I awoke with a shout, my heart pounding, I was drenched in sweat. Panting heavily, I rested my head back down while bits of the dream kept flashing before me. I tried to weave the images together but they were fleeting and made no sense. By the time my breathing had returned to normal, I’d lost the last thread.
Though it was pitch black in the hold, I knew I was alone. I checked my watch and saw it was almost 06:00. Fuck. . . Time to get up. Unlike the morning before, I was in no rush to get out of the hold. It wasn’t that I wanted to stay inside — I was just reluctant. Not having had such a stellar second day, I was more than a little anxious to start the third.
I could hear footsteps above; not much was happening on deck. 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 was happy to realize 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 I shifted my body around. “GOD DAMMIT!”
I pushed the lid open and there was Ze, smiling down at me like an angle.
He looked 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,” raising my hand like I was taking a Boy Scout oath.
“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, grouper, mackerel, and bass. But there were also some surprises. Lying by the tabernacle were two large fish that couldn’t have been more different. The first was a grouper, bigger than the one Mamede had landed when I broke my line. Everything about the fish was exaggerated: huge mouth, brooding lips, crenelated fins that looked like fans. He was a heavyweight prizefighter, dark and powerful. And right beside him lay a sprinter — a tuna — with a body so sleek and shiny it could have been a silver torpedo. Tuna do not feed on the bottom 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. “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 demanded, waving his hand forward.
I had to lean out of the hatch to see around the tabernacle frame. What I saw on the foredeck was simply amazing. A huge black manta ray was covering a good part of the deck. Impossible! The fish was monstrous, bulky, alien looking, with rubbery wings that drooped over the anchor line like a thick wet blanket.
“Uma raia!” A ray! I shouted, excitedly.
“Si—uma raia,” João repeated. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Who caught him—you?”
“Yes,” he said, without a trace of modesty.
“And was he hard to catch?”
“Not so hard. It just takes a little time.”
João was very pleased with himself and rightfully so. It was a massive fish.
“Another night like this and the box will be full,” Mamede said, just as happy as João. This is what they all 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 over the fish 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 up the ray 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. Watching as they grunted over the bloody carcass of that fish, I couldn’t help but be 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 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