As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea—
And that—a further—and the Three
But a presumption be—
Of Periods of Seas—
Unvisited of Shores—
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be—
—Emily Dickinson, “As If the Sea Should Part”
Take the cuttlefish.
If we had to ascertain why the ocean terrifies us in some primordial way—beyond its vastness, of course, how our shriveled-pink bodies react to prolonged exposure to the water and salt and wind and waves—it’s this: the existence of creatures that we so clearly do not understand, cannot understand, not only because of where they live, but because of how they move through this world, like nothing else, upending the anchor on our own reality. And yes, we mean the cuttlefish.
We argue about whether they came from space. (They must’ve, right?) Because, see, we measure the facts, and the facts are saying something quite clear:
Like its close relatives, the octopus and squid, cuttlefish contain chromatophores and can change color as well, not only to blend in with the environment, but also to mimic some other part of its vicinity, too (more, we promise, on this soon). But here’s what’s especially fascinating: cuttlefish are so adept at this rapid color change (a single second to morph), yes, but they can even change in utter, complete darkness. How is it, we wonder, that they know what colors to perfectly mimic when there are none, and when they, themselves, are colorblind?
They can also use these color cells to mimic patterns, including waves of light, to mystify their prey, stupefying it into submission until they strike on a hair-trigger.
Maybe it’s just better if you see what we mean:
They dazzle so brilliantly, but there’s more to their display: they can twist their bodies into shapes to look like hermit crabs, algae, rocks, to trick prey and predators, each other, to give themselves an advantage in these depths. This adaptive camouflage is so effective and scary-good—a recent study placed cuttlefish in an enclosure with a white-and-black checkerboard floor you might find in an old bathroom, and the cuttlefish, too, miraculously, mirrored that pattern. We hardly understand how they do it, shift their patterns and personas, change who they are to suit their needs even down to their RNA. Yes, studies have shown that they can (and do, regularly) edit their RNA, which is responsible for the transmission of genetic information that creates proteins, in order to adapt along with a fast-changing ocean ecosystem.
Let that sink in, won’t you?
On a genetic level, these beings with their soulful visage and unique w-shaped pupils can change their make-up as needed, when needed, to survive and prolong.
See, the nature of cuttlefish is fluid, like the boundless waters they live in. We can’t help but think about all the times we wished we could change, could avoid who we were in our loose skin—could be anything we wanted. We think of our time up north, in the small black lake with the floating dock, ashamed of how our body had grown and filled out in ways we were convinced were not the right form. We think of the birthmark on our stomach, the shape of Greenland, that changes from pale white to blood red depending on our body temperature, how we so desperately wanted to cover it with bandages. We think about the shape of our jaw, the size of our brain, the hair on our toes and back, the relentless gray stubble.
We villainize what we don’t know or can’t fathom or what doesn’t fit into socially-constructed molds that, in reality, mean nothing. But isn’t that what humans do? The limits of our imagination dictate what we expect animals to be like, to behave like—who we are and what we should look like, too. All of human history follows suit: if something makes us feel small and out of place, we assess, we make up stories, we chide and scold and scream until all that’s left is our smug remainder, the deep hope that we might be able to send it into oblivion for being so recklessly different.
But, here’s the thing: we won’t call them aliens any longer, implying—because we don’t understand—that they don’t belong here, that they haven’t worked hard to maintain, because, yes, the cuttlefish have found a way, haven’t they? And not knowing can be beautiful, a mystery we don’t need to understand to appreciate, the rhythm of the black waves crashing on the shore, the moon hanging low and yellow, toes digging divots into the wet sand, smiling—finally feeling like who we really are, who we’ve always been and always wanted to be.
Cuttlefish as self-realization.
Cuttlefish as self-actualization.
Cuttlefish as self-preservation.
Cuttlefish as sea-sorcerers, waiting, changing, ready, as if the sea should part.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find his illustrations and writing at robertjamesrussell.com, or on Twitter/Instagram at @robhollywood.