Ozymandias on the beach

2009-04-03 00:00

Ed Couzens

We strolled slowly along the wet sand, where the waves were dumping pebbles and broken shells. Plough shells, left behind as the water withdrew, immediately began probing at the sand with their molluscan feet. Jayne picked up a white mussel and showed it to me. It looked more like one shell broken into two convex halves, joined by a little mucus, than the bivalve creature it was.

The beach at St Lucia is at least several kilometres long, I don’t know how many. It is not a bathing resort, but an antique land for recreational fishermen. The beach has no shark nets and no lifesavers. Rusting signs warn of this at regular intervals. The fishermen stand at the edge of the sea, wading into the surf to cast their lines. Sometimes the family dog is there too — splashing, rolling or digging, tongue flapping and tail slapping.

The fishermen are uniformly shirtless — and all wear peak caps. Their enormous bronzed bellies loom over tiny denim or khaki shorts. They wear stiff leather pouches over their genitals, like inverted codpieces. Their rods nestle in these, arcing skywards.

Wives loll in canvas or plastic-thong chairs, watching their husbands or reading. Children gambol and whine alternately. Or dig in the sand. The dogs emulate the children but whine less.

Some two hundred metres ahead of us we could see a larger throng of people. “Let’s just go that far and see what’s happening,” Jayne suggested, “then find a place to sit down for a while”.

The object of people’s interest wore khaki shorts and a faded cap. He was rocking back and forth, with his two vast legs square in the sand. He seemed content simply to sway there — rhythmically and impassively — with his rod bent from him at ninety degrees.

He was frowning and his lips twisted up slightly at one corner. He continued to rock, the rod and line remained lifeless. If he was reading passionate movement through his hands, he gave no sign of it; or the fish was for the moment still, perhaps thinking. Possibly both were true and they were sounding each other out —sizing one another up.

I dropped my tote bag to the sand, rested my arm on Jayne’s further shoulder, and looked at the people gathered around us. “His rod looks as if it’s about to break!” Jayne said. The centrepiece now started to pace slowly backwards, the butt of the rod clamped firmly to his groin. He made some remark to his wife in her chair as he passed her. She fiddled with her sunglasses and then went back to her magazine.

Bellies stood about in twos and threes. Their codpieces were empty and their rods were planted off in the wet sand while they watched the struggle. Children sprawled like tired puppies.

“I feel pretty ... ambiguous ... about this,” I admitted. “Actually, I’ve got a funny feeling ... I want to watch, it’s a morbid fascination. But I don’t know if I really want to see it end.”

“You feel for the fish,” Jayne told me. “Yes, I do. But I don’t know if it’s in the same way as I do when I see a heron eat a fish. There’s something so ... so implacable about that.

“That great beak comes up out of the water with a fish 10 times the size of the bird’s head, then holds it wriggling in the air. And you know what’s going to happen, there’s nothing to be done about it. The heron flips the fish so that its head’s pointing downward and then swallows it alive. And that’s that.”

“But it isn’t quite the same here,” Jayne said. “This fish has got a chance”. “Has it?” I wondered aloud.

“It’s been hooked. And from now on technology’s given man all the edges. So isn’t this just as inevitable as with the heron or with the net?

“That’s what I think is so grim — the fish can only prolong the end.

“And I can’t work out,” I said, “if it’s natural or not. It falls somewhere between the heron and the net.”

The warrior lumbered swiftly back toward us, reeling in frantically as he came. He gained 40 metres or so that way, without needing the line to slacken. A man near me seemed to be talking knowledgeably about the fish on the end of the line, so I asked him, “Watte soort vis dink jy dit is?”

He had been speaking Afrikaans, so I felt I could not but do the same. Even though whenever I try to speak it to Afrikaners they switch immediately to English. Which they speak perfectly.

I suppose my “dink” has a tell-tale rooinek plink to it.

“Dis ’n groot haai,” he said firmly, “seker ’n raggie. Dis die enigste ding wat so kan veg.”

The fisherman was walking backwards again. Not giving up any line. Patiently pulling the shark toward him.

“Kon dit nie miskien ’n Zambezi shark wees nie?” I asked the man.

“This low it’s a raggie,” he said. I took him to mean “low” on the coastline, as opposed to places further up the map toward Sodwana Bay and Mozambique.

I was a little galled that, as usually happened, he had swopped languages. But at least he was friendly.

“He got his line out, so he must know what he’s doing,” the man volunteered. “But he told me he’s using live bait; and when I asked him what kind, he couldn’t tell me.”

I thought there was a touch of satisfaction in his tone. I suppose that envy was something all of the fishermen there must have been feeling. Hence a snipe mightier than the sword, diminishing the fisherman as an amateur who’d struck it lucky. This man had, perhaps, a right to feel aggrieved, though; his belly was larger than that of the gladiator.

The gladiator himself now changed his tactics. He moved to the edge of the sea and began to walk backwards again, parallel to the surf. I guessed that this meant that the end was close now; and that the plan was to bring the shark in to the shore some way up from the fisherman, rather than reel it in right up to the tip of the rod.

The man I had been talking to fetched a gaff from his equipment.

By this time there must have been 30 people present. People were talking to their neighbours; but always, one sensed, with their attention on the men down on the wet strip.

The man I had talked to was now standing ankle-deep in the surf, holding his gaff warily with both hands —

its sharp end pointing downward. Small boys had gathered in two knots; one behind the fisherman with the rod, the larger behind the harpoon.

Something dark bobbed up from the waves, for a moment only; barely 30 metres from the shore. I caught my breath. People stopped talking. Jayne rose and stood next to me. The man with the gaff put one leg forward and raised the pointed hook as he would a spear.

The fisherman was leaning back so far that he seemed in danger of landing on his shoulders in the surf; his rod no longer formed a right angle, but was curved like a bow about to let an arrow shaft into the sky. His biceps stood out like beer bottles and his mouth burst open as he struggled for breath. The man with the gaff appeared to tense more and to crouch a little lower. The small boys behind him edged a little closer.

Suddenly the tension went out of people. Just like that. As if an archer had paused and allowed his string to slacken. The man with the gaff straightened up and leaned forward, holding it only with his right hand.

“Oh,” Jayne said next to me. I stepped forward and saw what it was. My erstwhile neighbour was pulling it toward the shore with the gaff in his one hand, casually. It was a great mass of driftwood; held together by tentacles of seaweed, discarded fishing line, something pale and spongy and some sort of blue cord.

People drifted off, disappointed and embarrassed by their own expectations. Some of the children peered curiously at the “beast”.

The man with the gaff strolled past us, shaking his head. “He must have lost nearly a hundred metres of line,” he said, “and it’s expensive, that line”.

I watched the fisherman. He reeled his line in up to his catch and bent to disengage it. Then he turned and walked past us and busied himself with something trivial in a box of tackle. The curl was back on the corner of his mouth, but his face was otherwise as if set in stone.

“Well,” Jayne said dryly, “if nothing else, at least it was ragged”.

We began walking back along the level sands.

ed couzens

Ed Couzens is a senior lecturer in the faculty of law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

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