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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue
Fiction

Shark Fins

Within the waters of his sleep, Felipe had the vague sensation that the sound of his alarm pursued him like a determined fish. Half-awake, he hardly noticed when his wife beside him turned over in bed. Then he opened his eyes. When he saw a ray of light falling like a twine of gold from a thin gap along the front door, he jumped up, bare feet on the ground. Fumbling for his pants and a shirt hanging over a drawer beside the headboard, he put on laceless shoes and a soiled baseball cap. Taking a box of matches from his shirt pocket, he lit a gas lantern.

The stuffy room was heavy and damp with stale air, sweat, and gloom. Felipe looked around, and his bleary eyes came to rest on his wife’s body, lying on her stomach with her head resting on her folded arms, half-covered by a blue blanket made of fake silk, discolored and sown up in several places, exposing one of her calves, upon which a housefly, after having circled for a moment, landed. At her side a newborn slept with his legs folded and his little arms drawn in close to his chest, as if nursing his mother. The three other boys huddled together on a cot beside three rickety chairs, positioned there to prevent them from spilling onto the floor. One of them, stirring slightly, groaned in his sleep. Felipe, touching him softly with a calloused hand, slowly rocked the boy, who let out a long sigh as his father caressed his thigh, then fell silent.

In response to the rising morning, the family awakened in their shack. Opening with a forceful push, the grind from their metallic door could be heard throughout the neighborhood. Then in the distance, the screech of a tram. Keeping time next was a motor rumbling, and the strident honk of a car’s horn. Just outside, a man passing in the street stopped to hunch over, coughing harshly, tearing himself to pieces, until he finished, spitting phlegm grossly to the ground. Behind the filter of a neighbor’s door, the distinctive “chas-chá” sound of someone’s sandals was audible. There was also a child’s voice that shouted out happily, and the flat voice of a man that replied. A moment later, the child’s voice exclaimed: “Daddy, look at how the dog looks at you!”

Felipe picked up the basket containing his fishing gear—rolls of twine, fishhooks, weights, a day’s water in a plastic gallon jug—and held it under his arm. He glanced again at the cot where his children slept, and then he left. As he came out of the door of his shack, he waved to an old woman, so old, withered, and wrinkly that she was just a shadow of her former self.

“How is Ambrosio doing?” he asked her. The little old lady’s face furrowed with worry.

“Bad, bad, son. He looked so bad last night that Mersé went looking for the doctor at the emergency clinic, but the doctor didn’t want to come because he said, I do not know what, that he wasn’t on duty. Another one was supposed to come, in the morning. That’s why I am standing here waiting. I believe that Ambrosio is going to die.”

“That, nobody knows. He might just get better and bury us all,” said Felipe, trying to cheer the old woman up.

The unforeseen discussion of death darkened his thoughts, however, and resuming his journey, he noticed that he was remembering an incident in which he had figured as the protagonist the previous afternoon. Triggered by one of those abusive acts that transform the most peaceful and even-minded men into killers, it might have led to tragedy. The problem arose because of some shark fins. For some time, Felipe, like the other fishermen of La Punta and Casablanca, had avoided fishing sharks of any kind. A decree from the President of the Republic granted a monopoly to a fishing company that had been unable to succeed on its own and so instead that company attempted to cheat and exploit the local fishermen. Until then, shark fishing had been supporting many impoverished families along the coast. An Asian merchant on Zanja Street had been buying all the shark fins and tails, salting and exporting them to San Francisco, California, where, along with swallow nests and sturgeon soup, they were valued delicacies of Chinese cuisine. Each pair of fins was purchased for two pesos. This was a good business for these fishermen, and there were also benefits to be extracted from the rest of the animal: the spine, used to manufacture peculiar canes that seemed to be made of ivory; the teeth, charms that promised to protect the wearer from bad luck; and the head, which, once dried out, could be sold as a souvenir to American tourists.

Thus it would continue, until one day without warning, they pronounced their cursed decree, like a battering ram that knocked the Chinese merchant completely out of business. Even so, when it was merely an idea, it did not seem as bad, at least in the beginning. A few representatives from “The Shark Fishing Company” came to the coast and made the fishermen an offer, which without any means of assessing it, appeared reasonable enough. “The Company” would buy all the sharks they fished, paying for them according to their measurements. Those men spoke so eloquently and quickly that the fishermen gladly accepted their offer, and even felt grateful. But in short time, they realized they had been fooled. Things weren’t exactly as these representatives had led them to believe; for a creature to be worth one peso, it would have to have certain proportions that defied normal proportions. Besides that, they had to deliver all of it in one piece, with its tail, fins, and skin intact.

The fishermen, realizing that they had been cheated, began to protest, and demanded an increase in price. Closing the conversation, the Company spread fear instead, mentioning the presidential decree that protected them and threatening to throw all who disobeyed it in jail. Then tyrannically the Company began to impose its rights. Not to be messed with, the Port Police, who had been bribed by this ingenious Company, were now at its disposal. Thereafter these Port Police showed much greater enthusiasm in surprising shark-poaching fishermen than in the pursuit of any smuggler or pirate. This resulted in an irritating corruption, calloused by its unfairness, and worsened by the fact that the Company made use of every part of the shark. They sold the fins to the Chinese, the bones to a button factory, and the skin to the tanneries. From the livers they extracted an excellent lubricant, misleadingly presented in shops as “whale oil.” If this weren’t enough, they salted the dogfish, newborn sharks, and advertised them as “boneless cod.”

All this meant that after some time the fishermen decided not to fish shark. If, while marlin-fishing, a shark was unintentionally hooked, the fishermen preferred to kill, quarter, and dump it in the sea rather than surrender it to the Company for 30 or 40 cents.

Naturally, Felipe’s conduct echoed that of his fellow fishermen. But, as he said sometimes, “Whatever will be . . ..” For three days he had been going to sea without pulling anything out of the water, not a snapper, not cecil, or even a crown—a horrible fish most often causing food poisoning, but which always had buyers amongst unscrupulous bottom feeders who would risk poisoning their customers in exchange for a few cents’ profit.

Then, suddenly, a shark came to circle his boat. It was a bull shark, fifteen feet long, with fins that were as big and wide as the sails of a two-masted ship. Felipe made an instinctive movement towards his harpoon. Then the memory that they were not allowed to fish shark reigned him in. So he started to contemplate the shark, resembling a dark, grey, flexible tree-trunk. This was a trunk alright, a big wide tree-trunk of fish. How much might he be worth? Felipe calculated that any Chinaman on Zanja Street would give him two pesos for his fins and tail. Indeed, he should just accept the two pesos, for the sea was offering it to him during his moment of extreme need. Two pesos signified three abundant meals for his malnourished children. But what about the police? And the agents of The Shark Fishing Company? Along the seawall, El Malecón, there were always a few of those malevolent scavengers waiting for fishermen’s boats, just in case one of them came back with a shark or fins. Sometimes they would just confiscate the catch, but not so infrequently, they would take it further and arrest the fisherman. Next, everybody knew, it was five pesos fine from the Judge of the Correctional Court, where one was not even allowed to speak in his own defense. No, in this case, there was no way to “make a deal” to get out of such a fix. There was no escape from poverty. Two pesos were, however, two pesos, even if, scraping everything they possessed together, his family could not even light a stove. In the end fishing was often a game of chance, and their luck did not always result from their effort. If only it were up to us, yes, the fish would just bite! And those fins just over there, within arm’s reach! It was as if they were screaming “Two pesos!” at him.

Before long, Felipe had made his decision. There were two pesos within his reach, what a Devil! Quickly, to keep the shark busy while he armed his harpoon, Felipe sprinkled a few thread herring, already turning rotten, a couple of white squirrel fish, a striper; all the rest of the bait fish that he had, aboard. The shark raised its rigid dorsal fins out of the water such that the sun flashed across its pale underbelly. He devoured one after the other, barely opening his steel jaws: the thread herring, the squirrel fish, the striper. After he had finished, he docilely submerged, but reappeared a few minutes later beside the stern of the boat.

The harpoon, shot accurately by Felipe, was abruptly stuck into the back of the shark’s neck, and he thrashed in convulsive tremors, while his tail whipped up a whirlwind of foam. Two mallet whacks to the head were sufficient to subdue him. Fifteen minutes later, his body had been stripped of its fins and tail, was sinking as it tumbled over itself, and became fodder for his fellows at the bottom of the sea. Only a fleeting star of blood remained in the place the mutilated body had been, like a silent reproach.

Having sewn the fins and tail with a bit of string, Felipe rowed now toward the coast. He had to dock along the seawall, El Malecón, as soon as possible, go quickly to Chinatown, and locate a buyer. Maybe he could make a deal with “Chan,” the owner of “El Cantón.” As a last resort, he might exchange the fins for provisions. Then appeared black doom wearing a blue uniform. Just after hitching his boat to the pier, he was startled by its rough metallic voice.

“You can’t deny that I caught you with your hands right in the cookie jar.”

Pivoting as his heart sank, he saw the policeman smiling at him cruelly and pointing his finger at the shark fins. After a short pause, he added:

“I am going to take them.”

He bent over to grab the fins, but didn’t reach them in time, for Felipe, moving swiftly forward, raised them in his lean right hand.

“They’re mine. . .mine,” he stammered instinctively.

Clashing with such surprising behavior, the policeman was, for an instant, stunned. But soon after, he reacted, eager to recover his threatened authority.

“Alright then, hand’m over, or I’ll run you in, fins and all.”

Felipe studied him more closely then. He was a man of cowardly stature, skinny, and awkward. His uncertain physique contrasted cruelly with the strident voice and the cocky attitude that he had assumed. Unintentionally Felipe contracted his chest and biceps. And a feeling of vigor and elasticity in his muscles told him “that clown isn’t half the snout of a man as me.”

Meanwhile, a chorus of curious onlookers had formed around Felipe and the policeman.

“Give them to me, or you are going to regret it.”

“Give them to him, Felipe,” recommended the insistent voice of an old fisherman with a coppery skin, then shifting his tone: “With a little luck, they’ll take’m straight to the doctor.”

Felipe felt the weight of countless eyes staring all around. His manly dignity rebelling against the unjustified humiliation, he sensed the mocking smiles and sarcastic comments from the witnesses at the scene, who had come to watch his dishonor. Besides that, the clear and tormenting recognition that he was suffering an intolerable injustice prompted his defiance: “Whatever will be, must be.”

“I am waiting. Are you going to give them to me or what?”

The policeman’s insistent voice was a jolt of anger and intimidation.

“Neither for you, nor for me,” announced Felipe, hastily yielding to a solution. Over his head, behind him, twirled the fins that he had thrown into the sea.

The policeman, trembling with anger, ordered Felipe to accompany him to the port authority. But Felipe, beside himself with rage and clinging to his dignity, refused arrest. No one present could find a solution to this predicament. Fortunately, an army officer approached and intervened. With a firm voice he told the policeman to calm down and Felipe to allow himself to be escorted to the harbormaster:

“The best thing to do would be to go. The patrolman has to carry out his duty.”

Felipe protested. He reasoned that this guard appeared eager to mistreat him.

“I am not going to go along with it. They want to whack me with a baton, ok? Great!”

But his reticence was an implicit threat.

In the end, they devised a compromise: he would allow himself to be arrested by the lieutenant instead of the policeman. The soldier, who was an unusually understanding man, agreed. The policeman accepted that solution, too, albeit with perceptible annoyance, for yielding to it meant diminishing his authority.

During the entire trip, until they arrived at the Port Authority, he was muttering threats to Felipe and from time to time feeding his hatred by staring right through him.


***


Now as Felipe walked toward the Malecón, he remembered all of it. He supposed that the policeman had not been satisfied. No, he had not been satisfied at all, and whenever he could, he would make him pay. It was a nasty business to get oneself into over a pair of fins.

Stopping at the shop at the corner of Cuba and Carteles Streets, he saw Congo’s father. He had agreed to go out to sea with his son, Congo, so he asked after him.

“Ehhh? He’s been at the beach for a while already!”

He picked up his pace. When he turned the corner after the Old Armory, his eyes widened with an image reflecting inside them, of a blue uniform standing erect, atop the Malecón. “A snag in our line!” he thought. “It must be the same patrolman.” He was inspired for a moment to return the way he came. It wasn’t that he was afraid, because he had no fear of anyone, or any thing, no man on land, nor bad weather at sea, as many who knew him could attest. No, he wasn’t afraid, “but the best thing was to avoid it.” The thought of fleeing, which flashed across his mind, embarrassed him though, and painted a red streak across his face. So he continued, renewing his step firmly, rigidly, almost with nervous tension, weighed heavily with anxiety and expectation.

In the next moment, he would discover that his feelings had not deceived him. There he was, the policeman from the incident, with his despotic and provocative air, strutting like a gallo (cock). Congo had already run the boat aground beside the Malecón, and he was putting the mast up to unfurl the sail. As he approached, Felipe noticed that the policeman was watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“. . .that’s nonsense,” said Congo, continuing his conversation with the policeman.

“Nonsense?” he said. “Not at all. I am the bull here. Look here he comes. The first move he makes, and I’ll give him four blows to the head.”

Felipe, irritated to the core by the policeman’s clumsy threat, felt an immediate desire to slap him, so that he would attempt to give him those “blows.”

Yet he contained himself:

“Leave me alone, buddy. Didn’t you have enough of me yesterday?”

“Alone?” his voice was sarcastic, sharp like the point of a boat hook. “Your only peace is going to come from my stick. You are going to get what’s coming to you when you least expect it. You saved yourself yesterday because of that lieutenant. . . But the first false move, I am going to give you four cracks with this club.”

Through focused application of his will, Felipe managed to control himself. Moving towards Congo, he complained, “Look at this curse on me, so early in the morning?”

The policeman mocked him, “Ah, now you’re an angel, eh? Now that there’s nobody here to defend you?”

There was so much sarcastic hatred in his voice that Felipe, losing his composure, felt compelled to leap forward:

“To defend myself from whom? . . .from you? from you!”

The sentence broke in his throat, ripped to pieces by his rage. A minute passed that seemed like a century. He tried to speak, but the anger knotted in his throat, was like a clot of blood, a thick coagulation preventing him from articulating another word. Then unable to speak, he had the distinct sensation that the officer would interpret the silence as cowardice. That idea shook him like a blow to the jaw. Then the clot rose from his throat to his eyes and from his eyes to his head. With blinded and stifled fury, he moved forward towards the policeman with raised fists.

A sharp detonation interrupted the morning quiet. Felipe, without warning, without understanding how or why, felt detained, then fell over the Malecón, with ship-wrecked eyes lost in the sky observing a long and shining cloud in contrast against the diaphanous blue. “It looks like mother-of-pearl,” he thought, remembering with extraordinary clarity the delicate shells that had decorated the years of his impoverished childhood. He picked them up carefully from the sea. Some were perfectly white; others were a more tender color, a marvelous pale rose. He had so many shells, innumerable shells, kept in cardboard boxes, mostly shoeboxes. “And now I have to buy shoes for the boys who have been walking around with bare feet on the ground.” This thought struck him, returning him to reality. In a dizzying succession of images, he then recalled his dispute with the police. That demon of a man, hellbent on his humiliation! Had he succeeded in hitting him? An unspeakable laziness, a pleasant, providential fatigue, relaxed his muscles. An indescribable sense of wellbeing was at long last putting him to sleep. Then he realized rudely that he was dying. It wasn’t laziness, or wellbeing, or tiredness, but life that was leaking out of him! He was dying! And he didn’t want to! He couldn’t! He shouldn’t. . .die! What would happen to his boys? He had to defend his life; that was his boys’ lives too. He would defend it with his hands, with his feet, and with his teeth. He had a desire to scream. His mouth remained silent. Mute, a muted mouth, as if it was already full of earth! But he was not yet dead … not yet dead! Like torture, he yearned to see his children. To see them. To see them if only for an instant! How were his children?! He tried to imagine his boys, but the image escaped him. It was blurred, fleeting. Then he heard in the distance—dulled by miles and miles of distance—Congo’s voice. And another. Other voices. What were they saying? He could not picture his children. He saw vague outlines, hazy like faded photographs. His leaden eyelids were closing. His mouth twisted with frantic longing. Finally, he was able to mumble:

“My. . .children. . .my. . .my. . .”

He shook abruptly in a violent tremor. Then he hung on, motionless and voiceless, still and silent, with his eyes against the sky. In his chest, just over the left nipple, he had a little red hole, barely perceptible, about the size of a dime.

Contributors

Enrique Serpa

Enrique Serpa (1900–1968) was born in Havana. A journalist, his first literary venture came in 1925 with the publication of Felisa and I in 1938, his book Contraband brought fame and recognition. A tireless reporter, cultural attaché of the Cuban Embassy in Paris between 1952 and 1959, Enrique Serpa was soon forgotten after the advent of Castro’s revolution and is little known outside of Cuba today.

Andrew Feldman

A former Marine officer, Andrew Feldman studied philosophy, literature, translation, and comparative literature at Tulane University, Norwich University, and the University of Paris IV, La Sorbonne. During a residence at the Hemingway Museum and Library in Cuba, he spent two years conducting research, resulting in the publication of Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

All Issues