Why didn’t I let go? Things were happening so fast and I was reacting, not thinking. So I did what men sometimes do when not using their head — 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, because 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 arced a circle a hundred feet below me, and I was right down there with him, swimming around. Back and forth he darted, trying to survive. I could feel his desperation so clearly — wonder still — could he feel mine?
“PULL 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 there.
Nothing . . .
“KEEP PULLING,” Ze called out again. “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 wasn’t much rhyme to it. There was nothing orderly about the way I brought in that line. I hauled it up with arms flailing and the nylon flying in all directions. I had 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 a golden egg.
The egg 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?
Suddenly my left hand slammed down as if the line had snagged the bumper of a speeding truck. I felt a tear in my palm, like 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 slice right across the pad between the first and second knuckles. The wound was open and blood seeped out like hot lava. It’s amazing how much blood can flow from a sliced finger — as if I’d slashed a major artery. While the other fingers weren’t 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 cut.
Ze was beside me in a flash. “Let me look,” he said, taking my hand in both of his and gently pressing down on either side of the wound. Ouch . . . While he inspected my finger, I couldn’t help but check out his hands. They were about the same size as mine but looked bigger, with fingers that were long and thin. Each knuckle stood out like an island and his nails were tough and grimy, curving down like small steel spades. Clearly Ze was getting enough protein in his diet. They were working hands — a fisherman’s hands — and mine were soft in comparison.
He smiled reassuringly. “It doesn’t look 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.
He was next to the line and reached down to pick up the loose end.
“Looks like he broke it.”
I just shook my head and felt like a fool.
Ze climbed into the hold after that 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 my 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 think about it.”
“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 gauzy 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.”
Mamede had stepped to the hatch and was now beating his araçanga against the coaming, calling down to João: RAP RAP RAP—“The line, João!”—RAP RAP—“Come fish the line, João!”—RAP RAP RAP—”João! . . .”
“Voi,” came a muffled cry from below.
João’s head soon came up, his unruly hair plastered to one 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 knelt 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 more enthusiasm than it merited.
This woke him up. “Where is it?”
“He got away. And the line cut his finger.”
Now we were getting closer to the truth.
“Let me see,” João demanded.
Reluctantly I leaned down and stuck out my hand. In a flash, João’s hand whipped out and grabbed my wrist to pull it closer.
What is it with all this wrist grabbing?
“Is it bad?” he asked.
Blood was already staining through the bandage.
“Not too bad,” Ze answered for me again.
(By this time, even I was thinking of myself in the third person.)
Knowing what João was after, I turned the hand over to show him.
“Ha,” he barked. “Fucking line!”
There wasn’t any glee in his tone — he shook his head and squinted. João pushed my hand back and reached down to grab his hardhat. Putting it on, he muttered, “Fucking line,” one more time and then climbed out.
A wave of exhaustion washed over me then, deep as a tsunami. It had been such a long day — feeling 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 begin the cleanup. 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 sleep.”
“Obrigado, Mamede.” Thank you.
It’s not easy squeezing a large body through a two by two opening with a tender foot and a cut finger. 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 that fish.
Next chapter: 2nd Dream