Fishing In Honduras.
I saw things for the first time.
“Hey boy. You, boy! Come over here. Don’t be afraid.” The small window had thick bars covering, no screen, the prisoner’s face all but filled the opening, the whites of his eyes held a sharp stain of red to them.
“Where do you sleep?”
He chuckled, “on the floor my boy, the wood is soft but there are too many mosquitos.” He scratched a scraggly beard and added: “my boy, my boy, you will bring me food? Yes?”
“Okay, I will after.” My eight-year-old priorities had sorted out that first came my fishing.
“Oh yes, oh yes, thank you, my boy, what is your name, canche?” His question knocked on the door of inner parameters established through my parents’ upbringing. I wasn’t sure of the rightness of giving him my name. One never knows…”
“My name is Sherlock. Can you say, Sherlock?” The prisoner paused, tilted his head to one side, inquiring like. “And your name my friend? We are friends, yes?”
The black man’s voice was hoarse though soft, even gentle, oddly sympathetic. I felt no fear. That early morning I’d snuck out of the room I was sharing with my sister. The sun was just about to creep over the eastern horizon. Mostly shadows right now, the gentle lapping of saltwater as it swayed the seaweed just inches below the surface. The undulating green subsurface was enough to hold me still, as though I expected otherworldly music might strike up to accompany the natural dancing.
It would have been so normal.
The single-spaced cell propped up crookedly on large round stones and rotting ties, a big wave would have loosed it from its precarious moorings and sent it down the coastline. The slow yet insistent wavelets crossing underfoot, gurgling, and the clear clicking sound of the crabs that inhabited these nooks and crannies. The rickety shack with its rusting tin roof had a defined lean to it.
The cell was reached by a single board bridge that attached it to a two-roomed police station. A municipal park, a small, concrete square with crisscrossing walkways between which grew red blooming hibiscus and wildly uncontrolled, richly purple bougainvilleas.
Providing shade over massive and cracked concrete benches were big leafed almond trees. Four or five Royal Palms grew skyward. It seemed most unusual that some civic-minded committee planted them.
It all seemed so normal.
There are moments, long moments when an eight-year-old encounters things and the child is neither overly impressed nor deflated, living simply in the present, what is, is. Breath in the salt and rotting seaweed mix, rich with cautious crabs.
Now, over sixty years later the unique blend of sea and rot aromas arise with just a thought.
Amongst the black, volcanic stones partway underwater were covered by huge but dead locusts and the crabs were feasting on them.
Fishing line in hand. The night before I’d dug up a handful of gallina ciegas, ‘blind chickens’, white, fat, and shiny worms to use for bait. Gallinas ciegas lived just under the grounds surface. I could dig them up from the soft sandy and black soil with my bare hands. As I jumped from stone to stone up next to the jail cell, I had to take care not to squash the fat, delicate worms that were plump in my jeans pocket.
Mid-June in 1958, seven years old. My parents, both artists, and writers, both displayed their passion on paper and sketch materials. Every summer, at least for several years my parents took us to the Honduran Bay Islands, a pearl-like string of three tropically lush natural wonders.
Every year, Miss Ina, as old as the hills to my very young eyes, welcomed us with open arms. No doubt she was happy to have a family take several of her rooms in her inn. ‘Inas Inn’, an overgrown, wooden affair, long gone gray, as had Miss Ina, took me and my family into its warm, rambling embrace.
Joy lived within the creaking walls of that place. No step was taken without setting off a chain reaction of creaking and squeaking wood boards in the hallways. The place had been built God knows how long ago, maybe when the pirates were here. That might be a stretch, but not to my eight-year-old way of seeing and believing.
My imagination, rich in color, taste, emotion, more than happily, even eagerly, swallowed up all the pirate stories my parents spun on a regular basis. In fact, after so many pirate stories, it was a really futile effort to keep them all in order. Even though the chronography of several episodes just did not jive, would not have been possible, my sponge-like mind soaked up the yarns with enthusiasm.
Even up until the last year, we visited Utila. The other two islands were Roatan and Guanaja. My search for pirates' gold socked away somewhere in Miss Inas’ vast house or property remained enthusiastic and full of hope. No doubt Miss Ina more than once questioned if there were moles invading her huge yard, a white-sand patch with a thick stand of coconut trees pocked with numerous holes dug in my ongoing search for gold treasure.
Now this morning, my plan was to catch some fish. It was still quite early, still, the tropical climate was already heavy with humidity. The flush and rush of the Caribbean wavelets, though tiny, was a constant sound beside raucous crows, barking dogs, and crowing roosters. Across the concrete park, a large, black woman carrying a large basket on her head was calling out, “Simon! Simon!” and waving to someone unseen behind a shack.
The woman burst out in laughter.
Standing on rounded stones poking above the water’s surface, I threw out my hand line. I’d put a gallina ciega onto a small silver hook. A few inches up on the line was an egg-shaped sinker. My first toss resulted in a small, striped fish just a little longer than my wrist to fingertips.
“That’s no good for eating Tommy.” My new friend Sherlock observed. This man in hindsight was a fisherman, no doubt knew everything possible to know about the life in these waters. “That’s called a shit fish.” He watched me. “Do you know why they call them shit fish?”
Nodding my head back and forth ‘no’, and feeling pain from having to return the fish to the water. I didn’t have to, really. These days the term ‘catch and release’ still wasn’t invented. Just the fact that I was returning the creature back to the sea was an inconvenient pain.
“You see, Tommy when the big ships put all the people’s shit into the ocean, these striped fish are the ones that come to eat it. Do you see now?” Sherlock had a gigantic smile on his face.
“Oh.” I tossed my line out again immediately, feeling light tugs as I drew more small fish to the still twitching thick little morsels of gallina ciegas.
The sun had made its entry, majestically, supremely, as only it can do on a Caribbean island. It’s all about the atmospheric filters, the seawater, thick green air-producing foliage. As I balanced on two moss decked stones sun shot through tree branches momentarily blinding me. I slipped and splashed into the weed-filled shore.
“Hey Tommy, what happened, man?” He laughed, not unkindly. “You need to watch out for the sea eggs, okay? Very bad sting you know, they live in the weeds.” Sea eggs was the name given, sea urchins came with a terrible sting at the tips of their mostly black poisonous spines.
Dripping wet, again on my stones, I cast out again. Surprisingly, the fat worm hit the surface with an unceremonious splash.
Breakfast would soon be ready at Inas Inn, my mother would call out to me, usually pancakes or corn flakes. My mother joined Miss Ina in the kitchen for an early coffee and set up breakfast for us. At Henderson’s General Store they had Kellogs’s cereal, Corn Flakes, occasionally Rice Krispies too, which was enough to prompt me to ascend into heaven.
In Nicaragua, my home, only Corn Flakes was to be found. Unless of course, your parents were US military in which case you’d get every variety of cereal at the US commissary. My best friend Timmy even got a chocolate bar called Milky Ways and something called Fig Newtons, which I hated. I reasoned why would anyone willingly eat a bar made from questionable vegetables.
On the islands all the stores, boatyards, schools, government affairs were without exception owned and operated by whites, English descendants. Most of these whites could tell of their ancient past and of how they were involved in the slave trade. The blacks fished and grew coconuts and corn. Centuries before the slaves brought with them the plant called okra, too.
Another unusual thing about Utila and the nearby islands was that everyone spoke English. This was, of course, because of the ancient English presence here. The only exception was those who came from the Honduran mainland to fill government posts such as police chief, school principal. These people from the mainland spoke only Spanish.
One year after visiting Utila, our friends, mostly black, told us in almost comically hushed tones that now they were forced to speak Spanish. The current powers in the Honduran mainland government decreed that as the islands were Honduran and that the national language was Spanish, they had to speak Spanish from now on.
Incredible and yet, in my eight-year-old mind, it all seemed just so normal.
No doubt you’ll be pleased to know that after the next Honduran presidential elections that decree was forgotten to everyone’s relief. In a confusion of left versus right politics, it was said that forcing people to change their native tongue was not too removed from Marxism.
“Tommy. Tommy. Come get something to eat honey.” My mother called me from Inas Place just across the park. At that moment I got a fish on the line and after a little work, I had a small fish in hand.
“That’s a red snapper Tommy, good eating! You’re a real fisherman, my friend!” Sherlock laughed happily. “That one you take to Miss Ina for frying okay?”
As I was winding in my line, carefully onto the stick to avoid twists and kinks, a door slammed inside the jailhouse. A man's voice spoke angrily and accusingly to Sherlock. Sherlock’s cry was plain: “Señor, you know I did not kill Captain Jack Señor, you know I was in the bar when they got him.” More accusing issued forth.
The police chief said Sherlock would be taken to the mainland. It seemed a lost cause. The door slammed and there was silence, then Sherlock cried. It was the first time I heard a man cry. It hurt me so much.
Again, it was like when Sherlock was asking me my name. My boundaries were being pushed. Nothing in my short life had ever come close to anything like I was experiencing at the moment. A degree of discomfort, like trying to get new shoes to feel right.
“Tommy, Tommy. They say I killed him, but you need to know I did not, they blame just to blame, to remove one for another, you know?” Sherlocks tears streamed down his face as he filled the tiny square, he held onto the vertical bars.
Tears came to my eyes.
Usually, a story like this one doesn’t have a good ending. At breakfast, I couldn’t eat. My parents and siblings heard my story of Sherlock.
My Mom and Dad both went to old man Henderson, who besides owning the general store was town mayor.
Three weeks later as I was fishing near the public pier. “Tommy my canche friend!” I turned to find a smiling Sherlock approaching. Alongside him, a young woman.
“Tommy, this is my wife, Esmeralda. Esme this is my friend young Tommy I told you about.” Esmeralda came towards me and took me into an embrace, her wondrously endowed breasts enveloped my face.
“Thank you, Tommy, thank you so much for helping us.” I wasn’t completely sure what she was talking about, but I did sort of put things together. Esmeralda unwrapped a cloth revealing fresh-made, pink-colored coconut candy. “Here Tommy, you must try this.” Her rich and warm voice typical of the island peoples. Her deep dignity and power and wisdom so clear. She re-wrapped the candy and said, “This is for your family Tommy, and again thank you so much.”
Sherlock blurted: “No more drinking for me my friend, no more drinking. Now, let me show you how to catch some good fish today.” From his pocket, he pulled a spool of monofilament fishing line.
Despite it all, it all just seemed…