I eat one of the donut gems, wash it down with a sip from the cup, roll a smoke, light it, relax deeper into the rock, look out to the glistening sea. All is good. There is no desolation beneath the fury of the sea where all is secretly well.
Caught in the devil's cleft the Stingray disappears beneath the dark water, a dream fading, receding from wakefulness.
Illustration by Henry Loiseau
FISH TALES: High tide
By Steven Bird
Good thing about a small boat, you can get in close to the rocks where the best money-fish live, especially cabezon and grassies, you want to work in tight for them.
The Stingray is a 20-foot Oregon dory, deep, broad beamed, small but comfortable lobster-style wheelhouse, painted white, powered by a four-cylinder Volvo with a Mercury outdrive. It gets the job done OK. (I keep a 10-horse outboard mounted on the transom, just in case.) She carries a 30-gallon live tank that holds 200 pounds of live fish if you pack them to the limit of their comfort zone. Altogether, a good fishing boat–bunk in the fo’c’sle, propane camp stove, and the rest of the gear I need for overnight trips up the Big Sur coast. Been fishing up there more lately, fishing’s better–got to make your money quick these days because they got it closed most of the time. A lot of guys are quitting, getting out of fishing, damn hard to make it the way they’re squeezing us. Far as I can see, and as I’m concerned, this so-called Marine Protective Area thing is nothing but a front, on the one hand a vague totalitarian effort to restrict the use of the ocean to people, telling us we can’t fish here or piss there, illegal to do this, illegal to do that, in the Immemorial Tao Wilderness of the Vast Eternal Sea; on the other, a front for corporate interests posing as environmental groups. The feds have actually given the nearshore waters to these people to “manage”–the rationale given that it “helps to defray the cost of management.” The privatization of our public resources, folks. And everybody’s too busy shopping to notice. The fundamental premise of their “plan”–to “manage” a living system that has always run perfectly (in spite of our best efforts to mess it up)—is a joke. And the idea they’re selling—that somehow fishermen are cause of abundance or lack of abundance of fish, so must be stopped before they wipe out the few remaining fish—is crap. Fishermen, like seabirds, are an outgrowth of abundance. If the number of fish larvae sucked in and cooked in the Diablo reactor in a single month were allowed to reach maturity, they would equal the entire California commercial catch for a year! And they have no plan for confronting the more compelling problems, which are, among other things, pesticide-herbicide runoff of corporate monoculture chemical farming washing into the sea along with all the poisonous lifestyle byproduct of a human population burgeoning out of control, going down drains. Follow the money and it will lead you to the truth. Fishermen are dying for our sins. But politics and cultural trends aren’t the point here, the point being: loss, and the obscure details leading to it. Devil’s in the details.
So, I start the day with these depressing facts heavy on my mind, but the fishing is good and I’m starting to lighten up. I’m off San Carpoforo setting gear close to the seastack rock about a half-mile offshore. The rock looks like the Devil’s foot–a cloven hoof, big as a house, sticking up out of the ocean, a desolate toe poking through the shining void, while the rest of the Devil dreams, sleeping on the bottom.
The tide is turning, moving from slack to incoming–currents will increase toward the rock soon, making it dangerous. I can see the cars on the coast highway above the yellow bluffs. The breeze increases with the tide, bounces against the cliffs to lift a squadron of gulls whirling in a shrill burst of tattletale cries. I set my gear on the kelp line near the rock, 21 buoys in three rows of seven; three colors, red, white, yellow; five hooks apiece–they lay gentle, like prayer beads upon the heaving wet bosom of awakening ocean.
Every haul brings doubles and triples on cabbies and grassies. I have about 120 pounds, a live meatball of brown, black, yellow swarming in the tank. I talk to them in my best Asian accent: “Aaaahhh…yoo so lucky today…yoo get free trip tooo Chinatown…!”
This would be a good time to quit, but I need the money–just had some major engine work done before this trip and it wiped me out–weather’s been so bad, haven’t been able to fish for the last three weeks, and the quota period ends in two days–got to make hay while the sun shines. The tide is coming in full force now, current coursing toward the seastack. Swell too, ominously growing, humping on the horizon.
One more set, in close to the rock. I lay out the buoys again–throw the last buoy about 100 feet from the birdshit frosted sea rock. I let the gear soak for about 20 minutes while the swell increases faster than I expected—starting to break against the rock on the seaward side, the spray blasting skyward, spent water clawing down the rock in black rivulets. I start pulling the gear, stacking it away. Sea’s getting rougher every second.
I’m pulling the last buoy, the one closest to the rock, when without warning the motor quits. I flop the gear on the deck, run to the wheel turn the key…nothing…not even a click. A wave slaps the Stingray toward the angry rock. Shit! Just had this thing worked on…I run to the engine box throw open the hood wiggle some wires…back to the wheel…still nothing. Another wave. I slam my head against the dash while scrambling into the fo’c’sle for the anchor. Too close…fuck…too close to the rock to get enough scope on the anchor line…. I drop the anchor anyway, try to set it into something, all that rock down there…the anchor won’t fuckin’ catch! I run to the outboard kicker wishing I’d started it recently–start pulling like a maniac on the starter rope. After about 20 pulls, drifting toward the rock all the while, the outboard sputters to life–Yes!–for only a moment, then quits. I keep yanking the rope until my arms give out–Evil, spiteful, startless motors of MUTHA–! Fuckin’ motor won’t start.
Adrift…adrift on these mountains of madness….
The ponderous, ineffable swell mounts under me as I contemplate from the worst of all spots in the world the inevitable smashing against the rock and my possible death.
Car windows flash way up on the highway, a hopeful caravan threading its way along the bulging bastard edge of the cruel, anesthetized happytime human spread of–SHIT! Gulls rise without a wing beat over the yellow cliffs– O Mama, let me fly from here, just let me join them up there above the yellow cliffs, drop me gently on that firm highway, they don’t care about me, let me fly, it’s all a mistake. Merciful Mother of all journeying and intrepid sailors, take me home–deliver me from this wicked water, this black rock of bird shit not for humans, cold to humanity, this forlorn place of coursing currents enraged. O ignorance, ignorant me. Fool! Legions of fools! Fool, fool, fucking fool. O prejudiced show! Why do we live to be fooled? Fish fool, why do you fool to live? Why? Motherless Mother Of Imbeciles forgive me my human floppings, my black animosities, prides, fears, contempt, slights, personalities, suspicions, sinister forebodings, unreliable inconsistencies, irrational eccentricity. I rise up on the swell pushing inexorably toward the boiling rock, rising toward a big sky suppressing the barren hope for promise held out like a branch over quicksand. O Cold Heartless Holy Mother of Angelic Desolation, Holy of Holies, preserve me from your blunt raging madness–let me fly now. Now. NOW. I ride the poor Stingray, no pilot now, toward the blue sky. Don’t kill me here, never again to hear the tinkling music of children’s voices in the yellow morning, never to drink wine and eat lasagna, let me be there on a stool with a hamburger, lighting a butt with coffee, let there be rain on red brick walls of flower gardens, I got places to go and poems to write about hearts and not just water and rocks–I want to go where the drama rages unthinking. I want to feel my bare feet caressed by thick rugs. I want to go where there are rumpled beds with women on them. Don’t cry children…. Women and children first! I get the lifejacket on–go up on the swell–30 feet to the furious rock, the void, the flashing jade sea, the white sun, diamond sea, pearl cloud, black water, white gull, the bottomless horrors of the world, my mother’s love, the yellow cliffs, the rock, a girl I know (I see her face in a vision, tragic, beautiful, the tear-streaked face, so kissable, sweet, lovely, like I like). Up, up, void. Let me be void-still.
Steadfast Void, let me walk from this hopelessness–we are helpless on your apocalyptic waves rising. The sky moved sideways. The blare of a horn? The white gull? A vulture?…So high they go, birds…birdshit, craziest shit, gust of wind, forcible stream of air, vaulting impious trouble leading toward the bleakly bleak cold, black, void-black bird, white bird, black water, white water, black rock, white rock–bird, water, rock-black, white, black, white, black, white, black–come, now, wake up, time to wake up child, come, now, it is the time to wake up–look closely, you are dreaming–come, now, look, it’s a dream–bling–there are countless blings on the ocean surface–the mountain rises. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake Wake Wake Awaken Awaken Awaken
bling bling bling black bling black black black bling bling black black black black black black black black black black black black M M M M M M M M M M M
The incontrovertible CRACK of rigid stressed wood forced beyond endurance, rapturous rush of white water, pearl curtain of water, a cold baptism, the crystal cognizant reality of the continuous moment, pink volcanoes of barnacles, purple colonies of mussels amid the jade anemone gardens, the little side stepping crabs, forgive me….
Somewhere a small bell rings a pure note. The leap thought makes at the synaptic gap.
I find myself standing in pure light, on the gunnel, in my flip-flops, one hand holding tight to a corner of the wheelhouse roof. The surge pulls the Stingray back away from the rock and up the face of the next gathering wave. We’re going in again and I think the boat might break up on the next bash against the frenzied rock. I am strangely calm, watching the event go down with a keen clarity, a detached scene from somebody else’s life. Rushing, hopeless on the wave, fear has abandoned me. We’re going to hit near the opening to the cleft that forms a calm triangle about 40 feet long, running into the center of the seastack. A stack it is, a pillar. I notice a small patch of level rock just above the surge–O salvation of hospitable level spots–at the moment before full impact, I leap to the level spot, one foot sliding free of a flip-flop to receive a small bleeding cut on the barnacles.
I clamber up the rock. The Stingray survived the second hit. Still in one piece it drifts back from the rock, pivots until the transom squares with the next wave gathering under its cracked hull–the wave churns toward the cleft with the little white Stingray riding the foaming crest, a headless surfer with no plan and only one direction. Happy entry to safety? A giant boulder looms only inches underwater at the entrance to the cleft. The Stingray drafts deeper than that–the powerful wave blasts it deep into the cleft. The submerged boulder rips a long fracture in the bottom of the hull, tears the outdrive off the transom.
I’m standing on the lonesome rock, surrounded by ocean, my boat parked inside the narrow fissure as placid as any boat tied safe to the dock in a protected harbor. It’s not too steep around the edge of the fissure and I can get around it. The water in the cleft is deep, can’t see the bottom, but its span is narrow, only a few feet wider than the boat. I leap aboard and get busy–she is taking on water fast through the rip in the bottom. The bilge pump is still working and buys me a little time. I haul in the traitorous anchor, cut it free from its line, gather all the lines on the boat, dock lines, spare lines–there are outcroppings around the fissure, I fasten the lines to them the best I can and manage to truss the Stingray all the way around. It looks like a spider waiting in the center of a web built over the deepest black hole of eternity. First thing I do is grab the dip net and make a sacrifice, dump my fish back—“Yoo get lucky….” Next thing, evacuate the fuel. I siphon it into the plastic gas cans I keep onboard. Boat’s taking water fast, pump’s not keeping up, batteries will drown in a minute and there will be no pump. The lines are taut, singing. I get everything I can off: electronics, toolbox, fishing gear, sleeping bag, propane stove, coffee pot, a red plastic box with the word “EMERGENCY” printed on top, box of crackers, two apples, half a pack of stale donut gems, my sack of tobacco, can of coffee, couple packets of instant cocoa, gallon jug of water, the cell phone. I call Coast Guard on the cell phone, give them my position.
They know where I am.
The Stingray is over half filled with water. The seastack vibrates with each wave striking it. I have the stuff gathered on a rock bench, well above the water. A solid litter of bird shit and old dry kelp pad the small shelf. There is enough level ground for me and the stuff. I fill the coffee pot from the water jug, add a couple handfuls of coffee, set it on the propane stove, open the emergency box. The box contains a flare gun, dozen flares, air horn, a whistle, and a plastic aspirin container containing a few aspirins and a joint. Bone dry. I put the joint in my shirt pocket, remove the flare gun with three flares. First, second, third, I fire them straight into the sky where they suspend, lit, burning bright orange, all three, the universally recognized trinity of distress. Or celebration. The coffee is ready. I pour a cup, add a packet of cocoa to it. I lean back against the rock with my cup, light the joint, smoke it while I contemplate the Stingray now sunk to the gunnel tops, a sad clear pool, the steering wheel under water. I sip the mocha, finish the joint. The lines holding the boat can no longer endure the weight, one groans, snaps, leaving more weight for the others to bear. One at a time, at increasing intervals, they break, and the Stingray disappears beneath the dark water, a dream fading, receding from wakefulness.
I eat one of the donut gems, wash it down with a sip from the cup, roll a smoke, light it, relax deeper into the rock, look out to the glistening sea. All is good. There is no desolation beneath the fury of the sea where all is secretly well. The cool, clean, high-tide breeze courses against my face, the void moves through me. I sit enthroned, my gas cans and fish lines about me, small idiot king of a small kingdom, desirous of nothing. I shake my head and laugh. §
Steven Bird writes from his home in Morro Bay, where he observes the privatization of federally protected waters and its impact on fishermen.