I was growing impatient—if this creature stayed out of water too long, it would die. Had this been my own net, I would have cut away the webbing to free the fish. But the patched and re-patched gill net was Boudji's most valued possession. He told us proudly that he'd had it for 15 years, and in Suriname, where many people barely subsist, a gill net can mean survival.
The trumpet fish was screeching even louder. Finally I yanked off my gloves and worked the fins free, and just as I started to drop my catch into the Styrofoam specimen box, the saw-toothed spines on its fins slammed closed like a guillotine, pinning my fingers against its bony side. Blood spurted, and the fish's searing poisons shot through my hand. And the fish kept writhing, cutting deeper into my flesh.
I yelled with pain as Boudji struggled to pry the creature off me. When at last it was free and whipping its snake's body around the specimen box, Boudji turned to me and said angrily, "I tell you she hurt—now maybe you believe!"
"I believe," I said.
"Are you all right?" Griffis asked with concern.
I cursed my stupidity, nodded and then sat miserably in the dugout sucking fingers that burned with pain, in too much agony to slap the mosquitoes that hummed in my ears. Boudji and his teenage son, Franz, continued hauling in the net, snapping off the venomous spines of the brilliant gold catfish caught in the meshing and tossing the fish into baskets. In the morning Boudji would sell them in the Paramaribo marketplace.
While father and son brought in the nets, Griffis' flashlight illuminated the catfish, making them gleam like the treasures of the Pharaohs. "Fool's gold," he muttered. "It's a damn shame."
When we'd first started fishing the wide, deep and muddy rivers that drain out of the jungles into the Atlantic, we were enthralled by those gold catfish. "What a fantastic display they'll make at the aquarium," Griffis declared. "People love the color of gold. I can just see them in a black-walled tank, with a dim yellow light to bring out their color. They'll be fantastic." Not only were the fish a bright yellowish gold, but when the males were hauled in, fighting in the nets, they often spat out marble-sized greenish eggs and spiny tiny babies. Like many species of saltwater catfish, the males incubate the eggs and protect the fry by holding them in their mouths.
With great enthusiasm Griffis and I had worked through the night, changing the water in which the gold cats were held, selecting the specimens that were free of net burns. But to our disappointment, by morning they'd faded to what we learned was their natural, nondescript gray color. We felt like Cinderella after her golden coach had turned back into a pumpkin. Not even the sight of a roseate spoonbill rising in morning flight was much help in allaying our disappointment and exhaustion.
By now almost nothing surprised us about these strange Suriname fishes. This is the land of piranhas, electric eels and freshwater stingrays. Here in muddy waters that virtually no light penetrates, fish have evolved armored bodies, wickedly sharp teeth and venomous spines. To escape their attackers, they can change color or make raucous noises.