Traf balanced on the gently rocking boat, enjoying the heat of the summer sun on her back and grinning at Tio Marcio as she pulled in a full line of struggling sardines. She held the string of small silver fish high as she tore free the ones that didn’t drop to the boat floor themselves. She scooped up her wriggling catch and threw it into a large metal can, then hurriedly checked the down pigeon feathers she’d carefully tied to each small hook and threw her line back in. “I’m glad you asked for my help this afternoon,” she said happily. “There haven’t been any sardines around the island for months. I’ve never caught so many at one time before.”
They’d sailed out of Praia on an early afternoon in the middle of September, on the smaller of his two fishing boats. Traf used to crew for Tio Marcio as a commercial fisherwoman before joining the US Air Force and still went out with him when he needed her. He’d left word for her at Mãe’s house that the sardines were running and he could use her help to fill an ‘all you can catch’ order for the fish market. In the center of the boat stood two large tin garbage cans, lids tied to their sides. With one already half full, they had every hope of filling both that night.
“You wait,” laughed Tio Marcio, reeling in his line with all but one of his ten hooks full. “We’ll catch plenty more before we’re through. We’re getting special help.”
His comment surprised Traf. Although he didn’t allow his crew to swear, she didn’t think of Tio Marcio as a particularly religious man but, like most fishermen, she gratefully accepted any divine intervention. “We could sure use it,” she said, nodding at their now slack lines. She reeled in and peered over the stern of the boat.
“Sqwoooo, sqwoooo, ski-swi, sqwoooo!” Someone shrieked right behind her.
Startled, Traf spun around to find a porpoise no more than arm’s distance, standing on its tail almost completely out of the water, shaking its head at her and grinning with sharp teeth. Terrified, she nearly toppled out of the boat but dropped at the last moment, rolling to the side and making herself small. She uncovered her head and stared at Tio Marcio who grabbed his sides and brayed like a jackass.
“You heard her,” he said, picking up the largest sardines from their catch and throwing them one after another back into the sea. “They want their share.” She watched in shock as her fishing mentor lost his mind right in front of her. After he’d thrown close to fifty of the largest fish back into the water he sat down and wiped his forehead, waving at a half-dozen fins in the distance. “Eat well and thanks for your help!” he called after the disappearing porpoises.
“Why did you throw away so many fine fish?” Traf asked, picking herself up from the bottom of the boat and staring at the horizon. “That was easily four or five lines full,” she complained, peering bleakly into the somewhat less-full garbage can.
“We’ll get those back and more,” said Tio Marcio, gesturing off to the side at the porpoises breaking the water, throwing themselves playfully back and forth as they swam in their direction. “They’re herding the sardines toward us now.”
Traf heard the wild cawing of seagulls and watched them dart down to the water right in front of the school, picking up fish to carry off. Sure enough, the surface of the water roiled with silver flashes as the swirling school of sardines dashed heedlessly away from one danger right into another. Her fishing line went taut, and her pole tip dipped toward the water as they struck. She reeled in one line after another for an exhausting fifteen minutes. Finally, the fishing slowed to a stop and before she could be scolded again, Traf jumped up and started flinging the biggest live ones back overboard.
“You know,” said Tio Marcio as he helped her, “there are plenty of stories about these great fish helping people who are drowning, swimming between their legs and throwing them up on the rocks.
“I’ve heard some of those,” Traf agreed, opening a jar of cold coffee she’d brought along to drink while they waited to see if the sardines would come back. “But I thought they were fish stories, tales you old salts tell each other on long fishing trips.”
“You could have found out yourself, tonight,” he teased her. “I thought you were going over the side for sure when that porpoise came out of the water. I saw her coming and knew she was going to do that. She’s done it to me before.”
“What? Scream like a tortured woman right in your ear?” Traf screwed the lid back on the coffee and checked her jig, replacing two of the missing hooks. “There’s not much that scares me out here, but that did.”
“Oh, really?” razzed Tio Marcio. “I seem to remember you trying to cut loose a moray eel rather than bring it in teeth snapping.”
“Yes, then your nephew landed it and left it on the floor of the boat! That thing bit my boot and wouldn’t let go ‘til you clubbed it to death. I hate to tell you something you don’t know,” she grinned at her old boss, “but your nephew’s an idiot.”
He ignored the jibe and her clear attempt to redirect to one of his favorite topics of conversation. Refusing to be baited, he teased, “Yes, the eels bother you, moray, crongo, electric, but I also recall something about octopus, right?” Tio Marcio watched the bobbing sea horizon, searching for fins, sparing her a glance and a wink. “Something about when you were little, right?”
She remembered the story she’d told him years ago. “Oh, yeah, that. My father used me for bait one time,” she shuddered. “I was little, splashing my feet in a tide pool while he looked for crabs. He saw an octopus in the pool near my feet and told me to keep splashing. It grabbed my leg and started to climb up me, the suckers left big bruises. It wrapped its tentacles around me and squeezed before Father grabbed its gills and killed it.” She shuddered and spat over the side. “Just one of the many times he’s failed to protect me.”
“You’re kidding, right? Why would you say that? It was Gaspar’s idea for me to bring you out here and have a chat with you.” The boat captain’s usually cheerful countenance became serious. He ceased watching the waves and turned his attention on her.
“There’s talk going around, Traf, about your club and your friends. Some people are saying you girls need to be taught a lesson to keep out of men’s business.” He watched her absorb this information without notable emotion. “Doesn’t that worry you? This isn’t just idle gossip, they’re serious.”
She nodded her head in acknowledgment.
“Your father overheard them planning in a bar. He asked me to warn you. He and your brother-in-law, Joaquim, have warned all of Lajes what’ll happen if anyone touches one hair on your head, and I’ve spread the same warning here in Praia, but we thought you should know.”
Traf stared at him. “Did you just say my father warns men against attacking me?”
“Sure, he’s been telling that around since before you came to work for me,” said Tio Marcio, surprised by her surprise.
Traf had always been thankfully amazed she’d never been assaulted as so many of her butch buddies had been over the years. Would her father, the same one who beat her with a two by four, do that for her?
“Thank you for warning me.” Traf grimaced. “I’ll spread the news and we’ll take extra precautions, make sure no one’s alone and…,” she hesitated just a moment, swallowing around a bitter lump in her throat, “…we’ll make sure it’s safe inside when they get home.” The Troublemakers had learned that lesson the hard way. “We’ll take care of each other.” She lowered her repaired line back in the water, studiously looking out to sea.
“Well, good, but I’d still feel better if you’d steer clear of that whole court business,” Tio Marcio said. “Acosta and his buddies are stirring up trouble. They’ve been talking big and …”
“Uh oh,” she interrupted, pointing toward the horizon. “Look, a pack of sharks is coming right for us.”
“Those are the porpoises, woman. Sharks can’t work together. They’re not that smart. These porpoises are smarter than you.” He dropped his own line, smiling and waving as the playful porpoises jumped in and out of the water, circling the scrambling school of fish, enjoying the game of herding them to the boat. They fished frantically, reeling full lines of sardines in and dropping empty ones back as fast as possible. An eternal twenty minutes later it ended again. This time the porpoises ate and disappeared. They knew the sardines swam away when the seagulls flew off, always searching for easy prey.
“Both garbage cans are nearly full,” Traf pointed out. “But the sun hasn’t even set, yet. It’d be a shame to go in so soon.”
“Take some sardines and bait some two-line jigs with the bigger hooks.” While she did so, Tio Marcio dumped a few buckets of seawater in to top off the garbage cans and tied their lids down, covering them with wet burlap sacks. “We’ll see if we can land some cod to take home for dinner.” He took one of the baited jigs, attached it to his line, and let it out.
Traf took the other and did the same, but as her line sank out of sight she thought she saw a bright blue spark, like a tiny lightning bolt. “What the hell?” she said, immediately embarrassed. “I mean, what was that?” She described what she’d seen.
“Sounds like an electric eel…”
Traf hastily reassured herself that her line was of nylon and not the thin wire she used for hand-fishing. She thought about reeling up anyway.
“…and they’re always in the company of…” Tio Marcio excitedly climbed up on the engine cover in the middle of the boat, staring around at the surface of the water. “Ah hah, what luck! Speak of the devil and he appears. We’ve got an octopus, Traf, see the ink in the water over there?” He raised the anchor an arm’s length and maneuvered the boat’s rudder to drift in that direction, lowering the anchor again where the last traces of ink dissipated.
Traf, who felt a tug on her line, said over her shoulder. “Fine, you fish for octopus but I’m after cod. Don’t expect any help from me if you catch one!” She started reeling in but hissed between her teeth when the line wouldn’t give. “Great. I’m stuck on a rock. Probably caught while we were drifting,” she complained, giving the line a hard yank and reeling steadily until it broke. She lost both hooks.
Grumbling, she watched Tio Marcio pull in a large rock cod as she prepared another jig. Ready at last, she dropped it to a meter above the bottom and it immediately caught again. “We must be over a bunch of rocks or coral. I keep getting caught!”
“Of course, octopus like caves and holes to hide in.” He looked at her tugging. “Ease it loose, the hooks cost money, you know.”
She wiggled the line up and down and back and forth to see if she could work it free. She jerked it straight up, but still, it didn’t give. “Shoot,” she said, more careful about her language. “I’m going to lose this rig, too.” She started reeling, watching in disbelief as her pole tip bent nearly double without the line breaking.
“What the…?” The line gave minutely under her relentless reeling. “Oh, great, this cheap line is stretching.” She straightened out her pole and angled it into the water, pulling to make the line snap. Instead, it again reeled in incrementally. Traf redoubled her efforts as Tio Marcio pulled in his line, this time with two small fish on the hooks.
“I don’t believe it. I must have picked up a sunken log or something,” Traf complained as the ruined line slowly began to wind around her reel. Tio Marcio threw the small fish overboard and reached with his hands for her line.
“We’ll just snap it free,” he said, adding his muscle to the pull. “Holy Mother of God,” he shouted, staring down into the water. “You caught it, you caught the ‘pus. That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen.”
“What?” Traf shrieked, standing up on her toes to look over the side. Directly under them, she saw only spotted brown where the usual gray-green of the sea would be. “That’s all octopus? It’s huge! Oh no, Lady of Fatima save me.” She reached for the clippers she kept in her tackle box.
“Don’t cut the line, are you kidding? That thing is worth two thousand escudos, maybe more. Look at the size of him!”
“I’m not catching that octopus,” Traf shouted.
“Think of the money!” Tio Marcio barked. “Pull it this way, toward the shallow stern, or we’ll never get it over the side.”
“I’m not touching that thing!” Traf growled, throwing her pole at him. “You do it if you want it so bad. I’m not going near it.”
Tio Marcio grabbed the pole before it fell overboard and shouted, “You fool. I’ll do it by myself.” He glared at her. “You only get the chance to catch a fish like this once in a lifetime.”
“Not my lifetime.” Traf scrambled to the higher end of the boat, as far away as possible. “Or yours either if you don’t let that monster go!”
“Damn it, Traf, don’t be such a coward!”
“Go for the gills and pull its head over until it sprays ink. That’s how Father killed the other one.” She shrieked, pointing at a tentacle as wide as her ankle snaking over the boat side and waving about.
“I know how to kill an octopus.” Tio Marcio angled the line so it pulled in smoothly, reeling steadily as the great fish came closer. “Shut up and get the gaffe, woman.”
“No,” she yelled, throwing the long-handled hook to his feet. “You’re an idiot, it’s not worth your life!”
“What a girl you’ve turned out to be after all, little trafulha,” Tio Marcio taunted, breathing hard with his efforts. “I’ll be teasing you about this for the rest of my life.” He didn’t see the tentacle searching for something to grab coming closer to where he stood at the side of his boat, but she did.
“Watch out, it’s trying to get you. Cut the line, save yourself, get rid of it!” Traf tugged at the anchor as if preparing to move the boat.
“I’ve almost got him.” Tio Marcio, a seasoned fisherman, kept reeling in the line and the water began to shift just under the surface. “I thought I’d never get one, but this is my dream catch, a once in a lifetime. An octopus this size brings more than any other fish. Restaurants pay top money for the huge ones.”
“There’s not enough money in the world. I won’t risk it. There’s no way I’m touching that thing or letting it touch me.” Traf shouted as another tentacle began sliding over the side. “Cut it loose! I’ll buy you more line, man, and a new pole if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll pay you the two thousand escudos myself if you just let it go!” She paled visibly as a third tentacle tip reached over the side of the boat and wrapped itself around one of the boat captain’s arms. “Too late,” she whispered, aghast. “The devil’s got you.”
“Help me,” Tio Marcio shouted as much longer lengths of the tentacles climbed over the side, as wide as his thigh and searching for something else to wrap around. “Quick, Traf, grab hold of it.”
“You’re a dead man!” She stared at him in horror as a tentacle seized his ankle.
Tio Marcio threw down the fishing rod, using his free arm to frantically tear at the thing holding his other. But, by then other tentacles grabbed the boat and one reared up directly behind his back.
“Watch out,” she screamed.
He turned as the tentacle wrapped around his throat. “Traf,” he screamed, “help!”
“Fight him,” she shouted, wrapping her arms around her chest. “I told you not to mess with octopuses!”
The choking man strained against the creature and every time brought it a little farther into the boat until it’s huge head, easily four times as big as a soccer ball, rose up and over, it’s squinty eyes glaring at them. The massive beast took command of the small boat.
“Tink uff ta mummy.” Traf strained to make out what Tio Marcio said. “Tink uff ta mummy! Helfff meeee.”
“What are you saying? I can’t understand you.”
“Dabbid, wommn, hep me ged dis fitch. To somtin!” His free arm tore at the sucking tentacle at his throat.
The monster slithered across the boat deck, searching over the side for deep water. “It’s going back to hell and dragging you with it!” Traf watched, terrified, paralyzed.
“Todt letti goh. Stawp id. Tink uff ta mummy.”
“Don’t let it go? Think of the money?” Traf laughed crazily. “Don’t worry, man, your wife will soon be a rich widow with plenty of insurance money.” She closed her eyes. “That thing is going to kill you!”
“Gawwwht tammit!” Tio Marcio reached for the giant fish’s gills under its massive head, stretching as far as he could go. His face turned a dusky shade of blue and his eyes started to roll back before he finally got the grip he needed. Yanking with all the strength left in him fueled by all the fear in the world, he ripped the massive gill out. The dying octopus slowly loosened its grip as ink and life leaked from its body.
Traf stared at the raging sea monster terrorizing her only a moment ago, now a gelatinous mass sprawled across the boat deck. Tio Marcio struggled to remain standing, still caught and gasping for breath. Recognizing her fears as childish, she grabbed the lifeless tentacle around his throat and pulled, peeling its suckers free. As he gasped for air, struggling through racking coughs, she worked at the tentacles around his wrist and ankle, marveling at purple bruises the size of oranges.
She fetched the jar of cold coffee and wordlessly handed it to him. Tio Marcio drank gratefully and then let loose a stream of profanity and oaths noteworthy for both their complexity and diversity. He called Traf every kind of coward, heaped aspersions on her ancestry and curses on her great-grandchildren, and then called upon Satan and all the powers of Hell to punish her.
“You would have watched me die, rather than help me fight off that octopus!” He shook his head in disbelief. “You fuckin’ bastard, you cowardly bitch.”
Traf glared at him as she pulled up the anchor and started the engine, heading for shore. “I told you I wouldn’t go near that thing before you pulled that monster up onto the boat. You’ve known me long enough to believe what I say.”
He finished the coffee and calmed down before they reached port, and even started chuckling through his bruised throat. After loading the fish and octopus into his van, he gave her the keys. “Drive me home, then take this sucker to Beira Mar in Angra. Make them give you at least two, no, three thousand escudos. If they ask why the price is so high, tell them. Deliver the sardines to the fish market and explain I expect at least two thousand down on my account. Then get back here and scrub out the boat.”
When she got him home, climbing painfully down from the van he said, “Thank God my wife is visiting her sister tonight and isn’t home to see me like this. I’d never hear the end of it.” He placed his hand on the van window and leaned in. “You’ll still get your full twenty percent, Trafulha Troublemaker. You made a thousand escudos tonight. But next time I’ll take your two thousand escudos instead of counting on you.”
He walked toward his door but stopped and turned around after a few steps. “Remember what I told you, my young friend. Take precautions and be vigilant. You never know who might not be there when you need them.”