Back in the seventies, we lived at Lovango Cay, the largest off the Cays that form the northern border of Pillsbury Sound, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. We spent four years there in lovely isolation, living with the pelicans and the shiny showers of silversides. It was a hardscrabble life in some ways – no electricity beyond what we generated for ourselves, everything from groceries to 100-lb. propane tanks had to be brought through the surf. No matter, it was our brave new world – and the best of it was Congo Cay.
Congo was a long, narrow, steep-sided cay lying just north of Lovango, forming a sparkling channel between the two of them. Congo sat in the water like a blade of chiseled rock, edge up showing silver gray through the glossy profusion of tire palms which covered the slopes. At the west end of the island, naked, gnarly rock dropped into the sea and made like a sounding lead straight for the bottom, 90 feet down.
This edge of the ocean was our favorite, the kind of spot where deeps abruptly give way to shallows, where a current runs through it. The barracuda would snap the mackerel off your spear before you could get it into the boat in one instant, a blur faster than sight, finish it off and look up for more. One might see a 40-lb. amberjack cruise up from below, suspended motionless in the clear water, then a blur too fast to follow and – presto! – the “barra” would leisurely head back to the depths. Schools of bonito would flash into view, zigzagging back and forth, bewildering to behold.
The channel was alive with movement and blazing with light. Birds, fish, men – all awaited the mighty minnow massed by their millions and billions, an infinite clustering of particles in the primordial soup. To them came the rest of the chain, schools of jack and bonito whose frenzied strikes boiled the surface white. The small fry could hide in the maze of mangroves, but the mackerel and snapper, like outriders of the Huns and Tatars, would come peeling off from their squadrons to launch themselves heedlessly at them, hitting mangrove roots headlong with loud cracks, sending up skittering showers of frightened little fry into the air, each leap like a piece of thrown wet silver.
One day I was trolling in my skiff when I noticed a fishing boat anchored near that same tip of the island. Then I saw him, an old man, a fisherman from St Thomas, dressed in a yellow foul weather jacket with a battered straw hat on his head. The sea was ripe with dense black clouds of small fry, this first broad stage of the food chain.
Up within easy reach of sitting at the last level of the rock before it pitched into the sea, the man was intent on his fishing and paid me no mind. He was catching a phenomenal amount of yellow tail snapper; it was a most prized and difficult fish to take, but this old man had it down.
Beside him lay two delicate wooden boxes which once held cases of liqueurs. Now they held wet sand in one and small fry in the other, caught in his cast net. Just behind him lay a bundle of bamboo poles.
He took a handful of fry and a handful of sand and squeezed it several times til the handful of fry was like sandy, ground meat. He threw a handful, maybe two, in the water. The sand clouded the water while the freshly-crushed fry gave off an irresistible allure, and the normally circumspect yellowtail went nuts, darting into the cloud to cull out the delicious scraps. It was food frenzy, the fish driving reckless into that intoxicating cloud.
Then the old man reached behind him and grasped a bamboo pole. It had been prepared beforetime with a bare shiny hook and length of nylon monofilament, tied onto its tip, about 20 ft. He cast it, still bare of bait, and within seconds he pulled one out of the water. He threw the rod, line and fish backwards into a crevice in the rock and grabbed another rod – he had a dozen of them made up for this occasion – and within minutes he had half a dozen fat yellowtail flapping on the rock. Thus were the wary and intelligent yellowtail hooked.
Now, occasionally, some fishermen would wait til it was time to start for home, then withdraw a rifle from where it was stashed in the bow of the boat, aim carefully at a goat frisking on a steep slope, let fly – and with luck, the goat would collapse and drop into the sea from which it could be easily retrieved. Of course, many of them would die en route, out of reach, wasted.
Mr. De Wendt, the owner of the goats as well as half of Lovango, was losing his sight. Nevertheless, he had preternaturally acute hearing, and on days that were calm, he could hear the report of the thirty-thirty.
The sound enraged him. “Dey wouldn’t a do so when I was in my prime. If once I have my sight? … and my long gun … I gon’ scyatta dey ass one time!”
The image of the old man stumbling half blind through the bush, angry and inebriated, with a loaded gun, was unsettling … so much so that Elsa, his wife, took to hiding the weapon.
“Confound it woman, where is my piece? I gon’ make dem pay!”
“Hush, how you make ’em pay an you cyant see de boat? Yo mighta shoot de wrong mon.”
“Ah shoot any one a dem!” he blustered. “Dey is all tief.”
When she heard such, Elsa would roll her eyes and suck her teeth, a sound denoting disgust or impatience, and say, “More rum … more rum,” and pour him another dollop of Ron Matusalem out of the old wooden keg.
After spending most of his life in, on and by the sea, Peter Muilenburg wrote “Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light.” www.SailBreath.com