Giorgos and the Octopus

Giorgos had a brightly coloured and dangerously dilapidated boat which he took out every morning with the rest of the fishermen. His boat was always the easiest to spot because at some point the entire interior had been painted a livid and rather shocking lime green which caused the boat to glow almost radioactively on the waters of the Aegean. I’m not quite sure how he avoided eye damage. The other fisherman used to steer clear of his boat on sunny days because they were afraid of being temporarily blinded by the glare, but Giorgos seemed perfectly content.

The fishing fleet used to bring in a broad assortment of things; anything, really, that could be scooped up in a net would be brought back to the harbor and sold to someone. Someone, somewhere, would eat just about anything and the fish were always priced to perfection; just low enough that people would catch the scent of a deal, but just high enough that people would feel obliged to bargain. No one’s sensibilities were insulted in the fish market, except the tourists who didn’t realise that they were supposed to negotiate over prices, not just accept whatever they were told without comment.

At least a few afternoons a week my father and I would drift down the iceplant-covered hill to the harbor to survey the catch and pick up fish for dinner. It was a ritual that they would always be wrapped in paper with the tails sticking out, and I would walk back up the hill with him, carrying the fish by the tails, swinging them as we went. Occasionally an overenthusiastic swing would result in a fish flying out of my grip and skittering across the street and someone would always helpfully pick it up and return it to us.

We would fry the fish in olive oil and eat them with lemon in the garden. We usually had bread and cheese and olives and sometimes a riotous crowd of expatriates would gather to gesticulate at each other with overfilled glasses of wine and French cigarettes. Anna and I would dart between pairs of sturdy adult legs in our whirling games and then eventually we would subside and sit on the bench next to my father, leaning against him and watching drowsily as the fireflies came out and waiting for people to start singing and dancing, as they always did, once they had enough wine.

Every now and then, something truly spectacular would come up in the nets and it would be a conversation for weeks and months, the lucky fisherman the envy of everyone else. Sometimes it was a mysterious looking squid, or a fish so peculiar that it had to have come from somewhere else. And sometimes all that people had were the stories. The fish that got away.

And, of course, the octopus. The tales of its size were, we were sure, greatly exaggerated. But every now and then someone would return and claim that the octopus had stolen his catch, had almost turned his boat over, had been spotted jetting away underwater on peculiar octopus projects of its own. The octopus was legendary and everyone secretly wanted to catch it at the same time that they vehemently declared it was so old that its flesh would be like shoe leather. It was the thrill of the chase and the delight of the unknown, the occasional glimpse of tentacles and beak which sustained legends and warnings whispered in the ears of children: Don’t go swimming in the harbor when the fleet is coming back in, or the octopus might get you.

For Giorgos, the octopus became something of a compulsion, or possibly a quest. A run of encounters with the octopus in which it came out on top embittered him, and he was tired of the endless teasing from his compatriots. He started actively seeking out the octopus on his fishing trips, loading his trident into the boat every morning with a meaningful expression. He wouldn’t say it, but you could tell that he was hoping that today would be the day he got the octopus.

One afternoon, my father and I were sitting on the seawall practicing my spelling when we saw Giorgos’ boat violently rocking and scudding across the water. The rest of the fleet hadn’t noticed yet, and we watched with increasing interest. It was clear that he was wrestling with something, something large and epic, possibly…the octopus. As we watched, people gathered and began pointing and gesticulating, eventually attracting the attention of the fleet, which dropped what they were doing to observe avidly. Alas, we didn’t have binoculars, but later reports verified that, yes, the boat was surrounded with whiplashing tentacles, and when Giorgos sailed back to shore empty handed that afternoon, everyone could see the suckermarks puckering his arms. He had, literally, wrestled with the octopus.

This elevated the battle between Giorgos and the octopus to a fever pitch. It wasn’t enough that the octopus had humiliated him by stealing his catch. No, the devious cephalopod had to defeat him in open combat in front of the entire fleet and half the village. Soon, he abandoned all pretense of catching fish, mind bent on one thing and one thing only: Capturing the octopus.

‘Ai, Giorgos,’ people would cry, ‘have I given you my mother in law’s recipe for octopus yet?’

‘Giorgos,’ Stephanos would say, ‘when are you going to bring me back some octopus to serve for mezze?’

Even the expatriate community got involved, keeping a running pool going as they bet on if and when Giorgos would catch the octopus. Giorgos grew increasingly haggard, dragging himself out with the fleet every morning and grimly stalking the octopus, turning out at night with the night fleet to see if he could defeat his archenemy by night if the day wouldn’t hand him a victory.

Slowly, the story of Giorgos and the octopus began to acquire legendary proportions.

To be continued…