During an octopus hunting expedition in Greece, a traveler earns a unique epithet after becoming the short-term caregiver of a wounded sea creature.
In the early morning, a group of us made our way down to the beach. The cliff was steep, rocky, definitely treacherous if it was dark or you were drunk, both of which were true the night before when we had made a bonfire and passed around bottles of wine. In the early light, it was much more manageable, and it was already beginning to get hot. The Grecian sun was not known to be merciful.
At the bottom, we threw our gear down, and our professor doled out the wetsuits. Even though the air was warm, the farther out we swam, the colder the water became, and he didn’t want to take any chances. He and Tasos were the only two with spears. The rest of us had nets or nothing at all, our only job to keep our eyes open for our target, masters of disguise. Before we left that morning, the two men had warned us that octopus hunting was not for the faint of heart; after spearing the octopus you had to kill it quickly, and the best way to do that was to bite into its brain. Right between the eyes.
Swimming in and out of the small crevices, I carefully avoided being tossed into the sharp rocks. We were ravenous, peeling urchins and mussels and other creatures off their rocky perches and into our nets. It almost felt like revenge; two of us had stepped on urchins earlier in the week, their sharp spines breaking off into the fleshy pads of the foot. They looked like pieces of lead, dark little pinpricks just below the surface of the skin. The best way to kill the spines, we learned, was to heat an olive and smear its warm juice over the wound. Eventually, they would fall out.
Tasos surfaced, beckoning the rest of us to do the same. “I will give a bottle of wine to whoever can spot the octopus first,” he grinned. Six-four, dark-haired, and tan, he really did look like a Greek god with the spear in his hand. Poseidon on the hunt.
Below us, I saw nothing but rock and sea moss, grays and greens and dark reds bleeding and muted under the water. I dove and dove again, but still saw nothing. We shook our heads.
“No one? All right.” He cocked his spear and submerged, drifting down to a large cluster of rocks on the seafloor. There was a moment of stillness before he thrust his spear into a small hole, barely visible from where we bobbed on the surface. A sudden flurry of sand and puff of ink. Tasos reached his hand into the crevice and pulled out a small, flailing mass, rising to the surface with it in the crook of his arm. “It’s too small. We can’t kill it.” Having not been given a net, I was the nearest to him with nothing in my hands. He peeled its terrified tentacles from his chest and placed it in my arms. “Here.”
Startled, I clutched it to my chest like a baby. Its tentacles were long, incredibly thin at the ends, wrapping around and around my forearm like rust-colored ivy. Rubbery, but not unpleasant. The suction cups felt so adhered to my hand I was worried they would rip off when it tried to swim away. One of its tentacles was partially missing, victim to the spear, a shocking white wound. Tasos assured me it would grow back. The group continued the hunt, but I swam lazily for a while, peddling water, squinting the sun and salt from my eyes. The octopus’s gelatinous head bowed in the currents; I ran my finger gently over its surface, feeling the small bumps, the rounded arc of its mantle mirroring a bishop’s mitre. When I lost my grip, it sprung from my arms like a spear itself, gliding gently back down into the depths, seeking asylum among the rocks, disappearing once again. My chest was suddenly cold where it had been clinging to my wetsuit.
My friend Monica surfaced beside me, taking the snorkel out of her mouth. The whole trip we had been assigning each student epithets, and in true poetic fashion, I had just gotten mine.
“Mother of Octopi.”
On the beach, we emptied our nets and sorted our catch. Though we failed our original mission, catching and actually killing an octopus, our bounty was plentiful, even greedy. Our professor, Christopher, had speared two silver fish, which he carried to the beach still wriggling on the lance. We cracked open the urchins, scooping out their cores with silver spoons. The meat inside looked like little orange tongues, and we mixed them with lemon juice and a splash of olive oil. The mussels steamed over the fire in white wine, and Christopher set to work preparing the fish. We’d collected another mollusk whose true name I couldn’t remember, but Tasos had told us, sheepishly, that they were almost always known by their Greek nickname, “donkey testicles.” They looked like deformed rocks on the outside, but once you sliced them open, they were a surprisingly violent orange and yellow, mussel-like. We prepped them like the urchins.
The afternoon was spent lounging in the shade of the cliff, passing around ouzo and fresh bread, made the previous day from scratch after we had collected different herbs and flowers from the roadside to make the yeast. We flaked the meat off the fish and scooped the mussels out of their shells with our fingers. Christopher was a food writer, and he told us that the best way to experience a culture was through its cuisine, its hidden delicacies. Assignments, for the time being, were forgotten. After the men left, a few of us stripped off our suits and ran back into the sea, not caring that rocks scorched our soles on the way there, that the sun would burn our exposed skin. Below us, somewhere, the surviving octopus swam, too.