I woke up with a shout, my heart pounding, I was drenched with sweat. Gasping for breath, I rested my head back and tried to relax while bits of the dream kept flashing before me. I tried to weave the fleeting images together but they made no sense. By the time my breathing had returned to normal I had lost the last thread.
It was pitch black in the hold and I was alone. I pressed the light button on my watch: 06:00. Time to get up. Unlike the previous morning 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 on the deck — no landing of fish and beating the planks like wild men. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to make my move. Crawling forward I was happy to note that 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!” Good day! 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 surprises. Lying at the foot of the tabernacle frame were two large fish that could not have been more different. The first was a grouper, even bigger than the one I saw Mamede land when I lost my fish. Everything about the fish was exaggerated: a huge down-turned mouth, thick lips, crenelated fins that looked like folding fans. He was a heavyweight prizefighter, brooding and powerful. And right beside him lay a sprinter — a tuna — with a body so sleek and shiny it looked more like 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 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 lying by the hatch.
“Look at the bow,” João called out, waving his hand forward.
I had to lean out of the hatch to get a clear view around the tabernacle. What I saw there made my jaw drop. A large manta ray covered most of the fore-deck. The fish looked like an alien from another planet, massive, thick, with rubbery dark wings that draped over the coiled anchor line like a heavy 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, without a trace of modesty.
“Was he hard to catch?”
“Not so hard. It just takes time.”
João was pleased with his catch, and rightfully so. The fish was incredible.
“Another night like this and the box will be full,” Mamede said, also looking pleased.
This is what they lived for — going home with a box full of fish.
Loading all those fish into the icebox was a chore, but one the jangadeiros clearly enjoyed, allowing them 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. Four bars were chipped this time, dispersing the ice through the slippery mass of flesh. The peixe fundo had to be bent to get it in and the manta ray was sectioned into four equal pieces.
It took the three of them to cut it up, crowded tightly on the foredeck. And it was not an easy task. Mamede sliced handholds in each wing so he and João could pull the fish apart while Ze sawed slowly down the middle with his knife. Watching them grunt over the carcass of that fish, the deck slippery with blood, I was struck by the 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 skipjack tuna and Ze’s pretty mackerel — there for our lunch and dinner. Mamede dropped the icebox lid into place and patted the top with his fingers.
Job well done.
Next chapter: The Big Fish