To Monisola, My Mother
The Young Man and the Sea
By Dele Ikeorha
The young man sat beside the skiff, tears streaming down his blushed cheeks. He was young. Everything about him was young.
He stared at the boat. This was the very boat on which he started his training as fisherman when he was five. His father took him to the old man. Then he was not as old as he is now.
On his first fishing trip, he was five. He was nearly killed. The old man brought in the fish too green, and he nearly tore the boat to pieces, vigorously flapping, banging and slapping its tail. It all came back to him now. The old man had hauled him into the bow where the coiled lines were as the fish surged to attack in its battle to regain its freedom. He felt the pain that hit him as he fell. How he watched the old man silence the fish’s exuberance with clubbing to its head as if he was chopping down a tree. The back of his head ached as he recalled the ordeal so vividly. Everything from when they first went together. It was all coming back to him now.
Blood smell and smear was all over the boat, as the old man with the harpoon smashed the head of the fish repeatedly and with urgency as if their lives depended on it. And truly it depended on it as they were in danger of being submerged if the combat went any bit longer. There was blood all over the boat. The blood smell all over him was sweet. It was an exciting adventure, a frightful experience. He learnt that life was full of danger, of struggles; that a man must face these struggles and dangers with courage and win. The old man taught him “courage”. “A fisherman must have resolution.” he had said.
That was ten years ago, when it seemed his life was jinxed. They said he was totally “gafeo”.
He looked around the skiff from his sitting position. All around it bore obvious marks of a struggle; a struggle which no one alive could tell except Santiago; for that was the old man’s name.
The white naked line of the backbone of a giant fish whose great tail stood up well behind the skiff’s stern, pointed its tail upwards. It surely must have a story to it. The dark mass of the fish’s head, the projecting bill and all the nakedness between, were eloquent testimony that the old man must have gone through an ordeal. To return with something that was nothing was really challenging. But Santiago was back. Sleeping, but alive. That was all that matters. It would have been tragic if anything had happened to the Santiago, for many have been lost at sea, many have been attacked by school of sharks, and some did not live to recount their ordeal. But Santiago had only bruises on his old hands. But they were old bruises that hardly bled. He will live.
The young man’s mind wandered to the events of his first day at sea. He could hear her voice clearly now.
“What are you doing here Manolin?” It said, for that was the young boy’s name.
At first, he was too perplexed to respond. If he had not heard it himself, he would have sworn that it was not the roaring of the waves that spoke so distinctly, but his own conscience: his own self conjuring images and voices. But he heard her. It was the voice of a woman. The voice of the sea.
“What are you doing here, young boy” she spoke again.
He was too surprised to respond. And making a conversation with the sea, he never thought such a thing possible. But on this maiden voyage, Santiago, the old man was always speaking to himself he thought at first, but he was always addressing ‘le mar’.
But the young man never wanted to speak to the sea then, even though he had wished it many times; to ask her why she was calm and cruel, gentle and ghastly; happy and heavy; lovingly carrying a boat merrily as it rows upon the waters in a calm and weary day. And equally in a moment, wiping up fury that has overturned them and sometimes drowned many when there was not any to rescue.
He wished to hear the voice again, but there was silence. She was gone, except the waters or what remained of her, which flowed calmly.
The boat was a mess. The broken base of the headless harpoon and the makeshift band lay mangled and bloodied on the floor. The young boy tried to reconstruct in his mind what transpired on the old man’s last fishing expedition. He had been with him for ten years since he was five and now; he had seen in such a long time what many fishermen see in a lifetime.
“Why did I not follow him on his last trip”? He asked himself with distraught and self-reproach. He was only obeying his father who took him to another boat after they had caught nothing after
He had no luck at all. At five his life was already at crossroads; his parents were so rich they could not afford to send him to school. Their home was a house so royal, his bed was a bed of newspapers. And through the slits in the wood from which it was built, sunshine and moonshine, and even insects peep at him whenever he was asleep.
He smiled; “king in a shack” was what Rosanne called him. She was his friend and she meant it in a friendly way. It was not an insult. She did not laugh at him when she said it. She really meant the king part. He understood what she meant. Though he lived in a shack, he had the dignity, the majesty, the destiny and grace of a king. He believed her.
He wished he had been with the old man. The boy had been with the old man. But after forty days without a fish, his parents told him the old man was now definitely and finally ‘salao’ which is the worst form of unlucky, and on their orders had gone to another boat: a lucky boat his father had said. They caught three good fish the first week.
But with the old man things were different. The old man had many tricks, and he loved him.
He remembered his first day at sea. Before the great “le mar” he was a grain of sand. There was no end to the majesty of the waters, even as the sun dipped as it pretended to recline its head to kiss her lips.
He was remembering everything now. How he sought out sardines for use as bait for their fishing trips. How they would return from each trip and each catch with lots of fish; but what fascinated him much more, were the big fishes: the dolphin and the sharks, their rhetorical school of fishes and the lone birds which the old man used as his navigating compass; as his indicator that a big fish was down there somewhere.
That was many years ago. Ten years to be precise. Now he was a young man. The old man said so ninety days ago when he bought him a bottle of beer at the Terrace.
He looked across at the fishermen, some old, some young, some in between, neither young nor old, about twenty of them. They sat at the Terrace making fun of the old man. He had caught nothing for eighty-five days and when he eventually caught the biggest fish ever, the sharks ate it. Before then, the boy was recalled by his father after the first forty days at sea went without a catch.
He looked at the fishermen at the Terrace. They sat down gossiping. The old man is now definitely “salao” they said. He had the worst form of ill luck. That was why the boy’s father sent him to another boat.
He looked again at the faces of some old fishermen on the Terrace, looking down at the water among the empty beer cans and dead barracudas. Pedrico had already stripped the huge tail bare and the backbone of the great fish; a piece of relic waiting for high tide to sympathetically flush her into the sea.
Is this what a man is up against? Can a man ever win? He was fifteen now and a man, and must gain more experience. “The old man had resolution and experience” the boy thought.
He stood up; walked up the road to the old man’s shack. He was still sleeping. This was the third day. He was a strange old man, but he loved him. The old man was sea-wise. He knew the tricks of the sea. He knew many tricks: How to fish, how to sail a boat; how to tease the sea and ride the waves; and they had made money together before. He gave me a measure of freedom or rather a lot of it. But with freedom comes responsibility and with responsibility comes a lot of slaveries. And responsibility rests better on some shoulders than on others. But I could carry responsibility well, one that freedom may impose or its slaveries contrive. His mind wandering to philosophy and sagery, away from the savagery which he could only imagine from the carcass of the fish; the imagery of man”s toil and battle against the elements, forces.
The young boy sat beside the old man. His heart full of worry because of the old man his friend; who had slept two full days on a cup of coffee? He has not been able to eat the flying fish and banana he had roasted yesterday. They were still on the floor now.
Poor Santiago, he was breathing heavily, his snoring louder them ever.
“He must have been weakened by the ordeal” he said to himself.
Pedrico called and the old man was not even able to steer at first when he tried to wake him up. But when he eventually woke, he looked calmly at both Manolin, for that was the young boy’s name and Pedrico. Then silently and as quick as he woke, fell asleep again. That was yesterday afternoon.
The young boy watched the old man steer again as he roused him, crumpling as he did so, the newspaper spread on the spring bed that had been his bed.
The shack was bare, made up of tough bud- shields of the royal palm – the “guano”; with a bed, a table, one chair and charcoal on the bare floor for cooking. The guano had hung on its brown walls and overlapping leaves, a colourful picture of the secret heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. The old man steered as he tried to get up.
“Manolin” he surprisingly said with excitement mingled with concern.
“Don’t sit up,” the boy said.” “You need all the strength you can get.”
“Never mind Manolin,” said the old man. “My head is clear now.”
“I was worried,” the boy said.
“I know you would be,” the old man said. “But my head is clear now. It has always been clear. Though that bloody fish wanted to drive me crazy. My sleep was all about it; the wrestling between a man, the sea and the monster” he blurted.
He was always given to axioms. It weighed well with his age. The old are expected to be wiser, even though they may not always be to the eyes of the modern techie. But the old man was sea-wise.
“Don’t worry about the past,” the boy said. “We still have today and tomorrow to face. We still have a life and a lifetime! Is that not what you always say? “So don’t worry about the past, that’s what you often say.”
“My father always told me that. I bet it’s my habit; or perhaps it is the habit of old age,” said the old man as he sat up.”
He looked around the room and saw the cup of coffee.
“I am so hungry now,” the old man said.
“I brought you hot coffee in the morning, but it’s cold now.”
“I was exhausted when I came back to the shack.”
“Did you see the boat?”
“I have, and it’s now as clean as the morning sea, ready to sail.”
“How long have I slept?”
“You made me worry. All of us were worried.”
“I am hungry now. I can make do with that cup of coffee for a start,” the old man said.
“Never mind the coffee. It is cold now. But I have a feast for you. But you’ve slept three tiresome days.”
“And I missed the league. Did DiMaggio win?”
“I will tell you about that later. But first, you have to eat.”
“But what is there to eat?” The old man asked. They had always played the food game when there was no food to eat. They could talk about non-existed food, as if it was there. It could be one that even kings would be proud of. Most times, it was about a pot of yellow rice with fish. But this time there was much from both Pedrico and Rosanna.
“Plenty, Santiago. Plenty enough for a feast,” said the boy.
“A feast?” the old man exclaimed, doubtfully looking at the boy beaming with smile full of mocking mischief.
He was used to their fictional talk about food and nets, which he had sold long ago. Yet they still went through the charade. It was one of those things he loved about the boy. So much warmth, undying tenacity; so much uncommon faith, irresistible resolve and infectious optimism. When the world was around him, he could date anything.
“So we really have a feast?”
“Yes, Santiago. A feast fit for hundred. Pedrico brought black beans and rice, fried bananas, some stew and a hundred visitors and admirers.”
“I must thank him,” the old man said. “He has been thoughtful.”
“There is also another four bottles of beer Martin sent,” said the boy.
“I hope you sent to him the belly meat of the big fish I promised him?” the old man asked with learned humility.
He knew there was no belly of the fish it was pure fiction. The attack of the school of sharks made sure of it. They had stripped what was left of his catch and he had left them to bite what they could after he had given them a bloody nose.
“Yes Santiago. The sharks deprived him of his ration any way,” the boy said and smiled.
“I will give it to him when we fish again,” the old man said.
“I was hoping so,” the boy said. “We can catch another big fish, and then you can give him the belly meat and keep your promise. Good men should always keep their promises.”
The old man looked at the boy, his mind taking a turn as his thoughts relived the tortuous times he had spent in the great struggle he had with the great fish. He despaired.
“My luck has exhausted, Manolin. I have used it up when I was young.” the old man said; self-doubt creeping in. “I am salao.”
“You cannot be. Don’t let that bother you, Santiago.”
“I have lost it Manolin,” I let them take my fish. My luck is finally gone.”
“Then we shall find it, and bring it back.”
That was what he loved about the boy. He had faith in him. He believed in him. He looked upon him as if he was Castro in Havana.
“I cannot give up now. I did not give up against the dentusos. But they were too many. They would have rocked the boat. But I fought back. I broke their bloody heads. When next they see Santiago, they should leave my fish alone!”
“You are back now, Santiago”, the boy said at the old man who was holding his glass and thinking of many years ago.
The boy smiled as he looked at the old man, admiration mixed with adoration written all over his face. He had wished he was his father, but his father was a good man.
“Your luck will hold. It will triumph against the odds. It always does. I have been with you for ten years now and I am wiser for it,” the boy said.”
“My luck will hold?”
“It will, Santiago. You work hard and it will eventually come. Hard work is the brother of luck and fortune you use to say.” So drink your coffee. Eat. Your luck will prevail. I know you still have it aplenty.”
“I doubt if I have not truly lost it as they say. I had it as a young man like you. Perhaps, it has deserted me in my old age”
“Do not say such a thing, Santiago. We will work harder and luck will return. And if you have lost it, I will bring back the luck.”
“You are young and strong. Do not waste it with me.”
“Yes. At least I am young and you have experience. I must learn. You have luck; lots of luck.”
“But you are with another boat?
“Not any longer, Santiago; not anymore.”
“He never goes far into sea, except I lure him with tricks you showed me. And even in the shallow waters where we fish, sometimes we miss our way home; and I had to trick him so that we won’t be lost.”
“I did,” said the boy. “I had to trick him to maintain his pride as a man. They would have laughed at him, the other fishermen, if it became known that he was lost and could not find his way home.”
“The stew is excellent and the rice too. You must thank Pedrico for me,” the old man said as ate with relish.
“Rosanne brought that one this morning.”
“Your girl. You like her?”
“I think so.”
“Then you will marry her?”
“Marry?” the boy blurted out. “I am far from that, Santiago. I must marry my fishing first. Bad fishermen starve and their families.”
“You will not starve.”
“You will make a good fisherman one day,” the old man said.
”I don’t want to be a good fisherman, Santiago. I want to be a great one like you; a commander of the sea. I want to be in the Sea, what DiMaggio is in his games.”
“You will be.” Said the old man. “I know you. Do you remember the day I left you to lead the boat?
“You were ten then. You caught three.”
“I had learnt the trick of the circling birds. They pointed me to them. You taught me that. Santiago.”
“You had been with me then for five years.”
“And I can remember when we took them and had it butchered and taken on the planks to the fish house. The money you gave me. We used it in the house for two weeks.”
He watched as the old man ate from the pot of yellow rice with fish. He had eaten at home.
“Won’t you eat?”
“No. I ate at home.”
They sat in silence, each one lost in thought; in memories of their fishing trips together all these years. Some great and some not so great. But the last ninety days had been traumatic. They had caught nothing together and he had to leave because his parents ordered him to another boat.
“I am never leaving you again,” the young man said. “I am not going back.” He was resolved. But it was a resolve with a tinge of anguish.
“I should never had left. You were all alone.”
“I was, and I missed you so much I had to talk to myself so that I would not fall asleep or fall into the sea.”
“Please, Santiago, take me back. I have nothing to learn from my other boat now. They have a better boat but worse heads. They have no ambition, only fishing to earn a living. They do not love le mar. She was just a poultry that feeds them. And …” his voice trailed.
“What is it Manolin?”
“You must take me back. I am not happy there. I will tell my parents.”
“But I have nothing, Manolin. The harpoon is gone; the knife head, the reels.”
“Do not send me away, Don’t send me away. I will get money from Rosanne and we can retool the boat.”
“Rosanne? She is a small girl. Where will she get that kind of money?”
“I do not know. But her parents are rich. ”
“Maybe she was joking?”
“She wasn’t. She wanted to buy me a boat of my own last year,” The boy said. I asked her rather, to buy it for you.
“It did not work out. Santiago. That was why I did not tell you.”
“Thank you” the old man said, “for being so thoughtful of me.”
“She said her father said if it was for me, he will buy; but that you were … never mind.”
“You could have had your own boat,” the old man said.
“I wasn’t ready then. And I am still not yet ready, now. I do not believe that to be a fisherman is just to know how to catch a fish. You have to enjoy it the way the great DiMaggio enjoyed playing baseball.”
“And, you still have many tricks to learn.”
“Yes, all the tricks you have acquired in these years.” “Take me back, Santiago, Please. We can join forces and win against the sea, the sharks and against anything. I love “la mar” and she loves me. You still have luck. You are the only one I know, who knows the sea the way you do. That in itself is more than luck to me, if it is not luck itself.”
“I think I do have luck.”
“Of course you have.”
“I have not been eaten up by sharks like Cornelio, “the old man said.
“And you have live so long to be old. Many were not so lucky. They died young, like Rosanne’s brother.”
“And I know the sea. I know many tricks.”
“And you caught a big marlin after eighty seven days,” the boy said. “You have luck for big things.”
“And may be none for little things,“ the old man joked.
‘Your lucks are too many,” said the boy. “Far too many. You must share them with me,” he said with resolution.”
“The salao brigade just can’t see it.”
“Maybe. But you must eat,” the boy said. “And then we must plan our next fishing trip. You must be made strong.”
He liked the meal. His first in as long as three days. He liked the turtle that was in it too. He had eaten them all through May to be strong in September and October for the truly big fish. They did him well. He was in very good body condition when he fought the fish. When he had only raw and unsalted fish for meal.
After he had finished eating, the boy cleared and washed the flask and plates. There was no bone left on the plate. The old man ate them all. Bones, fish bones he said, was good for the body and for fishing, keeps a man strong and healthy.
They left his shack and went to the pier. As they walked down the path towards the pier. The old man smiled as a thought crossed his mind. The smile rose to the surface like the tide of a rising sea.
“And what is it Santiago?”
“Just a thought, Manolin. I told the bloody fish as it pulled me along for four hours, “Fish, I’ll stay with you until I am dead.”
“You believed it was what you were born for. To catch the great fish.”
“Yes, Manolin. But I have never since I was a boy, seen anything like it: A fisherman with my boat of tricks, being towed by a fish.”
“But I have seen it,” said the young man. “With your boat all these years.”
“Yes! You have, Manolin, but not this. I have not seen a fisherman with my boat of tricks, being towed by a fish for so long: four hours! It was incredible: the fish. She was incredible. It never showed its head. It never jumped, for four hours with the hook on his mouth..”
“You must have prayed. You always prayed.”
“I did and I could not.” He now recollected his pledge.
“I promised to say a hundred “Our father” and a hundred “Hail Maries”. I have slept for good two days on a cup of coffee. I have to fulfil my promise”
“Three days, Santiago, not two. Don’t worry about that. I will help you say sixty our fathers”
“And sixty Hail Maries”
“You can say the remaining forty. It befits your old age. I will even add two hundred “The Lord is my shepherds” so that we will have said enough in reserve to give us luck in our next trip. I must get experience Santiago and you must teach me. You are the greatest fisherman and I must learn from you, I love to carry your tools?” the boy said.
“But your father Manolin…” as he left saying the thought springing through his mind like waves.
“My father will understand. I will convince him.” Manolin said eventually.
“But he will be disappointed.”
“Even God something has his disappointments. That was why it grieved him that he made man; why Jesus the second Adam came after the first Adam fell.”
“I am not religious, Manolin” But I have heard God created us in his image” and so must have the capacity to exhibit our passion, the divine ones of course, not the frailties. That would be absurd. Uncharacteristic of him.”
They walked up the road together. The old smiled on the dreams that had haunted him: He saw himself contesting with the big fish in their battled of wiles; reliving the horrible experience, the contest with the shark and his utter defeat all over again. He dreamt of lions too. They pursued him and he pursued them. They played together and they did a little wresting. When the lion grew hungry and blood thirsty and attacked him, he clubbed him as if it were a shark, because it suddenly changed into a shark. It was a horrible dream.
He saw the boy. Tears running down his eyes, telling him he should have taken him. They would have caught the sharks together. He saw the boy cheer him up. But it was a dream. As they walked, he looked at Manolin and smiled. Manolin smiled back. He seemed to understand. He was happy the old was less bothered now.
“You are smiling Santiago,” said the boy.
“Yes,” the old man replied. “It cures a lot of misfortune. I was thinking of you. You told me we would be lucky next time, only it was a dream.”
“And we will be lucky. Many things that once were dreams became realities. You often say so yourself.”
“You never doubted me,” said the old man.
“I have faith, Santiago. Is it not December, the month when the big fish comes again? You will teach me many tricks and we will catch that big fish. It will be our prize.”
“We have caught it nine times before and it has escaped nine times.”
“We may be lucky this time. Ten is a lucky number,” the boy said.
They were at the habour now. They saw a man by the old man”s boat. The boat was neatly pulled up the habour. Old boat it was, but serving well. All it needed was a man with courage, strength and experience. The boy thought.
There was a stranger by the board. The stranger man was examining the backbone of the fish now” a look of awe on his face, fascinated by its size.
The old man stopped and watched the young boy walk up to the stranger. He stopped again then strolled towards Rodrigo who was beckoning on him from the Terrace. He stopped again to watch the boy and the stranger. He could not hear what they were discussing about, but it was animated.
“You own this boat? The stranger said.
“Yes amigo,” said the boy, admiring the city outfit with which the Stranger was dressed. The car by the Terrace must be his. He knew everyone who lived within two mile radius from there. None of them had such a car. Not even Rosanne’s dad who was the richest in the little town beside the sea.
Santiago looked at him and smiled. The boy was good and quick-witted.
“How I wished he were my son.” He thought. “I would have gambled with him”. His sun-burned-eyes watching the young boy as he walked toward him.
“I have sold the backbone of the giant fish,” said the boy.
“Sold it?” said the old man. “Who will buy that garbage waiting for the tide?”
“He has,” said the boy pointing to the stranger who now came, and gave the boy some money.
“Twenty dollars?” said the stranger as he gave the boy money.
“We agreed on twenty five, “said the boy. “Make it twenty five.”
“All right,” said the stranger, as he gave him another five dollars.
“I will need someone to help me bring it up and look after it without breaking the spine? Said the stranger. The old man looked at the boy with wonder. Maybe it was another dream. One of those dreams that has continued to torture him, and sometimes mock him since Africa.
He looked again as he saw the money in the boy’s hand, as he listened to the haggling between the boy with the Stranger.
He was an old man, but he was a wise man. He stuck to what he was good at. The boy had been his unofficial manager since he was twelve. He had brought him fortune. At least compared to others.
“You get the skeleton up unbroken?” said the Stranger.
“ I could arrange that, hire two more men for five dollar and half”
“I will give you five dollars.”
“That would do. Though the half added to it would be better.”
“I will send for a crane and a trailer and my recovery team to come and take the Big-fish spine to the museum,” the stranger said, giving the boy five dollars as he said so.
“Alright Amigo,” said the boy.
The stranger walked away to his car parked near the terrace.
“And what just happened now,” asked the old man.
“I sold the fish spine you call a wreck. Did you not say it was useless?
The old man was still stunned. He had been a spectator in a momentous event. He was not lost to what just happened. The significance of it was great. His curse had turned to blessing. His life was about to change. His fortune had changed. It was the boy. This boy was his angel.
“You see what I said.” Said the boy. “I will bring back the luck Santiago, and we are going to sail again.” He spoke with glee. He had never failed to believe that he would sail again. He always had money. It always came to him.
“Money likes you Manolin. Your luck is really something.” He had no doubt about it.
The young man had nothing to say to that. He had always been favoured by all.
“Things always worked out for me.” He said. He even made himself not too agreeable sometimes so that they would leave him alone. That was, except when he went to the other boat against his wish.
The old man walked a little distance and sat on a trunk of a tree, his eyes moist with threatening tears held back by manhood; innocence, childhood, cyclic embraces, gulag of cardinal pleasure, apron springs; youthful, memories of graces, recollection of every censure, dreams, that was the world; what is happening?
“It’s not a failure after all” said the young man. “You must make our plans now.”
“But why did you sell it for so much? Even the whole fish would not have cost as much.”
“It was his eyes,” said the boy.
“His eyes? What about his eyes? “asked the old man.
“Santiago, you taught me to look out; to envision my environment; taught me that eyes are eloquent, more eloquent that orators and can speak clearer words than words themselves can ever muster. Did you not?”
“I did. Yes,” replied the old man, bewildered at the meaning of the boy’s response.
“While we were coming towards the pier, they had spotted us afar us and pointed him to us. They said I was the boy hand to the boatman and that was the boatman coming.”
“I want to buy your fish,” he said.
“It was noon and it was ominous. It was the time we often sail out for sea.”
“So?” asked Santiago.
“He said he wanted to buy the spine of the fish and I thought it was a joke and told him he could have it for forty dollars. He looked a stranger who likely does not know what a fish was worth, and he wanted to make a joke at me. So the joke was on him. He said he would pay twenty five and agreed after some haggling.”
“Forty dollars? Why?”
“Is that not the number of days you were out at sea with me?”
“Yes,” said the old man.
“It came to my mind when he asked how much. I just said forty. I also saw it in his eyes. He looked at the fish the way you look at your marlin when we come to shore. Pure admiration, fascinado” the boy said.
“You mean you saw he needed it so much through the eyes?”
“I did. When he said he could pay anything for it, I just mentioned anything.”
“But why in the world would anyone need that carcass? What use could it be used for?”
“The stranger said he needed it for the museum.”
“Yes! So he said. ‘It’s for the museum, he said.’ I used to hear Rosanne say something about archaeology or something. ‘Manolin let’s go to the museum in Havana. I thought it was a playground. It is likely a sightseeing place.”
The other fishermen had already gathered and were talking animatedly. They must now know that they spoke too early. It is not always as it appears in this world.
The old man and the boy could not hear or overhear what they were saying. But going by the way they looked at them, and their gesticulating hands pointing at the fish, the boat and the Stranger, they discerned they must be talking about the spine of the fish and its sale.
“They must be wondering how much we sold it for.”
“Let them Santiago, they deserve to wonder. Did they not say you were salao, amusing themselves with that lie? Now let them explain this.” The boy said with annoyance at them, even though they were not within earshot.
The old man looked at the boy. He always angry at anyone who would make the old man distraught. Those were the only time he saw him angry.
“Do you know Manolin that if you really look carefully; nothing is a waste in this world.” The old man said, still ruminating in his mind what all these meant.
“We can dream again,” The boy said.
“I wish you were my boy Manolin.” if you were, I would take you out and gamble. But you are your father’s and your mother’s. You are lucky, child. You are a lucky child.”
“But I’m your boy Santiago. I am,” said the boy, looking bemused at the old man with the glare of the sun.
“I wish you were my boy.” The old man said again. “If you were, I would take you out and gamble. But you are your father’s and your mother’s. You are lucky, child. You are a lucky child,” he repeated.
“Santiago,” the boy said, lost at what to say.
He always called the old man by his name. It was a custom they had started since he was five.
“I always feel happy when you call me by name,” said the old man.
“It is true. You asked me to call you by name since I was five. But while in the other boat, I had to call the fisherman, ‘Master’. But not so with you, Santiago.”
Why it was so, he had not been able to discern. It was awkward at first, but now it was natural.
“The other fishermen, they scolded me at first for calling you by name? It was disrespectful and distasteful they said. But even they had to accept it after you said to them that I was your boy and that I was following your instruction.”
“Fishermen should call themselves by their own names and the boy was a fisherman. That was what I said and what I still say.”
“But they said I was a fisherman’s boy. But you said a boy fisherman.”
“Yes, I remember. I said a fisherman’s boy and a boy fisherman were different. Manolin is a boy fisherman. That ended the arguments’.
“And what does a boy fisherman mean? The boy asked finally having an opportunity and boldness to ask Santiago what he had wanted to ask the past ten years.
“Never mind,” Santiago said. “Let us earn the five dollars and safeguard the twenty five,”ignoring the question, it could be answered at another time. If he had taken ten years to ask him that question, he could wait another ten years for the answer. He was an old man and he was a wise old one.
“The tide is showing signs of rising in an hour,” said the boy.
“So we must raise the giant fish’s backbone up, or it would be damaged by the tide, or worse still, washed away into the sea.”
“Terrible salao.” We must not allow that bad luck to happen,” said the old man resolutely.
When the old and the young fishermen at the terrace learnt that the old man had sold the backbone for twenty five, they thought it was a bloody joke. It had never happened. No one have ever seen or heard such a thing: buying rubbish. They made fun of the old man and of the boy. Misfortune and ill luck must have made them insane and delusive, they mocked.
The boy smiled and showed them the thirty dollars.
“If this is salao, may it continue to happen.” He said in jest.
Their eyes bulged out. Thirty dollars was worth three weeks of fishing on a lucky month. The old man’s “salao” became questioned by some. They began to discuss about his good fortune; that his luck must have returned. Some said it was the boy who brought back the old man’s luck. “The old man is finished.” They swore. But if it was the boy, how come the other boat the boy went to did not fare as well. But they caught fishes almost on a daily basis. The boy is a lucky one.
There was renewed vigour and excitement, as easily felt as the tides at sea. Everyone was planning to sail into the sea. Each with a dream of catching a bigger size of fish. It was the vanity of all men of the land. Women had no business there.
Manolin daydreamed. Maybe they could catch a big fish or even the elusive big fish that visited every September. They could make money out of the bone, the oil, the belly meat and even out of the guts.
But the news that the old man, or rather the young man Manolin selling the spine of the fish wreck galloped throughout the small habour town. The event was legendary. Some said it must be the boy who brought back the old man’s luck. Almost everyone around the Terrace and in the small shore town had something to say about it.
They were now set to sail again; at least they had the money to refit the skiff. And even buy new equipment. A new cast net another harpoon, reels, and a fishing net. But sailing again must wait for the old man to regain his health and his strength. They had brought and bought shark oil, smeared and rubbed it on his body, and gave him some to drink. That should do a little magic.
Santiago was not sick. He was only exhausted.
The boy looked around. He was in the first room of the shack that was his house. He had just woken up and risen from the cot. The door of the house was unlocked. He opened it and walked out to urinate by the shack. From his door he could see the old man still asleep.
The boy remembered the stranger that bought the big fish’s backbone at the harbour. He could see him clearly in his mind: the way he was dressed, the car, and even the ease and carelessness or carefree manner with which he brought out the money he gave to him. He seemed to make lot of money. He must surely be making a lot of money.
He returned and entered into his shack and looked around: He was poor, but he was not the only one. There was a cot in the first room where he always slept, a chair by the bed, that always bore the painful weight of his towering height when his slept. He was always barefoot. He imagined himself in the stranger’s wonderful shoes. He bent over and touched his foot. it had been charred and hardened by the walk in the cold rocks. His hands were not like the old man’s hands that had hardened through suffering and toil. They were bruised in his last trip, but they were healing now.
A beautiful girl floated into his vision.
“Why don’t you come to school with me?” said she.
“We could learn a lot, then afterwards we go to Havana, get good jobs, drive a big our own cars, and you can marry me if you wish.” she said.
Her name was Rosanna. How he loved her. He wanted to make a lot of money. But he wanted to be the greatest fisherman; his luck was with fishing: and his luck was among fishermen. He loved le mar as much as he loved Rosanna, if not more. The tides, the contest of wills between a fish and a man, between the sea and the boat, between hunger and resolution: They were something extraordinary: something you can only find sailing at sea.
He loved the smell of the sea, the galanos and dentasos, he loved the way the school of dolphins jumped up and down in ecstasy, without a care of danger, hurled in the form of guilt. Man had always won.
He loved it when men show resolution. He loved the smell of the sea, the galanos and dentasos, cruel as they were if one was to fall between the monstrous teeth in their mouth. He loved schools: schools of fishes. He loved the way the school of dolphins jumped up and down in ecstasy; without a care of danger that men bore in the form of guilt. Man had always won And he has become a man. The old man’s ordeal with the fish proved that man had always fought its way back into the recess of his mind where he had alienated it. But man is always faced with challenges and contests and in all that, he has always won and always would win.
And he has become a man. The old man’s ordeal with the fish proved that man has always fought; he has always won and always would win.
Rosanne disappeared from his vision from his dream. He did not see the old man wake up. When he threw away the blanket that covered the spring bed and stood up. Nor when he pulled out the newspapers the old man always stays into his trouser for use as his pillow then he wrapped the old army blankets he took from the bed and spread it over the back of the chair. The room was cold the old man put on his trousers and walk down the road barefoot. He could see the boy standing with his back to the door. Soon they will would be rowing. It mind was at the sea. At the lessons and tricks of lye he learnt there. The boy was not looking round at his shark or rather his parent. It was made of the tough shall of the guano the royal palm which was the wall. It sturdy fibre and over lapping leaves, Knotted like a weaved basket. As the old man stepped on the door way the young boy sensed his pressure as the rough breeze blowing on his back was suddenly cut off. He turned.
“Santiago”, he said, looking into the old man’s sleep-ruffled, cold tortured, and age-marked but resolute eyes.
“How are you, my boy,” asked the old man.
“I am very fine. I was at your shack earlier but you were sound asleep. So I left you.”
“Strange Old man I am Manolin. My age is failing me. My alarm clock did not sound at the right time.”
“Qui va” the boy said “you slept well and hard. It is good for your recovery” “But I am strong now. My hurting fingers have been healed.” The Old man said.
“Do you want coffee” the boy asked “not now. I have already eaten. A pot of brown beans with fish, and some plantain. I ate it cold. Do want any?
“No thank you.” The boy said.
It was their daily mystique: The coffee, the brown beans, fish and plantain was a myth. They went through the same fiction and motion every morning, because usually there was nothing to eat.
“I will get the last net” said the boy.”
“Not now” the old man said. “We will not go today. Look at the sky. It is not good for fishing nor for boats, although he knew too well that there was no cast net for it has been sold. The boy knew too. It was a game. He knew they were venturing into the sea today, the weather the old man gave as a reason was mere configuration, that they knew too well never existed. Other fishermen were already on their way. They had set their minds tom sail tomorrow because it was the ninety seven day – their most lively day. After catching nothing for eighty five days, they went for three weeks catching every day, and caught the greatest marlin on their ninety seventh.
“Are we really fishing together again?” the boy said.
“I am.” The old man said, looking at his hands that healed fast due to habit and experience. He was a hardened old man. Deep gullies of sears on his arms.
“My hands heve healed. That stuff you brought from the drug store worked wonders and my reflexes has he healed.”
“Will you let me sail with you.” Said the boy. “I wish I could. but you father.”
“My father says, I can sail with you again. I told him I was done with the other boat.”
“We will fish together, Manolin, if your father says so.”
“And this fine, I will never let him withdraw me from you. Those hands would have been wounded. I could have oiled the lines. My luck could have driven the sharks”
“Manolin” said the old man absent-mindedly
“Yes,” said the boy.
“The fish I caught was eighteen feet from nose to tail. That Galanos who measured the skeleton with a length of line fold me.”
He called the fisherman ‘Galanos’ because his face was like a big shark. He was very ugly, and he ate a lot.
Damn “Galanos,”he blurted.
“Damn the fish” said the boy looking as the morning finally nose with dignity of a king. And the darkness slipping away, a gliding green leaving the presence of her king in council. “Now that your hands well, and your chest is clear, we will go after the Big fish” said the boy.
“Pedrico told me the fishermen think the Big fish I caught is the elusive September marlin.”
“Is it? Asked the boy, disappointment about to appear in his face.
“No Manolin. I have seen it many times. You know my eyes are very clear. I have hooked it before many times you remember, and it escaped. I have seen it jump its full length. it is large,r maybe twenty eight feet and pounds.”
“But our boat is small. How can we bring it to harbour?
“Don’t worry my boy, let today brisa go away. I have a bag of tricks”
“And then you will teach them to me. I can learn.”
“Have you got newspaper? Asked the old man.
“Yes, I bought it to find out if we have won the lottery.
“Which lottery?” asked the old man, then recollecting said “where did you the money?”
“I told you before you went to sea, that I can always borrow two dollars and a half” Said the boy. “I got five dollars instead.”
“ Who gave that to you?”
“ Rosanna.” Said the boy.” So I bought a terminal of lottery with an eighty five and another for the eighty seven of your record.”
“I told you never to borrow then you beg” said the old man.
“No harm old man.” Said the boy. “eighty five is lucky number, and I am yet to beg.”
“Eighty five is a lucky number. I hooked the big fish on the noon of the eighty fifth day after having gone eighty four days without taking a fish.
“Eighty seven is a lucky day too” said the boy
“I am not so convinced.”
“But you won your great record on the eighty seven said the boy.
“And the sharks ate my albacore on the eighty seventh. I could not happen twice” said the old man
“Well if I already ordered them. If we don’t win, we can always have faith.
“The Yankees cannot lose” said the old man. “They play best baseball anywhere. “And they have the great DiMaggio.”
“He makes the difference, don’t he?”
“He does” said the old man, “He always does.”
“Pedrico told me DiMaggio broke his leg, and they lost to the Tigers of Detroit.”
“Then they will beat the Indians of Cleveland and the Reds of Cincinnati. Even with an injured knee he will win against the White of Sox of Chicago and the Horses of Philadelphia, or Warriors of Brooklyn,” said the old man confidently.
“But the Yankees have lost twice,” said the boy.
“And they have won twenty times before. Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio. He is himself again.”
“Can a man always make such a difference,” asked the boy.”
“Yes, my boy. Whether it is the American league, or in the contest with the fish, or in the struggles of life, a man can make a difference.”
“But how?” queried the boy.
“But flair Manolin. Some men are born with the gift from their mothers womb. They are so made they will always excel where many fail. They will always lead.”
“Like Dick Sizler, he hits the longest ball ever.”
“And has never been poor.” Said the old man.
“But are the poor always poor?”
“No. Manolin. Some are poor out of the treacheries of fate. Some are rich out of the same. Some are poor out of ignorance or foolishness or laziness. Some are rich, even in there indolence. My father says it in their destiny. In their stars.”
“I don’t believe in stars, Santiago?” he boy said.
“Why Manolin? Are they not lovely?”
“They are, but appeal only at eight”
“The sun in a big star, my boy, and so it hurries through the day, smiles at the eagles and those robber birds mocking the clouds with their claws, It burns my eyes too and bleaches my skin. Believe in the stars my boy. They show you where the fishes are.
But a man must win against his star. The way the night does against the day.
“You speak idioms my boy. When I was your age, I saw lions on the beaches of Africa in the evenings. Then I thought lions where the idioms of life, I dreamt a lot about them and still do.”
“We should rather be talking of washing and eating, Santiago.
“But what is there to eat?” said the old man. “A man plans his expeditions better on a hungry stomach.”
“But not me old man. You will never starve as long as I live,” said the boy, and went in into the second room, picked a good towel, a soap, a shirt, a winter jacket, a neatly folded blanket and shoes and flung them over his left shoulder. He brought out with him on his right hand, a two-decker aluminium container, alongside two sets of forks spades and knives neatly wrapped in paper.
‘You will never starve as long as I live” said the boy.
He had gone out to sea with the old man earlier.
“Santiago,” a fisherman called out aloud, his voice and greetings carried wide by the shore waves in the darkness. But that was the old man’s name. He did not respond to the call. He was not Santiago. It was bad omen on a dark and moonless night to do so.
He picked up the gear of the boat and carried along with it, the coiled hard braided fishing lines. He looked at the harpoon broken on the floor and decided against taking it along with its shaft. He thought about the bait box under, then decided to leave it behind. It was a precaution borne out of habit for safekeeping. What calamity it would be, if ever it was carried by the wind, the sea waves or stolen; though he feared the waves more that thieves. Stealing was rare among these poor but innocent fishermen. Such crimes were the curse of cities. What was unsafe was fish. It was their gold. Not that any would steal it. It was everywhere, and everyone knew everyone.
On the next day, he had supervised the cleaning, repairs and retooling of the skiff. He had doubled everything. It made the skiff a little heavier, but it was safer: a much more safer boat now. They now had two gaffs, four oars, three short clubs, two lung clubs and two tillers. He had also manufactured an improvised knife latched to the butt of two oars; two harpoons. The gear was in good condition and he had bought a cast net. The mast was all right. The wooden boat was now fitted with the coiled hard braided brown lines which he had bought. He had picked the mast with its wrapped sail as long as one room of the shack, along with him the day before. Carrying it to the ship and fixing it before they sail was a lesser toil than tempting thieves.
They sailed into the Gulf stream. He had done that thousands of times with the old man.
“Manolin,” the girl said to him as he climbed into the skiff, “Are you really strong enough to go out fishing alone?”
“I think so,” he said. “Santiago has taught me many tricks.
“I hope so,” she said, gleefully with admiration written all over her face. But she was not afraid to be there with him. She had always believed in him. She had always wanted to sail with Manolin, to go anywhere with him. She did not know why she had such compulsive desire. It made her blush. He was the only boy her parents allowed her to move freely with. Why it was so she could not tell. Her parents were overtly possessive and protective of her.
The boy had sailed the boat into the Gulf Stream, away from the shores. It was just three hours after noon. There were not many fishermen at the shores when they boarded and sailed. He wanted t test the boat, the new fittings. It had been done, but he wanted to do so with her; to impress her. He wanted her to see that he was destined to be a great fisherman. He looked at her as they sailed. She smiled back at him. She was happy to be with him, to be just there.
He had the rope of the oars into the thole pins and leaning forward, thrust the blades of the oars against them.
They sailed into the Gulf stream. He had done that thousands of times with the old man. Today was just another day.
“I brought along some yellow rice with fish. Do you want some?” the girl asked.
“Not yet,” the boy said, “I will eat later.”
“Are we going far into sea? The girl asked.
““Not in our lives. The tides at sea now are too calm and will turn its currents soon.” said the boy. He smiled as he said so. He was a boy fisherman. The old man said so ten years ago. He said so also five days ago.
“So how far are we going?” the girl asked.
“As far as it is reasonable and sensible to go.” The boy said.
‘Not so far?” she asked.
“We will see? He said so as not to disappoint her.
The wind was blowing calmly, and the sun was descending and darkness was not far away, had begun to descend on the land.
His mission was not to fish, but to sail, to wander into the fringes of the shallow waters with Rosanna to test the boat. That was the girl’s name. To him she was family; the only one he had got beside his father, his mother, his two brothers and Santiago the old man.
He looked at the mast which was as long as one room of the old man’s shack pointing into the skies, spread against the wind as it gathered it and he expertly manoeuvred it in its sail. He had retooled the boat with new coiled hard-braided lines and he had to test them.
He had wanted to take Rosanne out fishing, but he was too timid to ask her. But while he was cleaning the boat and the workmen were refitting the boat, Rosanne came and asked if she could sail with him. He said ‘why not’. Now they were at sea.
They had been at sea for an hour when he saw a bird circling in the air. With skill, the boy the boy manoeuvred the boat towards the tail of the fish school as he lowered the lines after he had taught Rosanne to put a sardine on the bait.
Suddenly, he felt a tug on the reel. Then as suddenly as the tug came it ceased.
The boy braced himself for a duel. He moved the fishing coil to the front of the boat. It was better that way to prevent the boat from capsizing if ever the marlin were to pull them along on the sides.
They drifted with Manolin momentarily pulling and tugging at the reels when the marlin had been pulled into a false sense of freedom or escape. But the bait hook was still it its mouth.
It was ten years of fishing. Now he has to find out by himself if he had learnt anything for ten years as the old man’s apprentice and understudy. The old man called him a boy fisherman. Now he had to earn that appellation. He had to prove it: to prove it to himself that the old man was not flattering him. And he had Rosanne to protect now, far away into the Gulf Stream.
The Young Man and The Sea
© 2015 by Dele Ikeorha
© 2016 Bakin Nigeria Limited
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
First Printing, 2016
Bakin Nigeria Limited
215 Ademola Adetokunbo Crescent,
Valley Mall A22-25, Wuse II, Abuja, 900288 Nigeria
Printed in Nigeria by
Typeset in 11 pt. Georgia