I saved an octopus today. I was swimming at Brighton Beach, the one near my childhood home in Adelaide. Walking back over the sand, I saw a lifeless blob of jelly. I bent down and saw the tangled limbs of a stranded octopus.
I picked it up by the head to show my wife.
“It’s alive?” she asked.
“No.” I laid it out on the sand and began to spread its arms, find its siphon; all those things I had examined in stranded marine creatures when I was a curious child. A flaccid arm latched a couple of suckers onto my finger. I noted idly that the suckers still worked after death.
“It’s holding onto you.”
It was. Another arm adhered to me. Its survival systems had registered a last hope. I took the octopus to a pool in the sand and put my hand into the water. Slowly more of its arms stretched out to my hand and it edged its head towards me.
I remembered the horror stories I had heard about the blue-ringed octopus at this beach. If you let the tiny thing pierce you with its beak it would kill you, they said, with a nerve poison. The most horrible pain while you’re totally paralysed, then you stop breathing.
My creature was not a blue-ringed octopus. However, its shape was close enough to trip early memories of the warning posters. It began to revitalise and form itself into the classic octopus shape rather than the wrung-out rag that it had been minutes before. As it drew closer to my hand, I became increasingly uncomfortable.
I tried to prise two of the legs off my hand so I could lever its beak away from my skin. I couldn’t. If I used enough force to dislodge the suckers I was sure its thin arms would tear.
I could see its eyes now with their rectangular pupils. Its siphon was extended and occasionally puffed out a few grains of sand. It contracted its muscles to draw it closer to my hand.
I knew that there was no danger. This was not the deadly force that I was conditioned to fear. However, I did not relish having the beak of an unknown octopus in the palm of my hand. How sharp is an octopus beak? What would it do with it when it found that I was not a rock but made from edible material? Wouldn’t it desperately need food after being stranded?
I stood up, octopus in hand, and ran back over the sand into the sea. When I was knee-deep in cool water, I knelt and immersed my mollusced hand.
Its grip strengthened again. It was trying to get closer to the tenuous safety that I represented. I tried to remove a suckered tentacle from my skin but again its grip seemed stronger than its flesh. Carefully, I levered one row of suckers clear of my hand. It took advantage of my concentration to latch two other ones around my wrist. I gave up and put my hand deeper in the sea.
Suddenly the octopus gave a single convulsion and sprang off my hand, streaking like a meteor to the sea floor. I looked at my hand with its faint rows of white circles, monster free.
The monster itself sat on the sandy surface, working out its best course of action. Slowly its arms disappeared as it buried itself. After a minute, only its sand-coloured head was visible. I looked away towards the beach. When I looked back, it was gone.