Sunday, December 19, 2004

by Moe Bowstern

I had been fishing on the Jennie Lynne about a month when we caught the octupus. It oozed out of the moneybag and fell plop on the deck after what salmon we caught spilled into the hold. Normally Fred was quite casual about the ocean wonders we sometimes inadvertently snagged, but the octopus got his attention.

"Hey, wouldja look at that guy," he said, and Susan and Dave obliged him, peering at the pulpy red mass from around their raingear hoods.

"Let's eat it!" I shouted from the skiff. I have eaten octopus twice; once in a chewy soup and another time lightly grilled at a barbecue. It tasted okay, nothing too special. Mostly I wanted to challenge the moody boat cook, who I thought didn't feed me enough.

"Aww, we can't eat this guy," Fred said, "Watch." And the four of us watched as the octopus, whose boneless body stretched about four feet across, squeezed itself off the boat and into the water through a scupper five inches wide and two high.

The next day, fishing the same area, we brought up another octopus. I prepared myself for a new episode of Denizens of the Deep when Fred surprised us by running into the galley, where he grabbed a knife and stabbed the octopus repeatedly in the mantle. I was dumbfounded. The moody boat cook was grumpy. Fred dropped the octopus into the hold with the salmon. At the tender that night the moody boat cook informed Fred that there was no way in hell she was gonna cook the octopus. "You killed it, you cook it," she said. Fred thought that was just fine, as cooking sometimes relieved him of the incredible daily pressures of the first-year salmon skipper. He chatted with the skipper of the tender about the best way to tenderize an octopus. "You gotta beat it with a hammer, or you'll wear out your jaw chewing on it"

"Nah," the mate on the tender offered his opinion, "You just barely cook it, just sear it. The mantle is the best part." Fred wondered aloud about marinating procedures in relation to the cephalopod.

Next morning after we pulled anchor Fred jumped into the fish hold with a knife. He had decided to cut the octopus up and marinate it for a day, then lightly fry it in olive oil with onions and garlic.

June daylight comes early in Alaska, and though it was 4 a.m., there was enough light in the fish hold for Fred to see that the octopus had . . . disappeared. For a few moments he panicked. Days before, we had spent precious fishing time replacing the boat's faulty reduction gear. Fred had an instant and terrible vision of the octopus crawling through the engine hatch from the fish hold, wrapping itself around the works and dying in some inaccessible corner of our cramped and tiny engine room, forcing Fred to fish it out of the black and oily depths of our inner bilge. I came around from where I was coiling up anchor line on the bow to see Fred pop up from the hold. His hair stood in a spiky nimbus around his head and his eyes were too wide for that early hour. "It's gone," he said.

Fogged by little sleep and no coffee, and accustomed to Fred's irrational ravings, I feigned deafness, "Huh?"

"The octopus. It disappeared. It crawled into the engine. Oh, why didn't I carve it up last night! Lazy," he shook his head, silent, "Well, I guess we'll just have to see. Get in the skiff." That was my cue to grab my hat, beg coffee from the moody boat cook and go freeze my butt off in the predawn gray of the early morning set.

The first set of the day is usually a miserable affair, with the entire crew sleepily resisting the full realization of another long fishing day. I passed the hour that it took for us to set the net and bring it back on cursing--cursing our stoveless boat, the slowness of morning coffee preparation, the failure of the sun to fully rise and warm me, and the cruel bite of the wind in the open skiff. By the end of the set, when I was again hooked up and looked hungrily, hopefully towards the galley, I had completely forgotten about the rogue octopus. Getting up early paid off; we made another set immediately, as most of the boats fishing around us were still on anchor. After the second set, however, we faced an hour-long wait until we could fish again. Susan pumped out the fish hold as I headed into the galley with breakfast on my mind. From over my plate of pancakes, I heard her stop pumping and climb down into the fish hold. "How disgusting!" she hollered, "Fred!"

"What?" Fred looked down from the flying bridge.

"I found the octopus," Susan sounded dismal. I left my breakfast and joined Dave on deck. Susan tugged at the bottom of the sump pump, which she investigated after finding it clogged. Slowly, slowly, she extracted the missing octopus leg by leg out of the two-inch sump hose. We discussed awhile on deck as to whether the octopus had died of its stab wounds sometimes in the brief night or if it had survived until morning, when the suction of the deck pump had turned the entire creature inside out within the sump.

We still don't know, but we did learn a few things. That octopi don't die immediately when stabbed in the mantle and that skippers don't have the same opinion two days in a row.

Moe Bowstern comes from a storytelling family. Telling in this day and age doesn't always work; no one has the time for anything over a minute and a half so she started writing stories in 1993 as a way of explaining to her urban peers the summer life she led as a commercial salmon fisher in Kodiak, Alaska. These stories led to her first zine, Xtra Tuf, and there are 4 issues of it, all about commercial fishing, free to commercial fishing women (must prove it with an authentic and salty tale). Her newest zine, Second Set Out, features 10 years of writing for other zine editors. "Scupper Supper" is the first story in it, and was originally published in Mudflap #6 a decade ago. You can also read her stories in the anthologies Drive: Women's True Stories from the Open Road and Steady As She Goes: Women's Adventures at Sea (Seal Press). Moe still fishes now and then (she's always looking for a new fishing adventure, if you need a deckhand) but mostly she lives and works in Portland, Oregon USA. You can order her zines from Microcosm and Last Gasp. Write to her (no zine orders at this address please) at P.O. Box 6834, Portland, OR 97228 USA.

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