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The Octopus Fisherman

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

My early encounters with sea creatures, sexual abuse and death [TW: Child sexual abuse]

Beach with old houses, trees and rocky hills.
The beach in Galicia where this story took place. Photo by the author.

I woke up early. Thin sunbeams filtered through the cracks in the blinds, announcing a beautiful summer day. I slid down from my top bunk bed and, not wanting to wake up my brothers, I grabbed my swimsuit, a T-shirt and my beach slippers and put them on quietly.

I was thirteen.

The sun was still low over the pine trees above the house. The bay was calm, an incipient breeze changing its color from silver to deep blue. It was going to be a hot day. Nobody was up yet, so I decided to go for a walk.

I wandered through fields of cabbage and corn until I came to the rocks by the water's edge. Not far offshore, in his wooden boat brightly painted white, brown and blue, was the octopus fisherman.

Octopus is a delicacy in Galicia, the national dish. It is served on a thick wood plate, seasoned with olive oil, coarse salt and spicy paprika. I loved to eat it, but I was also fascinated by the animal itself. I had just learned to catch it. With my mask, snorkel and fins, I would swim over the sandy bottom looking for odd objects: a rubber boot, a pot, a tire. Then I would dive and check inside for octopus. More often than not, I would find one. Then I would wrestle it to the shore, kill it and proudly present it to my mother to cook.

The old fisherman used entirely different techniques to catch octopus. He would never get in the water. Like most Galician fishermen, he didn’t even know how to swim. He carried long poles with a hook at the end. When he spotted an octopus on the bottom, he would quickly get one on his poles, hook the octopus and haul it into his boat. Sometimes the octopus would get into a crack in the rocks and stubbornly hold to it with all the considerable strength of its tentacles and suction cups. Then a fight would ensue, the fisherman pulling with his pole this way and that and the octopus holding on for dear life.

* * *

One day I witnessed one of these struggles while lying lazily on a towel on the beach.

The fisherman fought for over half an hour and still couldn’t get the octopus.

I grabbed my mask, snorkel and fins and got in the water, wanting to take a closer look at the struggle. There was a large rock on the bottom. The hook of the fisherman’s long pole was digging under it. There must be an octopus under there, I thought.

I asked him if he needed help, but he just muttered something incomprehensible in Galician.

But the octopus was giving no sign of giving up. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I took a deep breath and dove toward the rock. Bracing with my knees on the bottom, it wasn’t hard to overturn the rock. The octopus came out and took off swimming at full speed, opening and closing its tentacles looking like a little ghost. I went back to the surface for air.

“Look what I have done!” I thought, “I have lost this poor fisherman his catch.”

Desperately, I swam on the surface following the octopus, which was heading for deep water. I dove again. If the octopus was as smart as some people think it is, it would have just keep on swimming and I would have never been able to catch it. Instead, it opened its tentacles on the bottom and waited for me. I grabbed it and head back to the surface.

It was a big one. It wrapped its tentacles around my arm all the way to my neck, pulling hard to slide between my fingers. I knew it just wanted to get away, but I started to get scared. Then I looked up and saw the fisherman in his boat. He grabbed the octopus and peeled it off me.

“I’m glad I could get you that octopus,” I told him after I climbed into his boat.

“That’s your octopus now,” he said. “Take it home to your mom.”

* * *

I used to ride with the octopus fisherman in his boat, watching him peek into the water to find an octopus where I could see just rocks. Another way he had to catch his prey was to drag a line to which he had attached a small rock with a crab and hooks on top. The octopus would try to get the crab and get hooked. He taught me the names of all the beaches in the bay and a lot of things about the sea. At the end of the morning, he would pull his boat to the beach and the beachgoers would gather around and bid for his catch.

So when that morning he rowed his boat backwards to the rocks to let me in, I didn’t think twice. I climbed on board and sat on the prow as he rowed back out on the bay.

I tried to start a conversation about fishing, but he didn’t seem in the mood for it. Then something really weird happened. He pulled in the oars and came to where I was. He started touching me over my skimpy swimsuit. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Whoa, you have a big one!” he said.

That was completely ridiculous. I haven’t reached puberty yet. I had the penis of a child. It didn’t even care if it was big or small.

“Do you want to touch mine?”

I couldn’t imagine anything more repulsive than to touch that old man’s cock.

“No! Stop! Leave me alone!”

“Do you want to go to shore?” he said in Galician.

Go to shore and do what? Go to a hiding place so he could continue touching me? As it was, anybody looking out from the beach could see us. But there was nobody there.

“Stop! Stop, or I’ll jump in the water!”

He took a step back, as if to consider what I had said. Then he started again.

I quickly took off my T-shirt and my slippers and dove headfirst into the sea. The water was cold. I come to the surface and looked at him. He could row his boat much faster than I could swim. Would he fish me out of the water as if I were an octopus? But he just stood there, looking at me with apparent indifference.

I swam in a perfect crawl straight to the beach.

I wanted to slip quietly back into my room and change, but my mother saw me walking in, barefoot and wet.

“You have been swimming already?”

“Yeah, the water is nice,” I muttered, and went upstairs.

* * *

What was that old man thinking? How could he dare? He was just a poor man. My father was a local authority. If I told, I could get him into a lot of trouble. He would probably wind up in jail.

But I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing that free spirit in jail. For me, he symbolized the freedom and the wildness of the sea. Even what he had done to me represented that careless freedom.

Those were still the dark years of the Franco dictatorship. I didn’t know anything about sex, nobody had told me. Obscure desires had started to awaken inside me.

I didn’t understand any of that. It scared me. The priests told us a few things, but they were always unclear, shrouded in secrecy and sin.

Perhaps the old fisherman could explain it to me, the same way that he had explained the way of the octopus. But not if he was going to touch me like that again.

It slowly dawned on me that I could never ride in the old fisherman’s boat again.

* * *

Later on that day, I saw the fisherman pulling his boat on the beach.

He had a system to pull his heavy wooden boat out over the tide line. He lay the oars on the sand and put a round log across them. Then he rolled the boat over the oars, using the round log as a wheel. He repeated the process several times until the boat was on the white dry sand, out of the reach of the high tide. Some beachgoers often helped him, but he was perfectly capable of doing it on his own.

While the bid over the catch started, I surreptitiously grabbed my slippers and T-shirt from the boat and walked away.

* * *

He must have done other boys. One day I was walking on a cove that could only be reached by hiking through thorny gorse and blackberry bushes. There I saw him walking out of a shack with a teenage boy. I pretended that I didn’t see them.

The locals never said much about him. He had no wife, no children, no family that I knew of. He seemed content and self-sufficient. He looked as old as the world, with his short white hair and his wrinkly face, but there was no way to know how old he really was. Perhaps he didn’t know himself. I saw him once dancing at a local fiesta, alone. He jumped and pranced with a vitality and abandon that I envied.

* * *

I was already attending college when I heard that the octopus fisherman was dying.

Stomach cancer, they said.

I made discreet inquiries and found the way to his place. It was an old stone house surrounded by an unkempt garden, but there were peach trees and fig trees and plum trees, the fruit still green in the early days of summer.

I knocked on the door, called, then walked in.

The inside of the house was just a large single room, with a high ceiling, a wooden floor and walls of naked granite blocks.

There was a large bed in the middle. The old fisherman was laying on it, his belly swollen. Other than that, he looked as he always did.

I sat on a chair by him and asked him how he was.

He knew he was dying. I asked him if he was afraid of death. He said he was afraid of the pain. I asked him if he believed in an afterlife, in God. I had abandoned Christianity a few years back, when I was fifteen, and now I was exploring yoga and Eastern mysticism. But he didn’t seem to care about religious belief, he just wanted the pain to be over.

I didn’t mention the incident on the boat. I still didn’t have the words to talk about sex, much less sexual abuse.

A few days later, my father told me that the octopus fisherman had died.

He asked me if I wanted to go to his funeral.

I said no. I had already said my goodbyes to the old man.

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