When João stopped muttering to himself and sat motionless on the bench, I got a little worried. I’d never seen him so quiet before. Feeling guilty for hogging the shade I called out, “João, do you want to sit under the awning?”
The hardhat slowly lifted and he squinted at me for several seconds.
“No—I have to be ready for the fish.”
At least this got him up and he made another round to check on his lines. Nothing new there — no big fish. Back at the bench he sat down again and then suddenly jumped up. “Hey!” he shouted, pointing at the water and waving for me to come aft. “Hurry—Ze’s dourado!”
The dourado was gone by the time I got there. I had missed him again. Both of us kept peering over the side, hoping he’d come back. Eventually I looked up and saw a small bump on the horizon.
“A ship,” I called out, pointing at the spot.
João followed my finger with his eyes. “Where?”
“Right there,” I said, shaking my hand.
He searched for several seconds but soon gave up.
“I don’t see anything.” This seemed to bother him.
Gazing into his eyes for the briefest moment, I saw how damaged they were. Rheumy and bloodshot, years on the ocean had taken their toll.
“It’s really far away.” I said.
He didn’t buy it.
I didn’t feel like going back to my princely perch under the jib, so I leaned against the espeque post while João sat on the bench. Neither of us said anything at first and it felt a little awkward. Eventually I broke the silence by asking, “When did you start fishing, João?”
He looked up, surprised. “Me?”
“Do you remember when you started?”
“Of course I remember!” And then sat thinking.
“I was maybe sixteen or seventeen.”
“Did you learn with your father?”
“No. My father was a farmer. I worked on the farm with him.”
This caught my interest. Why would anyone want to leave the family farm to risk fishing the ocean on such a small boat?
“Why did you leave the farm?”
No hesitation here.
“Sheesh!” He slapped the back of his hand against the palm of the other. “Farming was very hard. Some years the land gave and others not. One year was very bad—very dry! We had no food.” He pinched the fingers of his right hand together and brought them up to his mouth.
“I had a friend who was a jangadeiro. He told me the work is hard but at least you eat. So I left the farm to go fishing.”
“Was it hard to learn how to fish?”
“Was it hard? Medonha! — yes it was hard. I was older than the others when I started fishing. It took me years to learn. But still it was better than farming. Even at the beginning I ate more fishing than I ever ate farming.”
We remained quiet for a while. It was an absolute quiet brought on by the sulfurous heat and a lifeless ocean. This is what the end of the world will be like.
“Did you ever go back to the farm to see your family?”
“Yes—not much. I always took them some fish. They really liked the fish.”
He was smiling now, the bristles around his mouth splaying out.
“What happened to the farm?”
“Does your family still have it?”
“No,” he said, and his smile disappeared. His hand came up to grab the post. He looked like he was going to say something but then turned away.
The ship was closer and I pointed it out again. This time he saw it.
“I’ve seen many ships. Sometimes they get very close.”
Transfixed, we watched the thing approach. And the closer it got to us, the more insecure I became.
“Has a ship ever hit a jangada?” I asked, not really sure I wanted to hear the answer.
“Oh, yes. They don’t like jangadas. We are in the way.”
Estamos no meio, he actually said. We are in the middle.
“If that ship was going to hit us, would you swim away?”
“I don’t know how to swim,” he shook his head.
His tone was so casual when he said this, it took a moment for the words to sink in. Over thirty years fishing on the ocean — on such a small vessel — and he didn’t know how to swim. Not that swimming would have done any good so far from the coast — but still. Looking out at the endless water, I took a step back from the rail.
In less than twenty minutes the ship grew from a speck on the horizon to a large wall of steel that passed a half-mile to the north of us. Even at that distance it was too close for comfort for me. It was an old freighter, pre-container, with a couple of hulking cranes standing on the deck. Streaks of rust stained the gray paint of its hull and superstructure and black exhaust pumped from a single vertical smokestack. The ship looked about as cared for as a garbage scow. I couldn’t see anyone on the deck, nobody waving from a window or a rail, and wondered if they even had a watch. Maybe he was dozing in the cabin while the thing ran on autopilot. Full steam ahead and damn the jangadas. At that size and speed they wouldn’t even know if they hit us — a car driving over a pencil.
We weren’t the only ones to hear its thrumming engine. Just before the ship reached us the hatch cover opened and Mamede’s head came up. He stayed there, yawning, arms draped over the coaming, and silently watched until the ship had safely passed. He then made a face that said, good riddance, and without a word slipped back down into the hold. The glare from the water behind him blended the sea with the sky-blue deck, making it seem as if he had just disappeared through a trapdoor in the water’s surface. Mamede the magician and his travelling circus — step right this way.
After that the bearded lady decided to call it a day. João was talking to himself again, going from line to line as he slowly brought them in. When one of the hooks came out of the water stripped clean of its bait, he enunciated a little more clearly: “OH, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Then it was back to muttering. Once the lines were all rolled up and stored in his pouch, he vanished through the same trapdoor.
And there I was — alone on deck again.
Next chapter: Zinga