BANG! BANG! BANG! I awoke with a start, nearly nailing my forehead on the beam above. Looking forward I thought I was still dreaming: João’s upside down head, hardhat on, peering at me from the hatch. “Get up!” the head snapped. “We’re leaving.” And then he 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 in the direction we wanted to go. Facing the cool 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 exhausted, spent, shoulders rolled forward, eyes mostly shut, looking like tired old men who had worked hard all their lives. (Not so far from the mark.) And they were not happy old men. 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, dark night.
Mamede saw where I was looking and guessed my thoughts.
“The fishing didn’t get any better,” he said. “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 is so slow.”
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 — most likely exhaustion — it was funny. I don’t know who started chuckling at first. The rest of us soon joined in and the laughter quickly grew — getting louder and more raucous until we were all doubled over, cackling our asses off. It was the strangest thing. The sun had just risen and there we were – four men on a raft in the middle of nowhere — laughing and laughing and laughing. It felt so good.
When the laughter finally subsided, Mamede turned to me and spread out his arms. “So this is how we fish,” he said. He was standing taller now and I could hear the pride in his voice — pride combined 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 clearing the deck and stowing the 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 to lift?” pointing at the steering bench, the mestre’s lifting spot. Only a small swell was running — what could possibly happen?
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 replied, 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 different world. Every little jerk the jangada made became a big jerk, causing me to grip the mast with both hands for support. That I would soon need to lift that same mast over my head was an irony I did not fully appreciate at the time.
Mamede was watching and saw my consternation.
“Are you are all right?” he asked.
They were all looking at me now.
“Sem problemas,” I shrugged, stretching the truth yet again.
With some hesitation they turned around and got ready for the lift. And I crouched down to get my shoulder under the spar. Skeptic that I am, I was praying right then.
“PRONTO?” 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 move, we all pushed harder. In no time at all the wood was out of my hands and the jangadeiros quickly drove it home. João secured the brace to keep the spar from falling back, and then they all turned around to face me. They all had big smiles.
“Good work,” Mamede said. “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 hauled us up to the second anchor, and he and Ze lifted 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