Transparency, by Elizabeth Kay
I’ve been fascinated by octopuses for a long time. They are extremely intelligent, their eyesight is very similar to ours, but they have a remarkable ability that we, most definitely, do not have. They can disappear. Just do a search for octopus camouflage on YouTube, and you’ll see all sorts of amazing creatures changing their colour, pattern, shape and size to escape predators, or lie in wait for prey. The mimic octopus can make itself look like a sea snake, a poisonous flatfish, or a deadly lionfish.
A close relative of the octopus, the cuttlefish, is even better, and disguises itself as part of the substrate. I had an encounter with one in Indonesia, and it was fascinating. To begin with, I thought part of the seaweed-covered rocks had detached itself, which seemed a bit odd. I followed it, and suddenly realised it was a living creature which had made itself virtually invisible. I took a couple of photos, and then I swam off to do something else. About ten minutes later I looked behind me, and saw what seemed to be a completely different creature hanging in the water above me, just watching me. It had disguised itself as blue and white ripples in the sea, a most fetching stripey design. Then swam down lower, and striped itself slightly differently. When I showed my rather blurry pictures to our guide, he got quite excited and told me I’d been lucky enough to make friends with a cuttlefish. There was no doubt that the creature had been really interested in me, and followed me to try and work out what I was.
Invisibility capes have been used in children’s literature many times, and cloaking devices for spaceships in science fiction. For my reluctant reader The Tree Devil, not available digitally, sadly, I decided to create a character that could do this on land.
I was on my way home from school when I saw the oak tree move. I don’t mean it lifted up its roots and walked. I don’t mean it tried to hug me to death with its branches. It wasn’t like that at all.
The bark of the tree began to ripple, like a puddle in the wind. It was as if there was another shape inside the tree, trying to get out.
I just stood there, and stared. It’s not every day you find yourself in a horror movie. What hits you isn’t how scary it is. It’s how you must have made a mistake, how you can’t be seeing what you’re seeing. You think that maybe you need glasses, or you’re being filmed for some stupid TV programme. You don’t think for one moment that you’re right. I looked round to see if I could spot any BBC presenters anywhere, but there wasn’t even a CCTV camera close by.
I turned back to the tree, holding my school bag in front of me as if it was a shield. It was hard to see the shape of the bit that was moving, because it was exactly the same colour and pattern as the bark. Brown and grey, with deep zig-zag cracks. I thought I could see the body of an animal, with two back legs. It wasn’t any animal I knew. The legs ended in big flat feet, like flippers, with claws on the toes. The thing looked a bit like a toad – but a toad that stood on two legs, and was the size of a grizzly bear. It started to turn towards me. Then it froze. It had seen me.
I used the same idea in a different way for a creature I called a vitril, in a world where glass is more valuable than gold.
The glass egg hadn’t been there for long, compared with some of the bottles and decanters. It was about the size of a large melon. It stood on a plinth of black marble, near the door, and the room felt that there was something a bit strange about it. The girl who paid an unexpected visit one afternoon clearly thought so too, for her face screwed up when she saw it, as though she’d smelt something nasty.
It was a couple of days later that the egg suddenly started to rock very slightly on its pedestal, almost as though it were breathing. After a moment or two, the shell flushed with colour. For a short while it remained brown and speckled, like a hen’s egg; then it returned to its previous see-through state. The second time it tried to change colour it shrank slightly as well, but didn’t stay that way for long. The third time it didn’t change colour at all, and cracked open instead.
The creature that emerged was as transparent as the egg had been. It already had teeth like little icicles, and sharp pointed claws. The room shivered in alarm, and a couple of vases tinkled nervously. There was something really unpleasant about the hatchling, despite the fact that it resembled a portly teddy-bear. It sat there on the plinth, cracking its tiny knuckles, wiping its snotty nose on its forearm and looking around. Then it picked up a piece of transparent eggshell, and started to eat it. The crunch-crunch-crunch sounded like someone cracking bones.
The room was mightily relieved when the girl came back the following day and the little beast took the chance to slip out, unnoticed. Fortunately, the child left soon after as well. Peace and quiet again. Bliss.