Mamede held out his fist — Fish on! — and his arms flew into action to quickly bring it in. From the speed of his swing it looked like another easy catch. But then something changed. Several pulls in and his arms started to slow down. Several more pulls and he switched the way he caught the line: the underhand scoops turned to overhand grabs, each fist coming down to bend the line sideways to get a better grip. Mamede turned his body as he did this, opening his stance and crouching for balance. The pulls got harder then, slower, more deliberate. Whatever was down there did not want to come up.
That he could even hold the line was remarkable — it was so thin. Catching the fiber was like catching air, and pulling it back looked like a pantomime of a man in a nasty tug of war. But it wasn’t an act — it was real — with a real fish at the other end. The jangada’s toe rail was the center line and whoever crossed it first would be the loser. So far Mamede had the upper hand. But when his hands stopped moving and the man stood straining at the rail, I started to have some doubts.
As Mamede braced himself against the force of the line he seemed to turn to stone before my eyes. Every part of him got harder and sharper. (Even his blocky head got blockier.) He looked surreal in his stillness, like a character in one of those old Communist Party posters — semi-super-human with arms like the Hulk. In place of a hammer or a sickle he held up a fishing line (an equally proletarian symbol), and below him I could clearly see the caption:
ARTISANAL FISHERMEN UNITE
The image was bolstered by his steely expression. With unyielding eyes he glared at the water. If there was going to be a fight he was ready. I could easily tell by the frown he was wearing. It was a defiant frown, a LIVE FREE OR DIE frown, a DON’T TREAD ON ME frown, a TOGETHER WE MUST STAND FOR OUR RIGHTS frown. It was a frown his mother would have been very proud of.
The poster spell vanished the instant that he moved. The force on the line was great and Mamede had to change his grip. Why doesn’t he just let go? I thought. Maybe he was worried about losing the fish. Or maybe he didn’t want to give back any of the hard-earned line. Or maybe — just maybe — some of that youthful pride still pumped inside of him, making it hard to let go.
Whatever it was Mamede didn’t wait. Taking the full force of the line with his left hand, he spun the loose end around his right palm. Two flicks of the wrist and it was done. Now clamping down with his right fist, he was able to fully let go of the line with his left hand.
Deep breath . . .
Everything about him changed after that — the tension was gone. Not the tension in the line but the tension in the man. The frown was still there but now it was warmer — more tropical hardwood, less granitic. Where I noticed it most was in his posture. He stood up straighter, lifted his shoulders and angled his body back to counter the pull on his hand. Leaning back like that, arm stretched out in front, he looked like a man walking a dog on a leash — a big dog in a big hurry. All Mamede had to do was keep his fist clamped down and the leash wouldn’t slip. It would just get tighter and tighter around his palm. And we were back to that again.
“Mamede, that’s a really big fish,” I said without thinking.
Lost in his frown, Mamede took a few seconds to look up. When he finally turned his head to face me, he was smiling. It was his patient, fatherly smile, the one I was becoming increasingly familiar with it. “This one’s not so big,” he said. “He just wants to fight a little before giving up. He’ll get tired soon.”
How he knew this was well beyond me — I hadn’t been fishing with a handline for forty years.
I kept watching, incredulous, sure Mamede would get pulled from the deck at any moment. But he didn’t go anywhere, and soon enough his fist started to inch back. He brought it in about a foot and held it, testing the load on the line, before his left hand came up to take over the grip. This allowed him to shake the wrap from his fist, and he continued shaking the hand down by his side, opening and closing his fingers to get the blood flowing again. Good as new the hand came up and started pulling with the left — hand over hand over hand over hand.
The fish was pretty much done after that. It fought back some, not very strongly nor for very long. I could tell exactly what the fish was doing just by watching Mamede’s hands.
But watching his hands meant I wasn’t paying any attention to my own — not the smartest thing to do when you’re holding a handline. You can feel things with a line you would never feel with a pole — delicate signals from the fish as it nibbles on your bait. An experienced hand-liner knows how to read these signals. I had no experience.
So at first I didn’t feel the faint tugging at my palm, and I don’t know how many little pulses were shot to my fist. Eventually one of those pulses made it up to my brain. And like a neon light slowly flickering on — I finally got the message. “Oh!” I cried out, yanking up hard on my line.
There was little doubt I had hooked a fish. As soon as my arm went up it was jerked back down. It happened so quickly I almost lost the line, but my left hand sprang up to save it.
Saving it, however, didn’t mean I had control of the line. I had no control. The fish had control. And now that he had it, he was exercising the most basic law of nature — he who is faster and stronger survives. Being smart is also important but we were well past that point now.
We were at the point of holding on for dear life, both hands clutching the line with everything I had. Despite all my effort the fiber still slipped out. Part of this had to do with the line — there was nothing to hold onto. Part had to do with my hands — they were in no condition to work a handline. And the biggest part was simply a matter of strength — I just wasn’t strong enough.
Three strikes –YOU’RE OUT!
Whatever you’re reading this on — set it down. Set it down, stand up and make two fists in front of you, placing the heel of one hand over the top of the other. Imagine a wire thin line running up through each palm, held in place by your fingers and thumbs. Now squeeze your fists as hard as you can. Grip that line with everything you have. Squeeze until your knuckles turn white and your fingertips go hot pink with compressed blood.
YOU’RE NOT GRIPPING HARD ENOUGH
Pinch down with your thumbs. HARDER. Press them down until they ache and your hands start to tremble. HARDER. Crunch them down until your whole body starts to tremble. And while you are standing there trembling, feel that line slip slowly through your grip, feel it chafe against your raw flesh, feel it slide through your straining fists — inch by inch — and know, know with every fiber of your being, that there isn’t a damn thing you can do to stop it.
Now, how does that feel?
Okay—you can let go. 🙂
So I tried to hold on. I pinched that line with everything I had but it just kept slipping. Coiling the nylon around my fist like Mamede had done wasn’t an option. To do so would have required holding the line with one hand while I wrapped it around the other. How could I do that when I couldn’t even hold it with two?
Next chapter: Bleeping Line!