When Mamede’s fist came down he briefly held it out, feeling for the fish. Fish on or no fish? Fish on, and his arms flew into action to quickly bring it in. From the speed of his hands it looked to be another easy catch. But then a subtle change occurred. Several pulls in and his arms started to slow down. Several more pulls and he switched the way he caught the line: the under-hand scoops turned to overhand grabs, each fist coming down on the nylon to bend it sideways to get a better grip. He also turned his body to the side and opened his stance, crouching lower and leaning back against the force on the line. The pulling 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 damn thin. Catching the fiber was like catching air and pulling it back looked like a pantomime of a man in a tug of war. But this wasn’t an act — it was real — with a real fish at the other end. The jangada’s toe rail was the dividing line and whoever crossed that line first would be the loser. So far Mamede had the upper hand. But when that hand stopped moving and the man stood straining at the rail, I started to have some doubts.
As Mamede braced himself against 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 seemed surreal, like a character in an old Communist Party poster — semi-superhuman with Hulk-size features. In place of a hammer or sickle he held up a fishing line (an equally proletarian symbol), and below him the caption read:
ARTISANAL FISHERMEN UNITE
The image was bolstered by his steely expression. With unyielding eyes he glared down 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 spell vanished the instant that he moved. The strain from the line was great and he 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, making it hard to let go.
Whatever it was, Mamede didn’t hesitate. 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 fist, he was able to fully let go of with the 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 it was warmer now — more tropical hardwood, less granitic. Where I noticed it most was in his posture. He was standing taller, his shoulders lifted and arching 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 he had to do was keep his fist closed down and the leash wouldn’t slip. The line 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, he 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. “This one isn’t 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 he’d be pulled from the deck. But he didn’t go anywhere, and soon enough his fist started to inch back. He brought the line in about a foot and held it, feeling the load, before his left hand came up to take over the grip. This allowed him to shake the wrap from his palm, 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 to pull with the left — hand over hand over hand — bringing in his fish.
The fish was pretty much broken after that. It fought back some, not very strongly, nor for very long. I could tell exactly what it was doing just by watching Mamede’s hands.
But watching his hands meant I wasn’t paying 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 he nibbles on the bait. An experienced hand-liner knows how to read these signals. What experience did I have?
So at first I didn’t notice the faint tugging at my palm; delicate pulses sent up through the line. Eventually one of those pulses made its way to my brain, and like a neon light slowly flickering on — I finally got the message. “Oh!” I cried out, jerking up high 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 nearly lost the line. But at the last moment my left hand sprang up to save it.
Saving it, however, didn’t mean I had control of the line. 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.
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 side of one on top of the other. Imagine a wire-thin line running up through each fist, held in place by your fingers and thumbs. Now squeeze your hands as hard as you can. Grip that line with everything you have. Pinch down until your knuckles turn white and all your fingertips go hot-pink with compressed blood.
YOU’RE NOT GRIPPING HARD ENOUGH.
Pinch down harder with your thumbs. Press them down until your hands start to tremble. HARDER. And keep pressing them down until your body starts to tremble. And while you’re 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 the thing around the other. How could I do that when I couldn’t even hold the line with two?
Next chapter: Bleeping Line!