Why didn’t I just let go? Well. . . I wasn’t thinking, I was reacting. Things were happening too quickly and I was just trying to hold on.
So I did what men usually do when they’re not thinking: I threw more meat at the situation. I bore down on that line with everything I had. I put my whole body into it, from the ends of my clenching toes to the top of my sweating scalp. You could see it in my posture — the exact opposite of Mamede’s relaxed, walking dog stance. I was a cringing dog — torso bent, shoulders hunched, head pulled down, face pinched tight, eyes squinting, teeth gritting, arms straining — shunting every quantum of energy I had to my trembling fists. I would have bitten down on the damn line if I could have reached it with my mouth.
We may be civilized but we can still bite!
Hard as it was, I am 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 signals it sent me were blowing my mind. Every kick from its tail came up from the bottom. Every turn the fish made I could feel with my hands — feel the tension change in the line and the direction it went. The fish swam in a circle a hundred feet below me, and I was right down there with it, swimming around. Back and forth the fish darted, trying to survive. I could feel its desperation so easily — wonder still — could it feel mine?
“PULL IN!” Ze shouted from behind me.
“PULL IN!” Mamede shouted from the side.
“NÃO POSSO! HE’S TOO BIG—”
Just then the line went dead in my hands. 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. . .
“Jesus,” I exclaimed. What happened?
“KEEP PULLING!” Ze called out. “HE’S COMING UP!”
As soon as he said it I knew he was right. I also knew it is fatal to 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 whatsoever. There was nothing orderly about the way I brought in that line. I hauled it up with my arms flailing and the nylon flying in all directions. In no time at all 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 dropped quicker than I expected. Whatever was going on in that fish’s tiny brain, it was more than I had in mine — a lot more. I guess I should be thankful for the trouble it saved me, not having to untangle all that line. It did cost me some blood. But if you’ve ever picked through a hundred feet of snarled fishing line, you know that’s not such a high price to pay.
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?
WHAM! My left hand slammed down as if the line had snagged the bumper of a speeding truck. Instantly I felt a tear in my palm. It was 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 hand, there was blood on my fingers.
Great. . . Just great. . .
Only the index finger was cut, but it was a pretty good cut: a slice right across the pad between the first and second knuckles. The opening had a splayed, vulvar shape, with blood seeping out like hot lava. It’s amazing how much blood can flow from a finger wound — as if I’d slashed a major artery. While the other fingers weren’t cut, they did not get off scot-free. 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 gash.
Ze was beside me in a flash, my guardian jangadeiro. I’ll say this for him — he wasn’t blood shy.
“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 notice his hands. They were bigger than mine, 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 in comparison looked like a child’s.
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, suddenly remembering my fishing line.
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 in shame.
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 the fish 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 is your hand? Is it bad?”
“It’s a small cut,” I said, raising the hand to show him.
“That’s a good cut. That fish really got you.”
I nodded, still feeling embarrassed.
“I saw you holding the line. He was a big fish. You didn’t want to let go?”
“I didn’t think about it. He was moving too fast”
“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.
“I’m sorry about the line, Mamede. . .”
“Don’t worry about the line,” he shrugged. “We have more line.”
While that was true, his profit margin was next to nil. Every little bit counted.
Ze came out of the hatch and held up gauzy rag. “It’s old but clean,” he said, tearing off a strip. “Give me your hand.”
I stood up and stuck out my finger like the barrel of a pistol. It was still dripping blood — big drops punctuating the 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. 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 through the hatch, his 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 stayed in the opening, rubbing his eyes and grumbling quietly to himself. Seeing Ze and I standing 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 João up.
“Where is it?”
“Well—it 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 just shook his head and squinted. João pushed back my hand and reached down to grab his hardhat. Putting it on, he muttered, “Fucking line,” once more and then climbed out.
A wave of exhaustion washed over me then, deep as a tsunami. It had been such a long day — it must have 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 get some sleep.”
Yes, there is a god. . .
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