk, why I can’t boast like her and the others. She says it’s a bad sign, a lack of aggression. My father agrees. But Jessica is my friend. Why would I want to say something mean to her?

“The juvie called in a big adult for me to fight,” Jessica says. “Hopefully yours’ll call a big one for you too. That’s an automatic higher score. Even if it takes you longer to win or you don’t get as many good hits, the judges take the squid into account. I don’t care what they say, they totally do.”

“It won’t matter if he can’t hold his breath long enough to get the harpoon in,” my father says, and Jessica and I both jump. Even though he’s been retired since before I was born, his body is still ropy and muscled and he moves like he never left the water, like he’s still floating in the ocean arena, waiting for a squid to charge.

“Sorry, Coach,” Jessica says, but I don’t even waste time with an apology. By the time Jessica is done talking, I’ve taken my quick, deep, panting breaths and then my long suck of air, and I’m holding it, and Jessica fumbles for the stopwatch and even though she misses those first few seconds, I’m going to show my father that I can hold my breath for two hundred and fifty seconds. Sparkles or no.

It’s almost midnight of the night before my fight. I leave for the arena in eight hours; I fight in ten. I need to sleep, but I can’t. Whenever I close my eyes I see giant squid swimming at me, arms splayed, tentacles reaching out like a witch’s fingers, long sharp claws extended, ready to shred me and feed me into their beak. Even though I try lie still, the muscles in my arms and legs twitch like I’m treading water and throwing a harpoon, dodging from the attack. Blood and ink swirl into the water around me, the color of a solar eclipse. Above me, my father watches, proud. Or else the squid wraps me up and pulls me under, and wranglers have to dive in and save me, and I never fight again, only watch from the windows as my father coaches better fighters at the training pool.

But none of this will happen until tomorrow, and tomorrow will come a lot quicker if I sleep. I roll over, wriggle into my mattress, punch my pillow to fluff it, bury my head in it and pull the sheet up to my chin. I toss the sheet off and twist my body around, head by the foot of the bed so I’m closer to the open window. Still, I can’t sleep. My heart keeps racing.

An infinitesimal creak comes from my bedroom door, a sliver of light cuts across my face, and I jerk upright. The door opens fully.

“I always had trouble sleeping the night before a big fight,” my father says, crossing the room and sitting on the bed next to my head. I start to sit up, but he motions for me to lie back down. “Don’t tell anyone that, by the way.” He smiles, his face illuminated by the moonlight that sneaks through the blinds and the lamplight from the hall. He looks like a carved statue, some island god that protects the natives from hurricanes.

“I’m not scared,” I say, closing my eyes.

“Of course you are,” he says softly. “Everyone is.”

“I’ll make you proud.”

“I know you will.” He puts his big gnarled hand on the side of my head, just above my ear, and strokes my hair. “Sleep now,” he says. “Imagine you’re a seal, lying on a dock in the moonlight, the wood bobbing up and down, rocking you like a baby. Smell the ocean. Feel the waves. Be the seal, and sleep.”

He goes on, but the words fade and dissipate, and then it’s morning.

I steer our boat into the dock at the stadium, and my father hops out to tie up. Normally, these roles would be reversed, but not when I’m about to fight and a bad jump out of the boat could roll an ankle.

My father accompanies me to the locker room, where I stretch and drink water and do my breathing exercises. We go over my strategy one last time before he takes me by the shoulders, tells me to fight hard, to keep moving, to make sure I oxygenate before the fight starts. And then we head up poolside. He’s trained me all he can. Now he’s just a spectator like everyone else.

The arena is massive. I’ve watched fights from the stands before, but on the pool level it seems even bigger, stretching up and curving out like a massive clamshell, open on one end to the ocean. I look out in that direction, shading my eyes against the bright sun, wondering just how far out there the squid I’ll fight is. The clouds today are wispy and flash by the sun so fast they don’t even obscure it. The water in the pool is shimmering and clear.

Under that water, Fluffy floats, shackled with thick stainless steel chains, which wrap around his mantle and loop around his arms and tentacles, bolting them to the walls and floor of the pool. They won’t have tightened them quite yet, but already Fluffy is irritated, his skin flashing red and yellow, his arms twitching, tentacles probing for spots where he can pry the chains away. But he’s still too young, and his claws and beak are blunted regularly. There’s no way he can yank the chains off or cut his way through. The men and women who run the fights out of this stadium have it down to a science.

I turn away from my friend, the squid I’ve trained with so many times. But I hear it when the preppers tighten the chains five minutes later, when Fluffy begins to thrash and splash at the top of the pool, doing everything in his power to escape, willing to throw himself from the water to escape the pain, but unable even to do that. I wince and look at him, a maelstrom of color, ink squirting into the water, blackening it. Threads of red mixing in where the chains cut into his flesh. I swallow against a lump in my throat. This is how it has to be. The training squid’s distress calls the big squid in, gets them agitated and ready to fight. This is the way it’s always been. I just hope the adult squid comes quickly so the preppers will ease up. I feel like I should watch, like I owe it to Fluffy, but I can’t. But I also can’t shut out the noise of creaking chains, of water crashing over the edge of the pool. It spreads across the concrete and wets the soles of my bare feet.

“Fighter, into the water,” an emotionless voice blares from the speakers ringing the stadium. Then, not for my benefit, but for the thousands in the stands, the people I’m trying to pretend aren’t there so I don’t vomit from nerves, it announces, “Squid approaching. Spotters estimate approximate length of ten meters, likely female.”

Ten meters. That’s more than three times Fluffy’s length, from the top of his mantle to the tips of his outstretched tentacles. A frozen nut forms in the pit of my stomach, and cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. I pick up my harpoon and paddle and slip into the water, keeping an arm on the lip. I prepare to go under, taking quick deep breaths, trying to will my heart to beat more steadily. Behind me, the preppers let some slack into the chains, but Fluffy writhes against the steel, batters his tentacles against the wall. I don’t have much time before the adult squid gets to the arena, just a second to turn and look at Fluffy. He contorts himself in the chains, the top half of his mantle out of the water, and stares at me with one big sad eye. His skin drains of all color, becoming fish-egg white. I wonder if he’ll ever forgive me.

But there’s no time to worry about that now, because I feel a slight pressure around my body and even under water I can hear the crowd exclaim and cheer as the adult squid enters the arena. I whip my head around, and see a massive squid. Even from across the arena, she looks enormous. She speeds in my direction, skin flaring red and orange, and she’s closing fast.

I twist into my stance, paddle out, harpoon back, legs slowly churning as I hang waiting. She gets bigger and closer, filling my field of vision. Arms spread in a wide circle, tentacles leading the charge, ready to grip me and pull me into her yellow razor-sharp beak, which sits in the center of it all like the sun. I pivot, thrust with my paddle and kick mightily, just trying to get out of the way. I do, but it’s just because she isn’t interested in me. She’s trying to get to Fluffy. She wraps her arms around him and pulls, but that just makes the chains dig deeper and Fluffy jets more ink into the water.

This is my chance, while she isn’t looking, while she’s too busy trying to free Fluffy. I wind up and hurl my harpoon at her mantle, a spot above and behind her eye, a spot that, if I hit it just right, should penetrate deep enough to hit her main heart, killing her. But she’s not exactly holding still and the harpoon sinks into her flesh too low, poking out of her rubbery body like a birthday candle in cake.

The harpoon is attached to my wrist with a cord, but when I tug it, it just jostles about in the adult’s mantle, not detaching. I pull harder and it rips free, a spurt of blood in its wake. This gets the adult’s attention, and she turns from Fluffy, her arms and tentacles whipping around to grab at me. I ready the harpoon, but before I can throw it, her arms wrap around me under my armpits, sharp claws not quite extended, just pricking me, testing how soft my skin is. She tightens her grip, and I feel what little oxygen remains being squeezed out of my lungs, forced from my muscles. But my arms are free, and I cock back with the harpoon. I can see one eye, staring at me with a mixture of anger and confusion. And behind her, Fluffy, frantically flashing blue and green, strobing in the murky water.

I don’t throw the harpoon. I know those colors. Not rage, not aggression, not even sadness. Calming colors. The adult will know them too. I open my hands and let the harpoon and paddle drift to the arena pool’s floor some thirty feet below. Everything is muffled, dreamlike. The hollow clangs of the chains, the crashing surf cheers of the crowd. I feel at peace, and close my eyes, giving myself to the squid.

And the arms relax, the suckers detach, the claws retract, and the squid lifts me toward the surface. I break it and gasp, the chaos of the arena briefly assaulting my ears, and then I sink back underwater. The adult has turned away, is working more methodically now at Fluffy’s chains while he continues to flash blue and green, but she can only loosen them so much. Up top, the preppers must be fighting back, cranking the chains tighter, caught in a tug of war with the two squid.

Carefully, not sure what the adult will do when I get close, I swim to Fluffy, placing a hand on his mantle, silently apologizing, hoping he can see contrition in my eyes. And then I scramble up him, using the chains as handholds, pushing off his mantle with my feet. I rise above the water, and climb to the top of the chains. The shouting from the crowd becomes confused as they wonder what I’m playing at, whether I’m trying to use the chain rig to get a better shot at the squid or what, whether that’s even allowed. The preppers look up at me in shock, their hands slipping from the crank, and the chains loosen as they drop into the water. I yank pins and loose bolts from holes, bang on nuts with my calloused hands until they bleed, doing anything to try to break the rig. I know I won’t be able to actually wreck it, but if I can weaken it a little, if I can give Fluffy and the adult any advantage, it could be the difference between life and death. I jump and swing and holler like a monkey, the rig rattling and creaking under me. The crowd isn’t cheering anymore, their cries of encouragement and bloodlust turned to yells of disgust and bewilderment. The preppers strain against the crank, but they’re losing ground, their feet threatening to slide out from under them. Rather than fall, they let go and jump back as the crank handle spins out of control and the chains connecting to the rig speed away from them. The rig itself seems to hang in the air for a split second, and I feel weightless, even more than when I’m underwater. Then, with me still on top, it plummets into the pool.

I jump from the rig just as it hits the water, diving outward to avoid getting caught up in the chains and pulled to the bottom. In the roiling white and blue, I see the adult finally manage to shake the chains off of Fluffy and pull him away from the collapsing rig. She pushes him ahead of her, and Fluffy flashes bright green, almost neon, just once before they’re gone from the arena and heading out to sea. Fluffy will have a hard time of it for a little while, waiting for his claws and beak to get honed to sharpness again, but if the adult stays with him, I think he’ll be okay. Holding my breath for as long as I can, I watch them swim away, turn to the south, and disappear from view.

I surface, spewing salty inky bloody water from my mouth, shaking it from my hair. I grab the edge of the pool and flop myself up onto the concrete. Lying on my side, I listen to the cacophony from the crowd, the preppers, the judges. I see my father running toward me, fuming, shouting incoherently, red-faced and wild. Bubbling up from deep inside me, laughter explodes from my lungs, and I laugh uproariously until my ribs hurt as badly as if a squid is wrapped around them, squeezing with all its arms and tentacles.

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