Storytime: Fishing Trip.

July 7th, 2010

Juan was a young boy when he first saw the bird.  Not the most observant age, but certainly the most restless, and it was those restless, fidgeting, bored eyes of his that corkscrewed their way across the sky that day on his father’s rusty fishing boat and saw the big, white wings holding still and flat in the sea breeze, feathers ruffling gently. 
“What is that?” he’d asked his father.  The old man – well, looking back on it, not so old, but then he was his father, so of course he was an old man – glanced up from the jury-work and profanity he was repairing the creaky motor with. 
“Albatross,” he grunted, turning his attention back just in time to stop a spring from snapping shut on his thumb. 
“Yes, but father –”
“You’ve seen them before, boy.”  Unfortunately, stopping the spring had entailed hastily wedging two other fingers into a very small space, whose precise contents Juan’s father was trying to recall.  
“But it’s –“
“Shit!  Juan, pass me the hammer and a rag.”  Apparently the compartment’s contents were both sharp and moving, very vigorously so. 
And so Juan passed his father his tool and makeshift bandage and talked no more about the bird for the rest of the day, though it weighed heavily enough on his mind that the old man had to whack him on the head a couple times to make sure he was paying attention while they started to let out their lines. 
He hadn’t mentioned the odd thing he’d noticed about the bird, as he saw it swoop over the boat, before his father looked up.  The odd thing was that its wingspan had been twice the length of their boat’s hull. 

Juan grew up strong, like his father had and his mother had.  Particularly his mother, who knew much more about engines than either her husband or son and never failed to berate them on the many occasions they replaced using a specific repair tool with a hammer, which was often. 
Unfortunately, as will occur in people his age, Juan’s brain grew a bit slower than his body, and so one morning after an argument with his father the night before over laziness (the old man thought he was stricken with it, Juan insisted that he was a slave driver) he snuck down to the dock and took out their boat alone.  He’d prove he wasn’t lazy.  An early-early-morning catch he’d find, and a big one.  That would show his father properly. 
The water looked good to Juan as he coaxed the boat into what he judged a proper place.  Plenty of fish in there, just waiting to bounce themselves onto the tip of his hooks, flying into the boat to prove the old man wrong. 
“You’re in my spot,” said a voice.
It was not a very nice voice; not cruel, heavily accented in some way Juan didn’t recognize, but possessed of that raspy, disinterested grumpiness that was most easily summed up as “grizzled.” 
“I don’t know you,” said Juan to the voice, and that was more puzzling still, as the one thing he knew better than the waters around home was the people.  And he was certain that even if by some miracle from above he didn’t know one of the other local fishermen, he would remember this one.  He was old, sun-burnt so deeply his skin was near to charred black, and more wrinkled and scarred than an elderly sea sponge.  His boat was wooden, battered, and as sun-scorched as her owner, with a tattered sail that couldn’t have let any more light through if it were glass.
“No,” the sun-cooked man said, “you wouldn’t.  Push off my spot.”
Juan’s mother had made very sure that he respected his elders, but there were limits.  And most of them freshly broken as of last night. 
“You aren’t from around here,” he said, “and that makes this my spot.  I’ve fished here before and I’ll fish here for years yet.  So why don’t you push off, you miserable old thief?”
The old man’s frown deepened, and then he burst into a deep chuckling guffaw that splish-splashed off the waves for miles.  The wrinkles and scars on his face jumped and jerked in ways that made Juan’s stomach roll
“Ha!  Good offer.  No fun though.  Want to hear a deal?”
Juan thought.  If Juan hadn’t argued with his father, hadn’t snuck out early, he would’ve been more clearheaded and not as hasty.  On the other hand, if Juan hadn’t argued with his father and snuck out early, his father would be here with him and his father would’ve turned the old man down.  Which was exactly why what Juan said next was: “What kind of deal?”
“A bet.  We fish with handlines, stop when one quits, winner is the biggest catch.  That simple enough, boy?”
Juan thought a bit more.  The old man was old, which meant he would be weaker and tire easier.  On the other hand, he was an old fisherman, so not so much in either case, and he must know quite a lot of the sea to sail that relic around without so much as a backup motor.  On the third hand, Juan knew the water.  But what decided it, again, was none of these things: it was because Juan’s father had spoken to him in just that tone of voice last night, that “boy.”
“Bet made,” said Juan. 
The old man’s grin went thin and bloodless.  “Deal struck,” he replied, and with one creaky swoop of his arm he produced an old driftwood rod, knobbly old bones unfolding in a perfect cast.  Juan’s own bobber hit the water what felt like long seconds afterward, and by the time it had the old man was already reeling in his line, hauling back with gritted teeth.  A fat flapping mackerel struggled through to the surface, which he seized, unhooked, and tossed back one-handed. 
Juan was shaken, but stubborn.  He fished with every trick he knew, and he reeled in his line heavy.  He fished as the old man pulled in catch after catch, first twice what he brought in, then thrice, then four times as much.  The driftwood pole and line didn’t place itself in wait for the fish, it seemed to land on top of them and seize them bodily, hauling them up by jaws that hadn’t even intended to seize the bait.  And each fish that he caught, the old man let fall back into the water. 
“Give?” asked the old man at noon, dragging an exhausted shark’s head half out of the water to eye critically.  The sun was high and hot, the waves growing boisterous. 
Juan looked at the shark – which was weightier than he and his father put together – and then at the coolers, filled snugly with fish.  Almost more than he’d hoped when he set out, but useless to him now.  Nothing he’d caught matched that shark, and he wouldn’t lose that bet. 
“No,” said Juan.  And he cast again.  The old man cackled and released the shark.  Juan thought it looked puzzled, as far as sharks could. 
The afternoon wore on, as did Juan’s sunburn.  The old man remained unaltered, although Juan thought that if he was capable of burning any farther it would only be into charcoal. 
Finally, just as Juan was about to give up, his rod nearly tore itself out of his hands, wrenching wildly in his grasp.  The water blasted itself apart as a (relatively small) swordfish launched itself into the air.  It brandished its beak at him, thrashed madly, and then was back in the water with force that nearly disjointed both his arms.
“Hah,” said the old man, and he put his rod down and picked up a small pack of rancid tobacco, which he began to carve at.  “Should be good.”
Juan mustered the breath to wheeze a profane sentence at him before the swordfish dived. 
On the many later occasions Juan looked back on the battle, whether that evening as his father shouted at him or years later with fond regret, he found himself equally unable to remember details.  Only a seemingly unending torrent of the same muscles in his body being jerked new ways every five seconds for what seemed like five years.  As to its actual length, he never knew, but for the sun dropping down to near-horizon by the time that swordfish made its final lunge, gasping its way up besides the hull.  Its eye stared into Juan’s, expressionless and wide, yet somehow capable of conveying loathing.  Then it jerked its head once, twice, three times and Juan’s line gave up the ghost in a quiet, cynical snap.  The fish dropped firmly out of sight and into mind. 
Juan collapsed back in his seat, realizing to his surprise that someone had replaced his lungs with burlap sacks.  His hands hurt, and he wasn’t quite willing to look at them yet. 
“Not bad,” said the old man.  “Give?”
Nodding took all the energy in the world.
“Not bad,” repeated the old man.  He spat a small stream of tobacco juice.  “Spot’s yours.  Good luck.”
He rowed very quickly, thought Juan.  That strange mist that had come out of nowhere swallowed him so fast.  He’d better lie here on the comfortable floor until it passed.  Good idea. 
White wings were overhead, but he was too tired to see them. 

Juan’s father was terrified when he went out looking with half the village that evening, standing in the forefront of the largest boat, his own father’s binoculars set to eyes, peering through cracked lenses for a darker blot on the horizon.  He never would’ve seen the boat if not for the swooping of the seabird over it, a great white thing that had him squinting and readjusting the ancient device to check its scale, only to miss it entirely.
As he found his son at last, adrift and asleep, it was only the sight of the snapped line and bruising on his arms and hands that brought him back to calmness, then more worry.  As it was, Juan spent a few days laid up in bed being yelled at by his father, calmly remonstrated by his mother, and hallucinating that an albatross was trying to shove him into an egg. 

Juan’s father forgave him, of course, after a time.  And Juan got on better with him, since after the bet and the swordfish ordinary work was a welcome relief.  And surprisingly easy to boot – in no more than a few years, Juan was the best fisherman in the village after his father.  And one more year after that, he was the best fisherman in the village.
All things must end, of course.  Juan moved out of the house soon after, found a new home, a small home, and bought a very small boat.  He knew where to fish though, and soon neither boat nor home was as small.  A time after that, a woman who was much too good to be with him walked in the door and the home felt small again, good small. 
But again, all things must end, and after some time ordinary work itself ended for Juan as he was trawling through an anchovy school.  He was just beginning to winch up the net when his boat’s hull shook, shuddered, and clanged, squealing against immovable matter.  Juan was halfway to grabbing a patch and two-thirds of the way through a curse when he remembered that the nearest thing shallow enough for him to ground on it was the village dock. 
It was at this moment that the boat was surrounded in a popping, swirling circuit of bubbles.  Scrambling to the side and gazing down, Juan saw a shadow as big as the world underneath him, so large that at first he mistook it for the bottom.  It was getting bigger. 
“You again,” said the voice. 
Juan was in two minds at seeing the old man again – who didn’t appear any different.  Seeing him was a surprise, yes, but his apparent ability to pop up alongside him without so much as an oar-splash was somehow unshocking. 
“You too,” said Juan.  “No more bets.  I already have a full net, and I don’t think my father will come to help this time if you leave me adrift again.”
“Fair,” said the old man.  He pointed one sun-bleached oar at Juan’s net.  “Look out.”
Juan spun around just in time to see a mouth the size of his house breach the water’s surface in the midst of the bubbles, closing neatly around both the panicked anchovy swarm trapped inside them and Juan’s net, missing Juan’s boat itself by a couple of inches.  His knife was in his hand before he knew it, slashing at the strands ever as the whale – god, what a whale, the sheer size of it, was it a blue? – began to sink again, the winch creaking and whining as it was stretched, the boat’s stern depressing down and down only to rocket up again as the last fibres parted, spilling Juan on his rear and the last fibres of his trawling net across the ocean.
“Hmm,” said the old man, carving a plug of chewing tobacco from his ancient wad.  “Want to hear a deal?”
Juan realized his knuckles were too white to be healthy as he stared at them, and unclenching them from the knife took a more serious effort than he would’ve assumed. 
“I guess so,” he said. 
“Same as before?” asked the old man, tucking the tobacco between cheek and gum, a tight fit if there ever was one. 
“Yes,” said Juan. 
“Good,” said the old man, and just like magic there was that rod out of nowhere, bobber in the water a hairs-breadth in front of Juan’s, already jumping as soon as it touched the water. 
“Do you know what that thing down there is?” asked Juan.  The old man was reeling in whatever it was he’d caught with that same eerie ease Juan was suddenly recalling from all those years ago. 
“Yes,” he said.  “Don’t mind it.  Won’t scare the fish away.”
It certainly wasn’t.  The bubbles continued to rise, and the fish churned upwards towards them both in a panic.  Amidst the shimmering silver streams of the little ones darker grey shadows bite and ate; there were more than just anchovies down there.  And if Juan needed more proof, the old man was laughing and wrestling with the rod as a full-sized tuna thrashed at the other end.  As Juan’s bobber took its first hit the old man wrestled it out of the water and held it close, eye-to-eye, before releasing it.
Juan was too busy after that to pay attention to the other boat, having time for about one spare thought every few minutes, most of which he devoted to quickly massaging his limbs, looking for the next spot, or silently, eternally thanking his long-held-by-now obsession with ensuring he kept extremely strong line on hand at all times.  And good strong gloves, which were getting awfully thin in the palms as his cooler filled up with more and more fish.  Just the good ones, the strong, healthy thrashers, the fighters, the tough men of the sea who were surprised and shocked as he deftly circumvented their best tricks and ran rings around them right up to his waiting hands. 
Juan did things he’d never thought possible, at least deliberately.  He tricked a small shortfin mako into breaching directly into the boat.  He caught a small fish, which was swallowed by a tuna, which a shark consumed, then hooked the lot.  He hooked a tuna by its tail.  All in the space of an hour, surrounded by more of their kind. 
The contest was ended by neither Juan nor the old man, but the whale surfacing to breathe.  The bubbles ceased as it rose for air, and whatever fish that remained as the rest fled followed in the thunderous discharge of its blowholes, spout jutting dozens of feet from twin openings as big as manholes.   The wave of its flukes washed the air as it dove, sending waves at both boats that nearly tipped them.
The old man glared at the vast, dark shape beneath them, almost identical to the ocean floor.  “Bastard.”  He met Juan’s questioning gaze.  “It’s over.  Best was three tuna on one hook.  Yours?”
“Something close.  Shark, tuna, something small that the tuna ate too fast to see.”
The old man nodded, frowning.  “Hmm.  Draw?”
Juan returned the nod.  “Yes.”
“Good.  Say hello to the wife.  Goodbye.”
Juan didn’t bother trying to keep up with his rowing.  He suspected it wouldn’t do any good. 

Juan’s wife had a great deal of difficulty understanding why he stayed out there so long, with no warning.  But she couldn’t argue with the catch, and accepted his explanation, which consisted entirely of the truth.  He’d told her the story of his youth years ago, so she couldn’t say she didn’t know he was crazy.  She nodded, clucked her tongue at the rudeness of the old man up and leaving like that, then told him she was pregnant.  Juan didn’t think about the old man then for quite some time. 

Juan fished, and Juan’s daughter grew up.  He took her out there many, many times, and she took to it well, something her mother approved of even if she didn’t claim to understand, and they never ran hungry or scant of money.  Juan could practically hear the fish now, feel them swimming through the hull of his boat, something that he explained carefully to the girl that he was never sure if she quite understood.  They pulled nets and hauled lines together, father and daughter, some of the time watched from below by a strange-large shadow Juan thought he recalled, and in the evening mother and daughter would berate Juan over his amazing inability to cook. 
“She has the best of both of us,” Juan’s wife told him, and he could only agree.  And years later, when Juan’s daughter got married and left town, she had the best of someone else too. 
Fishing trips were lonelier then, and with both smaller reason to stay out and fewer mouths to feed Juan took less.  He felt a tired and elderly spider of fantastic size, sitting quietly above a gathering of prey with a single strand of web that moved as one with his thoughts, darting among the small and slow to find the large and strong.  One bait, one cast, one catch.  Economy over excess. 

Juan’s wife’s funeral was nothing extravagant. The family was there, grandchildren and her brothers and sisters and their children and grandchildren.  Juan’s wife had been loved quite fully, and by more than he.  He thanked them all, gave them food to take home (fish – which he assured them they could prepare much more deftly than he), and stayed up late that night finishing his will and a few notes, which he addressed and mailed in the early morning on his way down to the docks. 
The boat’s motor was modern, smooth and quiet and strong.  Juan was proud of it, and proud that he hadn’t once had to take a hammer to its insides.  His mother would’ve risen from the grave solely to yell at him.  It took him a long way out before he shut it off, far, far offshore, land away, just him and the sea.  And the old man, who he felt arriving before he heard his voice. 
“Hello,” he said.  “You’re in my spot.”
The old man showed as much surprise as he did increased wear, but his face looked a bit softer than usual.  “Same to you.”
Juan watched the sky, searching for a hint of white wings.  “My wife is dead.”
He looked to the sea, for quiet bulk and hints of bubbles.  “My daughter is alive and happy.”
“Good for her.”
Juan stretched; his arms got stiff nowadays if he didn’t take care to keep moving.  “I believe I have a bet to make.”
“An old one, with one slight modifications.”
The old man said nothing. 
“Handlines.  Stop where one quits.  Smallest catch.”
The old man laughed.  “Very good!”  He leaned over the side of his boat.  “Hear that?!” he shouted to the sea at large.  “Very good!”
“One question, before we begin.”
“Are they both here?”
The old man wrinkled his brow – even farther, if possible – and then held up three fingers.  “One below,” he clarified. 
“Then I will have to meet her,” said Juan.

The rods were raised, the hooks flew, the bobbers splashed.  Juan’s slightly ahead. 
He let the line run, feeling it fall, guided by something more than gravity and the currents, slipping down away from the budding morninglight into the places where there never was any.  Eddies murmured at it, fish watched and swam by, mouths clamped tightly shut. 
Down fell the hook, softly, slowly, in the cold abyss, so far down that each twitch Juan made in the boat took nearly twenty minutes to tip-toe down to it.  Luckily, he was making them ahead of time.  He wouldn’t keep her waiting. 
Strangeness flowed up from below, on the tinsel-thread of the fishing line, which was far too short to reach the hook now. 
There she was.  A grandness, an otherness, a quiet observer who never slept, seldom moved, always dreamed.   She was all tethers, all hooks and lines, arms stretching for miles farther than they really did. 
As politely as possible, the hook moved to the vents she rested about and around.  She made no objection, content to watch with the largest eyes ever created as it drifted towards the black-gushing water, hotter than hell, warmer than heaven. 
The hook stopped moving an inch from water at a temperature that would boil it into nothing in a second, jerked upwards less than a micrometer, and then respectfully withdrew, prize secured.  The squid watched patiently as he left. 
Juan grew tired as the hook rose, but it mattered little.  He would have time to rest.  Inch by inch, reel by reel, the line returned to him, impossibly long, impeccably careful, precious cargo undisturbed. 
The hook slipped into his hand.  “I am ready,” he announced. 
The old man shrugged.  Juan realized he’d finished fishing long ago, and their boats stood side by side.  “A single plankton particle,” he announced, indicating a tiny speck on the tip of his hook.  “Crab larvae.  Don’t know which kind.”
Juan nodded, and held up his own.  “Microbe, likes hot temperatures.  Just in the cradle of the hook.”
The old man leaned over and examined it closely, turning it this way and that.  “Hmm.”  He sat back, watching Juan curiously. 
Juan dropped the rod and reel into the water, feeling a strange current take them and their cargo.  Somehow, he knew they would reach the bottom safely.  
Now the old man smiled, wide and warm.  “You win.”
“Thank you,” said Juan.  “I’m going to go swimming now.”
The old man shook his head.  “Not yet.  You were in my spot, now I’m in yours, and you’ve got to take it.  Here.”  He handed the driftwood rod to Juan.  A long, long series of small scratches adorned the handle, each carefully crossed out but the last.  Most were alphabets or symbols Juan didn’t recognize. 
“You’re the best now,” the old man said.  “They need the best.  A go-between.  Look out for them.”
Juan didn’t have to look for the wings now, or listen for the bubbles, or even feel the hair on his neck prickle at the eyes.  For the same reason that he’d never had to look for his arm. 
“All three?” he asked.
“More,” said the old man.  He took up the oars again, sitting taller in his seat than Juan remembered. 
“How many?”
The oars were moving, and already he was almost out of sight.  Still, his answer was clear enough to sound perfectly in Juan’s ear, combined with the careful swipe of one oar to beckon at all that surrounded their two tiny boats. 
“All of them.”

Juan thought about that, as the splash of oars faded away.  Strange things were filling his senses now, songs he’d never heard, sights never seen, thoughts carried on secret breezes and deep currents. 
There was something he needed to look at out there, a job he needed to do.  A thousand somethings, many lifetimes of jobs, of work.  He’d best get going. 
Juan turned on the motor.  Smooth, quiet, and strong.  His mother would’ve liked it. 
“Still not lazy, father,” he said. 
He didn’t need to say anything else for a long time. 


“Fishing Trip” Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

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