My Cephalopod Year


First Person

Ewald Rübsamen, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Way down deep, in the perpetual electric night of the water column—a place where sunlight doesn’t register time or silver filament—the vampire squid glides in search of a meal of marine snow. These lifeless bits of sea dander are actually the decomposing particles of animals who died hundreds of feet above the midnight zone. The vampire squid reaches for this snow with two long ribbons of skin, which are separate from its eight tentacles. If it is truly hungry, it trains its large eye on a glow, the lure of something larger—a gulper eel, perhaps, or an anglerfish waddling through the inky water. The squid’s eye is about the size of a shooter marble, but this is nevertheless the largest eye-to-body ratio of any animal on the planet.

If the squid feels threatened or wants to disappear, perhaps no other creature in the ocean knows how to convey that with a more dazzling yet effective show. When the vampire squid pulse-swims away, each of its arm tips glow and wave in different directions, confusing for any predator. To make an even more speedy getaway, the squid uses jet propulsion by flapping its fins down toward its mantle and simultaneously blasting a stream of water from its siphon—all of its arms in one direction. In the next stroke, the squid raises all of its arms over its head in what is called a “pineapple posture.” The underside of these arms is lined with tiny toothlike structures called “cirri,” giving an appearance of fangs ready to bite down on anything that wants to chase it down for a snack.

As if that wasn’t enough to shoo away a predator, the vampire squid discharges a luminescent cloud of mucus instead of ink. The congealed swirl and curlicue of light temporarily baffles the predator, who ends up not knowing where or what to chomp—while the vampire squid whooshes away, meters ahead. It’s as if you were chasing someone and they stopped, turned, and tossed a bucketful of large, gooey green sequins at your face.

I wished I was a vampire squid the most when I was the new girl in high school. We had moved around for so much of my childhood, but the most difficult move I ever made was between my sophomore and junior years. I moved from a class of about a hundred students in western New York to well over five hundred in Beavercreek, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. I went from sophomore class president to a little no one, a gal who tried out for the tennis team not because I had any interest in the sport but because at practice, at least, I didn’t have to be alone. I ate lunch in the library. I ate lunch in a stairwell hardly anyone used. I ate lunch in the dark enclave of the only elevator, hidden outside anyone’s eyesight, except for the occasional student on crutches or in a wheelchair. Once I ate lunch—my sad peanut butter and jelly sandwich—while standing up in a scratched and markered-up bathroom stall. To pass the hour, I read the often vulgar, sometimes funny graffiti scrawled on the stall door, just so no one could see that I had no one to talk to.

This was my cephalopod year, the closest I ever came to wanting to disappear or sneak away into the deep sea. I had never feared the first day of classes or meeting new people before. After tennis practice, when everyone else was making plans to meet up at the local pizza parlor, I made myself vanish. I don’t know if my teammates even noticed, or wondered where I went.

Oh, I didn’t finish high school like that, swimming in darkness. I did end up making friends, giggling with them in the back of the school bus. I joined a bunch of delightfully nerdy pals on the speech and debate team, and I eventually made the varsity tennis team, playing doubles at the district level with my sister. There was no hiding anymore. People noticed when I had to leave parties early for my curfew. They didn’t want me to go. And I had a teacher—Ms. Harding—who wanted me to shine. I know it sounds incredibly precious, but these friends made me believe the mantra “If one of us does well, we all do well.” They were generous with their support. Playing it cool was boring. They were my kinfolk, my people—many of whom I’m still friends with today, though we’ve scattered across the country, spilling out in different directions as fast as we could once we’d tossed our graduation caps in the air.

But there wasn’t one specific turning point where I stopped trying to disappear. I don’t know how I wiggled out of that solitude, how I made it through the darkest and loneliest year of my youth. No more of those half-eaten lunches hurriedly tossed into the trash. No more make-believe “research” I pretended to do so the librarian would just let me read in peace. Instead, I began scribbling in notebooks and notebooks, trying to write my way into being since I never saw anyone who looked like me in books, movies, or videos. None of this writing was what I would remotely call poetry, but I know it had a lyric register. I was teaching myself (and badly copying) metaphor. I was figuring out the delight and pop of music, and the electricity on my tongue when I read out loud. I was at the surface again. I was once more the girl who had begged my parents and principal to let me start school a whole year early. And I was hungry.

I emerged from my cephalopod year, exited my midnight zone. But I’m grateful for my time there. If not for that shadow year, how would I know how to search the faces of my own students? Or to drop everything and check in, really check, with each of my sons when they come home from school, to make sure they are having a good time and feel safe? If not for that year where no one talked to me on the school bus, where I had no valentines, no dates, I wouldn’t know what to say to my student with the greasy backpack, who sits in the corner by herself and doesn’t make eye contact. Who never talks in her other classes and never spoke in my class unless called upon. I wouldn’t know how to tell if her solitude is voluntary or if it covers up a hunger to be seen, to glow with friendship like I had every other year. I secretly love the audacity of her tousled hair, stacked into a giant sloppy bun on top of her head—this student who constantly shuffles in late and is the last to leave but always, always reads ahead on the syllabus. The one who tells me after I come back from being out sick with the flu for a whole week: I missed you, I am so, so glad you were here today.

Me too, I say. And I mean it. I wouldn’t know how wide and how radiant a student like that could make me smile.


Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems, including, most recently, Oceanic, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Other awards for her writing include fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pushcart Prizes, Mississippi Arts Council, and MacDowell. Her writing has been anthologized twice in the Best American Poetry series and appears in Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN, and Tin House. She serves as poetry faculty for the Writing Workshops in Greece and is a professor of English and creative writing in the University of Mississippi’s M.F.A. program.

From World of Wonders, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.