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Authors: Frank Schatzing

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The Swarm

BOOK: The Swarm
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The Swarm

A Novel

Frank Schatzing
Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer



hishuk ish ts'awalk

Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, Vancouver Island

Huanchaco, Peruvian Coast

Juan Narciso Ucañan went to his fate that Wednesday, and no one even noticed.

A few weeks later the circumstances surrounding his sudden disappearance sent shockwaves around the globe, but Ucañan's name wasn't mentioned. He was one of many. Too many. What he'd experienced in the early hours of that morning had been going on elsewhere all over the world. The parallels were striking–once you knew what had happened, and only Ucañan did. Maybe the fisherman, with his simple way of seeing things, had even sensed the more complex connections, but in the absence of his evidence, the mystery went unsolved. Neither he nor the Pacific Ocean on the Huanchaco coast in the north of Peru gave anything away. Like the fish he caught in his lifetime, Juan Narciso Ucañan stayed silent. When he next showed up, he was just a statistic. No one had time to wonder about his whereabouts: events had entered a new and graver phase.

Not that anyone had ever shown much interest in him anyway, even before 14 January.

At least, that was how Ucañan saw it. He'd never been able to reconcile himself with his village's reincarnation as an international beach resort. For the tourists, Huanchaco was a time-forgotten paradise where locals went fishing in old-fashioned boats. But what use was that to him? To own a fishing-boat at all was old-fashioned. These days, most of his countrymen earned their living on factory trawlers or in the fishmeal and fish-oil industries. Peru's fish stock was dwindling, but its fishing industry was still one of the largest in the world, on a par with Chile, Russia, the US and parts of Asia. Even the threat of El Niño hadn't stopped the coastal city of Huanchaco sprawling out in every direction, the last preserves of nature sacrificed to make way for row after row of hotels. In the end nearly everyone had profited one way or another. Only
Ucañan was left with nothing, just his boat, a
caballito de totora
, or ‘reed pony', as the admiring conquistadors had called the distinctive craft. But the way things were going, the pretty little vessels would soon be gone too.

The new millennium had decided to pick on Ucañan.

His emotions were already starting to get the better of him. At times he felt as though he was being punished–by El Niño, which had plagued Peru since the beginning of history and that he was helpless to prevent, and by the environmentalists, whose talk of overfishing had set the politicians searching for a culprit, until in the end they realised they were looking for themselves. So they'd shifted their focus from the fisheries to Ucañan, who couldn't be held responsible for the environmental mess. He hadn't asked for the floating factories, or for the Japanese and Korean trawlers lurking on the 200-mile boundary, waiting to tow away the fish. None of this was Ucañan's fault, but even he no longer believed it. That was the other thing he couldn't help feeling–guilty. As though he was the one who'd pulled millions of tonnes of mackerel and tuna from the sea.

He was twenty-eight years old and one of the last of his kind.

His five elder brothers all worked in Lima, and thought he was a fool because he clung to a boat no better than a surfboard, waiting doggedly in deserted waters for the mackerel and bonito to return. ‘You won't find life among the dead,' they told him. But it was his father who worried Ucañan. The old man was nearly seventy and had set sail every day, right up until a few weeks previously. Now Ucañan the elder no longer went fishing. Bedridden, his face covered with blotches, he had a nasty cough and seemed to be losing his mind. Juan Narciso clung to the hope that by continuing the family tradition he could keep the old man alive.

For over a thousand years Ucañan's people, the Yunga and the Moche, had been fishing in reed boats. Long before the Spanish arrived, they had settled along the Peruvian coast from the northern reaches to modern-day Pisco, supplying the immense metropolis of Chan Chan with fish. Back then the area had been rich in
, coastal marshes fed by fresh water from underground springs. Vast quantities of reed grass had grown there–the
that Ucañan and the other remaining fishermen still used to make their
, in the manner of their forebears. It required skill and inner calm. There were no other boats quite like them. Measuring three to four metres long, with an upward-curving prow and
light as a feather, they were practically unsinkable. In days gone by thousands of
had cut through the waves of the ‘Golden Fish' coast, named at a time when even the worst catches brought more fish than Ucañan could ever dream of.

Eventually the marshes had vanished and so, too, the reeds.

At least you could count on El Niño. Every few years around Christmas time the trade winds would slacken and the cool Humboldt Current would warm up, destroying the feed and scattering the hungry mackerel, bonito and sardines. Ucañan's forefathers had called it El Niño–the Christ-child. Sometimes it was content just to shake things up, but every fourth or fifth year it would wreak God's vengeance on the people as though it was trying to wipe them from the Earth. Whirlwinds, thirty-times the normal rainfall and murderous mudslides–on each occasion hundreds were killed. El Niño came and went, as it always had done. No one welcomed it, but they managed to get by. These days, though, even prayers couldn't help them: the nets that robbed the Pacific of its riches were wide enough to capture twelve jumbo jets at once.

Maybe, thought Ucañan, as his
bobbed up and down on the swell, maybe I am a fool. Foolish and guilty. Guilty like the rest of them for trusting in a patron saint who'd never done anything about El Niño, the fisheries or international law.

In the old days, he thought, we had shamans in Peru. Ucañan knew the stories about what the archaeologists had discovered in the pre-Columbian temples near the city of Trujillo, behind the Pyramid of the Moon. Ninety skeletons had been found there, men, women and children, killed with a blow to the head or stabbed with a spear. In a desperate attempt to stop the flood waters of
560 the high priests had sacrificed the lives of ninety to their gods, and El Niño had gone.

Whom would they have to sacrifice to stop to the overfishing?

Ucañan shivered. He was a good Christian: he loved Christ and St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. He always put his heart and soul into the festival of San Pedro, when a wooden effigy of the saint was paddled by boat from village to village. And yet…In the morning the churches were full, but the real fires burned at night. Shamanism was as strong as ever–but how could any god help them when even the Christ-child refused to intervene? Trying to control the forces of nature was exhausting enough, apparently, without attempting to cure the fishermen's latest woes. That was a matter for the politicians and lobbyists.

Ucañan squinted up at the sky.

It was going to be a beautiful day.

At moments like this, north-western Peru looked picture-perfect. There hadn't been a cloud for days. The surfers weren't up yet. Ucañan and a dozen or so other fishermen had set off some thirty minutes earlier, paddling their
in the darkness over the undulating waves. The sun was slowly starting to peep out from behind the mist-shrouded mountains, bathing the sea in its pastel yellow light. Only moments before the vast expanse of water had looked silver; now it turned a delicate blue. In the distance you could just make out the silhouettes of mighty cargo ships as they headed for Lima.

Untouched by the beauty of first light, Ucañan reached behind him and felt for his
, the traditional red net used by
fishermen. It was a few metres long and tipped with hooks of varying sizes. He inspected the closely woven mesh, squatting upright on his little reed boat. There were no seats inside a
- you had to straddle the boat or crouch on top–but there was plenty of space at the stern for stowing nets and other equipment. Ucañan balanced his paddle diagonally in front of him. Traditional paddles made of split guayaquil cane had fallen out of use elsewhere in Peru. His belonged to his father, and Juan Narciso had brought it with him so the old man would sense the energy with which he thrust it through the water. Every evening since his father had fallen ill he had laid the paddle alongside him, placing his right hand over it, so that the old man could feel it was still there–the ancient tradition and the core of his life.

He hoped his father knew what he was holding: he no longer recognised his son.

Ucañan finished inspecting the
. He had already looked it over on dry land, but nets were precious and worth the extra attention. Its loss would mean the end for him. He might have been defeated in the bidding war for the Pacific's remaining riches, but he had no intention of jeopardising what was left to him with sloppiness or by turning to drink. He couldn't bear the crushed look on the faces of those fishermen who had left their boats and nets to rot. Ucañan knew it would kill him if he were to glimpse it on himself.

He glanced around. The flotilla that had set sail with him that morning had spread out in both directions, now more than a kilometre from the shore. For once the little ponies weren't bobbing up and down:
the water was almost perfectly still. Over the next few hours the fishermen would sit and wait, some patiently, others with resignation. In time they were joined by a few other boats–larger craft made of wood–while a trawler motored past, heading out to sea.

Ucañan watched as the men and women lowered their nets into the water, securing them to their boats with rope. He hesitated. The round red buoys drifted on the surface, shining brightly in the sunshine. He knew he should get started, but instead he thought of the last few days' fishing.

A few sardines were all he'd caught.

He watched the trawler disappear into the distance. El Niño had paid them a visit this winter too, but it had been harmless by comparison. There was another side to El Niño when it was like that–a brighter, friendlier one. Normally the Humboldt Current was too cold for the yellowfin tuna and hammerhead sharks, but warmer water would lure them in, guaranteeing a Christmas feast. Of course, the smaller fish all ended up in the bellies of the big ones rather than in the fishermen's nets, but you couldn't have it all. Anyone who ventured out a bit further on a day like today stood a good chance of bringing home a nice fat specimen.

Idle thoughts.
couldn't go that far. As a group they sometimes ventured ten kilometres from shore–there was safety in numbers. The little reed ponies had no trouble coping with the swell: they rode on the crest of the waves. The real problem was the current. In rough conditions, when the wind was blowing out to sea, you needed good muscles to get your vessel back to shore.

Some fishermen didn't make it.

Ucañan crouched stock-still on the woven reed of his boat. His back was straight. They'd begun their vigil at daybreak, but the shoals wouldn't come today either. He scanned the horizon for the trawler. At one time it would have been easy for him to get work on a big ship or in one of the fishmeal factories, but not any more. After the catastrophic El Niños at the end of the 1990s, even the factory workers had lost their jobs. The big shoals of sardines had never returned.

And he couldn't afford to go another day without catching anything.

You could teach the señoritas how to surf

That was the alternative. A job in one of the numerous hotels that loomed above Huanchaco, making the old town cower beneath their shadows. He could go fishing for tourists. Wear a ridiculous cropped
jacket. Mix cocktails. Entertain spoilt American women on surfboards or waterskis…and later in bed.

But the day that Juan Narciso cut his ties with the past would be his father's last. The old man had lost his reason, but he would still know if his youngest son broke the faith.

Ucañan's fists were clenched so tightly that his knuckles blanched. He seized his paddle and started to follow in the wake of the trawler, paddling with all his strength, his movements violent and jerky. With every stroke of the paddle he moved further away from his comrades. He was making rapid progress. He knew that today he had nothing to worry about–no vast breakers would appear from nowhere, no treacherous currents, no powerful north-westerlies to hinder his return. If he didn't risk it now, he never would. There were plenty of tuna, bonito and mackerel in the deeper waters, and they weren't just there for the trawlers.

After a while he stopped. Huanchaco, with its rows of tightly packed houses, looked smaller, and all around him there was nothing but water. He'd left the flotilla far behind.

‘There was a desert here once,' his father had told him, ‘the desert plains. Now we've got two deserts–the plains and the ocean beside them. We're desert-dwellers threatened by rain.'

He was still too close to shore.

As he powered through the water some of his old confidence returned. It was an almost exhilarating sensation. He imagined riding his little pony right out to sea, paddling on and on until he saw glints of silver darting through the water, catching the sunshine in shimmering cascades. The grey humps of whales would appear above the surface and swordfish would leap through the air. His paddle splashed rhythmically, taking him further and further from the stench of corruption in the town. His arms moved almost of their own accord now, and when he finally set down his paddle and looked back at the fishing village, it was just a squat silhouette surrounded by of white specks, the curse of modern Peru: the hotels.

Ucañan started to feel anxious. He'd never been so far out on a
. It was hard to tell in the early-morning haze, but he was at least twelve kilometres from Huanchaco.

BOOK: The Swarm
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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