Talk to Her

E.J. Levy

“How do you prove the intelligence of someone so different?”
      —ORION MAGAZINE, December 2011

What did they expect? That I was just another captivating face? (I do not say pretty, even my mother did not call me that; she said I would grow into my looks and meet my mate, but he never came—or if he did, I was gone by the time he arrived, already taken.) But they pay good money to come gawk at me, so I know I am compelling to look at, at least. The men especially seem mesmerized; they ignore their girlfriends and wives to gaze at me in wonder. It’s not just my naked limbs, my skin bared and magnified through the glass. When I look into their eyes, they look back with yearning, as if recognizing some ancient bond between us, before they look away.

The reporters have turned it into a story, but really, it’s not news that we’re intelligent. Did men really think they were the only ones capable of thought? What do women want, Freud famously asked, as if women couldn’t speak for themselves. No one asked us. Men have always been thus, my mother said: “Narcissists all of them, out for what they can get. They call you exquisite, extraordinary creature, beautiful, but they’d eat you alive, given half a chance.” (They do in Korea, slicing our limbs for amusement, their mouths on us, as we writhe. All in the name of exotic tourism.) “Don’t trust them,” my mother said. “They’re just in it for your flesh. To them, you’re just a piece of meat. Remember your father.”

Of course, she knows I can’t, I don’t. He was taken long before I was old enough to recognize his face. Though I remember the stories. How he was long-limbed and handsome, athletic, the fastest guy his age. He wooed my mother with moonlight dinners in the bay, crab and halibut, a courtship as fast and passionate as he was. But he was long gone by the time I came along; my mother left soon after (left is a euphemism, of course: they met, married, had me, went mad, and died, as has been the way of my family for generations; like certain clans of Texans). But her words linger. Coming back to me now, as the men and boys eye me through the glass.

I hate their jokes, saying we smell of fish. Of course we don’t. We eat fish; we aren’t fish. (Though I prefer crab.) They cling to their fantasies about us—it’s easier for them to treat us badly if they can pretend we are their inventions—like the half-fish, half-girl mermaids of their imaginings—as if we haven’t a thought in our heads. But we are not their inventions. However fishy their feelings for us may be, I try not to take it personally. Still it wounds. If you cut me, do I not bleed? Shylock asked.

We’re not the only ones whose intelligence they’ve doubted, of course. I wasn’t around to read firsthand the debates in the 1990s, but I remember hearing about them from my mother, as I remember her telling me about their precursors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, it was The Bell Curve, a book that argued that brown people are naturally less smart than white. (Unsurprisingly, this was written by a white guy.) They imagine anyone unlike themselves is dense, that the rest of us don’t feel, can’t think.

They call us spineless—invertebrates—call us kin (or at least family) to mollusks, which everyone knows have no brains. But we have more neurons than most of you, even if three-fifths are in our arms. And we wouldn’t dream of serving our guests dinner out of a Mr. Potato Head, as the Octopus Enrichment Handbook developed by Cincinnati’s Newport Aquarium proposes. Men are so mistakenly self-important. Most of the world is ocean; they live on their puny plots of dirt and mistake it for the kingdom on earth.

So naturally, I was skeptical when the researchers came for me in their lab coats, saying they just wanted to run some tests. I’d heard from my mother about the Milgrim experiments, knew how tests often measure something other than it seems. But the researchers seemed so delighted when I opened a screw top jar or a childproof bottle of Tylenol, dismantled a Lego set or ran a T-maze; it was hard not to perform just to see their pleasure. Even if the tests were incredibly inane. (If they really wanted an objective test of intelligence, they should see how many people know the plural of octopus: no, it’s not octopi, and certainly not octopuses. Try octopodes. Or they could trot out my favorite punctuation joke, the one that proves the importance of commas, and see who laughs: “Stop clubbing baby seals!” versus “Stop clubbing, baby seals!” My mother and I used to laugh ourselves sick over that one. Although with the advent of texts and tweets, no one seems to think correct grammar or spelling is a measure of anything, let alone of intelligence.)

In the end the researchers concluded that we are intelligent (quelle surprise!), but they say we’re not sociable. I beg to differ: I long for my father and mother, for the mate I never met and now never will. They want to know how our minds differ from their own—? I want to say, Go squeeze yourself through a hole the size of an orange and see what that does to your sense of perspective. I want to say, We would not eat you alive. I want to tell them about my father, killed in a bar in Japan. Not by yakuza, but a sushi chef. My mother went crazy from grief. They ask each other questions about us—“Do they think? Do they feel?”—but they do not listen when I answer with my eyes; they do not seem to notice when I unfurl my eight arms and reach out to gently brush away the hair from out of their eyes, staring back at me from the other side of the glass.

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