"How to Kill an Octopus" by Allison Wilkins

Allison Wilkins

Allison Wilkins

Allison Wilkins is the assistant director for Writing Workshops in Greece. She is the author of Girl Who. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming with Sierra, Hayden's Ferry Review, Superstition Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Michigan Quarterly and others.

How to Kill an Octopus

The evening air has a hint of pink iridescence, the sky the color you would see if you were to peel the thinnest strip of octopus skin and hold it over your eye. This night is the first in the house alone. After nine years of marriage, I have asked my husband to leave. He does not want to go because he knows that it will be easier for me to push him away if he isn’t here; he leaves because if he doesn’t I will resent him.


…beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—[1]


Octopuses[2] are highly intelligent cephalopods famous for their unique chromatophoric skin. They are hard to find in the water; even if you are looking directly at them. A study lead by Roger Hanlon discovered leucophores, which are unique in their ability to “reflect all wavelengths of light that hit at any angle.”[3] Pairing this ability to change color with their ability to cram themselves (no bones, no external shell) into tiny crevices creates difficulty for its predators. An octopus can even mimic the shape of the environment disguising itself as a stone or other sea floor debris.


Our relationship is failing because I’ve stopped trying to diminish myself into his idea of wife. Having given up most of my writing life in order to establish some tenuous version of peace between us, I can no longer sacrifice my needs for his. We can no longer bridge the distance between us.


The smallest octopus (that we know of) was discovered in 1913 in the Indo-Pacific Ocean; the Octopus Wolfi is only 1.5 centimeters in length.

The largest octopus (that we know of) is the North Pacific Giant Octopus. On average, it is 10 feet in length and weighs 33.3 pounds. In 1957, a 604 pound North Pacific Giant was found on a British Columbia beach.[4]


The octopus is a curious creature, but not normally aggressive to humans. If, while searching, you manage to disturb an octopus in its lair, it will likely squirt a blot of black ink at you and swim away while you are trying to clear the water. National Geographic[5] claims that “the ink even contains a substance that dulls a predator’s sense of smell, making the fleeing octopus harder to track.” And luck would have it that they can swim fast. The octopus contracts its mantle and expels a jet of water that propels them forward. This jet propulsion requires a great amount of energy; many octopuses prefer to crawl, slowly transiting from one place to another.


For my 30th birthday, I wanted to go somewhere. So I begged my husband to take me somewhere. I even told him that he could pick the place. I didn’t care where we went as long as we could go together.

We were standing in the kitchen when I suggested Amsterdam, South Africa, Ireland, Greece, Hawaii, Key West, Nashville.

He said, “No, I don’t like to travel.” And walked out of the kitchen.

I followed and replied, “Then I will spend the summer writing in Greece.”

“Sure, whatever,” he said.

Later, very selective in his memories, he tried to claim we never discussed any of this.


While vacationing in the Mediterranean, Ringo Star composed the Beatles’ hit song, “Octopus’s Garden.” In an 1969 interview where he notes Ringo’s occasional boredom while playing the drums, George Harrison comments on the song: “I think it’s a really great song, because on the surface, it’s just like a daft kids’ song, but the lyrics are great. For me, you know, I find very deep meaning in the lyrics, which Ringo probably doesn’t see, but all the things like ‘resting our head on the sea bed’ and ‘We’ll be warm beneath the storm’ which is really great, you know. Because it’s like this level is a storm, and if you get sort of deep in your consciousness, it’s very peaceful. So Ringo’s writing his cosmic songs without noticing.”[6]


There was a gap of 13 years between my very first trip to Greece and my return. The gap was sprinkled with near misses. While planning the wedding my mother gave us a choice: ten thousand dollars for the wedding or ten thousand dollars for a trip to Greece. I was already packing my suitcase when he asked for the wedding.

Instead of a long holiday in Greece, we married in my grandmother’s front yard -- under the sixty year old oak trees, next to the water garden. The same setting for my own parents’ marriage.


…Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches…


Marianne Moore’s long poem “Octopus” turns Mt Rainer into an octopus and a volcano. [7] The beauty of Moore’s poem rests in the intricate collage of quoted passages, catalogs of flora and fauna, non-sequiturs and Olympian Greeks.

Marianne Moore claimed (in correspondence to Ezra Pound): “I have no Greek, unless the love for it may be taken as a knowledge of it.”


My husband and I went to high school together. The first time he noticed me, as he tells it, I walked into homeroom with blue hair. And after we were married, he told me that I came to him in a dream before he knew me. In the dream, I was faceless, but had blue hair-- the blue hair of a mermaid swimming in light.


There are several species of the tiny, but deadly Australian blue ringed octopus. Not typically aggressive, it will only display the blue rings as a warning when threatened.  Its neuromuscular venom, more potent than any poison found in a land animal, contains maculotoxin and tetrodotoxin, which causes paralysis. Symptoms include: nausea, vision loss and blindness, loss of senses, loss of motor skills, respiratory arrest.

While there is no known antidote, a bitten human can be saved with “ongoing heart massage and artificial respiration until the poison dissipates (usually in 24 hours with no ill-effects).” [8]

Its lack of ink sac makes it a dangerous, yet frequent, addition to aquariums.


George Seferis writes in the poem “In the Manner of G.S” that “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me.” And now, after Greece, I’m beginning to understand exactly what he means. I return broken and healed. There, I am a writer who treks through cities for miles in flip-flops (even when advised otherwise); who gets lost and revels in the being lost. I go to the island and drink as much sun as I can sprawled on a rock like a lizard. And I swim for hours.

When I come home from Greece and I’m forced back into the other life, it seems too much. The husband expects too much. The students need me too much. Even the dogs need to play ball for hours because I’ve neglected them in my absence. And everything about home is not Greece. The trees are all wrong, the water is fresh water brown instead of blue, and there are no olives worth eating. The feta is all dried out, and not even my Greek olive oil can save it. In short, it just hurts to be home. And as much as it hurts to be home, it hurts even more to imagine never having had Greece. 


The proposal: I was going through a divey motel phase, wanting to stay in the most rustic of all roadside motels whenever possible. On New Year’s Eve we decided to stay in the Hillsborough Motel. I could ignore the cigarette burns in the comforter and the busted out windows, but when the television would not show Dick Clark or the ball drop, well, it was the line I would not cross.

We left and headed for another motel. Settled in by midnight, some guy proposed on the Dick Clark show and my husband’s response was: “how lame to propose on New Year’s Eve.” He got up, went to the bathroom and came back to bed— my ring on his pinky.

He touched his hand to my cheek, kissed me, and asked if I thought I could wear this ring forever. He designed the ring for me: set in silver, two lizards with turquoise backs, and in the center a small diamond. The inside inscription: All you need is love.

I said yes. I was 21 years old. He was 23.


The mythology of the octopus is strangely lacking. The Polynesians connect them with rocks, perhaps because they hid by making themselves look like rocks or perhaps because they wall themselves up in rocks. The Polynesians tribute the octopus with creating the islands by thrusting rocks up from the sea.

Some think the Medusa myth is octopus related. Think of her snaky hair strangely arm-like. Her stony gaze reminiscent of the octopus’s paralyzing venom. Her dismembered head sort of looks like an octopus.

The Celts, Minoans, and Greeks associated the spiraling motions of the octopus with the opening of consciousness, expanding and ongoing creative process of the universe.


My first writing workshop in Greece began in Athens, where it was hot and the days were packed with seeing as much of the ancient city as possible. However, weeks of semester and relationship exhaustion translated into hours of sleeping on a tiny mattress in the hotel amid the sounds of cars honking and people chattering in Greek. Instead of going out with some of the other writers at night, the first few days, I just crashed. I wasn’t being antisocial, I really wasn’t. I was just tired. And this was beyond normal jet-lag. My whole being felt tired. The broiling sun on the streets of Athens didn’t help. And there was turmoil in the air. The whole atmosphere of the place charged with tension. It was 2011 in the middle of the financial crisis. In fact, in about thirty days, there would be riots and tear gas. Protests in the streets. And it would look much worse on television in the United States.  But for now, I’m tired; so I sleep.


Collected in a children’s book, Ogden Nash has a short poem titled “Octopus”:

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

Playful in its rhymes, the poem captures the curiosity of the creature while highlighting its physical body. Of course, children may miss the erotics here: two bodies intertwined, indistinguishable in their tangle of union.


In 1999, Jennifer Mather of the University of Alberta and researcher of Caribbean reef squid, partnered with Anderson to publish a sensational claim: octopuses play. Their play comes in the form of repeated, deliberate activity that allows them to constantly discern their world and cultivate their skills.


I fell for my husband when he was in the fifth grade. He was a year older and I saw him sitting across a conference table from me in a hockey jersey during a student government meeting. I was in love. It took until high school for him to ask me out. When we married we were young and not wholly formed into our adult selves yet

In hindsight, I’m not sure I would say yes again.

His love for me is stifling. We joke that I loved him first, but he loves me more.


“Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be the characteristics of this creature,” the Roman natural historian Claudius Aelianus[9] wrote at the turn of the third century A.D. Biologists are just beginning to study the intelligence of the octopus.

Curious about those diving to observe, the octopus has been known to examine divers, pulling at their masks and air regulators. Taunted aquarium workers recount stories of octopi that spit in their keepers’ faces, pop locked lids, and create costly floods by dismantling the filters and pumps or blocking drains.

Other stories tell of octopuses caught stealing away from their tanks at night in order to eat all the fish in the other tanks before returning to their confinement. The only evidence: the water trails along the floors and walls. [10]

One such naughty octopus, Otto of the German Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, repeatedly short-circuited the power to the whole aquarium by swinging on the edge of his tank and shooting water at a light bulb. He also juggles hermit crabs.[11]


Our entire marriage can be captured in this snap shot:

Black sectional couch in the corner of the Man Cave positioned exactly opposite the very large television and strategically arranged surround sound speakers. Framed concert posters act as gallery art. Husband stretched out on the right side, remote in hand, flipping between the History Channel and Fox cartoon reruns. Wife reclined on the right side, two small dogs under a blanket in her lap. She reads, sometimes sticking her fingers in her ears to drown out the noise.


When the cohort of writers arrive on the island of Serifos, it is overcast. I know this because even though we were all mesmerized by the blue of the water, the pictures show the clouds that muted the true blue. What we did that first day, I do not remember. But I do remember dinner.

Deep purple tentacles drizzled in Greek olive oil. I was hesitant. I only took one sliver with a bit of the suckers and then passed the plate away. Skeptically, I speared the meat with my fork and slowly, cautiously, placed it in my mouth.  It was tender, yet firm. A solid meat. A taste like the sea and substance. The lingering of the lemon and oil saturating my tongue. I had to have another bite.

And this is how the island opened itself to me and allowed me to open to it, to the Aegean, to my poetry. I felt joy for the first time in months, maybe years. And it surprised me. This bite of octopus was texture and flavor, and a whole combination of things in my mouth that I was wholly unprepared for. It was without a doubt the most beautiful bite of food I’ve ever consumed.

After the octopus[12], I went to the sea with some friends. The air was still warm. We took our clothes off and jumped into the cold June water. I could taste the salt. The moon sang on my skin.


Jonathan Coulton’s breakup song “Octopus Lyrics” refrains: “Some kind of octopus / Tearing my shell apart / Letting the sea get in / You make my insides outside.”


The summer I travelled to Serifos, I contacted my husband 4 times. All out of necessity.

  1. The first Skype call was upon my arrival: Yes, I’m here. Safe and sound. I’m running late to a group orientation, more later.
  2. After a week on the island: Hi, how are the dogs? Are you walking them every day? Are you remembering to throw the ball and play?
  3. Near the end of the month: Did you pay the mortgage?
  4. And the last day: Are you going to pick me up at the airport? And no, I’m not ready to come home.


An octopus has beak-like jaws in the mouth at the center of where the arms meet. This beak can deliver a nasty bite.


Octopuses die quickly after mating. The range of life expectancy is somewhere between six months and five years (for the Giant Pacific Octopus, and that’s under special circumstances). Usually reproduction is a cause of death. The males live only a short time after mating and the females live long enough to care for the eggs before they die. After she lays her eggs, her body will stop growing and she will stop searching for food. A female octopus will eat her own body to protect her eggs and clean the water around them.  Eventually, she will die of starvation watching them. Or, as one study reveals, if after giving birth the momma octopus is blinded (in the name of scientific research and such) so that she can’t see her babies, she’ll go about her business, forget she has eggs to protect, and live a much longer life. She just forgets.


…upon this antique pedestal,
"a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,"
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which "the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,"…


The main evidence in the scientific community suggests that the octopus is a solitary creature.

Cephalopod researcher John Cigliano of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania discovered “California octopuses that were kept together quickly established hierarchies and avoided wasteful, dangerous confrontations; the weaker animals seemed to recognize and yield to the stronger ones, even when the latter were hidden in their dens.”

The dark side of this communication is deception. Some octopuses and cuttlefish are known to demonstrate this hallmark of intelligence. “Male cuttlefish adopt female coloring, patterns, and shape—to mate surreptitiously with females guarded by larger rivals. And the Indonesian mimic octopus fools predators by impersonating poisonous soles and venomous lionfish, sea snakes, and possibly jellyfish and sea anemones.”[13]


When I return from Serifos, in what I can only refer to as post-island depression, I realize that I am not the same. I have outgrown myself. No manner of cramming is going to make me fit back into the crevices of my old life. And I also realize how incredibly unfair this was to the husband I left in Virginia. And yet, I immediately begin saving my money to return the next summer.


We commonly call octopus arms tentacles, but we are wrong. They are arms. Cuttlefish and Squid have tentacles, which usually have suckers only at the tips and are longer than arms.

The octopus can lose an arm if it needs to. If it is attacked by a predator and needs to lose an arm, it can. The arm will regenerate.[14] 


Roland Anderson of the Seattle Aquarium has been studying the sleep patterns of invertebrates. His research suggests that an octopus may sleep deeply. He reports that the “eyes glaze over, their breathing turns slow and shallow, they don't respond to light taps, and a male will let his delicate ligula—the sex organ at the tip of one arm—dangle perilously.”

Stephen Duntley, a sleep specialist at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, has videotaped sleeping cuttlefish who flash in bold colored patterns for 10 to 15 minutes before returning to a still dull brown. Duntley hypothesizes that this activity is similar to human REM sleep, human dream sleep. Often called paradoxical sleep, REM is not fully understood, but is thought to be important to learning. If so, as Duntly argues, do cuttlefish and octopuses dream?[15]

Might an octopus dream of the various shades of the discarded urchin shells? Perhaps the dens of other octopuses? If an octopus can dream, what about emotions? Can she hope for a swell of fishes to swim by or maybe a change in sea currents?


My husband rubs his nipple in his sleep. Slow, deliberate circles above his left nipple.  I tried for years to record it in some way, but he always stops just as I am about to push the red button.

I grind my teeth.

We rarely touch at night when we sleep.


In the October after Serifos and before Thasos, he leaves his wedding band on the bathroom sink and waits for me to notice. When I do, he says it. Divorce. I wait for my own reaction. I should feel happy or sad or relieved or panicked. And honestly, I feel nothing at all.


There are no octopuses in polar waters.


In an attempt to save the marriage, we work on it. Saturdays become date nights. I promise to kiss him every day. He begins coming with me to walk the dogs in the evening. And I let him snuggle with me on the couch when we watch movies. Baby steps: little adjustments that go a long way to repairing the distance. For a while, we seem to be connecting again. It seems like we are on the mend. I make the conscious effort to change behaviors in order to be more accommodating to his needs.


Things that eat octopus: sperm whales, seals, fish, sea bird, humans.


The next summer, I am torn between the desire for writing time and hesitation of what another summer apart will do to the fragile link between us. Still, I pack my bag and leave for Thasos.


Aliki Beach (dare I mention that Aliki is my Greek name) is what those of us in the Thasos workshop like to refer to as Beach 3. It is the most commercial of the three beaches on this part of the island. The sandy shore is lined with tavernas, all advertising various varieties of fishes and other sea deliciousness. Arms of many octopuses hang to dry in the sun. On the beach, there are pairs of lounge chairs with an umbrella tucked carefully under the frames. Just a little ways beyond the road, away from the beach, are the ancient ruins of the Temple of the Dioscuri. Follow the ruins around the left side of the beach to end up in the marble quarry.

Because it has been a year since my Serifos taste of octopus, and I’m so convinced that I’m going to find an octopus, I have willed it to happen on the first day on Thasos.

It is here, on Aliki Beach, that I kill my first animal. And I want the octopus dead because I want to eat her.


There are many ways to kill an octopus.

Most octopus hunters use spear guns to capture them close to shore, although they can get tangled in a fisherman’s net. When you spear an octopus, you have to humanely and quickly kill it. The spear gun is not enough. The octopus will still be alive, wrapping its arms around you.


Despite having the most sophisticated eye among invertebrates, an octopus cannot see color.[16]

An octopus can see light. They have great eyesight and sense of touch. Their suction cups have chemoreceptors that allow an octopus to taste what it is touching. Imagine for a moment that the octopus is wrapped around your arm trying not to die. What do you taste like as you bob in the water with this creature and your weapon? What do you taste like as you kill it?


The first way to kill an octopus is the most barbaric: bite the octopus between its lidded eyes. Feel the muscle crunch of body against your teeth.

Or, bring the octopus into shore. After peeling the octopus from the spear gun, not an easy task as the octopus is suctioned tightly against the weapon, take out your knife and stab it between the eyes.

Both biting and stabbing have the same result. You pierce the nerve center. The brain stops functioning, the octopus skin turns ghost white.

The third, less humane way to kill an octopus is to flip the brain inside out and rip out all the entrails.

Once you’ve killed it, beat it against a rock 40 times, occasionally stopping to rub the octopus into the stone in a wax on/wax off kind of motion. The beating and the rubbing tenderizes the flesh for eating. 


I am at home sitting at my desk writing when he slowly makes his way into my office, poking his head from behind a wall of books. He looks hesitant and unwilling to engage, and yet he needs to talk to me. I am angry. He is hurt. For two weeks we’ve lived in the same house and have not spoken a word to each other.

He wants to rehash the distance between us. I am tired of this conversation.

When I ask my husband why he loves me, he responds “because we are soul mates.” This answer makes me want to vomit, as I do not believe in such garbage. I roll my eyes and ask for a real answer.

Days later he will respond: “I fell in love with your free spirit.”


The octopus is ready when you can pull between the legs and they rip in a straight line. I’m a fan of grilled octopus, because I like the charred taste. But boiling it will lend a softer flesh. Even better, boil it first and then grill it. The result yields the soft flesh and the smoky taste of the grill. The best of both.


When I look at her yellow eyes, I can see that she is investigating me. And I almost lose my nerve. But the way she sucks my arm and tries to cling to me is more than I can take, so whisper the words, please forgive me, and I hurl her as hard as I can against the rock. There is a splat and she slides down the side, not quite dead. When I try to pick her back up, she’s suctioned to the rock and I almost lose her to the sea as she frantically tries to get away. But I win. And I beat her, ruthlessly.

When she’s tenderized, I feel sadness.  I ease the sadness by knowing that she would likely die soon anyway, as it is the end of the season and I would probably discover her white body under boat while snorkeling. But now she will be dinner. And I can claim that I have killed her because I want to eat her, because she is so beautiful.

And she is delicious.


For the rest of the Thasos trip, when I’m not writing, I’m looking for octopus. I find many discarded shells and sea urchins. I find ancient pieces of pottery. I find that I love to snorkel. I even see a huge squid swim past me. But I do not find another octopus. Not until the last day on the island.

And the routine is the same. But this time, I’m not as sad about hurling her against the rock. She is missing part of one arm; a mother who ate her own arm to protect her eggs.

She has given up so much, but it hasn’t been enough.

[1]Marianne Moore’s “Octopus”

[2]The plural of octopus is not octopi. The word is of Greek origin, not Latin. The Greek plural would be octopodes or, to us, octopuses. –Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate  Jennifer Mather, Roland Anderson and James Wood

[3] “Octopus skin yields bright discovery” Katharine Sanderson

[4]“14 Things You Did Not Know about Octopuses” Stefan Anitei

[5]“Common Octopus,”  National Geographic

[6]“Octopus Garden,” The Beatles Bible

[7] “’An Octopus’: Moore and the Greeks” Patricia C. Willis

[8] “Blue-ringed Octopuses” Marinebio

[9] He spoke Greek so perfectly that he was called "honey-tongued" (meliglossos); Roman-born, he preferred Greek authors, and wrote in a slightly archaizing Greek himself.

[10] “Through the Eye of an Octopus” Jennifer Tzar, Eric Scigliano

[11] “Otto the octopus wreaks havoc,” The Telegraph

[12]According to the USDA Nutrient Database (2007), cooked octopus contains approximately 139 calories per three ounce portion, and is a source of vitamin B3, B12, potassium, phosphorus, and selenium.

[13] “Through the Eye of an Octopus,” Jennifer Tzar, Eric Scigliano

[14] “Reproduction Versus Somatic Growth: Hormonal Control in Octopus Vulgaris” R.K. O’Dor and M.J. Wells

[15] “Through the Eye of an Octopus,” Jennifer Tzar, Eric Scigliano

[16] “14 Things You Did Not Know about Octopuses” Stefan Anitei