I awoke up shouting, my heart pounding, I was drenched in sweat. Breathing hard, I laid my head back while bits of the dream kept flashing before me. I tried to weave the images together but they were fleeting, made no sense. By the time my breathing had returned to normal I’d lost the last thread.
It was pitch black and I was alone in the hold. My watch showed 06:00. Time to get up. Unlike the morning before, I was in no rush to get out on deck. It wasn’t that I wanted to stay in the hold — I was reluctant. Not having had such a stellar second day, I was more than a little anxious to start the third.
I heard footsteps above. Not much was happening — no landing of fish and beating on the planks like wild men. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to make my move. Crawling forward, I happily noted the pain in my foot was almost gone. Not so with the finger — it still hurt like a mother — especially when I smacked it against the dagger-board box while shifting my body around.
I pushed the lid open and there was Ze, looking down at me with a big grin. He appeared even happier than normal — if that was possible.
“Bom dia!” he called out, positively chipper.
“Bom dia,” I replied (not so chipper).
“Como Vai? How’s the finger?”
“Fine, Ze, thanks.” I raised my hand to show him.
“Que bom! Come out and we can change the bandage.”
Deep, deep breath — Here we go again.
As soon as my eyes came over the coaming I saw the reason for Ze’s joy. There were fish everywhere — lined up on the deck, pushed against the icebox frame and coaming, packing the laundry basket and sambura. I gasped when I saw them. I could not believe my eyes.
A quick scan around showed the usual suspects: snapper, mackerel, and bass. But there were also some big surprises. Lying by the tabernacle were two large fish that couldn’t have been more different. The first was a grouper, even bigger than the one Mamede had landed. Everything about the fish was exaggerated: huge mouth, thick brooding lips, crenelated fins that looked more like folding fans. He was a heavyweight prizefighter, dark and powerful. And right beside him lay a sprinter — a tuna — with a body as sleek and shiny as a silver torpedo. Tuna aren’t bottom feeders and I wondered how they’d caught him. (Probably when bringing up the hook.) Draped over both of these fish, hanging from the tabernacle beam with a line through its mouth and gills, was a fish they call a peixe fundo (deep fish). He was over four feet long and looked like a cross between a sand shark and a catfish, with beige colored skin, beady black eyes, and a rounded snout that was skirted with whiskers. This was was definitely a bottom feeder.
The jangadeiros were waiting for my response and I didn’t disappoint them.
“Opa!” I cried out. “Tantos peixes!” So many fish!
“Yes,” Mamede said, proudly. “Just like it used to be.”
Pointing at the peixe fundo I asked, “Is he good to eat?”
“Not so bad,” said Ze. “But not as good as this cavala.” He directed my gaze toward a nice mackerel by the hatch.
“Look at the bow,” João shouted, waving his hand forward.
Leaning out of the hatch to gaze around the tabernacle frame, what I saw made my jaw drop. A large manta ray covered most of the foredeck. The fish was massive, bulky, alien looking, with rubbery wings that draped over the coiled anchor line like a thick wet blanket.
“Uma raia,” A ray I shouted.
“Si—uma raia,” João repeated. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Who caught him—you?”
“Yes,” he said, with no trace of modesty.
“And was he hard to catch?”
“Not so hard. It just takes time.”
João was clearly pleased with himself, and rightfully so. It was an impressive fish.
“Another night like this and the box will be full,” Mamede said, just as happy as the others. This is what they lived for — going home with a box full of fish.
Loading all those fish was a chore and a half, but a pleasant one, allowing the jangadeiros to revel one more time in their catch. It was the same drill as the day before: remove the bars of ice from the box, hand in the fish, return the ice to the box. Four bars were chipped this time, dispersing the chunks of ice through the slippery mass of flesh. The peixe fundo had to be bent to get it into the box and the manta ray was sectioned into four equal pieces.
It took all three of them to cut it up on the foredeck. Mamede sliced handholds in each wing so he and João could pull the fish apart while Ze sawed down the middle with his knife. Grunting over the bloody carcass of that fish, it was a timeless image of human survival.
Nothing was wasted or thrown away. Everything would be eaten. Even the fish guts would be used to feed other animals. On top of the three remaining bars of ice lay a skip jack tuna and Ze’s pretty mackerel — there for our lunch and dinner. Mamede dropped the icebox lid into place and tapped the top with his fingers.
Job well done . . .
Next chapter: The Big Fish