The Octopus Has Three Hearts by Rachel Rose

An octopus is a solitary creature that never swims in a school. Even its plural form – octopi, octopuses, octopodes – remains problematic. Yet when it inks, it finds company in Rachel Rose’s short story, “The Octopus Has Three Hearts,” The Beatles’ Octopus’s Garden, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. Henderson visits a French aquarium: “I looked in at an octopus, and the creature seemed almost to look at me and press its soft head to the glass, flat, the flesh becoming pale and granular – blanched, speckled.” Speckled and speaking, Bellow’s octopus under glass looks more deathly than deadly. With its all-seeing eye, soft head, and “cosmic coldness,” Henderson’s alter ego looms like some primeval presence, beckoning his imagination at twilight.

            Esi Edugyan’s novel, Washington Black, borrows from Bellow’s octopus: “The creature shot up from its rock, its orange arm boiling all around it, the suckers very white. Its gaze seemed to churn up out of its soft mantle and burn through me …. I stared at the bulb out of its pendulous head, the crags that made it look ancient, and a hot, glorious feeling rushed through me, a bright radiating hope.” The tales of these ancient mariners make their way into Rachel Rose’s eponymous short story, “The Octopus Has Three Hearts.”

            Rose domesticates her exotic mollusk, named Oberon, after Shakespeare’s king of the fairy world. The three hearts correspond to the love triangle in this story: the narrator, Phil, is married to Mica, a biologist in charge of Oberon. Their friend Winston moves in with them to form a love triangle intertwined with the escape of Oberon from his tank at the aquarium. Rose opens her story briskly and retains that pace throughout: “My cellphone startled me awake with its Zen chimes.” This wake-up call at four in the morning sounds the alarm of Oberon missing. The cellphone communicates but also takes selfies, photos of the ego and others, while the Zen chimes provide an exotic background to the domestic and familiar.

            Phil discusses Mica’s relationship to Oberon, which forms a love quadrangle in the story: “She and Oberon had this thing for each other. She would eat her lunch next to Oberon’s tank, holding hands. Or whatever it’s called when one of you has suckers on your arms.” Strictly speaking, an octopus does have arms rather than tentacles. The suckers connect characters to animals in these short stories, which are filled with characters who are deceived suckers; furthermore, Rose’s fluid style and shifting points of view suck the reader into the twists and turns of her multi-tentacled plots and narratives.

            The narrator continues: “I had watched them enough to know she loved him and that she’d probably forgotten to cover his tank. Mica was notoriously absent-minded.” Yet she holds a position of responsibility as a senior biologist at the aquarium, so Phil is not an entirely reliable narrator. Characters throughout the short stories in The Octopus Has Three Hearts demonstrate ongoing degrees of instability and eccentricity, which make them all the more engaging. Mica “had the ability to connect with every living thing. She could find common ground with bigots, chauvinists, demented old people, children of all ages and even octopuses.” Rose finds the common ground of connection with all of these types of characters in her fictional world.

            Phil assesses Mica: “She had a heart so full of love that she made it seem normal to hold hands with an octopus at lunch. I was a lucky man. So was her other husband, Winston.” Winston completes and twists the triangle: “As an artist, polyamorist and a cripple, Win was a triple failure in his parents’ eyes.” Rose’s bestiary is filled with winners and losers, animals and human beings commingling in a Gothic Pacific garden – a midsummer night’s dream of Oberon playing hide and seek. The aquarium at night has a dreamlike atmosphere, and Phil dreams “of Mica leaping over the waves with her baby dolphin while I swam in vain behind her …. Sometimes we don’t need Freud.” Interpretations of dreams pervade these stories.

            Mica sings to the octopuses, which are kinds of tricksters and misfits. “A giant Pacific octopus like Oberon … could squeeze through a crack the size of its beak.” The only hard part of their bodies is the beak, everything else is infinitely malleable. “What a way to move through the world! Octopuses used these arms to think as well as their heads. A lot of their neurons were in their arms, so each arm could think independently.” Their mating habits do not appeal to Mica. When Phil sees scallops escaping, he finds Oberon, and Mica and Winston join him in rescuing the octopus. Mica announces that she is pregnant, but it turns out to be a lie to test her lovers. Phil feels as if he’s been “sucker-punched,” another connection to Oberon’s suckers, and he recalls a sushi restaurant in Kyoto where he eats octopus. Rose’s ecosystem is polymorphous, angles and arms in all directions.

            The story ends with the ménage à trois in bed together. “The bed was a tank. We lived in our own biosphere … What a strange beast the three of us made, each of our hearts beating to its own particular time.” Each story in this collection is a biosphere of strange characters, each with its own rhythm.

            Consider the opening story, “Of Rats and Men,” the title playing on Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men, which in turn borrows from Robert Burns’s lines that the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. This story opens with a punk demanding a cigarette and money from the protagonist, Piper. When she can’t meet his request, he stabs her. The description of her assailant epitomizes how things are caught off-guard and go awry: “He was an angry white man with a face tattoo and a black rat on his shoulder.” Her black-and-white portrait contrasts with the colourful mango smoothie she drinks. His mask conceals but hints at his past, much as the rest of the story reveals Piper’s repressed past. “Half his face was inked to mimic a skull – black around his eye, a triangle on half his nose …. A skull on top of a skull.” His inked palimpsest returns to Steinbeck and Burns where plans go awry, while the mouse turned rat participates in Piper’s revenge.

            These layers within the story include Piper’s fat body, which serves as armour. After the attack and her surgery for a colostomy bag, her twin sister comes to help her recover. The first section ends firmly: “Twins run in the family. So does silence.” Twinning and triangulation run in Rose’s short stories that break silences, and expose tattoos, taboos, and trauma. When Piper eventually finds her stabber, she slams his face with a sock full of quarters – her weapon of spare change. The pied Piper lures her rats home, names them Beaux and Peep, and purchases a curved treadmill for them to exercise together. Her fat changes to muscle, part of her transformation.

            When her sister comes to visit again, more of the family past is revealed: Uncle Eddie had abused Piper when she was eleven years old. Although her mother knew the details at the time, all she could say was that he left her “intact.” The story ends with Piper and her rats on their treadmill of ironic reversals: “I spun, Peep and Beaux spun, we twirled through our long days and nights, scattering straw, spinning, spinning in our own room, spinning one direction while the Earth spun on another trajectory, distant from the gravity of human pain, shifting from light to dark, still constant in its orbit, still intact.” Rose spins poignant tales in a world that has gone awry, but remains touching and intact.

            From a ménage à trois to a menagerie, Rose uncages animals, as she explores themes of domestication, departures, exoticism, and eccentricities in Gothic modes and in a style at once poetic and precise. Human beings come back to life as dogs. Bats, cats, goats, and birds inhabit her pages. Rose is a zookeeper with many hearts and tentacles. “There are whole caverns echoing, dripping, trembling with life.” Her caverns and cages are well worth visiting and revisiting.

Rachel Rose is the author of four collections of poetry and a memoir, The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops (St. Martin’s Press), which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best non-fiction crime book in 2018. She is also the recipient of the Bronwen Wallace Award for fiction from The Writers’ Trust, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, a 2014 and 2016 Pushcart Prize and a 2016 nomination for a Governor General’s Award. She is the Poet Laureate Emerita of Vancouver, poetry editor at Cascadia Magazine and a contributor for Maisonneuve Magazine. Rose’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications including The Globe & MailAmerican Poetry ReviewPoetryMalahat ReviewRattleNew QuarterlyBest Canadian PoetryMonte Cristo Magazine and the Vancouver Sun. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Douglas & McIntyre (April 24 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771622881
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771622882

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Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.