Mamede held up his fist, feeling for the fish. Fish on! And then his arms flew into action to quickly bring it in. From the speed of his swing it appeared to be another small fish. But then something changed. Several pulls in and Mamede’s arms started to slow down. Several more pulls and he switched the way that he caught the line: the underhand scoops became overhand grabs, each fist coming down on the line to bend it sideways so he could get a better grip. Mamede turned his body as he did this, opening his stance and crouching slightly to keep his 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 dang thin! Catching the nylon was like catching air, and pulling it back looked like a pantomime of a man in a tug of war. But it wasn’t a pantomime — it was real — with a real fish at the other end. The jangada’s toe rail was the center line and whoever crossed that line first would be the loser. So far Mamede had the upper hand. But when his hand stopped moving altogether, and the man stood frozen and straining at the edge, I started to have some doubts.
As Mamede braced himself against the force on 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.) In his stillness he looked surreal, like a character in one of those old Communist Party posters — semi-superhuman with a Hulk-size arm. In place of a hammer or sickle, Mamede’s fist 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 Mamede was ready. It was easy to 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 pull from 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. Maybe he didn’t want to give back any of the hard-earned line. Maybe — just maybe — some of that youthful pride still pumped inside of him, making it hard for him 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.
Everything about Mamede 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, right 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 blurted out.
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 just wants to fight a little before giving up. He’ll get tired soon.”
How he knew all of this was well beyond me — I hadn’t been fishing with a handline for forty years!
I kept watching, incredulous, sure Mamede would be yanked off the deck at any moment. But he didn’t go anywhere, and sure enough his fist soon started to inch back. He brought the line in about a foot and held it, testing the load before his left hand came up to take over the grip. This allowed him to shake the wrapped line from his right 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 to pull again — hand over hand over hand over hand.
The fish was pretty much broken after that. It fought back some, though not very strongly, nor for very long. I could tell exactly what the fish was doing just by watching Mamede’s hands.
But watching Mamede’s hands meant I wasn’t paying any attention to my own: not the smartest thing to do when you are holding a handline. You can feel things with a handline 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 I don’t know exactly when the line started tugging at my fist. And I can’t say how many little pulses it shot up through my palm. Eventually one of those pulses made it 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 yanked back down. It happened so quickly I almost lost the line, but my left hand shot 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 me holding on for dear life, both hands clutching the line with everything I had. Despite all my effort, the fiber still slipped out through my palms. 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 are reading this on — set it down. Set it down, stand up and make two fists in front of you, placing one above 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. HARDER! Grip that line with everything you have. Squeeze your hands until your knuckles turn white and the ends of your fingers go hot pink with compressed blood.
YOU’RE NOT GRIPPING HARD ENOUGH!
Pinch down with your thumbs. HARDER! Press them down until they ache with pain and your hands start to tremble. Crunch them down until your whole body starts to tremble. HARDER! 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 through my fingers. 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 the line with two?
Next chapter: Bleeping Line!