My Two Legs

It wasn’t even 21:00, and already I was feeling wiped out. Dead air hung over the jangada like a double-naught burial shroud — heavy, oppressive, final. Not only were the fishermen more listless and quiet, the creatures in the sea appeared to be on strike. After an hour of dunking their handlines for bait, the jangadeiros had only caught a few small fish.

This was our second evening with no wind and an ocean as flat as a billiard table, but for some reason, maybe sheer lethargy, the atmosphere around us felt much more muted and still. It was as if the earth had stopped spinning on its axis and all life on the surface had ground to a halt. For all I knew it had, stuck out there on that chip of a boat.

After only three days at sea our world had compressed to the few square meters of deck we relied on to survive. And that deck could have been anywhere — on any ocean — at any moment in time. Space had shrunk and time was just a concept — numbers on my watch. The sense of dislocation was palpable. Isolation and stillness made it all possible.

At times like this — when I am least connected to the world outside — I become most aware of my own existence, most mindful of what it means to be me. Maybe it is just being able to slow down enough to know that it is me and me alone looking through these eyes and feeling these feelings, me and me alone standing on this good earth with these two legs — my two legs — here present and being.

Such a wonderful gift, this thing we call consciousness.

Realizing that the only thing keeping me up was my pride — my evermore useless and diluted pride — I said good night to the jangadeiros and wished them good luck. Boa noite e boa sorte.  It wasn’t any easier crawling aft to my sleeping spot but at least I was becoming more inured to the journey. (So maybe there was some hope, after all.) As soon as my head came down on the planks I was out like a light.

It seemed like only moments later when I woke up again. And I wasn’t alone. João was sleeping in the bay beside me and I could hear Ze breathing just forward of him. Their profiles were barely visible in the dim light coming through the partially opened hatch. Then I heard footsteps above. Mamede was fishing on his own again. Does he ever stop?  I looked at my watch: 00:45. I’d been sleeping for over three hours. It truly was the sleep of the dead. Not only was I wide awake now, I had to pee.


It is the middle child in me — wanting peace, not war — wishing never to impose myself on others for my own personal needs. But there was no avoiding it now. For me to get out, Ze and João would have to move. Still I waited, hoping the niggling pressure from my bladder would go away if I focused on something else. I couldn’t and it didn’t, and very soon I gave up trying.

Lightly I tapped João on the shoulder, certain he would not be pleased.
“Huh—what?” he came awake with a start, probably thinking I was going to barf again.
“João, I need to pee,” I whispered.
“Um,” he groaned and rolled forward. “ZE, MOVE!  HE HAS TO PEE!”
Loud enough to be heard across Grand Central Station at rush hour.

Ze didn’t say a word. Immediately he crawled toward the hatch with João right behind him. Caught off guard by their quickness, I had to scramble to keep up. Ze opened the cover and climbed out while João squeezed beside the daggerboard box to let me pass. “Obrigado,” I said, before pulling myself up, then said it again to Ze on the deck. He gave me a sleepy nod and stepped back into the hold, closing the cover when he was down.

Ah . . . what a pleasure it is to pee in nature when you’ve really got to go. Unencumbered by any need to aim your stream into a bowl (much smaller and lower than it should be) you can really cut loose — free and clear. What is a man but a boy grown older — a boy with more rules to follow. And like a boy I let it fly, marking a wide swath of ocean territory as I slowly swayed my hips from side to side. The cascade was truly impressive, and for the loud splashing it made on the flat surface in the middle of the night, I might as well have been peeing on a hot tin roof. The more I went, the more self-conscious I became. When I finished I turned to Mamede and said contritely, “Now I’ve scared the fish away.”

Mamede shook his head. “Tonight they are all afraid.”

Thirsty, I headed toward the barril for a drink, stopping at the sambura to look inside. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. A snake was coiled around the bottom of the basket. It was the only thing in there.

“Mamede, is this a sea snake?
“Eel,” he exclaimed. “Ze caught him. It means bad fishing. Where the eel stays the sea floor is clean. There is no food for other fish. I’ve moved the jangada twice already but still no fish.”
“Will it be like this all night?”
“Maybe. Sometimes it gets better near dawn.”
“But we were here last night and you caught all those fish.”
He shrugged his shoulders.

Kneeling by the barril, I removed the cap and stuck the hose down in. More suction was needed to draw the water up from the bottom, but up it came and I took two gulps. When you’re thirsty, two gulps of stale tasting water are better than no gulps at all — a fact I was very aware of at that moment. Still on my knees I looked at the laundry basket underneath the steering bench. There were two small fish lying side by side, a red snapper and a sand shark.

I got up and walked forward to my corner at the tabernacle frame. I leaned against the beam and watched as Mamede untangled one of his fishing lines. He had two other lines out, each hanging down from a leg. It looked as if the puppet master above had just snipped him free.

The line in his hands rose from a messy pile on the deck. To straighten out the kinks he drew a twisted section across his shoulders and pulled down on each side so the line bit into his arched back. He repeated this action along the warped length, stretching the fiber with all his strength, until he was happy with the shape. Then it was on to the next kink or knot, working methodically through the pile. If Job had a brother his name was Mamede.

Next chapter: The Hunter