Second Chance

Just before 18:00, the hatch came open and Mamede rose up, looking like he’d just been shot with a dose of horse tranquilizer. Squinting in my direction, he struggled to focus his eyes.
“Como vai?” he asked in a raspy voice.
“Bom, mas ainda está quente.” Good, but it’s still hot.
“É quente mesmo. Much hotter with no wind.”
“Were you able to get any sleep down there?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, then tipped back his head for an extended yawn.
“Maybe not enough,” he added afterward. He then climbed out, did his little stretching routine, followed by a trip to the transom for you know what.

While he was back there, I dismantled the awning and rolled up the sail.  Just as I finished, Ze appeared in the hatch.
“Hi, Ze. Did you sleep well?” I asked, handing him the sail.
“Sim. E você?” Yes. And you?
“Mais ou menos.” More or less.
“How’s the finger?”
I raised my hand to show him.
“Looks like it’s still bleeding.”
“I hit it on the calçador when I was watering the deck.”
Yeah, right—watering it with your tears maybe.
“We should change the bandage. Take it off and I’ll make a new one.”

Knowing the drill, I knelt at the rail and stuck my hand into the water to soak the cloth. While I was there,  João’s head came over the coaming. He glanced in my direction and did a quick double-take, as if he’d forgotten all about me. His frown deepened and his eyes pinched together. Eventually he remembered his manners and grunted, “Ei.”
And I grunted back, “Ei.”

It was nice to see our relationship was progressing.

I unwrapped the bandage and the finger looked the same.
“Anytime you’re ready,” Ze called from behind.
Turning back I saw him standing by the tabernacle, holding up a new strip of cloth. He was smiling so earnestly, he reminded me of a has-been movie star pushing a new cleaning product on midday TV: Clean up that mess with the Zippy Strip. Two times more absorbent than your standard wipe. The Zippy Strip—get one now!  With such an open and honest face, the poster boy for a kinder and gentler artisanal fisherman—We’ll give you two for the price of one!

I blinked and smiled back, then turned back to the rail to complete my own little cleaning project. It was then I spotted it — a large dolphin fish swimming in my direction. I froze when I saw it.

It was such a unique fish, with a bluff forehead, blunt as a battering ram, and a long dorsal fin running down its back. Those features were made for speed, easily provided by the sharp blades of its tail, pumping so effortlessly through the water now. And what beautiful markings it had — green on top and yellow below — with spots large and small dotting its flesh, making it look like a living constellation was gliding through the water. If Brazil didn’t already have a national fish, the perfect candidate was headed right for me.

Mesmerized, I watched it approach. And then I finally came to my senses. Whipping my head around, I urgently hissed at Ze,  “The dourado!

Not comprehending, he stared back at me with a blank expression.
The dourado!” I repeated, furiously pumping my finger at the water, then jabbing it across the deck — right toward him.

His eyes got big then. He was standing right next to the gaff and whipped it out in a flash. Spinning around, he only had to take one step forward to put him where he needed to be at the rail. I turned back just in time to see the dourado’s scythe-like tail slip like a phantom under the hull.
“He’s coming,” I cried.

Ze stood stock-still at the rail, gaff raised and his arm cocked. A few feet aft, Mamede and João were also peering over the side.  João could hardly contain himself, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, calling softly to the fish again, “Vem peixe, vem . . .”
Talk about déjà-vu.
“THERE!” Mamede shouted, pointing down to Ze’s right.

Ze saw it and immediately bolted down — thrusting the hook into the water with the full force of his body. Here we go again, I thought, watching him dive to the deck while cleaving the sea with his arm, stabbing his lance deeper and deeper as he leaned over the side. Then suddenly his arm wrenched sideways and his direction changed. Where a second before he was plunging down with everything he had, he was now rising up from the deck, springing to his feet and grunting loudly as he ripped a large dolphin fish out of the water.

I could not believe my eyes.

Hooked just in front of the tail, the fish took flight as it catapulted upward. Pulled high over Ze’s head, it beat the air wildly trying to escape. Ze wouldn’t let it. Holding the shaft tightly with both hands now, he stepped back from the rail and swung the gaff around like a club. With no choice but to follow the fish came with it, whipping around and down, completing its short flight with a loud slap on the deck — WHAP!  And there it lay,  just a few feet from where I knelt, knocked out or killed by the blow.

Mamede didn’t wait to find out. Jumping down with his araçanga, he gave the fish three quick raps on the head while Ze held the gaff. He then freed the hook from its tail and pushed the fish to the foot of the tabernacle. The dourado was now only an arm’s length away, and I couldn’t stop looking at it.

“You got him,” Mamede cheered. “Very good! You start fishing early today.”
“Yes! I knew I could get him. I knew it!”
Ze couldn’t be happier. I could hear it in his voice. But I didn’t see it — I didn’t look up. My eyes were glued to the fish, watching its life ebb out in the most vivid colors.

Bright yellow when first pulled from the water, the dourado’s belly flushed to the same vibrant green as the top. For a few seconds it stayed that way, all green and glowing, all covered with spots, and then the belly started to fade. As the pelvic half faded, the dorsal area turned a deep blue, which darkened to violet on its way to black. But it never made it. Like the bottom it also started to fade, ending up a dull gray-green — the color of dead dourado.

The only color that remained constant was the color of its eye. Golden-yellow and big as a nickel, a jet black pupil so perfectly centered, the eye looked more like a precious marble. It was so open and fixed, so completely vulnerable, I wanted to reach over and cover it with something. Instead I ran my palm down the fish’s slick side. The skin was cold to the touch, but felt more human than fish. And the firmness of its body told only of swiftness.

“It’s a good fish,” said Ze. I knew he was watching me.
“Yes, Ze. It’s a beautiful fish.”
Only then did I lift my gaze and look at him.

Next chapter: Still Hanging On

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