“I was twelve when I started fishing,” said Mamede, without any prompting on my part. He was still picking through his line.
“Did you learn with your father?” I asked, wanting to hear more.
“No, my father drank. My mother left him when I was young. We came to Prainha to stay with my uncle. I learned to fish with him.”
“Was it hard to learn?” The same question I had asked João.
“In the beginning it was hard, but some learn faster than others. I learned quickly. I didn’t catch many fish at first, but after two years I was catching as much as my uncle. I was catching enough to take care of my mother. I became a mestre then.”
He said this with the pride of a man who had worked hard all his life. A man who was successful. A man who now had his own large family, complete with grandchildren. That family would keep him working for many more years.
“When you started, was it different than now?”
He thought about this for a bit.
“The jangadas were different. Most were made from piúba.”
He made a fat circle with both hands to show the girth of the tree trunks that were used to build the log rafts. “We couldn’t go inside to sleep because there was no inside. Only the deck. Sometimes it was cold and wet.”
He looked up, crossed his arms over his chest and feigned a shiver.
“Very wet,” he chuckled.
“How many days did you stay out on those jangadas?”
“One or two days at most. Overnight. There were more fish back then.”
“Did you take ice for the fish?”
“Ice?” His eyes pinched closer. “There was no ice back then. We packed the fish in salt. Nobody wants salt now. They want fresh fish.”
Mamede freed the last tangle and turned to the banco for a piece of fish. Baiting his hook, he tossed it over the side and let the fiber run through his fingers until the slug hit the bottom. He set the hook’s depth and wrapped the line around the nearest post, allowing him to check on his other lines. Something wasn’t right with the one tied to his left leg and he started to bring it up.
While he did this I lifted my gaze to look at the stars. The light from our deck lamp washed out a lot of the detail, but there was still enough going on up there to leave me breathless. I searched for my friend Orion and found him in his new spot — low in the sky, still tilted over on his side. And I was still having a hard time accepting this. What’s going on up there? Why are you like that? And then it hit me—Oh, yes!— and it made perfect sense. Orion had a case of tropic fever.
He was just another gringo who had come south to escape the bitter winter, not really knowing what he was getting into. Hot sun in mid February will do funny things to a northern man, especially when coupled with certain rum-based drinks, downed a little too quickly. It plays on the mind, and some men, usually the most upstanding, have a hard time adjusting to the new environment (their DNA still recovering from the last ice-age).
To go in a matter of hours from bone freezing temperatures to pulsating heat and torrid humidity — it’s enough to make a sane man snap. And the bigger you are the harder you will fall. Before long, not really knowing how you got there, you’ll be dancing half naked in a street parade, dressed in a pleated warrior’s skirt, wearing tighter underwear than you’re used to — your body covered in paint and glitter — rivers of sweat — swinging your plastic sword, shaking your plastic helmet, singing at the top of your lungs:
O SAMBA É AMOR—É NESSA QUE EU VOU—SWING MINHA BATERIA!
What does it mean? What does it matter . . . You’ll be right in the thick of it, arms up and waving, hips pump-pump-pumping, legs and feet jiving to the beat, the intoxicating beat, the hypnotic beat — pressed between all the bodies, those beautiful hot bodies. If Zeus could see me now! With four streetcart batidas lubing your joints, who wouldn’t be doing cartwheels over the Pleiades. And take that, Sirius!
They have it all wrong. Hell is not a burning inferno. Hell does not have rivers of fire. Hell — real hell — is completely frozen over. It’s Bismarck, North Dakota in midwinter. It’s an average daily high that’s lower than your freezer. It’s being locked up in so many layers of clothing you can’t even breathe, let alone dance–dance-dance on the street. Yes! Orion was just having a little fun up there, cutting loose, gett’n down, working out some of that cold northern frost — embracing his aphrodisian side. No wonder he was leaning over with his skirt flying high. You go, Orion! YOU GO, GIRL!
My eyes traced a path to the horizon where the constellation of the hunter would eventually touch down. (And what a hard landing it would be after all those cheap drinks.) I saw a couple of lights there that couldn’t be stars. Scanning back and forth at the same low altitude, I saw several more lights. At first I was confused — not having noticed them before. But then I realized what they were.
“Mamede. Those lights out there—are they jangadas?”
He stopped and looked up. “Yes.”
I couldn’t believe it.
Seeing those other jangadas flooded me with joy. Up to that moment I had felt like we were all alone out there. (Out of sight and out of mind.) Slowly I turned around and counted several more lights, most just a faint flicker in the distance. None of these jangadas would be visible during the day.
How many more jangadas were fishing up and down the coast? Hundreds? Thousands? For all practical purposes they were as far away as the stars in the sky. Yet simply knowing they were there gave me comfort. We weren’t alone. Other people were experiencing what we were — standing on their own little rafts, occupying their own little worlds — doing what they needed to do to get by. Tenuous though it was, we were all connected by a common thread, a monofilament fiber. We were a family — an extended fishing family.
The bait on the raised hook seemed fine but Mamede changed it anyway. Off with the old and on with the new and back in the water you go. There was a question I had wanted to ask him since leaving on the trip. Now seemed as good a time as any. “Mamede, if you could do something else besides fishing, what would that be?” (I never said it was a smart question.)
He didn’t answer at first and I wondered if he had understood me. Just as I was about to repeat the question he said, “I’m a jangadeiro. I don’t want to be anything else.” He paused for a bit, lifted one of his lines and then continued. “It’s hard work but I’ve never been hungry. My family was never hungry. Fishing is my profession. I don’t know what else I could do.”
Now it was my turn to pause and think. But then I had to ask:
“What about your sons? Do they want to be jangadeiros?”
I knew he had two sons. Both boys were old enough to fish; other kids their age were fishing with their fathers. But not his boys. Maybe they didn’t want to fish. Maybe they didn’t want to be like the old man. And maybe this was a subject best not broaching — too late! Mamede’s answer set me straight.
“They would fish if I let them. But I don’t want them to fish. They need to go to school and learn. I don’t want them to suffer as I have.”
There was no hesitation in his response and no self-pity. His answer came straight from the gut, and it was so direct, it made me catch my breath. Mamede had seen the future he wanted for his children, and it wasn’t fishing. He was looking forward, not back.
This brought up another question, and maybe it was the one I had meant to ask all along. “Mamede, what will happen to the jangadeiros?”
More silence but not for very long.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But there will always be jangadeiros. If there are fish to catch, then jangadeiros will catch them.”
Just then the hatch scraped forward and Ze climbed out.
“What are you doing up here?” he asked me. “Fishing?”
He was teasing me.
“I’m watching Mamede fish.”
“Ah—you will learn a lot from Mamede. He’s a good fisherman.”
“I know, Ze,” I paused. “And so are you.”
“HA!” he laughed and rolled his eyes.
Ze did not like to be the center of attention.
João now appeared in the opening, looking more disgruntled than usual. Poor João — he was not a happy jangadeiro.
“All this talking,” he groused. “How the hell can I sleep?”
We were all looking at him now. Unlike Ze, João loved to be the center of attention.
“João,” Mamede called out, giving me a wink, “come up and fish. It’s time to fish the line, João. It is time to fish.”
And there we were, the four of us, one happy family (sort of, kind of). I watched them fish for another half hour and nothing was caught. Ze had a strike but that was it. Feeling like a government inspector on a highway project through the desert (i.e. useless), I said good night and headed below. Before stepping into the hold I took a last look at the twinkling lights of the other jangadas. The air was perfectly still — no two molecules collided. I wondered if it would be the same in the morning. Would we be stuck out there for another scorching day? Crawling back to my sleeping spot — grinding, grunting, and groaning — I prayed that we would not.
Next chapter: 3rd Dream