DEATH OF A FISHERMAN
copyright 2012 kevin r. hill
Yesterday a Norte blew through town. The Caribbean breeze that always picked up around mid-morning, coming off the sweet ocean and cooling Puerto, had swung around 180* to signal a storm, and came at us from the swamp, carrying with it every mosquito in the world. When I felt the wind shift I checked the radio for hurricane warnings, and walked to the shed to make sure my window coverings were ready to be installed should a big one surprise me.
For three days I’d been waiting to get in the boat and head to Punta Brava with all my shiny new lures and a virgin CalStar fishing pole. I needed that thrill, that elation brought about by feeling the line go tight and hearing the drag singing the instant a fish felt the hook dig into its jaw. But instead I stayed inside with Marina and played games in the hammock with olive oil and a bottle of Cuban rum. With her it was pure sex, free and simple, just tourist sex with no strings. She was number two to my woman back home, and that made the games more focused. I was living large in the Caribbean, shorts all day long and flip flops, sand clinging to my ankles.
When the Norte blew itself out at four in the morning I woke with the silence and moved Marina’s sweaty arm from my chest. The stillness meant the Caribe, as the locals called the ocean, would lay down flat and allow us gringos to sneak out and fish. So I picked up my shorts from the floor, checked for scorpions, and pulled them on as I dialed the number of my Mayan boat captain.
“Fill the tank, Poncho. I’ll fill the ice chest and grab the bait and meet ya on the pier.”
On the way to the pier I stopped at a new telephone pole where TeleMex, the Mexican telephone company, was installing new lines. Dangling from the big, thick cable on the pole was a rainbow of tiny wires, just what we needed to secure the bill of our ballyhoo to the leader. I told Marina to keep the engine running and jumped out. The sun was just coming up and no one was around, and she looked so sexy with only a bikini bottoms and her nipples pressing against the white tank top she wore, that I thought about playing right there in the road, but that wouldn’t get me on the water.
“What are you doing, Yankee?” she called with a sleepy voice as I ran around to the bed of the truck and found the machete. With a few frantic hacks I chopped off a big horse’s tail of the wire and tossed it into the back.
“Are you crazy? You know what they will do to you if they catch you?”
I shoved the truck into gear and lurched forward. “This is Mexico,” I said. “I’ll pay a hundred bucks and have a drink with the cop, and be on my way.”
“Cabrone,” she laughed.
On the water, bouncing over the current, the wind in my sun-bleached hair, Marina walking topless around the deck, my Mayan Captain trying to to stare at her too much, I wondered if life could ever get better, wondered what I had done to be so lucky and feel life so fully as now.
For hours we trolled with the baitfish, escribano, as the Mexicans call it, tied to the lines courtesy of TeleMex. I tried everything to get a bite: I spit on the bait, tied my new transparent leader, even chopped some fish into bits of chum and threw it over board to attract fish. But nothing was biting so I pulled in the lines and got my new pole with light 20 pound test line on it. If they weren’t biting on bait, then I’d try something different. From my tackle box I took a small golden Rapala lure and secured with their own knot. If a sailfish hit the light line I’d be in for a half hour fight, complete with aerial gymnastics.
“Are you trying to make the fish laugh, or scare them away?” shouted Poncho when he saw the lure I was dropping over the side.
Before I let out enough line to get the lure past our wake, the fish hit. My pole jumped in my hand and I shoved the reel into gear and set the hook. I know most guys get pissed when you put on the ratchet sound, but I love that sound of line being pulled out by a strong fish and the alarm ringing as though a bomb were about to explode. After a minute I clicked off the alarm. Keeping the tip up so the flex of the pole would act as a spring, cushioning the pull of the fish, I let him run until his strength faded, and was surprised to see how much line he took off the reel. That meant he was big. It had to be a sailfish.
Now it was just him and I, connected by a thread, one animal fighting for its life, the other fighting to take his life, to deny his freedom. And when he stopped in the water I started working him, pulling him closer with the pole, raising it and then lowering it while reeling in the slack. Then suddenly he was gone!
My heart raced and pounded. I looked at Marina and wanted to hold her. In a split second it occurred to me he was charging, and I reeled like a madman, as though my life depended on it. I called for tequila, and Poncho held it to my lips as I drank, the fire water burning my throat and taking my breath as I exhaled.
Within a minute I felt him again on the line. Suddenly he jumped and violently shook his head, looking so long and magnificent in the sun, that long sword slicing through the air, searching for the connection that held him, searching for my line, trying to sever our bond. I don’t know how long I fought him. He ran, and I pulled him back close enough for him to see the boat hull, and then he’d run again, each time less as his energy faded, as hope slowly wore away. And in some strange way I felt him, felt his heart pounding with fear, and I wondered at the glories he had seen in the ocean Caribbean, wonders never seen by man, and I wished I could somehow download his memories and relive them to honor him.
And connected to that fish like that, I realized that for a man it was the ultimate sport, with life in the balance, as close as a man can come to sex without the feminine. That was the thrill, the elation for one, and death for another.
The first time I saw his color, when he got close enough, Poncho was pulling on his gloves so he could grab his bill, and he shouted: “There’s something down there! Something is following him.”
“Is it a shark?”
“No. It’s crisscrossing in front of him, back and forth.” He stood up straight and scratched his black hair. “I’ve never seen that before.” And he opened the tequila bottle and drank.
When we finally got him in the boat we high fived and raved a bit, and we all got fresh cold beers. The beer washed away the numbness of the tequila, and the cold condensation dripped on my chest. And then I caught the look in that fish’s black eye as it stared at me with one question: why? I watched as those rainbow colors vibrated and began to fade. Around me I heard Poncho and Marina laugh as they hugged. A different type of numbness was growing in me.
As soon as I dropped the lure over the side another sail hit it before I had let out 20 feet of line. It was as though it was there waiting, calling to us to drop it, begging us to catch it. I handed the pole to Marina and watched as Poncho helped her and coached her.
Within 15 minutes we had another sail in the boat, laying side by side, the one still alive staring at the first, flapping its tail and touching the other.
With all the force of hearing my woman speaking to a lover on the phone, a voice within me said: They are mates. One is saying to the other, ‘I’ll follow you anywhere.’
I turned and watched Marina and Poncho laughing with arms around each other.