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  • Judith Ellen

CEPHALOPODICUS

By: Judith Ellen

Awoken by the sudden gulping of his breath, Romi discovers that a heavy, gelatinous tentacle had replaced his skinny arm. The sleep goo stuck within the crevice of his eyes blurs the full view of the appendage. Blinking repeatedly, he tries to wiggle what feels like his fingers, but it is too painful and instead, he only imagines flexion and extension. Something that normal boys waking up do. The left side of his bed was soaked and he wonders if what was happening to his brother is also happening to him--the way his brother sauntered toward the bathroom beat-boxing under his breath scratching at the damp crotch of his briefs. Romi uses his opposite hand to reach under his sheets to touch his dry underwear. These fingers are working.

The weight of the tentacle bears down on his entire body and he watches his ribs appear and disappear under each breath. His mind scanning for the last good memory that would explain his current predicament. He travels backward in time, rewinding from the moment he slipped into his jammies, then at the dinner table sucking the marrow out of the oxtail bone, then noticing his left hand...that’s it. He remembers the knife. He remembers the boy’s tearful reflection in the blade staring at him. Blood smeared at the tip.

He remembers the boy shoving his fingers into his back and repeating, “JER-rome, JER-rome” as if he just learned how to say his name. It had been Romi’s turn to chop the vegetables for snack time. He was overly conscientious of his newly-acquired knife skills and wanted to make sure that Mrs. Cuthbert noticed how short his fingernails were and how he never took his eyes off of the cutting board. Clean down and up from the base of the blade he heard her saying in his mind. The boy had come out of nowhere, two years younger than Romi and the brother of someone he thought would be his first best friend. He had heard of best friends and bf’s and bff’s and was auditioning them on the playground. He chose the one he observed playing hopscotch with Ginny and Pramila. The soon-to-be bf was more wiggly on his right leg, but a good hopper, nonetheless and could teach Romi a thing or two about something other than existing. He noticed his kindness toward his little brother when he threw a giant tantrum which brought Ms. Vedantam, who rarely left her office, to the brick wall along with the crowd encircling the needy child. His high-pitched wails scratched Romi’s eardrums and reminded him of the look on that mother’s face in the checkout line. Her baby, inconsolable while she searched for three pennies to complete her purchase.

Romi’s mother shook her head. “You were never like this.”

The first and true instinct, before the shock, was to jam the knife into the little brother’s belly. Romi had been trying to protect himself but his teachers thought otherwise, and he was rushed from the kitchen to Ms. Vedantam’s office.

“Just what were you planning on doing with the body?” she asked.

Romi answered in her mother tongue but he couldn’t translate what he said. They both sat silently until his mother arrived.

Romi wills his hand to squeeze and the downward force suctions what feels like his fingers to the bedsheet. He’s never cried and now he feels so sorry and so undeserving of whatever fate lies ahead. A voice emerges,

“You’ve been a very naughty child.”

Romi is unable to shape his mouth to the sound of the letters and the words come out like, “4g-n!uh-C8H” which translates loosely to, I want my mommy.

“No. You begged me to turn you into a boy. It’s clear you’re no good at it.”

His pupils stretch causing the tears to crystallize at the base of his lids. He can see what were once brown, dazzling eyes. Big. And recessing into the tidy lifetimes not inhabited. He had been warned but never imagined that contortion would feel excruciating.

Tortured.

Returning to only seeing in black and white.



 

Judith Ellen is a queer, Black femme writer based in New England whose work has been featured in Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives by Telling Our Stories Press and in Elephant Journal. She is the creator of American Rot, a virtual writing, and yoga series exploring how American-ness shapes and influences lived experiences. Mic check her on IG @karmicdragonshead and on Twitter @thekarmicdragon.

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