Saturday night, after a candle-light dinner of cold salami and garlic bread, I leaned back in my chair and pondered my failure to catch an octopus. They are invertebrates; I am the apex predator among all mammals. Their brain is the size of a chick-pea; mine the size of many, many chick-peas. It really shouldn’t be so hard, but I had scoured the bay without seeing a thing. Maybe there were just no octopus in the bay: it could be the wrong time of year, the wrong water temperature, or even the wrong tide.
As a boy I took car rides with my dad and he would watch for deer. “Look, a deer!” he would say. I would jump to see, but always too late. “Look! Another!” and again, nothing. I would start to watch the side of the road intently so I would be prepared, and perhaps have the advantage over Dad since he had to divide his attention with driving. Then: “Look, son! a deer right there!”
I always accused him of playing tricks on me, until the day he pointed one out and I saw the flick of an ear, the shake of a tail, the elegant curve of the back, and where there had been nothing but blurry landscape, a white-tailed doe appeared. The deer are always there, I realized. I just have to learn to see them.
By the time I was a teenager tooling around with my friends I’d always say: Look a deer! Where? Right there! No… you liar!
The octopus were there. I just had to see them.
Sunday morning I was back in the bay. I decided that in addition to looking for octopus I would also take an occasional detour into some of the caves. (Looking back, it was not such a good idea to do this alone: too easy to hit my head or slip and break something). One cave was submerged, I dove down some five or six feet and came up into an air bubble under the rock, an antechamber filled with blue light. Then down again and into a hidden pool, open to the sky. I sat for a while, warming myself in the sun and wondering if nymphs still inhabited this place. Odysseus had once been ensnared by the nymph Calypso, a slave to her pleasures, before the gods remembered him and decided that he really should be getting back home to his wife and son in Ithaca. But by then ten years had passed, his hair had turned grey, his youth slipped away. The immortal gods couldn’t really understand what had been taken from him. Even if they could understand, they could never give it back. I left the cave.
For a good hour I saw nothing. Rainbow wrasse and “tiny purple fishes laughing through my fingers” were all well and good, but I wanted my octopus! Good Lord, I prayed, while you have done me plenty of unasked-for favors, you have not answered a specific prayer of mine for at least ten years. I feel really petty asking you for this now, but I just want to see an octopus before I go home. There, I said it. I feel stupid even asking you, but that is what I want.
I slowed my pace and just watched the bottom. I thought of dad saying “Look! A deer!”. If I were an octopus where would I hide? I was over deeper water, maybe thirty-five feet. The bottom was sandy with patches of weeds. I kicked down a few feet to get a better view and noticed that there were a few rocks resting on the sand, right by the weed line. Hmmm. A few more feet down and I saw a discolored patch of sand next to one of the rocks: it had a whiter, fresher look to it.
I dove straight for that rock, and saw a ring of pebbles around the patch of whiter sand. An octopus rock garden? Closer still and I saw a tunnel the size of my fist burrowed under the rock. Ecco che la! Un polpo! Inside the tunnel, looking up at me, was a little brown face and a pair of black, narrow-set eyes. My first octopus.
I grabbed at him, but almost before I moved he was back under his rock. I wrapped one arm around the rock, too big to lift, to anchor myself and started digging furiously underneath it. I had widened the hole to twice the size of my fist, but reaching in as far as I could I could only just feel the octopus with my fingertips.
I paused to recollect myself and recognized a panicky little feeling: I am supposed to be breathing! My chest convulsed as I suppressed the instinct to inhale. I could feel my blood pounding through compressed veins to oxygen-starved muscles. I looked up: the surface was so far away!
Relaxing best I could, moving slow as I could, I kicked back to the surface, depressurizing my ears as I went, the last few feet my lungs on fire. I panted at the surface a while, feeling my muscles greedy for oxygen. As soon as I felt good enough to swim I dove back down.
I gave it three tries. Each time the octopus watched me approach, and was gone as soon as he saw me reach. Each time I dug until I ran out of air and had to begin the long ascent. Each time I felt weaker from the ordeal. I floated face-up in the sea a good half hour after, exhausted from the pressure, lack of air, and exertion. The octopus had won.
But I was happy. I had at least proven to myself that I could find the critters. And most people hunt octopus with tridents: if I had one of those I’d have impaled the little sucker on the first try. I started swimming weakly to the nearest beach, congratulating myself on a good effort.
Fifteen yards from shore, on a rocky bottom in ten feet of water, I saw white polished clam shells glinting in the sun by a crevice in the rock. Ne ho trovato un’altro. I dove and peered in: another octopus. He glared up at me as I approached, turning himself an angry red and bulging out his eyes in an effort to intimidate me. I tried sneaking my hands this time rather than lunging, but to no effect, he ducked in as soon as I got close, leaving a little puff of ink to confuse me. Since his cave was larger than the burrow the other had made, I could fit both hands in and scratch around trying to break his suction from the rock. I got a hand on a tentacle, but it slithered away. Eventually, I again ran out of air and had to surface, take a breath and dive down again, only to find the cave abandoned. It was not so secure a place as the burrow, and my intended victim had taken off as soon as the coast was clear.
Floating back up to the surface I saw my hands were bleeding, cut and scraped by the rock. A fingernail had been torn in half. The rock all around the bay is sharp and pitted. (Didn’t Odysseus cut his hands on the rocks when his raft was shipwrecked as he sailed from Calypso’s cave?*) In my excitement over the octopus I hadn’t even noticed.
I sat on the pebbly little beach, soaking my hands in the surf, waving off the minnows that tried to pick at my wounds. This was a good day. In the last eleven years I had only been fishing twice; hunting not at all. This was like two in one and God, I had forgotten how much I missed it. But I was tired, my hands were starting to stiffen, and I still had to swim a few hundred yards to my bag lunch, before starting the hike back up to town.
It was still early, and I had no plans for the afternoon since I had wanted to be in the water all day, not anticipating how tiring this would be. Have some more salami and garlic bread? Drink half a bottle of cheap wine and take a nap, maybe dreaming about la bella ragazza and the two octopus that got away?
* The Odyssey, Book V, line 451: An octopus, when you drag one from his chamber, comes up with suckers full of tiny stones: / Odysseus left the skin of his great hands torn on that rock ledge as the wave submerged him. Homer’s description was accurate on both counts.