One Man Band

The hatch cover scraped forward and Mamede’s head came up. He looked even more tired than before his nap. Gripping the coaming with both hands, he knelt in the opening and slowly rolled his head to stretch his neck. Deep—deep yawn, he then reached up to the mast and pulled himself out.

“It’s cold,” he said when standing on deck.
Ze and João murmured in agreement.
“How’s the fishing? I heard you caught something.”
Not waiting for an answer, he peeked into the basket.
“Three fish?” Incredulous. “I thought it was more.”

He returned to the hatch and pulled out two T-shirts. The first one, short-sleeved, he put on over his bare torso. The shirt was brand new and my eyes went right to the bank logo stamped on the breast pocket. The bank’s branch in Beberibe must have recently had a promotion: You give us your money, we give you a cheap shirt. What a novel concept.

The second shirt had long sleeves and wasn’t so new. Mamede stretched it out in front by the arms and flipped the body over his head. Sleeves pulled back, he tied them at the nape of his neck to form what looked like a pirate skullcap. All he needed was an eye patch and a gold earring to complete the image. Like other Portuguese fishermen I had met across the Atlantic, Mamede wasn’t tall but he was built like a concrete bunker. Some people are more elemental than others. Put Mamede on the Periodic Table of Elements and you’d find him right next to iridium.

He looked at me and cracked a smile.
“So, what do you think? Do you want to be a jangadeiro now?”
He was teasing me.
“It’s a good profession—all the fish you can eat. Well . . . most of the time.”
I smiled back, not wanting to say what I was really thinking about: a soft bed in a room that wasn’t tossing and turning.
“I don’t think so, Mamede. I’m too old to start.”
He rolled his eyes and chuckled.

Rummaging through the line basket back at the bench, Mamede picked out three spools and set them on the icebox lid. He then baited the hooks with fish from Ze’s pile (the proeiro normally catches the mestre’s bait), and had three lines in the water in no time at all. With the port side all to himself he could spread out a little. Like Ze, he held a line in each hand out to each side, the third line hung in the middle, hitched to a thigh. With this setup he could instantly tell when any line was hit.

The drill for three lines was the same as for two: drop the inactive line or lines (if the leg line was hit), work the active line. But adding a third line multiplied the effort. More lines out meant more lifting to do, more hooks to check, more tangles to unwind, more bait to prep. More work all the way around, but that was the price you paid to catch more fish.

Mamede seemed up to the task. Like a one man band he played his lines, dancing the deck to the tune of the passing waves. Unlike Ze he didn’t jump up when he got a strike, but crouched instead, pushing down the planks with strong legs and feet while punching the sky with his fist. His jab didn’t go so high, not up to the stars like Ze’s, but high enough to do the job. A classic upper-cut with a hammerhead paw, his swing carried the force to deck any jaw.

Despite all his effort Mamede didn’t catch anything while I watched. It was now half past midnight and well past my bedtime. I was so tired by then, so physically exhausted, I could have easily fallen asleep in my little corner by the tabernacle. But I had some pride left; did not want to be caught napping in front of three older men who were working hard to catch my dinner.

Shame is a great motivator. Sometimes it can even override fear. At that particular moment there was parity between the two. Knowing what was waiting for me below deck — a small dark cave without any air — I had no desire to go down there. The hairs on the back of my neck were still pricking up.

Shame and exhaustion soon prevailed. Reluctantly I rose from my corner (amazing how attached you can get to two pieces of wood) and bid the jangadeiros good night and good luck: “Boa noite e boa sorte.” To this they responded much more pleasantly than I expected — heartily replying “good night” and “rest well,” as if we were a happy little family that just happened to be stuck on a matchbox boat over thirty miles offshore.

Good night Ma mede! — Good night João Boy! — Good night Ze Bob!

Taking both fishing lines in one hand, Mamede made a slashing motion over the deck where he wanted me to go.
“There’s a sail for you to lie on,” he said.
Well . . . he’s even made my bed.
“Thank you, Mamede,” I said, touched by his thoughtfulness, while at the same time anxious that he had chosen to express it so far aft of the hatch (my only escape).

I then reached down to open the hatch. The hardwood cover was much heavier than I expected, lifting up and scraping forward like the stone lid of an Egyptian sarcophagus. (Not the image I needed right then.)  Gazing into the hold the space appeared more shallow than I remembered, and a heck of a lot darker. My claustrophobia was kicking in and I briefly considered returning to my corner by the tabernacle.

My head came up and I saw the three men were looking at me. Mamede’s gaze was open and friendly, while Ze wore his ever-present smile. João — he was leering at me again, a mischievous glint shining in his eyes. Go ahead, his eyes said. This should be fun. Tick—Tick—Tick, the seconds trudged by. Oh, hell with it!  I thought, stepping over the coaming and down onto the hull planking. My kneecaps were now level with the deck.

Without thinking, wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible, I crouched down and curled my body forward, trying to squeeze in under the edge. Too tight!  Scrunching lower, my butt slid to one corner of the opening and my head to the other, hoping to make it work on the diagonal. Close, as they say, but no cigar.  I now shifted over and tried the same thing on the opposite diagonal. But the hole being square and my body symmetrical, it didn’t work on that side either.  Uh-Duh!

The thing about panic — you see things in a tunnel. And the deeper you go, the narrower it gets. Right then my tunnel was a two by two opening.

I straightened up to clear my mind and saw they were all still watching me. But their expressions had changed. Mamede’s face was harder now, with slits for eyes, his mouth set in a scowl. Ze was still smiling, but only in the most strangled, lock-jawed sense of the word. Knowing what I would find there, I didn’t even bother to look at João.

My eyes still on Ze, I raised my palms as if to ask, how do you get in here?  We were about the same height and he had to have a trick. Realizing he could help, his smile perked up again.

He grabbed the post beside him and started to squat down, sliding one of his legs out in front. Still blinded by my tunnel, I didn’t understand what he was trying to do. I shook my head and he did it again, this time patting his bending leg to indicate it should also slide forward.

Got it! Got it! Sit-sit-sit!  I nodded briskly and gave him two thumbs up. Now I could get in.

Just because you have the keys to the palace doesn’t mean you should enter. Sometimes the palace is a prison.

Next chapter: Call Me Jonah