Call Me Jonah

Facing aft, I grabbed the top of the coaming like parallel bars and dipped myself down, sliding my legs forward while dropping my butt. Even then it was a tight fit, with the top of my thighs scraping the bottom edge of the opening. When my tail finally touched down I was bent ninety degrees at the hips with my head slightly higher than the top of the lip.

My eyes were now only inches above the deck, which itself was only inches above the ocean. From this new perspective — rising and falling, twisting and rolling, here a yank, there a yank, everywhere a yank-yank — I felt like I was on a new theme ride at Disneyland. While Artisanal Fishermen of North-eastern Brazil wasn’t as catchy as Pirates of the Caribbean, the characters looked awfully similar.

It didn’t help when I lowered my head to see where I was going. The faint light from the deck lamp showed how small the hold was, with transverse frames running back at regular intervals like the ribs of a large sea mammal. I would soon be playing the main part in a biblical fable and, confirmed doubter that I am, the irony did not escape me.

In a moment of panic my head shot up. Guess who was still watching me?
Is there no privacy on this damn raft!  I gave them my best bullshit smile while thinking, I hope you don’t mind the smell of fear and vomit when you come down to sleep. Thankfully unable to read my thoughts, they all smiled back.

There was no getting around it — I could not procrastinate any longer. (And I so hate reaching that point!)  I scooted my butt forward like a centipede. When my chest hit the coaming wall I leaned back and tilted my head sideways to fit into the opening. I was in but nowhere near my “bed.”  And the damn hatch cover was still open.

The heavy lid didn’t budge an inch when I reached up to close it. For seconds I tried, grunting and groaning, thinking I’d discovered a great new ab exercise, when suddenly the cover ran back on its own and slammed shut. “Oh!—” I yelped, pulling my fingers back just in time.  What the . . .
Then I realized what had happened: a “helping hand” from above. And for some reason, call it brotherly intuition, I knew just whose hand it was.

Resting my head back, I tried to relax while my eyes adjusted to the dark. There was just one problem with this: for eyes to adjust, there needs to be some lower level of light to adjust to. Whoever had built the cover to keep out water had done a very good job at blocking out light. There wasn’t a single photon bouncing around down there. The hold was pitch black and getting blacker — my tunnel was closing in.

I became acutely aware of my pounding heart: KA-THUNK! KA-THUNK! While it had taken some effort to get myself in, it was hardly enough to justify the elevated pace: KA-THUNK! KA-THUNK! And the more I focused on it, the faster it raced. KA-THUNK! KA-THUNK! KA-THUNK!
I knew exactly what was happening but was powerless to stop it.
It’s so damn hot in here.  KA-THUNK!  KA-THUNK!  KA-THUNK!
Like a steam bath.  KA-THUNK!  KA-THUNK!  KA-THUNK!
Hard to breathe.  KA-THUNK!  KA-THUNK!
Too hot.  KA-THUNK!  KA-THUNK!
I can’t breathe.  KA-THUNK!

I bolted up in a panic and was instantly stopped by a thick beam right above my head. My forehead smacked the hardwood with a resounding crack. “AH!—” I cried out, my head snapping back like a rubber ball. My hands shot up to compress the crowing welt at my hairline. No fear of dark space now — a pressure wave ricocheted through my skull, causing all sorts of interesting light. “Oh, oh, oh,” I whimpered, feeling like my head was going to explode. If they had heard any of this above, nobody opened the hatch to see what was going on.

And I didn’t want them to check, embarrassed as I was by my own stupidity. “Such a fucking idiot!” I hissed at myself. “Stupid!  Dumbass!  Shit!”  And I didn’t stop there. As soon as I began it turned into a little word game — me holding my pounding brow while spitting out every profanity I could think of, including some new ones I’d just learned from João. I was surprised by how many I knew. (The advantages of a liberal education.)

Then I started to giggle — the kind of giggling that’s hard to tell from crying. Great! Now you’re going nuts.  My eyes were already spilling tears and I lowered my palms to wipe them away. I kept rubbing my face, feeling sorry for myself, wondering what the hell I was doing in there — What are you trying to prove to yourself?  Not a question I could answer right then. There were more immediate things to consider, like what to do next. Returning to the deck was out of the question — too damn humiliating.  So I had to go forward to my sleeping spot. Just keep moving . . .

Deep breath . . . Take another deep breath . . . Just keep breathing . . .

It’s hard to panic with a split head, and after my cathartic little rant I was breathing almost normal again. With no small effort I turned my body ninety degrees in the hold, making sure the dark void in front of me was clear before moving my tender skull into the gap. I positioned myself athwartships,  just below the hatch. While this position was much more comfortable, lying parallel with the framing, I couldn’t stay there because I’d be blocking anyone else who wanted to come down to rest. So I gritted my teeth and started to crawl aft, crab-like, inching my way over three stout frames until I reached the bay where Mamede had thoughtfully laid out the sail for my bed.

I was drenched with sweat by the time I got there. At least the sail was dry — musty but dry. Having reached my objective, I now dropped down with the greatest relief. My relief  did not last long: the spacing of the frames was too narrow to fit my torso. Try as I might to squeeze my shoulder blades together, I could not lay flat on the planking in between.
Great . . . Just great!

Seeking a more comfortable position, I wriggled onto my side. Again my shoulders were the problem — now squeezed between the deck above and the hull below. I was the hot dog in a very hard bun, and the bun was shaking. Soon I gave up and rolled back down, placing one of my shoulders over a frame — the lesser of two evils.

At least the jangada was wide enough to fit my height — just. Stretched full out the soles of my feet pressed against the starboard side, while the port side plank cleared my head by a full two inches. I tried not to think about the deck right above my face, less than a hand-length away. Feeling my sweat bead and run, the jangada pulling on the anchor line like a spooked colt, I realized it was going to be a long night.

Bearing this out was the fact that down below, it was anything but peaceful. Coffered as I was with no light, other stimuli took over. Having just come from the deck I knew the waves hadn’t grown any larger. But with only an inch of hardwood between me and the churning water below, it felt as if we were riding over a mountainous ocean. And not just riding over it, but in an hallucinatory twist not uncommon at sea, we were being yanked forward by an anchor line that had no mercy.

It went something like this: the jangada was hauled up the side of a huge wave, a freak wave (João’s T-shirt wave), up and up to a tremendous height where the hull suddenly broke free and took off flying, launched into space like a slingshot glider, twisting and rolling, looping and spinning — all conjured up by an inner ear that had no visual grounding. (This is why pilots need gauges.) We then crashed down with a resounding slap, tremors echoing fore and aft. This was followed by the shortest lull in the trough, the eye of the storm, before the cycle repeated itself, again and again and again. At times I was certain the hull would rip open and dump my body into the deep black ocean.

Augmenting this fantasy was the never ending sound of water all around, swirling and sloshing, smacking and swooshing, as if I’d crawled into a tunnel through the surf. And with eyes deprived, the sound was greatly amplified.

Much of the noise came from the deck where it seemed as if the cavalry was marching by. The jangadeiros were anything but light on their feet, stomping back and forth as they worked their lines. Every time a fish was landed I could hear its tail thumping the planking, sometimes right above my head, until the araçanga came down with sharp raps, striking wood more often than not, sounding like a police battering ram in the middle of the night.

BANG! BANG! BANG! Come on out Paddy—we’ve got you surrounded!

And through all of this the jangadeiros kept talking. Whoever said that fishermen are a quiet, brooding lot, has never been out on a trawler. They talk about anything and everything — though yes — mostly pertaining to boats, fish, money, and women (and sometimes all four in the same run-on sentence).  Though I couldn’t hear what they said through the deck, they spoke in the regular tones you would expect from men who had worked together for years, performing the same mundane task, day after day, or in this case, night after night. There was occasional laughter at a joke, an exclamation, excitement when a fish was caught. It was all very normal, in an everyday sort of way, and this more than anything allowed me to settle down and eventually fall asleep. And when I did, I dreamed with an intensity I rarely experience on land.

Next chapter: 1st Dream