Peixe Dourado

João traced a line with his finger, then waved his hand toward the port side, where the fish was headed. Mamede stopped what he was doing at the steering bench and jumped to where João was pointing. Ze got there almost as fast, dropping his knife and helicoptering his long legs over the hatch (and my ducked head). Both men stood side by side at the rail, scanning the water like two eager boys.

“There he is!” Mamede cried out, pointing aft. “Look, he’s coming back. The bicheiro—quick!”

The five-foot gaff was kept at the tabernacle when not in use, right in front of where I was sitting. By the time I realized what he wanted, Ze had jumped forward and yanked the shaft out of the beam socket. Spinning aft, he pitched the gaff back to Mamede who caught it with one hand as he turned toward the water. Too late — the fish had already swum under the hull.

“He’s coming to you, João!” Mamede shouted, tossing the gaff across the deck to João, who caught it with both hands and spun, slicing the hook right over my head.  Whoa!… Realizing I wasn’t in the best spot, I scrambled to the side of the tabernacle to get out of the way. Looking aft,  João was already perched over the rail, feet spread apart, gaff held in front and ready to strike.

“Vem peixe, vem . . . Come, fish, come . . .” he repeated in a whisper, eyes sweeping the water from side to side.

I was also peering at the water and the ocean appeared very different now that the sun was lower. Gone was the velvety green color like a thin pea soup, with curtains of light dancing through the depths — an ethereal dance of shadow and light. All dimensionality and life had vanished, leaving behind a dull flat surface, opaque, slate-like, making it impossible to tell if the water was ten feet deep or ten-thousand.

I doubted I could even spot the fish. So far I’d seen nothing at all,  just three jangadeiros moving faster than I thought possible for middle-aged men. Glancing at João, I could easily see why. Years had melted away in the thrill of the hunt. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, crouched low and ready to pounce, he looked like a young tennis star waiting for a hot serve. Every ounce of his attention was fixed on the water. Nothing else mattered but sticking that fish.

“Vem peixe, vem . . . Vem peixe, vem . . .”

But the fish didn’t appear as it should have (and isn’t that usually the case). We stood there waiting, staring dumbly at the water for what seemed like a long time. “Shit!”  João finally growled, flashing me an exasperated,  I can’t fucking believe it, glance. He then turned and quickly tip-toed aft to look over the transom.

“HERE, JOÃO!—HERE!” Ze’s high-pitched call from the other side. As soon as the words were out of his mouth,  João spun around and threw him the gaff.

There was no pausing when Ze caught it. He flew around and down, stabbing the hook into the sea like a lance as he dove to the deck. First his knees hit the toe rail, then his chest, while his arm shot down in a flurry of splashing water. In no time at all he was in to his shoulder with half of his body hanging over the side. He should have stopped there but didn’t. Reaching out farther, he started to fall in.  “Aiii!”  Ze cried out.

Fortunately for him, Mamede was standing nearby and grabbed a foot as it came up. Ze’s torso still got soaked, arms thrashing wildly to keep his head above the surface. He didn’t stay there long — Mamede hauled him in as he would a big fish. Even before Ze was back on deck, I could see he wasn’t happy.

“Shit!” he grunted, dropping the gaff on the deck with a clatter. “I almost had him.”

Exasperated, Ze sat on the deck with his knees bent to his chest. He looked cold sitting there — his long arms wrapped tightly around his legs, wet shirt clinging to his narrow back, vertebrae sticking out like knots on a line. A drop of water hung from the end of his nose, growing, defying gravity until I was sure it would drop. Ze wiped it off, then slapped the deck with the same palm — WHAP!  Bringing up his fist, he shook it at the water.
“I was so close. So damn close.”

Mamede stood beside him, trying to suppress a grin. Eyes shining and lips pinched tight, he patted Ze on the shoulder. “Don’t feel bad, Ze. You can’t always win. The fish was too fast. You’ll get him next time.”
“He won’t return,” Ze shot back.
Mamede smiled and shook his head.
“Bem, nunca se sabe.” You never know…
“Yah—you never know,” João piped in from the other side, looking smugger than I’d seen him since I’d choked on the water. “But if he does come back, maybe I’ll get him.”
If this was meant to push a button, it succeeded. Ze’s head snapped up and he slapped the deck again.
HA!—You haven’t caught a fish like that in years!”
“Oh, yah! What about the last one?”
“That fish doesn’t count. He was already dead.”
“He wasn’t dead. You saw him swim. You saw him jump!”
“Jump? What jump! You didn’t even hit him with the araçanga. He was dead—dead, dead, dead!”
“No he wasn’t. No he wasn’t—no! Mamede, you saw him swim?”
Pleading to daddy again.
Mamede made no further effort to conceal his mirth.
“Yes, João, I saw him. But that fish didn’t look so good.”
“I told you!” Ze gloated.
“That’s not true,” João said. He was doing his best to hold on, but was quickly losing ground.
“Yes it is, João. There was something wrong with the fish. He was old or sick—I don’t know. Nobody wanted him when we got back. I had to give him to the pig.”

How could João possibly counter the pig? For a few seconds it looked as though he might try. He cleared his throat and raised a hand as if to make a point. But nothing came out and he stood there frozen, looking like a wax figure at Madame Tussauds (a rather unhappy fisherman in a white hard-hat). Eventually the hand dropped and he cursed under his breath. We all stayed quiet, eyeing each other. It wasn’t too awkward — just a transition.

Ze finally broke the silence by turning to me and asking, “Did you see the dourado?” The twinkle was back in his eyes and he spread his hands far apart in a classic, one that got away pose. “He was really big.”
I just laughed and shook my head.
“No, Ze, I didn’t see him. I didn’t see anything. He was too fast for me.”

Though I was disappointed I didn’t see the fish, I was compensated in other ways. For the rest of the evening Ze did not whistle.

 

Drawing of a bicheiro - a gaff.

 

Next chapter: Flights of Fancy

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