Big Fish, Little Fish

by Italo Calvino

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The boy Zefferino is completely at home in the ocean, moving effortlessly through it and relishing the beautiful denizens that he hunts and destroys. Speargun in hand, he trails a bream underwater and discovers an enclosed pond. Here he finds not only beautiful fish but also Signorina de Magistris, a fat woman wearing a bathing suit, who sits weeping on a rock. Zefferino’s reactions are a mixture of sympathy and confusion: The sight of a woman crying saddens him, but he is unable to understand how the beautiful location, crammed with such a variety of beautiful fish, can fail to please her. Although she tells Zefferino that she weeps because she is unlucky in love, she knows Zefferino is too young to understand.

Zefferino first attempts to soothe his melancholy companion by inviting the woman to sample the pleasure of swimming underwater with his mask; when she proves incapable of enjoying this because of her tears, Zefferino switches tactics, hoping that the beautiful fish he catches will amuse her. He first catches a large silver and black bass and places it in a small, natural basin; but Signorina de Magistris is not pleased. Unhappy herself, she sees only the numerous tiny holes in its silver body made by sea lice.

With each new fish Zefferino hauls out of the sea, Signorina de Magistris detects the same indications of suffering and misery. What the inexperienced boy accepts as an inlet of unimaginable wonders, the heartbroken woman perceives as a “marine lazaretto, an arena of desperate duels.”

After having caught or killed a gilthead, a bogue, and several other fish, Zefferino captures a big octopus. Reluctant to abandon his treasure in the small basin they find for it, Zefferino nevertheless swims off in the hope of catching the whole octopus family, while Signorina de Magistris stays and quietly observes the living octopus. While she absentmindedly caresses its coils, the octopus winds around her arm, seizing her, and she begins to scream.

Having ranged too far from Signorina de Magistris to come to her aid, Zefferino can only turn and observe that the octopus seems to be stretching out another tentacle to strangle her. Zefferino’s father, who has wandered over in search of his son, easily dispatches the octopus with his knife as Signorina de Magistris faints. Zefferino’s father has already cut the octopus into pieces when the woman awakens. Although Zefferino studies her features to determine whether she will begin to cry again, she appears able to suppress the overflow of her grief as Zefferino’s father carefully explains to her the secret of a good octopus fry.

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