Journal of Writing & Environment

You once had a home in the sea.

You used to build shelters of pebbles and coral fragments. You used to pop mussels open with your strength, toss snail shells over your suckers. You tasted, felt, became the changes of salt in the water throughout the season.

Now, you can’t do any of those things.

Now, you don’t know where your home is.


Operant behavior has been successfully demonstrated in all species of mammals and birds for which a serious attempt has been made. Comparatively little attention has been paid to invertebrate species. This paper reports preliminary exploration of the behavior of the octopus (O. vulgaris. Lamark) to see whether components of its behavior could be found which fulfill the definitive requirements necessary to identify them as operants.

–Dews, P. B. 1959. SOME OBSERVATIONS ON AN OPERANT IN THE OCTOPUS. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 2:57–63.


It’s the sharpness of this new world you hate the most. There are jagged edges to the container that holds you that taste cold, sterile, like strips of condensed air put down to stop your path. You can’t dig under it; you can’t swim over it. You barely have room to stretch your arms, to rearrange your house.

Not that you have many things to rearrange. Three stones are all you have. Three stones you have stacked and toppled in all the combinations you can think of. There was a time when you crafted such beautiful homes, with all the nooks in the world to curl in. Nothing could reach you. At least, that’s what you thought, before hands thrust themselves inside your home, destroying all your work in a few moments.

Even the substrate beneath you runs a hard line. You used to spend your quiet moments watching the sand drift with the waves, the patterns that would form in the wake of fish tails. Here, if you don’t move the sand beneath you, nothing will.

It’s not just the landscape around you that holds sharpness. You know only day and night. No evenings or mornings or the lovely shades in-between.


Subjects were three octopuses (O. vulgaris), each weighing 500 grams, designated for identification purposes Albert, Bertram, and Charles. Each lived in its own tank of circulating sea water from which it was never removed during the experiments … The undisturbed octopus spent almost all its time sitting in its house, “looking” out with one eye. (Dews 57)


The humans build things like you. They don’t build like you. While you carefully move bits of the ocean piece by piece, they pull everything out, making holes so big that only the great dark of the ocean can fill them.

They also use tools like you, but not the way you do. You turn half shells of clams and crabs into makeshift shelters if caught out in the open. They take half shells of things larger and stranger than you can know and turn them bottom up, letting themselves float upon the water’s surface where anything can get them. They take half shells and stuff you in them for reasons you can’t understand.

You are closer to humans than you ever have been in your life. This does not help you understand them better. If anything it leaves you with more questions.

Most of the time, they hover on the edge of your sight. Where they blur is where they slam and rattle, making your container quake. Only when they come into view do they seem to calm, an illusion of indifference. But you make sure to never let your guard down. You have survived all the tricks of predators in the past and won’t fall for this ploy.

You are always watching them, even when they turn away from you. Even when their eyes are on something else. Their eyes that hang still in their heads, unlike yours that delicately swing around to keep everything level. Their eyes with pupils wide and empty as sardines.

Beyond your barrier they move around in a room full of box-shaped lights and metal sticks that taste like blood and panic. You watch them rub their hands against white sheets, twist cords, tangling their limbs against each other. Your own arms move so easily, so freely of each other.

Perhaps their unreliable limbs are what drives their bizarre behavior. Or maybe it’s the fact that they never stop moving. Even when they sit they will fiddle with whatever is in reach. They’ve made this room, this container full of containers, so big that they can pace and pace until they wear scuff marks into the ground. You would never make your home this big, all this space for some predator to slip in. Then again, you don’t think that anything eats humans except their own restlessness.


Three octopuses have been studied. All three were trained to pull a lever which led to the delivery of food. In two, reasonably consistent lever-pulling behavior was maintained until extinction; only partial success was obtained with the third octopus. (Dews 57)




You are not alone. There are other octopus here, two other males. You also watch them sitting in other containers around the room. Even though you can’t make out every detail, you know they must watch you back from the subpar houses. The humans congregate around the others, prodding them, subjecting them to strange whims. The octopus show no resistance, only quiet compliance.

If things were the way they should be, you’d never allow such weak individuals into your space. Sometimes, you let the others and the humans know this, flashing red and circling around in the water. The other octopus give no sign of seeing you, and it frustrates you so much you contemplate gnawing off one of your own arms to release all your pent-up aggression. Maybe if you are little bit lighter you’d finally be able to escape.

If the humans can understand you at all, they give no indication. You’re not sure if they even communicate with each other. Pale faces blend into each other. Are they the same few humans, or do they replace each other where you can’t see? Either way, they make little acknowledgement of each other, no flush of white contentment or red anger.

However, they do know red. Not on the outside, but inside. You found this out when you tore their skin with a sucker, leaving little rosy rings behind. Your own wounds shed blue, the same color of water, your own internal ocean. But there’s no water inside the humans. Instead, they cover themselves with blood-blue skins they tear off and reattach with alarming regularity.

What are humans? Were they something like loose stones, lumbering constantly with the tides? Or are they something closer to you? An eight-minus-four, inside-out octopus.


Charles was more capricious and effective, and sustained control was not achieved. The best series was achieved on Days 9 and 10, when 80 consecutive responses were made without a latency in excess of 10 minutes. The behavior of this animal, however, differed from that of the other two in a number of interesting respects. (Dews 62)


And then they brought in the lever. You watched them attach the thing to the edge of your container, making you slink your too-much body into your too-small home. When they finish assembling the monument of sticks and joints, you pay it no mind. You were used to obstacles floating in your path back before you came here. Yet, you find yourself drifting closer towards it. You’ve never seen an object like this. Wrapping an arm around it, you find that it moves. Delighted, you bring it down.

That simple movement brings about a cascade. The lever slams against the side of your container, shaking everything. A light flickers on and down floats a small chunk of fish. It has been a day since they fed you, and you grab onto the meat without thinking much on it. The fish is on the edge of rotting, filling the water whirling filaments of skin. It doesn’t taste pleasant, but you eat it all the same.

Once you eat, you investigate the light. It is like the lights that sit on the ceiling in miniature. You reach up, pulling it to get a better look, trying to see if you can understand this false sun. But it comes tumbling down into the water. You hide as everything falls into the water, like the glittering scales of a passing leviathan. Hands reach into the water. In an instant, they have taken everything away. Within an hour, you couldn’t quite remember if it had been there at all.


This behavior is obviously incompatible with lever-pulling behavior.

The variables responsible for the maintenance and strengthening of the … behavior in this animal were not apparent. (Dews 62)


It has been many days since you came here. At least, you believe it’s been days. Your grasp of time is tenuous in this place. The lever is gone. Every time the humans tried to bring it back, you slammed it until it bent and would no longer work. You didn’t need the food. It was something to do. It was way for you to shape the world, even in a small way.

But your fine, strong arms broke it. The humans moved on to the other octopus, only coming over to throw food to you. It is only you, the sand, and your three sad stones.

Normally, you would never choose to go on land. To leave yourself exposed to hungry birds. To be battered by waves and wind. To lose your form.

You would never choose this, except for right now.

You have traced every corner of your container, turned over your stones so much that you know every pore of their surface. You need to do something, even if it’s a thing as reckless as tasting the air.

Your trip up starts like everything else, one arm in front of the other. In perfect sync, your arms shrink and expand, carrying you upwards. Even with gravity acting against you, you find yourself moving quickly up the side of the container. When you reach the top, you hang precariously between water and air. Half of your arms dip into the water, calling you back to safety. The other half hangs swings free in the air, sampling the room, the tastes of dryness and things overripe.

Nobody sees you at first. All eyes and arms are engaged in their strange rituals. You might as well not even be there. Until you spray them with a jet of water. Your aim is impeccable, even over the vast space separating you from everything else. Water melts their sheets, stains their blood-hued skin. Then they all stare at you, more eyes on you than have ever been aimed at you. As they come towards you, you find yourself, briefly, at the center of the world. All of creation resting beneath between your arms.


The “law of effect” appears to operate in the octopus as in vertebrates. In view of the wide phylogenetic separation of these types of animals, these findings add to the evidence of the very general biological applicability of this law. (Dews 63)


In the nights at the room, you dream, as all things dream. You dream of your mother’s gentle exhalations against the egg that once held you, rocking you in your amniotic cradle.

You dream of the best hideaways, dark and safe from prying hands.

You dream of cracking shells, savoring the sweet insides of crustaceans.

You dream of one day going home to the sea.