I hatch. I slip out of my egg cell after tearing through its skin. Slowly, I sink. My arms uncurl. I float. I sink. I float.
Hovering over the sandy floor, I see above me the other eggs strung together. Milky pearls hanging from the scratchy rock like necklaces, like clusters of alien grapes. And there is the other self, ugly and massive, brooding upside down over her drooping white nest. An endless fanning of dark, warted arms.
Others hatch. They sink. Their arms curl and uncurl. They float. We float. We tumble and collide. We gasp. As we breathe, our heads, bulbous, pulse. We are small and translucent. Above, her thick arms sweep and splay, brushing over the remaining eggs. Brushing until what are left are withered petals, not pearls. Condoms torn and discarded.
She will kill herself. Her work is nearly done and her body, each organ, each tissue, will sequentially fail her. And we? We too may soon be killed. So we rise. A cloud of us. Swimming, drifting, amidst plankton, like plankton. Here, we eat and are eaten.
I feast on copepods, larval crabs, larval starfish. I fatten and thicken. With each meal I sink. I outgrow the plankton cloud. I sink.
On the floor, among rocks and coral, I find homes have already been made. I crawl farther. I have no shell to snugly sleep inside, so I vanish. I become the cracked pale surface of coral. I become a rock, hard and speckled. I become the swaying dark leaves of kelp. My skin contracts and expands. I darken and disappear.
A crab crawls by. My arms crack its shell. I hold it close to my mouth. I crawl and find a slant crevice between two rocks on the coral floor. As I crawl, one arm brushes against a shell. Another finds a pebble. I carry crab, shell, and pebble to the rock. The crab I push inside. My arms bring more pebbles and shells. Shells and pebbles are now littered before my home. My arms reach out, grappling, feeling, digging. The pile of debris grows before the opening until what is left is a small mouth, as big as a sucker on my body. I squeeze. I push myself through it, head first. My arms slide in after me. I gorge.
Soon I need a stronger fortress. I crawl, vanishing and appearing. In the distance, a dark fish, long and lean. I wait. The fish swims towards me. I retreat. I back into rocky rubble and my skin, as it settles on the surface, picks up the pattern of light and dark. I vanish. The dark fish swims closer. Its snout twitches. I blanch. I cannot help myself. I fling myself forward. I balloon. All white, save for a spot of brown near my eye. A phantom eye to fool the fish. I form a wide canopy with my body. But the fish is still larger. I spurt. A cloud of ink, and I flee. My head leads the way. My arms become one. One heart stops beating. The other two, the ones at the gills, pump my coppery blood. Dizzy, I falter. I lay myself flat on the sand and wait.
This goes on. I grow. I crawl. I vanish. I hunt.
I am outside my newest home. A burrowed enclave beneath a gnarled rock. I am idle. My arms wag. One arm touches another arm, but not mine. He is smaller. He embraces me with two arms, and a third tickles around my head. I squeeze myself thin, to slip from his grasp. But he hugs me tighter. His third arm, the tip of it, finds behind my head the mantle. Each arm of mine pushes against him. His arm slips inside. I am stunned. His arm slips out, but his body still presses against mine. Again his third arm slides around my head, to the back, again slipping inside to deposit his sperm. I squirm. Our arms are interlocked. He does it again, and again and again and again and again. I lose count. I am red . His head, heavy, leans against mine and I feel his arm sneak around me again. He is slower now. Tired. I seize him. Each arm of mine wraps around his head. Now I watch him blanch. I tighten my grip, he wrestles me. Once it’s over, I drag his body towards the gnarled rock. I push him, squeeze him, into the burrowed hole. I gorge.
Once it’s over, I feel heavy. I crawl out and am struck by light and warmth. I crawl until I can crawl no longer. On a reef, on its hills and valleys, I rest. I heave. Like vomit, I expel in one force below me white pellets. Miniscule and many. Little pellets caught in the current, floating away from me. My arms grab towards them, pull them back. It is an impossible game. I hold them in place. Then I weave them. It takes a long time. I sway water over them. I clean them. I sit forever, heavy and weak.
Then they hatch. Out they tumble, miniscule. I sway water over them and watch as they skip and spin. From my siphon I issue a jet of water. They are caught in its current and I watch them, little pulsing selves, rise far above me. I will watch that shimmering cloud for as long as I can. But then. Here I sit. For forever I lie on top of them. And now? More hunting and crawling and feeding? No. Here, now, I sit on the torn white tissues of their eggs. I will sit on this litter now. Not vanishing, not hunting, not crawling. Here I will sit now. I will sit until whatever keeps me—my skin, my arms, my hearts—alive, stops.
Zehra Nabi holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University, where she works for The Hopkins Review and teaches creative writing. She previously worked as a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan.