Peixe Dourado

João traced a line with his finger, then waved his hand to 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 stored at the tabernacle when not in use, right in front of where I sat. By the time I realized what he wanted, Ze had jumped forward and yanked the shaft from 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!” 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 was not in the best spot, I scrambled to the side of the tabernacle frame to get out of the way. Looking aft,  João was already perched over the rail, feet spread apart, gaff poised in front and ready to strike.

“Vem peixe, vem . . . Come, fish, come . . .” he repeated in a whisper, eyes sweeping the water along the rail.

I was also peering down at the water and it was a very different ocean now that the sun was low. Gone was the translucent green color with curtains of light reached down through the depths — an ethereal dance with the shadows.  All dimensionality and life had vanished from the sea, 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 would even spot the fish. So far I had 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 his thrill for the hunt. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, crouching low and ready to pounce, he looked more 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 waiting, staring dumbly at the water for what seemed like an hour. “Shit!” he finally growled, flashing me an angry,  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 his body dropped 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!”  he cried out.

Fortunately for him Mamede was standing nearby and grabbed a foot as it came up. Ze’s torso still went in, 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 the deck I could see he wasn’t smiling.

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

Exasperated, he sat on the deck with his knees to his chest. He looked cold sitting there — 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 his palm — WHAP!  Bringing up his fist, he shook it at the water.
“I was so damn close.”

Mamede stood beside him, trying to suppress a grin. With shining eyes and lips pinched tight, he patted Ze on the shoulder. “Don’t feel bad, Ze. You can’t always win. The fish was just too fast. You’ll get him next time.”
“He won’t be back,” Ze spat.
Mamede smiled and shook his head.
“Bem, nunca se sabe.” You never know . . .
“Yeah—you never know,” said João 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, yeah? What about the last one?”
“The last one? That fish doesn’t count. He was already dead!”
This hit the mark.
“What do you mean?” João shot back. “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 wailed. He was doing his best to hold on but was quickly losing ground.
“Yes it is, João. There was something wrong with that 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 frozen in place, looking like a wax figure at Madame Tussauds (Unhappy Fisherman In White Hardhat). 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 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 truly disappointed I had not seen 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