“Vuoi uno polpo?”
The cashier in the little railway station bar shook her head. She looked about sixteen and yet already used to all kinds of crazy people. She was definitely not in the mood to chat, but I tried again.
“Er, ho uno vivo polpo in mio zaino. Volete?” I smiled brightly, trying to seal the deal.
Her face closed and she folded her arms. She didn’t know or care what I was getting at.
“Non ho capito.” Clipped, brisk. Case closed.
I laughed lightly, failing to suppress the hysteria in my voice.
I couldn’t really blame her. If some foreigner came up to me at my place of work saying, “I have live octopus, you want?”, well, I wouldn’t be happy about it.
The way I ended up with a live octopus in my backpack was this.
I was jogging from Torre San Gennaro to San Pietro Vernotico, when a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift. Ordinarily I don’t hitchhike, but it was a long way to town, my legs were sore and there were no buses. The driver was a very scrawny guy in his forties who looked harmless enough, friendly and kind, so I accepted.
It was a fine opportunity to practice Italian and I made the most of it. I’d already discovered that that the people of Puglia were generally eager to oblige with the Italian practice, to tell you about the place and to ask all about your business.
I explained that no I wasn’t German but from New Zealand, where people speak English and Maori–yes, that’s right, like the haka. I was living in Torre San Gennaro for one month, as a tourist, with my husband who was from California (I could never remember the word for United States).
My driver said his name was Antonio and he was a cook by profession but only in summer, when tourists were there. For now he was working as a fisherman in Campo di Mare, a little village next to Torre San Gennaro. He had a boat there and had been fishing that very day.
“Many fish?” I asked (I had trouble recalling appropriate verbs so I usually left them out).
“No, only octopus.”
“Oh, very good. How many?”
“One big, three small, one very small.”
And here was my fatal mistake.
“I have never eaten octopus before. Is it nice?”
Antonio’s eyes widened and he nearly swerved the car off the road. He gave a couple of deep breaths, then spoke quickly, “Yes, of course! Very nice!”
“How do you cook it?”
He became animated, illustrating his words with exaggerated gestures, to the point that he (alarmingly) started to drive with his knees.
“Well, first you take the octopus and you break its neck.” He demonstrated this with an imaginary octopus that was definitely dead by the time he’d finished with it.
“Then you bash it like this, maybe ten or fifteen times.” I inferred the verb from his gesture—a series of violent downward strokes.
“Then you have a lot of boiling water. You put the octopus in the water. For half an hour. Slice it up. Put lemon, some salt on it, and it’s ready.” The gestures here were delicate, like a harp-player’s.
“Ah, thank you! I want to try it,” I said, satisfied with the linguistic exchange. Food is a topic I understand, so it’s a good one for trying basic conversations. As far as I was concerned, we were finished with the subject.
He frowned and looked intently at the road as if he were searching for something. Then he turned sharply into a little dirt road between two olive groves (in a sea of about two hundred olive groves).
“Er, is this the way to San Pietro?” I asked in a high voice, even though I knew it was not. I asked myself why I had been stupid enough to accept a ride from a complete stranger. He’s going to give me the octopus treatment, I thought. But then the survival switch kicked in, Oh rot, he’s about five-foot-two and malnourished. I could lift him up with one hand and throw him like a javelin.
As I was thus debating with myself, he parked the car and sprang out of his seat. Dubiously, I also got out of the car. At least I could outrun him if it came to a chase. He opened the back of the car and pointed to a big white bucket full of water in which there was a net, twisted at the top. Very gently, he untwisted the net, put his hand into the water and extracted a creature the size and shape of a deflating beach ball, if a beach ball had long arms.
It was pink, pale-flesh-pink with orange speckles that looked like freckles. It had large eyes with blue rims, eyes that seemed to express great weariness. Two of its tentacles lifted up to touch Antonio’s wrist gently, as if it was dizzy and wished to steady itself.
“Octopus!” Antonio declared in triumph.
“Wow! Live octopus,” I attempted enthusiasm.
“Yes, yes.” Still holding the being with one hand, he reached for a plastic bag and thrust it out for me to take.
“Open, open!” He insisted.
I fumbled with it, realizing that he was giving me the octopus as a gift and that I could not possibly politely refuse it – it was finished.
He lowered the creature into the bag and it lacked the energy to resist. He put that bag into another supermarket shopping bag and handed it to me, smiling triumphantly.
“Really? Thank you very much! Fantastic!” I said, holding it between my thumb and forefinger. I felt sick.
“You’re welcome!” he said and he went to go back to the car, motioning me to follow.
“Ah, I think I’ll walk from here. I’m quite close,” I lied.
“Yes! Thank you so much! I like to walk.”
“OK,” he shrugged. “Remember—make sure the water is really boiling!”
I watched his little old car putter off and started walking along a tree-lined lane wondering how to get to the city.
My first thought was to simply drop the bag next to the nearest olive tree. Easy! Just drop it and keep walking. Don’t look back.
But it would stay gasping there, finally drooping into lifelessness among the roots, surrounded by miles and miles of dry earth, sharp little leaves, multicolored olive fruits, Roman ruins. It seemed unspeakably wrong.
No. I could still save it! It was still alive. I could find our landlord Agostino, who lived in town, and get him to drive it back to the sea. Maybe there would be some water I could put it in. Maybe he could fill their bath with water and table salt and give it a home.
But how would I ask him that? First of all, I didn’t have the vocabulary to manage such a complex situation and, second of all, he’d think I was mad. All Italians liked to eat octopus as far as I could tell. Well then, I’d just give it to him to eat—let it be his responsibility! I’d walk to their door, knock on it and hand it over. “Prego! Per voi!”
My god, what a mess.
I saw a sign to the city and started jogging gently, feeling the weight of the cephalopod bump against my back. If this were a movie it would fight back. It would grow larger and stronger, get angry, poke its tentacles out of the pack and try to squeeze my neck, trip my legs, suffocate me…it would only be fair.
What did it feel like to suffocate? It couldn’t breathe properly in my backpack. And the plastic bag probably wasn’t helping either. Did it hurt? Was it like feeling drunk? Or just tired, so tired…maybe it just wanted everything over with. Was it moving in there? Was it trying to say something in its complicated language that I would never understand?
At last, a gas station, a roundabout, houses. We were one step closer to solving the problem.
“Nearly there!” I said cheerfully as if talking to a dog, “Nearly in San Pietro.”
In the town I slowed down a little, trying to hide my desperation. I was strange enough as it was: a tourist in autumn! Who ever heard of such a thing? Locals looked at me curiously as I walked the narrow streets inhaling the fumes of wine from the local cantinas.
There were dainty little rubbish bins here and there and I kept thinking I would simply drop the bag in the rubbish bin. Just like that. But I knew the creature would crawl out and betray me as the one who threw away its life. There would be talk.
Agostino’s house. He would know what to do. It was normal. Eating octopi was what people did around here. He’d given us a yellow melon; I’d give him the frutti di mare. A nice treat. I knocked on the door. Then I rang the bell. Then I knocked louder. Then I held my finger on the buzzer and held it there for a whole minute. Nothing.
I walked on, at a loss. The pharmacy—my original goal—was around the corner and a shop window showed me how scruffy I looked. Sweaty, hair lank and messy, legs scratched by roadside greenery…
“Yes signora, can I help you?” A calm and collected young pharmacist.
I jumped a little, feeling the smallest perceptible nudge against my back.
“Thank you. Yes please. I need these medications,” I passed her a piece of paper.
She looked at them and frowned.
“For these you need a prescription.”
“Oh!” I said, “My husband is sick and we don’t have a car and don’t know where the doctors are.’ She softened visibly at my babbling.
“Please wait. Let me ask my colleague.”
I stood still holding my breath, imagining the octopus turning around in the pack like a small fleshy planet. I wondered how I was going to tell the perfectly groomed and manicured woman in a white coat about my little problem.
After what seemed like a year, the pharmacist returned carrying boxes.
“Here you are. Next time you must have a prescription.”
“OK. Thank you very much!”
Now was my chance…and I missed it.
“Have a good day,” she said.
It was a tidy transaction. She had been kind. It was not the appropriate place to mention an octopus. I left and made my way to the railway station.
Determined to finally manage the thing, I went to the café. I thought they could sell it to their seafood-loving customers. All Italians like octopus…this was my hope…but no, the girl didn’t want it. I slunk out of the café and sat on a bench on the railway platform trying to think of what to do next. Just leave it on the seat? No. It was too late–no one would take it. No one would save it or even eat it now.
Heart writhing in my chest, I walked into a secluded waiting room and put my backpack on a bench. Looking around to make sure I was alone, I carefully pulled the plastic bag up by its handles. The bag was now vacuum-packed—the octopus had consumed every available oxygen atom. The weight reminded me of a small sack of rice, a couple of oranges. There was no more movement.
I put the parcel in the rubbish bin and walked out. I walked back along the platform, back past the barmaid, jogged through the streets past the aromatic cantinas, down the long road through olive groves and vineyards, all ten kilometres back to the sea.