A Game of Patience

Continued from ‘From the Deep.’

Over dinner that night (fish fried in olive oil with a little lemon, olives, salad), my father queried me about my trip out of the harbor with Giorgos.

‘What does he do all day,’ my father asked.

‘He thinks like the octopus,’ I explained.

My father sat thoughtfully for a moment. Our household was one where thinking like an octopus was not such a strange thing to do, where one might, in fact, expect a man engaged in an epic[1. As in truly epic, perhaps even Homerian.] battle with an octopus to think like the octopus in order to be victorious.

‘How does an octopus think,’ he said, at last.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t think like one. Maybe you should ask Giorgos.’

There were many theories about Giorgos and the octopus. That the octopus existed, no one had cause to doubt at this point, but many people had questions about the motivations behind the ongoing war. Some people suggested, uncharitably, that Giorgos was trying to evade his wife, and the octopus made a convenient mantle, so to speak, to hide behind. Others thought that Giorgos felt personally unmanned by the octopus and needed to prove himself in order to feel comfortable in polite society. Some suggested that he was attempting to capture the octopus for fame and fortune, and that he had a secret arrangement with the newspaper to document the event, when it finally occurred. Others claimed that Giorgos was simply a lazy fisherman and had stumbled upon the perfect excuse to avoid doing any actual work.

I didn’t think it was any of those things. My theory about Giorgos and the octopus was that he regarded it as a form of contemplative challenge. Pursuing the octopus, thinking like the octopus, was a form of meditation for Giorgos. He would know when his mind had reached ripeness, because he would be able to capture the octopus. He wouldn’t capture the octopus until his mind wholly inhabited the spirit and body of the octopus. There was, I felt, a real and genuine risk that he might slip into the abyss and become the octopus in the literal sense, and I began surreptitiously checking him for suckerfeet and extra arms when he came into the harbour each evening. A man who spends every day thinking himself into the mind of the octopus is bound to experience some side effects, and I for one wanted to be ready for them.

The weeks wore on. Now and then, I would go out with Giorgos and we would scud across the sunny Aegean, waiting. Watching. Once or twice, we saw dark shadows that might have been the octopus, but ‘not yet,’ Giorgos said, and we let it pass by. Over time, we started to become familiar with the habits of the octopus, by watching it out of the corners of our eyes. We knew where it went to hide, we knew where it went to feed, we knew when it would be most vulnerable.

Octopi, for those of you who do not know, are extremely intelligent cephalopods. They are renowned for their problem solving abilities and they have the ability to engage in pretty complex cognitive tasks. Hunting an octopus is not like seeking other sea creatures, because while you are busy thinking yourself into the mind of the octopus, the octopus is also thinking its way into your mind. If you let slip that you are getting to know its behaviour patterns, it will make new patterns. If you let even a hint fall that you are aware of where the octopus goes to hide, it will find new hiding places, and it will camouflage them, and you will have to start all over again.

This is why Giorgos had to be careful. He couldn’t zip out directly to the cave in the rocks where he knew the octopus lived and sit there, lying in wait. Instead, he had to zig zag and drift, seemingly aimlessly, he had to sidle up to the haunts of the octopus as though by accident, and then flit away as though he didn’t realise what was directly beneath him. Giorgos worked to make the octopus think that he was not very bright, while the octopus worked to make Giorgos think that its intelligence had never been rivaled, and that it could never be captured simply because it would always evade the efforts of the pitiful human.

A game of chess was playing out, and only Giorgos and I knew the truth. The entire village viewed him as a crackpot and a laughingstock, but Giorgos didn’t let that bother him, because he knew that eventually the payoff would come, and he would prove the villagers wrong. He didn’t mind that they teased him every night when he came into harbor, he didn’t object to the insulting words daubed on his gate, he professed boredom when people made snide comments as he walked to church with his wife, who, by the way, always walked with her hand in his and a shy smile, belying the claim that marital discord was driving Giorgos far from home every day.

Giorgos knew that patience has its own reward, and the longer he waited, the more he ignored the people mocking him, the more fevered they became. The more frustrated they were, the greater their fall would be on the day that he rowed into port with the octopus sprawled out across the bottom of his boat. He knew it. I knew it. I suspect his wife knew it.

But no one else did.