Two

 

Hunched over in the lee of the deck coaming Antone’s back rests against the forward bulkhead. The sun full on his face. Out of the breeze. A cloth-cap crammed on his head. Ear-muffs push his ears out. Tips bent at right angles. A short grizzle of beard thickens into a buzz-cut. Hair a more neutral gray than his sallow skin. Face crisscrossed with a myriad of fine wrinkles. Deeper furrows line his forehead and cut between bushy brows. His face culminates in a bulbous, potato-nose. Rosacea spreads from it to bloom across his cheeks.

His eyes, once dark, are bleached, bleary. Bloodshot, resignedly so. Whites like clotted cream. Irises clouded by ripening cataracts. Tufts of wiry hairs protrude from his nostrils and ears. A worn, gray corduroy shirt. A green corduroy jacket. All four buttons done. Its collar turned up. Corduroy trousers, not the match to the jacket, patched at the knees, frayed at the hems, fall over the tops of a pair of salt-stained brown-broughams on sock-less feet. His left shoe tied with marlin. The right with a too-short lacing done in a square-knot.

A short man, wizened to a fraction of his former bulk, his hands appear immense, broader than they are long. He holds his fists loosely clenched. Short fingers, segmented, red, like a boiled lobster’s claws. His right pinky is missing two joints. Thick, yellow, claw-like nails appear to cut into his flesh.

Pain of every sort, loss of every kind, mark every inch of him. A caged self-preservation, more will worn into habit expressed in his every move. Three decades alone in a dory. Fogs and gales on the Grand Banks. Baiting trawl, setting trawl, hauling trawl. Forking a half ton of Cod onto a schooner’s deck. Gutting, splitting, and packing salted carcasses into a pitching hold. Baiting trawl again. His only respite, a few hours perched on a narrow shelf against the bow planking, booming and hissing in the schooners’ passage through those cold, agitated seas.

Absolute solitude in the dory. On board the schooner he was always bumping and rubbing and cursing and fighting with the other fishermen on deck, in the culling pens, or at the bait boards. Below in the hold, shoveling rock salt, layering flattened Cod, like frozen shirts picked off a winter clothesline. Slurping soup elbow to elbow under a gyrating kerosene lantern. Snoring and farting inches from his fellows, a rag of frayed flannel curtain and a pine bunk-board the only separation of mine from thine.

Spells ashore, between trips and between berths, became longer as he dropped from high-liner to has-been and the Salt Bank Fishery faded along with him. He now had the curse of free time. No-one to enforce discipline. Never alone in town, he gravitated to the fisherman’s tavern on Front Street, dark and close. Stale tobacco-smoke. The stench of sour beer, sweat tangled with the sharp-sweet scent of pine-tar and a pervasive, pungent stench of fish-gurry. These talismans of a life at sea never leave him.

Hiding in the bar failed to bring anonymity. Fellow denizens had all been his shipmates at one time or another. On the street he’s surrounded by people from his home island.

In the dory. Alone with gasping Codfish. Intestines bulging from bellies swollen by decompression. Eyes goggling in the drying wind. Blinded by the searing light of day. Crimson gills flex spasmodically seeking to draw oxygen from the air. Useless to them without the cold comfort of dark, deep water. Fish piled higher and higher, forty to sixty pounds each, three to five feet long. Head to tail and tail to head. Golden or greenish. Slipping inexorably from fresh alarm –  indignant at such a rude interruption – they fade through dogged resistance to arrive at a fatal resignation. A glazed-eyed acceptance of what they have no capacity to understand. No power to change.

Antone presided over this harvest, day in day out, year in year out. Going through endless motions that only habit gave him the strength to accomplish. Pulling a trawl-line up over his dory’s bow, sharp, wire leaders digging into his flesh with their live weight. Swinging a gob-stick, stunning each fish as he flung it aboard. His mind was never there in the dory. As the bait went out or the fish came in lines of trawl were his rosary. Hooks and bait and fish beads on which to hang his regrets.

*

On a long, protected shore it was possible to erect a structure at the edge of shoal water that would interrupt the passage of schools of fish swimming parallel to the beach to send them, first seaward, and finally concentrate them into a circling mass to be dip-netted into a trap boat.

Fish traps likes these off Beach Point developed from an ancient technique following a simple underlying principle: Block a school’s intended path along a contour and they will instinctively turn for deeper water. Array a set of barriers to channel their desire to escape into an ever tighter enclosure and you have them.

The earliest fish traps were built by hunter gatherers in many parts of the world. A wall of closely spaced stakes running out from the shore, arcing into a spiral that turns back in on itself. Fish enter. Their one and only thought defeated, they remain trapped to be collected.

Elegantly simple, these traps were hard to build. Tall, wispy saplings had to be cut, stripped of branches and bark, driven into the bottom, and tied together to make a screen. Minor storms waves smashed into them instead of washing through. Eel-grass, mowed by a storm’s breakers, clogged them so that fish would avoid the trap. Foot-long tendrils, waving in the current, a warning to stand clear.

Yankee ingenuity focused on this ancient tool as it had on so many others in the Nineteenth Century. Piles rigged with panels of netting. A long perpendicular barrier, running for a thousand feet out from the shore formed the Leader.

A pair of cupped chambers, the Hearts, channeled fish from either side of the Leader through a Gate into a final chamber, the Bowl. These nets acted as fences. Their bottoms roughly conforming to the sand below. The Bowl was arranged in two parts: A Bottom Panel had lead sinkers around its perimeter. It ran under the Gate. The Rim hung around the Bowl and was strung to the Bottom. Sheets and halyards allowed the Bowl’s nets to be drawn up to dry and to clear them of weed.

The entrance to the Bowl was left open until the net was full. The Hearts presented curving walls between the Leader and the Gate. The momentum of circling schools sent them circling until the boat arrived. Reluctance to change direction sealed their fate.

Traps were set in pairs or groups of threes. The outer-most sat in about forty-five feet of water. It had the longest piles, the freshest gear, and was called the Offshore Trap. The next was predictably, the Middle Trap. The innermost, the Skunk, was constructed of the oldest, hand-me-down gear.

Seventy-five foot long Hickory poles were delivered from Down-East by schooner to this tree-less place. Set by crews working from a Pound Scow in early Spring. This was a sailing barge fitted with a tall gantry on one end used to drive them into the hard sand. Pumped water pressure loosened the sand as the butt-end of a pile was pounded down. Before these pumps were motorized, the scows carried a pair of gang-handles similar to those on horse-drawn fire engines.

Pilings stood vertically or nearly so. They trailed along the Leader in a long line. The ones supporting the Bowl were splayed outwards, guyed by a tracery of lines. This gave the Bowl  the look of a ragged crown.

Waves washed through these traps much more freely than the old sapling weirs; but algae and barnacles still grew on them. Marine-borers would honeycomb pilings. To counteract this they were dipped in Creosote and nets were soaked in a concoction of strong copper-salts mixed with Pine-tar.

To kill algae and barnacles and clear away eelgrass entrapped in the Bowls they were raised out of the water periodically. Brailed, like so many sails, every two weeks during the season. From a distance this gave the traps a sinister appearance, like giant woolly-spiders. From the right angle, this resemblance was uncanny. Blocks hanging in the rigging suggesting the many eyes of a Tarantula.

Traps looked menacing from above. They were deadly to those approaching from below. Fish never saw the contraption as a whole. They simply reacted to a barrier by turning away from shore. They congregated in the Bowl, forming a growing, restless mass.

They would maintain their normal routines as best they could, schooling by species, hunting or avoiding predators in a tilted world where straight-ahead no longer existed and every turn only took them around again back to where they started.

As their concentrations tightened bursts of panic swept the enclosures. An endless circling might create – in the right conditions of calm, slack water – a whirlpool. Faint yet visible evidence of an aquatic Tarantella. A dance no more effective than its medieval counterpart at protecting its adherents from sudden death.

 

Continue…

 

 

 

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