It is the lips he watches. Almost imperceptibly, they part. His throat catches in anticipation. He exhales when he sees them: first one, then two, then a multitude of tentacles pushing out of the mouth, waving as they explore the outer world.
It is her voice: the Wife. She is calling down the stairwell, because won’t come into his cellar, full as it is of the ‘horrible fish’.
He doesn’t want to leave yet. Carefully, he teases the animal’s lips apart with his tweezers and more tentacles unfurl from inside the dog’s head. They are fine filaments of pink and green and electric blue, more riotously colourful than the petals of any flower.
The dog is dying already. Her eyes no longer follow him as he moves around the workbench. He had hoped this transplant would last longer.
“Edwin! I know you’re down there! Don’t hide from me!”
Edwin Carritt sighs and straightens. He draws a sheet over the twitching dog strapped to the bench, pausing only for a last glance at the fan of tentacles escaping from her muzzle. He studies the tanks where his fish move slowly behind the glass with their unblinking eyes. Then he turns off the light and climbs the stairs.
The hallway smells of bleach and the tall clock chimes the quarter hour. The Wife emerges from the drawing room, wearing her floral pinafore.
“Edwin! The Vicar will be here within the hour and you’re not even shaved. What sort of host are you? Why are these things left to me? And you smell!” Her nose wrinkles and her thin lips pull back to bare her teeth.
Would motherhood have softened her, Edwin wonders? Would a baby’s cries have silenced her shrill voice?
“Shave!” she snaps, propelling him towards the bathroom. “I’m away for one week and you let yourself go! Get ready, for goodness’ sake. And you, girl!” she calls to the maid who appears, terrified, on the staircase. “I need to see you dusting, not loitering!”
Relieved that the hapless maid has distracted her, Edwin enters the bathroom and studies his thin features in the mirror. It’s true: a fuzzy beard has crept across his cheeks, meeting his moustache and giving him a nautical look.
He remembers the Dutch sailor with his Asian tattoos and broken English, the one who sold him the curious fish with its tentacle mouth. The fish later died, but by then Edwin had extracted the parasite and transplanted it to another host. During the week of the Wife’s trip to Brighton, Edwin studied his new acquisition. Palaeoteuthis cthulhuas, he named it. Palaeoteuthis for its resemblance to the ancient ancestor of a squid; cthulhuas was his best attempt at representing the Dutchman’s jabbering description. Palaeoteuthis cthulhuas, so beautiful, so old and yet so new, but dying as each host expired: first fishes, then cats, now the dog.
“Edwin! Edwin!” She is calling again from downstairs, drawing out the last syllable of his name in the way that grates on his nerves. “Edwin! Have you seen Dolly? Dolly!”
Edwin applies shaving cream to his jowls as her voice echoes from different parts of the house, calling the dog’s name. The maid is dispatched to the neighbours’ houses to enquire after the animal. Edwin sorrows at the thought of Palaeoteuthis cthulhuas dying, within the hour, inside Dolly’s flabby body. Something beautiful expiring while the Wife plays host. He looks down at the shaving razor in his hand.
It is a simple matter, in the end. He has carried out the transplant several times already. His hands shake more than usual because there is resistance to overcome, but he tells himself to persevere. The squid-like parasite is limp and grey by the time he removes it from Dolly’s carcass. Salt water will revive it and fresh blood, his own, dripping from the razor’s edge onto the feebly stirring tentacles.
After that, there is only the long wait. The door chimes jangle when the Vicar arrives but soon go silent again.
It is the lips Edwin watches. His throat catches in anticipation when they part. He exhales. First one, then two, then a multitude of tentacles push out of the mouth. They wave to him in their riotous colours.
His Wife no longer shrieks or makes her strangled whines of protest. But she is a perfect host. From behind the fan of tentacles that spread across her face, her wild eyes follow him as he moves around the workbench. He smiles back at her. She is silent now and soon to give birth to something new and he has never loved her more.