International Writers Magazine: Wildlife
Christian Ehlko Friesenborg
feet are scratched and scraped from spills taken wading across the
coral tide pools to fish, stumbling in the waves off the Island
of Utila. Likewise there are a few good patches of burn where I
have miscalculated the current in tight quartered coral formations
down below. A raw wrinkle of red flesh cuts across the bridges both
feet, hurts enough to send me around each night shoeless, after
going to bed twisting gingerly to avoid rubbing against of the sheets.
Five minutes in
their fins the pain is gone, and stays gone so for two and three hour
swims hunting fish. Hands and have suffered knicks and cuts from the
filet knife, scrapes and gouges from the spearhead and the spines of
thrashing fish. I swam with a heavy leather glove the first few times
out, abandoned it for a lack of dexterousness, resolved to just get
better at handling frantic fish. My pubic bone is sexlessly fucksore,
a shadow of blue and yellow bruise in and around the region one big
bruise from a five hundred cockings of the gun.
I am interested to get on a scale, get stronger and for longer with
every trip into the water. My shorts are falling off me. I can swim
fairly hard underwater for two minutes and change with out seeing too
many stars, each swim get better at diving deeper. For six years the
only parts of my body touching the world were fingers typing or dialing
the phone, the fat of my ass squishing secret farts into a cheap office
chair. I am shedding the fat, white skin of the city worm, the meatbag
chimp trained like to pound the keyboard, to whine like a bitch on the
phone to thirty people the monkey needs to hurry up. Fat, soft, meatbag
is hardening, ripening to golden brown in the sun, the pain of every
cut and scrape and bruising a baptism of life, a willingness to bleed
Each day after fishing I shower with the spear gun, mask, and snorkel,
with all the tools of my new trade. Rubber is decimated quickly by the
salt of the ocean, the bands of the spear gun wearing out fast. Left
unrinsed in the sun they would rot, rip, and eventually snap. Most of
the folks around here selling diving equipment consider the sea an aquarium;
would not take kindly to me skewering the fish in it. To get replacement
bands I would have to put the pinch on a local, and that would make
me the same stupid tourist who harangues them day in and day out with
stupid questions, with inconsequential shit-talking said to make them
feel small. Everything comes into the shower, is worked over with TLC.
I am not into naming weapons. It is a habit in the Corps, or at least
I have been led to believe so by television and the picture shows. The
Army Infantry considers our Semper Fi sisters as a substandard lot,
alleging they are trained to fight until the commander is killed, then
to run around and shoot one another until one man stands alone. The
last man secures the flag and stands down, reports the situation if
asked, awaits further orders. I love to spread a rumor. Quint and Suttree
are both names of fishermen, but I think you are supposed to use a girl's
name, a specific girl. I haven't dated anyone yet who I could imagine
spear fishing, and that is probably why I don't have a girl and am spear
fishing for a living in the Bay Islands. So fuck all that. I will name
my spear gun Harrogate, for all the spastic action I take in his company.
The water is up today, a cool breeze bringing with it waves, streamers
of rolling waves speckled with whitecaps out over the reef. Wait for
the water to clear, plot the next few steps and mince, mince, mince.
I drop at three feet, don mask and snorkel, stuff my sandals down my
shorts, clipping their straps into the carabineer, and fin up. Tevas
make for good padding for cocking the gun, I figured out after about
a hundred of cockings into soft, white flesh.
I work the reef. I am a fish-killing machine. Target spotted I float
close, become a log, a big, harmless piece of driftwood. Dangle legs
below the surface and frog-kick with ankles alone, gliding over top,
waiting for the fish to get comfy, rolling on its back and nibbling
at the reef. Gather legs and raise them out of the water, gravity plunging
the body under with scarce a splash. Deep dives I take three deep breaths
and go, equalize halfway down and dive dive dive. Kick down once the
fins are under, close enough for a shot in the thick of things; center
mass. Score a hit and a blur of whiplashing fish convulses crazily on
a stick. Charge in fast, push the spear through. Get a couple of fingers
in the gills while it sits and shudders if the spear has bounced out.
Clip the gun into carabineer and let it drop. Unscrew the head from
the spear and hold it tight. Shove the fish in the catch-bag and pull
the spear free. Get the bag tied shut and cast it to the end of the
ten foot lanyard.
The gun uncocked, my pants are down should anything come cruising for
the scent of blood. I have seen only barracuda thus far but there are
sharks swimming around here longer than I am tall. The fish-bag at the
end of the line at least I have some room to play with, the option of
cutting it all loose and bogeying if worse comes to worse.
Get the spearhead screwed back on most riki-tik. Feed the spear back
down through the barrel housings and click it home. Pull bands, wind
the catch cord, safe on. Once armed, yank the fish bag back in close
for a less drag, for smaller silhouette, and get back to killing fish.
Going for head shots to preserve the precious filets I miss and miss.
Shoot center mass, center mass, allowing for refraction. After changing
site-pictures, I gut-shoot three fish in 30 minutes, the last through
the blur of a flooded mask and then out deep to float on my back maskless
and basking in paradise.
Five fish taken in an hour I start swimming in. I see an octopus fade
to ocean floor trying to hide, swell up angrily when I approached, and
slithered off. A big barracuda comes around looking three or four feet
long even after dropping some size for the magnification factor beneath
the waves. It is some big fish. I kick hard after it, bag and gun in
one hand, spear extended like a lance, pulling hard through the water
with the free hand. Gaining and gaining, Holyshit I am gaining. The
fish stops in the water, turns and eyeballs. I float closer on a little
swell. A flash of silver an there are two sitting there.
Freddy has told me that it is common practice to get out of the water
and into your boat as soon as the barracuda is shot. One will attack
if wounded, but will its partner? They turn towards deep water and I
follow, swimming my heart out with fins and one hand. I begin to believe
I actually have a chance and then with a flick of their tail and another
flash of silver they are gone. I lay on my back gasping for air for
a while before resuming the swim in. I wonder how big of a fish I should
tackle. It will take three days to get an email response from Downtown
Mike Brown, my spear fishing mentor: "Kill everything. As long
as you eat it."
I clean my fish on a piece of driftwood, sitting on the bases of the
retaining walls just west of the Iron Shoals. I remember Freddys
method, starting along along the spine, into the soft patch behind the
skull. Dig a thumb in the hole, pushing meat up and away, more and more
coming loose behind little strokes of the knife. Fish still live in
the bag quiver even as I filet, cringing under my hand with every pass
of the blade. Halfway down the second side the head is let to dangle
over the edge of the driftwood platform, cutting, cutting until the
carcass slips free and back into the ocean.
Two days ago a little spotted moray eel came calling, skittering from
tide-pool to tide-pool through the shallows to my spot. He was about
five inches long, is as thick as your finger, and was quickly named
'Chahly'. He wriggled closer and closer until finding a spot beneath
the offings of my fish. He eats like a fearless glutton, takes little
pieces from my hand. I feed him mindful of those teeth. A fish as fat
as your finger can conceivably fit a finger in its mouth and I would
hate to have to kill Chahley to get it back.
Yesterday Chahley came around again and likewise gorged, in leaving
got himself caught in a stretch of tide pool too shallow for even his
tiny form. Panicked he writhed and twisted in and out of knots, contorted
himself to such a panicky extent he threw up all his gorgings. Watching
I was reminded of burning snakes last frantic spasms. A wave brought
a few inches of cool water over him, and he wriggled away to deep water
no doubt embarrassed. Nobody wants to be the one at the party who panics
and throws up.
He hasnt shown up today, though I made a point of coming to the
same spot at roughly the same time as both days preceding. I will come
again tomorrow and Chahley will be missing an orgy of fish if his nerve
still fails him.
Pedaling home I see Brandon and Brian on the bridge fishing.
I tell them I have some stuff to rustle up at the pad. They fish with
bit of flesh taken from a small Sunny they hooked a little while before
I showed. They haul their lines a lot, rebait, and cast all over the
place. They aren't catching anything, plan to get ahold of a grill and
cook what they are sure to catch for dinner. I don't tell them what
I am to rustle up are ten good sized filets just out of the water and
in my backpack. I am tempted to share them with Brandon, but Brian would
not appreciate it, would take from it little but a fixation on borrowing
the gun to prove he can do anything you can do better, anything you
can do he can
and so forth.
I have subsisted meatwise for five days now on what I have taken from
the water, my only purchases a sack of potatoes from the ice-cold-Coke
That night I drink and drink and drink at RJs, sitting next to Emma,
Dannel and Cris behind the bar. Cris is another dive instructor at Altons,
is multiply tattooed and pierced. He is also Swedish, and seems a good
Dannel and Cris change tapes on the boom-box wired into a shelf behind
the bar. The left side of the bar is all cash register, a few stacks
of glasses running the length of the rail and the bar ending eight feet
away at the step down to the little courtyard out back. Tables are dim
in the courtyard, the only light beyond candles on the tables above
Robbie, the owner, stands tireless before the grill. Dannel and Cris
schlep drinks, run heaping plates of grilled chicken, beef, and lobster,
Amber Jack, Barracuda, Snapper and Shark from behind the bar to a packed
house huddled at their tables.
The Simpsons come on a little television back by Robbie and I
almost weep. It has been about 50 days, The cable package at my last
stop Stateside got the Fox affiliates for both New York and Philly,
a total of four episodes a night. I have seen a number of Bart shirts,
doubtless funneled down through the relief efforts for Hurricane Mitch,
but the wearers didn't talk like Bart, don't even speak English. The
music from behind the bar is up too loud to hear anything and just what
kind of self-absorbed asshole asks a whole bar to shut things down so
they can watch TV? If it were a rerun I could mumble along from the
bar but it is a new episode involving some celebrity guest with dark
hair drawn in a style reserved for Quasi-queer white tiger trainers
and German inheritors of the Hellfish Bonanza. How I miss those toons.
A different character is toasted with every fresh beer, black-out occurring
just after drinking to the health of Joe Quimby.
I wake with another delightful hangover, loose bowels rumbling beneath
a thundering headache. Standing I shuffle to the bathroom and release.
The alarm sounds at 6:30 and is reset again and again and shut off.
I blow off a follow-up visit to Dr. Cooper for my ear, doze. Plans for
an appointment later in the day become plans of going tomorrow become
what the hell does he know anyway? Creepy-ass spider club. I lay in
bed feeling weak and alone, finally stir at the dries of Emma and Dannel
and Brandon outside.
"OY! GET DA FUCK UP HAY!"
I step out onto the porch into the blaring sunlight looking rough in
sunglasses and board shorts. The look is mutual. Laughs all around.
I am scolded for sleeping late, tell them about my missed Dr's appointment
an hour before.
"Go'ne ahead. I'll get it together and follow on the bike."
Brandon smiles, "Hey, so you found your bike."
Dannel and Brandon are in the water when I arrive, Emma on a towel on
the beach, reading. I walk up the beach and sit with her for a minute,
get my gear together, and get wet. The boys follow me around for a while;
help try to flush a wounded fish that disappears down a hole. I give
them each in turn the spear locked and cocked over a fish and they quickly
notch up two misses into the coral. We float, the spearhead sharpened
after each impact with a little file on a line.
"You gotta kind of shoot to the side. It just takes a little while
to get used to."
They each try a few times more and pack it in.
By the time I get back to the beach they are gone, etched into the sand
next to my bike-Caribe Bongo.
Friesenborg February 2008
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