Joe Hendricks was not much of a fisherman, beyond this critical fact, nothing much was known about him, except that he worked at the Goa Electrical Department.
Like clockwork, every morning, Hendricks left his home at 9 o’clock, (which is rather early for a Goan) and on his return, he almost unfailingly made an evening pitstop at Roderick’s bar. A couple of sundowners did no real harm, in fact, it helped fuel both him and his cycle through the rest of the way home. Besides being a creature of habit, Hendricks was immensely fond of Cashew Fenny (a local Goan drink that is brewed out of cashew fruit and is potent enough to waylay an elephant). Hendrick’s fondness for Fenny went further than just sampling the evening brew, he was a connoisseur and by smelling the stuff, he could point out finer differences in texture and taste that even the distillers found hard to tell.
The road which Hendricks used to cycle to work was a scenic one that meandered along the coconut trees, with the river running on one side. Near the old white chapel, the road ran very close to the river, with only a sliver of a parapet to buffer it. This was the half way mark, where Hendricks used to sit down when he had one too many drinks, or maybe to just admire his old friend the river. The view here is beautiful, as it overlooks a rocky shore, which fringes the river, and out in the middle run barges laden with iron ore from the mines further upstream. After sunset, while the Crimson skies were still settling into deep blue, myriads of little lights from houses across the river come peeping through the mangroves, and the only sound to break the silence was the incessant humming of those barges, as they ambled along into the darkness and then out to sea. Occasionally, you saw a silhouette of a bored captain hunched over the railings on the deck, smoking his cigarette and staring out into the darkness, staring out at you and me, while we sit on the parapet, sipping our chilled beer. At times I used to wave out and I am sure we got a wave back.
Incidentally, the rocks beyond the parapet make a good fishing spot, and during the season many large Barramundis and Red snappers were caught in the deep waters just off these rocks. The spot was well attended by anglers, and especially at night there was always some enterprising local lads fishing. Until one day something went wrong, really wrong.
The story goes on that one faithful evening Hendricks stopped over for his usual appointment at Roderick’s bar and had a little more than his normal quota. The effects soon started to show and the owner’s son Ralph had to help the old patron get onto his cycle Once on the road, Hendricks zigzagged his way into the darkness. Our Goan street lights are designed for aesthetic ambiance rather than any functional value, so matter how many lights are on, it is always dark! In his current state of intoxication, coupled with poor visibility, Hendricks found himself in a rather precarious predicament. He passed the chapel and came abreast with the parapet, no-one knows what happened here, but he seemed to have collided with the parapet wall, which was just over 2 feet high, and then toppling off his cycle, he fell head over onto the rocks below, while his cycle remained on the road above. This head-long fall cracked Hendrick’s skull rendering him unconscious, and he laid strewn among the rocks in a pool of blood. Some time during the night the tide came up and the splashing water must have partially revived him, Hendricks then tried to crawl up the rocks to higher ground, but his blood loss was so acute that he collapsed on the big rocks just short of the wall. As the darkness wore away into the first streaks of morning pink, poor Hendricks breathed his last.
It was about 7 am when the passing bread-man found the cycle and then the body, strewn on the rocks below. He immediately raised the alarm. It took an hour for the police to arrive, and along with the locals, they pieced together the story. A surprising piece of bad luck or called it ill faith was – on that particular night there was no-one out fishing from the rocks, who could have rendered some much-needed assistance to our poor cyclist.
The story of Joe Hendrick’s untimely death was recounted to me by my fishing buddy Gus, while we feasted over a sumptuous lunch of rock clams washed down with a couple of beers. Whenever I visit Goa I make it a point to catch up with Gus, who is always tuned into to the finest fishing “Kabbar” in town, and our fishy conversation usually cascades into a much-needed fishing trip. I have a fetish for such macabre tales, and especially when there is a fish at the end of the line, it becomes a must that I visit such a place. But Gus wouldn’t have any of it, he is mortally afraid of ghost. Apparently, Hendricks didn’t quite retire to his happy hunting grounds, being quite fond of his earthly Fenny, he meant to stay back and haunt the immediate vicinity. Sitting comfortably on that parapet wall, he would “Hello” local fishermen who were on their way home. Sometimes, in the dead of night, his nebulous spirit was seen cycling around in a zigzag fashion. This terrified the locals and consequently the parapet, along with the rocks, and all the big red snappers were considered most unhealthy and completely off limits to the living.
Gus is a strapping young man about 6 feet in height and a great asset to have in the most trying conditions, be it a bar fight or reeling in a monster Sailfish. But this asset of a friend had his own shortcomings, he was and very much is, mortally afraid of 2 things – wild animals, which are defined by anything beyond a stray dog, and on the top of his list are “Ghost.” This was conversation wasn’t going anywhere, I had to change my approach.
So I tried to explain, “Look Gus, every crossroad, bridge and coconut tree in Goa seems haunted, and then there was even poor old Albert from Baga, they said he was dead and his ghost haunted his backyard, and then one morning he turns up quite “alive,” back from the Gulf, right.”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Gus, “But that was Albert’s own doing. He didn’t have anyone to look after his place while he made pots of money in Kuwait. So he faked it.”
“Oh, come on Gus, same story different place.” I tried to reason, “Probably the folks there want to keep the fishing spot to themselves. We know that spot well, its deep and rocky, and the little cove is ideal for red snappers to hang out. Remember that 25-pound Barramundi you caught there last November. In hindsight, I am almost certain those locals are making a monkey out of us.”
To make a long story short, I kept chipping away until Gus relented, but he had two conditions – First, all fishing should be done in broad daylight, second, no fancy rod or casting heavy lures, all that would disturb the water. We would have to fish by the simple and effective method of handline only. I agreed, knowing very well that high tide was at 8 pm, hence any good fishing would only begin once it got dark, and once the fish were really biting, any ghost or ghoul would just have to pack-up their act, however romantic it might be.
The following evening, Gus turned up at 4 pm sharp, precariously balancing his can of live-bait in one hand and riding his scooter with the other. In his bag, he had the new reels of handline that we had picked up from Panjim after our lunch last afternoon. As we rode along, we passed Roderick’s bar and I could not help recalling poor Hendricks. Presently, we passed the chapel and stopping a little before the parapet, we parked the scooter to the side. The shortest route was to descend from the rocks that were immediately under the parapet, but Gus took a roundabout route to the shore, I guessed he was doing so, to avoid the spot where Hendricks met his tragic end. Not wanting to spoil the fun, I played along without questioning the circumvented route.
On reaching the designated fishing spot, Gus was the first to cast his line out, while I pottered around trying to tie an eyeless hook. 10 minutes later and Gus hooked into his first fish, it was a big one, but before he could act, the fish dived down and cut off his line on the rocks below.
“Holy smokes, that was a big one, you should have let him run,” I said in humble consolation.
“Why don’t you practice what you preach,” was his sardonic reply.
I shot back “Sure friend, I only preach what I practice.”
So gently hooking a big live tiger prawn in the tail, I swung my handline out into the green waters beyond. As the line sunk I could feel the tug of the prawn on the line while it swam for cover, and I let him have his way. With my bait swimming around, I sat down on a rock to survey the land. Many moons had passed since I fished here, and thankfully nothing much had changed. Out there, on the river, a barge sluggishly ambled along, passing so close to the rocks that I could hit it with a stone, or better still, wrangle it ashore with my line. Not having the energy or the inclination to practice, I waved out a “Hello” instead. A grumpy barge captain stuck out his head, giving me a hard stare and did not care to wave back. It was now 6 o’clock and still bright enough to see some folks on the parapet by the road, they seemed to be staring at us rather curiously. The view from here was blissful and quiet, I could see the white chapel peeping through the coconut trees, and beyond the road, a mixed jungle of bamboo and cashew trees ran up a rather large hill. At the top, there was some sort of old decayed structure, which looked like a fort from the bygone Portuguese era. Such a picturesque site seemed to calm the otherwise troubled mind, giving you a sense of freshness and hope – “that in this corner of the world things were always predictably tranquil.”
My gaze wandered down to the rocks below the road, where Hendricks had his fall, and just as I started to recall that gruesome story, I felt a gentle pull on my line as if something has just sucked up the bait, and the line started running out at a furious pace, making the plastic reel jump up and down. Instinctively, I knew that I had hooked into a big Barramundi, it gently sucks in the bait before it takes off on a long run. If you pull hard or try to set the hook early, he will spit it out and the sport will be over. It is best to let a Barramundi swallow the bait completely giving it some time to run before you start to fight him. So standing up, I put some pressure on the line and the fish immediately remonstrated by making another furious rush, and I let him run as hard as he liked.
“Time to practice your preachings,” said Gus, smiling as stood by, ready to help.
Fishing with a hand-line has a particular raw charm to it, beyond every move of the fish, you can almost feel its thoughts, and when it rushes off, you have no fancy reel and drag to stop it, except for the palms of your hands, which have been known to suffer great cuts and scars while you try and stop a large fish.
The Barramundi had stopped running and I manage to gain some line back, Gus, who was standing at the edge of the rocks was able to see the fish and shouted out, “Be careful, this one’s a big fellow.” And the fish raced off again, this time in a different direction and I could feel the 70mm line grate against the rocks beneath. So I eased the pressure a bit. You should never force a fish, for it will most certainly make a desperate run for the rocks, snagging your line. Eventually, after the third run, the fish tired out and I pulled it in by the rocky ledge where Gus was waiting. Reaching out he gently lifted the fish up, and onto the rocks. It was a beautiful Barramundi, about 15 pounds in weight, its silver scaled body glistened with a molten glow in the crimson light of the now setting sun.
Gus had already unhooked the fish, and I gently picked it up to put it into a nearby pool, so as to not kill it. This got me so engrossed that I did not hear Gus until he had repeated himself a couple of times, saying “Can you smell something.”
Looking up, I said, “Not really. Smell what? Sweet Success?”
That is when I got a slight whiff of something pungent, and as the odour got stronger, it felt familiar, it had a strong smell of alcohol, Cashew Fenny to be precise!
“Time to celebrate Gus, how thoughtful to have brought some Fenny along.”
He replied angrily, “I didn’t get any damn Fenny, I am not even carrying a bottle of water!”
Sure enough, the scent of Fenny was now pretty thick in the air, and that made Gus’s face turned white.
“Let’s go, and make it quick!” he blurted out.
With that, he started quickly wrapping the lines up and stuffing them into his bag, so I went across and said, “Hang on, we are just getting started here, the tides on the rise and I am sure we have quite a few fish in the offings.”
“So is Hendricks! Can you not smell his breath!” whispered Gus, “They say you can smell him, even before you see him.”
Before I could protest, Gus had taken off and left me standing there in the dark. I could feel the waves from the upcoming tide lash at my feet, and along with the strong whiff of Fenny, the place seemed to get rather unhealthy and unnerving, so I started after Gus.
“Wait up Gus, we need to take the fish.” But I got no reply. I knew Gus had connected the whiff of Fenny to Hendrick’s ghost and now gripped in fear, there was no stopping him.
He had a good 50 yards lead, but I eventually caught up to him below the parapet, exactly where Hendricks had fallen.
“Do you have a torch, we need to climb these rocks,” he whispered.
“NO, and hang on,” I said, panting, “ What’s all this nonsense, we left a good fish behind.” I was really cheesed off, especially about the way he ran off and left me. Wanting a payback, I continued, “This same spot your Mr. Fenny had a fall, Right? Ha! Looks like all your scurrying made you miss the path, and now we got to clamber up these rocks just like Hendricks, what poetic justice.”
Then precisely, at that very moment, a strong gust of wind blew, bringing along another intoxicating whiff of Fenny, which felt like our old nemesis Hendricks, was breathing up the very back of our necks. This was enough to send Gus scampering up the rocks in an abject state of fear.
The thing about fear – it is contagious and once it gets under your skin, it moves quickly, no matter how brave or practical you are, pound for pound fear is always going to win.
As I started to climb up the rocks, I felt something hit me from the top and then bounce off my back, giving me enough of a fright that I nearly lost my balance. As it rattled down among the rock, I saw that they were the plastic handline reels that had slipped off from Gus’s bag. Knowing that did not help much, for all I could think off now was Hendrick’s ghost clambering up after me, with out-stretched hands, reaching out for my ankles, dragging me down among the rocks, and into a sodden pool of blood. This ghastly thought infused a new burst of energy, rushing up the rocks, I overtook Gus and jumped right over him and onto the parapet wall to safety.
In a few seconds, we were both standing on the road, sweating buckets, half expecting a big “Hello” from Hendricks. While I was recuperating from my rather quick and shameless ascent, Gus got to his scooter and started kicking the hell out of it. But being an old and temperamental machine it refused to start, especially after the manhandling it was getting.
“Hey Gus, we left a good fish behind, besides you have also dropped your new reels.”
“Great! Why don’t you go and get both of them.” he replied hoarsely, “I am getting the hell out of here!”
Under such circumstance, to be left behind was pushing your luck. So I sheepishly stood there while Gus kept kicking his poor Lambretta to a start. At this point, something very definitive happened – ahead and to our right, we heard some shuffling of feet, and then two men sneaked out from behind the chapel, each carrying two rather heavy Jerrycans, and as they passed by a thick whiff of Cashew Fenny enveloped us. We stood there transfixed, watching the men as they cross the road and disappear into the shadows.
“Bastards!” Gus exclaimed, “That’s where they are hiding their stuff.”
It was apparently clear now, that these rascals were using the unsuspecting old chapel to hide their stash of illicit Fenny! And the strong stench emitted from those cans was what the wind had blown down to us, while on the rocks.
The scooter started and we raced off. We did not go back for the fish nor to recover the fallen reels. We now knew with certainty – that good old Hendricks haunts this place with a definite purpose and fondness – Illicit Fenny!