New-Born

Ruth Fainlight

From the roof of her under-reef den
a giant Pacific octopus –
whose suckered legs are metres long,
who changes tone when curious
from glowing white to glorious red –
hangs a hundred thousand eggs
clumped into strands, like clusters
of grapes painted on the ceiling
of Sennefer’s tomb at Luxor.

‘The rough surface of rock
makes the vine-tendrils and fruit
more realistic. The artist’s
experiment has succeeded,’
the guidebook says. I remember
that tomb in the Valley of the Nobles
more clearly than the others.
An arbour of freshness and coolness
lay below its dusty entrance –
a foretaste of the Western Kingdom.

Sennefer was Mayor of Thebes
and overseer of Amon’s
temple garden, three and a half
millennia ago – yet
the vivid colours on the frescoes
and ceiling look newly painted,
the lotus held to his nostril
still fragrant, the grapes luscious.
His wife is young and beautiful.
She tenderly touches his leg
as they stand at the offering table
or sit together, pilgrims
on a boat to Abydos.

The third leg from the right
of a male octopus is modified
with a groove for mating.
When its tip is pushed into
the female’s mantle cavity
a long tubular bag of sperm
slides down to find the oviduct.
An octopus is a
solitary creature, and
this rarely happens more than once.

For the next six months the female
stays in her den, stroking
the clusters of fertilised eggs
with gestures I want to interpret
as consciously gentle, even
maternal, shooting streams of water
from her siphon to keep them free
of fungus and oxygenated.
She will not eat again.

Wasted flesh skin
peeling like blistered paint
off a ransacked tomb’s mildewed walls
or the weightless husks and residue
of grapes pressed dry
drifting like a grey ghost
trailing mummy bandages
across the ocean floor.
Now the eggs are hatched
her purpose is achieved
if two survive.

A hundred thousand octopus-
existences break through
the membrane web that sheaths them
and float out to the darkness
of the circling current
like souls departing for eternity
or new-born gods.