The fog smothered the ocean, muting all colour and sound. It undulated and seethed as the first eddy of the morning breeze washed in towards the land. The trawler lay in the fog three miles offshore on the edge of the current line, where the vast upwellings from the oceanic depths, rich in life-bringing plankton, met the gentle inshore waters in a line of darker green.
Lothar De La Rey stood in the wheelhouse and leaned on the spoked wooden wheel as he peered out into the fog. He loved these quiet charged minutes of waiting in the dawn. He could feel the electric tingle starting in his blood, the lust of the huntsman that had sustained him countless times before, an addiction as powerful as opium or strong spirits.
Casting back in his mind he remembered that soft pink dawn creeping stealthily over the Magersfontein Hills as he lay against the parapets of the trenches and waited for the lines of Highland infantry to come in out of the darkness, to march with kilts swinging and bonnet ribbons fluttering onto their waiting Mausers, and his skin prickled with gooseflesh at the memory.
There had been a hundred other dawns since then, waiting like this to go out against great game – shaggy maned Kalahari lion, scabby old buffalo with heads of armoured horn, sagacious grey elephant with wrinkled hides and precious teeth of long ivory, but now the game was smaller than any other and yet in its multitudes as vast as the ocean from which it came.
His train of thought was interrupted as the boy came down the open deck from the galley. He was barefoot and his legs were long and brown and strong. He was almost as tall as a grown man, so he was forced to stoop through the wheelhouse door balancing a steaming tin mug of coffee in each hand.
‘Sugar?’ Lothar asked.
‘Four spoons, Pa.’ The boy grinned back at him.
The fog had condensed in dew droplets on his long eyelashes, and he blinked them away like a sleepy cat. Though his curling blond head was bleached to streaks of platinum by the sun, his eyebrows and lashes were dense and black; they framed and emphasized his amber-coloured eyes.
‘Wild fish today.’ Lothar crossed the fingers of his right hand in his trouser pocket to ward off the ill luck of having said it aloud. ‘We need it,’ he thought. ‘To survive we need good wild fish.’
Five years previously he had succumbed once more to the call of the hunter’s horn, to the lure of the chase and the wilds. He had sold out the prosperous road and railway construction company which he had painstakingly built up, taken everything he could borrow and gambled it all.
He had known the limitless treasures that the cold green waters of the Benguela Current hid. He had glimpsed them first during those chaotic final days of the Great War when he was making his last stand against the hated English and their traitorous puppet Jan Smuts at the head of his army of the Union of South Africa.
From a secret supply base among the tall desert dunes that flanked the South Atlantic, Lothar had refuelled and armed the German U-boats that were scourging the British mercantile fleets, and while he waited out those dreary days at the edge of the ocean for the submarines to come, he had seen the very ocean moved by its own limitless bounty. It was there merely for the taking, and in the years that followed that ignoble peace at Versailles he made his plans while he laboured in the dust and the heat, blasting and cleaving the mountain passes or driving his roads straight across the shimmering plains. He had saved and planned and schemed for this taking.
The boats he had found in Portugal, sardine trawlers, neglected and rotten. There he had found Da Silva also, old and wise in the ways of the sea. Between them they had repaired and re-equipped the four ancient trawlers and then with skeleton crews had sailed them southwards down the length of the African continent.
The canning factory he had found in California, sited there to exploit the tuna shoals by a company which had overestimated their abundance and underestimated the costs of catching these elusive unpredictable ‘chicken of the sea’. Lothar had purchased the factory for a small fraction of its original cost and shipped it out to Africa in its entirety. He had re-erected it on the compacted desert sands alongside the ruined and abandoned whaling station which had given the desolate bay its name of Walvis Bay.
For the first three seasons he and old Da Silva had found wild fish, and they had reaped the endless shoals until Lothar had paid off the loans that had fettered him. He had immediately ordered new boats to replace the decrepit Portuguese trawlers which had reached the end of their useful lives, and in so doing had plunged himself more deeply into debt than he had been at the outset of the venture.
Then the fish had gone. For no reason that they could divine, the huge shoals of pilchards had disappeared, only tiny scattered pockets remaining. While they searched futilely, running out to sea a hundred miles and more, scouring the long desert coastline far beyond economic range from the canning factory, the months marched past remorselessly, each one bringing a note for accrued interest that Lothar could not meet, and the running costs of factory and boats piled up so that he had to plead and beg for further loans.
Two years with no fish. Then dramatically, just when Lothar knew himself beaten, there had been some subtle shift in the ocean current or a change in the prevailing wind and the fish had returned, good wild fish, rising thick as new grass in each dawn.
‘Let it last,’ Lothar prayed silently, as he stared out into the fog. ‘Please God, let it last.’ Another three months, that was all he needed, just another three short months and he would pay it off and be free again.
‘She’s lifting,’ the boy said, and Lothar blinked and shook his head slightly, returning from his memories.
The fog was opening like a theatre curtain, and the scene it revealed was melodramatic and stagey, seemingly too riotously coloured to be natural as the dawn fumed and glowed like a display of fireworks, orange and gold and green where it sparkled on the ocean, turning the twisting columns of fog the colour of blood and roses so that the very waters seemed to burn with unearthly fires. The silence enhanced the magical show, a silence heavy and lucid as crystal so that it seemed they had been struck deaf, as though all their other senses had been taken from them and concentrated in their vision as they stared in wonder.
Then the sun struck through, a brilliant beam of solid golden light through the roof of the fogbank. It played across the surface, so that the current line was starkly lit. The inshore water was smudged with cloudy blue, as calm and smooth as oil. The line where it met the upwelling of the true oceanic current was straight and sharp as the edge of a knifeblade, and beyond it the surface was dark and ruffled as green velvet stroked against the pile.
‘Daar spring hy!’ Da Silva yelled from the foredeck, pointed out to the line of dark water ‘There he jumps!’
As the low sun struck the water a single fish jumped. It was just a little longer than a man’s hand, a tiny sliver of burnished silver.
‘Start up!’ Lothar’s voice was husky with excitement, and the boy flung his mug onto the chart-table, the last few drops of coffee splashing, and dived down the ladderway to the engine-room below.
Lothar flipped on the switches and set the throttle as below him the boy stooped to the crankhandle.
‘Swing it!’ Lothar shouted down and the boy braced himself and heaved against the compression of all four cylinders. He was not quite thirteen years old but already he was almost as strong as a man, and there was bulging muscle in his back as he worked.
‘Now!’ Lothar closed the valves, and the engine, still warm from the run out from the harbour, fired and caught and roared. There was a belch of oily black smoke from the exhaust port in the side of the hull and then she settled to a regular beat.
The boy scrambled up the ladder and shot out onto the deck, racing up into the bows beside Da Silva.
Lothar swung the bows over and they ran down on the current line. The fog blew away, and they saw the other boats. They, too, had been lying quietly in the fogbank, waiting for the first rays of the sun, but now they were running down eagerly on the current line, their wakes cutting long rippling Vs across the placid surface and the bow waves creaming and flashing in the new sunlight. Along each rail the crews craned out to peer ahead, and the jabber of their excited voices carried above the beat of the engines.
From the glassed wheelhouse Lothar had an all-round view over the working areas of the fifty-foot trawler and he made one final check of the preparations. The long net was laid out down the starboard rail, the corkline coiled into meticulous spirals. The dry weight of the net was seven and a half tons, wet it would weigh many times heavier. It was five hundred feet long and in the water hung down from the cork floats like a gauzy curtain seventy feet deep. It had cost Lothar over five thousand pounds, more money than an ordinary fisherman would earn in twenty years of unremitting toil, and each of his other three boats was so equipped. From the stern, secured by a heavy painter, each trawler towed its ‘bucky’, an eighteen-foot-long clinker-built dinghy.
With one long hard glance, Lothar satisfied himself that all was ready for the throw, and then looked ahead just as another fish jumped. This time it was so close that he could see the dark lateral lines along its gleaming flank, and the colour difference – ethereal green above the line and hard gleaming silver below. Then it plopped back, leaving a dark dimple on the surface.
As though it was a signal, instantly the ocean came alive. The waters turned dark as though suddenly shaded by heavy cloud, but this could was from below, rising up from the depths, and the waters roiled as though a monster moved beneath them.
‘Wild fish!’ screamed Da Silva, turning his weathered and creased brown face back over his shoulder towards Lothar, and at the same time spreading his arms to take in the sweep of ocean which moved with fish.
A mile wide and so deep that its far edge was hidden in the lingering fogbanks, a single dark shoal lay before them. In all the years as a hunter, Lothar had never seen such an accumulation of life, such a multitude of a single species. Beside this the locusts that could curtain and block off the African noon sun and the flocks of tiny quelea birds whose combined weight broke the boughs from the great trees on which they roosted, were insignificant. Even the crews of the racing trawlers fell silent and stared in awe as the shoal broke the surface and the waters turned white and sparkled like a snow bank; countless millions of tiny scaly bodies caught the sunlight as they were lifted clear of the water by the press of an infinity of their own kind beneath them.
Da Silva was the first to rouse himself. He turned and ran back down the deck, quick and agile as a youth, pausing only at the door of the wheelhouse. ‘Maria, Mother of God, grant we still have a net when this day ends.’
It was a poignant warning and then the old man ran to the stern and scrambled over the gunwale into the trailing dinghy while at his example the rest of the crew roused themselves and hurried to their stations.
‘Manfred!’ Lothar called his son, and the boy who had stood mesmerized in the bows bobbed his head obediently and ran back to his father.
‘Take the wheel.’ It was an enormous responsibility for one so young, but Manfred had proved himself so many times before that Lothar felt no misgiving as he ducked out of the wheelhouse. In the bows he signalled without looking over his shoulder and he felt the deck cant beneath his feet as Manfred spun the wheel, following his father’s signal to begin a wide circle around the shoal.
‘So much fish,’ Lothar whispered. As his eyes estimated distance and wind and current, old Da Silva’s warning was in the forefront of his calculations: the trawler and its net could handle 150 tons of these nimble silver pilchards, with skill and luck perhaps 200 tons.
Before him lay a shoal of millions of tons of fish. An injudicious throw could fill the net with ten or twenty thousand tons whose weight and momentum could rip the mesh to tatters, might even tear the entire net loose, snapping the main cork line or pulling the bollards from the deck and dragging it down into the depths. Worse still, if the lines and bollards held, the trawler might be pulled over by the weight and capsize. Lothar might lose not only a valuable net but the boat and the lives of his crew and his son as well.
Involuntarily he glanced over his shoulder and Manfred grinned at him through the window of the wheelhouse, his face alight with excitement. With his dark amber eyes glowing and white teeth flashing, he was an image of his mother and Lothar felt a bitter pang before he turned back to work.
Those few moments of inattention had nearly undone Lothar. The trawler was rushing down on the shoal, within moments it would drive over the mass of fish and they would sound; the entire shoal, moving in that mysterious unison as though it were a single organism, would vanish back into the ocean depths. Sharply he signalled the turn away, and the boy responded instantly. The trawler spun on its heel and they bore down the edge of the shoal, keeping fifty feet off, waiting for the opportunity.
Another quick glance around showed Lothar that his other skippers were warily backing off also, daunted by the sheer mass of pilchards they were circling. Swart Hendrick glared across at him, a huge black bull of a man with his bald head shining like a cannonball in the early sunlight. Companion of war and a hundred desperate endeavours, like Lothar he had readily made the transition from land to sea and now was as skilled a fisherman as once he had been a hunter of ivory and of men. Lothar flashed him the underhand cut-out signal for ‘caution’ and ‘danger’ and Swart Hendrick laughed soundlessly and waved an acknowledgement.
Gracefully as dancers, the four boats weaved and pirouetted around the massive shoal as the last shreds of the fog dissolved and blew away on the light breeze. The sun cleared the horizon and the distant dunes of the desert glowed like bronze fresh from the forge, a dramatic backdrop to the developing hunt.
Still the massed fish held its compact formation, and Lothar was becoming desperate. They had been on the surface for over an hour now and that was longer than usual. At any moment they might sound and vanish, and not one of his boats had thrown a net. They were thwarted by abundance, beggars in the presence of limitless treasure, and Lothar felt a recklessness rising in him. He had waited too long already.
‘Throw, and be damned!’ he thought, and signalled Manfred in closer, narrowing his eyes against the glare as they turned into the sun.
Before he could commit himself to folly, he heard Da Silva whistle, and when he looked back the Portuguese was standing on the thwart of the dinghy and gesticulating wildly. Behind them the shoal was beginning to bulge. The solid circular mass was altering shape. Out of it grew a tentacle, a pimple, no, it was more the shape of a head on a thin neck as part of the shoal detached itself from the main body. This was what they had been waiting for.
‘Manfred!’ Lothar yelled and windmilled his right arm. The boy spun the wheel, and she came around and they went tearing back, aiming the bows at the neck of the shoal like the blade of an executioner’s axe.
‘Slow down!’ Lothar flapped his hand and the trawler checked. Gently she nosed up to the narrow neck of the shoal. The water was so clear that Lothar could see the individual fish, each encapsulated in its rainbow of prismed sunlight, and beneath the dark green bulk of the rest of the shoal as dense as an iceberg.
Delicately Lothar and Manfred eased the trawler’s bows into the living mass, the propeller barely turning so as not to alarm it and force it to sound. The narrow neck split before the bows, and the small pocket of fish that was the bulge detached itself. Like a sheepdog with its flock, Lothar worked them clear, backing and turning and easing ahead as Manfred followed his hand signals.
‘Still too much!’ Lothar muttered to himself. They had separated a minute portion of the shoal from the main body, but Lothar estimated it was still well over a thousand tons – even more depending on the depth of fish beneath that he could only guess at.
It was a risk, a high risk. From the corner of his eye he could see Da Silva agitatedly signalling caution, and now he whistled, squeaking with agitation. The old man was afraid of this much fish and Lothar grinned; his yellow eyes narrowed and glittered like polished topaz as he signalled Manfred up to throwing speed and deliberately turned his back on the old man.
At five knots he checked Manfred and brought him around in a tight turn, forcing the pocket of fish to bunch up in the centre of the circle, and then as they came around the second time and the trawler passed downwind of the shoal, Lothar spun to face the stern and cupped both hands to his mouth.
‘Los!’ he bellowed. ‘Throw her loose!’
The black Herero crewman standing on the stern flipped the slippery knot that held the painter of the dinghy and threw it overboard. The little wooden dinghy, with Da Silva clinging to the gunwale and still howling protests, fell away behind them, bobbing in their wake, and it pulled the end of the heavy brown net over the side with it.
As the trawler steamed in its circle about the shoal, the coarse brown mesh rasped and hissed out over the wooden rail, the cork line uncoiled like a python and streamed over-side, an umbilical cord between the trawler and the dinghy. Coming around across the wind, the line of corks, evenly spaced as beads on a string, formed a circle around the dense dark shoal and now the dinghy with Da Silva slumped in resignation was dead ahead.
Manfred balanced the wheel against the drag of the great net, making minute adjustments as he laid the trawler alongside the rocking dinghy and shut the throttle as they touched lightly. Now the net was closed, hemming in the shoal, and Da Silva scrambled up the side of the trawler with the ends of the heavy three-inch manila lines over his shoulder.
‘You’ll lose your net,’ he howled at Lothar. ‘Only a crazy man would close the purse on this shoal – they’ll run away with your net. St Anthony and the blessed St Mark are my witnesses–’ But under Lothar’s terse direction the Herero crewmen were already into the routine of net recovery. Two of them lifted the main cork line off Da Silva’s shoulders and made it fast, while another was helping Lothar lead the purse line to the main winch.
‘It’s my net, and my fish,’ Lothar grunted at him as he started the winch with a clattering roar. ‘Get the bucky hooked on!’
The net was hanging seventy feet deep into the clear green water, but the bottom was open. The first and urgent task was to close it before the shoal discovered this escape. Crouched over the winch, the muscles in his bare arms knotting and bunching beneath the tanned brown skin, Lothar was swinging his shoulders rhythmically as he brought the purse line in hand over hand around the revolving drum of the winch. The purse line running through the steel rings around the bottom of the net was closing the mouth like the drawstring of a monstrous tobacco pouch.
In the wheelhouse Manfred was using delicate touches of forward and reverse to manoeuvre the stern of the trawler away from the net and prevent it fouling the propeller, while old Da Silva had worked the dinghy out to the far side of the cork line and hooked onto it to provide extra buoyancy for the critical moment when the oversized shoal realized that it was trapped and began to panic. Working swiftly, Lothar hauled in the heavy purse line until at last the bunch of steel rings came in glistening and streaming over the side. The net was closed, the shoal was in the bag.
With sweat running down his cheeks and soaking his shirt, Lothar leaned against the gunwale so winded that he could not speak. His long silver-white hair, heavy with sweat, streamed down over his forehead and into his eyes as he gesticulated to Da Silva.
The cork line was laid out in a neat circle on the gentle undulating swells of the cold green Benguela Current, with the bucky hooked onto the side farthest from the trawler. But as Lothar watched it, gasping and heaving for breath, the circle of bobbing corks changed shape, elongating swiftly as the shoal felt the net for the first time and in a concerted rush pushed against it. Then the thrust was reversed as the shoal turned and rushed back, dragging the net and the dinghy with it as though it were a scrap of floating seaweed.