3. Little Fish, Bigger Fish — Chapter 2

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I am serializing my collection Stories from The Last Basin currently available on Amazon. The stories are best read in the order of Table Contents:

Little Fish, Bigger Fish

by John Anthony, 2021

Chapter 2

Three hundred and fifty-nine revolutions of the earth earlier (or just under a year), in the fishing village of Sakitsu, Amakusa City, Kunamoto Prefecture, Japan, a young fisherman, whose name is withheld out of respect for his family — future, current, and deceased — and shall henceforth be called the Communicant, received the traditional blessing of the fisherman at the Sakitsu Catholic Church and took Holy Communion. The Eucharist was recited, he received the consecrated elements of the Host, the body and the blood of Christ, then sat with his family until Mass was over. Afterward, outside the church, the Communicant apologized to his parents and in-laws for having to leave, but the tide was high and the Captain was waiting. He kissed his wife good-bye, hugged his daughter, and shook his five-year-old son’s hand, telling him to take care of his mother and sister while he was away. Then he walked to the docks and opened his locker, hanging up the formal clothes he had worn to Mass and donning the uniform of a deckhand, one of many in the Sakitsu fishing fleet. This was to be a long trip, into deep eastern waters, hunting the Pacific bluefin tuna.

As the lead ship in the small fleet that set sail that day, the Communicant’s boat was named the Sakitsu Maru. The Communicant felt blessed to be selected to be part of the Sakitsu Maru crew and to sail with the Captain was surely good fortune, for he was a man of experience and honor. The Communicant took a seat at the stern and watched his village recede as they left the ever-widening Yōkaku Bay. Sakitsu hugged the water at the end of a long valley carved by the watershed from rising mountains. These coastal mountains were forested with Japanese evergreens, sugi and hinoki primarily, and the subcanopy of arakashi, kusonoki, yanikkei, and kunugi filled in the space creating the impression the little village was insulated by the lushness of the surrounding hills. Standing tall and center was the crafted wooden steeple of the Catholic church, reaching high enough so that it touched the sky in the center of the valley. It was the last structure the departing fishermen saw, and the first they spied when they arrived home.

The Communicant drew his long knife from its leather sheath that hung from his belt and began to sharpen it with a special stone. This was a gift from his ancestors, or so went the story he had been told. When the Tokugawa Shogunate finally acceded to the inevitability of the Meiji Restoration one hundred years earlier, not all of the Samurai warriors accepted the outcome, although by oath they were duty-bound to their Shogun. And as the story goes on to tell, a great-great-grandfather of the Communicant, who was at the time nothing more than a boy, was returning from the day’s labor in the field when he saw a fearsome Samurai in full battle armor thrust his prized katana into the crook of a camphor tree, then snap it in half as though it were a twig. The Samurai took a seat at the foot of the tree and stared into the distance. The boy, afraid he would be discovered, quietly left but returned the next evening to find that the Samurai remained in the same spot, staring into the distance with the same steely certitude. The next day the scene was identical, as was the next, but on the fifth day, the Samurai was no longer sitting. Instead, he lay on his side. The boy gathering all of his courage, approached the warrior and said, “Brave knight, are you not well?” He waited a respectable time for an answer, then asked again, and again there was no answer. Tentatively, he stepped closer, and now he could see the creatures of the earth had begun their work on the still body and the Samurai would never rise again. The boy was about to leave when he noticed the end of the katana had fallen to the ground. He could never take the grip with the Shogun’s colors and swordmaker’s mark on the blade, but the end of the katana, that was a treasure that he could make into a fine long knife. He snatched it up and ran home as fast as he could, for he knew the Samurai had been powerful, and his spirit may still have been watching over the mortal remains. When he reached his home, he found some cloth to wrap the treasure in, and hid it so well that it lay undiscovered until he came of age and acquired enough property to marry and move to his own house. It was there he fashioned a fine hilt and handle fitting of the blade. And from there, it only took the passing of time and fortune for the knife to end up in the possession of the Communicant.

The steeple disappeared below the horizon, and the Sakitsu Maru began to gently lift and fall as the ship transitioned from the sheltered waters to the deeper channel. Still, there was almost a day’s sail and several islands that must be carefully navigated past until they would reach the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. The Communicant softly drew his sharpening stone along the edge of his long knife. Inside him, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ had begun.

* * * * *

It was typhoon season in the Western Pacific, and the Captain was well aware of the threat. Since the beginning of August, there had been two tropical storms (Therese and Violet) both of which veered away from the Japanese Islands, but just a week earlier Typhoon Wilda smashed into Okinawa as a Category 3 typhoon with 120 mph winds, then lashed Kyushu just north of Sakitsu at Nagasaki and the American military base at Fukuoka before dissipating in the Sea of Japan. The little fishing fleet had stayed in port with mixed feelings. The path to the Pacific had remained clear. Now the Captain carefully weighed the odds. A tropical depression had recently formed over the Marianas, then quickly strengthened into Typhoon Anita. It just as quickly lost energy and seemed to be on the same path towards Okinawa. The Captain calculated the progress the fleet would make, which was dependent on the slowest ship at its most fuel-efficient speed, three and a half knots or roughly four miles per hour. Even if the storm strengthened again, they would be at least 200 miles east of where the last typhoon made landfall. He ordered each ship to continuously monitor the weather and plotted their course to the open ocean.

The Communicant went to his bunk, said his prayers, and trusted that the Captain had made the right choice for the crew and for the village which depended on the fleet for both sustenance and revenue. The Captain tried to sleep as well but slipped back into the rubber boots he wore when he was at sea. He walked the deck and worried about his decision. Half of August with no catch to bring home imposed a burden on his village for which he felt responsible, but with many men of the village manning his fishing fleet while an undecided storm brewed to the south, that could bring a worse disaster. Every half-hour he stopped his pacing to ask his radioman if there were any weather updates. High frequency propagation was spotty, the radioman told him. He was working higher frequencies to see if more information was arriving from amateurs using the storm’s lightning which ionized the upper atmosphere enough to bounce their radio signals over the curvature of the earth. The Captain said, “Good, good,” but cautioned him not to neglect the National Coast Guard frequency. The radioman replied, “Yes, sir, yes sir,” but the Coast Guard frequency was filled with static and continuously drifted from its registered band. This pattern repeated itself throughout the night. The Captain never slept.

To the south, Typhoon Anita unexpectedly bent northwestward and just as surprisingly strengthened to a super typhoon with wind speeds in excess of 155 miles per hour. The cyclonic winds had given the fleet an unexpected boost with a following blow from the west which pushed them well into the Pacific as the sun rose in a red sky to the east. The high frequency bands briefly opened up with sunrise and the news was dour. Typhoon Anita was now on course to strike the southwestern shore of Shikoku, the next island northeast of Kyushu. The fleet was en route to intercept it 150 miles off the coast. The Captain was decisive. He ordered the fleet to return to Sakitsu, but to maintain their discipline, no one was to proceed faster than the slowest ship. If there was grumbling, none was heard. The small fleet carefully maneuvered their ships one hundred and eighty degrees and began the journey home with empty hands.

The Captain waited until all the ships had begun their retreat before ordering his flagship to follow the others. The helmsman made the turn and aligned the compass, the first mate ordered the engine to forward one-half speed, and all were quietly thinking about the disappointment their return would bring to the village.

The Communicant, sitting in his usual spot in the stern watched the sea birds change course and follow the boat. Were they as disappointed as he was? School would start soon. His children had grown over the summer and needed new clothes and books. How was he now to buy what they needed? Sitting astern, he was likely the first to hear one of the ship’s two engines suddenly roar as if the throttle had lost control. There was yelling and just as abruptly the engine returned to idle. The throttle was fine! Then both engines stopped. Something else was wrong. He roused himself from his spot and ventured towards the bridge, but the Captain and the First Mate were rushing down the stairs and into the passage to the engine room. The Communicant stepped away. He had no role to play. He was a deckhand, not even a fisherman, no less a Captain, a mate, or an engineer. Therefore he sat down, said a prayer, and waited for news.

* * * * *

With three men in the engine room, it was crowded. The ship’s engineer didn’t have to tell the Captain what had happened. The universal joint that joins the propeller shaft to the transmission had shattered disconnecting the port engine and its propeller. Without the strain placed on the engine by the propeller screwing through the water, the engine had roared from the sudden freedom.

“Captain-sir,” the engineer said, “My apologies. I checked the joints and greased them as I do before every voyage.”

“Do not apologize,” the Captain said. “Apparently luck is not with us this trip. As you know, the universal joint is designed as the weakest link should the propeller hit a reef or other obstruction while under power. It protects our most important assets, the engine and transmission. This design is always a double-edged sword and fate has honed the unwanted edge sharper. Begin replacing it with the spare. Do you need help?”

“I hope not, Captain-sir. There is little room to work here as it is. However, I will call you should that be required.”

“Now it is my turn to apologize,” the Captain said. “You will have to do your repairs with the port engine running, as we have to get underway. Also, the sea will soon grow rough.”

“Understood, Captain-sir.”

The Captain and the First Mate climbed the ladder to the deck. Back in the fresh air, the Captain took a deep breath and spoke to the First Mate. “I see the Sakitsu Maru II has broken from the others and is returning.” The Sakitsu Maru II was a small and fast tender to the fleet and its captain, second only to the Fleet Captain in experience and rank had made the decision to return to assist if necessary. “We will barely make two knots with one engine and the pull to starboard will require constant correction to port. The autopilot will not work under such conditions, so you and I must alternate navigating and wrestling with the helm.”

“Of course, Captain.”

“We’ll transfer all but one of the crew to the tender when she arrives and then get underway. Find a volunteer to stay in case the Engineer needs help.”

“Yes, Sir,” the First Mate said. The Communicant jumped up from where he had been sitting.

“I will volunteer to stay, Captain-sir.” The Captain looked at the Communicant.

“You? You have a young family. Do you understand we will not outrun the storm?”

“Yes, Captain-sir, but I am confident the Lord will watch over and protect us,” the Communicant said earnestly. The Captain chuckled.

“That’s right, a practicing Catholic. The sea gods are merciless so it may be helpful to have your merciful God looking out for us.” The Captain paused. “I’m not mocking you, son. A strong river springs from many rivulets, a brave man springs forth in the same way. Now we have work to do.”

* * * * *

The Sakitsu Maru II arrived while the sea was still calm, and the transfer of men and additional provisions was easily made. Less easy was convincing the tender’s captain to leave them alone at sea. The Fleet Captain finally said, “You are entrusted with your crew and now mine, but more as well — I am entrusting you with the safety of all the crews. You have but one choice; bring them home. Now go!”

After the tender was underway, the Captain and the First Mate returned to the bridge. “Call the engineer and have him start the starboard engine. Let us begin lightly, ahead one-quarter. Keep your compass on the same bearing as the tender. I’ll get a fix on our location with the LORAN and try to find a protected port that will take us in that’s closer than Sakitsu.” Then he yelled down to the Communicant. “My young son! You don’t mind me calling you that, do you?”

“No, Captain-sir.”

“Bring out four survival suits and both location beacons, then check the life rafts. Pick the one that’s been most recently certified and lash it to the aft deck. The air pressure is dropping fast; best to prepare now before it begins to really blow. And when you are done and have a moment, drain the live well. The little fishes won’t survive long, but that will be an offering to my gods!”

The Captain was right about the wind. Almost as soon as he finished the orders, it started to blow hard from the southwest, matching the cyclonic rotation of Typhoon Anita. The unfortunate direction pushed the boat even further to starboard, making it that much more difficult to maintain course. A following sea began to rise, from four to six to eight-foot waves. At a stern to stem length of almost one hundred feet, the Sakitsu Maru would, in normal operations, uncomfortably but easily handle eight-foot waves, but with one engine, and worse seas on the way, they couldn’t turn into the swells, so they had to let the water rear up behind them, dangerously dipping the bow into the trough. The Communicant held on tightly to the gunwale as he watched the train of waves in the following sea while also keeping an eye on the survival gear he had stowed on deck. However, the first time he saw a wave crash over the transom he remembered the rest of the Captain’s orders: Release the bait fish. Bluefin are apex predators and were caught with hook and line, and the bait used must be attractive to them. The tank was filled with mackerel, a schooling fish and the bait averaged twenty-five centimeters in length (larger ones were sold at the fish market). The livewell was in the center of the stern deck with clearance for the fishermen to walk completely around it and also provided easy access to quickly rebait their hooks. Deckhands, such as the Communicant would rush to gaff a hooked fish and it sometimes took up to three deckhands to drag the heavy beast on board, while the fisherman yelled to loose the hook so that he could bait it again. Two ramps were used to slide the catch into the temporary hold where they would stay until after the school had passed and then a refrigeration ship from the fleet would come to transfer the catch to its lockers. The bait tank held 45,000 liters of continuously replenished and oxygenated sea water and kept alive the full load of nearly one thousand mackerel that they carried from port.

The Communicant waited for the ship’s bow to rise and then slid across the deck and grabbed the edge of the tank for support. One of his jobs was to shut down and clean out the tank at the end of a voyage, so he was familiar with its systems. He shut off the sea water pump and closed the circulation valves. He paused to hold on as another wave crashed over the transom. He then shut down the aeration pump. There were two large drains at the rear of the tank but he wasn’t sure the valves were big enough to let the fish through. The only thing he could think to do was open the drain valves and then use a net to scoop and toss the fish onto the stern deck. From there, the water flowing from the tank along with the water from the breaking waves would wash the fish into the ocean through the scuppers. This would fulfill the Captain’s request, and he started immediately. He worked fast, but shoveling the fish was heavy work and tiresome and his arms grew weary and his legs ached from trying to keep his balance. The deck quickly filled with flapping fish, so his only break was when he used the net to push the mackerels towards the scuppers and from there they would land in the water behind the boat. Many were bloody, and many had already died, and the deck grew slippery-slick from blood and crushed mackerel. In his single-minded and hazardous attempt to follow the Captain’s orders, the Communicant had created a perfect chum line behind the slow-moving boat. He hadn’t realized it, but other things had, including a Carcharodon carcharias, commonly known as a great white shark. She trailed the boat, mouth agape, jaw at least three feet wide from one end of the mandibular arch to the other. This detail of her physique indicates she was abnormally large, even for C. carcharias, and therefore many decades old. The boat moved slowly and she realized that the closer she got, the more mackerel she found to fill her belly. It seemed to her as though this was a fine day and she felt good. It was hard to feed a beast of her size, so she appreciated this gift. In fact, she was so appreciative she was as distracted as our Communicant and didn’t even realize a very large wave had lifted her body high, pushed her forward, then left her, mouth still wide open, draped over the transom of the Sakitsu Maru. The weight of the water filling the stern, as well as the two tons of toothsome fish hanging off the rail caused the bow to rise at a steep angle, and lickety-split, the Communicant lost his balance on the mackerel-slickened deck and in a terrible and freakish flight of unrepeatable precision he fell directly past her formidable array of pointy teeth and into her throat. She swallowed and slid back into the water. The Communicant, for all intents and purposes had disappeared, for no one witnessed this particular miracle, and it wasn’t until the ship’s engineer announced that the repair was complete that the Comunicant’s loss was recognized. The port engine started, and the ship was now able to maneuver at speed, so the Captain left the bridge to check on his deckhand but could find him nowhere. He was presumed washed overboard and lost at sea. Anita lived up to her reputation as a super typhoon, sinking thirty-one ships with twenty-three souls officially lost, not including the Communicant, whose unconfirmed death was considered an accident at sea. The Captain returned on the Sakitsu Maru to his home port with an intact fleet and sadly, one missing deckhand. After the fleet was secured and made shipshape, and his crews had returned to their families, he and his First Mate sat on the bridge of the Sakitsu Maru and looked out upon the waters of the bay. “I am saddened by the loss.”

“As am I, Captain-sir.”

“But the sea-gods were not greedy. They took only what they felt was offered.”

* * * * *

The immediate fate of the Communicant will not be detailed. What he felt or thought can only be imagined. Surely his brain was rapidly starved of oxygen within the great beast’s belly, and he almost immediately lost consciousness. It’s conceivable that he had little realization of what had happened. This is not a horror story.

It is told that the body dies in stages and that some cells live on long past the moment the heart ceases to beat. But what of the transubstantiated matter, the immortal made corporeal body and blood of Christ that coursed through the Communicant’s body? The shark’s digestion was efficient and began immediately. Everything that was digestible was transferred from the Communicant’s body to the shark’s body in a matter of hours, a day at most. In addition to the body, the shark digested the leather of the Communicant’s boots, belt, and the sheath of his beloved katana-born long knife.

The big old girl felt satisfied with her meal and ceased to hunt, but continued to swim, as C. carcharias are obligate ram breathers and must constantly move through their ocean home to force oxygenated water over their gills. As the waste was pushed out of her stomach and into her small intestines, the long knife, sharpened to a razor’s edge accompanied it. Peristalsis propelled the waste and the long knife was unfortunately caught in a muscular contraction, turned ninety degrees, and pierced the intestinal wall, releasing blood and waste into the peritoneal cavity. The big old girl first felt this as an unexpected bout of indigestion, but as the day progressed the pain increased, and she instinctively turned towards shallower water. She knew she wasn’t with pup; it had been years since she was young enough to mate. She wondered why such a successful day had led to this suffering. Soon, however, with the constant motion of swimming pushing the long knife back and forth, it began to injure the powerful muscles that drove her tailfins. She was forced to slow, and by slowing further still, the water flowing over her gills fell below a critical level and hypoxia set in. With not enough oxygen to feed her muscles, all forward motion stopped.

Just as the Communicant’s end was respected, so will be the old she-shark’s. Her boon had been her undoing, an odd end to a long life. Her stilled body slowly sank until it rested on the ocean’s floor.

Nothing is wasted in the oceans, and her body became itself a boon to the bottom dwellers. Scavenger sharks and fish set upon it immediately, as did crabs and worms and bacteria, and of course many of these creatures were then consumed by other predators, and that old shark, filled with the body and blood of the Communicant and his Lord Jesus Christ, found its remains distributed across thousands of other creatures, great and small, and these were carried north to the Aleutian Archipelago, into the Alaskan Gulf, and then down the Western Coast, eventually reaching Santa Monica Bay, in just under a year. There, a deep purple jellyfish of the genus Chrysaora haphazardly snared in one of its tentacles a zooplankton descended from the Communicant’s corporeal body just before the gelatinous creature was entangled in a giant August breaker and shredded to pieces, scattering its remains in the surf fronting Lifeguard Station 9.

* * * * *

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I am a native of Santa Monica, California. I enjoy writing fiction and mentoring those who would like to begin writing. Email me at johnanthony.medium@aol.com.

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John Anthony

John Anthony

I am a native of Santa Monica, California. I enjoy writing fiction and mentoring those who would like to begin writing. Email me at johnanthony.medium@aol.com.

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