Song about a Squid
An Excerpt from Preparing the Ghost
So why the giant squid, after all? How did this particular beast become the basis for our Kraken? Why is it that when we think of the proverbial Sea Monster, the image most of us generate is one that most closely resembles the giant squid? Why is this animal the recipient of our need to mythologize? The giant squid is real, yet somehow remains, simultaneously, in the realm of myth. What combinatory cocktail does the giant squid embody that allows it, to the human world, to straddle both worlds: the actual and the legendary? Maybe it’s merely a fusion of its size and its rarity.
It’s big, of course, but studies show that the giant squid population is fairly widespread, and they have been sighted in all of our oceans. They are rare only in polar and tropical latitudes.
The Knysna African Elephant, by comparison, is both much bigger, and much more rare. It weighs nearly 22 times more than the giant squid, and according to studies conducted by SanParks, a collection of wildlife scientists working for South Africa National Parks, there is no evidence that more than one—one—Knysna elephant still exists today (In 1874, the year Moses Harvey found and photographed his giant squid, there were about 500 Knysna elephants in existence; by 1901, the year Moses Harvey died, the Knysna elephant population had already dwindled to about 30, due to decimation by woodcutters and hunters; their numbers dwindled to 9 by 1976, the year I was born, and to 3 by 1986, the year Poppa Dave died).
Still, the Knysna elephant does not serve as the blueprint for any of our mythological creatures. There must be another factor besides size and rarity. Perhaps the ocean has something to do with it: size, rarity, ocean. Is that the cocktail? Do we have to incorporate the element of the sea, the bulk of the Earth of which we’re not a part?
But still: in our oceans, there are creatures bigger and rarer. The ocean sunfish, or mola mola (Latin for millstone millstone—so named for its grayish stony flesh, repeated perhaps due to its surprising size), can weigh up to six times as much as a fully-grown giant squid, and are less widespread.
Blue whales are far more endangered (Dr. Jay Barlow of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the swaggering mission statement of which claims, “Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor,” estimates that there are little more than 10,000 blue whales left, worldwide), and are approximately 2.5 times longer than the giant squid and 656 times heavier.
Even the oarfish is longer than the giant squid by about 13 feet, and human sightings of this live fish are so few that our knowledge of their distribution depends on records of those washed ashore, dead. In fact, the first confirmed sighting of the oarfish alive and swimming at depth occurred as recently as July 2008. At least the Japanese mythologize the oarfish, though, believing it to be the messenger from Ryūjin’s, the dragon sea god’s, undersea palace of Ryūgū-jō, and the harbinger of earthquakes. It is said that one day within the palace walls is the equivalent of a human century. In Ryūgū-jō, Moses Harvey first photographed the giant squid the day before yesterday.
Oarfish, sunfish, blue whale, elephant. All of them should have the giant squid beat. Do we feel compelled to mythologize the beast for the same reasons I feel compelled to mythologize my Poppa Dave, who never should have lived beyond infancy, but grew to live through the Army, and a life as a Dixieland jazz saxophonist, and a marriage to a woman who would later, as my grandmother, dye her hair orange, and reported affiliations with the Jewish mafia and a penchant for flamboyant clothes like pink and yellow plaid pants and red alligator shoes and white fedoras with brown feathers coming out of them and flamboyant cars like his infamous Gucci Cadillac—painted white with gold-plated hubcaps and plush Gucci upholstery papering the outer roof and inner seats—which allowed him, he always bragged, the A-OK hand-sign from a cadre of New York City pimps whenever he and Grandma Ruth stopped at a traffic light and which, after Poppa Dave died in 1986, my dad sold to a Long Island dentist for $200?
In 1916, the year Poppa Dave was born, the mortality rate for all infants born prematurely was 21.2. Given that Poppa Dave was born way, way prematurely, that rate was quadrupled. Out of 100 infants born under the same circumstances as Poppa Dave was, about 85 would have died within the first few days of life outside the womb. In 1916, there were approximately 438,000 premature births reported in the U.S. If all of them matched Poppa Dave’s eagerness and earlyhood, that means 372,300 dead babies. If all of these babies were, as Poppa Dave was, diagnosed with Extremely Low Birth Weight (ELBW), which means less than two pounds, three ounces, then the weight of all of those 372,300 ELBW babies who didn’t make it would equal that of 1,220 giant squid, 203 sunfish, 55 Knysna elephants, or 1.86 blue whales. All of those human deaths. One complete blue whale.
Mythology as cloak, and winter jacket, as blanket, as salve, as handkerchief at Poppa Dave’s funeral where I, ten years old, threw in a single and ceremonial shovelful of earth into his open grave, where it thudded and echoed on the surface of his coffin, scattered into such small sand over its sides. My cousins followed suit. Then my uncle. Then my dad. I remember no flies. Afterwards, in the funeral home, smoked salmon and small Jewish sweets, I watched out the window as a bulldozer, driven by a man in a sleeveless shirt, finished the job in under a second. One human shovelful of dirt into a grandfather’s grave is to the weight of a 1916 ELBW baby, as the bulldozer’s capacity is to the weight of the giant squid.
Until ’86, though, prematurely-born Poppa Dave beat the evolutionary odds and natural selection process to produce my dad, who also should never have been born, who grew to produce me, who also should never have... and who grew to boyhood to sit on his Poppa’s lap and lay on his Poppa’s chest on that screened-in porch of the Palm Springs Phase II Margate, Florida retirement condo, as Poppa Dave peeled off his undershirt, shook the boy off, turned his back and asked the rapt seven-year-old, “Did I ever tell you how I got this scar?”
I remember examining the puffed circle of pinkish-brown on Poppa Dave’s lower back, just to the left of his spine. It hung there the size of a nickel.
“You can touch it,” he said, and I was relieved. He knew me. He knew I wanted to touch it. It was warm and smooth and smelled of cigar tobacco and musk aftershave. Or maybe that was his breath, his neck, his triple-chin rough with stubble.
While it was still under my finger, he said, “I was swimming in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan, and one of those big squids got me. Wrapped its tentacles right around me. But you know how I can float [and I did: backfloating and reading, backfloating and reading in so many public pools]. So it only got one sucker on me, right there,” he said, putting his hand over mine, which was over his scar, “before I floated away... Ask your grandma. She was there too.”
And my grandma rolled her eyes and said something about his smoking too many cigars.
And my little sister told me that Poppa Dave told her that the scar was a result of a rhinoceros attack in Africa.
And Poppa Dave told me stories of huge octopi that would suck sailors into their mouths where they would live like marbles on octopus tonsils for the rest of their days, forming culture and colony inside the great beast.
“They built bakeries in there,” he would say, “and roads.”
I would have delicious nightmares and, the next night, ask for more. And the next night, he might tell me that he got the scar while escaping from such a monster, that its suction cup sucked out a bit of his marrow, and even a knuckle of bone from his spine. And he would tell me that I inherited my own bad back, my own malformed spine, my own spina bifida occulta from him; that, this affliction stemmed not from the drugs my father abused while conceiving me, but from some microscopic amniotic version of a giant squid that grew inside of him after the attack, replacing the excised marrow, which he then passed on to my father, which was then passed on to me, and which I will, he stressed with dejected eyes, pass on to my own male children. As a child, I imagined such a thing swimming with my fetal self inside my mother’s womb, telling me secrets, acting the bad influence.
And I wish, in the days leading to his death, I reminded him of this story, but I just closed myself off in my bedroom, a collection of states away, and read and reread The Amazing Spiderman #129: the first appearance of The Punisher, one of my all-time faves.
Grandma Ruth, then-pre-Alzheimer’s, told me that Poppa Dave received the scar after being shot in the back by German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
And I wonder if, when facedown in the forests of the Ardennes Mountains, he confused the soil there with the floor of the Brooklyn tenement of his childhood, if he expected Dorothy, his mother, to approach fat-armed and force-feed him.
He was counted among the 88,000 US casualties during that battle and was unable to walk for months afterward, was told by Army doctors that he’d never walk again, but he did that too, beat the odds, became strong enough to break the ribs of my grandma while hugging her after returning home from the war, and strong enough to hold a saxophone again, the same one he played when he wrote a song about a squid and wooed the girl who was to become my grandmother, who was to become the one to tell me the truth behind the myth, just before losing herself to the ocean of a deteriorating brain.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, three books of poetry and two chapbooks. His essay collection/cookbook, tentatively-titled The Food You Require is Heavier: 50 States, 50 Essays, 50 Recipes, is forthcoming in 2016 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.