When João stopped muttering and sat silent on the bench, I got a little worried. I’d never seen him so quiet before. Feeling guilty for hogging the awning, I called out, “João, do you want to sit in the shade for a bit?”
The hardhat slowly lifted and he squinted at me for several seconds before responding, “No—I have to be ready for the fish.”
At least this got him off the bench 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 the fish would return. Eventually I looked up and saw a spot on the horizon.
“Look—a ship.” Now I was the one pointing.
João followed my finger with his eyes and asked, “Where?”
“Right there,” I said, shaking my hand.
He searched for several seconds but soon gave up.
“I don’t see anything,” he said. This seemed to bother him.
Gazing into his eyes for the briefest moment, I saw how damaged they were. Bloodshot and rheumy, years on the ocean had taken their toll.
“It’s really far away.” I said. “I almost can’t see it.”
He didn’t buy it.
I didn’t feel like going back to my princely perch under the sail, 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,” he said in a huff, 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 go fishing on a raft in the ocean?
“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 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.
“What happened to the farm?”
“Does your family still have it?”
“No,” he said, his smile disappearing. His hand came up and he grabbed the post beside him. He looked like he was going to say something else but instead turned away.
The ship was closer now and I pointed it out again. This time he saw it.
“I’ve seen many ships,” he said. “Sometimes they get very close.”
Transfixed, we both watched the ship approach. The closer it got, 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?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I don’t know how to swim.”
His tone was so casual when he said this, it took a moment for his 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 much good that far from shore — but still. Looking out at the endless water, I couldn’t help but take a step back from the rail.
In less than twenty minutes the ship grew from a spot on the horizon to a large wall of steel that passed about a quarter mile to the north of us. Even that was too close for comfort. 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 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 while the ship ran on autopilot. Full steam ahead and damn the jangadas. At that size and speed they would never know if they hit us. Like a car driving over a pencil.
We weren’t the only ones to hear the thrumming of its engine. Just before the ship reached us, the hatch cover scraped forward and Mamede’s head rose up. He stayed in the opening, arms draped over the coaming, and silently watched until the ship was safely astern. He then made a face that said, good riddance, and without a word, slipped back into the hold. The glare from the water blended the sea with the sky-blue deck, making it look like he had just disappeared through a trap door in the ocean’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 muttering to himself again, going from line to line as he slowly brought them in. When one of the hooks came out of the water bare, 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, João vanished through the same trap door.
And there I was — alone on deck again.
Next chapter: Zinga