The Biggest Fish in the Sea
He knew what had to be done because he knew what it meant to be the last and only. He lived most of his own life as a curiosity, as a freak. He felt the bond between them across the divide of form and kind. He knew the creature like the other boys knew their dogs or their horses. It spoke to him with its eyes. And it felt his loss. It somehow knew he was broken, missing part of himself. Missing Ricardo, who was once joined to him by a narrow band of flesh at his hip. The Sanchez Twins. The Siamese Wonders of Santiago. And then the Scarlet Fever. He never wished it to end like that. One deft stroke of a scalpel and he’s loose. The next day he makes a blood pact with a fish.
Ronco Sanchez made wraps a swatch of cotton jute around his hand to stem the bleeding of his palm and buffer himself against the rough wooden oars of the fishing skiff. He places the harpoon into the prow, along with forty feet of clothesline, a gallon jug of hose water, three sandwiches of beef tripe, and the little SONY transistor radio he received from Armando for his thirteenth birthday. It’s still dark, but the air is already warm. The skiff glides through the inlet where the fishing boats lie at mooring. The moon glows lantern-yellow above him and Orion hangs askew. Fifty years from now he’ll still remember the sound of the oars locks, and the smell of cooked beets as he rows the skiff out to kill the last whale shark in the Sea of Cortez.
His hand still throbs at daybreak. He feels a throbbing pain where the machete cut his palm. But the bleeding has slowed. He removes the swatch of cloth and washes the wound in the warm salt water below the gunwale. There’s mariachi on the radio and it sounds soft and distant. A school of shiny minnows swims through his fingers and he can just see the top of the sunken trawler now. He rigs the harpoon, careful not to make any sounds that will spook the big fish whose epitaph he heard on this very same radio only a week ago. Armando wept when he heard this news. He had never seen the old man cry. The old man was stricken with terrible grief the man on the radio, a scientist from the University, declared the big fish extinct, for there had not been a sighting in many years. But Armando knew different. He knew there was one. A fish he called Gabriel, a fish he had fed by hand as a boy, and who lived in the lagoon whose narrow mouth was guarded by the trawler, La Hermione. Armando brought him to the fish after Ricardo died. And the fish knew, just like Armando knew what had to be done.
This is a job for a boy, he told him. This is a job for a boy who wishes to become a man.
The skiff glides in silence. Ronco steers with an oar and turns into the lagoon. The water is clear and he can see the white sandy bottom where the devil rays skim for krill. The harpoon is a device of Armando’s own making and is designed for this task alone. The tip is razor sharp and hollow. There’s a fast-acting poison within. It lies across the prow of the skiff with the clothesline coiled at Ronco’s feet. The radio crackles and goes out of tune, and the mariachi becomes a quiet ballgame. He hears the sound of the ball in the mitt. He hears the guttural bark of the umpire’s call. And suddenly it is there below him, a great shadow, a rippling silhouette. The big fish moves slow beneath the skiff that’s become so familiar to him. The boy takes up the harpoon. The fish rises to greet the boy as he always does when he comes for a visit. Ronco crosses himself and recites the Hail Mary. The fish comes up. Its back is gray like the hull of a battleship and is adorned with large white spots and ghostly streaks of indigo and alabaster. The radio crackles again and the lagoon is filled with the sound of a roaring crowd. Ronco strikes below the dorsal fin, to the left, behind the gills and Armando’s harpoon sticks fast and deep as it was designed to do. For a moment there is nothing but the empty sound of a ballgame when it’s between batters and no one speaks. It is the loneliest and happiest sound in the world. He can hear lone whistles and popcorn vendors. He can hear the quiet din of the crowd. Then the fish moves. It flaps its big tailfin and rocks the skiff. The rope uncoils. Armando told him that he will not go deep. He will go into the shallows. He will go to where he always goes when he hears the sound of boat engines and men. He will go to the reef.
The eye of the big fish is large and black. In it he can see the white disk that is the sun, curved there on the lens. His gill slits open slow. Blood flows out in heavy dark ribbons that are a marvel to behold. He lays his palm on the nose of the biggest fish in the sea, and he speaks to it the way Armando told him.
Die now Gabriel, your time has come.
And the boy rubs his hand against the rough flesh to reopen his own wound. His blood flows again. It is fresh and red like the spring roses in Armando’s garden. Ronco gently slips his hand into the gills of the fish. Armando says that when blood comes together in this way, there is no death. Man, fish, sea – it all becomes one.