Along the seaside promenade, the air smelled of diesel and salt water. Beneath it, fishermen cast their lot under the shade of the embankment. Some sat on foldable chairs or stood with a leg up on the ledge for leverage. Others squatted on upturned buckets. Occasionally, a fishing rod tilted up toward the sky, drawing out the odd sardine or sand smelt, twitching long and thin like insectile feelers probing the air over the waters. More often, they dangled empty of catch. Early walkers gazed curiously over the balustrade at the fishermen below.
Around noon, one fisherman was hauling out a little silvery sardine every three or four minutes. He was dressed in corduroy slacks and a yellow sweater, despite the warm air. With each catch, the fisherman unhooked the fish and tossed it into his bucket, tied a fresh bait, and angled the long surf rod back into the water. One of the other fishermen noticed his punctuated rhythm. What are you baiting with? he asked, but the fisherman just shrugged. Yesterday’s dollar, he muttered to himself.
After about an hour, his pace slowed down, as if his corner of the sea dried up. A young fisherman along the waterfront called out to him: What do you think Ringo? I think rain, Ringo replied. I don’t see it, said the young fisherman. I don’t see it, but I smell it, Ringo said.
Sure enough, later that afternoon the sky darkened along the horizon and the wind picked up. The waves grew white, frothy, belligerent. The fishermen packed up their gear, wrapped up their rods and carried their baskets of bait and the day’s puny haul. A few lingered, trying their luck with the change of seas. Eventually the wind got to be so that they were getting washed in mist. They discarded the remaining bait, along with their incessant flies, into the sea.
Get some coffee at the shack? Ringo yelled to the young fisherman. What do you say Bilal? The waves crashed higher and the wind shook the dust off the palm fronds and combed the promenade with sprays of seawater.
Mercy, said Bilal, as they filed down the walkway. A swirl of flotsam that had been caught in an undercurrent between the rocks sloshed up onto the sidewalk.
Half a mile down the promenade, an iron stairway led down to a concrete shack with a corrugated metal roof. It straddled a rocky promontory where the shoreline curved into a panoramic view of the seashore. Inside the shack some of the fishermen crowded around a backgammon board and drank coffee. It was elbows to eyebrows between those standing and seated. The shackmaster, a grizzled man with a tar-stained mustache, brought another kettle of coffee on a tray with a bowl of salted lupin beans. Treat yourselves, he said, and placed them down on the only other table in the house.
The clouds off the coast bled grayly downwards. The rain made landfall and came with a furious frequency, forming gullets of water on the ground.
Ringo sat on his bucket by the window, cup in hand. He held the cup with the entirety of his palm, like a chalice. The window shutter rattled and slapped against the outer wall. He hummed something to himself and rapped his fingernails on the bottom of his bucket. The window shutters swung back out and hit the outer walls of the shack, and he drummed on his bucket in counterpoint. Bilal started rapping on the back of his chair in concert. Two more fishermen joined in, one with his bucket and another on a coffee urn. The shutters tapped and the fishermen rapped, a syncopated pattern that grew louder until the sound of the torrent outside was little more than white noise.
Ringo suddenly halted his beat. A call was sounded around the room to cease the drumming. Listen forth, they called. Ringo tucked his head down and started speaking, a sing-song lilt of zajal poetry.
Your granddad’s sherwal, dear granddad,
Long since passed the fashion fad.
Stitched and tattered since yonder time
Stitched to hold his sagging ‘nads!
The room erupted in a chorus of repetition. Then everyone started drumming again. With each new stanza from the fisher-poet, the room went quiet until the turnaround line; then everyone echoed the rhyme once more before resuming the drumming.
Love ebbs and flows like economic climes,
Heart grows fonder with clock’s a-chime.
For lost love, echoes of another time,
Yesterday’s dollar, tomorrow’s dime.
On his fifth round, a heavy thud sounded from the roof. Something both dull and substantial. It’s hailing, said one fisherman. The thuds came hard and heavy. What kind of hail is that? asked one. They gathered at the windows.
Rainwater ran rivers down the road, sluices overflowed, cars swallowed by the rising crash of surf. Palm fronds defeated over the balustrade. Street lights flickered spasmodically.
Red mullets, black seabream, spotted seabass, dusky groupers. Splashing in pools of standing water, writhing atop parked cars, slapping on the accumulating bodies of picarel, mackerel, combers and bogues, red porgies and sand smelts sliding off hakes and bonitos, flute fish twirling off balcony rails, rainbow wrasse impaled on scorpionfish, amberjacks mouthing mute protests. The seaside promenade was swamped in a convulsive catalogue of piscean specimens.
The besieged fishermen looked at one another, faces awestruck, heads shaking. The shackmaster was smiling. When the hail ceased, the absence of noise gave the sound of the rain a soothing shush. Beyond the confines of the shack, the promenade was now awash with fish. Seriously Ringo, what do you bait with? Said Bilal. Laughter briefly erupted. Someone tried to get the drumming started again, but the spell was broken, and the fishermen dissipated into their own thoughts.
By the following day, the storm had subsided. The skies were overcast. All along the promenade the air reeked of diesel and putrefaction. A robust cleanup operation was underway. Municipal workers were unclogging sluices and repairing wires. Sanitary workers were shoveling fish off the streets. Policemen were directing traffic. People walked about looking at the fish curiously.
Ringo slung his bucket by hand, rod over his shoulder. He wove his steps through the fish on the ground. I should maybe trade my rod for a rifle, he thought.
He eased down the steps onto the platform at the foot of the embankment. He pulled back the worn out cuffs of his yellow sweater up to his elbows, drew out a silvery sardine from his bucket, tied it to the hook, angled the rod back, and cast the line up at the sky.
Mario Jamal lives in Beirut, where he writes short works of fiction, poetry, and an experimental blog called Hana’s Lemons.