Marcelo closes one eye and turns his head like he’s trying to focus on the stern of his boat. Blue plastic twine ties together bottles about the deck and lies in piles in a produce crate. A primitive looking spear – 4-meter wooden handle with an oversized offset worm hook – and a small trawl net rest atop a dirty yellow fuel barrel. His daughter, Constanza, tilts the barrel to see what’s left – it’s nearly empty. They’ll have to catch 20 more kilos of fish to pay for more gasoline.
The water reflects the sun, and Constanza wipes her brow with a stained white bandana, leaving a streak of grime across her forehead. She stands four foot ten, maybe five feet and limps when she walks. On the left side of her face stretches a starfish shaped scar, shockingly pink against her tawny skin. It could be a burn, a characteristic gloss over a wrinkled texture-but it’s hard to imagine how a burn could leave such a definite shape. Or how they’d afford the medical care for such a serious injury. Or if there’s even a hospital in this region of the remote Patagonian Chonos Islands.
Her father’s not much bigger. Half of his right middle finger is cut off, a stump among the knobby tree trunks. His navy baseball cap perches atop his pumpkin shaped head and his granite colored hair sticks out like ruffled feathers. Letting the rusty steel chain slide through his grip, he lowers an anchor into the sea. He tilts the forest green motor onto the deck so the propellers are out of the water. Seaweed sticks to them – it looks like a feathered fascinator hat.
For most of the year they live on the water, just the two of them. Fishing has been the family livelihood for generations; Marcelo’s father worked from the same boat. At the water line, its rusted hull bears two flaking yellow stripes like the lines on a two-way street. Navidad, the Spanish word for Christmas, is written on the port side in uneven print. Clouds expand across the sky like bread dough rising in fast forward. Small ripples rock their home as a soft breeze moves the air down the channel. Above 200 meters of ocean, the six meters of aluminum feels flimsy. I can’t imagine trying to sleep in Navidad’s hull during a storm. Patagonia’s winds and rain are infamous.
Marcelo and Costanza work for a congrio distributor who collects their catch every two weeks from Isla Toto. If they don’t catch the minimum kilograms of fish, they don’t receive a paycheck. Each fish must meet the distributor’s size requirements, so a lot of what’s caught is thrown back. Fuel is so expensive that even when they do catch enough, they can just barely cover food.
We take his fish, the one that could be the difference between dinner and no dinner for them. They beam. We are embarrassed.
But nothing has been biting. In the past three days they caught one fish that met the standards. They insist we take it. We try to refuse. Marcelo becomes offended that we don’t accept his gift. We take his fish – the one that could make the difference between dinner and no dinner for them. They beam. We are embarrassed. The fish lays on the bow of my kayak, snake-like and metallic against the orange fiberglass, dead.
Days later we see them again. Digging through food bags, we search for any gift to return their generosity. It is a futile effort – a toucan trying to hide in an ice field. Three bags of mate, a chocolate chip pancake, some wheatberries? The banality of our efforts is obvious. But Marcelo smiles his gummy smile and clasps his knobbed hands together in excitement, thanking us repeatedly.
Their boat pulls away, exhaust clouding our view of them. A thin mist rests atop the still water. They continue to wave. Disappearing into the fog, the boat gets smaller and smaller and harder to see. It vanishes completely, but we can still follow the small wake trailing the boat as it drifts into the channel. They’re off to the other side of Canal Moraleda in hopes of more action. With eleven days to catch 40 fish, they need to keep moving.
Photo by Kathryn Sall
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.