José Saramago's childhood memoir, Small Memories, and his latest novel, The Elephant's Journey, are forthcoming from Harvill.

Fish will flock to rose dust

I was never much of a fisherman. Like any boy of my age and modest means, I used an ordinary rod with a hook, sinker and cork float tied to the fishing line, nothing that remotely resembled the modern artefacts that would appear later on and which I saw in the hands of certain local amateurs when I was already grown up and had abandoned my piscatorial dreams.

Consequently, I never caught anything more than a few small carp, a young barbel (very rarely), and many hours spent in vain (well, none were spent in vain, because, without my realizing it, I was "fishing" for things that would be just as important for me in the future, images, smells, sounds, soft breezes, sensations). In the sun, if it wasn't too fierce, or in the shade of a weeping willow, waiting for a fish to bite. Seated at the water's edge, I usually fished in "our village's river", the Almonda, in the late afternoon, because when the weather was too hot, the fish disappeared into their hiding places on the riverbed and wouldn't take the bait. At other times, I would sit on one side or other of the river mouth or, on a few notable occasions, would row farther off, across to the south bank of the Tejo and stay there, in the shelter of a brake of trees as if under a canopy, and that was what I liked best.

The local fishermen emeritus would boast of having their own methods, their own strategies, their own magical arts, which usually lasted for a season and then gave way to other methods, strategies and magical arts that were always better than the previous ones. I never found any of them useful. The only one I can remember was a special rose dust (I never knew at the time, and still don't know to this day, which part of the rose the cognoscenti pulverized: I assume it was the petals), thanks to which – once it had been thrown into the water like some kind of poetic bait – the fish would flock, if you'll forgive the inappropriate comparison, like pigeons to chaff. I, poor wretch, never touched that gold dust with my unworthy fingers. And that must explain my ill luck in catching or failing to catch the largest (although for ever invisible) barbel in the entire piscine history of the Tejo.

I will describe very simply the whole regrettable affair. I had gone with my fishing tackle to the mouth – as we called it – of the Almonda, where, at the time, a narrow tongue of sand reached out into the Tejo, and there I was, with the day fading fast and not a twitch from the cork float to indicate any signs of subaquatic life, when, suddenly, without even having felt the initial exciting tremor that announces a fish trying to nibble the bait, the float plunged down into the depths, almost snatching the rod from my hands. I pulled and was pulled, but the struggle was short-lived. The line must have been badly secured or rotten, because with one violent tug, the fish carried everything off, hook, line and sinker. Imagine my despair. There, on the edge of the deep water into which the rascal had disappeared, I stood staring at the now calm surface, holding the ridiculous, useless rod in my hands, not knowing what to do next.

That was when I had the most absurd idea of my entire life: I decided to run home, get another line, float and sinker for my rod and return to settle accounts once and for all with the monster. Now, my grandparents' house was just over half a mile from that spot, and you would have to be a complete idiot (either that or very innocent) to nurture the ludicrous hope that the barbel would wait there killing time, quietly digesting not only the bait, but the hook, line and sinker, not to mention the float, until the next titbit arrived. Despite this, and against all reason and good sense, I raced off along the river bank, took a short cut through olive groves and stubble fields, and burst, panting, into the house, where, while I prepared my rod, I told my grandmother what had happened, and she asked me if I really thought the fish would still be there, not that I heard her, I didn't want to, I couldn't. I returned to the spot, even though the sun had already set, I cast my hook into the water and waited. I don't think there is a deeper silence in the world than the silence of water. I felt it then and never forgot it. I stayed until I could barely see the float bobbing gently on the current, then, finally, with a heavy heart, I rolled up my line and returned home.

That barbel had obviously lived a long time and must have been a large beast, but it certainly wouldn't end up dying of old age, someone else was bound to catch it one day. In a way, though, with my hook caught in its gills, it bore my mark, it was mine.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.



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