BANG! BANG! BANG! I woke up with a start, nearly nailing my skull on the beam right above. Looking forward I thought I was still dreaming: João’s hard-hatted head, upside down, peering 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 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, eyes barely open, deep lines creasing 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 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 goes 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 — probably 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, 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 laughing. It felt so good.
When the mirth 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 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?” pointing at the steering bench, the mestre’s lifting spot. There was only a small swell 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 consternation.
“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 quickly drove it home. João tied off the brace to keep the mast in place, then they all turned around to face me. To a man they were 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 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