I was swimming back to the beach were I had left my backpack, tired and ready to call it a day, when I saw it: a fleshy, yellow, eight-legged mass prowling along the sea bed in about eight feet of water. It was the biggest octopus I had yet seen, out in the open away from his cave. What luck! I stopped and studied him a moment, and dove to the attack.
As I drew near the octopus saw me, froze, and then changed color to match the white sand. I swam closer and he scooted over to a clump of seaweed, turned himself yellow-green, and formed his tentacles into the shape of blades of seaweed swaying in the current. I knew I would not be able to grab him, but perhaps I could corner him. I pretended to reach, and he did as I suspected: let loose a puff of ink and made his escape.
Patience. I floated to the surface to breathe through my snorkel, watching the bottom the whole time through my face mask. He could not have gone far; by now I knew that an octopus moves fast, but only in short bursts. If I were him where would I be hiding? There was a boulder as big as me sitting among the clumps of weed. I watched about a minute, and saw the critter’s eyes peek out from under the rock to see if I was still there. I went back down and he tucked back in.
The boulder was wider at the top than at the bottom, leaving a shelf about eight inches tall running along the whole left side, under which the octopus was hiding. That gave me a plan: I positioned myself above the rock and ran my left hand along the shelf, keeping my right hand near the top opening. As I hoped, as soon as the octopus felt my hand coming behind him, he jetted out the front of the shelf where I grabbed him. Gotcha!
There are few animals who are, pound for pound, as strong as an octopus. He twisted and vibrated violently to escape my grip and unleashed a cloud of ink that blinded me. I brought my left hand around to grab him, and he latched onto my left arm: his grip on my arm was as strong as a powerfully built man’s. I let him hold onto me as I started kicking the last few yards to shore. He managed to wrap around my upper arm and left shoulder as well, and flex my arm back towards my body. I could feel his parrot-beak chewing my forearm.
At last I reached shallow water, stood up, and peeled him off me, feeling a thousand little pop-pop-pops as his suckers pulled from my skin. I flung him up on the pebbly beach; as soon as he hit the ground he began an eight-legged scramble to the water. Oh no you don’t! I ran to intercept him, scooped him up, and turned his head inside-out like a sock, as I had been told to do. His arms instantly lost all vigor and coordination. He was mine.
I turned his head right-side out, as it seemed more proper. I had seen bigger ones in the fish markets, but this was the largest octopus I had seen anyone catch. Measuring him by hand widths, I estimated that he was twenty-two inches long from the top of his head to the tips of his tentacles, which tapered down into delicate little points. I inspected every inch of the remarkable creature. Ma che bello!
As it turns out, a young couple sunning themselves on the beach witnessed the whole thing. As I stood admiring my catch the young man strode over to see. Un bel polpo, he said. I described a little of the struggle in my pidgin Italian as I let him handle it. Then he pointed to my arm: guardi il tuo brachio! I looked and saw, besides the bloody little holes where it had been chewing on me, hundreds of dark purple hickey marks where the suction cups had latched on. These ran up my arm, all over my left shoulder and back, all the way to the back of my neck. We both found this amazing. (It took three weeks for those marks to fade.)
His girlfriend, for her part, showed no interest in the either the octopus or my strange markings, as if foreigners rising out of the sea wrestling breathtakingly strange and amazing eight-legged invertebrates were just another thing, an unfortunate distraction from sun bathing and I-pods. Una ragazza ben fatta, but obviously useless. God, defend me from such!
I stuck the animal in a plastic bag I kept in my backpack for just such a happy occurrence, and hiked up to town. I stopped in an produce shop and convinced the clerk to let me weigh my catch on his scale (2.2 kilos, almost 5 pounds). The clerk had obviously seen his share of big octopus, but I could see what he was thinking: not huge, but not bad for a tourist. I bought from him a head of lettuce, an onion, cucumber, and a lemon, two tomatoes, a bottle of wine, and a quart of some of the local limoncello to celebrate.
Cleaning an octopus is child’s play for anyone who has ever gutted a fish. I boiled him for three hours until he softened, chopped him up, soaked him in vinegar, olive oil and crushed garlic, and then tossed him into a garden salad which I ate with bread and white wine, and chased with limoncello while sitting on a patio overlooking Capri. The perfect meal.
It had been a perfect weekend, which triggered a sad thought: when was the last time I had had one of those? Would I ever get another?
Why worry? I told myself. You got the weekend you needed, when you needed it. Just be grateful.
The next day I was back in Rome, (ugh!) and a few days later I was at the airport, waiting to board a plane for… home. Two years since I had been in America, eleven since I had been anywhere that could be called “home”.
I struck up a conservation with an Italian family going to visit relatives in Pennsylvania. Their little girl had never been to America, so she asked me what it was like.
Well, what was it like? It felt like such a long time ago. Everything there is big: the cities, the cars, the people, the distances you have to drive. There are lots of animals, especially in Pennsylvania: deer, turkeys, rabbits…
Rabbits (cornegli) she said, were her favorite animal. What was mine? (Asking someone’s favorite color and animal is a ten-year-old’s way of sizing him up.)
Il polpo. I said. Secondo me, i polpi sono bellissimi. She thought I was pretty strange.