by O. Victor Miller
Every dozen steps we flush a stingray, which rise from the silty bottom and fly off like gray moths the size of dinner plates. Agustín, my guide, has told me to wear my chews and shuffle my feet, but the waterlogged Docksiders are abbreviating my breath, wearing me down. I’m soaked to the crotch in tepid water and from crotch to cowlick in sweat.Soon there’s the faint pulse of oncoming angina, softer footsteps getting heavier. The stent my cardiologist installed before I sailed to Mexico was working fine until the girl jumped ship in Isla Mujeres, leaving me arguing only with the two Boykin spaniels. We hit a reef off Bahía de la Ascención, which is what I get for arguing with dogs: they say the girl flew home to find a real life.
I get barefoot and tie my shoelaces together. A stingray barb has to be less lethal than a heart attack, unless, exhausted from dragging my feet, I stumble headfirst on one and take a hit between the eyes. Agustín stalks our quarry like a crosscountry skier, hardly glancing down. His Mayan ancestors used stingray barbs to pierce tongue and penis for sacrificial blood-letting while consorts knelt to catch the offertorial drippings in a bowl. You come from a line of folks like that, and you don’t worry so much about your feet. I’ve had plenty of time to read up on Agustín’s ancestry while I wait for a blacksmith to hammer out a prop that looks like the lid of a C-ration can hacked open with a bayonet. I mostly blame the dogs.
My guide turns to see what’s holding me up, wagging a brown finger as I hang the chews around my neck and spray a cold mist of nitroglycerin under my tongue.
“You aren’t wearing yours,” I remind him.
“Sí, Veektor, but I have deed thees before.”
Agustín seems a little arrogant for a guide, maybe because nobody’s paying him. His boss, Sirena, a sixties flower child named for a mermaid fetish, made him take me bonefishing to improve my attitude and to give him something to do during the off-season doldrums. Sirena has survived four shipwrecks and was herself abandoned by a husband right here in Punta Allen, where she made the best of things by renting palapas and providing fishing guides. She knows what it’s like to take a hit in a foreign country, figures a macabi on a fly rod will cheer up anybody. According to the dogs, my attitude needed work long before the girl went AWOL and we climbed the reef. The upside of this trek is spending an afternoon away from judgmental dogs.
Impatient with my pace, Agustín smiles faintly. He must think the pink nitro is to sweeten my breath. Maybe he’s insulting me so I’ll make him take me back. Or maybe I’m being paranoid. It’s true, this is my first time out for bonefish, for macabi. From experience I know jilted lovers and novice fishermen can be touchy. To be fair, my guide’s under no particular obligation to fawn. He’s used to sportsmen thrilled to death to fork out big bucks for the chance to shuffle around in mangrove flats up to their nuts in stingrays. No fool, Agustín knows my cracked and occluded heart ain’t 100 percent involved in this exercise. I appreciate the gesture, but I’ve never been much of a saltwater man in the first place. When I run out of canned tuna, I drag a church key with a hook wired to it behind Kestyll: meat fishing. By the time I notice something white skidding around in my wake, it’s drowned and inflated. Big ones still kicking I shoot with a Colt Woodsman. If they flop after that, I pour rum in their gills. The girl fought fish on a nice saltwater outfit she trolled off the sternrail. I’d head up so she could play them. I admit, it was sort of fun to watch her. She’d get so excited, she couldn’t keep her little feet from dancing. I haven’t fooled with her tackle since she left: too much trouble to mess with alone.
Agustín slows his stalk and I moonwalk behind him, my knees bumping his hip pockets every time he pauses to scan the glare. A flushed ray hooks around to hide in our smoke. It grazes the top of my naked foot, and I climb Agustín.
“Ess too hot!” he says of the water, squirming out from under me. “Vámonos a los manglares.”
He gestures toward a mangrove patch with his 9-weight. “Over there maybe I show to you some caimanes.”
“Do what?” Caimán is a polite misnomer for crocodile in these parts, which translates into a heap more than a souped-up gator with an attitude. The first one I messed with down in Panama broke my thumb after I’d emptied a .44 magnum into it. I don’t want to mess with any caimán with a 6-weight Orvis, though I’m no coward—I’ve even considered suicide as a respite from my latest rejection, maybe leaving a note on my Web page so the world won’t view my leaving as just another absentminded blunder. I’ve fantasized hurling myself off a rocky cliff in Guatemala, where I was headed before engaging the reef. Maybe I’ll just sit tight right here in Punta Allen until the next hurricane comes along, but even in my darkest hours of despondency, being torn apart to putrefy piecemeal in a crocodile den yaws far alee of my romantic musings of demise. I’m not afraid of death, just crocodiles, though I suspect Agustín is trying to spook me back to the skiff so he can go home to eat beans. “Let’s go back to the skiff,” I suggest. “I’ve seen caimanes, plenty of them.”
Agustín poles us around in the skiff. He wants to be able to tell Sirena he gave this venture his best shot.
“Busca las plumas,” he advises.
“Feathers? Bonefish have feathers?” There’s the plumed serpent of Mayan mythology K’uk’ulkan. Maybe there’s a plumed fish, too. Or maybe my guide is taking another jab at the new kid on the block, but I already know what bonefish look like. I’ve seen plenty of them in fancy magazines like Gray’s Sporting Journal, some dude in a ventilated pastel shirt bent over one he’s fixing to release, grinning like he just sired and delivered the damn thing. To me, bonefish look a lot like buglemouth bass, which is what we call redhorse suckers in Southwest Georgia. A sucker on a cane pole can give a very decent account of itself, too, though they’re mostly taken with gillnets during a spawning run up a creek. Served with grits and hushpuppies and a slab of fatback on the side, there’s nothing tastier than a buglemouth bass, a gourmet fare that inspires a wagging white finger from my cardiologist, but if you ever get invited to Julian Morgan’s wild game supper outside Coleman, Georgia, you better scalp your symphony tickets and get on over there. Julian serves everything from rattlesnake to chitterlings, but good ol’ boys in the know school around the washpot of sizzling bugles. Old Julian’s a good writer, too, and he can yelp spring gobblers into rakish acts of perverse abandon. Maybe Julian knows if a sucker will take a doughball imitation pitched in with a 3-weight. I’m sure that stalking macabi, a fish you can’t even eat, has never entered his mind. So I digress, a symptom of homesickness I’m entitled to under the circumstances. I’d go home to Mamma, but she’s dead.
“The tail, they raise the tail so you will know they are hungry!” Agustín appeals to a Virgin in the perfect Yucatán sky: Maria, Guadalupe, or one from the Maya pantheon recruited into Catholicism by Spanish conquistadors. Mexicans have more virgins than we do. Agustín wears an icon of Guadalupe on the front of his ballcap. Maybe he’s torquing his eyeballs up to her while I’m wondering if my meatfishing bothered the girl. Maybe she thought my ideas of closure lack finesse, but to me, boozy euthanasia or a quick pap to the back of the skull is more humane and less messy than gaff and billyclub.
She was too young for you, anyway,” Bailey, the younger dog said just before we tagged the reef, which is what comes of listening to dogs. The fickle SOBs view life from a strictly carnivorous point of view, and the girl fed them. It hasn’t dawned on them that I’m the one feeding them now, so they do a lot of bitching without contributing much to the overall program, especially Bailey, who’s still got a lot of puppy left in him but won’t admit it. The young fool knows absolutely nothing about courtship. He tries to hump everything that moves when we go ashore, even cats. I don’t know why I dignify his remarks with reply.
“The hell she was!” I shouted, taking my eye off the fathometer to nail him with the captain look, where the buck stops. Translated into English, the captain look says: We’re out of sight of land. Which way would you go if you had to swim for it? Bailey snorted, resting his head on oversized paws. Old Rufus, the aged eunuch asleep in the sunshine, hardly stirred when the 25-ton cutter beneath him shook like a wet elephant and squalled to a grinding halt. He just yawned, broke wind, and settled back in while I ran around wondering what to do. Bailey ran around on deck barking at the whitecaps breaking over coral. I need two dogs on a sailboat like I need a case of the clap.
“Tíralo, tíralo!” Agustín whispers, pointing to the clump of tailing bonefish. I squint into the tropical glare, but the wet shoes around my neck have fogged my glasses. Oh yeah, there they are. The only movement looks like eelgrass waving in current. The fish are standing on their heads, maybe a couple dozen of them in deeper, cooler water, waist deep on me, more critical for Agustín, another reason besides tepid water, stingrays, and crocodiles to be in the skiff.
I’m not casting worth beans with the 6-weight and a hot wind to my back. I actually own an 8-weight I’ve used once or twice to troll for barra-
cudas, but my guide rejected it on account of its fly line being crazed like Chinese porcelain with a memory like baling wire.
“Throw heet!” he hisses.
With no cliental obligation to give me first cast, he hauls a couple of false ones 90 degrees from his target, then fires with perfect accuracy to the tailing macabi. His form isn’t textbook, more like he’s getting after a coachwhip with a tobacco pole, but man is he accurate. His fly shoots like a bullet and lights perfectly at the perimeter of the winding wad of fish. He strips in without a bump, mumbling trilingual curses under his breath.
“Tíralo, tíralo!” he repeats, remembering that Sirena told him to make sure the gringo catches a macabi. I’m gawking from the bow, fly line curled around my ankles. Somehow I manage to get a loop airborne. The wind catches it, and the fly, something small enough for bluegills, makes a couple of bolo flips, alighting in a coil of leader yards wide and short of the tailing school. Again Agustín appeals to an airborne Virgin, maybe to all of them. Stripping in for another try, I feel a bump . . . I’m almost sure . . . though maybe I’ve snagged a blade of eelgrass. But no, Agustín is watching my line. “Pica,” he whispers. “It pecks.” More bird talk. Ancient Mayans made no sharp delineations between species. Snakes had feathers and men had claws and wings. Mountains have pissed-off spirits that make them shake and fart fire. Ten meters from the tailing school a truant macabi has picked up my fly.
“I’ve got one,” I announce prosaically. Agustín has told me to point my rod tip down in the direction of
the retrieve, has stressed that I set the hook with a firm snatch on the line. Accustomed to crappies, however, I raise the rod gently. I’ve caught a million speckled perch and know what I’m doing.
The macabi feels something funny and takes off like a sneeze, slack line lashing wildly, scalding my fingers, snapping against the cork butt and whipping out drag. EEEEEEEEEE EEEEEE goes the little Battenkill. REEEEEEEEEEEEEE. I try to slow it down with my hand, but the blurred handle spins like a masonry saw. It strikes the nail of my index finger, spattering blood thinned by anticoagulants. Now, this hurts. Well, of course it must hurt some, the dogs will say. No, I’ll tell them, this Really Hurts!
“Déjalo! Déjalo!” screams Agustíno. “Geave heem eet!” The run spurts into the backing. I’m holding the 6-weight in one hand, the mauled finger of the other clamped between wet knees.
Ow, Ouch, Ooowee! The fish stops somewhere out yonder on the hori-
zon. I examine a black nail and plug the stricken digit, salty with seawater and blood, into my mouth. It throbs like it’s been hit by the power stroke from a claw hammer. I pull it out, fan the air, and put it back in. A barracuda must’ve hit the bonefish after I hooked it. “Damn,” I tell Agustín, “that cuda must’ve been eight feet long.”
“Reel heem!” shouts Agustín.
“Oh, he’s gone,” I assure my guide. “He cut me off and kept on trucking. That sucker is in San Pedro, Belize, by now.” Or in Florida with the girl, if that’s where she is.
“Reel heem!” Agustín has stopped whispering. I wind with my thumb and pinkie. Sure enough, something is still on my line. The barracuda must’ve chomped off the bonefish at the gills and left the head. The line goes slack again, though I still haven’t retrieved all the backing. The floating fly line canes around, heading our way as if some jagged ort of the barracuda’s leftover lunch means to attack the skiff. I reel as fast as I can with two fingers, like a Colonial Dame holding a teacup. Then I turn the whole outfit upside down, swapping hands and reeling backwards, recovering all the backing and about half the line before this thing Agustín still insists is a macabi makes a second run even more violent than the first.
The first run must’ve woken it up, energizing its potential. I press down on the rim of the reel to brake it, burning the palm of my good hand (the one without black nails). From the poling platform Agustín, his dropjawed chin touching crucifix, leans toward me, holding his 9-weight like a suitcase, while I whoop, bare feet slapping the deck, dancing in a solo joy the girl will never see. The third run melts the drag clean out of the smoking Battenkill, silencing the inverted reel, slinging hoops of line into a birdnest the size of a soccer ball.
I’ve never played a fish on the reel before, and I’m still not convinced a fish not much longer than my foot can raise all this hell. Even lunker sow bass don’t run into the backing. They sound or head for a deadfall, but they don’t run, not like the silver-plated son of a bitch I’m connected to. My stented heart thumps painlessly in its bone birdcage; the forgotten nitro canister has rolled off into some cranny of bilge. I’m as happy and alive as I’ve ever been. Mako or mudcat, I don’t care. My stagnant lungs are full of fresh air. Infected by my excitement, Agustín is also transformed. He pumps his fist at the Virgins. “Eso!” he shouts. “Eso!”
The macabi, tiring finally to manageability, glides alongside the skiff. Agustín moves to release it, but I have to have a picture of this fish, which bears absolutely no resemblance whatever to a buglemouth bass. I fumble for my camera, as the tamed bonefish swims circles. Time after time I force
it toward a photograph. Each time it spooks from the white moon of my face. Escape attempts weaken finally to impotent spasms. Hell, if I can’t eat the thing maybe I should get it stuffed, but where would I hang it? There’s no room on Kestyll’s bulkheads even for
a pretty bonefish, and there’s no taxidermist this side of Cancún to mount it.
It cants, beaten beyond will, sinking into the disturbed silt. Crimson webs trail from laboring gills. The macabi has swallowed the fly. Hey, wait! I don’t want to kill it. I can measure it with my foot for the taxidermist while it’s still
in the water. We’re not talking bugle-mouth bass here—something to be cooked and eaten. I’ve just killed the wild, wild thing that unwound my despondency into the backing.
Brief joy sours into a ponderous catharsis of sacrificed innocence. I’ve reached into nature for a wild, wild thing, and my clumsy touch, like a thumbprint on a butterfly, has destroyed it. I’ve played it too hard and too long, killing it just when I realize a desperate personal need to set it free. Dead, a bonefish, I suddenly know, is nothing! Lost to any definition of essence and not worth remembering. Inversely, by killing it, I’ve made impossible any kind of spiritual union with its energy, depriving it even of whatever skittish savvy could’ve survived in its primordial recollection of our encounter. I’ve disappeared myself, leaving not the dimmest recollection to testify this brief union.
After I’ve hurled myself off the precipice in Guatemala, no living testament beyond a scarred reef that I ever passed this way will survive me. I wish the macabi, like the girl, had broken off before I took too much. I panic, seized by the nauseating loss of equilibrium of the vain youth who steps up to the mirror to shave a five-o’clock-shadow and discovers a sagging mug dour with grisly stubble. I suddenly know I should’ve attended fewer funeral viewings of dead friends and released more fish, not dragged them behind me leaching their bright colors. I wish I’d cut more leaders and ended more contests with coups, not coups de grâce from a Colt Woodsman and a shot of cheap rum—wish, at least, that the girl had witnessed less of it.
This time I can’t even blame the dogs, who, thank God, aren’t around for censure. While I’m beating myself up, I could’ve de-nocked more arrows, clicked more penultimate safeties back on. Sport that kills needlessly isn’t sporting. Even bullfights make more sense than killing a bonefish, and bullfighting’s not even a sport. What’s in a man that makes him seek out the holy things to destroy? I should’ve let more contests end before the end—especially with the crocodile. I should’ve let that one end before the beginning. I should’ve just tipped my hat and gone ahead on with a happy thumb and no further need for mano a mano engagement. I could’ve photographed more covey rises . . . I could’ve . . . Whoa! In my telepathic vision, both dogs raise their heads from cool holes they’ve dug in Sirena’s flowers. That’s excessive, they bark. You’re going way too far with this thing! Past your own nature and beyond the bearable limits of your friends of canine persuasion!
Agustín, uplifted by my elation, seems puzzled by its quick descent. He’s stuck with the same glum gringo he started with, but now there’s an identifiable cause, a tangible sadness. He lifts the mortal fish gently, bends his flat Mayan face close enough to kiss it good-bye, biting off the line with strong white teeth. He lowers the macabi, saws it gently through the water until the bleeding staunches to
a wispy crimson thread. It limps off leaning to one side like a drunk headed home from an Irish funeral. “No lo pasa nada,” my friendly guide assures me. “It will be all right.”
And suddenly everything is all right again. Just like that. The sun sets over the bahia and the sky darkens further by a purple-black cloud larded with lightning that hovers over the jungle. Chaak, the Mayan rain god, comes. Skimming the still water, the skiff leaves a faint phosphorescent trail—cold light that brightens with darkness. I’ve never understood why phosphorescent plankton lights up, how asexual creatures survived the evolutionary
theater of fang and claw by drawing, when perturbed, luminous attention to themselves. According to Sirena, the cold light evidences tiny sea creatures charging up a universe energized by love. Typically, I’ve tried to catch the green light in a pickle jar in order to own and agitate it when I wanted light, but microscopic dinoflaggelates wouldn’t bow to my heavy hand. I found myself shaking a beaker of dull seawater.
Though dogs doubt, I promise to teach myself the lesson of not pushing too hard, of not hanging on too tight too long, of not hacking away at veils of mystery shrouding magic. My contagious excitement and my empathy for a dying fish have warmed Agustín, melting the distance between us. I’ve made a new friend in a land where I thought I’d lost my last. He’ll come out tomorrow without being sent. He’ll invite me to try out for palometas or maybe sábalo, another inedible fish.
We stop by Sirena’s to check in and pick up the Boykins, who spring from trampled flowers. My lightened demeanor infects them too. They greet me uncharacteristically in amicable doggy fashion, wagging happy tongues and sawed-off tails.
Sirena offers icy glasses of Jamaica under the ceiba tree, where we absorb coolness from desultory breezes. “How was it?” she asks. “You get your mind off her for a little while?”
My head’s still spins, the little Battenkill’s drag singing me back to crystalline flats.
“Who?” I muse.