Where We Left the Octopus
19 Sep, 2012 - Joshua Mackin
What particularly struck us, as we scanned the Lonely Planet travel guide for things to do in Croatia, was the fact that you may ask the monk precisely one question, to which he will answer or not answer; or respond to with a question; or not respond at all.
It should be said right off the bat that Sviječ had gained some small notoriety over the years for his exploits. (And, oddly enough, for a well-received chapbook of poetry in the Croatian press, which was subsequently translated into English by the National Geographic writer and ethnic Croat Paul Kvinta, and furthermore reviewed favorably in The New Yorker.) Enough notoriety, that is, to earn him a mention in what is surely the quirkiest entry in the Croatian Lonely Planet. His epigrammatic responses and obscure mystic replies—as well as his habit of keeping court and charging high prices for visitations—have led many to wonder if he is not part-and-parcel a practitioner of some elaborate performance art. Perhaps a kind of strange Croatian Catholic satirist thumbing his nose at the West’s perennial obsession with amorphous spirituality and sages-on-mountaintops and making a mockery of our hunger for long beards and Zen-like simplicity, our craving for pronouncements as austere and unfathomable as the open sky of Idaho. (If not an out-and-out fraudster.) Either way, the monastery seems not to care, reaping the benefit to the tune of 1.7 million kuna a year. And either way—or rather, because the possibility of either way existed—we knew we had to see him.
“Besides, what else are we going to do?” my wife said to me, clipping her nails straight onto the hotel room floor in Split.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Swim? Eat? Whatever it is tourists do.”
“Stop dragging your feet,” she told me. “This man is a spectacle from the looks of it. We’ve been married three years. We’re not going to learn anything new sitting around in a hotel room.”
It was two o’clock. We were both still in our underwear. I watched the nails falling.
“Think about it,” she said, looking at me.
I watched her in her underwear clipping her nails.
“You’re right,” I said.
So we were on a journey to see a monk, for reasons which were altogether ambiguous, even to ourselves.
In the midst of his linen robes, Sviječ sits from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (excluding holidays, both religious and bank), praying for the health of the world. For 125 kuna, the guidebook said, he may be persuaded to defer this religious duty and receive visitors bearing tendered bills in an obscure antechamber in the farthest left-hand corner of the monastery grounds. Religion being what it is in a continent of ever-emptying churches, few guests may be presumed to arrive seeking specifically Christian instruction. And yet they stream to him anyway—creedless and irreligious, dabbed in sunscreen and smelling of lavender, the oil of which may be purchased at the many roadside stands flecking the dusty switchbacks of the island.
“A cynic,” my wife said with some satisfaction. “A cancer!”
“No better than a war profiteer,” I said, trying to catch the spirit. “A feaster upon flesh!”
But because motives are difficult to judge from afar, we paid the ferry fee to see for ourselves.
We took the morning crossing with glee, resounding like a bell—the sea breeze and salt spray, catamarans and suntans, every European brow and ancient gull-galled lighthouse striking our city-parched souls with the force of bronze clappers. The slough of a troubled Continent was spat upon the decks with us—Spanish youths, no doubt unemployed, blazoned in red and yellow; a clutch of olive Greeks, eyes askance and mistrusting; untroubled Italians, immediately shirtless and well oiled; Germans, so pristine they seemed indifferent to anything at all—and, to one side, a ring of hip Londoners clung also to the railings, fleeing the Games, unsure of where they belonged but intoxicated nonetheless. Despite a certain smell of destruction lingering stubbornly like ash from distant fires, we judged the collective mood to be upbeat, even celebratory. The detritus made us giddy, awash in crooked possibilities. We felt open to every winding eventuality like the passing sails on the starboard side. Damn the euro! More sun! Split the very ocean in half around our bow!
Only the Greeks were suspicious enough of the free bottles of water distributed by the crew—“for the heat wave,” they said—to refuse them.
We disembarked on the island of Hvar, an ancient fixture of dolomite and limestone bearing the travails of humanity for well over five thousand years, adhered to the mainland under a mile of water in the depths of the Adriatic Sea. By hired taxi, we made our way to the village of Sućuraj, as picturesque a place as can be imagined (according to the guidebook), where the marina disgorges fishing boats every morning and welcomes them back every evening; and the hills, lined with the grasping hands of fig and olive, encircle homes and streets hewn from white stone millennia ago; and the church bells mark the hours of the day as punctually as the tinkling of wine glasses and espresso saucers.
“To the monastery?” the driver asked automatically in broken English.
“To the monastery,” we said.
In the midst of Sućuraj the Franciscan monastery looms, the oldest building in a town of old buildings, and in the midst of the monastery we paid our 250 kuna to see the monk named Sviječ, still feeling pretty ambiguous about the whole thing.
My wife and I went to him in his chamber on a Monday, noting the incense that clouded our vision, the many mystic candles burning, the excruciating two-hour wait in a line sandwiched between a woman wearing parachute pants from Bali and a shirtless man with dreadlocks wearing a string of Buddhist prayer beads slung wide around his neck.
The woman was excited, trying to make eye contact with everyone around her in an obvious ploy to initiate conversation. We observed this seconds too late.
“The aura of this place is good. Can you feel it?” She smiled broadly, revealing a row of clean, well-kept teeth. There was a smudge of North Carolina clay in the ends of her sentences.
“No,” we replied, “but we are open to feeling it.”
“Oh good!” she said, clapping her hands. “Openness is good, you know. Without openness we are like blind eyes. The divine passes us right by.” She made a little whooshing noise as she waved her hands.
“We’re from New York,” we said.
“Oh, I love New York,” she said, not a drop of makeup disguising her face. “There’s so much there. To do and see. To experience.”
“That’s what we’re trying to have,” my wife said conspiratorially. “An experience.”
“It’s our third anniversary,” I said.
“Love! Just another name for God, you know. For each other. Sometimes I feel that one word could swallow me whole.” She closed her eyes, apparently imagining her own cannibalization. “Infinite bliss, all the way down.”
We shifted our feet. “That’s very beautiful.”
Eyes still closed, she said, “Thank you.”
And then, upon opening her eyes, “I’m Janet.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Janet.”
Her voice intensified. “You know, don’t you think it’s funny that we met like this? In a line? In Croatia? You probably don’t even know your neighbors back home, in New York. All those cold apartments and empty stairwells. Everybody rushing around. Nobody ever looking at anybody else except to judge them. And yet here we are, chatting it up, perfect strangers! And don’t you just feel it? The divine in me opening to the divine in you. And we’re finding ourselves when we do it—our true selves—saying yes to each other, yes to you, yes to me, yes—” She cast her outward palm in an arc before her face “—to all of this. That’s the important thing—to keep saying yes.”
“Keep saying yes,” my wife repeated, looking at me sidelong. “I like that.”
“It sounds like you’ve got things figured out,” I said.
“Oh goodness no!” she laughed. “It’s the journey. You never arrive, not really. I’m trying to find Him—Her, It—wherever He—She, It—can be found. Further up and further in, as they say! Divinity’s under every rock, every tree. I am trying to learn, to slowly learn, that every place is holy ground.”
She closed her eyes again. The dreadlocked man, silent, nodded in agreement behind us.
“Sviječ,” she said at last, “has it. The aura. The divine finger.”
“We read about him in the Lonely Planet,” we said, sheepishly.
“Mysterious ways,” Janet said, and loosened the bandanna that held up her hair.
At last my wife and I were ushered in. The chamber was appropriately dark, sunlight penetrating the gloom from only one oval window, just above the door, so the shaft made a little solitary circle of light on the ground. We stood in the light and gazed through geological layers of burning myrrh, stilled by the golden eyes of a dozen joss sticks burning before an icon of Christ on the cross. With his back to us, kneeling before the icon, a monk in robes was chanting a low, sad song. Five words, each one ascending in tone, then repeated. The breath of his lungs caused a trio of candles to flicker on the altar before him. And behind this monk, seated in the center of the room where the darkness was most pervasive, Sviječ gestured to us through the haze.
He was younger than we expected, a little bloated, with a stark widow’s peak visible even from across the chamber as his defining feature. His hair was cut close, just a touch longer than his Buddhist counterparts. Nothing could be read on his face except pleasant self-forgetfulness, like a child at play alone and unwatched in the house of his birth.
We had the feeling of being incidental and petty and we suddenly regretted our coming, but he beckoned to us anyway.
“Engleski?” he asked, once we were close.
His English was marble-mouthed, his syllables lead-soled in Slavic shoes. “Are you open to hearing the word of God?”
“We are open to many things,” my wife said.
“It’s our anniversary,” I said.
Sviječ nodded, but it was a practiced nod, too solemn, too world-weary. We noticed the stitches and hems of his robe, how they seemed artificially aged, how they seemed a little too worn, like the costumes in a movie. And his rings! Where does a monk get gold rings?
But something about his eyes made us stop just short of allowing ourselves the vulgar pleasure of clandestine mockery.
“And are you open to the holy presence in every manifestation, even the ones you do not expect?”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said.
“We’re not even sure why we came here,” my wife said.
He bowed his head a little, as though in respect and deference, but to what we could not discern. We stood there feeling uncomfortable and a little thick-headed from the incense and unable to decide if he could be written off or not. Seeing him, we realized, clarified nothing. If anything, it made things more confusing.
“We should go,” my wife whispered to me as discreetly as possible.
“This was a terrible idea,” I hissed between smiles at Sviječ.
“We should go,” she repeated, her voice a little bit higher.
Sviječ shifted his robes in his chair. “And what about your question for me?” he said, indulging his mouth in a small upward twitch. “Don’t you have a question for me?”
My wife and I looked at each other.
“Not really, no,” she said miserably.
“But you say you are open to hearing the word of God?”
“We are open to many things,” I repeated. “We don’t like to limit our possibilities.”
“For example,” my wife continued, “we are open to the possibility that you could be who you say you are. That you are a saint.” We exchanged a glance, she sighed, and I knew she was taking the plunge. She was stubborn and brave and I loved her for that. I also hated her for that.
She was looking him in the eye. “Mostly we are open to the possibility that you are a charlatan.”
“It’s our anniversary,” I said again, stupidly, trying to cover her indiscretion.
And then, because it was true: “We have lost touch with each other.”
And then, because once you start telling the truth it’s hard to stop: “We are trying to find ourselves and we’re not doing a very good job of it.”
The expression on my wife’s face was hard to read. I thought for a moment she hadn’t heard what I said, but the slight opening of her eyes and a sudden wetness there betrayed her. A moment. The breath of a moment. Then she turned back to the monk.
“But mostly we are open to the possibility that you are a charlatan,” she said.
He looked at us a long time. Any emotion at all was difficult to register. His eyes remained placid. At first we thought he was angry in that place beyond anger, where the blood chills to a perfect hatred. It was true that in the cloying perfume something had changed. But it wasn’t anger, we realized. A new regard was in his eyes, as though seeing a familiar face suddenly materialize in an unfamiliar crowd. There was something appraising in the gaze, a sense of being weighed upon the scales. The other monk repeated his five rising tones innumerable times in the interval. No one was saying anything at all.
At last Sviječ held up one finger.
“You have never killed before,” he said, a statement of fact. “Bring me the corpse of an octopus. One you have killed with your own hands. You will find yourself in this act of bloodshed.”
And he motioned us out the door.
Later, in the monastery courtyard, we laughed off his bizarre imperative.
“A charlatan,” my wife said. “And not even a very good one.”
“Too heavy,” I said, “for your average reader of Eat, Pray, Love.”
“Too concrete,” she agreed. “Besides, whoever heard of a church that doesn’t use censures?”
We never mentioned any of the other stuff.
But a strange thing happened as we snorkeled that week in the clear waters of the Adriatic. Every day brought a partial sighting, the merest hint of a sucker-bearing arm disappearing into a crevice, perhaps nothing more than a trick of the imagination. We laughed it off. We told ourselves it was important to scramble along the bottom collecting abalone and bachelor’s buttons for an art project, nothing more. Overturning rocks and poking sticks into holes was simply a matter of scaring up reluctant fish. Digging about in the weeds was a gambit for rustling out hidden crustaceans. Our intentions, we assured ourselves, were sufficiently small in scope to exclude any presumption of cephalopod.
But behind our feigned innocence we knew the truth. Every half-seen octopus pricked at our gray matter, niggling deep into the wrinkles of our cranial folds. We heard his pronouncement at night as we lay trying to sleep in a heat wave. Flashes of violence invaded our fitful dreams—knife blades winking silver like fish in the sun; murderous faces smeared into ambiguity, like jam on bread; menacing, wriggling tentacles stretching across our gasping mouths; heads, corpuscular and fleshy, churning in deathly pirouettes in the deep. Daylight brought no relief. The curling fingers of grapevines on the terrace at lunch became squid-like in our periphery, the splash of red wine in the bottom of a glass indistinguishable from a burst of dark ink.
By Thursday, after the fourth spotting, with a shrug of her shoulders, my wife voiced our defeat.
“Should we do it? Should we give it a try?”
“Of course not,” I said.
We gave it a try.
Armed with a mesh laundry bag, we dove into the depths. Beneath the sun-warmed surface, where the blues edged a first touch toward black, our eardrums quivered with pressure. Searching among the rocks pained us. Hidden urchins left their marks in our flesh. Sea water occasionally, perniciously seeped into our masks and consequently into our eyes. We saw the bottom through a double screen of liquid, blurring every line into an abstraction. Our fingers ached with cold in the deeper currents and our lungs burned.
“Here’s to finding ourselves,” my wife said at the surface, plucking an urchin spindle from beneath her fingernail.
“Happy anniversary,” I said, and wept salt from my carmine eyes.
We dove. The world narrowed into patches of sand and rock. All sound receded and then fled. We dove and dove.
Midday, and the creature was in my hands. I plucked him from the bottom in a snarling ball around my fist, limbs an inch in diameter, deceptively strong. He came up with me as easily as if he were on a platter, a meal with no garnish to cling to except my forearms. The tubular siphon beneath his head heaved and ink trailed us like smoke in the water. His yellow eyes were substantial, weighty—intelligence was at work behind those pupils, something beyond dumb instinct. He was holding me as much as I was holding him.
In the open air, he seemed enraged. Writhing his tentacles beneath my grasp, swelling and contracting like an iron bellows, the octopus made steady headway up my arm, peeling his suckered limbs uncomfortably close to my neck and face with every contortion. One-handed, I flailed for the shore. My wife appeared, grasped a tendril, was in turn grasped by two, the three of us abruptly linked into one messy knot, each bearing the other in strange intimacy across the sea to land. By the time we reached shore, the creature had made its way to my back while still clutching her stomach, conjoining our bodies in the facsimile of a couple spooning.
“We need to kill him and fast,” my wife said, unpeeling one row of suckers only to be adhered to by another.
“Wow,” I said, marveling at the serpentine way each limb curled in on itself. “Wow.”
“Shut up and kill it,” she said, remarkably calm. “Kill it, kill it, kill it.”
All up and down the beach we went, the three of us wound together at odd angles, the octopus impossible to keep fastened to one spot. We plucked his limbs from our arms, our chests, our necks. They kept coming as though multiplying, implacable, fierce. He slithered from my right forearm to my left, up my wife’s shoulders and down her back. It was like having sentient gum in your hair. The yellow eyes glowed without compromise.
And then it was over. Seizing an opportune moment the octopus released us both, springing onto the beach and out of our hands like a Houdini. He crawled swiftly on unfurling limbs toward the ocean, thought better of it with my wife in the way, then dashed perpendicular to the waves toward the discarded laundry bag and pulled it over his speckled bulk to crawl inside. He remained still within the mesh, presumably hoping for one final bit of desperate camouflage, or perhaps mercy. But we both knew it was over. Out of the water, outnumbered, out of breath. Fighting had availed him nothing. The yellow eyes watched in defeat from between the mesh. Wretched, not exactly cowering, but pathetic nonetheless.
“I am open to the possibility of killing you,” I said to the octopus. But I wasn’t really sure I was, or if I was supposed to be.
My wife reached out. “Does he really think himself protected? Covered in a sack stitched out of holes?”
The yellow eyes were open as wide as they could go. His piteousness took our breath away.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think he does.”
My wife reached out to me.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think so either.”
Reflected in those inclusive orbs, we saw what the yellow eyes saw—all possibilities, and how each ended the same.
My wife reached out to me and I held her hand.
The thing continued to watch, each of his three hearts pumping a diminishing amount of oxygen through his extremities, each sucker tasting the bitter grit of sand and faded detergent, each gill heaving with fear and exhaustion on either side of his upper mantle.
Killing this creature was not a new experience I wanted. We left the monk in his monastery. We left the octopus in the sea.