I’m twenty-nine years old, on a three-month journey through Africa, with little more than a soccer ball and a fishing pole. Today, I’m walking down the beach with a hangover and high hopes of ending a run of bad luck.
“Hey, American boy. May I join you?”
“I don’t see why not,” I respond, admiring her South African accent, tanned body. Her brown hair flows out of a wide brimmed hat to her shoulders. Where the sunglasses touch, her cheeks are dotted with freckles. She wears a green bikini top, black sarong around her waist.
“Have you been in Mozambique long?” she asks, adjusting her hat as waves roll in, wash onto the hot sand.
“Only a few days.”
“You know, two white girls were raped on this beach just yesterday, gang raped to be exact. Happened just up…”
I cut her off. “That’s a sad statistic.”
She picks up a stone, tosses it into the sea.
“Think you’ll catch anything?”
“I hope so,” I say, noticing my eight-year-old fishing buddy running up the beach.
“Looks like you have a friend,” she says, laughing. The young boy crashes into my side.
“You catch big fish today,” he says, with a grin to match his excitement. Then looking at her: “Is this your girl?”
“I’m not so lucky,” I tell the boy.
“I’m Jacoline, by the way,” she says, reaching out her hand.
“Jonathan,” I tell her.
We walk down the beach at an African pace, trying to live with the heat. Beyond the reef, the sea is dark blue, but in the shallows it lightens to turquoise green. A robust African man wades up to his ankles in water, swinging a hand line into the breakers. He has a sack of fish hanging over his shoulder and a tin can in his pocket overflowing with shrimp.
“Thanks for walking with me,” she says, stopping. “Will you be out for a while?”
“What time do the fish bite?” I ask my young friend.
“At sunset,” he says.
“We’ll be here ‘til dark,” I tell her.
“See you then,” she says, walking away.
“She likes you,” says the boy. “You like her?”
“I just met her.”
“You like her, I know,” he says, taking my hand and walking me to a spot we’ve fished before.
The boy sits down in the sand several feet behind, trying not to disturb me. He looks uncomfortable sitting there, hungry really, and I analyze the dynamic of our friendship. The fact that I might be a potential food source, and nothing else, sadly comes to mind.
I tie a six-inch crocodile spoon to my line and stand in a few feet of water, twelve-foot rod in hand, surveying life beneath the surface. The reef is alive with fish and I spot a reef shark through the window of a passing swell, then a school of shad and needlefish darting through the waves. The tide is coming in strong; the fish are following. I back up, dodging a large breaker. The sandy ravine in front of me fills with water, forming a cruising ground for the game fish to ambush the smaller bait.
I look back at my young friend. He gives me the thumbs up and I launch my first cast. The water races up to my ankles. I feel the sting of a jellyfish tentacle wrapping around my leg. I ignore the pain, believing it to be a good omen; on a previous outing a barracuda struck my lure just as I was stung. The lure wobbles side to side, shooting flashes of silver light through the clear water. A needlefish follows close behind, tapping on the metal spoon. A chill runs through my arms, remembering the powerful strike of the barracuda. I see a second shark swimming over the reef; he darts forward, chasing down a school of fish, sending them flying out of the water, then disappears in the reef.
Nervous energy begins to take hold as I lob a second cast in the direction of the shark. I wind the reel, speeding up the lure. A wave crashes down in front of me, exploding into a ball of whitewash. I can hear the boy laughing.
The needlefish are in frenzy, feeding just below the surface. Schools of kingfish become visible with the rise of each wave and then vanish as chunks of reef roll up on the beach. Stray jellyfish tentacles make it nearly unbearable to keep my feet in the water.
One of the reef sharks is in the shallows, his fins exposed. I backpedal up the beach, as the swells increase in height and fill the ravine. My backpack that I left in the sand is nearly dragged into the sea. I reach for it just in time.
The sun releases its final rays of light, spread across the choppy blue and green sanctuary, creating the ideal conditions for fishing a spoon. The boy motions for me to cast at a quicker pace.
The tide is in and the waves are dying down. I watch a swell rise up on the reef, closing in on the white cushion of sand where it will collapse after a long journey. Just as the wave is about to fall, I see a yellow and green flash from what looks like a game fish. The pectoral fins are strong and narrow, spreading out like wings. He turns and swims out toward the darker water. I launch a cast and nervously present my offering. The fish nails the spoon, and as I set the hook in what feels like a snag on the bottom, line buzzes out of the reel, drops of water falling from the line like perspiration.
The fish shoots out of the water, shaking his body, the metal spoon banging against the side of his head. I run backwards, holding the rod high, trying not to give him any slack. He sprints parallel to the shore as the waves crash against my line. The fish turns and pulls out line until he is in the open ocean. I check my spool, noting the low stock of monofilament. I back up on the beach, pulling him toward the shore an inch at a time, and walk back to the water, every crank of the reel a precious gain. The fish races back over the reef; I’m surprised by my good fortune. Back in the current, he swims deep in the ravine, not budging. I try to back up, but the rod bends triple over, nearing its breaking point.
I’m patient for few minutes, letting him hold in the ravine. I gamble with a heavy pull on the rod that sends him into a panic. He races through the current, over the reef, back down the length of the beach. I chase after him, holding the rod high, and trying not to trip over my own feet. The boy follows behind me, speaking in Portuguese. The fish jumps high in the air, gold light reflecting off his body.
“What a fish,” I say to the boy.
“Play him, tough,” he says.
The fish runs again, back to the place where the battle began. I follow, slower, noting his fatigue. I ease him in as the young boy wades up to his waist in water. He motions for me to step back, pulling the fish closer. A wave rises up from the reef and barrels down on the boy. He is slammed to the bottom, surfacing with his hair full of sand. He takes the line in his hand, pulls back on the fish, and snatches him up by the gills. Struggling to walk through the deep sand, waves approaching at his back, he drags the fish up the beach and presents him to me with a smile.
“Nice queenfish,” he says, proud of his performance.
“Good work,” I tell him. “Tonight we’ll eat together.”
“So you’re lucky,” I hear in a sweet voice. “I watched the entire battle,” she continues, in her seductive accent.
I remove my green fishing hat to wipe away the remaining sweat on my forehead, unable to dismiss the grin on my face. The three of us stare at the trophy, as the boy takes a knife and bleeds the fish, staining the white sand below.
“Should we go back for dinner?” I ask, reaching for the fish.
“No, I will carry it,” says the boy, hoisting the fish onto his shoulder.
We walk back toward our thatched hut accommodations, watching the last shred of light fade. The boy struggles with the weight of the fish, but looks determined to complete his journey.
“Give him a hand,” says Jacoline.
“No, I have it,” he says, adjusting the weight and walking ahead of us.
“Stubborn,” she says. “You should be helping him.”
When we arrive, a crowd has already assembled around the fish. We approach the boy, who is telling the story in Portuguese. The locals pat me on the back. The boy gestures for me to take the fish and begins walking back down the beach.
“Don’t you want to eat?” I ask him, surprised.
“No, I’m O.K.” he says. “We fish again tomorrow?”
“What time do the fish bite?”
“Sunset,” he says, turning and walking away.
Jevin Lee Albuquerque lives in Bozeman, Montana. He recently completed his second full-length novel, American Mess. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Double Take, Points of Entry, Gravel, and Map Magazine in Madrid. You can find his poetry in the October/November issue of Literary Juice. In a former life he was a professional soccer player. He has a degree in Latin American Studies from UCLA.