The Wet Nurse by Wendy Maxon


In the dank basement of Hallie’s rented hovel in SeaTac, the baby octopus on her lap frothed and groped its tentacles toward her face, its saline stench so strong that she—torn between comforting and smothering it—could feel fumes boring into her brain. Hallie breathed in memories of her past failures with her first son, now living with her ex-husband several towns over. She pondered whether she or the octopus would kill each other first.

Four years ago, she lived in Seattle with Joe and Nicholas in a cute yellow house in Ballard, not in her current place, with the mandatory twenty miles imposed between them, not to mention the decayed north wall, cigarette burns on the baseboards, and ant problem. Her old home had been bursting with color, from the blue curtains to the purple peonies, and it grew even more vibrant once Nicholas was born and kaleidoscopic baby toys peppered the floral rugs. But in the later years, Nicholas kept breaking the toys, and she had to turn up the television to drown out his wails. Sometimes, to calm both herself and Nicholas, they would go to the zoo and stare at the animals that had it all together.

Now she lived in a box with a leaky basement and planes flying overhead, because the hospital stays over the years had eaten through her savings. Her first surgery had been the abortion at that dumpy outpatient center, that time she and Joe had been surprised during college. After their marriage, she found herself staring at babies with a mixture of guilt and longing. After Nicholas was born, Hallie stayed at Stillwater Hospital for five long nights, only to return the following week. Lactation consultants and behavior specialists multiplied. Other women in her support groups complained of the hours it took to get their babies to latch, but Hallie had to do that, then squeeze in visits to ask about Nicholas’s worsening shrieks, viselike grip, and outraged, fuchsia face. After three months cycling through clinics, she booked her tubal ligation. “Never again!” she shouted one day, when Joe dried the checkered dishes and she put them in the wrong drawer again. And then…that hospital stay. When Nicholas hurled twenty toys at her face and, with teeth clenched so hard she cracked the enamel, she threw one back at his.

After the psych ward, of course, she needed to flee. She couldn’t afford Ballard, and she wouldn’t set foot in that town anyway, not with the stares and whispers that would inevitably follow her. The neighbors hated her now. They couldn’t understand that it can’t be abandonment if you know it’s going to destroy you.

She’d revisited the zoo a lot this past summer. The fifteen-year anniversary of her abortion arrived and she wanted to be surrounded by friends. Feeding time was the best. The zookeeper let her throw crabs or frozen fishsicles to the otters, and they would rush to her with hungry smiles, krill wriggling between her fingers. While she watched the otters lick and preen their fur, she traced a nautilus shell along her thigh and wished she weren’t barren inside. And then she had her epiphany.

Hallie tried three tries before she found the store listed in the online directory. With its dingy walls and homemade burlap sign draped beneath the awning, the Raincloud Fish and Reptile Emporium had clearly gone up in a hurry and didn’t intend to stay long. When she stepped through the doorway, her senses expanded. The ceiling shone black. Every inch of space was stuffed with artificial palms and hanging ficus. Heavy metal spewed from the stereo, but she could still hear the low hiss of the artificial lights. Boa constrictors wrapped and curled. The water appeared milky, or perhaps her visibility was obscured by the whorls left by small fingerprints on the glass.

A bearded man sat in a low chair behind a sticky counter. He rose and walked to the back room. When he returned, he handed Hallie a see-through plastic bag filled with something rubbery. She couldn’t tell what it was, wrapped in stained brown paper like a sandwich would be, but the inside felt as if it were made of latex or neoprene.

“What you need is in this bag.”

It felt—and smelled—like rubber fishing gloves that zookeepers wore. She ran her fingers along the spongy package, which grew soggy in her hand.

A teenaged employee approached them and grabbed the bag from Hallie’s grasp. He unwrapped the plastic, unfolded the paper, and gently showed her a black baby octopus, about the size of her palm. It didn’t move. He placed it on her fingers.

She poked it a bit, tried to get it to move. Its tentacles lay motionless.

“It needs you,” the bearded man said. “You must care for it. Only you. I will get your new tank.”

Hallie felt caught between the downcast stare of the store clerk and the shining eyes of the boy, but her instincts told her to take the octopus and keep it close. She let the teenager load the tank, wet/dry pump, LED light, waste collector, and two bags of rocks and sand into her car.

She could save the baby octopus. Heck, even raise it. Show those bastards in Ballard that they were wrong about her.

But what if she couldn’t even get this poor little thing to move?

She sighed. Nicholas. Their fight. The distance. The void. The hospitals. The protection that should have been. This time, she would really try motherhood.


The tank took weeks to set up. She barely came down anymore because of the gloom and the erratic clunks from the water heater, but something about having the octopus living beneath her made her visits more frequent. Perhaps once she nursed it back to health, she’d get rid of the junk—the old toys and dilapidated furniture.

After two months, the layer of dust on the floor surrounded a gleaming tank, filtration, and lighting system. Pebbles shone, iridescent, stacked inside the tank. Above them were strewn bits of white PVC pipe, discards from the drainage system that Joe had built in their former backyard. He’d tossed the hubs and fittings into a garbage bag; she pilfered it when she left town, because you shouldn’t throw perfectly good things away. Now the pipe fragments lazed in the tank, rainbows reflected onto them, the octopus hiding motionless beneath.

Three months passed. She lugged a chair into the basement so she could sit with the octopus on her arm. It pressed its slick little body onto her, occasionally flopping half-heartedly onto its side. Sometimes it wriggled its legs, but more often she worried that she’d killed it. Over time, given her round-the-clock care for the octopus, it became easier for Hallie to just order pizza. The doorbell rang, and the boxes of pepperoni and pineapple piled up.

It got colder four months in. The number of freckles on her arms increased—she checked and double-checked. Even if Hallie’s octopus hadn’t mastered its latch and suckle, it ate her soul a little bit every day. But she refused to flee now that things were rough—never mind what Joe shouted that night he clutched Nicholas’s body, wracked with sobs, and she shoved nightgowns into her suitcase.


When Hallie descended into the basement the following day, it was ten degrees warmer. The room smelled musty, and the puddles left from last night’s storm had stained brown at the edges. Droplets of rain had crisscrossed the north wall, leaving paths of gunge. Hallie cleared the steam from her glasses, loosened her collar, and approached the tank.

“Hi there,” she breathed. “Going to behave better today?” She lowered the octopus to the floor, then crossed her arms and waited for it to flop. Nothing.

The rain had seeped into the basement. Beside a large puddle oozing on the concrete floor lay tiny droplets, new ones. For the first time, the octopus trailed three inches to the left.

Good god. She had done it! It was growing! She wasn’t a wreck, no matter how many names Joe or the townspeople called her.

The octopus slithered a few inches left, then right. Hallie jumped, rejoicing. When she touched ground, her left foot slipped on a puddle and she flew backward, slamming her tailbone into the concrete. The pain was immense.

The octopus scampered an entire foot across the floor.

Hallie moaned, but she couldn’t take her eyes off what was happening. The octopus was learning to crawl to her. It wanted to help her!

The octopus flopped back and forth along the waterlogged floor. Directionless, it knocked into a dusty tarp covering what had been Nicholas’s Sit-Me-Up bouncy chair, triggering its music and vibration. After lying dormant for years, the battery had almost drained, so the impact made the chair shudder and convulse to the minor key bleating of a worn calliope. Nicholas used to sit for hours in that chair playing with his ice-blue teething rings, the only things that made him stop crying. Back when there still was a Nicholas for Hallie. The octopus neared, steadier now; it was slithering faster, gaining momentum in an attempt to comfort her distress. Not like Nicholas, who had been so damn loud all the time. He had been squirming and wailing that night she grabbed his little wrist and shook it so hard—and then the police lights and judges’ gavels.

The octopus slid toward Hallie. When she tried to stand, her back erupted in searing pain. She screeched. The octopus went crazy. Its rubbery mass advanced each time she winced, darted her eyes, or bent over in agony.

It wasn’t coming to help. It was responding to her pain.

This wasn’t compassion. This was jubilation.

Hallie felt downright ill. The throbbing in her back had shot up to her lower jaw. She wanted to help the octopus and wanted it to help her, but she also wanted to run away from everything and couldn’t stop its progress. The octopus burbled in front of her, unassisted. Her blood grew cold. It slid a tentacle up her marble skin and flopped it boyishly onto her shoulder, wriggling triumphant in the air before attaching two suckers, like leeches, onto her throat.

There was a pregnant pause. Hallie understood.

And then she started to laugh, like she did that night she wound up at St. Vincent’s.

For the first time in years, she felt another soul welcoming her, reaching through her. In the octopus’s gangly embrace, she could delight in the joy of her past, her boy Nicholas, but in her future, too, the one that now lay open to her. She could call herself Mother, and she was free to return the hugs that Nicholas had shunned for years. Come to think of it, she was the one who hated being touched, but she couldn’t blame herself for that, could she? Not with Nicholas biting her face all the time, always so close, forcing her to swivel to get air. Hallie felt a cephalopodic arm pat her on her back and another press softly against her cheek, and for a moment she understood absolution. Then the octopus hugged her, dragging its tentacles across her neck, pulling tighter, and tighter, and tighter still. It wound the weight of its love around her until it squeezed her windpipe and she squeaked a feeble breath of air.

The octopus eyed Hallie’s open mouth, took its last tentacle, and plunged it down her throat. It slid fast, hungry. Crushing her larynx while it ransacked for food. Plummeting into her chest cavity, filling up her interior and taking her shape. It suckers clamped down, clinging to her heart, her innards. It began to suckle, though to anyone else, it would have sounded like cooing.

Wendy Maxon is currently getting her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert. 

Published 5/12/19