An entry in the 2016 Crocodile Prize
WE GATHERED the fishing nets and folded them neatly like clothes. We took the paddles and pegs, carried them onto the canoe and emptied the hulls with a cut-off four-litre container.
Our skipper lifted the container filled with salt water, sipped a little, then faced the east and listened to the invisible wind.
Thereafter, he looked at the sun’s eye and shadowed his forehead with his hands before getting on his knees and whispering a fishing prayer, made loud in the stillness of time.
“Galeva!” he said. A crew of four males, we headed to the ocean like leaving home for war somewhere far away.
She was beautiful with her skin in white and red stripes caressing each pleasing wave. Oredae, her name, rocking on the sea like a mother swaying her baby in a bilum.
We paddled and sang choruses of the old men’s fishing tales as the birds of the sky glided and fussed overhead.
We were kings of the fish but somehow servants of the sea, for the winds carried our spirits at the forefront. We journeyed along Bootless Bay and sighted the ever-smiling Loloata resting in its white sandy beaches and its sailing machines silent by the jetty. It was wonderful.
We arrived at the site just as the sun had tilted. Oh, our skipper, his five senses at work along with fine judgement, mother nature’s gift to man, looked at the clear blue sea and quietly said this is it, this is the place.
We tied the floaters to either end of the net and planted sets into the sea whilst the skipper engineered the right positions with light paddling. We could hear the leads bumping as they hit the sandy bottom below.
We silently echoed words of harvest with each passing set. Our hands were like conveyor belts switched on without question. And if the net slightly, accidently tangled, it was soon restored by a verbal bashing from the skipper.
We travelled 200 meters before dropping the last floater. The weather remained fine, home was not in sight but, immersed in our task, we had no reason to look back. This was a fishing trip not a playful matter where we could exercise our mischief at our own discretion. These were worthy moments I treasured with the skipper.
From the last floater, we continued onward with occasional sudden splashes on the sea from the long peg. With our hands and paddles, we made drumming beats on the floor of Oredae.
At each splash, the skipper would call out the phrase “Ah, Galeva ena kara!” [Oh, Galeva’s deeds like these!]. He would repeat this three or four times depending on the response of the waves. It was as if the sea was speaking to the skipper.
Soon after, we started to pull back from where the last floater had been placed. It was a three-man job, so we would take turns at each fifty metres as continuous bending would result in severe back pain.
The moment the first fish was sighted, we rejoiced by calling its name. How beautiful was it to see the colours emerging from the dark water. We whistled and made noises as each catch bade farewell to its home.
In that moment we would converse but still pay careful attention to the net. If a set was hooked by an object, stone or coral, a diver was needed. Each of us looked at each to consider who might err and commit this nerve-wracking blunder. We were so damn scared that it failed to occur.
Travelling back home was the best part of the trip. We carefully removed the fish from the net and placed them into the dug-out.
Just before we reached the bay, we stopped to clean the nets. Whilst doing this, we listened to the skipper delivering the laws and traditions and meanings of our fishing heritage.
By the time we arrived home, the sight of those who came to the garden with our grandparents granted us more happiness.
Now the fish went straight to the fireplace to join the tapioca and bananas from the garden.
It was not long before the smoked fish got married to our taste buds.
I recall, I so clearly remember, this Senemai tradition.