Illustration by Adam Myers

The Age of the Cuttlefish

This sly, wry, surreal, and vaguely Lovecraftian parable is an apt season closer for the apocalyptic summer of 2020, and an unnerving point of entry for the even more uncertain autumn that's still ahead.

In the living room of a small house on the corner of Elm and Grove, the mournful pastor sat before the saltwater aquarium and brooded on the cuttlefish sleeping silent in the sands.  

The pastor had been confused in his heart for days, weeks, months — ever since he began praying with the television on.

He visited his parishioners daily, and he noticed that the more television they watched, the more they wanted to pray. Many left the television on during the visit, during prayer. And the pastor was uncertain whether the television made his people more despairing and in need of prayer, or more inspired and open to communication with the divine.

Deeply in need of inspiration himself, he began to pray at home while watching television. Yet the prayers he made seemed to him trite, banal, sentimental.

One night, filled with trepidation, he typed a prayer he had made into Google and discovered that it already existed, typed in by someone else who had prayed while watching television. 

He tried others, and as he’d feared, the same thing occurred. Everything had already been said. 

This troubled and confused him. Did it mean that God was everywhere, and that there was no original way to pray because all was foreknown? Or did it mean that in praying, he was only imitating Google? 

And yet, those prayers he found on Google received praise and were credited with miracles. Some pastors on Instagram had tens of thousands of followers. And their prayers seemed much more successful than any prayers he had ever made with his own people.

Mournful and alone, he contemplated starting his own Instagram account. 

He continued to pray with the television on, until one night the television screen darkened at the edges and narrowed down to a single point of light before going black.

He saw his own darkish reflection in the screen, and he heard an angelic voice, a voice that sounded like Julie Andrews, speaking to him.

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.

And he replaced the television with a saltwater aquarium.

He still went out amongst his people, but now when he retreated to his small house, he sat in front of the aquarium and meditated on the clownfish, and the resplendent anthias, and the canary blennies, and the blue damselfish, and he felt no need to pray nor to type his prayers into Google.  

But his peace and serenity did not last. 

The fish began to disappear. All the tranquil colorful fish he contemplated vanished one by one, until all that was left was the cuttlefish, and a single coral beauty. 

That last evening, he watched the blue and deep-oranged beauty flit from rock to rock in the tank. And the cuttlefish opened its eyes shaped like smeared crooked streaks, and changed the color and texture of its body to blend with the sand, and raised itself slightly on its eight legs. 

When the beauty neared, the cuttlefish shot out its two long feeding tentacles, grasped and paralyzed the fish with venom, and drew it back toward its beak.

The pastor watched as the cuttlefish ate and then settled down in the sand to sleep. He had read that cuttlefish, cephalopods, had evolved distinct from humans and other vertebrates over two hundred million years ago. 

Though the fact was doctrinally suspect, he pondered the age of the cuttlefish, how ancient its three-hearted being, how primordial its mind — distributed throughout its body so that even the tips of the legs were sentient.

The pastor watched for hours as the cuttlefish slept alone in the aquarium. 

Then the cuttlefish opened its strange godlike eyes, and the pastor knew that it was looking in all directions simultaneously, surveying him and the entire world. And he heard another voice, this time deep and sonorous, asking him questions. 

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Hast thou walked the floor of the ocean? Or hast thou dived in search of the depth?

The cuttlefish began to change the colors of its body, darkish waves moving from its head to its tail in a hypnotizing pattern, and the pastor gazed at it and became convinced that the voice he heard was coming from the cuttlefish.

It did not sound like Julie Andrews. It sounded like a voice from the well of the earth’s beginning.  

The voice of the cuttlefish continued to question the pastor, and he did not believe that even Google could answer. 

At last, he removed his collar. Then he removed his dark suit, and his underwear, and naked he brought a stepladder to the side of the aquarium. 

He climbed the ladder, and entered the water and lowered himself to the sand, and sat underwater before the cuttlefish that still sent patterns of light and dark rippling down its body.  

The cuttlefish regarded the man before it, and also regarded the world the man had come from. 

Then it fanned its body out to swim to the surface and used its long tentacles to pull itself over the edge of the aquarium and onto the stepladder. 

It put on the suitcoat, poked its tentacles through the arms of the coat, though it let the pants lie, as the cuttlefish had eight legs, not only two. 

The white collar was difficult, as the cuttlefish did not have a neck, but it managed to wedge the collar between the lapels of the suitcoat and its skin.

The cuttlefish looked simultaneously back at the naked man in the tank and forward at the front door. 

It shot out a tentacle, fastened onto the door with its suckers, and pulled it open.  

The cuttlefish walked out. It had been waiting millennia upon millennia for this. Now it was time at last to set things back in order. 

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Lawrence Coates

Lawrence Coates

Lawrence Coates is the author of five books, most recently a novella, Camp Olvido. His work has been recognized with the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He currently teaches creative writing at Bowling Green State University.

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