It’s a strange
courage you give me, ancient star:
Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!
– William Carlos Williams
Ricardo couldn’t decide whether the swell seemed quiet this evening, or if he was losing his hearing because he was sixty-five. He reflected on the ageing process as distinctly unfair, resenting a loss of competency more than anything else, just as he resented his wife peevishly suggesting that he hire someone to help him on his fishing trips. He had tried that for a week or so, but the boy – the name escaped him – he had nothing interesting to say. He didn’t see why someone should be paid to sit in silence. And so he proceeded along the jetty, the dusty light turning his weather worn skin iridescent. He was by himself, and surveyed the harbour with pleasure, noting that the other fishing boats sat bobbing gormlessly, empty of passengers.
He stepped into his own vessel, landing on the wooden decking with a measured thud. The dingey looked like it had a skin condition, its white painted coat was in a perpetual state of peeling.; littering the surrounding water with flecks of floating bits. The harbour mullet sometimes mistook the these for food, swooping upwards to claim their lunch, only to discard their unwanted meal . They usually returned about ten minutes later, forgetting their mistake, repeating the process in vain. He chuckled and pulled a round sunhat over his head. The eight horsepower outboard motor, with whom he shared a complicated relationship, sputtered as it conducted him out of the harbour. He kept an oar tucked under the seat at all times, just in case he was abandoned in the line of duty. He hoped the Honda didn’t hold it against him.
Ricardo took a moment to turn his head to the East and West, feeling the wind on his face as he motored along. The sea was a leaden blue, and he pictured the dolphins who would surely be gathered beyond the confines of the bay, fishing, as he was, in the evening tide. With care, he approached the foamy white water breaking over the reef below. He cut the engine. The sound of the wilder, proper sea water, grew more apparent in the silence which ensued. The setting sun cast a dusty pink glare into his face as he stretched his goggles over his head. He removed his t-Shirt, looped a rope around his ankle for safe-keeping, and slowly, slower than he used to, slipped beneath the ripples on the surface.
It was cold, but he did not mind. Ricardo felt the tension in his shoulders and lower back release as his eyes adjusted to the opaque gloom. He didn’t fish while he swam, preferring to just look around, inspecting the coral to make sure everything was getting along well. He had been known to re-arrange rocks in order to provide more appropriate homes for the crabs. He felt defensive on their behalf, low ranking members of the reef as they were. He rotated his neck, feeling the cool pressure of the water flowing around its stiff spots. He blew a few speculative bubbles as he hung there, paddling obliquely.
He lifted his head as a school of yellow angel fish passed above him. To his left were some anemones, containing, no doubt, several clownfish. He hoped there were black ones in there, they were his favourites. He passed ten minutes like this, floating, looking, and returning to the surface only when his lungs had reached their airless capacity. The light was beginning to fade, and as he thought about fetching his headlamp from the cockpit, was made aware of a clicking sound. The kind your nose makes when it is forced too deep under water. He turned towards it. Four greyish muscular shapes jostled through the drifting surf and made their way towards him, travelling much faster than their languid posture suggested. The dolphins were back from their fishing trip. They exuded the kind of malaise one can only experience after a proper feed. He remembered that he was yet to catch his own dinner and proceeded, hand over hand towards the boat.
But there wasn’t any tension in the line. The rope wilted in his hands, the end dropped flaccidly below him, receding into the grey. He remained calm and swam in the direction that he thought he must have come from. Knowing better, he vainly tugged at the rope, hoping it might have magically found a catch-point. He surfaced, pulling his goggles onto his forehead and squinting left and right into the approaching darkness. It was really an error, he thought, not to have worn his head torch – But the water had been so inviting!
He was relieved when his eyes made out a greyish shape rising and falling sedately on the surface. He swam towards it, a graceful breaststroke given the circumstances. It was getting harder to see though, and the current was not his friend this evening. He swam hard for five minutes, and looking up to check his progress, realised he’d drifted only a few metres to the left. Still his target remained in sight. Besides, he figured he had a little more time before it got really dark. That stupid rope, he thought, stupid stupid rope. Then he remembered that a bad workman always blamed his tools and chastised himself for tying a bad knot. He was beginning to make progress though, and with a few more strong kicks, Ricardo was in touching distance of his vessel.
But, unfortunately, something grabbed him. He felt simultaneously the rough scrape of barnacles against his leg, and a stab of fear. He was lifted above the surface momentarily. A rush of air steamed out from beside him, and he was taken under again. By now, he was quite cold, and quite sure that he was in the mouth of a sperm whale. There was no use in struggling – the whale’s grip was strong, and he was hungry. Ricardo could not recall ever encountering sperm whales on his small reef. They had always struck him as charcoal and slimy, deep sea creatures. And yet here it was, and here he was, clamped in a tight, but seemingly non-violent grasp, travelling purposefully to the West. He knew, although he doubted the whale did, that the harbour lay not far beyond the headland towards which they swam. He was momentarily comforted by the thought of the orange lights which would now be special and and shiny on the water inside the bay. The small restaurant by the waterfront would have begun to welcome guests for dinner, and squid would be placed on the grill, while people took their seats. His hunger returned to him, and it surprised him that he was able to think all of these things whilst held fast in the jaws of a fifty-seven-tonne whale, being dragged a pace of, he calculated, around four knots, but he supposed it was better than worrying. He tried to work out how long he’d been at sea for. Maybe two hours now? Still, they swam. He urinated in the water as they drifted along, the whale didn’t seem to mind; it kept a resolutely steady passage, rising to the surface mechanically, allowing him to breathe. Perhaps this would be the last time he ever urinated, he reflected, as the warm stream lingered around his upper thigh. Breaking the companionable silence that had passed over their travel during their half hour acquaintance, the whale began clicking with increasing intensity, scanning its head left and right. It adjusted its course, tugging Ricardo, a little faster now to the East. He now felt the metal presence of fear inside him once more. But the whale let go. He didn’t really see it leave, just felt the pressure on the back of his leg release. It rose to take a breath, somewhere to his left. A rush of water knocked him sideways, the wake as it dived. He turned to watch it depart but received nothing apart from the sound of slowly receding clicks. He floated for a while, disoriented, breathing and shivering. Something hard hit the side of his head. The water made a hollow clapping sound as it probed the wooden surface. ∎
Words and illustration by Scarlet Katz Roberts.