BANG! BANG! BANG! I sprang awake with a start, nearly hitting my fore-head on the beam above. Looking forward I thought I was still dreaming. There was João’s hard-hatted head, upside down, leering at me from the hatch. “Get up!” the head snapped. “We’re leaving.” And then the head was gone. Vanished . . .
Out on deck I could feel a soft wind playing over my skin. The breeze was faint but holding steady, and blowing right in the direction we wanted to go. Facing the cool flow of air, I took several deep breaths — so clean and fresh — before turning back to the jangadeiros and exclaiming, “The wind!” as if they didn’t already know. Only then did I take a closer look at them.
They were spent, eyes barely open, deep lines etching their faces, looking like tired old men who had worked hard all their lives. (Not really so far from the mark.) And happy old men they were not. Scanning fore and aft it was easy to see why. Unlike the day before there was no bounty of fish lining the deck. The only fish I saw were in the laundry basket at Ze’s feet. He had just rinsed them off. The basket wasn’t even half full. This was all the fish they had caught through the long cold night.
Mamede saw where my gaze was pointed and guessed my thoughts.
“The fishing didn’t get any better. It’s like this sometimes. You fish all night and catch little or nothing. And the work is just as hard. Maybe harder because the time passes so slowly.”
João grunted at this and swore. While it wasn’t unusual for him to grunt and swear, it seemed so out of place in the early morning quiet. And for some reason — probably exhaustion — it was funny. I don’t know who started sputtering at first. The rest of us soon joined in and the laughter quickly grew — getting louder and louder — until we were all doubled over, laughing our asses off. It was the strangest thing. The sun had barely risen and there we were — four men on a raft in the middle of nowhere — laughing and laughing and it felt so good.
When it finally subsided, Mamede turned to me and raised his arms. “So this is how we fish.” He was standing taller now and I could hear the pride in his voice — pride mixed with resignation. Which one was stronger didn’t really matter. “And now we go back home. With this wind it will take all day to reach Prainha.”
Ze dumped the fish into the icebox and chipped the remaining bars over the top. While he did this, Mamede and João raised one of the anchors and lashed it to the side of the tabernacle. I helped by cleaning the deck and stowing some gear into the hold. Just as we were getting ready to step the mast, I turned to Mamede and asked, “Can I go up there?” pointing at the steering bench, the mestre’s traditional lifting spot. Only a small swell was running. What could possibly go wrong?
Mamede considered my request, looked out at the water and then down at my bandaged finger. “What about that?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” I said, knowing I’d be using my shoulder for most of the lift.
More silence on his part, more pins and needles on mine.
“Okay,” he finally agreed. “But be careful.”
“Great, Mamede. Thanks!”
Before he had a chance to change his mind, I grabbed the espeque post and stepped up onto the steering bench. Though I was only a couple of feet higher up there, it felt like a very different world. Every little jerk the jangada made suddenly became a big jerk, causing me to grip the lowered mast with both hands for support. That I would soon need to lift that mast over my head was an irony I didn’t fully appreciate right then.
Mamede was watching and saw my dismay.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
They were all looking at me now.
“Sem problemas,” No problem, I shrugged, stretching the truth yet again.
With some hesitation they turned around and assumed their lifting positions. And I crouched down to get my shoulder under the spar. Confirmed skeptic that I am, I was praying right then.
“PRONTO?” READY? I called out.
“PRONTO!” they all responded.
“VAI!” I shouted, pushing up hard with my legs.
“VAI, VAI, VAI!”
The mast came off the forquilha and started to climb. And feeling it rise, we all pushed harder. In no time at all the wood was out of my hands and the three men forward easily drove it home. João tied the brace to keep the spar in place, then they all turned around to face me. They were all grinning.
“Good work!” Mamede proclaimed. “You are a Jangadeiro now.”
Clutching the forquilha with both hands for support, squatting low on the bench to keep from falling off — I didn’t really feel like a jangadeiro . . .
Mamede took my place on the banco and they ran out the boom to set the sail. João then pulled us up to the second anchor, and he and Ze raised the heavy stone from the bottom, over 200 feet below. Free from our tether — Free, at last! — Mamede brought the jangada’s bow slowly around and pointed us southward. It was the morning of the fourth day and we were heading back home.
Next chapter: Chuckle and Duck