A Question of the Tide
Victor Robert Lee
I say Romero should’ve taken a lesson from the mud crabs. They’re spread out by the thousands when the tide gives them leeway in the mangroves, and if a man walks among them in the slop, all the crabs inside a four-step radius dodge into their holes. You take another step, and the next circle scats and dives. They’re out again as soon as you pass, swiveling those eyes on little stalks. Wary. Smart.
This guy Romero was chatty but only in spurts, so he left me wondering if we really were chums after all. Both of us were up from Buenos Aires, porteños just scraping by and all that. Even solitary surfers chunk-up when they’re dipping new breaks, especially in a far-gone place like this, way up from Bahia, so that’s what we were doing, hanging together, getting by on Spanish even though the locals speak Portuguese. And I tell you this—what they say about Spanish and Portuguese being born of the same mother—well, one of them is a bastard. The body language is a whole other story. Romero could vouch for that.
When he did talk, Romero loved to spout off about beautiful nature this, beautiful nature that, going on and on about the little fish that swam just in front of his nose for a whole hour in the maze of the reef that shelters this stretch of coast. No normal wave raker goes in for that sentimental stuff. We’ve got one thing on the brain. Not Romero, and he paid for it.
It all started when he had to chuck the board a few days after we met, when I clipped him on a niner tube I didn’t want to share. Greedy bastard, that’s me, and famous for it. Maybe that’s why only a Romero could put up with yours truly. But shit, I didn’t mean for him to take that rip on the reef. A better man would’ve slapped shallow. He didn’t. Probably daydreaming about the guppy on his nose. So Mister Hairy Reef took a chomp on Romero’s chest. I helped him back to the sand, blood screaming out. Some old nurse, maybe just a seamstress, sewed him up, and the color came back to Romero’s face. Never said a bitchy word about it. Problem was, the bite was on the ribs that met the board when he paddled. So oops, no more surfing this trip.
Believe this? He said he’d pay for chow at a shack on the beach that night. I wondered if he was going to sprinkle cyanide on my crab when I went for a pee, but when I came back, he was talking to a big man and his woman who’d sat at our little table. Big Guy, called Sergio, was freckly white, could’ve been one of those Irish rugby players you see on TV. His babe was brown and slim—looked Italian to me, but turns out they were both natives. That’s Brazil. They kissed while we cracked the crabs and shoveled bits of octopus.
The waitress wasn’t much, so I kept my eyes on Marisa, Sergio’s wife or who-knows-what, trying to catch a look. No go. But the way Romero told it, even while Sergio and Marisa were lip-to-lip, Marisa was pressing her bare feet against Romero’s in the sand. Even poking her toes in the gaps between his. I would’ve thought that was an invitation for a threesome, but Sergio didn’t seem to be in on the party. Romero’s not bad-looking, sure, but Marisa could’ve poked her little piggies my way. Now I’m glad she didn’t.
They made Romero show his wound with all the stitches. Big deal. Marisa even touched and tickled the scabby edges of the slice, both sides. Romero broke another crab and asked Sergio to tell us about the spear fishing. Sergio was a bragger. Had such-and-such kind of double-outboard fiberglass skiff with this-and-that gear like we’re supposed to care, and the precious boat was hidden in a secret spot up the estuary where only he could find it, better there than at the dock where the village lackeys would steal it. Then he got on about all the fish he’d speared two days before, sizes and types and how they fought. While he’s showing his perfect aim like he’s going to shoot the waitress over at the grill, I see Marisa’s hand go beneath the table and I’m sure it was on Romero’s leg or worse because Romero dropped a pink claw and gave some attention to Sergio’s aim. But I could swear that a second later that bastard Romero had shifted in his chair to get a little closer to Marisa. Might’ve been rubbing his knee against hers; who knows? All I can say is, I started concentrating on which way Sergio’s eyes were pointed too. Just when he turned back from the imaginary hunt, I knocked the table leg with my heel. Two beers went down, one gushing onto Sergio’s lap. He didn’t seem to catch what was going on, only started singing some tune about spilled beer and the romance that always followed and wrapped Marisa in his big arms until she seemed to disappear. Sergio ended up paying the whole tab; said he liked surfers and hoped he could learn to hit the waves himself someday.
The way Romero told it, next day he bumped into Marisa and Sergio on the beach road. Sergio stopped his black pick-up truck and asked if Romero needed a ride to town. Marisa opened the door and let her leg dangle out. Romero said no thanks, he’d hoof it, take in the nature. Nature, sure—Marisa’s lean leg for instance, that’s what I’da been thinking. But Sergio took him at his word and said he and Romero should go fishing the next day since the wound meant his surfing was busted. He said there was lots of nature in the blue at the far edge of the reef, and that no doubt Romero was a fucking good swimmer, and the season was right, and he’s got two spearguns, he needs to give the outboards a run anyway to keep them healthy, and the tide will be up just after breakfast. Helluva pitch from Sergio—damn well thought-out, if you ask me. And I wonder if Romero was interested because he thought Marisa would be fishing too. I gotta be honest here: Marisa was tasty to the eye. If she’d put her sandy toes on mine, I’d be in the same fix.
Anyway, Romero agrees to go fishing.
Morning. There was action where the reef makes an underwater point before it gives way to the river mouth. I barely said a hey-yah to Romero while I was humping it toward the beach. I looked back when I was paddling out. Saw him get into that black truck. No sign of Marisa.
The way Romero told it, Sergio was all friendly and eager when they were slogging around trying to find his boat. Wasn’t easy. Up this stream and the next, knee-deep in mangrove muck until they found the secret spot. Then a prop got stuck in the mud. At least he was right about the tide. They got out of the estuary and headed toward what Sergio called big game country. Big game? Why Romero didn’t just dive overboard and swim back to an easy beach and easier pleasures, I don’t know, and it bugs me, just like that amused look he always had on his face, as if he was in on some funny secret and there was no way he was going to share it.
First business on the boat was learning how to shoot the spear. How to cock the long rubber band, the maximum distance for a hit. Child’s play, but Sergio made a big deal out of it. He said he was always proud to bring a big fish back to Marisa for dinner. She couldn’t cook, but a chef in the village would make it just the way she liked it, and Marisa deserved a good fish. Always.
They put on masks and jumped in. Telling this, I’m prickly. Romero in the water with an armed man whose girlfriend has been feeling Romero up. Sure, Romero’s got a speargun too. But who knows where Sergio is coming from? Rather take my chances with the sharks, and there are plenty of them here by the reef. Adds a little juice to the surfing, makes you want to hang topside as far as the wave can take you.
Water’s a little murky. Sergio is ahead. He looks back at Romero and points down. They both dive. Sergio with that big chest—I bet he could take a nap on the bottom before he’d need air. They dove a few times, missed on two shots, and reloaded at the surface. Out of the blue, Sergio says his gal is hot, right? Romero thinks about this, then says everybody’s got their own thing. Sergio says you mean she’s not hot?
Right here I’m thinking of that species of woman who tries to seduce you, and if you don’t join in, she’ll tell her man you’ve tried to get between her legs and you’re fucked either way. But this being the southern hemisphere, it’s all upside down, and it’s the man who’s trying to trip you up.
Romero spiels it like a diplomat, says that all Brazilian women are hot, that’s why everyone comes to Brazil. So she’s hot, right? Sergio says again. Romero admits it: Marisa is fucking hot. What do you mean fucking hot? I mean, you’re a lucky man, Romero says. Sergio isn’t satisfied with lucky. Think I got her by luck? I worked on her since she was fourteen. Made her have my bed. A virgin. Call that luck? Call that luck?
Two guys bobbing up and down, treading and talking like this—the water can be rough outside the reef. You pump your legs and sweep your one free arm to keep your mouth above the waves. And Romero’s got to think fast at the same time, poor sucker.
You call that luck? Sergio wants an answer. I have bad luck, says Romero. Probably thinks he’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat with this one: He says the cut on his chest is bleeding again. Time to go back to the boat.
Sergio says, don’t worry, he’ll shoot any shark that comes, and thanks for being the bait. He looks down through his mask at the strings of blood coming from Romero’s chest and says this is real hunting. Never speared a shark before. Marisa will love eating it with moqueca sauce.
The way Romero told it, Sergio meant what he said about the shark hunting—kept himself between Romero and the boat, with the speargun not aimed at Romero, but not too far off target either. Come on, the hunt’s just beginning, says Sergio, give it a little time; I won’t let them chew on you. We’re fishing buddies. And I’m a damn good shot.
Romero’s cut is wide open and leaking more. I’d seen it when he got clipped, and it was deep like a hatchet had landed there. He’d just pressed a hand on it till we found the seamstress. Tough guy for a nature lover.
Romero tries to angle off, wide of the reef, toward the river mouth, thinks he’ll just skip the boat and swim back. But Sergio swims with him, and now they’re doing water ballet right where the grays like to feast—where the fresh water meets the salty sea.
Sergio keeps up his buddy-buddy talk, says they’ll be heroes in the village when he and Romero motor in with a shark and pull it up on the dock. And then he says… He’s shouting over the rocking water when he says: Marisa will love us if we get this shark. She’ll love us.
Romero sort of lost track of things after that—his memory of the whole thing is full of potholes. Next thing he recalls is dragging Sergio across the mangrove mud with the crabs running to their tunnels. Sergio’s left arm was missing, but Romero’d managed to squeeze the stump with the diced-up rubber band from Sergio’s speargun before he pulled the big guy through the rooty tangle.
Here’s where I come in. Sergio is lying in the little clinic. The shark had laid some teeth into his hip too, but I guess it hadn’t been big enough to make him a meal. Arm gone, hip chewed, some scrapes to the face. Bunch of village folks are huddled around, saying last month’s case was worse. Romero is there, muddy pile on the floor.
Sergio is in and out of it, eyes every which way. Marisa struts in. Sergio comes to. He starts howling and wailing and telling her how much he loves her, begging to know if she feels the same. Begging and begging. Marisa puts a hand on his face and strokes his mucky hair. Shush, shush, she says. You’re a strong man, a real man. You’ll be all right. Sergio tries to reach for her with his one arm but he’s too weak. You love me? He goes on with the begging. You love me? You love me? All she says is let them put the bandages on and I’ll drive you to the big hospital. Then I’ll take you home. She keeps stroking him and stroking him. Never looks at Romero and me. I’m happy for that.
I pull Romero up to his feet. I’m thinking Sergio and his woman are lost somewhere in the tidal zone on a shore break—high tide is love, low tide is hate. Maybe vice versa. Between them is where you can get the best ride, if the swell is strong and the wind is right and… Hell, what am I talking about? Love? Me?
Outside the clinic door it’s too bright, and Romero feels too heavy on my shoulder, like he’s passing out. But then, when I’ve sat him down to drink a squeeze of maracujá at a street stall, Romero perks up. He tells me Sergio saved his life. Shot the shark just in time, then the thing turned on Sergio. Romero wants to go back and tell that to Marisa.
Saved his life! I laugh. Romero tries to get up, but I shove him back down, and it’s a good thing he’s still too beat because I’ll tackle him if he tries to go back there. Saved your life? I say. I pull off my T-shirt and wad it up, press it against the weepy reef bite on his chest. And while I’m handing him more juice, I’m thinking Romero shouldn’t have let me steal that niner tube, shouldn’t have been daydreaming about the guppy on his nose, shouldn’t have gone fishing, and I’m telling myself it’s all his fault.
About the Author
Victor Robert Lee has lived and traveled extensively in East Asia, South America and the former Soviet states—territories that serve as settings for his fiction. His current reporting from the Asia-Pacific region can be found in The Diplomat and elsewhere. He is the author of the literary espionage novel Performance Anomalies, described by The Japan Times as “a thoroughly original work of fiction.”