Jacqueline Doyle

Octopus Dreams

​1. What has eight arms but no hands?

2. An unemployed woman in Slovenia amputated her right hand with a circular saw, hoping to collect insurance payments. Police retrieved the hand, however, and doctors at the Ljubljana University Medical Center were able to sew the hand back on. A police spokesman reported, “Her hand is recovering well.”

3. In an etching by René Magritte, a right hand displays a three-dimensional face just above the wrist. The image is titled Les bijoux indiscrets/The talkative jewels, but the hand is bare. In his painting One-Night Museum, a disembodied hand is one of four objects resting in shadowy compartments. Magritte’s paintings tug at your unconscious. Often they seem like dreams you’ve had but forgotten.

4. In my dream I’m lost in a museum after dark. The exhibits are full-sized dioramas of forest scenes with stuffed foxes and wolves and squirrels and birds. Blackbirds stare at me with beady eyes, a flock perched on branches in a tall tree. They’re behind glass but I’m sure they’re poised to swoop down and attack me. I back away, then begin to run.

5. When the tentacle of an octopus is severed, it grows back. Some starfish can regenerate an entire starfish from a severed limb.

6. Birds dream. Ornithologists have studied neuronal activity of different regions of their brains during REM sleep, but don’t know what they dream about.

7. Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes often incorporate paper cutouts of birds. White cockatoos. Colorful parrots. Found objects, Victorian illustrations, dolls’ heads, miscellaneous bric-a-brac, scraps of newspaper juxtaposed in separate compartments. Keys and maps suggest the dream-like assemblages are mysterious riddles to be deciphered.

8. An Inuit woman in Quebec became an internet sensation when news outlets reported that she was seen “devouring” a raw bird on the Montreal Metro. She later explained that she was plucking the bird, not eating it. In Magritte’s painting Young Girl Eating a Bird (The Pleasure), a neatly coiffed schoolgirl wearing a dark dress with a white lace collar and cuffs devours a feathered blackbird, blood on her fingers and dripping on the white lace collar of her prim dark dress. A variety of birds perched on branches in the tree behind her look on.

9. One time the doorbell rang and when I got to the door there was no one there, but there was a tiny dead bird on the mat. It felt like a dream but it wasn’t. Sometimes the cats in our neighborhood kill birds, but the tiny bird corpse wasn’t mangled. Who rang the doorbell? The street was empty.

10. I’m supposed to be giving a lecture in a large auditorium but I’m lost, running up and down narrow concrete stairways in the building, tugging on heavy metal doors on each floor that are locked. When I arrive, breathless, at the podium, the audience is jeering.

11. Everyone dreams every night, but not everyone remembers their dreams.

12. What must it be like to soar far above the earth in a vast formation, unerringly steering toward a destination thousands of miles away, year after year? Do birds dream of migration before winter falls? Do they ever dream they’ve lost the others, lost their way?

13. I don’t recognize these students or the classroom. It’s dark, with what looks like an old-fashioned slide projector projecting light on the wall behind me. Why am I showing slides of birds? I’m telling the students how pissed off I am that half of them didn’t bring their rough drafts, and realize I just said “pissed off” when I should have worded it differently. An untidy pile of my possessions is spilling out of my backpack on one of the chairs in the front, an upholstered folding chair like the chairs in movie theaters. There’s a net bag of onions that I don’t want the students to see. I wake thinking: Onions!

15. Scientists haven’t come to an agreement about the function or significance of dreams. Do dreams really have stories, or do we impose narrative connections in retrospect?

16. In Marc Chagall’s painting Over the Town, the painter and his fiancée, Bella, fly over Vitebsk. There are no people visible in the sleepy town far below. He holds her against his chest, his arm under her breasts. She seems to be waving, or perhaps her arm is extended like a diver’s as they sail through the air. Their expressions are serene. Bella recalled their engagement, years later: “I suddenly felt as if we were taking off … We flew over fields of flowers, shuttered houses, roofs, yards, churches.”

17. My husband complains that I’ve chosen another dilapidated old house for us. The boards on the front porch are rotten and spaces have caved in. One of the downstairs windows is broken. Lavender wisteria grows over the porch roof and probably I was distracted from the house’s flaws by the wisteria, which is beautiful. Look at the wisteria, I say to him. Look.

18. I’m flying through wisps of clouds in a dark sky, the air currents cool on my face, my hair blowing back. Below me I can see a checkerboard of fields, tiny houses, hardly any lights. I’m swimming underwater. The water is aquamarine, clouds of neon fish dart by. I wend my way through vivid banks of coral, avoiding spiky black sea urchins on the ocean floor. I feel buoyant, weightless. I don’t have any trouble breathing.

19. A small wooden goddess from Thailand, a painted mermaid with colorful wings, hangs over my desk. I associate the Devi in flight with my bipolar mood disorder. Flying high in the sky, swimming deep under the sea. Difficulty keeping my balance on the ground.

20. Octopuses change color when they dream. A marine biologist narrates a PBS Nature video, speculating about what the octopus is dreaming: now she’s changed color because she sees a crab, now she’s changed color again, camouflaging herself, because she’s subdued the crab and is eating it. Her dreams become quite ordinary. What if that’s not what she’s dreaming at all? What if she dreams of flying, tentacles dangling behind her? What if she dreams of disembodied human hands, scuttling along the ocean floor?

21. What part of a bird is not in the sky, can swim in the ocean and always stay dry?

22. The shadow of a bird is pursuing me across a large field. I duck into a farmhouse I’ve never seen before, hoping to escape. Dusty, empty rooms open into more rooms. The house seems to be expanding. I’m happy at the prospect of arranging my desk and bookcases in one of the light-filled rooms. Half awake, fragments of the dream already disappearing, I feel the cat jump onto the bed, the slight sinking of the mattress by my feet. The cat died a few years ago and it can’t be the cat but I’m too sleepy to open my eyes and look. She curls up on top of my feet like she sometimes did and I go back to sleep.

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a flash fiction chapbook, The Missing Girl, with Black Lawrence Press, and recent flash nonfiction in The Collagist, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and Little Fiction/Big Truths. Her longer essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader, and are forthcoming in Passages North and Fourth Genre. She was just awarded her fifth Notable Essay listing in Best American Essays. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on Twitter @doylejacq.