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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 11, The Fish

Chapter 11 of the serialized fact or fiction, “Going Aloft,” by local writer John Wolfe.

Illustration by Gina Ramseur

When we woke on the seventh morning, we discovered the sea had given us a gift. There were two flying fish on the deck, lying dead under the heat of the sun. Like Icarus, they had flown too close. I picked one up; it was bony and scaly, but at the same time fragile, delicate. It belonged in the forgiving fluidity of the water. “People eat them,” Captain said. “I would say we should eat these, but they’ve been lying on deck for a while.”

Illustration by Gina Ramseur


“We could use them as bait,” Saint offered. He had grown up in the Florida Keys and fished his entire life. He once told me his childhood dream was to buy a boat, name her the Happy Hooker, and start a charter fishing business.

“That’s a good idea,” Captain said. “We could catch a mahi. If you want to use a different rig, the tackle box is in the fo’castle.”

Saint went forward and returned with a orange tackle box—the word “fishing” scrawled across its lid in marker. We opened it. Line, sinkers, swivels, and hooks: the backbone of a fishing rig. Everything we needed was there, laid out in front of us. Fishermen hunt for game far larger and stranger than anything on land, and the only thing that lets us do it is tackle.

We tied our rigs. Saint opted for a purple plastic squid. My rig consisted of one of the flying fish with a big hook buried deep in its belly, and a small treble hook hanging feebly by the tail, in hopes it would snag something. I held it up.

“This looks pathetic,” I said. “I’ll never catch anything with this.”

“Man, you never know,” Saint said. “There are a lot of rookie fish out there.”

We took our odd rigs on deck and cast them over the stern, letting them swim behind in our wake. Saint’s rode up front, closest to the boat, as mine trailed far behind. His lure cut through the water, but mine meandered and zigzagged, jumping like a frightened mule.

We resumed our daily chores—steering, plotting our position, watching the weather. I had half-forgotten about the lures dragging behind the boat until Captain emerged from the companionway into the cockpit, took one look behind the boat, and hollered, “FIIIIISSSSHHHHH!!!!!!!”

I whipped around from my position at the helm, and there it was, skipping over the surface of the water, a sliver of green and yellow amidst the endless blue, hooked on my line. My line! My heart jumped. “I’ll grab the wheel,” Artist said. I gave her the helm and scrambled to put on my gloves.

“Grab the line and walk it forward,” said Captain, who was standing behind me. “Be sure to leave it outside of the shrouds.”

My heart was pounding in my chest. I stumbled, nervous, praying I didn’t drop the fish. “He’s not going anywhere,” came Captain’s calm voice from over my shoulder. “He’s hooked well.”

I collected myself and continued to walk the line forward, going slowly. The fish jumped, and I felt a burst of its power surge through the delicate line, straight into my hands. I tightened my grip and held on as the schooner sailed ahead at 6 knots, wind full in her canvas.

I knelt at the lowest part of the schooner, just before the main shrouds. “Bring him in,” said Captain, and I began to, pulling the taut line, hand over hand, gaining on the fish, foot by incredible foot. As he came closer, I saw him in the water. He was beautiful, his side green and bright, incredible yellow, with scattered little black spots like a leopard. After seeing nothing but blue for a week, it was like seeing color for the first time. His long dorsal fin, running the length of his back, was up, fighting to the last, and I saw the powerful sweep of his crescent-moon tail.

“Ready, now,” said Captain, kneeling down and grabbing the line behind me. “Pull him up on three: One. Two. Three!”

With a strength I didn’t know I had, I heaved the fish out of the water, up over the bulwarks, and underneath the lifelines, where he landed with a wet splat on the wooden deck. From deep within my spirit rose an involuntary, “Yee-aaaaaahhhhhh!”— cry of pure feeling, a war whoop stolen from the throat of my ancestors. I leaned back and sounded my barbaric yawp over the wave-tops of my watery world.

“Nice job!” Saint said, slapping me on the back.

“That’s a big one—he probably weighs about 40, maybe 50 pounds,” Captain said. “I’ll go get my fillet knife and sharpen it; we can clean him after lunch. We’ll salt the meat, since we don’t have a refrigerator onboard.”

Still speechless, my eyes were only for the dorado, which lay flapping irregularly on the deck before me, drowning in the air. He was magnificent—the biggest fish I ever caught by a country mile. Every time he flapped, his tail hit the deck with a sodden thud.

I knelt beside the fish and waited for him to die. He looked up at me, and I looked  at him. He was strange to me—I who yanked him out of his fluid home and laid him on the hot deck in the blazing sun, removed from all that he knew. I knew we needed the fresh meat and there were many other fish in the ocean and all the other hollow excuses men use to justify killing another form of life—especially one so complex and near-human-sized and beautiful as this fish that lay before me now, gasping for water, his eyes glazing over. My mind knew the act of killing this creature wasn’t a sin, but a necessary evil. That knowledge didn’t make it feel better, not really.

“Thank you,” I said. I had to say something. Everyone else walked back to the cockpit; it was just me and the fish. “You’ll feed us for a long time.” He said nothing, just laid there. I put my hand on his glistening side. I could feel his strength. He was one enormous muscle, built for the power and speed needed to survive in the open ocean. He was warm to my touch, and when I removed my hand, my handprint remained in a dark blotch, patchy on the fading emerald and gold. Tiny scales covered my fingers.

Suddenly, he gave a shudder and his entire body morphed from green and gold to a stark and electric white. The small black dots of life turned royal blue as holy death greeted him, and welcomed him into that grip from which no one can escape and we are all destined to embrace. I watched the removal of a unique consciousness from the world of objects and into realms beyond our knowing. He gave a final shudder as his life left him. The delicate spark was gone.

All that remained lying on deck was a pallid corpse, the white fading and a mottled green rushing back instead. The colors would never again be as vibrant as they had been in life. My handprint remained on his side, black as death, frozen forever in time. I never knew death was so beautiful.


John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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