The Price of Fish

BASHAOW! Alfred sprang upright at the sound of the second crash of waves. Half awake when he heard the first bashaow of water hitting sand and rocks, he thought he had been dreaming. It was around four thirty in the morning, not yet light. He swung out of bed, walked over to the chair next to the bedroom door and picked up the pair of swimming trunks, the pair of shorts and the T-shirt he had left there the night before.

Isalene watched him dress and followed him to the back door of their blue and cream chattel house. Bashaow, another wave crashed. She stood behind him at the door, threw her arms around his chest, and held on briefly.

“Go good,” she said.

“It don’t sound good,” he replied.

He heard the door close behind him. He thought she would go back to bed but knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep.

Alfred walked briskly down the hill, hoping it was not as bad as it sounded. He turned right into Tent Bay and made out a figure ahead also moving quickly. As he drew closer he recognized the bow-legged gait and leftward list of Alson Broomes. Alfred caught up with him as they reached the Sea-U Guest House.

“Mornin’, Pa Broomes. Where this weather come from?” 

Bashaow, another wave crashed, followed this time by the splintering of wood.

“Oh, God,” boomed Alson, peering in the direction of the sound even though it was too dark to see anything, “a boat gone.”  His loud voice was something of a surprise. He was no taller than five-foot-six. Alfred thought it was a habit developed from having constantly to compete with the noise of a fishing boat motor against the background of the ocean.

They picked up pace.  “We got to get the boats out,” said Alfred. They took the shortcut through the grounds of the Atlantis Hotel and down the broken steps to what was once the bed of the old train tracks, now a natural breakwater against the heavy seas.

Wind whistled through their clothes. Electric power lines whined. Dogs barked. Lights came on in the houses around the bay.

Where had this weather come from? Were the weathermen caught napping again? There were nine boats in the water last night. How many would survive this?

“You got you phone?” asked the old man.

“No,” answered Alfred, patting pockets with both hands.

Groggy and Seaman arrived from the other end of the bay, breathing heavily. Light from a pair of headlights curved through the darkness as a vehicle made its way down the hill and took the sharp left around the bend at the eastern entrance to Tent Bay. The driver positioned the pickup facing the moored boats. The handbrake made a raking sound, the diesel motor kept running, and the headlights stayed on. The men could see pieces of wood that had once been a boat, now bobbing flotsam. One piece, painted bright yellow, bore the number O 542 in large black lettering. Day boats carried a number on the roof of the cabin for easy identification in a search and rescue. O 542 was the number of Abraham Bend’s boat. Nature’s power had found a weak link, separated the boat from its mooring and smashed it against the nearby rocks. The other eight fishing boats were still there riding the swells, dancing with the flows until their ties to the anchored buoys yanked them back.

The driver got out of the pickup, phone in hand. “Anybody call the tractor man?”

“I left my phone home. I was just going up to the hotel to make the call,” said Alson.

“By the time Mr Roach get here, it might be too late,” said Alfred.

More men and a woman arrived. They grumbled because there was no longer a tractor garaged right there in Tent Bay. It had been deemed underused and was redeployed, called on from afar when needed. The tractor man was called but didn’t answer his phone. The driver of the pickup suggested a call to the local MP. Someone called out his home number, another person called out his mobile phone number. “He coming,” said the driver, “one of the neighbours call he already.” There were still some advantages to living on a small island like Barbados.

The group paced up and down. Some on the bed of the old train tracks, some down on the rocky ramp leading into the sea. Ideas were tossed around. Dawn approached.

The MP arrived, quickly and eager to help. “I can’t raise Mr Roach,” he told the fishermen. “I called the Minister of Works. He could get a tractor here in an hour and a half.” There was a chorus of “Too long, man, too long.” The MP paced up and down with phone to ear, exasperation on his face.

The boats continued to strain at their moorings, rising with each wave and crashing down after the wave had passed. How long the moorings would hold was the question on everyone’s mind.

More fishermen and villagers arrived.

“We have to take the boats out to the deep,” said Alfred, sounding eager to get on with it. Even though he had inherited his boat, he, like every other fisherman, knew the value of his vessel. But uppermost in his mind was the promise he had made to his father.

He knew that the life jackets were in the boats, and they would have to swim the more than two hundred meters against the raging tide unaided. That rage had destroyed the concrete jetty built there some years ago. The older fishermen had called it a waste of money from conception and predicted its demise. Planners with degrees and contractors who, they thought, should have known better ignored them. But these hardy men who made a living in these waters, men who took their small day boats more than twenty miles offshore on a regular basis, they knew this sea. They had seen its power from season to season. They also had confidence in their boats, which they had built themselves right there in Tent Bay, outside of the new fish market. Alfred was worried about Alson. The old man was seventy if he was a day, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at those sinewy shoulders and arms. And he was the one who had done this most, the one who had braved many seas like this, the one who had told the stories to the younger fishermen.

Dawn was breaking. The sun, obscured by dark clouds, cast a dim glow over the ocean. The truck driver turned off his engine and lights.

Alson addressed the fishermen. He talked about the swim. “You got to aim straight at the wave, full throttle, one at a time. Wait for the man in front you to go clear….  Alfred, you go first.”

Why had he been chosen?  Was it because he was the youngest, or perhaps because Alson had been his father’s best friend and wanted him in front where he could see him? Alfred walked down the ramp and into the surf. He thought of his surfing buddies who would be out with their boards at the other end of Bathsheba. He would have preferred to be with them now, but he had to be here. He stood in the waves, a broad-shouldered, full-chested young man, yet a small creature in front of this seemingly infinite ocean churning its way toward him.

“I can do this, I can do this,” he repeated to himself, shaking his fingers loosely at his sides. He waited for a wave to recede and followed it. “I wish I was surfing,” he said to himself as he dived into the water.

Maude Griffith, an old fish seller, dressed as usual in a long dress and head-tie, started to pray aloud. “Calm these waters, Lord. Calm these waters. I beseech you, I command you to protect these men.”

Alfred remembered the old man’s words. “You got to go under the big waves.” He thought that someday he might have to be the one giving the same advice and shuddered. He didn’t know if he could ask others to do what he was doing. He was a mechanic, not really a fisherman. He fixed car and boat engines. But his father told him, “When things hard on land, there will always be fish in the sea. Never give up this boat.”

He swam hard with the ebbs, head just out of the water and pivoting with each stroke, breathing left, breathing right, and keeping an eye on the boats. He maintained as straight a course as possible in the direction of his boat. He took a deep breath as a big wave approached and dived under. The water tugged at his body, pulling him back. He was treading water, treading water, lungs beginning to strain, then it released him, letting him swim again. He surfaced, his mouth flew open. He gulped sweet air and salty sea spray, and thought of his dead father.

Old Cleophus was there with him. Alfred looked around and saw that he was off course; the boats were over to his left now. He changed direction and charged ahead to the Lady Janet.

She was the third Lady Janet in his family, but there was no number after her name to indicate succession. Old Cleophus didn’t believe in that. He had built them all, the first one out of mahogany brought down by hurricane Janet in 1955. Alfred grabbed the tire hanging by a rope from the side of the boat. He hung on, gasping like a fish just hauled on board.  Isalene came to him.  She would be up and about finding things to do, maybe making breakfast for their two-year-old son if he was up, trying to ignore the roar of the sea only to be reminded each time she heard bashaow.

Alfred pulled himself up over the blue-painted side of the boat.  He thought he heard Sister Griffith yell, “Amen, thank you, Lord.” He flopped in the bottom of the boat and listened to the rapid beating of his heart and watched his stomach rise and fall. “Let that damn hotel manager tell me how much I should charge for my fish next time.”

Alfred got to his feet, swaying with each pitch of the boat. He held on to the side and looked for the men who had followed him into the water. He counted seven heads. The first was Alson, followed by Groggy, followed by Seaman, followed by George Bishop, followed by Brock, followed by Tallman, followed by Dalton Greene, a band of men risking their lives to save their living. There would be no monuments to these men or others like them. Men for whom heroics were but a part of daily life, living in a place where the word hero was a title awarded to politicians by other politicians. One by one they reached the boats, watched by an entranced crowd on the shore and hotel guests on their balconies.

The Lady Janet’s engine clattered to life. The sound of the 200-horse power motor reverberated across the bay against the roar of the ocean, challenging it, telling it, “I will defeat you today.” Alfred waited for the passage of the next wave before he detached from his mooring.

He steered the Lady Janet toward the channel, that break in the reef that permitted safe passage in and out of the bay. He aimed the tapered bow at the oncoming wave and pushed the Lady Janet to full throttle. The boat lifted as it hit the wave, and with its bottom completely clear of the water seemed to fly.

“Yeahhhh,” Alfred yelled, his cry drowned out by the high-pitched whirring of the boat’s propeller spinning in the air.

There were gasps along the shore. Cameras clicked on hotel balconies. Sister Griffith raised her arms, beating her fists against the air before slowly opening them.

The Lady Janet hit the water and, engine barking, moved on to meet the next wave.

She rose and fell again and moved beyond the reef into open water.

One after the other the engines roared, the boats headed for the gap in the reef, the channel, they called it. Each boat performed the same manoeuvre until the eighth and last boat made it out. The convoy, with Alfred at its head, bobbed and weaved its way through the heaving water. The boats rounded the northern tip of the island then travelled down the west coast, led to safety.

EDISON T. WILLIAMS is a Barbadian storyteller who took up writing, “a long-deferred dream,” when he retired. “The Price of Fish” is from his forthcoming short story collection, Facing North.