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Fish Story.

by Tiel Aisha Ansari
  

March 7, 2003

The rising sun's rays stretch across the Mekong Delta. In the distance, where flat land meets only slightly flatter sea, something throws a long shadow to the west. It is a metal hulk, half sunk in the mud and listing to one side—a hard-edged, alien presence in this hazy, watery terrain: a wrecked fishing trawler.

Villagers trudge across the mud flats and climb aboard the rusty hulk. The hull is badly breached, there's no question of ever getting it to float again. But these people have lived with the sea forever, and they're wise in the ways of salvage. There may be useful machinery aboard; if they can't move it, perhaps they can strip it for parts. If they can get cutting torches down here, they'll sell the hull for scrap metal.

The young men clamber up the side of the hull and swing themselves over the railing and onto the deck. One of them pauses and points mutely. The wooden rail is deeply hacked, and there are dark stains on the deck nearby. There's been murder done aboard this ship, and not too long ago.

The men gather together and murmur worriedly. Someone mentions the authorities; there's a general shaking of heads. Someone mutters about pirates. Someone else whispers about the vengeance of hungry ghosts, and the men huddle closer, eyeing the empty wheelhouse and the yawning hatches nervously.

They've sent for the bonze already, of course; he presides over every important event in the life of the village. He arrives accompanied by two young shaven-headed monks. It's been a long time since the bonze needed to shave his head, but he swings aboard the ship as spryly as any of the young fishermen. He looks around, listens to the villagers, thinks a moment.

"Pray for the souls of the dead," he tells them. "Offer rice and paper money. Explain that we are poor people and that we need the things on this ship more than they do. Be generous, and promise to remember them."

Encouraged, the men proceed to explore the wreck. It's been mostly stripped already, but there's scrap metal aplenty. In one of the holds, the villagers find a net—a huge purse seine, the kind that drowns dolphins, fathoms and fathoms of it all folded over, damp and reeking.

They can't use it; the mesh is so big, most of the fish they eat would slip right through it. This net is obviously meant for really big fish. And so they decide to sell it upriver, to people who have a use for it.

Icon: trawler.

March 5, 2003

It's the peak of the longtail tuna season in the South China Sea, and the captain and crew of the trawler are not happy. Their holds are almost empty. It isn't really their fault. Finding tuna has always been something of a crapshoot.

Tuna are top-level predators—they follow the herds. You find them where the water temperatures are just right, where there's a strong thermocline, where upwelling waters bring nutrients from deep in the ocean that feed rich communities of plankton and small fish. Monsoon winds, currents, the peculiar and intricate topography of the ocean floor—all play a part.

It's the weather that seems to be causing the problem. Here in the oughts, rain doesn't fall when it should and causes floods when it does; winds blow backwards, or too strong, or not at all. Ocean currents that used to flow strong and straight are starting to meander uncertainly. And the fish? Who knows what they're doing. Generations of fishermen who've lived and died on these seas knew where to find the schools, but all that accumulated knowledge, passed down from father to son to grandson, is rapidly becoming useless.

Of course the crew isn't all local; far from it. There are fifteen men on this trawler; among them, they speak thirteen milk languages and anywhere from thirty to fifty tongues with some fluency. It’s a Scandinavian, a towhead with a Eugene O’Neill accent, who comes to wake the captain in the middle of the night.

Outside the wheelhouse, they find the international observer sprawled in a pool of his own blood. The observer's been their particular albatross this season. By law, every fishing vessel in the area is supposed to get an observer when it gets its license; but there are never enough observers, so in theory they're assigned randomly. In practice, you get an observer if you can't pay the bribe.

And what does an observer do? Makes sure you keep to the standards set by the myriad accords that govern fishing in international waters. The big issue this trip has been setting seines on dolphins. Because where you find dolphins, you often find tuna below; and if you set the seine, and let the cork line at the top sink, most of the dolphins will escape while the deeper-swimming tuna are still trapped. At least, that's the theory. The observer says this is bunk, and refused to let them set seines anywhere near dolphins. But they've had no luck finding tuna any other way, and the first thought through the captain's mind when he sees the murdered observer is not, Who did it? but rather, I'm surprised it took this long. Followed immediately by, What do we do now?

Things like this have happened before, and the captain knows how it'll go; violence against the observers cannot be tolerated. There's a lot riding on these accords. Trade embargoes, international political favors, mineral rights to the Spratlys... it's all related, quid pro quo. So there’s no chance the murder can be covered up. The smart thing to do would be to head for the nearest port and give himself and his men up. Three or four weeks in a Thai or Malay jail, and someone’ll crack, rat out the killer, and the rest of them should be free to walk.

Except the captain reckons he’ll be dead by then. The American investor who owns the ship made it clear, the one time he and the captain met, that he doesn’t want any official inquiry into his doings. (Cheap bastard wouldn’t pay the bribe that would have kept the observer off his ship, though.) The captain’s much more afraid of the American than he is of the authorities; and that’s why he and his men decide to wreck the ship on a deserted stretch of coastline and take their chances ashore.

Icon: trawler.

August 2001

The shipping business is full of dodgy customers. The sales agent has seen his share, he’s been in the business for a while. This American, now; he’s certainly eccentric, but the gold sample he sent the firm tested out pure. Dealing in such large quantities of gold bullion is terribly inconvenient, but the shipping firm the agent works for is nearly bankrupt, and the purchase the American is making is large enough to rescue it at least for a while.

But the American insists that the transaction be carried out at sea, aboard a vessel moored in international waters. This is not calculated to make the agent feel secure. But he has no real choice. Fortunately, the American was accomodating about the agent's request for "companions." But the two men the agent hired (out of his own pocket—his employers don't seem to share his anxiety) prove scant comfort when the agent steps aboard. The men scattered about the deck are not a reassuring lot, they're heavily, openly armed, and they ignore his presence ostentatiously.

Surprisingly, the transaction goes off without a hitch. The American is the soul of courtesy. He lets the agent inspect and count the gold without any sign of offense or impatience. Encouraged by his host's unexpected good nature, the agent hints about future business. Electronic funds transfers, he notes, can facilitate this sort of thing immensely...

"I don't use electronic funds," says the American, "And I prefer that my money change hands at sea."

The agent senses he's committed a breach of discretion, and shuts up. Eccentric doesn't completely describe the customer; the man's sending chills down his back. What kind of businessman doesn't use electronic funds, in the twenty-first century? Why on earth go to the trouble of loading all this gold aboard a ship and bringing it halfway around the world, exposed to all the risks of storm, shipwreck, piracy? (Though he's in a nominally nautical business, the agent is a landlubber at heart.)

Best not to ask. Definitely best not to ask what use will be made of the ships after they're sold; the agent glimpsed some plans on the American's desk, and they didn't look like any specs for fishing vessels that he's ever seen. So the agent gets on with business. The gold gets loaded to the agent's lighter, and the American signs on the dotted line, just as promised. The last the agent sees of the American, he's standing at the railing waving goodbye; the agent isn't sure, but he thinks the American is leaning rather heavily on the railing, as if he's suddenly feeling ill.

Icon: trawler.

Eternity

My name was Edward Teach. You know of me as Blackbeard.

It’s all very simple, you see. I made a deal. I can be a pirate forever, as long as I remain forever a pirate.

Every coin I spend on land, or on landly purposes, weakens my hold on the world. Every dollar that goes into legal business costs me life.

In this day, it's hard to hide what I am. I have to be able to appear what I’m not; a respectable ship-owning businessman. Hence the purchase of the fishing fleet: a move that left me dangerously weak, spending so much money legitimately. Of course the gold was ill-gotten, the last of my old Caribbean treasures stashed away against such a need. The blood that was spilled to amass the hoard helped turn aside the effects of doing that much virtuous business, as I calculated. Still, it was a near thing.

I kept a few vessels in the fishing business, enough to deflect any casual inquiry into the state of my fortunes. Camouflage for the rest they are; for my lovely smugglers, running drugs and weapons under the noses of the Powers, picking up refugees and drowning them at sea, hijacking oil tankers and bleeding them of their precious cargo where no law-abiding man will ever see. And every cent they earn me, every crime they commit with only the bitch sea to witness, feeds me and makes me strong.

For all my strength, I fear my days are numbered now. It's grown harder and harder to dispose of my cargoes and turn them to cash. Hardly anyone deals in cash anymore; what they call money now is a ghost, an idea, a thought. The times, these times that seem to offer so much opportunity to normal men, narrow in on me. Banks are closed to me, of course. I have to keep most of my fortune afloat. Liquid assets: I'd laugh—if I remembered how.

My name was Edward Teach. Remember me as Blackbeard.

  

Tiel Aisha Ansari is new writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a Sufi, ecologist, and martial artist.
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