Purpu ri mari

Tale written during the creative writing course of the Sicily Summer School 2019

by Elena Gebbia

My animal totem, if we can say so, is the octopus. I understood it at the age of eight and I tattooed it at my heart at eighteen, in a little shop in Turin where I entered by pure chance. When I was eight it was my eighth summer in Favignana and in a certain vague way I had already understood that I belonged to that island in the same way that the cold sea, the wind and the octopus belonged to it. Purpi, in Sicilian. I think it was August, my skin was dark, my hair full of knots. The soles of the feet were hardened by the walks on the rocks and they always brought me some rock dust in the bed, which I did not drive away. That afternoon Grandfather Enzo picked me up after the nap. My mother had already filled me with sunscreen and felt my slippery hand in Grandpa's rough hand.

"Today I take you to a friend of mine who can't wait to meet you," he said. I recognized him immediately, he was the man I had nicknamed Golden Curls in my head. I discovered that his name was Gaetano Parisi, known as lu siccu. He and my grandfather greeted each other, laughed loudly at something, while I watched the swelling sea. Every slap of water on the rocks sent drops of water to my face and salt as small as crumbs I licked from my lips. Even the smell of the sea grew with the waves, I hoped it would stick to my clothes so I could take it to Turin when I left. Lu siccu took us on his fishing boat, a hub that he had seen so many.

On days when the sea was smooth it seemed so close that it could be reached by swimming

We would have gone to the Preveto. "A small island just off Favignana, in the south," he explained to me with his quick speech. On days when the sea was smooth it seemed so close that it could be reached by swimming, that afternoon it almost seemed to disappear when the waves hit her. The boat cut the water, I was standing between my grandfather's knees and bending my legs I followed the sea. Gaetano held the tiller with one hand and whistled a melody I never heard again, maybe he was inventing it at that moment. Grandpa had put his straw hat on his head and held it tight so he wouldn't fly away. The boat slowed down, the sea had changed color. Bunches of whitish jellyfish with pink and purple veins floated a few centimeters from the surface. Tentacles of all lengths collided abandoned to the rhythm of the waves. The boat stopped completely and Gaetano threw down the anchor. "Below is your dinner, picciridda". I was hypnotized by jellyfish, by their soft movement, but I knew how badly they could hurt my skin. Grandpa rolled his legs outward and dived into the water. He began taking the jellyfish by the head and throwing them away, creating a sort of corridor, then he returned to the boat. Gaetano had prepared the fishing harpoon. He took off his grandfather's hat, then lifted me by the armpits. "Are you ready?". I dropped like a parcel and met the icy water.

That sea was the only thing he respected.

I felt the goose bumps pinch and the muscles contracted. Only many years later would I wear a wetsuit for the first time, to dive with the cylinder at thirty-two meters. Gaetano threw three masks into the sea in which he had already spat before slipping into the water. Assisted in the hunt clinging to his back. He kept me on the surface of the water so that the jellyfish wouldn't touch me, even though the current had taken them far. The fishing went well, we took three big fish and an octopus. The first ended up banging the tails against a bucket, while the small octopus was entrusted to my hands because I had seen it first. It was six in the evening, there was no more sea. I started playing with the octopus, took it in my hands and immediately he wrapped the tentacles around my arm. The suckers tickled me, his eyes looked watery and good. In a moment he was very close, the tentacles seemed to have shortened. Then he bit me on the shoulder. The octopuses have a single tooth under the head, in which they concentrate all their strength. For my child's arm maybe she didn't even use it all, maybe she didn't want to hurt me. I screamed and shook my arm, pulled it from my head. He loosened his grip and landed without a sound on the bottom of the boat. Looking down at it, with the tentacles curled up, I immediately felt guilty. I was little, but he was smaller than me. Or maybe it was her. My right arm was full of red marks left by the suction cups that would soon disappear. I took the tip of a braid between my fingers and placed it on the bite mark. It was cool and wet, I pressed it lightly and the salt water dripped like a sponge over the wound.
Gaetano and my grandfather looked at me, standing side by side near the engine. Gaetano nodded to his grandfather Enzo before leaving command. He came towards me and I felt a hint of unmotivated fear, I believe a fear that scolded me. He seemed closer to the sea than to people. The octopus was still lying on the bottom of the boat, moving a little. He did not react when Gaetano lifted him, the tentacles curled at the tip and fell immediately without touching that arm. I stood up, following the animal with my eyes. I searched his pupils in the folds of his head to excuse me, I didn't find them. Now Gaetano's arm was high, holding the octopus at the height of his face. "Did you hurt the picciridda?" The veins in his huge hand swelled up a little, he wasn't making any effort. His red face was still. For a moment his gaze went beyond the octopus, towards the sea that kept flowing rapidly around the moving boat. That sea was the only thing he respected. And he knew him well, he had worked all his life at the tonnara, this was what my mom told me. The octopus could no longer move the tentacles, so abandoned they seemed very long. His whole being seemed to be melting away. A few drops of water that for all that time had stubbornly stuck to his slimy skin, surrendered, walked the suckers and fell on my bare feet. With a flick of his wrist, Gaetano threw him into the sea and he remained floating for a while, we left him behind. I wanted to run aft, lean out and see him swimming towards the bottom, but something held me still. I didn't want to look bad with Gaetano lu siccu, I was ashamed of that thought. Before resuming the helm, Gaetano dangled his hand in the water. He sent me two sketches with his fingers, laughing. "Don't make that little face, picciridda, we already have a lot for dinner." Grandpa sat down next to me at the bow, we were almost there. We didn't exchange a word, Gaetano whistled a new tune. The bite was pink and shiny, but I no longer felt ill. The path of the suckers was faded. I thought that that octopus was the same color as jellyfish but it was better. I thought I wanted to live in the sea like him. Before we captured him he was exploring with the tentacles the crevices of a rock, he too was getting dinner. I saw many others in the following years, when I started to really immerse myself.
They looked even more elegant when they swam in the deep, black sea. But the octopus I chose and which I tattooed next to the breast, with the tentacles at the top and the suction cups clearly visible, is the one that on a summer afternoon a step away from the sea played with me, when I was picciridda.


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