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‘The Dolphin Catcher’ by Diana McCaulay

Posted on 13/06/2012
By Commonwealth Foundation
Photo Credit: Mkooiman (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Mkooiman (Flickr)

The boy sat in the lee of the crumbling wall and stared out to sea. It was full dark and rain hissed on the water, but he was sheltered from the downpour where he sat. He saw a swirl of phosphorescence in the sea, gone so quickly he might have imagined it, might have merely wished for it, because his grandfather, Maas Conrad, had told him about the tiny creatures that lived in the sea and at night, shone aqua in the wakes of boats and drew the deep ghostly shapes of fish. His grandfather said Kingston Harbour had once been full of them, that no night’s fishing would have passed without seeing the shining mystery. ‘Where dey go, Gramps?’ the boy had asked.

‘Sea too dirty for dem.’

‘Why the sea get dirty?’

His grandfather had merely grunted. He was a man of the sea, not a man of words. Now he was lost at sea.

‘Lloyd? But whey di pickney is, eeh? Him is pure crosses. Di good Lord only know di trouble I seen.’ It was his mother’s voice. He stood and turned to meet her. ‘You waan get sick, pickney? Out here inna di pourin rain a nighttime?’ She stood under the brightly coloured umbrella someone had left on the bus. ‘Come. You grandfadda be aaright. You tink di sea can kill him?’ Lloyd walked towards his mother and the shelter of the umbrella and together, they walked through the dark streets of Kingston, the dirty rain water sweeping the streets, masking the smell of sewage, taking the garbage of the city into the sea. Lloyd heard his grandfather’s voice in his mind: I come from a line of fishermen.

The boy lived with his mother near to the old Western Sewerage Plant, on the shores of Kingston Harbour. Maas Conrad’s son, the boy’s father, did not live with them, but he visited, and filled the two room house with complaints. Lloyd thought his father talked a lot, but not about what mattered. The house was too hot; a fan was needed. There were cheap ones on Princess Street. He had been fired again, but it had been a stupid job, not enough money. He had plans, ambitious plans, he could be somebody, but the big man was against him. He knew a man who was fixing up a car for him, nothing fancy, but he could run taxi with it. And there was a big money job coming up, a secret job. Although when times were hard he did go to sea with one of his bredren, he was a sometime fisher, for he said fishing was for old time people. The most common sentence he sent Lloyd’s way was: Bring mi a rum, bwoy. And his mother would always retort: You bring any rum inna di house? When you bring rum, den you get rum.

Lloyd held the umbrella while his mother wrestled with the front door padlock.

The nearest streetlight had blown many years before. His mother kissed her teeth. ‘Mi tired fi tell you wut’liss fadda to buy one new lock,’ she said. Finally, the lock scraped open and they went inside. The air was full of water and the tiny house was dank. ‘Go to bed, pickney. As God a my witness, you nah be a fisherman. As God a my witness.’

Lloyd slept on a narrow cot in the second and smaller of the rooms. He stripped off his sodden clothes and hung them over the sagging line that held his school uniforms pushing them to one side to make space for his wet vest and shorts. He wondered why his grandfather had gone to the Pedro Banks for he was not a regular Pedro fisher. A man had to motor almost sixty nautical miles to find the Pedro banks, sixty miles in an open boat, with no navigational equipment, no radio, just eyes and experience and stamina. Maas Conrad fished instead for the deep water fish at Bowditch and the California banks and all along the edge of Jamaica’s continental shelf. There were few fish inshore these days. Oh yes, there were fishers who cast their lines and pots and nets close to the sewerage pipes emptying into Kingston Harbour, where the seabirds hovered and plunged, where the garbage from the gullies floated, and they did catch fish, but Lloyd’s grandfather was not one of those men.

He was not one of the men who sold fish to the women who used burial fluids to make the fish look fresh. He was not one to throw a bag of chlorine in a good fishing spot and watch the fish float up, nor one to buy dynamite from the police and make his own circle of destruction in the sea. No one had to tell Maas Conrad when lobster season closed, or that Queen conch never lived where there were shattered conch shells on the floor of the sea, or that parrot fish should be left to graze the reef.

Lloyd went to sea with his grandfather before he was a year old, so his mother said, just for a spin around the Harbour, over the shoals of grey and green, into the flat calm water of the Port Royal mangroves. His grandfather was a deepwater fisherman, a line fisher. He did not use nets or pots, because, he explained when Lloyd was older, those methods were wasteful, catching everything above a certain size, trash fish, juveniles, eels, turtles. Lloyd peppered Maas Conrad with questions.

‘Why you go sea alone, Gramps?’

‘Why sometime you drop a line and sometime you troll?’

‘How you know where to go?’

I come from a line of fishermen, was all his grandfather said in response. And Lloyd would see that line of fishermen slanting taut into the sea; a line that could both feed you and cut you.

The best times were on weekends, when his grandfather left for his anchorage at four in the morning, long before the garbage men started their work in the city and before the dancehalls turned down their music, in the coolest part of the night. Maas Conrad sat in the stern of his canoe, his hand on the engine, a bent shadow in the small warm glow of his tilly lamp. Lloyd stood in the bow, holding the anchor rope to steady himself, staring ahead as the boat cleaved the water. They went together across the sea that contained no directional signs, at least not to Lloyd, and they anchored and fished together, and then when the sun came up, and the ice cooler was full, and the fish had stopped biting, and if the weather was calm, they went to one of the south coast cays.

Needles Cay was Lloyd’s favourite, encircled by a reef that few could pick their way through, the white sand coarse, the sandflies few. Under the single straggly mangrove tree, Maas Conrad would roast an unscaled red snapper on a square of zinc, the snapper’s skin crusted with salt, the fire small and hot until the skin of the fish flaked off, leaving the pure white flesh for grandfather and grandson to eat in a thin sauce of seawater and onion and lime and scotch bonnet pepper. Maas Conrad ate with his fingers and his favourite knife, the one with the bone handle and missing stud, which he cleaned by sticking it into the sand where the waves broke.

Afterwards, their bellies full and bodies somnolent, they rested in the small shade and that was when Maas Conrad told the boy dolphin stories. ‘Aah, mi son, dem animal smart so til. Dem hunt togedda and dem live togedda and dem will even kip a man company at night. Sometime you hear dem before you see dem, you hear when dem come up to breade air like wi. Dem swim far and dem dive deep. One time, over by Wreck Reef, when a big wave carry mi over di reef, is a dolphin show me di way out.’

Lloyd grew more skeptical of these stories as the years passed, but he often saw the pod of dolphins that lived in Kingston Harbour, near the entrance, and he loved their sleek bodies and the way they kept pace with boats big and small, like police outriders for dignitaries. In the old days, his grandfather said, no fisherman would have harmed a dolphin for it was well known such an action would bring catastrophe on a man’s family. And there was that time in recent memory, when a Negril fisher had seen three dolphins tip his fish pot off the edge into the depths, and enraged, he had shot one of them with his speargun and watched the dolphin dive, trailing blood. The fisherman had let his speargun go with the dolphin and that night, his taxi ran off the road when the driver fell asleep and the fisher died without a mark on him. People knew about the dolphin he had injured and sentenced to an agonizing drawn out death and they nodded their heads. Leave the dolphin-dem alone.

Maas Conrad had been missing for a month. Lloyd watched for him on the wall each Friday evening, and on Saturday mornings, he went as usual with his mother to help her sell fish to uptown people. She did not sell her fish on the harbour’s fishing beaches or in the markets. She took Maas Conrad’s high value catch to an old fridge turned icebox on the side of the road near a Liguanea supermarket. She was Nicey-the-fish-lady, and the white people and the brownings trusted her fish. ‘You have lobster next week?’ the women would ask, from the windows of their huge cars. ‘I only buy fish from you, Nicey,’ they would say.

‘Mebbe next week,’ his mother would reply. ‘But why you no try this nice-nice silk snapper?’ That was why his mother was called Nicey; her fish was always nice-nice. ‘Next week Nicey,’ the uptown women said as they pulled out into the stream of cars. Lloyd thought the uptown people were like sharks on the prowl, certain of their status at the top of the food chain, unafraid of the multitudes of other creatures with whom they shared a home, barely noticing them. A shark could turn on a small fish at any time, and in the flick of a powerful tail and the crunch of jaws made for dominance, it would be all over. Lloyd never made eye contact with the uptown people.

Sales were brisk that Saturday, although the fish they had for sale was not the best quality, and Lloyd was kept busy digging through the sharp chunks of ice to find the right type and size for the customers, wrapping the fish in newspaper, laying them in plastic bags. Sometimes his mother made him stand on the side of the road, holding a large snapper in his hand. His arm hurt and so did his icy fingers and the sun made him narrow his eyes to slits. His grandfather had shown him that trick – how to protect his eyes from the glare of the sea – his grandfather had told him about the food chain with the sharks at the top. He thought of Maas Conrad’s gear – his hand lines, hooks, sinkers, anchor, knife and gaff – and finger tips, cut from the inner tube of bicycles and slipped over his right index finger to prevent the fishing line from cutting his finger off, as he fought a big fish; a yellow rain jacket that smelled of plastic and salt and fish scales, the tilly lamp, cooler, bait holder. His grandfather did have one modern piece of equipment – a cell phone, given to him by his mother – but he was not answering it. They knew he had made it to Pedro because he had called. ‘Mi reach,’ he had said.

‘God is good,’ Lloyd’s mother had said.

Traffic thinned out and there were only a few small yellowtail snapper left in the cooler. Nicey sniffed at them. ‘No mek sense tek dese home,’ she said. She never ate fish herself. It seemed strange to Lloyd that fish fed his mother, but his mother never tasted them, did not know or care to know anything about the sea, or about the fish, where they spawned, what they ate, how they lived. She threw the remaining fish to the mongrel dogs that lived behind the supermarket.

That night, Lloyd’s father visited for the first time since Maas Conrad had left for Pedro. He greeted the boy as he always did. ‘Wha’ppen, yout?’ he said. ‘You hear anyting?’ he said to Lloyd’s mother.

She shook her head. ‘You hear anyting?’ she said. There was something layered in her voice, something hidden. She held out her hand and Lloyd’s father gave her a bundle of folded notes. That was how they lived, how they ate – the money his father brought and Maas Conrad’s fish. Late that night, Lloyd heard the murmuring voices of his mother and father and he knew they were talking about the dolphins that tourists wanted to see in sea pens and swimming pools all over the Caribbean, dolphins that had to be captured. This, he knew, was his father’s secret, his father’s big job.

It was not steady work, months or even a year would go by before the foreign dolphin traders would phone Lloyd’s father and tell him what they wanted. The first time it happened, Lloyd had heard him on the phone to his bredren, the men who played dominoes with him, drank white rum with him. ‘A young female dem want,’ Lloyd’s father had said. ‘A pretty one wid a pink stomach, dem sey. No mark on di skin.’

Lloyd had watched the preparations for the work, and when his father left, he had gone to the wall and he had waited, deep in shadow. Night fell and the fast boat came back without a dolphin on the first night, and the second. A week later, the fast boat came in with the animal in the net, lashed to the side of the boat, his father and his bredren in the boat, with other men waiting on shore to help lift the thrashing dolphin into the back of the padded pickup parked on the beach. The men covered the animal with wet towels and money was counted out, a lot of money, more than enough for each man to buy rum and a New Kingston whore, enough to go to Caymanas racetrack with a little left over for the baby mothers. Then the men drove away, two men in the back of the pickup with the dolphin.

Three times Lloyd had watched his father do this, and on the last occasion, six weeks ago, his grandfather had been coming home from a quick trip to the wreck of the Cayman Trader near Maiden Cay where night had caught him, and he must have heard the banging noises and seen the bright lights, must have realized it was his own son with other men chasing the dolphin into a net, must have witnessed the boiling sea as the dolphin tried to escape the closing net, the dead calf floating away into the dark. As Lloyd watched from his hiding place on the wall, he saw his grandfather drive his boat straight up onto the beach. He stepped out and waded into the sea and there he waited, his back to the land, for the men to come to shore.

It had not occurred to Lloyd then to fear for the old man, because his grandfather could coax the most ancient and stubborn of boat engines into life, he knew the reefs and shoals and upwellings in the sea, and he knew the depths as well, the mountains and dark valleys of the sea floor. The old man could sleep in the inch of water that sloshed around in his boat, could lift his full ice chest alone, could dive thirty feet with mask and snorkel, paid no attention when his favourite scaling knife slipped and his own blood dripped from his fingers. Lloyd’s father, on the other hand, was a man who
whined. As the boy waited for the confrontation between his grandfather and his father, he had no doubt who would be triumphant.

And his father did cower when he saw the old man waiting for him, he turned to speak to the others, and then the fast boat curved away, with the dolphin still lashed to the side, and the foreigners on the beach held up their arms and flashed their headlights, but they could not shout because their work needed secrecy and silence. Lloyd saw them on their cell phones and then they got into their vehicles and drove away as the wake of the fast boat trailed off into the night. Lloyd saw his grandfather run to his own boat with an old man’s unsteady gait, and he flung his weight against the boat, which rocked and settled more deeply on the grey sand. Lloyd came out of the dark and wordless, the old man and the boy waited for a wave larger than the others, and together, they pushed to the boat back into the sea.

‘Don’t mek sense you try catch dem, Gramps,’ Lloyd said, standing in the warm rotting water of Kingston Harbour, ticki-tickis flicking at his ankles.

‘Go home,’ the old man said, but his voice was soft. ‘Go home, pickney. After you ave school tomorrow. You mus sleep a nighttime.’ He fired the engine and it caught first time and Lloyd stood on the beach and watched his grandfather’s boat slide across the harbour – he would never catch the fast boat. What was done that night was done and the next day Lloyd heard that the captured dolphin had drowned and the dolphin men were angry and were threatening to find another group of dolphin catchers on another island.

After that, Lloyd’s father stopped visiting his mother and his grandfather came around less often. ‘Why Gramps staying away?’ he asked his mother.

‘Big man business,’ she said.

‘Bout di dolphins?’

‘What you know ’bout di dolphin-dem?’

‘I saw dem,’ he said. ‘Catchin dolphins. Gramps try fi stop dem.’

His mother kissed her teeth. ‘Dat old man, mi swear sey him lick him head. So what if di tourist dem waan see a dolphin? So what if a man waan pay a money for a big fish? Ketch dem all, is what mi sey. How you tink your school book get pay for?’

‘Dolphin not a fish,’ Lloyd said.

‘But hear dis now. Same stupidness. Don’t dem live inna di sea? If you live in di sea, you is a fish. Go do you homework.’ And then her mantra. ‘As God a mi witness, you nah going end up a fisherman. As God a mi witness.’

Lloyd wanted to tell her she need not worry. Both his grandfather and his father had no brothers or sisters, so the family line of fishermen held single knots of single sons, knots spaced a generation apart. It was true that perhaps he too might live to have a son and the line would stretch out before him and behind him, families of men and boys, all of whom went to sea. But however far the line stretched back through great grandfather and great great grandfather, all the way back to the ancestors in Africa, Lloyd believed the line of fishermen would stop with him.

He sat on his cot, his exercise book in his lap, and he wondered what it truly meant to be a fisherman, a man of the sea. Was his father a fisherman, or just a man who went to sea to take what he could, when he could? Did he want his grandfather’s life of brutal days in the sun, lonely nights and disappointment? Yet Lloyd also knew the freedom of the sea, the cleanness of it, the line of the horizon his to claim. It was possible to imagine being a man while at sea with his grandfather.

Other men returned from the Pedro Banks. Yes, they had seen the old man leave the distant islands with his ice chest of fish, he was fine, no one had heard from him, Maas Conrad too good a seaman, they said, for anyting to happen to him. The weather was clear; there had been no storms. Then the marine police were contacted and the coast guard and they made a half-hearted search for an old fisherman alone in an open canoe. Lloyd thought about the time one of the boats from the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club had gone missing and the racket of the army helicopter looking for the white men in the white boat, up down and across, flying in a box shape, searching the sea. They did find the floating men, dead and sunburned in their life jackets, and the boat splintered on the Hellshire coast. But no helicopter went up to look for his grandfather.

His mother began to buy the catch of another fisher and Lloyd understood the full measure of betrayal and loss and sacrifice. His mother’s mouth was tight and her brow was furrowed and Lloyd’s father could not be found either. His mother called his father, time and time again, but the phone calls went straight to voice mail and his father did not call back and there was no extra money coming in and the catch from the other fishers was trash fish. Lloyd talked to the men on the beach every weekend –you see him? You find his boat? They shook their heads and some of them said to Lloyd, come fish wit me, yout’. You a bawn fisherman and you granddaddy gawn. But Lloyd could still see his grandfather in the stern of his boat, leaving and returning, surely the sea would never kill him, perhaps his boat had failed him finally, but he must have made it to some isolated cay, some beach with no road access, and if any man could survive with just a fishing line and a knife, that man was his grandfather. So at least once a week, the boy went to the wall in the night and stared out to sea and waited for the old man, until the final night, when he gazed out to sea through sheets of rain.

‘What you doin out here, yout’?’ A hand gripped his arm, and for only the second time since his grandfather was lost at sea, Lloyd saw his father. He was bare chested and the rain dripped from his hat. He swayed on his feet and Lloyd smelled the rum on him.

Lloyd stood and lost the shelter of the old wall and he felt the weight of the rain on his head, on his shoulders. ‘Nuttn,’ he said, and looked at the ground. Best not to meet his father’s eyes, best not to see the truth held in them.

‘Dis a where you stay a nighttime?’ The boy knew his father was looking down at the beach, blurred now by the rain, and wondering what the boy had seen on those many clear nights, the nights before his grandfather had failed to return, failed to find land. His father’s grip tightened as he bent down, his face too close, his breath heavy and wet and sour.

‘Lloyd?’ It was his mother’s voice. And when he turned he saw her standing beneath the bright umbrella, and then he saw the knife in his father’s hand, his grandfather’s scaling knife, the knife he had wielded with such skill, the knife he ate with, the knife with the bone handle and missing stud. His mother held the umbrella higher and jerked her head in a signal: come out of the rain. His father joined her under the umbrella. ‘Mi did tell you to dash dat ting away,’ she said to him, pointing at the knife. ‘You head tough like a dry coconut.’ She took the knife from her baby father and she turned to their son. ‘Come, pickney,’ she said, and her voice was kind. ‘Time to go home.’ She handed the umbrella to Lloyd’s father and she took Maas Conrad’s knife from his hand and then she walked to the breaking waves and she reared back and threw it spinning into the night, arcing down in the rain, and Lloyd did not see or hear the splash of its landing.

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