Why didn’t I just let go? Things were happening so quickly and I was reacting, not thinking. So I did what men sometimes do when they don’t use their heads — I threw more meat at the situation: I bore down on that line with everything I had. Unlike Mamede’s relaxed, walking dog stance, mine was the cringing dog — shoulders hunched forward, head pulled down, face pinched tight — eyes squinting, teeth gritting — shunting every quantum of energy I had to my trembling fists. And still the line slipped out.
Hard as it was, I’m glad I held on. It was like no other fishing I’ve done before. There was nothing there between me and that fish — just the line — and the feedback it gave me was blowing my mind. Every kick from his tail came up from the bottom. Every turn that he made I could feel with my hands — feel the tension change in the line and the direction he swam. The fish swam in a circle a hundred feet below me, and I was right down there with him, swimming along. Back and forth he darted, trying to survive. I could feel his desperation so clearly — wonder still — could he feel mine?
“PULL HIM IN,” Ze shouted from behind me.
“PULL IN,” Mamede shouted at the very same time.
“NÃO POSSO—” I CAN’T—
Just then the line went dead in my hands. What the . . . It was the strangest feeling — no recoil whatsoever — it just went dead. I straightened up and bobbed the line to see if the fish was still on.
Nada . . .
“KEEP PULLING,” Ze called out. “HE’S COMING UP!”
As soon as he said it I knew he was right. I also knew the last thing you want to do is give a fish too much slack. In a breathless panic I started scooping up the line as fast as I could.
While there was very much a reason for what I did, there was no rhyme to it at all. My haul had no order. I pulled that line in as fast as I could, arms flailing and nylon flying all over the place. There was line on my right and line on my left, under my feet and everywhere else. I was building a bird’s nest with monofilament fiber — soon to be laying my golden egg.
The egg actually came quicker than expected. To pull in the line I had to use both hands. One hand had the leather finger glove — the other did not. Guess which hand was lifting when the fish finally turned and the slack ran out?
My left hand slammed down as if I had snagged the bumper of a speeding truck. Instantly I felt a tear, as if I’d been gripping the blade of a knife that was quickly yanked out. But it wasn’t a sharp knife. A sharp knife feels like ice when it bites you. This bite was burning hot. Turning up my palm I saw blood on my fingers.
Great . . . Just great . . .
Only the index finger was cut — a nasty little slice that ran across the pad between the first and second knuckles. Blood was seeping out like hot lava from a crack. It’s amazing how much a finger can bleed — as if I’d slashed a major artery. While none of the other fingers were cut, I could see exactly where the line had been by a thin red stripe that ran across each pad. Collectively these little rope burns hurt more than the tear.
Ze was beside me in a flash. “Let me look,” he said, taking my hand in his and gently pressing down on each side of the wound. Ouch . . . While he inspected my finger I couldn’t help but look at his hands. They were about the same size as mine but appeared bigger, with fingers that were strong and thin. Each knuckle stood out like an island and his nails were hard and shiny, curving in like small steel spades. Clearly Ze was getting enough protein in his diet. They were working hands — a fisherman’s hands — and mine by comparison were fleshy and soft.
He smiled reassuringly. “It doesn’t look so bad. Wash it off with seawater and I’ll put something on it.”
Ah . . . clean seawater — all the good things we can do with it. We better take care of it . . .
Ze let go of my hand and knelt at the rail to wash off his own hands.
“The fish,” I cried out, remembering the line.
He was kneeling right beside it and reached down to pick up the loose end.
“Looks like he broke it.”
Still feeling stunned, I just shook my head.
Ze climbed into the hold and I took his place at the rail. While I was there, Mamede finally landed his fish. He used the gaff to get it on board and quickly killed it with his club. “Uma garoupa,” he said, proudly. “Cinco o seis quilos. Nada mal.” A grouper. Five or six kilos. Not bad.
Mamede removed the hook and carried the fish aft to the laundry basket. He then came forward to check on me.
“How’s your hand?” he asked. “Is it bad?”
“It’s a small cut,” I said, lifting the hand to show him.
“That’s a good cut. That fish really got you.”
“I saw you holding the line. He was a big fish. You didn’t want to let go?”
“He was moving too fast. I didn’t know what to do.”
“HA! I know how that is. You get excited.”
“Next time let go. You might lose the fish, but he won’t cut your hand.”
He had a point there.
Ze came out of the hatch and held up a gauzy looking rag. “It’s old but clean,” he said, tearing off a strip. I stood up and held out my hand. The finger was still dripping blood — big drops punctuating the light blue deck with dark red periods. Ze dressed the wound like he knew what he was doing, wrapping it snugly but not too tight. Reaching the end of the strip, he tucked it in and placed my middle finger against the side of the roll.
“Hold it there,” he said. “We can change the bandage later.”
While this was going on, Mamede had stepped to the hatch and was beating his araçanga against the coaming, calling down to João: RAP RAP RAP—“The line, João!”—RAP RAP—“Come fish the line!”—RAP RAP RAP. “João!”
“Voi,” came a muffled cry from below.
João’s head soon came up through the hatch, his hair plastered over to the side. It was one of the few times I’d seen him without his hardhat on. He looked different without it — less guarded, more vulnerable. He stayed in the opening, rubbing his eyes and grumbling to himself. Seeing Ze and I standing close together, he asked in a gruff voice, “What’s going on?”
“He caught a fish,” Ze said, with way more enthusiasm than it merited.
This woke up João. “Where is it?”
“He got away, and the line cut his finger.”
Now we were getting closer to the truth.
“Let me see it,” João demanded.
Reluctantly I leaned down and stuck out my hand. In a flash, his hand whipped out and grabbed my wrist to pull it closer.
What is it with all the wrist grabbing here?
“Is it bad?” he asked.
Blood was already staining through the bandage.
“Not too bad,” Ze answered for me again.
(By this time, I was even thinking of myself in the third person.)
Knowing what João was after, I turned the hand over to show him my palm.
“Ha,” he barked. “Fucking line!”
There wasn’t an ounce of glee in his tone — he just shook his head and squinted. João pushed my hand back and reached down to grab his hardhat. Putting it on he repeated to himself, “Fucking line,” and then climbed out.
A wave of exhaustion washed over me then, deep as a tsunami. It had been such a long day — it almost felt as if it had started in another century. (One where we lived shorter lives and died painful deaths.) Seeing the tangled remnants of my misadventure at the rail, I reached down to clean it up. Mamede saw what I was doing and called out from the stern, “Don’t worry about the line. We’ll take care of it. You should go below and rest.”
“Obrigado, Mamede.” Thank you.
I didn’t have the energy to argue with him.
It’s not easy squeezing a large body through a two by two opening with a tender foot and a cut finger. You try it! Crawling aft, I found my bed just as I’d left it — the old sail spread out between two thick frames — still smelling like a post-grad experiment in tropical molds — still hard as a rock to lie on but better, way better, than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Oh, please—not that! Arranging my body and resting my head, the last thing I thought about before falling asleep was holding onto that fish.
Next chapter: 2nd Dream