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Stories by Mike Humfreville

Life for a Life    ( Posted July 21, 2003 )

There are many places we have gone clamming along Baja, but there is one beach we frequent in Bahia de Los Angeles that is my favorite. Our little patch of sand and stone is near a place we have lived across summers and the clams there are tiny and tasty. I'm told they're called butter clams. They're about an inch across or a little bigger. Our niche is so filled with clams that you need no scoop of other tools, just a small bucket. We sift with our naked hands through the shore at the appropriate level and they pop up, brown and tan and glistening in the shallow water and we are careful to take them conservatively.

On this morning our son Kevin and his friend Carly are with us. We mine clams for 20 minutes and have almost enough. Mary Ann and Deb and Brendan continue their search. Kevin and Carly are looking through the shallows of a small lagoon. The tide is going out, draining the tiny basin.

"Octopus!" Kevin calls. We all go over to investigate. He's just a baby, maybe 12 inches long and, worried about all the legs he sees gathering around him, he cowers on the tiny stones, blending in. There were two large rocks a few feet away that he could see but not reach for cover. He was afraid, I'm sure. But all we wanted was his picture and Carly maneuvered her camera to avoid the midday light reflecting off the shallows. This took her several minutes.

There was a family nearby, locals from the nearby village, and they saw us gathered there, a hundred yards away, could hear our commotion. Several young children came running to see what we were doing. I told them we were observing a young pulpo in the shallow water.

"Look," he said in Spanish, holding open a thick burlap sack for us to peer into. "Otro pulpo." Inside was another octopus, the same size as ours, dead. He indicates that he wants ours, now hiding under the rock of his attention.

I tell the boy that this is our octopus, but he and the other children are persistent and soon are calling to their father and mother to come and get the beast. We gringos are confused by this brash confrontation. We don't want the octopus to die, we just wanted to observe and let go.

It was a tense moment. The children wanted him for dinner, I suppose. For us he was entertainment. The boy's father was hanging back but working in our direction. I didn't know what to do but the situation needed managing somehow, before things got confrontational. The children were not buying into my story that this was OUR animal as we had found it.

I ran to the car and grabbed the net we used to bring in larger fish on our boat. We had brought it in case the tide permitted crabbing. We swept up the small octopus in the net and ran out of the lagoonmouth, across a small gravel rise and into the open gulf. The octopus, not having a clue, was slinking out of the net. We slowed several times to get him back inside. We reached the open water and lowered the net below the surface. The children were right behind us. I just wanted the poor baby beast to let go the net and make for deeper water.

Finally, we got him out; he settled, confused, on the stones in about three feet of water. But he was afraid and wasn't moving. Soon the children are upon us and circling, a circle within our circle. I knew they wanted to kill him. I told them that they already had an octopus. This one was ours.

"What will you do with him?" They asked.

"We just want to watch him." I said, realizing how silly that sounded to someone who had lived here their short lives and needed, only knew the octopus as food. All the while the father of the children was hovering nearby.

We all just looked at each other. The dialog stopped and we simply made eye contact. The children had this quizzical, mystified look. The rest of us didn't know how to resolve the conflict. Was it reasonable to protect the beast when a family was hungry? We were in their land, not our own. We wanted to let the baby go. They wanted to eat it.

In the end we left the children and the octopus and walked away, back to the truck and left. I don't know that they captured the octopus, but I can't imagine that they didn't. On the way back to camp we were quiet for a time in the truck.

It did occur to me that the local family was going to have octopus for dinner over the next day or two. Two lives, perhaps, lost from this Earth. We, on the other hand, would be dining on clams, a much smaller animal. Our meal would require the taking of many more lives then theirs. At twenty years I would never have thought like that. But at sixty, your thinking gets re-wired and you know that everything is expendable and when one life is gone the world is changed forever and it really does matter. Bummer.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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