Antone stirs. Curled up under a corner of canvas in a broken-down shed on a short wharf damaged in the Portland Gale, Rained during the night. Dawn breaks bright, clean, clear. Sunlight pierces the wall, shining-in between brittle cedar shingles, pouring through empty nail holes. Hits him squarely in the eye, Another day.
Cold. Shivering. Consciousness returns in bits and pieces. An inventory of his past patched together out of scraps of memory. Matching up what he remembers with facts swimming into his attention, Not first time I wake in a strange place. How I get here? An odd comfort not finding this strange.
Leaning against a post he misjudges the distance. His skull bounces off immovable hard wood. Feels a sharp pain, Lump. Pressing the ridge at the base of his skull, sliding his hand, pressing again, rubbing the back of his head. That feeling of bruised bone, Hurts.
Lucky. A sliver of good feeling wedges its way in, For what?
Dry. Not a thirst for water, Only one way. Pockets empty. Is early. Nobody….
No, not hungry.
Pulling his knees to his chest with his hands he prepares to rise. Exhales, “Basta! Enough.” He surveys the harbor from the end of the dock. He looks right, West End. Looks left, Railroad Wharf. All there. His back presses against the shed wall, sheltering him from a tentative, cool, southerly breeze. Warmth, from a low sun rising over Long Point, falls across the side of his face. He accepts it. Mind blank, Another day….
Joe C kick me off his trap boat. “By the Jeesus! If you’re gonna smell that bad, you can get the hell away from me!” He said.
Antone’s not particular. His clothes were never too clean, Better like this. People stay out of my way. He walks along Front Street past all sorts going about their business at the start of the day. Strolls down the middle of the sandy street. Shuffles with a stiff gait, as if forging against a strong wind. A cart comes up behind. Its dray nudges him with a long, wet nose. Whiskers scratch his neck. Slowly, reluctantly, he steps aside, glaring after the intrusion.
His mind settles on an old dory tied to a stake on the beach, Tired thing. Rotten. I grab stem and push. It wag like an old dog shaking dry. Its bottom planking worn between the frames, Sand… in seams. Nobody make this boat tight again.
Looking up, he spots an alley leading to the beach, Dory…
Antone has forgotten, if he ever knew, who it belongs to. Somehow he started borrowing it, To get drink gotta’ make money. To put coins in his pocket he needs to get out on the water. Bring something back somebody’s willing to pay for, Is all I know. Send a hook down. Haul out a fish.
Worn-out? No matter. I row dories longer than I have shoes.
His clothes are dirty, frayed, thread-bare, Good enough. Same with dory. Old shoes get me across town. Dory get me past Long Point, to find feesh.
Bait? No. Jig still there? Remembering to check if a hook jabbed into the underside of the gunnel’s furry, dry-rotted wood is still there. He catches a glint, Is here….
Antone unties the dory’s painter from a ragged stump of piling and prepares to drag it to the water’s edge.
Not so strong as I use to be. The dory is heavy. Its high ends and arcing slab-sides substantial. Even in its present condition you could say it’s more boat than he needs. More than he can handle, On land….
Grabbing its gunnel amidships he lifts with his legs. Takes a step forward starting the bow around to face the harbor. The sharp angle of its chine digs into the sand providing a pivot. Three more times and the boat is turned the right way, Easy part. Dory weak too. Pull too hard, in wrong place? It break.
A patient dance. He crosses ten feet of sloping sand a few inches at a time, Tide coming in. Worse when it go out. The water’s edge receding almost as quickly as the pace of his advance. Heartbreaking to watch. No one does.
At the moment the dory begins to float he pauses. Ready to glide across the harbor’s surface no longer held fast by sand. He relishes this moment before water, pouring in through all its leaky seams, has time to drag it down. This moment, a bridge. A respite between two labors. He’s crossed ten feet in ten minutes, Is all I can do. Strain and push. All day I bail. Or row and bail more.
He splashes out knee-deep before pushing the dory’s tombstone transom down into the water with both hands. When it’s low enough he slips into the boat over the stern, Dory like a mule. Want to throw you. Not let you get on. This ornery nature makes them safe in almost any sea, Stay low inside. They ride high. Dance over waves.
The dory has a tombstone transom like an old, pauper’s grave-marker. Narrow at its base. An easy shape to drive into sandy ground. About a foot wide at the rail. Arced top pierced by a notch. A cut-out, three-quarter-circle, shaped to hold a fisherman’s sculling oar.
Tombstone, scull…. A dory carries a poetry of death and the grave with it. For a dory-man’s life it is his protector, carrying him safely over the deep. Sitting in one, rowing, his eyes always on this notch at the top of his tombstone transom, Do I ever get a dry grave? A carved stone? He shakes his head and grins.
Wet to his waist. Fresh salt water washes away the stale urine smell that so offended Joe C. A new set of salt-stains form, crusting his trousers, I dry in the sun. Rowing make me warm….
He settles onto a low, sagging thwart. Momentum, imparted as he climbs aboard, carries the dory much farther than he has dragged it. Before the light breeze has a chance to veer him too far off-course he pulls a pair of oars out from under the seat. Setting them carefully one at a time between thole pins at each gunnel, he starts to stroke. His track, visible in a trace of fine ripples is shaped like a check-mark. It lifts again to windward from where it sagged away, the breeze running parallel to the beach.
Rowing is a work of leverage and repetition. Oars push against water. Action and reaction drive a boat forward. Each stroke takes a manageable input of energy and gives back a measure of forward progress. A boat’s weight, its shape, and length all enter into it. More power, beyond certain modest limits, will not lead to greater speed, just a larger wake. This doesn’t concern Antone. He discovered long ago just how hard to pull. What it takes to balance his stamina with the work to be done. He’s learned to live with the speed he can achieve. Good for the dory’s spindly old oars, half-rotten thole-pins and gunnels, Young man in a hurry? He break something.
Wind and waves make themselves felt, Wind on side. Not too strong. To compensate he aims way over to the Southeast, almost towards Wood End. Towards the ruin of Fort Useless. He sets off, crabbing towards his destination.
Two fortifications constructed during the Civil War on Long Point to defend the harbor against Confederate raiders. Not substantial brick forts like those found along the coast all the way into Maine. Just two artificial dunes with low, black, creosoted-wood ramparts. They’re set some distance apart, ranged along the sand spit. From low on the water, seen together with the verticals of the two lighthouses, they read as, “Dot, Dash, Dash, Dot.” Spells the letter “P” in Morse Code, For Provincetown?
A joke from the start. They’re known as Fort Ridiculous and Fort Useless.
Crossing the harbor, he aims to just clear the tip of Long Point. Time passes slowly as he rows, A good way to pass time. If you’re willing to give in to its demands. Effort becomes second nature. Its rhythm maintains itself. Takes more effort to stop than to go on. Antone does have to stop. Frequently.
As the water level rises the boat slows. Its roll and surge grows deeper. Each stroke of the oars more labored. Water surging back and forth, spoils his technique and wastes his effort. Beyond a certain limit it gets dangerous. The boat won’t sink outright, but it doesn’t take too much water to make a dory dangerously unstable. Resonance between the roll and the surging weight of shifting water can lead to a capsize. One moment he’s rowing. The next, he’s clutching a chine with both hands. Body splayed across its overturned bottom like a thrown rider laid across the back of a mule. Left to wait for the cold to sap his strength, overcome his will, until he quietly slips off to disappear beneath the surface.
Antone stops to bail. Finds the little wood and leather scoop. A scrap of stiff, thick cowhide tacked to the rim of a rough wooden circle. A dowel driven through its center for a handle. It holds a pint of water at a throw, the equivalent of a few minutes leakage. He works it between his feet, tipping the dory to leeward, resting an elbow on the rail. He eases the bailer up and over, returning the water to the sea in a series of bright little splashes.
He goes on until the level is lower, Dory never empty. Or until the he drifts farther than he would like. He takes up the oars again. Rows straight to windward for a bit to make up for the loss.
Antone hears a peculiar, swirling sound. Breakers wrap around Long Point’s tip like a tongue licking lips, Close. Almost where he needs to be. Looking over his shoulder, Bell-Buoy. One more quarter-hour.
Wrapping around Race Point and Wood End, an old swell gently heaves the buoy up and down. Coming alongside, its conical top looms overhead. A verdigris brass bell mounted at its pinnacle. Its clapper swings in an open, latticework structure that sways and dips, causing it to sound an almost rhythmical tolling that draws his eyes up into the dark tangle of its crown.
Its rhythm carries him back to the old stone church on Pico, Where I kill Corvo. His family gathered to dispose of the body. His niece, What happened to my brother, to my Maria?
Reluctant to ask. Not wanting to reopen old wounds. His reunion in the taverna had gone so well. Running into his uncle…. A joyous welcome from his old village…. No-one volunteered anything concerning the two. He had no idea his uncle had sent for Maria, hoping to surprise him. Show him all the good that came across the intervening years, making up for his absence in some way.
His uncle entered the church. The bar-boy fetched him. He saw them together. His confusion. Her fear. Antone dazed with a stubborn resolution. The dead sailor in a pool of his own blood. His uncle resolved, I must tell Antone everything.
Antone wonders at his niece’s appearance, Dressed in black, in mourning. Head to foot. Like a widow…. Old women dress like this. So young… all in black? My Maria? Mourning for me? His uncle takes his arm, “This is your Maria’s daughter. Her father? Your younger brother.” Antone makes no sign of recognition.
No sign of her parents. No word of his brother had been made. No mention of his Maria at the taverna. He could only guess why this girl was in such deep mourning, For my brother! Please, God! Not my Maria. Turning to his uncle, “She lives?” One look, his yearning clear on his face, I face Corvo. This is too much. Antone, mouthing words, searching for some long forgotten prayer, praying that his uncle will tell him she’s all right.
Imagining in his despair the kind of bargain with God Antone must be making, his uncle replies, “Não, neto, estão mortos. Os dois, estão mortos. No, nephew, they’re dead. The two of them, both dead.” He said this in a low voice, in a deep tone, hoping to put all his feelings into these simple words.
Antone says nothing. His bargain ashes in his mouth. Redemption closed off, Forever.
His uncle blurts out, “Is a miracle you here to save her!” Gesturing towards Corvo’s corpse.
If only Harmonia never anchor here. I never know of any of this. Young Maria safe. Corvo….
The boy from the taverna stands to the side. Antone’s uncle calls him over, whispering to him to fetch his brothers and cousins. Let them know what happened without raising a commotion.
The boy stands proud. Ready to accept such a commission. Respect! Responsibilities. Looking at Maria, she smiles back at him. A thin smile, but at me! Blushing, he takes one last, long look at the corpse, My first dead man. His eyes take in the look of violent death, Make me a man! I never forget this day! He slips out of the church.
Antone, hearing a rustle by the door, stiffens. His uncle reassures him, “Only the boy.” With the touch of his hand on his arm Antone slumps on the verge of collapse.
That night the men of his family gathered and stood silently in a shallow crescent around the body, as if in mourning for the dead harpooner though he was the furthest thing from their thoughts. Maria rose to the occasion, her shock giving way to deep pity for her uncle, A stranger. I never knew him. He has held such an important place in her life. Part of a saga reaching back before she was born. A story she was told in bits and pieces. Her parents’ story. A tale expanding outwards to encompass this far-off Tio Antonio.
She turns to Antone, “Tio, obrigado, por me salvar. Uncle, thank you for saving me.” She says this with a slight nod in Corvo’s direction. Lifting her gaze from the shattered corpse she surveys the church’s dark interior with a shiver. So familiar. So strange tonight.
She tells him of her birth and her parent’s fate. She tells her story as it had been told to her. She gathered many tellings into her own story. A story of her self.
She had not known of her mother’s love for Antone. Her mother and father grew up together. This was how she was told the story at first. At some point, she now realized, some point after Antone left. They fell in love.
Antone dares not speculate on how long this might have taken. What twists and turns brought it about. When he left, his brother, Just a boy. They had been young enough that every year of difference was a relished sign of a gap in their maturity, Let the past be. No jealous. No. He shows no reaction at all. Her story makes no impression on him now, standing here beside this ghost, living in the vital presence of this girl, Their daughter. Fruit of their love.
She tells him of her father’s life as a whaler. He did not follow Antone to sea. Joining the crew of a local canoa, he rose to harpooner. The pride of their village, as whalers have always been, going off in their small boats onto the open sea, risking their lives each day for their families, for their village. Her mother worried over him constantly.
One day, cries from cliff-top look-outs sent out three canoas. Her father’s was the first to go. They chased a pod of Sperm Whales miles form shore far to the East. The last sight they had of them was of tall, broad sails flying over finely carved hulls. Too fine, they seemed, to carry so much billowing canvas to the far horizon. A storm rose while they were out of sight of land. The whole village waited for any sign of their return. Her mother joined the other wives at the launching spot. Where Antone had led Captain Michael’s ashore that morning.
The wind was fierce. Waves grew to a stupendous size. Blinding spray rose, funneling up the twisting chasm where the ramp climbs between chiseled rocks to the cliff-top. A knot of women bundled in their heaviest clothes. Stiff, layered petticoats under thick, dark wool skirts. Heavy shawls and scarves tied tightly about their heads. Maria’s mother had grabbed her mother’s shawl that day as she rushed out the door into the first blast of the gale. In her hurry she did not notice its significance, Her mother’s black shawl. Mourning clothes for her own father who died at sea so many years before.
Others, seeing the young woman on the dark, streaming, cobbled ramp huddled under a black shawl, saw it as an omen. Maria’s grandmother retold this part of the story again and again. Always stressing the sign, imprinting on her granddaughter a sense of how to read portents. A lesson more valuable in her mind than sparing a young girl’s feelings, speaking of her parent’s, her own daughter’s, death.
His Maria stood there, holding her infant daughter in her arms, afraid she’d never see her husband again. She kept inching forward, trying to get closer to the sea, to where he struggled for his life. As the storm grew hope faded. She pressed forward, ahead of the others. When her uncle noticed, his attention along with everyone else’s, directed at the ragged, rain-swept horizon searching for any sign of a canoa. He felt her danger just at the moment a wave, much larger than the rest, boiled up the ramp to engulf her tiny frame. He stood in horror. She was swept from his sight with her infant and two friends. All dragged down into a raging sea.
Her uncle broke free of his compadres, running down the ramp as far as he dared, hoping for a glimpse of his niece and her baby. Grabbing hold of craggy rocks, sheltering as best he could from torrents of water rushing in and out of this narrow cavern. He could see a few dark lumps bobbing far beyond the surf-line. See her clawing with her free hand to scramble out of the backwash.
Inching his way forward he went down as close as he dared….
Another wave caught her. He watched, trepidation turning to fragile delight. She tumbled ahead of a cascade of white-water, propelled up the ramp towards him, towards safety. Mustering all his courage, he darted out of his crevice to meet her, exposing himself to the full brunt of the storm.
This wave brought her within reach. Extending his arm to her, a last shred of self-preservation clamped his other hand firmly to an outcrop. She washed up at his feet on the last of the upsurge. Reaching out, he touched her shawl. Closed his fingers around wet, heavy wool. Ready to pull her to safety.
The force of the wave, spent climbing so far up the ramp, lost momentum, became a rushing torrent running back down towards the sea. Soaked as she was. Still too far from him to have broken free of its pull. The current sucked her back. He caught her eyes at that moment. Locked on his. A transmission, As if from beyond the grave. Something he never expected to see, No before Judgment Day’s final call empties all the tombs and lets loose all their blessed and tormented souls.
Their eyes met. He felt her slipping away. Saw her recognition, I’m lost. Her focus shifted to saving her baby, At any cost.
A weight in her shawl. He hadn’t understood. Not just waterlogged wool, Her infant. Her baby girl wrapped in heavy black cloth.
Maria’s eyes burned with a fresh resolve. She was going to…, She did. The force of her weight tore the cloth, She let go. Sealing her fate, she saved her baby.
He would never forget her look of peace as she fell away. It never left him.
Her body was never found. A length of carnation-colored wood, a scrap from the rail of her father’s canoa washed ashore miles away months later. All we ever found of him.
Her uncle and his wife raised her. She now stood in front of Antone, a last survivor. Seeing in her, My young love returned to youth. His hope for her shines in his eyes, Long years of happy life. The life your mother sacrificed. The life I never had.
Maria stood beside him in her torn shawl, Same one her mother wore. Wrapped in it when her uncle saved her. A sign of her mother’s courage and selflessness. Now a sign of all she has lost.
The bell clangs over his head. Antone tamps his memories and his regrets back down again, What can I do?
These buoys, Always a surprise close up. We pass them as specks on the horizon. Sailors wish they were bigger. Easier to find. Gigantic close up.
Careful with his rail, Antone guards his hands, bobbing up and down, dodging protruding rivets. An iron staple set in its side as a foothold for its keepers to climb it beats the water to a froth. The tide runs. A chop slaps against rusty metal. Like coming alongside a moving ship.
Is still early. Calm. He throws a hitch onto the staple. Pushes off. The dory sheers away, coming to rest riding down-tide. The sound of the bell now just another noise.
He jigs for mackerel because he has a jig and a scrap of line to tie it to. Tied to the buoy he has no need to worry that he might drift away, Easier than anchor. Dory no have one…. He’s not concerned with finding the best spot to find fish, For me? Is the only place to fish.
Schooners and Draggers leave and return to port. The Boston Steamer passes on its way into the harbor, Is noon? Trap-boats that left before dawn return with their catch, Joe C?
He animates his jig, curling his forearm up and down, the bell clanging. An hour passes, Nothing. Then, his first mackerel is followed by a dozen more in quick succession. Terns and swooping gulls. Ripples pulse across the water. Hauling one after another, as fast as he can dip his jig, Afraid of Stripers and Blue Fish. Not me.
Tinkahs. Under a foot long. Identical to the larger mackerel, Tiny tuna. Beat their lives away against the bottom of his dory, casting off a slimy froth, splashing in bilge water tinted red with streaks of blood. Antone has as much concern for their struggles as an old grizzly, standing in a waterfall, cares how the Salmon feels.
The school passes, no longer facing death in the dory. Their struggle to escape finned tormentors never ended. Whatever vagary of current brought them close carries them away across the mouth of the harbor.
He pulls his knife from a worn scabbard at the small of his back. Gathers a mackerel in his palm and slits it open. Holds it over his upturned face to catch the drip of its life’s fluid on his tongue. He drains three fish, My meal for the day. A drunkard’s breakfast.
Cutting a fish into rounds, he pulls a hand-line from its shelf under the thwart. Baiting its formidable hook, he carefully hands its sash-weight sinker over the side, tossing the hook and leader clear before letting the line run out. The hand-line’s wooden frame rattles and jumps about the floorboards as it unwinds. It stops. Pressing his foot against it, he locks it between his heel and the seat-stringer at the dory’s side.
Its passage re-carves an old groove in the gunnel, restoring the flesh-tone of fresh cut oak. Dozens of scars mar the rail. Antone works arm over arm. Lifts his bait a few feet off the bottom, imagining its height above clean sand almost a hundred feet down. He winds a fathom of line back onto the frame. Careful to coil it neatly, No tangles. The sinker weighs nine pounds. Even without a fish there’s a constant pressure on the line. Replacing the frame against the dory’s bottom he holds it with his foot. Presses his forefinger against the taught line just outside the rail. It slips with an electric jolt into an old crevice in his callused skin.
The Boston Steamer returns mid-afternoon. Day-trippers line its rail, soaking in a last look at clear sky and sparkling water before their thoughts settle on home in the city. Antone doesn’t look up. Doesn’t care if anyone notices him or his dory. They don’t. Their eyes fixed on the mesmerizing point at land’s end.
The light and weather changes as if this morning had been an entirely different day. The bottom of the dory fills with fish. Half a dozen Cod lay between his feet. Not big ones like on Banks. Still, these are large fish. The smallest, over two feet long.
Sea Robin! Damn! Waste of time! He makes out its characteristic shape and color rising from the dark green water. It breaks the surface with a splash. He swings it high and smacks it down hard against the seat. He pins it to the thwart beside him with the slim blade of his sheath-knife. Its tense, rust-colored body curls into a tight arc, radiating spiky, orange fins. A tall dorsal fin and a pair of pectoral wings on either side. Large bulging eyes, Surprised. Its gills pump, then stop, then pump again. It lets out a drumming sound and a strange, guttural barking. The song of the sea robin. It looks as it sounds, more like a baby dragon than a songbird.
Thrashing against the hook in its fleshy lip, Espinhas venenosas! He carefully pulls the line taught. Flips the fish onto the seat beside him. Whipping out his knife he stabs for a soft spot behind its broad, hard gill covers, looking to pierce the soft flesh behind its armored head. Pressing the knife’s blade through its body into the wood of the seat, he tears the hook from the side of its mouth. Cuts it free.
Time to go…. Enough feesh for today. The little body squirms. He reties his hook. The Sea Robin disgorges its last meal, Lady Crab. Crushed shell, shards of a perfect porcelain saucer. Pink and purple leopard-spots dapple an ivory ground. Its legs, broken straws in a tangle. A swimmer-foot. A fragile bangle, it glistens in ivory, blue, and violet. A long, delicate pincer, its scimitar-tip edged in royal blue. Intact.
Antone can’t help but pick this crab claw out from the rest. He feeds it onto his hook. I get something! We’ll see! Drops his line back in the water. Grasping the handle of his knife he tosses the little fish as far as he can. It spins through the air, landing with a splash, Damned Sea Robin. Antone doesn’t watch it float upside-down, buoyed half out of the water from all the air it has swallowed. Never minds whether it drifts off, sinks, or swims away.
Damn Sea Robin! I don’t catch him? I row back to town. Is late. Tide take me home. Enough feesh! Find somebody pay me a few coins. Get a bottle. Tomorrow? Come soon enough.
That crab claw changes everything. If it had been another Cod? A Whiting? He would have stowed the hand-line and slipped the buoy. Pulled out his oars and started in for the wharf.
What this day bring? Who knows? I do what I do. Take a life in trade for another day. this many fish die. So I can live.
Afloat, feeling the dip and rise of the dory, sluggish as it is, weighed down with fish and in need of bailing, he sits and waits.
His days have always cycled this way. Clouds and sun and wind and rain and fog take their turn. Waves march by. One like another. No two the same. The feel of water trembling against a line. Coded vibrations running to his calloused hand. Feeling for that faint electricity to bring him messages from below.
He has a keen sense of what is down there. Doesn’t need to see smooth sand, undulating ripples. Or broad beds of sea-anemones, lacy crinoids, patches of thick red-algae. There might be a jumble of rocks or timbers from an old wreck. There’s a massive granite block somewhere down there. He knows. The bell-buoy’s half buried mooring coated in a crust of life. He feels the bait. The slightest touch as some creature probes it. All his concentration absorbed by the vibrations arriving at his fingertips.
Holding the line, its weight digging into tender creases carved in the shell of his body, he just is.
A lunge on the line. A hard pull slaps his wrist against the rail. The heel of his hand thuds against unyielding wood. Pain in his elbow. The line runs, cutting deeply into his finger. The frame clatters, spinning at his feet.
Antone stands, fighting for balance in the rocking dory. Grabbing hot twine with both hands, he puts his back into it. Shoves away the sensation of pain: in his fingers, his arms, his shoulders, his back, his legs. The line stops running. He holds on, feeling for the fish, various possibilities pass through his mind, comparing its behavior to his long backlog of experience, No Cod! Bigger…. The line swings around, cutting an arc through the smooth surface like a sword cutting silk, Dogfish circle…. No, they like a kite under water…. Skate too.
An undulation, A Conger? Giant eels six or seven feet long. No. Whenever the pressure eases he hauls in more line, holding tight when the pull is too strong. A crunching, chewing vibration, comes up the line as though the hook is held in a claw, Lobster? No.
A face grows larger. Swims into focus. The size of a small platter. Two great eyes, bulging from the top of a narrow head. Fleshy cheeks slope downwards to widen from concave to convex around a gaping mouth. A tangle of thick, conical teeth. Antone conjures its name. Says it aloud, “Wolf Fish.”
Its toothy mouth breaks the surface. A long, muddy-maroon body, soft and puffy with flexible fins and rounded front paws. It makes an undulating pass alongside the dory. Its eyes on his with a predatory recognition. This is no confused captive ready to give up its life, He hunt me.
I catch Wolf Fish before. Is biggest one I ever see! Bigger than me…. It ranges alongside, smacking its jaws in businesslike anticipation. His line runs in at the corner of its mouth. No more than a minor inconvenience, Hook halfway down throat. Heavy, nubby grinding teeth run in rows down its throat. A Wolf Fish can dismantle a twenty-pound Lobster. Its spiky front teeth grab its prey to pull it in. Those grinding teeth in rows all down its gullet smash the hardest shell, Even dog-whelk. Hard like a rock.
With no hesitation Antone takes a turn of line around his hand. With all his strength he hauls the head aboard. The fish is as deep-bodied as his forearm is long and wider than his hand. Fifty pounds? Antone pulls. He tugs on the line as hard as he can, Show Wolf who is boss!
Its weight inside the gunnel. Its long, blade-like flank tapers to a soft-lobed tail-fin, flicking from side to side. The fish swims into the dory. Eyes on Antone. Jaws snapping.
Antone drops the line. His hand goes to his waistband, My knife!
The fish paddles straight for him. Balanced by its fore paws and flexing tail, slithering across the carcasses of dead fish in the bottom of the dory. Antone backs away.
The thwart clips him behind his calves. He falls backwards. Hands outstretched, guarding his face.
His knee pops. A searing pain, tearing cartilage, No time. Cold, soft skin offers no purchase. His fingers slip into its open mouth. Its jaws clamp down, champing, releasing, champing again. His fingers disappear into its maw. Out of sight they disintegrate under the onslaught. Bones crushed.
No pain. All he feels is a tugging and tearing, as though on the far end of a fishing line. Pushing this apparition away, sacrificing his hand to keep those snapping jaws from his face.
The knife! Stuck in the thwart. His wrist buried deep in its jaws he steadies the horrible head so he can slash at its neck, I slit his throat.
Gnashing teeth feed his hand farther down. His finger-bones rattle across his blade as he cuts.
Cold and warm blood pulse from its torn throat. The writhing body, relentless. Focused on his face. In a final push he swings his mangled arm. Snaps its severed neck. The body writhes without purpose. The head remains intent. His arm still in its mouth. Eyes flash. Gills pump. Jaws flex.
One more tremendous effort. With the help of his free hand he pulls his arm out of the chomping mouth. Kicks the snapping head away. Bouncing off the thwart, it skids away to land on his catch. Its jaws latch onto the tail of a dead Cod, gnawing. Worrying a hole in its bloodless flank as the last of its energy fades away.
Antone’s retreat has carried him into the bow of the dory. His head cradled against its curling breasthook just behind the stem. Hard, labored breaths. His left hand cradles the remains of his right. He closes his eyes to the pain flooding in. A vision of the Wolf-fish’s eyes flashes before him. Fangs loom at him again behind closing eyelids.
The dory’s center thwart is cracked. Almost broken in two. The dory lies low. The bodies of fat-bellied Cod float in dark, bloody water. His catch sloshes back and forth with each swell. The head of the Wolf Fish gnawing on its Cod. The Monument appears to Antone. Centered in the notch in his tombstone transom. Dimly silhouetted against the last light of a weak sunset.
Was afternoon when I hook Wolf Fish.
He blinks. Another vision of the Wolf’s head, Getting dark. Tired. Must rest….
An hour after nightfall, still tied to the bell-buoy, the dory slips beneath the surface. Rolling slowly onto its side, it settles gently. Water pours in along the low point in the rail. Only its stem and the arced top of its transom remain above the surface. Its cargo of dead washes out: Mackerel, Cod, the Wolf Fish. And lastly, Antone’s body floats away on the tide.
Following a trace of blood-scent, a Blue Shark courses through pitch-black darkness. Zigzagging patiently up a scent-trail. It nudges each carcass, one after the other, before engulfing each one in a few pensive bites. A humility apparent in its spare motions.
In the morning only the waterlogged dory remains, trailing from the bell-buoy as its acetylene light winks out for the day. Its bell rings a staccato rhythm in time with the waves.