Cathy Vella: “Baby Octopus”

My Papa always said that if you put your mind to it, you could do anything. He was a real adventurer, forever in awe of the world, always wanting to experience new things. His true love was being under the sea. He’d spent most of his life there and he told the most amazing stories that would make you hold your breath and sit wide eyed, rigid with fear or laughing till your belly hurt. He met Ma in the sea. They didn’t speak for almost a year as they only ever met underwater. Papa said the coral blossomed wherever they swam; you could feel the love warming the ocean. He said their first kiss made the fish blush and swim away.

‘I’m going to live under the sea.’ I told him.

‘You almost do anyway.’ he said.

The ocean has been my home too. Papa joked that I swam right out of ma’s belly into the sea, he said my limbs were so long and lean that an octopus mistook me as hers.

‘Little Gurita, wants to live with his mammy gurita.’ he would say to ma. Then he would hold me up and pretend to look for my other legs. Ma would laugh and say she would happily share me. Everyone called me Bayi Gurita – baby octopus.

My parents were divers. They would dive for fish and sponges to sell at market. Occasionally they would find some small treasure. When I was three I started to swim down with them. Shallow at first, then gradually deeper till I could help them catch fish and tend coral. I loved to play with my fish friends and explore my underwater playground.

Under the sea was so calm and quiet.

The rules were different than on land. Upside down was the right way up if you wanted it to be. Nothing was ever still, yet your body ebbed and flowed with the gentle movements so it felt like you were part of everything. The fish knew me, and they were friendly; even the large clams would stay open for me to stroke them. I made friends with the wrasse, and they would swim alongside me, now and again they would nudge me, they were always playful.  By the age of ten I could stay under twice as long as my parents.

I pushed them to venture further, but they didn’t have my stamina. Papa knew not to hold me back and encouraged my adventures. As he grew weaker, I grew strong and the adventures he could no longer undertake, I would tackle with ease.

‘You go on your own today my Gurita, be sure to come back to us.’

There had been talk in the village of a wreck. It was three cliffs around from where we normally dive, and those waters were deeper and darker.  Only the bravest dived there, and even then they knew not to go too deep. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, Papa always said. We talked a lot about how the water gets into your head and compels you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It can push and pull at you, confuse you, and convince you that you have more breath in your lungs. Look what happened to Ma, he’d say.

I had been training over the week, testing my limits above and below water. I never timed a dive. I didn’t like the pressure of a visual gauge because it makes you compete with yourself.  I listen to my body. Papa knew what I was doing and I could see he was a sad, but he didn’t try to dissuade me. The other villages got wind of my plans. The elders said I was stupid, but the young divers said I was brave. I wasn’t sure which I was.  My good friend Mawi said my head wasn’t just in the clouds but had actually left the cosmos.

‘How will you look after your papa, if you are dead under the ocean?’ He threw a pebble into our fire and dug his heels deep in the sand.

‘I’m not going to die. You know I won’t do anything silly.’

‘You’re always doing silly things. You take after your Ma. You are never sensible.’ He paused, realising that he had hurt my feelings. ‘There is too much water in your brain, it has turned it into mush.’ He tapped on the side of my head. ‘Let me come with you.’

‘At least I have a brain.’ I ruffled his hair, but he wasn’t biting at the joke. He looked serious. His offer was to keep me safe. He was a good friend, but I couldn’t take responsibility for him. I told him no, and he was quiet for the rest of the evening.

I woke early on the morning of the dive. I tried to sneak out, but Papa must have heard me. I was dragging my shorts and top off the line when he tapped me on the shoulder.

‘Remember you can come up and go back, you don’t have to do it all in one go.’

‘I know, Papa.’

‘And remember there is nothing down there worth using your last breath on.’

‘I know.’

‘I love you Gurita.’ He hugged me and kissed my forehead.

‘I love you too, Papa.’

‘Mawi came late last night; he wanted me to talk you out of it. I think that boy is in love with you.’ He handed me a small pack with bread, dry fish and a water bottle.

‘I’ll deal with Mawi later.’ I kissed him again and headed off.  I didn’t want to prolong the exit.

The walk to the beach was long, but the temperature was perfect, and the salt air invigorated me.

I never tired of the views – endless blue to my left and uninterrupted green to my right. The only sounds; my footfall, my breath, and the ocean.  By the time I reached the cliff above the beach, the sun was directly overhead and I took shelter and drank some water. Careful not to fill my belly too much, I ate only a few flakes of the fish. I looked out at the ocean and imaged what my tiny body would look like under from this viewpoint. I descended to the beach, approached the waters edge and sat. Before a deep dive I liked to visualise relax and focus on my breathing. I shut everything out. It was an exchange between me and my body. The swim out would take little energy; I was long and lean and I would cut through the water with little effort.  The dive would take up all my reserve.

Once in the water I felt at ease. I swam out and positioned myself. I breathe deep, relax, and feel the water. It is warm at the surface, but it would quickly cool below. It feels as though my lungs have expanded throughout my body and my heart rate slows. I am ready. I surface dive, and quickly drop deeper and deeper.  Every second saved diving is an extra second exploring. I feel the water cool quickly, and my muscles contract. I blink and my eyes adjust to the pressure. I feel a whoosh in my ear but it quickly passes as I equalise. I look up and check the light. Releasing a few bubbles, I check my position. I look down into the dark. I blink again and slowly release more air from my lungs. I can feel the blood move from my limbs.  It is at this moment my dive body kicks in. The shift is significant and I feel like I have dispersed. Time has stopped.  I am calm and my mind is blank. I feel aware of every atom in my body as it adjusts to the underwater world.

I observe my surroundings. The pressure increases and moves up my body like a heavy wave. The light from above is faint. I cut through the water. The only sound a slow thud – thud in my chest.  The ocean floor finally reveals itself to me. As my eyes adjust, I can see a rocky bed, and as I get closer I realise it is sloping off. I follow the drop of the ridge and try to determine if it ends within my limits. My body instinctively makes the split second decision. The pressure is stronger than I’ve experienced; this must be the deepest I’ve been. Finally I can just make out a shape. An anchor. This means the ship should be nearby. I move further along the flat bed area, through the undulating reeds, and there it is, a shape, only discernable by its solid darkness within the darkness. As I move towards it, a huge cramp hits my stomach. I have reached my limit. I kick off the nearest rock and push myself away.  All my focus has turned inwards. As I move upwards, something tugs me back. I make a hard stroke and focus on moving away. Every sinew in my tiny body is screaming out for oxygen, but I can’t move.  I look down and see a hand around my ankle. I kick out hard, but it won’t release me. I bend and grapple with the fingers, try to prise them away. I follow the white hands along the pale, slender arms and see the face emerge from the reeds. My face comes close to its face. It is my face. I close my eyes, focus and become still. I know never to fight with the sea, as it will always win. When I open my eyes, I see the reeds around my ankle; I gently tease them loose and kick free. I head for the surface, kicking harder than I should. Papa’s voice tells me not to panic. I know I cannot stop once I am coming up. Suddenly I feel serene. I know this is my body eking out what little oxygen it has left. I can feel the pressure ease around my limbs, the focus in my eyes change. It becomes lighter and I know I do not have far to go. Someone is swimming in the brightness above and I wonder if it is me. Those long limbs look like mine. Hair swirls around a face like mine. I realise that Ma has come to make sure I am safe.  I kick harder and harder and finally I break the surface.

‘Deep breath, hold and push it deep, Bayi Gurita.’ Her face is close to mine, and her body wraps around mine and lifts me. I inhale and push the oxygen deep into my cells. I feel my limbs awaken and my eyes adjust to the bright sunshine. Lay on my back, I float till my breathing returns to normal. The sun beats down on my face and the above-water sounds bring me back to my land body. The endless blue looks more vibrant than ever before. I turn to swim back and see Mawi sat waiting for me on the beach. I wave, tuck my head in and swim for the shore.

black tree

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Photo by Tomek Dzido