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Fighting octopuses - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Once in the sea Ichthyander forced himself to forget all the misfortunes that had befallen him on land. After the hot and dusty land the cool water was all the more refreshing and soothing. The shooting pains ceased. His breathing was once again deep and even. What he wanted now was to relax and forget.

But Ichthyander had an active disposition. Idleness could not help him to forget. He tried to think of something to do. On dark nights he was fond of diving from a high cliff, deep enough to touch the bottom. But it was just past midday and above his head black bottoms of fishing boats were tracing their courses in the water.

“I know what I’ll do. I’ll put the cave in order,” Ichthyander told himself.

In the sheer wall of a cliff in the gulf there was a cave with a finely arched entrance, giving a grandstand view of the submarine plain gently sloping into the ocean depths. For long Ichthyander had had an admiring eye for the spot. But to settle in it he had first to oust its lawful occupants-numerous families of octopuses.

Armed with his long slightly curved knife Ichthyander swam up to the cave and stopped at the mouth, not daring to enter. Then he thought he would tease the enemy into the open. From his previous visits he remembered seeing a long harpoon lying near a capsized boat close by. Finding it he took up his position at the cave-mouth and began poking about in it. The octopuses came to life, indignant at the intrusion. Tentacles crept into view in the archway. Gingerly they approached the harpoon but Ichthyander snatched it away before they could get a good hold on it. The play went on for a few minutes, until dozens of tentacles were writhing and swaying like a snaky-headed Gorgon in the archway. At last an enormous old octopus whose patience had snapped decided to teach the cheeky intruder a lesson. It squeezed itself outside and moving its tentacles in a threatening way and changing its colour slowly bore down upon the enemy. Ichthyander swam to the side, dropped his harpoon and braced himself for battle. He knew full well from experience that man with his two arms stands little chance in fighting an octopus with its eight long powerful tentacles unless he goes straight for its body. So he let the octopus come quite near, then suddenly lunged forward, into the very centre of the tangle of tentacles, close to the mollusc’s parrot-like be

This always catches an octopus unawares. And as always it took this octopus no less than four seconds to bring the tips of its tentacles in. But by that time Ichthyander had already, in a single swift unerring movement, slashed the beast’s body in two, severing its motor nerves. And the huge tentacles, already all round him, went limp and dropped down.

“That’s one.”

He picked up his harpoon again. This time two octopuses swam out, one of them coming straight to tackle Ichthyander while the other tried to outflank him and attack him from the rear. Things were taking a more dangerous turn. Undaunted, however, Ichthyander attacked the octopus in front of him but before he was through with it the other one had a tentacle round his neck. The young man swiftly cut it off at his very neck, turned round and started to hack off the other tentacles. When, at last, the mutilated octopus was dropping slowly to the bottom Ichthyander returned to the first and finished it off.

“Three,” Ichthyander counted.

But now he had to beat a temporary retreat. A whole troop of octopuses had emerged from the cave-mouth, barely visible in the blood-stained water. In that brown murky haze the odds would be heavy against him, for the enemy could easily find him by touch. He swam a little way off, to the clear water, and killed there a fourth octopus which had unwisely ventured outside the bloody cloud.

The battle lasted on and off for several hours.

When finally the last octopus had been killed and the water had cleared Ichthyander saw numerous dead bodies and severed tentacles still writhing all round him. He then entered the cave. A few small octopuses were still there-the size of a fist, with tentacles no thicker than his finger. Ichthyander wanted to kill them off but then felt sorry for them. Ill try and tame them, he thought. Couldn’t find better guards for the place.

The question of guarding the place settled, Ichthyander went over to fixing up his new abode with some furniture. From his cottage he fetched a marble-topped table with four sturdy iron legs and two Chinese vases. He placed the table in the middle of the cave, put the vases on it, filled them with earth and planted some marine flowers. Some of the earth was washed away and writhed up in two columns of smoke for some time, then the water cleared. Only the flowers went on swaying slightly as if stirred by a gentle breeze.

There was a ledge in one of the walls, a sort of natural stone bench. The new master of the cave stretched himself out on it and looked with approval at the result of his labours. Under water the stone bench felt quite soft.

It was a strange submarine room with a table and two Chinese vases on it. Numerous curious fish came to attend the queer housewarming. They darted in and out between the table legs, swam to the flowers in the vases as if for an appreciative sniff and even whisked between Ichthyander’s head and the arm on which it rested. A marble bullhead looked in at the entrance, waved its tail in puzzled alarm and swam off. A large crab crawled in across the white sand, raised and lowered a pincer as if saluting the master of the house and settled down under the table.

Ichthyander was finding it all great fun. As he lay there he thought of more things to beautify his new home with. “Out at the entrance I’ll plant the most beautiful marine flowers there are. I’ll strew the floor with pearls and place shells at the foot of the walls. If only Gutierrez could see my submarine room. But she’s deceiving me. Or is she? After all she wanted to tell me something about Olsen but had no chance to.” Ichthyander frowned.

Then the stillness of the place began to crowd in on him. He felt alone again. Why can’t people live underwater like me? he thought. I wish Father had come back. I’ll ask him.

He wanted to show his new home to somebody. Anybody. Suddenly he remembered Leading. Good old Leading!

Ichthyander took up his winding shell, surfaced and blew through it. Soon he could hear the familiar snorting.

When the dolphin had joined him, Ichthyander embraced his friend.

“Come with me, Leading,” he said, “I’ll show you my new home. And you’ve never before seen a table or a Chinese vase.” Then, ordering the dolphin to follow him, he dived down.

But the dolphin turned out to be a troublesome guest. Big and awkward, it raised such a commotion in the cave that the vases tottered and all but fell down. Then it managed to brush a leg of the table with its nose, overturning the table and sending the vases to the floor. On land that would have been the end of them, here nothing had happened, save for the frightened crab, which scurried

out sidewise with an amazing speed.

“How awkward you are,” Ichthyander said as he pushed the table to the back of the cave and picked up the vases.

Then he went to the dolphin’s side and put both his arms round him.

“Stay with me here, Leading,” he said.

But soon the dolphin began shaking its head and showing other signs of unrest. It could not stay underwater for long spells. It needed air. So with one powerful thrust of its fins the dolphin swam outside and up to the surface.

Even Leading can’t live with me underwater, Ichthyander thought sadly, alone again. Only fish, but they are shy and silly.

And he sank back on his stone couch. The sun had set; it was dark in the cave. The water in it rose and fell a little with a soothing effect.

Soon, tired with the day’s excitement and work, Ichthyander was lulled to sleep.

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