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Properties by David Emanuel

The Owltopus―celebrated traveling companion of the Sea King; co-hero of the great saga of the Black Hands; natural leader of all missions, exploratory and expiatory; shepherd of lost sheep; friend to the listless; master of impossibility; champion of the champignon; illustrious sage; and most famous (as well as only) avian mollusk in the history of the world―frequently travels alone these days. Being the unique specimen of one’s species is a very taxing task, one to which the Owltopus grows tired of tending.

Walking down the street alone, he is constantly harangued by passersby: “How is the Sea King?” “Were the Black Hands as evil and treacherous as the stories say?” “Was it scary when the Black Hands attempted to usurp the Sea King’s throne?” “Are you concerned by the fact that some of the Black Hands are still alive, and live here on land where you do now?” “When you throttled the first usurper’s throat, did it make a sound? Was it like a cracking or a popping? Was there any gurgling?” “Would you kill my enemies for me?” “After having worked so hard to save the fate of your home, why did you leave it to live on the surface?” “Do you have any secret magical powers?” “How is it to breathe both air and water?” “Do you get paid for being the traveling companion of the Sea King, and if so, do you still get paid for that job even when you’re not traveling with the Sea King?” “Do you have to return to the water whenever the Sea King wants to go somewhere?” “Do you talk to the Sea King often?” “Can you have the Sea King show up at my daughter’s birthday party?” None of these are questions to which the Owltopus has any desire to respond. He feels no responsibility to respond. He is the Owltopus and has nothing more to say than has already been said. He knows he is an impossibility, a freak of nature, a mystery and a revelation. He accepts it as a given. Even the Sea King has become distant to him, though this is to be expected since he left the sea to live with people, the very stock of the Black Hands, ruthless usurpers that they are.

When feeling dejected, the Owltopus goes to the park and climbs a tree. Sitting in a tree, he feels better, less like a mollusk, more like a mammal. This was, after all, the reason that he left the sea in the first place, to be more like a mammal. The Sea King, scaly-legged man with three-pointed webbed feet, has never understood this compulsion. For the Owltopus, this is obvious: the Sea King has no need to feel like a mammal because he essentially already is one, or appears to be one once he puts pants and shoes on. His hair like a kelp forest lies flat on his head above water. Under a hat, he passes for the most mundane of humans. The Owltopus moves about in the world with his owl’s head atop eight tentacles and is instantly recognizable as an oddity. People notice the appearance of a creature like him, which on occasion has even provoked religious visions in the weak-minded who perceive him as a vision, like a burning bush. One such man, a street performer, had to be institutionalized after busking in the general vicinity of the Owltopus, taking him for a sign of an impending apocalypse. It makes the Owltopus angry to think about this, sending him ever higher into the canopy of the tree he has chosen to climb.

Swinging from branch to branch, he is a monkey. He eats bananas, and uses his opposable thumbs to groom his compatriots. Peeling bananas and turning twigs into tools, he sometimes feels his life is unfulfilled here with the hermit friars, then finds himself in a fez and little vest, dancing to the music of an organ grinder. He wonders how he ended up here on this street dancing for pocket change that he will never see. The organ grinder is not a cruel man, he is an unaware man. He is not aware of the singularity and magnificence of his monkey. He assumes that the time he spent training his monkey to dance to the music of his organ is a product of his own investment of time and not the product of the fantastical nature of his monkey. This surprises the monkey who expected the great ape to be more thoughtful. He recalls the long and involved process of “training” which was as much a lesson in training the organ grinder as anything else. He often wonders why he left the monastery in the warm country to come out into the vulgar world. While continuing to wear his capuccio (for he has no choice), he longs for the warm shade of the monastery. The world is cold and harsh, the shade is rarely warm but nearly always cool or worse yet, cold. He is certain that the world is intended to kill everything in its path. What are these strange forces of nature to which all creatures are subjected?

One day, the organ grinder decides to take the monkey to the countryside. It being a cool day, he puts on a warm coat and gloves before heading out. It is early in the morning when he leaves his home seeking to benefit from the cleaner air outside of the city and perhaps to rid himself of this very strange monkey. When the pair have made it into the wilderness, the organ grinder takes a moment to rest in a shady grove, having found the trip to be more exhausting than expected.

The monkey, who spent the entirety of the journey in a cage, is not tired at all. Using a hairpin he took from a woman during the course of one of his “shows,” he picks the lock of his cage and heads out into the forest. Swinging again from tree branch to tree branch, he begins to notice a distinct odor coming from the forest floor. Desiring to ascertain the origin of the scent, he jumps to the ground and begins to dig in the dirt. He is a hog hunting for truffles at the secured end of a leash held by the gloved hand of a restaurateur.

Hunting for truffles has always seemed a rather natural pastime to the hog, who has an insatiable appetite for the rare and delectable. Everywhere she turns, she can detect traces of the odor of tubers. This is all she has ever wanted to do, and perhaps all she is capable of doing. It has never occurred to her to find other employment, and why would she? She has always enjoyed her time with the restaurateur. He has always cared for her in a kind and loving manner. He has always given her only the choicest of slops. His home at the edge of the city is her home, which is to say, his home is attached to her home, which is a pen, which is outside, which is covered, which is muddy and pleasant.

He takes her out to hunt among the oak trees nearly daily during the season, this is when she is happiest. This is the stuff of life she thinks to herself on these brisk mornings under the shade of oak trees and in the midst of the cool dry soil. Just a bit farther down, she can smell them, waiting for her, she has only one desire and that is to get to them and eat as many as possible before the restaurateur realizes the trove she has found. How can he not smell them? The scent is so strong, like a hundred boars lying just under the surface. A hundred boars all waiting to please her, to be with her, to be nothing more than a mouthful of fungus. Her whole snout is in the earth and she knows they are deeper down yet. She begins to dig. She can smell the restaurateur’s excitement. He too perhaps desires a hundred boars to erupt from the ground. Deeper still she digs, her head is underground now. They are near now. They have come to be with her. Just a bit farther now and now she has reached them but they are not a hundred boars. The realization of continued solitary existence is instantly replaced by the consumption of what she has found, black and rocklike.

The restaurateur pulls back on the leash, pulling her back out of the dirt, out of the scent of boar, out of the repast, out of the roots of the oak trees. He reaches in and pulls out what remains of the black truffles, disappointed in himself for letting his hog eat too much of the take. He drops the black diamonds into a bag at his side. She can smell them but knows that the only option is to move forward to the next scent, to the next place, to the next boar. Snout to the ground, she is a dog in the city sniffing along the sidewalk.

He reflects on the great difficulties in life while sniffing his way along the block and decides that the greatest of these has always been that of finding an appropriate place to shit. There are, of course, only so many places along the way that are viable options. He knows, for instance, that his owner is not likely to take him beyond the block on any given walk and must therefore find the best possible spot along the most likely possible trajectory. He’s never had a head for numbers, so when he runs the odds on the places he’s likely to see along the sidewalk (tree planter, grass along parking lot, tree planter, tree planter, tree planter, front garden, tree planter, tree planter) versus places he’d like to shit (dog park, big park, tree planter, grass along parking lot, tree planter, tree planter, tree planter, front garden, tree planter, tree planter), he has a tendency to stop at the first or second tree planter, believing he has forced the hand of his owner in taking him on an extended walk.

He has always had a good life. A perfect life. An easy life. He has learned many tricks. He is, naturally, an extraordinary dog. In his young life he has saved eighty-five people from potential muggings, pulled three people out of burning buildings, chased four-hundred and seventy-five squirrels up trees, virtually eliminated the problem of feral cats in the municipality, and was house broken at the age of 6 months. There is a large-scale public sculpture of him kissing an infant mid-squeal-of-glee right in front of city hall, to glorify his greatness and the greatness of the place he calls home. He is the subject of at least two epic poems. Nearly all poets and painters, indeed every artist in every medium, cite him as an inspiration. A particularly impressive dog, he is known far and wide as the greatest of all dogs.

Some days, when his schedule (a legend in its own right) becomes free, the dog goes with his owner to the beach. Here, both dog and owner forget all about the rigors of heroism and play fetch with a tennis ball and the sea. The dog’s greatest pleasure is found in chasing the tennis ball into the water, retrieving, and returning it to the owner. He loves the sea, the ball, the chase, the return, the saltwater, the sand. The dog’s owner enjoys playing fetch nearly as much as the dog; enjoys watching the dog’s whole head follow the ball in his hand as he prepares to throw it; enjoys watching muscles ripple as the dog gives chase; enjoys the eager trot returning, kelp in coat, ball in mouth. The sun is warm. The owner throws the ball out over the water. The dog pursues.

——–

David Emanuel was born and raised in Oklahoma. He then lived in Chicago where he went to college, worked a variety of jobs, and wrote. Currently, he lives in Providence, RI where he is a graduate student and continues to write. His work has appeared online and in print in How2, Court Green, and With + Stand.

Properties is the result of being asked to write a story based around a totemic animal. I’m not very good at picking just one thing, so I created a progression of potentially totemic animals and connected them in what appeared to me to be a natural progression. The characters of the Owltopus, the Sea King, and the Black Hands are all appropriated from a zine created with Sarah Best in Chicago from 2006-2007. That project, Try Less Hard, has a website: http://www.trylesshard.com

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