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A Pattern of Islands

Assignment with an Octopus

Assignment with an Octopus

I certainly should have never ventured out alone for pure sport, armed with nothing but a knife, to fight a tiger-shark in its own element. I am as little ashamed of that degree of discretion as the big-game hunter who takes care not to attack a rhinoceros with a shotgun. The fear I had for the larger kinds of octopus was quite different. It was a blind fear, sick with disgust, unreasoned as a child's horror of darkness. Victor Hugo was the man who first brought it up to the level of my conscious thought. I still remember vividly the impression left on me as a boy of fourteen by that account in Les Travailleurs de la Mer of Gilliatt's fight with the monster that caught him among the rocks of The Douvres. For years after reading it, I tortured myself with wondering how ever I could behave with decent courage if faced with a giant at once so strong and so loathsome. My commonest nightmare of the period was of an octopus-like Presence poised motionless behind me, towards which I dared not turn, from which my limbs were too frozen to escape. But that phase did pass before I left school, and the Thing lay dormant inside me until a day at Tarawa.

Before I reached Tarawa, however, chance gave me a swift glimpse of what a biggish octopus could do to a man. I was wading at low tide one calm evening on the lip of the reef at Ocean Island when a Baanaban villager, back from fishing, brought his canoe to land within twenty yards of where I stood. There was no more than a show of breaking seas, but the water was only knee deep, and this obliged the fisherman to slide page 119overboard and handle his lightened craft over the jagged edge. But no sooner were his feet upon the reef than he seemed to be tied to where he stood. The canoe was washed shorewards ahead of him; while he stood with legs braced, tugging desperately away from something. I had just time to see a tapering, greyish yellow rope curled around his right wrist before he broke away from it. He fell sprawling into the shallow water; the tapered rope flicked writhing back into the foam at the reef's edge. The fisherman picked himself up and nursed his right arm. I had reached him by then. The octopus had caught him with only the top of one tentacle, but the terrible hold of the few suckers on his wrist had torn the skin whole from it as he wrenched himself adrift.

This is not to say that all the varieties of octopus known to the Gilbertese are dangerous to man. Some of them are mere midgets, and very beautiful. Lying face down on a canoe anchored over rocks and sand in Tarawa lagoon, I sometimes used to watch for the smaller kinds through a water-glass.

The smallest I saw could have been comfortably spread on the lid of a cigarette tin. I noticed that the colours of all the little ones varied very much according to where they were crawling, from the mottled rust-red and brown of coral rock to the clear gold and orange-brown of sunlit sand speckled with seaweed. From the height of my top-window, most of them looked as flat as starfish slithering over the bottom, but there was one minute creature that had a habit of standing on its toes. It would constrict its tentacles into a kind of neck where they joined the head and, with its body so raised, would jig up and down rather like a dancing frog. But what appealed most to my wonder was the way they all swam. A dozen sprawling, lace-like shapes would suddenly gather themselves into stream-lines and shoot upwards, jet-propelled by the marvellous syphon in their heads, like a display of fairy water-rockets. At the top of their flight, they seemed to explode; their tails of trailed tentacles burst outwards into shimmering points around their tiny bodies, and they sank like drifting gossamer stars back to the sea-floor again.

The female octopus anchors her eggs to stalks of weeds and coral under water. It seems to be a moot point whether she page 120broods in their neighbourhood or not, but I once saw what I took to be a mother out for exercise with five babies. She had a body about the size of a tennis ball and tentacles perhaps a foot long. The length of the small ones, streamlined for swimming, was not more than five inches over all. They were cruising around a coral pinnacle in four feet of water. The big one led, the babies followed six inches behind, in what seemed to be an ordered formation: they were grouped, as it were, around the base of a cone whereof she was the forward-pointing apex.

They cruised around the pinnacle for half a minute or more, and then went down to some small rocks at its base. While the little ones sprawled over the bottom, the mother remained poised above them. It looked to my inexpert eye exactly as if she were mounting guard over her young. And at that point a big trevally was obliging enough to become the villain of a family drama for my benefit. He must have been watching the little group from deeper water. As the mother hovered there, he came in at her like a blue streak. But she avoided him somehow; he flashed by and turned to dart in again, only to see a black cloud of squirted ink where the octopus had been. (Incidentally, that was the only time I myself ever saw an octopus discharge its ink-sac.) The trevally swerved aside, fetched a full circle and came very slowly back to the edge of the black cloud, while the mother and her family were escaping towards the shallows on the other side. He loitered around for a while, then seemed to take fright and flicked away at speed into the deep water.

The old navigators of the Gilberts used to talk with fear of a gigantic octopus that inhabited the seas between Samoa and the Ellice Islands. They said its tentacles were three-arm-spans long and thicker at the base than the body of a full-grown man–a scale of measurements not out of keeping with what is known of the atrocious monster called Octopus Apollyon. There were some who stated that this foul fiend of the ocean was also to be found in the waters between Onotoa, Tamana and Arorae in the Southern Gilberts. But I never came across a man who had seen one, and the biggest of the octopus breed I ever saw with my own eyes had tentacles only a little over six feet long. It was a member of the clan Octopus Vulgaris, which swarms in all the lagoons. An page 121average specimen of this variety is a dwarf beside Octopus Apollyon: laid out flat, it has a total spread of no more than nine or ten feet, but it is a wicked-looking piece of work, even in death, with those disgusting suckers studding its arms and those bulging, filmed eyes staring out of the mottled gorgon face.

Possibly, if you can watch objectively, the sight of Octopus Vulgaris searching for crabs and crayfish on the floor of the lagoon may move you to something like admiration. You cannot usually see the dreadful eyes from a water-glass straight above its feeding ground, and your feeling for crustaceans is too impersonal for horror at their fate between pouncing suckers and jaws. There is real beauty in the rich change of its colours as it moves from shadow to sunlight, and the gliding ease of its arms as they reach and flicker over the rough rocks fascinates the eye with its deadly grace. You feel that if only the creature would stick to its grubbing on the bottom, the shocking ugliness of its shape might even win your sympathy, as for some poor Caliban in the enchanted garden of the lagoon. But it is no honest grubber in the open. For every one of its kind that you see crawling below you, there are a dozen skulking in recesses of the reef that falls away like a cliff from the edge where you stand watching. When Octopus Vulgaris has eaten its fill of the teeming crabs and crayfish, it seeks a dark cleft in the coral face, and anchors itself there with a few of the large suckers nearest to its body. Thus shielded from attack in the rear, with tentacles gathered to pounce, it squats glaring from the shadows, alert for anything alive to swim within striking distance. It can hurl one or all of those whiplashes forward with the speed of dark lightning, and once its scores of suckers, rimmed with hooks for grip on slippery skins, are clamped about their prey, nothing but the brute's death will break their awful hold.

But that very quality of the octopus that most horrifies the imagination, its relentless tenacity, becomes its undoing when hungry man steps into the picture. The Gilbertese happen to value certain parts of it as food, and their method of fighting it is coolly based upon the one fact that its arms never change their grip. They hunt for it in pairs. One man acts as the bait, his partner as the killer. First, they swim eyes-under at low tide just page 122off the reef, and search the crannies of the submarine cliff for sight of any tentacle that may flicker out for a catch. When they have placed their quarry, they land on the reef for the next stage. The human bait starts the real game. He dives and tempts the lurking brute by swimming a few strokes in front of its cranny, at first a little beyond striking range. Then he turns and makes straight for the cranny, to give himself into the embrace of those waiting arms. Sometimes nothing happens. The beast will not always respond to the lure. But usually it strikes.

The partner on the reef above stares down through the pellucid water, waiting for his moment. His teeth are his only weapon. His killing efficiency depends on his avoiding every one of those strangling arms. He must wait until his partner's body has been drawn right up to the entrance of the cleft. The monster inside is groping then with its horny mouth against the victim's flesh, and sees nothing beyond it. That point is reached in a matter of no more than thirty seconds after the decoy has plunged. The killer dives, lays hold of his pinioned friend at arms' length, and jerks him away from the cleft; the octopus is torn from the anchorage of its proximal suckers, and clamps itself the more fiercely to its prey. In the same second, the human bait gives a kick which brings him, with quarry annexed, to the surface. He turns on his back, still holding his breath for better buoyancy, and this exposes the body of the beast for the kill. The killer closes in, grasps the evil head from behind, and wrenches it away from its meal. Turning the face up towards himself, he plunges his teeth between the bulging eyes, and bites down and in with all his strength. That is the end of it. It dies on the instant; the suckers release their hold; the arms fall away; the two fishers paddle with whoops of delighted laughter to the reef, where they string the catch to a pole before going to rout out the next one.

Any two boys of seventeen, any day of the week, will go out and get you half a dozen octopus like that for the mere fun of it. Here lies the whole point of this story. The hunt is, in the most literal sense, nothing but child's play to the Gilbertese.

As I was standing one day at the end of a jetty in Tarawa lagoon, I saw two boys from the near village shouldering a page 123string of octopus slung on a pole between them. I started to wade out in their direction, but before I hailed them they had stopped, planted the carrying-pole upright in a fissure and, leaving it there, swum off the edge for a while with faces submerged evidently searching for something under water. I had been only a few months at Tarawa, and that was my first near view of an octopus-hunt. I watched every stage of it from the dive of the human bait to the landing of the dead catch. When it was over, I went up to them. I could hardly believe that in those few seconds, with no more than a frivolous-looking splash or two on the surface, they could have found, caught and killed the creature they were now stringing up before my eyes. They explained the amusing simplicity of the thing.

'There's only one trick the decoy-man must never forget,' they said, 'and that's not difficult to remember. If he is not wearing the water-spectacles of the Men of Matang, he must cover his eyes with a hand as he comes close to the kika (octopus), or the sucker might blind him.' It appeared that the ultimate fate of the eyes was not the thing to worry about; the immediate point was that the sudden pain of a sucker clamping itself to an eyeball might cause the bait to expel his breath and inhale sea-water; that would spoil his buoyancy, and he would fail then to give his friend the best chance of a kill.

Then they began whispering together. I knew in a curdling flash what they were saying to each other. Before they turned to speak to me again, a horrified conviction was upon me. My damnable curiosity had led me into a trap from which there was no escape. They were going to propose that I should take a turn at being the bait myself, just to see how delightfully easy it was. And that is what they did. It did not even occur to them that I might not leap at the offer. I was already known as a young Man of Matang who liked swimming, and fishing, and laughing with the villagers; I had just shown an interest in this particular form of hunting; naturally, I should enjoy the fun of it as much as they did. Without even waiting for my answer, they gleefully ducked off the edge of the reef to look for another octopus – a fine fat one – mine. Left standing there alone, I had another of those visions …

page 124

It was dusk in the village. The fishers were home, I saw the cooking-fires glowing orange-red between the brown lodges. There was laughter and shouted talk as the women prepared the evening meal. But the laughter was hard with scorn. 'What?' they were saying, 'Afraid of a kika? The young Man of Matang? Why, even the boys are not afraid of a kika!' A curtain went down and rose again on the Residency; the Old Man was talking: 'A leader? You? The man who funked a schoolboy game? We don't leave your sort in charge of Districts.' The scene flashed to my uncles: 'Returned empty,' they said. 'We always knew you hadn't got it in you. Returned empty …'

Of course it was all overdrawn, but one fact was beyond doubt; the Gilbertese reserved all their most ribald humour for physical cowardice. No man gets himself passed for a leader anywhere by becoming the butt of that kind of wit. I decided I would rather face the octopus.

I was dressed in khaki slacks, canvas shoes and a short-sleeved singlet. I took off the shoes and made up my mind to shed the singlet if told to do so; but I was wildly determined to stick to my trousers throughout. Dead or alive, said a voice within me, an official minus his pants is a preposterous object, and I felt I could not face that extra horror. However, nobody asked me to remove anything.

I hope I did not look as yellow as I felt when I stood to take the plunge; I have never been so sick with funk before or since. 'Remember, one hand for your eyes,' said someone from a thousand miles off, and I dived.

I do not suppose it is really true that the eyes of an octopus shine in the dark; besides, it was clear daylight only six feet down in the limpid water; but I could have sworn the brute's eyes burned at me as I turned in towards his cranny. That dark glow – whatever may have been its origin – was the last thing I saw as I blacked out with my left hand and rose into his clutches. Then, I remember chiefly a dreadful sliminess with a herculean power behind it. Something whipped round my left forearm and the back of my neck, binding the two together. In the same flash, another something slapped itself high on my forehead, and I felt it crawling down inside the back of my singlet. My impulse was page 125to tear at it with my right hand, but I felt the whole of that arm pinioned to my ribs. In most emergencies the mind works with crystal-clear impersonality. This was not even an emergency, for I knew myself perfectly safe. But my boyhood's nightmare was upon me. When I felt the swift constriction of those disgusting arms jerk my head and shoulders in towards the reef, my mind went blank of every thought save the beastliness of contact with that squat head. A mouth began to nuzzle below my throat, at the junction of the collar-bones. I forgot there was anyone to save me. Yet something still directed me to hold my breath.

I was awakened from my cowardly trance by a quick, strong pull on my shoulders, back from the cranny. The cables around me tightened painfully, but I knew I was adrift from the reef. I gave a kick, rose to the surface and turned on my back with the brute sticking out of my chest like a tumour. My mouth was smothered by some flabby moving horror. The suckers felt like hot rings pulling at my skin. It was only two seconds, I suppose, from then to the attack of my deliverer, but it seemed like a century of nausea.

My friend came up between me and the reef. He pounced, pulled, bit down, and the thing was over – for everyone but me. At the sudden relaxation of the tentacles, I let out a great breath, sank, and drew in the next under water. It took the united help of both boys to get me, coughing, heaving and pretending to join in their delighted laughter, back to the reef. I had to submit there to a kind of war-dance round me, in which the dead beast was slung whizzing past my head from one to the other. I had a chance to observe then that it was not by any stretch of fancy a giant, but just plain average. That took the bulge out of my budding self-esteem. I left hurriedly for the cover of the jetty, and was sick.