Wednesday, March 12, 2014

La Mar

image © Gabriel Burchman

He was a young man adrift in a small boat twelve miles off the coast of Moloka’i.  The faint outline of Lanai shrunk in his wake as the horizon came to life in the rays of the morning sun, burning a thin line of yellow on the endless waters ahead.  He lay sidelong on the bench, resting his head on a rolled up tarp used in sudden downpours.  His eyes, which shone bright green under his brow, were affixed on the distant peaks of a dormant volcano, the Halekala, off his stern.  He rested one foot on the steering arm of a small outboard motor, keeping it perfectly aligned on a narrow course navigated by no more than tendrils of light through the peaks and the occasionally nudge of his heel.  

            Everything about the man spoke of confidence on the open sea.  His demeanor was relaxed, his actions deliberate and resolute.  At the age of five he saw his first marlin pulled from the deep blue waters off the coast of Havana by his mentor and, in an instant, his love affair with the ocean was solidified.  The wonder and awe of that fish quickly turned to panic as it began to thrash about the tiny skiff, nearly tearing the boat to pieces and threatening bodily harm with ever swipe of the bill and whip of the tail.  With a few smooth and deliberate lashes of his club, the old man had once again brought stillness to the boat, comforting the trembling boy with a wink and a grin.  “This fish is our brother and deserves a dignified end,” he said, a fresh mist of blood coloring his face. “You must steady your mind and act out of love, not fear.  This boat is not unlike your small body; act swiftly when the time comes, otherwise fear will tear your tiny vessel apart, making you ill equipped to travel such vast expanses as the sea…or the many years of a lifetime.”

            The boat reached a point where the sun had chased away the remains of darkness causing the man to stir for the first time since leaving the channels of Lahania.  He sat up, throttled back the motor to a slow crawl and scanned the horizon.  A small plastic hula dancer near the bow cleat swayed gently at the hip in response to the change in momentum.  His cheeks were the color and texture of supple leather and they pushed up against the folds of his eyes as he squinted from the shimmer of the water, creating premature wrinkles that trickled down his face like those of a worn billfold.  Smiling, he cut the throttle and closed his eyes as his tiny boat sliced through the gentle rolls of the waters.  With a deep breath he took in the salty air and exhaled loudly, opening his eyes as he began to set himself up.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
            The first order of business was to pull up a line that been affixed to the starboard cleat and remove the small tuna that had been kept fresh in the rushing water by a line looped in the pointed mouth, out of its silver gills, and knotted off to form a tight noose.  With a few turns of his knife the man carved three chunks of meat, two of which he placed to the side and the largest of which was laced on the end of a crooked hook.  He twirled the meat overhead like a lasso and released it off the bow, sending the spool of heavy line into the air like a bolt of heat lighting chasing across a stormy sky.  The line consisted of two standard lengths spliced together by a blood knot, a technique he had learned from the old man to lengthen the reserve line.  He plunged the rod into a hollow pipe welded to the anchor mount, leaving the rig towering overhead like the mast of a sailboat.  Pleased, he sat back and reached for a small tin can nestled deep in the engine.  With the tips of his fingers he quickly removed the can, which had been kept warm by the heat of the carburetor, popped open the lid and smelled the rich aroma of coffee.  “Fish,” the man said aloud, “today is a special day and I want so much for you to join me!”  The man rarely spoke on the water, as silence was a virtue while at sea; however out here alone he felt it almost rude not to introduce his presence in some way to his fellow ocean travelers.  The smell of the coffee reminded him of home and he smiled as he drank in the warm glow of the morning. 

            As a boy, he would wake up far before sunrise and run to the kitchen, where he would grind fresh beans and brew a pot of coffee on the stovetop, filling the entire kitchen with a wonderful bittersweet smell.  His father had long since abandoned any attempt to take the boy with him to work in the sugar cane fields, as the boy was single minded in his pursuit to become a fisherman.  With a steaming thermos of hand ground coffee and a few ham croquettes saved from the previous night’s dinner in the pocket of his coat, the boy would race through the streets towards the docks, just as the roosters began to wake the rest of Havana.  The same newspaper vendor would smile at the boy in recognition as he made his way through town, darting past the drunks which littered the sidewalk outside of the all night cantina.  Once on the waterfront he would remove a stack of thimble sized plastic cups from his coat and go from slip to slip offering the strong brew of Cuban coffee to dock workers and street sweepers.  For a quarter he would pour a shot; equal parts espresso and sugar straight from his father’s fields, a nickel would get you a second.  No matter how much demand he met, he always left the last few shots for his mentor.  Together, they would load the boat with gear and he would offer the handful of shiny earnings to the old man in payment.  This ritual would make the old man smile and shake his head as they rowed out past the harbor into a golden sunrise.

            “Fish,” he exclaimed, eyes wide and animated, “I hope you have rested and are as ready for me as I am for you!”  He was in good spirits as this was his maiden voyage on the tiny boat which he had purchased from a former employer just the day before.  In his youth he would charge out of the docks and stop just a few miles off shore in eager anticipation to begin the days haul.  But now, older and wiser, he knew to avoid the competition of the shallower waters and head much further out.  The true treasures of the sea, as in life, require patience and faith found deep in the abyss of the unknown.   Now he enjoyed the journey and rested, admiring the company of spinner dolphins and breaching humpbacks as they followed him through the water.  With his line set and the coffee warming his body, he sat looking back towards the faint beacon of a buoy near land, the light blue path of his wake slowly eroding the past and joining it to the present.

            His days fishing as a boy were cut short when his father forbade him to continue learning from the old man, who had gone so long without a single fish he felt him to be truly unlucky.  His father sent him to help his uncle in the fields of a “cafetale,” a coffee plantation where his uncle taught him the hard work involved with picking the beans he so loved to smell.  Conditions were harsh and not meant for a boy with hands as smooth as his, but his father hoped he would learn structure and a strong work ethic as the calluses began to appear on his hands; just as he had gained working in the sugar fields.  The boy worked very hard which pleased his father and, over time, grew to appreciate the work as that which a man must do to provide.  Still, not a day went by that he did not dream how beautiful the sea looked when painted by the midday sun. 

When he was not lending his body to harvest the fruits of the earth, the boy was honing his fishing skills at twilight, navigating to and from port by the glow of Havana.  His eyes became accustomed to night fishing and he felt very happy to live out the rest of his days this way; earning a wage along with his father’s pride by day and rolling in the moonlit tides at night.  Although the cafeteles tired his body, he was revitalized at the onset of dusk with the hope of a big haul which he would bring to his mentor and friend who, now too old and frail for the indifference of the sea, had given the boy his wooden skiff despite much protest and insistence on paying for it.  The man loved the boy as a son and needed no great gesture or fanfare for such an act.  He felt safe and carefree adrift in that boat, every square inch of wood soaked in memories and seasoned from the oil and scales of past bounties; however the social tides of the day were making it hard to ignore the storm gathering on the horizon. 

 Just before his sixteenth birthday, the tensions of a changing state and the ever present fear of a future under Castro’s regime had driven his father to action.  The boy was awoken suddenly in the night and hurried into the bed of truck, where his father clutched him tightly as they lay amongst chicken wire and wooden crates, which shed tiny white feathers as the truck sped off.  It happened so quickly the boy might have believed it to a dream; the white feathers dancing in front of his face like a shaken snow globe as he looked up at the moon.  He tried to speak, to ask what was going on; but was met with his father’s calloused hand clamped around his mouth and a tighter, more urgent embrace.  After a short and confusing ride, the boy could be certain this was no dream as he found himself alone on a dock watching the truck drive off the way it came, his tattered shirt damp from the cold steel of the truck bed and his pockets stuffed with what little U.S. dollars his father had collected.  The boy stared at his father as the truck slowly absorbed into the darkness of the night.  They held a gaze suspended in time; a moment between them more insightful than all the moments that preceded it.  A short time later he was rushed into a small vessel that sat idle at the dock.  Known as the “Camarioca boatlift,” The U.S. coast guard had guided convoys of private boats wishing to rescue friends and family from the turmoil of Castro’s regime and bring them back to Key West.  A distant cousin had agreed to pick the boy up and they sped away in the night surrounded by the flashing beacons of heavily armored coast guard vessels, making him one of the last Cuban exports to be welcomed onto American soil.  He now traveled at night using only moonlight, so as to avoid the painful memory of his father in the bed of that truck; a stern and hopeful expression on a face betrayed by eyes that could not hold back the sorrow of their circumstances. 

            The shrill cry of a seabird broke his gaze, which had been focused on the quivering tip of his rod. 
image © Gabriel Burchman
“Fish”, he pleaded, “now is not the time to hesitate!  Take the meat and be full!”  His eyes followed the taught line down from the sky where, ever so subtly, it pulsated on the surface of the water like an erratic heartbeat.  He closed his eyes and reached out to put two fingers on the line like a harp player, using his body to resonate the vibrations from the deep and translate them into a mental image.  After a short time he opened his eyes and let go of the line, sighing as he took a piece of the tuna that he had carved and sliced it into thin strips, placing them in a shallow bowl.  “Ahhh, you must be very full or very cleaver to resist something as tasty as fresh tuna!”  He reached in a bag and pulled out a lime, cut it in half, and squeezed it over the raw strips of fish, submerging them in a mixture of citrus and saltwater.  He had found the local Hawaiians made a similar dish called “PokÄ“,” which substituted sesame oil and soy sauce for the citrus, but he much preferred the acidic bite from the lime.  He felt the sting of the juice as it soak into the small cuts of his palm and he brought the hand to his mouth to taste the bittersweet memories as they dripped down his forearm.

            If Havana was the soil by which the boy had begun to grow, Key West was the hard ground by which he fell onto prematurely.  Just like the small indigenous limes which had a strong bite and thinner skin than the more common variety, so too did the boy become strong and bitter on the inside; his size stunted by the sudden removal from the land which had nourished him.  The town, although limited in its industry and confined to only a four mile square radius, was a place where a fisherman could thrive.  The salvage divers and longshoremen were unlike the noble old man who taught him to revere the ocean and all her treasures; they buzzed around the docks like sharks in a feeding frenzy, setting out to sea with plunder in their hearts.  Although he had more knowledge of fishing than many men twice his age, no boat was willing to give him work, as he appeared much too small and fragile for the labor required at sea.  Time and necessity left him resigned to washing dishes and cleaning tables at a bar in the heart of Duval Street.  Days passed and the harsh smell of bleach-soaked rags began edging out the rich memories of home, sterilizing whatever youthful optimism still remained inside. 

            One of the unfortunate realities of life is that pain, both physical and emotional, acts as the catalyst for growth.  A muscle must be ripped in order to become stronger; our souls must endure darkness in order to see the full spectrum of the light.  Two years had gone by when news of his father’s disappearance reached Key West.  Castro had polarized Cuba, turning neighbors against one another and leaving many families torn apart by the militant regime.  One night his father was questioned about his involvement in the Camarioca boatlift, the next morning he did not show up for work in the sugar fields.   While the boy loved his father and missed him very much, something inside him had dried up, leaving behind a soul too salty for grieving.  He had paid his dues over the years and now worked behind the bar, absorbing the hard-bitten mentality of the fishermen who came in at night to drink and fight like drunken pirates.  Four hours passed before he excused himself out the backdoor and walked down the alley towards the water.  A hard rain caused the shirt to cling against his back and the moon shone bright, illuminating the rain all around him.  He remembered that last night with his father, his back cold and damp from the steel truck bed, feathers dancing around him like snowflakes in the sky.  He sat there on the break wall and, for the first time in a long time, felt the sea calling him to head out from stagnant waters and into her deep unknown.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
            Suddenly, and without warning, the line snapped tight causing the man to startle from his daydream and lean instinctively towards the port side, counterbalancing the heavy strain pulling from the deep.  “Brother,” he yelled, “I thought you had left me!”  The reel screamed as he steadied himself, reaching for the rod with legs set firm against the starboard side.  The line had continued to feed from the eyeholes and he knew in his heart down below was a “grander”; a monster marlin over 1000lbs found only out in deep waters.  He grabbed the rod and arched his back, bearing the strain on his muscles as he and the boat were pulled towards land, as if by a stubborn dog on a leash.

It was with similar determination that he himself had been lead towards the islands.  Although the late hours at the bar did not afford him the harmony of Havana’s coffee fields at dawn and the harbor at dusk, he had been anchored to Key West.  A part of him had hoped that, one day, his father would walk in; suitcase in hand and a smile on his face.  While the news of his father’s fate had pulled that anchor free, it did little to change his disposition.  No longer a boy, he had grown accustomed to his circumstances and made peace with it.  The regulars kept him entertained and their stories of the sea seemed to supplement his dreams of joining them.  His favorite patron; a writer with big broad shoulders and a shock of white hair, would sit at the bar telling stories until empty pint glasses lay before him like bowling pins, in danger of being knocked over by his constant swaying.  The young man would listen to accounts of backyard boxing matches and fishing adventures from the Gulf Stream upon his boat, “The Pilar”.  The stories made him smile and think of his friend, the old man who had taught him to look beyond the vastness of an endless ocean and see the treasures that wait for those with faith.  The thought of his old mentor along with the loss of his father seemed to stir something inside; like the clashing between climates that twist and turn together to bring the wind by which our sails depend. 

            The abrupt downpours of Key West brought diversity to the usual bar crowd, as tourists would rush in to avoid the rain and pass the time with drinks.  On one such night, the young man was cleaning glasses with his back to the door as the old writer recounted a battle with the biggest fish he ever hooked.  Just as he was reaching the climatic ending, he suddenly was quiet.  The young man spun around with the intention of cursing the patron for leaving him in suspense, but instead, stood breathless as he saw the reason for the sudden silence.  A beautiful girl, tanned skin with long dark hair and almond shaped eyes, had walked up to the bar and smiled at the young man, who stood as solid as an oak.  “You must excuse my friend,” the writer said, “for I seem to have bored him into paralysis with my fishing tales.”  She blushed, her eyes jumping from the floor to the young man’s admiring expression.  “Please, take my seat,” he said, as he stood and patted the bar stool, “won’t you sit and breath some youth back into this fine young man?”  She thanked him and sat down as the young man fumbled to pour her a glass of wine.  He set the glass in front of the girl and gave a smile to his friend.
“And you, can I offer you a beer?” 
“Why not,” the old man grinned, tilting his head towards the girl, “between fishermen.”  He took the full pint and gave a deep nod to the young couple, leaving them smiling awkwardly at one another.  Finally, the young man spoke.
“Hi,” he managed, “My name is Manolin.”

The fish below was unwavering and the young man fought furiously with the rod to keep control of his small boat, which had been pulled through the water for the past three hours like a matador snagged upon the horns of an angry bull.  His muscles were fatigued and sore, but his eyes remained bright and optimistic.  “Fight all you want my brother,” he growled through clenched jaws, “I many not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.”  The sun beat down on the water setting it ablaze, causing sweat to pour from his brow.  Just when he felt the struggle was too great, he heard the confident voice of his old mentor beside him; “What is to give light must enduring burning.”  He ignored the pain and smiled wildly at the impending showdown.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
            They talked until the rain had long-since stopped and all the drunks had spilled out into the night.  He locked up and they walked arm in arm down the back alley away from the crowd and lights of the strip.  The sidewalk was dark and wet, and they walked along it to the break wall at the edge of town, passing street lights which poured an amber glow onto the black, wet brick of Mallory square.  They walked out across the wet grass and onto the stone break wall.  He spread a newspaper and they sat, looking back across the dark water of the marina where they could see the faint outline of a great cruise liner. She had been at sea for two months before arriving that morning on the cruise ship, where she performed nightly as a hula dancer.  The wind was high up and took the clouds across the moon, causing the ship to loom ominously in front of them like a mountain silhouetted against the amber backdrop.  He stared out at it for a long time, imagining her on it, sailing away.  When he could no longer stand it, and tears began to gloss his vision, he turned to her and was met with her lips.  She kissed him sweetly, and he put his hand to her soft, wet face.  He sat with her there until her early morning call to board the ship and then watched the boat slip away into the grey sky morning. 

            The next evening he went about his duties behind the bar.  “What’s the matter with you?”  The writer asked, noticing the defeated look on his face.  The young man told him of their evening, how alive he felt when he was with her, and ultimately how circumstance had once again knocked him back down to the hard ground.  The old man studied him for a beat before getting up and leaving, not saying a word.
            “Thanks for nothing you old drunk!” He shouted, angry at his indifference.  Hours passed and the crowds came in and went out like the tides, until he was once again alone with his sorrow. The door opened and the old man slowly made his way to the bar, set an envelope down and stood there, his eyes searching the weathered grain of the wooden counter.
            “There is a thin line between an old man and an old fool,” he said, his voice low and measured. “I lost the Pilar six years ago in a poker game.  I haven’t been on a boat since; much less chased any marlin out in the gulf.” The young man gave him a confused look.  “There was a time when I came close to the man from my stories, fearless and hell bound.  But time has a way blurring the boarders between aspirations and actions.”  His head tiled slightly towards the stack of empty pint glasses.  “And those don’t help much any!”  The young man smiled, hoping to see his friend return the levity.  He looked up, his eyes heavy from years of regret.  “The truth is they all got away…all the big fish I’ve ever hoped to catch.  I’ve resigned myself to this stool right here, re-writing the past in my mind, night by night, pint by pint.”  The young man stood breathless as the writer smiled, got up and walked away, stopping at the door.  “When the time comes, let your actions be guided by love, not fear.  Act swiftly, or the latter will have you seated next to me someday.”  Before another word could be said he walked out into the night.  The young man watched him slip away before finally noticing the envelope before him.  Inside he found three crisp $100 bills and a handwritten note which read; “have the boy report to work tomorrow at Mallory square upon the SS Leeward, 6am sharp.  I have secured a spot for him as a deckhand until his replacement arrives on board in Maui.”  His eyes went wide, jumping to the bottom of the page with excitement.  “P.S., let me know when you want to play another game of poker!”

            The tension on the line increased exponentially, showing the erratic stirrings of a fish ready for its final stand.  The reel moaned with every swift jerk from below, unspooling itself inch by inch until only a few yards remained before reaching the blood knot connecting it to the reserve line. “Come now, fish,” he shouted, “You are in good company! Let us meet eye to eye, brother to brother!”  The line went out parallel to the water as the fish swam out towards the sun, which had fallen just above the horizon. 

The salt air filled the young man’s lungs once again as he stood on deck watching his last sunset on the Atlantic.  His sail was full and pushed him further out into the vast expanse than ever before, his past receding in the fading wake of the cargo ship as it neared the Panama Canal.  He sat and wrote a long letter to an old friend until the crimson canvas of the sky faded subtly into the dark blue palette of night.  The letter went out with the bulk mail on its way to Cuba just as his journey crossed over into warmer waters.  After arriving on Maui a few weeks later, he spent nearly all his time aboard a local charter boat, re-training his hands to tie precision knots and learning from the rich local traditions.  His captain, a stout and jovial Hawaiian man, had hired him on the spot; recognizing in the young man an invaluable reverence and understanding of the sea.  The captain spoke in short, jab-like sentences, his voice soaring high above the roaring engines in a singsong tone.  The first mate, a native of Moloka’I, protested that the young man’s presence was forbidden, or “kapu,” as the ocean and religion were all but synonymous in their culture.  They worked in silence, except for the occasional sidelong glare from the native, which was quickly broken by the captain’s sharp tongue.  The young man’s expertise and skill eventually earned him a mutual respect on board; creating a successful dynamic between men raised by the sea and respectful enough to behave in her presences.  

Four months passed before, one afternoon, the captain surprised the young man with a small brown package addressed to; “Manolin – c/o the SS Leeard port of call – Lahaina.”  The young man read the attached note and, before the captain could say a word, repaid the surprise by offering him a week’s pay for his old wooden skiff, which had been tied up and neglected at the end of the dock for months.  The captain saw resolve in his eyes and, although not sure what to make of the overly generous offer, shook his hand firmly with a smile.

His past and present had converged like the tides to bring him to this moment; adrift in a small wooden boat under the same golden sky he remembered as a boy, indifferent to our measures of time and distance.  He set his feet firmly against the bow and arched his back with a grunt, the rod digging into his ribcage causing every ounce of the great fish to resonate thought his whole body.  They fought back and forth like two brothers with opposing goals, tethered together by a mere length of line.  The water began to churn ahead, brief streaks of silver and blue glinting just under the surface as he struggled to close the distance between them.  With his left hand gripped firmly on the mid-point of the rod, he leaned back in an attempt to pry the fish closer, coaxing him to jump from the water and fill the air sacs along his back, making it all but impossible to dive back down into the deep.  He was now twenty yards away from the whirlpool ahead, when the water became suddenly still.  With eyes wide in anticipation he watched the glassy surface for the breach, but instead felt the rod jerk violently downwards; the reel a blur as the spool of line went out once again.  The boat dipped towards the starboard side and he stood straight up with one foot on the bench, shifting his weight towards his back leg for balance.  Just as quickly as it had dipped, the boat recoiled suddenly and rocked to the port side, sending the young man through the air and landing on his back in the bed of the boat.  All around him the water had become a sheet of golden glass, peaceful and serene.  He looked towards his hands, cut and bloody against the rod, and notice the reserve line still coiled in the reel; the blood knot connecting the two lines frayed just at the end where it had given way.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
He lay motionless looking up at the sky, relaxing his body and mind.  The cool water relieved tense muscles in his back and shoulders and caused a mist of steam to arise from skin like the smoldering remains of a fire.  The sun had slipped beyond the horizon, painting the day’s swan song against a gilded sky, and he sat up to take in the serenity all around him.  He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly, turning his gaze to the small brown package tucked away under the coil of rope used as the forward spring line.  With a careful hand he opened the box removing its contents; a small coffee canister, a framed picture of the sacred heart of Jesus, another of the Virgin of Cobre, and a letter. He unfolded the letter and read it slowly to himself, as he had done the day before.

I am writing on behalf of your intended recipient, Santiago.  My name is Domingo and I own the small shack which my former tenant, and your old friend, resided at for many years.  I regret to inform you that Santiago passed away some time ago.  He had very few belongings, of which I have included in this package for you.  Santiago was an isolated and quiet man, but when he did talk of a friend, it was your name he spoke.  I run a small newspaper stand in town and remember you as a boy; running through the streets of Havana on your way to the docks, do you recall?  It was your coffee that I looked forward to every morning, so rich and smooth!  If only Santiago could see what distance your letter has traveled, it would surely make him smile, as only you could.  Your youth kept him going for many years.  I cannot speak on behalf of our friend, but if I could I would say this; continue to chase what it is you seek out there in the deep, but keep an eye on the horizon.  A man makes his own path in life, each course leading towards a different ending to his story.  May your journey be filled with memories far too abundant for the confines a small box, your story remembered as more than that of our friend; an old man, and the sea. 


            He placed the letter to the side and took the canister in his hands, removing the lid to reveal the dark, ashy powder inside.  He studied it appraisingly, taking stock of all it contained; the memory of a man betrayed by a weight no greater than a handful of sand.  He thought of his father, and how much he wished to hold something tangible of his in order to say goodbye in this way.  But life is like water; we cannot control its currents, but instead must adjust our sails to navigate our way between storms.  “I had hoped our friend could join us,” he said, looking out towards the horizon. “But I am rusty, my hands cannot tie the master knots they once could…the way you could.”  He looked down towards the rod, its bloody handle surrounded by a nest of frayed line spilling from the reel.  “You taught me much about life; to have faith on the lonely journey out to deep waters.  I want you to know I have found my fish, and set my course accordingly.  Tomorrow I will go inland, towards the coffee fields of this valley isle and set down roots.”  He held the canister over the bow and emptied its contents overboard, creating a floating patch of ash contrasted against the shimmering water.  “Go now and be with your brothers.  Don’t worry old man, I will visit often.  With enough luck I will bring with me that which I chase…she returns in 84 days.” 

He watched the ash dissolve on the surface, on its way down into the deep.  With a final nod, he started the motor and circled the boat around, aligning his bow with the faint outline of the island in the distance.  Once again he lay sidelong on the bench, his head rested on the rolled up tarp, his eyes focused towards the faint glow of Lahaina visible just beyond the gentle swaying of the small plastic hula dancer on his bow.  The surface grew still in his fading wake, except for a small patch of churning water where the ash had vanished towards the deep.  The young man sat straight up, alarmed by a sound heard over the motor and turned back towards the horizon, just in time to see a splash of water reaching high up in the air.  Something big had breached. 

 original oil on gold leaf © Gabriel Burchman     

Images by Gabriel Burcham are original oils on gold leaf.  For more info on this Maui based artist and his work visit