By James W. Hall
Copyright © 2002 James W. Hall.
All rights reserved.
The marlin was the color of the ocean at twenty fathoms, an iridescent blue, with eerie light smoldering within its silky flesh as if its electrons had become unstable by the cold friction of the sea. A ghostly phosphorescence, a gleaming flash, its large eyes unblinking as it slipped into a seam in the current, then rose toward the luminous surface where a school of tuna was pecking at the tiny larvae and crustaceans snagged on a weed line.
The marlin attacked from the rear of the school. An ambush. It accelerated from thirty knots to double that in only a few yards. A fusion of grace, efficiency, and blinding power. For a creature with the bulk of a bull, the marlin was as sleek as any missile and blazed through the water at a speed not even the most powerful torpedo could attain. When it crashed into the school, it stunned each fish with a blow from its three-foot bill, then swallowed it headfirst.
Morgan Braswell saw its dorsal fin and the curved arc of its tail. She saw its shadow just below the surface. Maybe it was simply the angle of the sun, but the fish looked twice the size of an ordinary marlin. Before she could utter a word, the marlin hit the trolled lure and the outrigger popped.
"Fish on!" Johnny yelled.
In the fighting chair Morgan lifted the rod and settled it into the leather holder that was belted around her waist. At the same moment the rod tip jerked and the hundred-pound monofilament began to scream off her reel. Nothing she could do for now except hold on and watch. They were twenty-two miles south of Key West, a marlin highway that ran along a drop-off in the ocean floor, an east-to-west ridge that plummeted from nine hundred feet to two thousand in less than a mile. Wood's Wall was its name, the beginning of the Straits of Florida.
Andy and Johnny stood beside her. Her two brothers. Andy was the older, curly blond hair and rangy like their dad. At seventeen, a major-league science whiz, chemistry, electronics. He spent long hours in the MicroDyne lab, tinkering with new materials, new fibers, new everything. He was movie-star handsome, funny. A gifted athlete, president of his high school class, perfect scores on his college boards, courted by Stanford, M.I.T. A golden boy. Everyone in awe of him, most of all Johnny. Johnny was the quiet kid who tracked his big brother's every move, stood in his shadow, said little.
Morgan was the second child, a year younger than Andy, with electric blue eyes, a sinuous figure, glossy black hair that she wore as short as Andy's. She was well aware of the effect she had on boys, but didn't give a damn about trading on her looks, scoring points in the Palm Beach social scene. She'd rather hang with Andy. The two of them endlessly tinkering in A.J.'s workshop or at the company lab. Metallurgy, ceramics, carbides. Morgan had the intense focus and scrupulously logical mind. Andy was the creative one, spontaneous and intuitive, a genius. She was the yin to his yang. The controlled left brain to his exuberant right. A neatly nestled fit.
Up on the flybridge, Darlene Braswell stood beside her husband, watching her daughter closely. A tall, black-haired woman with shadowy Italian eyes. A violinist with the Miami Symphony till she'd met and married A.J. Braswell. Now a vigilant mom. Too vigilant. She and Morgan hadn't spoken for days. A bitter standoff. Last week, coming into Morgan's room, staring at her for a full minute in prickly silence. Morgan knew what it was about, but didn't think her mother had the nerve. She held Morgan's eyes and finally spoke, voice neutral, asking if anything was going on she should know about. Going on? Morgan playing dumb. You know what I mean, Morgan. Is something happening between you and Andy? Morgan said nothing, glaring into her mother's dark eyes. Okay, her mother said, if you won't discuss this, then I'll talk to Andy. One way or the other, I'm going to find out. You go ahead, Mom, talk to Andy, but if you do, I'll never speak to you again. Never. Now get out of my room. Morgan pointed at her door, kept pointing till her mother turned and walked to the door and stood there a moment waiting for Morgan to open up. But she didn't. She wasn't about to. Her mother wouldn't understand. Never. Not in a million years.
From up on the flybridge her father yelled at her to pay attention.
"A little more before you hit him. Ease off on your drag, this is a big girl."
She picked her moment, then yanked back on the rod, sunk the hook, and in the next instant the fish showed itself. Forty yards behind them, its long bill broke through, then its silver head, holding there for several seconds, its wild eye staring back at Morgan as if taking her measure. The fish shook its head furiously and flopped on its side and was gone. Sounding, diving down and down and down, the reel shrieking, the rod jumping in her hands as if she'd hooked a stallion at full gallop.
On the bridge, A.J. was silenced by the sight.
Johnny stood at the transom transfixed, staring out at the blue water where the fish had disappeared. His blond hair hung limply down his back. A pudgy baby, a pudgy kid, and now a pudgy teenager. Smiling at the wrong times, always fidgeting, gnawing his fingernails to the quick.
Her dad stood with his butt to the console, reaching behind him to run the controls, doing it by feel, backing the thirty-one-foot Bertram toward the spot where the fish had disappeared. The Braswells worked as a unit. It required first-rate teamwork to catch these fish. No one could do it alone, not the big ones. Someone to handle the boat, keep it positioned; an angler strapped into the fighting chair; a wire man to grab the leader when the fish was finally brought close to the boat. Then a gaffer who nailed the fish in its bony jaw and helped haul it through the transom door. The five of them circulating the jobs.
"You okay, Morgan? You want some water?" Andy asked.
She was pumping the rod, then cranking on the downstroke. For every yard of line she won back the fish was taking out two. The reel was more than half-empty and Morgan had begun to sweat, her fingers throbbing already, back muscles aching. In only twenty minutes the fish was making her pant.
"Water, yes," Morgan said.
He held the water bottle to her lips, tipped it up. With a towel he mopped her forehead. He gave her shoulders a rub, stayed with it for a while, a good massage, working his fingers in deep.
The line went out in screaming bursts and with grim focus she reeled it back in, inch by grueling inch. The fish stayed deep, two hundred yards of line, perhaps. A.J. cheering her on, giving her small instructions, though Morgan knew the drill as well as he did. She could hear it in his voice, a trace of envy. It should be him in the chair. It was his passion more than hers. He went to the tournaments. Mexico, Bahamas, Virgin Islands. He hung out with marlin men. Went fishing on the bigger boats of his rich friends. Boats with full-time crews. Two million, three million dollars purchase price, a few hundred thousand a year to maintain and staff them. He lusted for one of those boats, a sixty-footer with four thousand horsepower rumbling belowdecks. At the rate MicroDyne was growing, it wouldn't be long before he could afford one.
Her dad should be the one in the chair hauling this fish to the surface. But that wasn't how it worked. The Braswells rotated the angling on a set routine. Morgan first thing in the morning, Andy next. After lunch A.J. took the chair. Then her mother had her shot, and finally in the last hours of the day, it was Johnny's turn. Johnny, who would rather work the wire, the close-in stuff. He didn't want the spotlight for hours at a time, didn't have the patience for that kind of labor. He liked the big, dramatic moments. Slipping on the heavy glove and taking a couple of quick wraps and then arm-wrestling that fish to the edge of the boat, gaffing it.
An hour passed. Andy gave her water, her father rooted her on. As Morgan pumped the reel, her mother watched silently. Morgan was dizzy. Despite the fluids, she felt dehydrated. They'd not seen any sign of the fish again. It was down about nine hundred feet and was heading east out to deeper water. Her dad was quiet now, handling the boat. Wanting to be in the chair so much, but not a whiner, trying to be encouraging to his daughter.
"You want me to take over, Morgan?" Andy asked her.
She told him no, she wanted to see this to the end.
Her hands were numb. Her back muscles in spasm. She struggled to breathe. The fish was down there cruising east, towing them toward the horizon. She held on because that's what you did in this family. She held on because to give up would change things. She would lose something she couldn't name. Some part of her identity. Who she was, who she wanted to be. It was what her father would do, and what Andy would do. So she hung on. She pumped and cranked on the downstroke. She fought that goddamn fish.
Then it was two hours. A little after ten in the morning. She'd refilled the reel more than halfway. Bringing the fish up, winning the battle. She lifted the rod, then lowered it and pumped the reel. Lifted it, lowered it and pumped. The world was now a narrow slit through which she saw only a few square feet of water where the line disappeared. Her tongue was swollen. Her hands were knotted with pain, arm muscles quivering, but she cranked the reel.
It was almost noon when she felt the slack. A belly in the line. No pressure when she reeled. She realized what was happening and was about to call out to the others when the marlin rocketed the last few yards to the surface.
In a great geyser it exploded, silver and blue, its entire electric length, shimmering like polished chrome and the bluest blue, a scream erupting on the boat, from her mother, from the entire Braswell clan, a chilling collective roar, as the marlin launched itself high into the air and hung in all its colossal radiance, a terrible angel against the clouds and sun and sky, like some divine appearance, the embodiment of all fish, of all life in the sea, a giant long-billed, scythe-tailed deity, a monster, dreadful and magnificent. Broken loose from gravity, hanging there for longer than was possible.
Finally it dropped, splashing on its side, sending a cone of water as high as the flybridge.
Morgan reeled and reeled, cranking as fast as her muscles allowed.
It was the largest fish she'd ever seen. Larger than the blue marlin on the wall of her father's study. His was eight hundred pounds, caught in the Virgin Islands when he was twenty-eight. The fish that had started his obsession. But this one was half again as large. A giant. Bigger than anything in the magazines, anything on the endless videos A.J.'s friends brought back from the Great Barrier Reef or Kona. This was the mothership.
Her father was silent. Everyone was silent. Johnny turned to look at his older brother, and whatever he saw on Andy's face made Johnny's mouth go slack. This was not just a big fish. This was the fish that lurked in their dreams.
"Jesus," Andy said quietly. "Jesus."
He came behind her and once again he massaged her shoulders while she cranked the last few yards of line and saw the wire leader emerge from the sea.
"It's given up," her dad said. "You beat it. It's given up, Morgan."
But she didn't think so. Until just before the leap, the marlin's power seemed undiminished. The fish was still green. Still strong and alive. Unfazed by the fight. But the leader was only a few feet away, the fish lying slack a few feet below the surface. So maybe she was wrong. Maybe it had caved in after just one spectacular jump.
Andy let go of her shoulders, turned, and flung open a drawer in the supply case and grabbed a stainless steel cylinder a little larger than a cigar. It was one of Andy's inventions. A float on one end, a stubby aerial on the other. It was designed to be hooked beneath the marlin's second dorsal fin with a small surgical steel anchor, and was programmed to come alive for one week each year. On the appointed date, the electronic sending unit would begin to transmit all the information its microprocessor had collected that year, a day-by-day report on GPS locations, depth, water temperature, speed, distance traveled. By activating it only during that one-week window, Morgan estimated the unit would last for eight to ten years. Sometime during the crucial week when the transmitter came live, they had to get lucky and the marlin had to break the surface, either to sun itself or to attack schools of baitfish. Just a few seconds was all. When the antennae broke through, data would stream up to a satellite and a few seconds later the blue ping would pulse on the Braswells' receiving unit. The ping would mark the fish's present location and would continue to ping until the fish was submerged again or the week was over and the unit shut off.
Much better than conventional tagging methods. If it worked, it could revolutionize everything. You could track a fish's migration, begin to understand its life cycle, its mating habits. Steal a look into the secret life of that mysterious fish. But she and Andy weren't thinking of its commercial value when they designed and assembled it from salvaged computer parts. The pod was a gift to their dad, their attempt to take part in his consuming obsession.
Andy used a tiny ice pick to activate the unit, then clamped it just behind the sharp point of a customized harpoon.
Morgan hauled the fish closer and could see its blue shadow rising through the water. Listless, on its side. Either defeated or playing possum. It was impossible to tell.
Andy leaned over the transom, cocked the harpoon back, picking his spot.
Her mother called down to Andy. In her tense voice, telling him to be careful. Very careful.
Andy leaned another inch or two, then stood back up.
"It's too far, Dad! I'm going to have to wire it, bring it up closer."
"Morgan," A.J. called. "Keep the line tight. Keep it close so Andy can work."
Andy grabbed his glove from the back pocket of his shorts and pulled it on. Another of his creations. An ordinary blue denim work glove with a thick cowhide pad stitched across the palm and sides. Even a medium-sized fish could badly bruise a hand, or sometimes crush bones.
Johnny seized the biggest gaff from the holder.
"We're not gaffing it, Johnny," A.J. called. "We're just attaching the pod."
"But this is a world record, Dad. This is the all-time big mother."
All of them laughed and from that moment, Big Mother was her name.
"Tag and release, Johnny, that's what we're doing."
Stubbornly, Johnny held on to the gaff, planting himself at the starboard side of the transom while Andy stood to port, the harpoon in his right hand. He was touching the metal leader wire with his left, stroking it lightly as if wanting to establish some connection with the giant.
Morgan had handled the wire on small sails and yellowfin tuna. It was dangerous, but thrilling. The saying went, "One wrap, you lose the fish, three wraps you lose a finger." Two wraps was right. You took two wraps of the leader wire around the gloved hand, no more, no less.
Andy took three.
Morgan wasn't sure if she'd seen right. Her mind so foggy. Her tongue so swollen, she could barely speak. Maybe he took one more wrap for extra measure, because the fish was huge, maybe he made a mistake, or she was simply wrong about what she thought she'd seen.
A.J. backed the boat slowly.
"Okay, Andy. Pick your spot, jab it in hard and true."
Johnny edged closer to his brother, gaff at the ready.
Slowly the bill appeared as Andy hauled it up.
"Jeez, it's way over a thousand pounds. Maybe fifteen hundred."
Andy had the fish at the transom. Its bill was longer than any she'd ever seen in photographs, on walls, anywhere.
Johnny leaned over the edge to touch the fish.
"No, Johnny. Let Andy do his work."
The fish must have seen their shadows because it shied away. Andy braced his knees against the transom, leaned back, using all his weight to drag the fish back into place. Morgan could see the muscles straining in his back, in his arms and shoulders. A wiry boy, narrow-waisted, wide shoulders and rawhide-tough. But the fish was strong, very strong.
Andy cocked his arm, held it for a second, then plunged the point of the harpoon into the second dorsal.
"It's set, Dad! I felt it lock on."
He shouldn't have done it. Shouldn't have turned his back on the fish to beam up at their father. With a fish that big, it was reckless. But he was so proud, so hungry for a morsel of their dad's approval. In that half second his back was turned, the fish swung back and made a slow pirouette, disappearing into the transparent blue.
Andy was jerked backwards, his hip banging against the transom. Johnny reached out for him but it was too late. Andy lurched overboard, his hand trapped in the wire. Morgan heard his scream, heard it stifled as he was dragged under, saw him moving quickly through two feet of water, three, four, five, saw him turning back toward the light, trying to swim one-handed toward the surface, a useless stroke against the horrific power of that fish. She saw his face, his blond hair pulsing like a jellyfish around his head, she saw his white flesh turning blue, blue as the water, blue as the fish.
"Reel, Morgan! Reel, goddamn it!" A.J. was screaming.
A second later he was beside her. He tore the rod from her hands, cranked the fish back up, cranked. But the line continued to unspool, the sharp ratchet of the reel clicking faster than she'd ever heard it.
A.J. heaved back on the rod, tightening the drag as he did, pulling with all his weight, all his life and breath and muscle.
Morgan couldn't scream, couldn't breathe. A dull paralysis had taken hold of her. Shock and terror and utter exhaustion.
She rose from the fighting chair, watched the water, saw a flash of white. Andy's face, his shorts, something. Down in all that blue, his body dragged deeper and deeper into the airless depths. A bear hug crushed her chest, a pressure greater than bones and flesh could possibly withstand.
Her father was groaning as he reeled against the power of that fish, winning back a few feet, a few more. Johnny dropped to his knees, holding to the transom as if he were seasick, peering out at the water. From the flybridge Darlene screamed. Her boy, her precious son. Her wail ripped apart the air.
And then the crack of a rifle shot as the heavy monofilament snapped.
Her father crashed against the side of the chair and crumpled to the deck.
Without a thought, Morgan kicked off her boat shoes, climbed onto the transom and dove into the water and clawed her way down into the blue. She swam deeper and deeper until the light was flickering in her head and the crushing pressure against her chest was unbearable, then swam deeper still, squinting into the blurry distance, into the blackwater depths where the sounding fish had disappeared, but she could make out nothing in the darkness of the cold currents.
Then out of those murky depths a trail of bubbles rose toward her, a ghostly silver cloud climbing fast, spreading out, surrounding her, tickling across her bare arms, her belly.
Andy Braswell's last breath. Her brother. Her love.
Excerpted from Blackwater Sound by James W. Hall. Copyright © 2002 by James W. Hall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.