Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Fisherman's Story

A certain type of fog can be experienced on all those tropical islands which hover near the equator. It is a fog that comes only seldom; and this infrequency is the cause for much speculation among indigenous peoples. It is not, as one might romantically suppose, a midnight-in-a-graveyard type of fog; that is to say that it is not a thing to frighten children, and in fact most children are less afraid of this strange fog than adults. Children, it has also been maintained by certain western anthropologists who study the fog, are more likely even to see the fog. Roughly, this has something to do with their still intimate and relatively naïve relationship to nature; they are more likely to see the fog because they are more likely to be outside, or at least to be looking out the schoolhouse window. This is, moreover, not hard to believe, owing to the nature of the education they mostly receive, and of course to the certain cultural differences existing between the missionary-teacher and the authentic-islandman-student.

The fog, as one might well suppose, becomes thicker when one is out to sea. But there are many types of sea fog, some of which, far from being innocuous, can portent certain doom to small boats and are therefore avoided by fishermen. This, however, is not the case with the fog that we are here concerned with. Many primitive island-societies existing near the equator have (mostly oral) folktales which describe poetically the great schools of fish that can be found ‘neath our particular fog. Only the oldest and most expert fishermen can ever hope to tell the difference between our fog and the harmful fogs that one may encounter at sea. Accordingly, many a novice has died hoping rather to be rich and to feed his family well. Indeed it is customary on some islands to lament the cause of death of some young fisherman as having been “swallowed by the fog”, or “lost in foggy temptation.”

While on the islands I met an old fisherman and I inquired of him whether or not he had ever been so lucky as to fish ‘neath such a miraculous fog. He was missing many teeth, but his smile was genuine. He detailed to me his extraordinary autobiography which I will paraphrase here. This man, whose name is simply unpronounceable in English, so we’ll just call him Carl, had been raised even as a young boy to be a fisherman. His father was something of a local hero, famous both for his brave deeds in war and his huge catches. When Carl was just barely able to walk, although apparently already able to swim like a fish (which, it is worth mentioning, is something rather uncommon among island people), his father would take him out on his little outrigger and fish with him from sunrise to after dark. On these fishing excursions, Carl recalls, his father was always able to find that tiny floating patch of fog ‘neath which the fish so gladly swim. These were the happiest times of Carl’s life; everyday they would bring home such a bounty of fish that they could easily feed the whole neighborhood or small village.

On day Carl’s father died and he was expected to take over his fishing duties. He recalls that he was excited; confident in his knowledge of how to find and distinguish the special fog. But Carl never was able to fish ‘neath the fog, for every time he entered a fog it always turned out to be one of the harmful types. Carl recounted to me many dangerous adventures that he had had trying to escape from these sea fogs. Some, he said, could simply pull the whole boat under, and he had to rely on his great strength (and occasionally on his exceptional swimming ability) to dodge certain death. With tears in his eyes he spoke of the poverty into which his unsuccessful fishing trips plunged his whole village. Children would die of hunger, and the adults were too weary to do their work. Eventually the village had no recourse but to expel Carl and the evil spirits that he carried with him. They came to his home in the night and carried him to a boat which had been ritualistically prepared with blood and the ashes of burnt corpses; they filled his fishing net with stones and threw it into the sea. The villagers told Carl to leave and never return. Carl was heartbroken, for he loved his village and had recently become engaged to a woman who, by his own description, could rival even Helen of Troy.

He set off onto the great ocean and it was not long before he spied a familiar fog. Here it was, once again, that deadly fog that he could only ever seem to find. Tired of life and unhappy he sailed directly into its mists. The ocean heaved and pulled him and his boat under. He was dead, he says, for many hours or days, and then he awoke here on this island. He has never since sailed, but he yearns everyday for the people he has lost. He does not understand why God brought him to this island, where he is nothing better than a beggar. This last bit, however, did not seem true to me. I had, after all, met his lovely wife and children, and, judging by the size of his house and the great number of guests he seemed always to be entertaining, he appeared to be a respected member of the community. On the whole I can do nothing but attribute his last outburst to the powerful emotions which must have overtaken him at the retelling of his sad story. I asked him if he had not tried to contact his lost village, and he told me that he had not. I promised him that, if I happened upon the place during my research, I’d tell the people there that he was alright, and he seemed greatly pleased at this. But I have never, despite repeated inquiries, found his little island. This is especially disheartening for me because, by Carl’s account, there must be much fog there to study.