THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 9 DOUBLE ISSUE
A SHORT STORY BY
Ngoc sat down to fish, like the ancient La Vong waiting for the time of luck to come. The small boat was bobbing up and down on the sky-blue water, gentle waves lapping at the rowboat’s side. The anchor of the rowboat, wrought from an old hamlet steel post, helped keep it almost immobile in this vast world of water and sky. Upon launching, the rowboat looked sturdy, but now anchored, it looked like nothing more than baby Lam’s cute toy. The chubby face of his only babbling son appeared suddenly in his thoughts, making him feel numb. He glanced back toward the mainland as if trying to find again some familiar figures. His eyesight was blocked by a hill, its slope scattered with barren rocks amid tattered bushes lying exposed in the early morning sunlight. On the other side of the hill lay his native village, the place where he was born, the place he had loved profoundly for 25 years.
He hastened to leave home this morning, with one last glimpse at his old mother, his wife and baby. Their familiar faces looked indifferent before his departure. Could anyone understand his decision? Even his father and sister, who helped him carry the rowboat to the shore, could not comprehend that this was their final farewell. Rowing his boat farther from the shore, he turned his head and saw both of them climbing the hill to return home. Two slanting figures outlined clearly in the sky, like cardboard paper figures against an autumn lantern. Mindlessly he kept watching the two figures. No sooner had they disappeared than he turned his rowboat around. His hands moved swiftly with accelerating strokes. As soon as the boat hit the shore, he jumped out and ran to the poplar tree grove to dig up the bag of food he’d hidden there two days ago. Looking furtively around like a thief afraid to be caught, he flung himself back into the rowboat and continued rowing steadily.
It took him two hours of rowing without pause to reach a spot in the pond where he could throw the anchor down and pretend to be a fisherman. The would-be La Vong was in reality waiting for his appropriate moment. Ngoc was careful to pull down the conical hat to cover his face. He caught some small fish. Flapping in the narrow boat bed, they felt cold and slushy on his feet. Looking down at his rough and blackened feet, he thought of all the days he had climbed the mountain cutting the trees for construction of the rowboat. It took him almost a year to finish the job. He spread rumors among the villagers that he was making a boat for fishing and hauling sweet potatoes. His family owned some land on an island for growing sweet potatoes, and no one seemed to suspect anything. To go fishing as a way to gain more food for frugal meals was pretty normal, like anyone else in the village. And with this rowboat four meters long and one meter wide, he could only travel near the shore. To think of crossing the ocean in it was beyond imagination.
Ngoc made his plan. He decided he had to go. He could not stay to endure oppression, exploitation and repression from the village’s cadres. They were nothing but ignorant, arrogant security guards who always kept a hawk eye on the ragged villagers, arresting, questioning and extorting money whenever they liked! His mind was full of hatred while he had to behave in a yes-yes attitude, as docile as a servant. How could he go? The question lingered in his head without an answer. Also to board a boat or ship to cross the sea would cost a mountain of money. How would he find the money? What he came up with finally was to build his own boat. Going this way was to venture one’s own life but to die might be better than to live. There would be nothing to regret if he died for a lifetime test. Ngoc’s risk was a calculated one. He tactfully engaged in conversations with experienced fishermen to learn in advance of possible dangers, ways to mitigate them, and how to avoid choppy waves on the high sea.
He chose solid trees, cut them into 2 centimeter- thick planks and 5 centimeter- thick beams each. He meticulously nailed each beam together into a strong rowboat. On each side he tied a big foamy cone as a buoy to keep the boat balanced. For steering, a rudder was attached and an oar was pinned to a stake on the right side of the boat; in the middle stood a strong mainmast. The sail was cut from the corner of an old green parachute. He carefully hid the mainmast in a secret place and assembled it just before departure. In front of the rowboat he created two additional rudders for safety.
Ngoc changed his sitting position. The small cushion on top of the plank made it difficult for him to move. The tip of the fishing pole was jerking. He pulled it up. It was a fish fighting across the water’s surface. Its scales were brilliant like multiple stars. Fish were biting today. Even fishing for fun while waiting to sail out to the open sea, he caught about 50 of them. He beat them dead and dried them on the boat plank for food when needed. He was really worried when thinking of food. While hurrying to get his provisions in the poplar grove he forgot to dig up his dried sweet potato box. He cursed himself angrily. How careless he was! That sweet potato was the main source of food. Oh my god. He sat motionless to calculate. From Danang to Hainam island-his destination- it would take 10 days. On his boat, there were 3 packages of mung bean, each divided into 6 small pieces; 3 packages of moon cakes; each had 4 small pieces. Each package would suffice for one breakfast. In addition, he carried a rice ball plus some sugar cubes to be used for today’s meal. For drinking, he had 5 liters of fresh water in a plastic container. How could they be sufficient for his journey? Looking at the fish, drying on the boat’s plank, he thought it was a gift from heaven. They would help him to survive a few more days. He chuckled. Even his life was not safe, why think about small things?
The sun was at its zenith. Ngoc’s shadow, dwarfed by his conical hat while sitting on his boat, appeared no bigger than a round dot on the horizon. No one was around. Ngoc looked around and found nothing suspicious. He furiously rowed toward the sea. His body hardened; sweats oozed stickily. As he gazed at the front end of the boat moving up and down with his strokes, his mind was strangely blank. Every nerve, every artery seemed to press on his cold head, making him grope painfully. Both his hands, while rowing rhythmically in tune with his twisting body movement, were functioning like a machine at full speed.
Hour after hour passed by. His blades were regularly parting the water. The tiny rowboat hurriedly escaped the mainland. Ngoc steered it straight away from the coast. The water became darker. The light blue color changed to dark blue, purple and finally to black. Ngoc realized that he was indeed very far from his native village. Suddenly he turned his head. The seacoast behind him appeared in crescent shape. Earlier geographical lessons in elementary school surfaced vaguely in front of him. The painful S shape from which he escaped in a hurry made his gut bruised. Today was the day he had to bear in mind: The eighteenth day of June in the year Nineteen eighty-six (6/18/1986). Alive, he would remember it profoundly. Dead, he was sure his family would choose that day as his death anniversary. His eyes were drooping. He felt exhausted. Suddenly the jerking rowboat awoke him. I must survive first, he told himself. He strained his eyes to look forward but his head gradually turned back, like an invisible string was pulling him. The sun had set behind the mountain range in the distance. Miniscule lights like fireflies climbed up and down the slopes. He knew that they were cars traversing over the Ca and Hai Van passes. The country was shrinking in front of his haggard eyes.
Sounds of heavy breathing pulled him back to reality. He saw strange black creatures darting toward his boat. He gaped at them, momentarily paralyzed. Each creature was alternately parting the water to rush forward. Suddenly he recalled experienced fishermen’s stories concerning this phenomenon - the dolphins. About 15 of them were moving toward him. They were friendly fish. He hoped that the stories he’d heard were true. He opened his jaw wide to avoid shivering. How friendly could these fish be, they needed only to lightly flap their tail and his rowboat would be crushed to pieces. The closer the breathing came, the tenser his head became. He wanted to close his eyes and let his fate be decided by chance. The fish’s huge shiny backs were dancing before his eyes. The distance shortened. Only one hundred meters more and his boat would twist like a pitiful leaf before tossing him into the water. But then as if driven by an invisible force, the school of fish suddenly turned to the right side of his boat and headed south. Ngoc was able to breathe again. In a wink, a thousand-pound worry melted into the sea. His body collapsed like a wilted banana frond as he was overwhelmed with joy – he had survived again.
Water and sky gradually became one. The night shadow like a big sack enveloped Ngoc. He shuddered, recalling the claustrophobic feeling he had when he was six years old, playing in the corner of his yard during twilight and his sister covered him with an old rice sack. The sticky moldy smell, the tiny particles of dust flowing densely into his nostrils, the fear rushing into him like a rough hand trying to squeeze his chest, making him feel as confined as if he were playing inside his grandmother’s coffin which stood silently in a dark corner of the house. Now alone in the darkness of the immense sea, he felt bewildered and breathless by his boyhood fear. He curled himself up in absolute solitude. He felt immersed in the infinity of the ocean. From every direction, cold wet arms cornered him into the fear of all primitive human creatures curled up within the infinite universe. His mind was lost in absolute emptiness. Space seemed to recede, time seemed to be lost, only chaos swirled around a single naked creature in darkness. He longed for a breath, a human voice or a human shape.
The southwest breeze arose, awakening Ngoc. He hurriedly set sail. The pitiful, deformed sail was soon filled with wind. The sail’s edges were streaming like warm hands stretching to embrace him. Stars were huddling like entangled, tumbling fireflies in his backyard on a summer night. Waiting for the next breeze, Ngoc tried to find some familiar stars so he could steer his boat to the northeast direction. Without a compass, he struggled to find direction by the sun during the day; at night, he depended on the bright stars for direction. The boat was running smoothly on the pitch-black water.
Water leaked up to his ankles in the boat. Ngoc hurried to scoop the water out with his canteen cup. While he was struggling, the boat suddenly tipped to the left. The sail hovered on the water surface. Frightened, he stood up straight to raise the sail and a ferocious wind blasted the rowboat upside down. Ngoc was thrown into the freezing sea. A moment later he surfaced, gasping and just barely managed to grab hold of the boat’s side. Clinging there helplessly, he felt nothing but despair. His goal of crossing the sea was shattered. How could he stand up against the sea’s fury? Would his body turn into bait for cruel fish? If he were lucky enough to be washed ashore, he would be put in prison for life. The impasse somehow helped him summon his energy for survival. He struggled furiously with his boat to remain alive. Thanks to the foamy buoys on both sides, the boat was only half immersed in the water. Swimming around the boat for a while, he tried to put all his weight on one side, using his force to overturn the capsized boat. Once, twice, he patiently pulled with all his strength. Finally the capsized boat was turned up, and with it raised all Ngoc’s hope. He quickly climbed back into the boat and frantically bailed with his conical hat. Soon it began to float again, but he was faced with a number of problems. Ngoc examined what was left from his meager heritage. The only food left intact was what he had tied to the boat. The three moon cakes were water soaked, only three mung bean cakes were possibly edible. Only a few fish caught earlier remained. Still in the boat were the fishing pole and the knife. Ngoc was relieved that his fresh water container was still with him, but the plastic box with matches and seasick pills was lost in the sea. He would dearly miss this precious box. Matches were to be used in case he was washed ashore on a deserted island. Fire was needed for cooking, heating and providing vitality necessary to continue his journey. And now everything was snuffed out with the vicious wind. He probably could not make it without seasick pills. It was not easy for him to endure the rough, relentless waves. At noon today he took one pill and intended to keep on taking them sparingly. These precious pills that he had accumulated for a long period of time were now beyond his reach. He thought dully about what to do when being attacked by violent waves. Among the hundreds of preparations for unexpected, this he had not predicted.
Looking at the full-blown sail cutting through the sky above him, Ngoc’s mind was in turmoil. If he kept on reasoning, weighing, thinking over possibilities, he had only one choice: to row his boat back. But going back...he did not dare to think more about it. He shook his head, trying to get rid of burning images of the utmost unbearable misfortune. There was only one way - to keep on going.
The southwest wind continued to blow, pushing the boat forward smoothly on the gentle rippling waves. Ngoc looked up at the stars for direction, set up the rudder and prepared to sleep. Sleep came suddenly as he felt extremely tired. The seasick pills taken this morning had become ineffective. No sooner had he lain down than his eyelids became as heavy as two pieces of cold steel sheets. Dozing off for a few minutes, he got up to find his back all wet. Water was leaking into the boat again. He got up and scooped it out. Afterward he took the anchor’s rope, tied it firmly around from the bow to stern. Then he lay on it to get dry. Both arms spread over the sides of the boat and his toes clamped to the boat’s edges to avoid falling off. He covered himself with a raincoat and drifted off into a staccato sleep. Even though he had to wake up every hour to bail water out of the boat, those bits of sleep still helped him feel refreshed.
Near dawn, Ngoc saw a big ship anchoring in front of his boat. Glancing at the blue flag, Ngoc knew that it was a state run ship from North Viet Nam. He tried to paddle away but did not have enough time. The full moon showed everything clearly. He took a risk steering his rowboat, about 15 meters from the ship’s rudder. If discovered by the ship’s sailors, they would surely open fire on him. He held his breath when the ship overshadowed his diminutive rowboat. After gaining some distance from the big ship, he breathed a sigh of relief.
The sun appeared gradually over the horizon as if someone shouldered it up little by little. Never before had Ngoc seen such immensity of water and sky. A new day appeared brightly as it embraced the little rowboat. He looked back to the mainland. All he could see was the blue color of the open sea. His stomach churned but he was not sure if it was because of hunger or separation from his native land. He opened the food package. The soaked moon cakes were now mushy. He spread them out to dry. Ngoc took a piece of mung bean paste and tried to swallow it, but it stuck dryly in his throat. He reached for his water, gulped just a mouthful of it and hurried to screw the cap right back
The wind stopped blowing. The sail seemed unable to push the boat forward. Ngoc had to row. The scorching heat was pouring down from every direction. Dazzled by the dancing sunrays, he pulled his hat and sleeves down to avoid them. His body was burning as hot as if he stood near a ferocious fire.
The sunlight hardened his moon cakes. He broke off a foul-smelling piece and put it in his mouth. It tasted like a piece of rock. Not edible. Looking at the cakes, he felt sorry to loose them. He did not know whether to hold on to the inedible cakes or to throw them away. The cake dilemma gave him a headache. He chuckled, seized one and dashed it into the water. Immediately he was sorry for his rashness. Now his meager food supply was even smaller, how could he undergo the hardships ahead? Just a small piece of cake, a mouthful of water for each meal could not keep his arms strong enough to handle the paddling effectively. The oars became heavier and heavier. Attacks of seasickness weakened him tremendously. At times, he had to twist himself to vomit out of the boat. The tiny bit of cake thrown up with blue and yellow bile made him extremely tired.
Ngoc tried to foster all his remaining mental strength for his escape. He told himself not to give up early. He had yet to pass the second day. He looked at the sea defiantly. ‘I have to beat you. There is no other way out for me.’ He glanced at the sky. The blazing sun blinded. ‘Hey sun, keep on burning. You can’t destroy my spirit. He mumbled like a crazy man lost on the high seas. ‘Cannot give up, cannot die, either,’ he told himself. His arms seemed infused with more strength. As if in a dream, he diligently rowed forward, the direction of life.
The brutal sun gradually went down. Its scorching light seemed blurred as if it covered the shame of a defeated warrior. The southwest wind blew again to help raise Ngoc’s hope. He hastened to raise the sail, set up the rudder and lay down to get some sleep. Sleep came easily. He was exhausted after a whole day struggling with the paddles.
The sunlight was terrible on the third day of his odyssey. All the water in his body seemed to evaporate. Never in his life had Ngoc felt so thirsty. His mouth was dry, his throat sticky, all his body ached. He dared not drink more. Finally he mustered his courage to close the water container. The water level lowered gradually, and he felt as if he were going mad. He closed his eyes to pray to heaven for rain; he would be bathed in the graceful water pouring upon him. Water. Water. Where was that precious stuff hidden? He glanced up. Only sunlight poured into his eyes. There wasn’t a drinkable drop of water in the whole ocean. Volumes of water innocently jostled around as if sneering at him. He beat his hands angrily on the water. It splashed over him. Some drops of water entered his mouth. They were very salty. He spat them out furiously.
Ngoc used the can to splash water over himself. His wet clothes made him feel less uncomfortable. The broiling heat still tortured him. Before long the thirstiness crept back. His clothes had turned dry instantly. Groping for his canteen, he poured water continuously on himself. Wet and dry. Dry and wet. The repeated action gave him the feeling of wearing an old warrior’s armor, as stiff as a snail shell.
Ngoc curled up in absolute solitude, a lonesome human being adrift between the boundlessness of sea and sky. He longed to see another human face, but all he could see were some enamel white seagulls circling around with earnest, incoherent cries. After a while, they landed on a slow-moving patch of seaweed, looking for food. Every now and then, they raised their heads to look at Ngoc with bewildered round eyes. He craved the lovable winged creatures’ serenity. Some big sea turtles floated by as serene as the seagulls. They turned upside-down, playing with the waves rippling around. Tired of playing, these giant black bodies started raising their heads to munch on the seaweed. While watching the turtles and trying to forget his thirst, Ngoc caught sight of entwining sea snakes, as big as his forearms, afloat. Startled, he looked around and saw other sea snakes either swimming or lying in the seaweed bed. These creatures, with their white and brown stripes, frightened him. They could kill people any time. Ngoc tried to stay away from the seaweed bed lest these vicious snakes slither onto his boat by the oar.
Ngoc looked around his boat to be sure that none were inside. It was not worth dying because of these devilish creatures. He lifted one thing after another, checking his scant possessions to reassure himself that no awful sea snake was in his boat. He had just become calm again when he heard breathing like thunder moving toward his direction. Looking around, he saw dolphins were everywhere. The fragile boat, in the middle of a school of dolphins whose black backs bobbed like buffalo, could capsize at any time. Ngoc hastily lay down, hoping to keep the boat balanced. The big fish kept on playing innocently, unaware at the fright they were causing. Ngoc’s head whirled. His boat was like a goalie waiting for a deadly ball to be shot. His rocking, flimsy craft would surely sink at any moment. Suddenly, the giant fish swam away as swiftly as they had approached. Their heavy breathing gradually faded. Ngoc’s eyes welled up with tears. He raised his face up to thank heaven. His eyes met a late afternoon cloud passing by nonchalantly. Even the cloud had a place to return, whereas he had been floating alone in the ocean. Sadness overwhelmed him and he wanted to weep.
Three o’clock on June 22nd, when he awoke to empty the boat of water, Ngoc saw some light in the distance. He quietly examined it. His eyes were hypnotized by the trace of light, like the deer’s eyes drinking in illumination at night. The light shone on the sea like a savior. He thought a ship must have been waiting for him. Discarding all worries, he charged his boat toward the signal of life. The boat moved fast, but his mind was faster. He had seen a ship in harbor. The excitement helped quicken his strokes. But hour after hour passed and he was nowhere near the lighted area. He became puzzled. Was the light an illusion? He rubbed his eyes, shook his head. The lighted area was still there. He was not dreaming. He kept on paddling, his oars moving like dancers. The sun was rising, revealing a black object sitting motionless in the sea. It was certainly a big ship waiting for him. He seemed to be infused with a tremendous strength. He had to reach it before it changed its course! Hour after hour elapsed. The ship was still there; his mind awakened with the morning sunlight. No time to act thoughtlessly. Had to catch this ship. His arms were eager to shorten the distance. The sun was almost at zenith. He was able to see the steel posts under the water supporting a black structure, which gradually came closer and closer. He guessed it was an oilrig. His boat moved nearer. Finally he saw it clearly. Behind the rig were two Chinese ships bearing the flagship numbers 205 and 207. On the rig frame, the word ANHAI No2 was painted. Ngoc was happy to see silhouettes of tiny human beings, like dolls, moving back and forth on the rig platform. He tore part of his black trouser pants, cut the pieces into SOS letters, patched them on the sail, put it up and rowed forward. He saw black hairy men mingled with brown-haired people. He also noticed the letters NO SMOKING, EXIT together with Chinese characters. The seamen on the ship waved him to get near. About 100 meters from the rig he was signalled to stop. He raised his plastic container as a sign to ask for water. They lowered two cans of fresh water by rope. Only one half liter of fresh water and one package of cake remained in his boat. He was overjoyed with his bounty. He lifted one can to pour water over his face, his mouth. His body was rejuvenated with the fresh water. His eyes looked up with gratefulness to the human beings on the platform. Some wore white shirts with ties, blue pants; others wore worker’s blue outfits. They looked at him with pity. Ngoc returned the full can of water, keeping only the remaining half can. He was afraid that his small boat could not carry two heavy cans of water. From the platform, they lowered three ham sandwiches. As soon as he grasped them, he started eating. He chewed and swallowed like a hungry beast. Before long all three sandwiches were gone. They offered him a bag of rice, which he refused because his boat was too small to carry it.
Ngoc’s stomach felt uncomfortable. He had been eating meagerly during the last few days, and now after stuffing himself with all three sandwiches, he was full and tired. He gave a signal for climbing onto the ship. They shook their heads. He was pleading with his eyes. How could they abandon him, a human being? He stubbornly clung to the rope. Some Chinese words were broadcast from the ship. He did not make out any. Suddenly the ship started to move but he did not let go off the rope. Then the tiny boat lurched and the water rushed in quickly. He scurried to empty the boat. Dog-tired, he lay down, closed his eyes with his hat covering his face. He felt like a castaway. His tiny boat was adrift again on the sea.
A moment later, Ngoc heard noises of a boat engine. Opening his eyes, he recognized a motorized boat, launched from the ship with 10 people aboard, Americans and Chinese. He was asked to move his boat alongside the other boat. They gave him a big bag containing 5 biscuit packages, 4 bottles of water, one pack of 7 UP. He could not help opening one can. He took a big swig. It gave him the feeling of drinking sacred water from heaven. One man on the motorized boat took a picture of him. Ngoc pointed to his hand, signalling to ask the time. They raised 4 fingers. It was 4 p.m. already. Pointing to one direction, he asked if it was Hong Kong, Hai-Nam? They answered in English. He shook his head. They pointed to another direction, said “Hai Nam.” He understood it was the direction to Hai Nam. He waved. They waved back, saying: “Bye, Bye!”
Ngoc set sail to go, but he kept looking at the people on the motorized boat, those who brought both happiness and sadness to him at the same time. He was happy because he saw some human figures after many solitary days on the sea, because he was fed enough and would not have to worry about provisions for some days ahead. He was sad they refused to let him to be on board the ship, he was deprived of human warmth, and separated from all people to face his solitude once again amid the billowing waves. He chose a direction and let his rowboat float onward.
His boat was only floating for a short while when Ngoc saw a fishing ship traveling on the same water way. He could not believe his eyes when he recognized a state-registered fishing boat from Da Nang. How strange! He’d just left the Chinese oilrig so it should be near the Chinese territorial waters. How come a Vietnamese fishing boat happened to be in this area? These scattered basket boats fishing with their nets made Ngoc worried. He could be arrested if suspected as an escapee. He doubted the provisions just given by the oilrig men were enough evidence for him to be arrested. In a hurry, he covered them with his raincoat. He tried to look straight ahead and moved forward to overtake the nearest basket boat. He strove to keep a distance from the boat. However, when his boat was parallel with one, the fishermen stared at him. Ngoc spoke first:
A pleasant answer echoed:
-Hey, you are Vietnamese, aren’t you?
What are you doing here?
Where is your boat?
-I moored it near the shore and got out to fish.
-Come here for some bait.
-Thanks. I have enough.
-Where are you from?
-Hue. How about you?
-Da Nang. Hey, be careful. The Chinese have just chased us away.
-Do you know how to get back to Da Nang?
Ngoc pointed to the direction he just left. He needed to stay away from this group. Delay would reveal his intention. He waved good-bye to them:
Ngoc rowed his boat straight ahead without looking back. The sun had just gone down and the southwest wind began to blow. Ngoc set his sail immediately in the direction of the bright star, set the boat’s rudder properly and lay down for some sleep. Sleep came to him slowly and heavily.
Early morning June 23rd, Ngoc could no longer see the oilrig. It was suddenly windy. From a distance he could see the rain spreading like a white blanket across the horizon. The wind was blowing fiercely to the East. He dreaded the oncoming storm. How could he keep the rowboat from capsizing? He pulled in the anchor and tied an empty can about two meters from it so the boat’s bow work nicely in the wind. He had learned this technique from experienced seafarers. Before long, the rain lashed the rowboat. Ngoc put on his raincoat and began to bail. Huge, savage waves pounded his tiny boat. Ngoc could not distinguish any direction in this mistiness around him as if he was covered in a shroud. He worked incessantly to stabilize his boat, but became exhausted after more than an hour of exertion. He didn’t think he could last much longer if the storm kept going. While getting the water out, he prayed for the storm to stop. In a short while, the rain and wind weakened and eventually stopped. He breathed out, thankful that once again, he had escaped another danger.
After the storm, the air was crystal clear. Ngoc saw a mountain range looming ahead. He guessed his boat was within the Chinese territorial waters, and beyond would probably be mainland China. Was it Hai Nam Island? He thought. He secretly hoped that his reasoning was correct. Suddenly he worried whether he was headed in the right direction. Maybe he was on his way back to Viet Nam! He groped for directions like a blind man. “Have to reach the shore,” he mumbled. When the southwest wind began to blow, he raised his sail toward the island, locked the boat’s rudder, and lay down for some sleep.
About 10 o’clock at night when Ngoc woke up to empty his boat, he saw two tall ships ablaze with lights. Oh my God! His boat had no light at all. If these ships ran straight, then he and his boat would be crushed in the sea. He stared at the two ships gliding close by. No hit. He thought to himself, God has saved me again.
On the 6th day, there was another storm heading out from the inland. Ngoc was better off because this storm was less severe than the first one. He still used the mountain range as a compass to direct his boat to the shore. He had seen the mountain since yesterday, but it was still a long way off. The mountain range ahead made it difficult for him to decide which was the closest point to land. He aimed at the clearest peak, because it was the closest. The mere sight of the island looming ahead made Ngoc restless. The rippling waves around his boat exhausted him. He thought of a harbor as a safe, supportive place after many days and nights bobbing and lurching in the open sea. The reddening sun was hovering over the ocean as Ngoc ate his biscuits and drank his pop. He wondered hopefully if this would be his last meal at sea. The southwest wind arose like a punctual friend. Ngoc raised his sail, set his rudder with the nearest shore in sight then lay down to rest.
The thundering waves woke Ngoc up. Their sounds made him guess that he was near the shore. The newly risen sun shed its weak light on the land in front of him. His tiny boat shuddered before the violent waves rushing towards the shore. To avoid damage to the boat, he steered it sideways to move parallel with the coast. Some fishing boats went by. He immediately took a white plastic bag and tied it up on the fishing pole’s tip to request assistance to get ashore. The indifferent fishing boats kept on going without heeding Ngoc’s pleading for assistance. He followed the fishing boats with humiliation and endurance. He tried to get his boat on land. But due to the strong current, his obstinate boat would not budge despite his strong strokes. Finally he managed to bring it to the shore. He pulled it up and examined his supplies. He had a big biscuit package, 3 cans of pop, one can of water and a knife. He set his foot on land about 10 A.M. on June 25, after 8 days half-dead on the ocean. He trudged to the inland with difficulty; each step increased the pain in his groin. The seawater he poured on his body to fight his thirst had created painful cracks in his skin. He saw a temporary thatched hut in a pineapple grove ahead. The elderly couple there stared at him in surprise as he walked toward them. Their clothes were Chinese. He breathed contentedly, happy not to be stepping on his native soil. He had landed on foreign soil. His joy made him speechless.
Some fishermen gathered around Ngoc. They looked at him inquisitively as if he were an alien. They pointed and babbled in a language he could not understand. He shook his head. These blackened faces, under their Chinese conical hats, smiled shyly. Ngoc glanced over and stopped at a well; he signalled for a bath. They nodded. He poured fresh water on himself from head to toe. As the water streaked down, the sea salt began melting. A feeling of pleasantness crept all over his body. His crisp clothing softened thanks to the well water. He felt as if he were coming back to life. Mental and physical elation spread over him and he was imbued with a serene peacefulness.
He looked over at his friendly boat, which helped carry him to this land. While watching some local fishermen unload their boats, an urgent idea- to beg for food- crossed his mind. He then gave a signal for food. They brought him rice with some fish and stood watching him eating ravenously. He bowed his head and kept on eating like a pig, without shame. Only when he was half way full, did he see himself as a miserable beggar, who swallowed every handful of rice under his benefactor’s eyes. After his meal, he made a gesture of sleep; then with his raincoat spread on the sand he fell immediately into a long, deep sleep.
When he awoke, it was almost twilight. His eyes felt as if they were on fire. The brilliant sun on the ocean had burned his eyes so much he could hardly open them. Only two middle aged men and one youth remained in the watchtower hut. They lit torches and brought some rice with a few pieces of dragonfly fish for him to eat. It was fishy but fresh and sweet. They looked at him eating with pleasure. When he finished eating, he wrote the word “HaiNam” on the sand and pointed at it with a question. They nodded, uttered “HaiNam.” He wept tears of happiness with the news.
Three pairs of eyes looked at him quizzically. He heard them saying vaguely some words like baba, mama. He nodded. They grinned. He wrote the word Vietnam on the sand. They understood. One man pretended to put a ring on his ring finger and he guessed that they were asking if he was married. He nodded. They gestured carrying a baby so he raised one finger. They laughed and said: “Good! Good!” The hobbling conversation was fun. Strong pats on his back, frank smiles and friendly words made him feel warm with human interaction. The sea was still humming nearby but he felt detached completely from the solitary hours in his tiny rowboat.
The sky was full of stars. They invited Ngoc to sleep in the tower. After seeing that the tower had little space, Ngoc motioned that he would sleep outside. He went down the beach, dragged his boat up, turned it upside down, and sneaked in to sleep using his raincoat as a cover. Over the past days while he had to struggle against terrible storms, his mind was zeroing in on his own survival. Tonight while he was lying on the land, the images of his wife, his child, his parents and villagers rushed to him. Each face drew a sigh. How soon would he be able to embrace his wife, his son, and his parents and to live once again in his village? He had little hope of ever seeing them again. His talk, with gestures, with seafarers returned to him. They had inquired after his parents, his wife and children naturally as if everybody had family nearby. Family members were considered a peaceful link in life. But he had discarded all linkage to become a vagabond. Under his back, grains of sand pricked his skin like a thousand needles. He dozed off fitfully.
In his sleep, Ngoc felt a tapping on the boat. He turned his boat and peered out of the poncho to see what was happening. Two men in khaki uniforms, with revolvers in their belt, looked at him. He sat up. One man holding a melon gave him a friendly wave. They crouched down, broke the melon and offered a piece to Ngoc. He quickly took hold of the melon out of fear of those who had firearms. They smiled, bit the melon and signalled him to do the same. The sweet, fresh melon made him awake. After the three of them finished the melon, they told Ngoc by signal to go on sleeping. He guessed that they were informed of Ngoc’s presence and had brought along a melon as a welcoming sign when they did their inspection. Their gestures warmed him.
Ngoc awoke to light streaming in under his rowboat. It was quite a long time since he’d woken up on stable ground. He found some water to wash his face and stood looking around. This must be a tattered, hidden corner of HaiNam. If he tried to stay here, he would never reach HongKong. He had to go to the urban area. He decided quickly to get going, because any further delay would certainly weaken his resolve to complete his journey. Meeting with the fishermen from yesterday, he bid farewell and gave the signal to keep on going. They pointed their fingers to the billowing waves and he nodded decisively. They gave him some rice with fish and also an extra bag of food. He accepted the rice but refused the fish, because it would smell later on. Someone handed him a bag of salt and a bottle of water. He carried his rowboat to the water. They wished him luck by waving. He was sad to leave these kind,
Ngoc raised his sail for the southwest wind to push his boat forward. He felt much better after resting and washing on the mainland for a day. The boat ran smoothly alongside the island. The mainland on the left kept appearing and disappearing, making him feel secure. Rippling waves lapped against the boat as if playing hour after hour. The day passed swiftly into night. Ngoc intended to go ashore to sleep when he saw a long beach cutting across the island border. There was no strait for him to enter. He had to sleep on his boat. Giant waves rocked his boat unceasingly. Ngoc feared the towering waves would soon capsize his boat, so he pulled up his anchor and rowed his boat as far from the shore as possible. Off shore, the waves seemed to be calmer. Ngoc felt safer anchoring off shore. Once more he tried to sleep but the boat’s rocking motion made Ngoc crave the peace and stability of the night before.
It was near dawn when he saw a flotilla of last night’s fishing ships returning to the harbor. His tiny, fragile boat began bobbing precariously along side the big ships. Standing up, he waved his hat as a signal for them to stay away lest his tiny boat’s anchor be cut. The group of ships passed by peacefully. Ngoc pulled anchor and continued to row his boat along the coast, his rhythmic strokes swallowing mile after mile. No longer was he obsessed with hunger and thirst, or faced with dangerous conditions. His journey had been lightened a lot. He was no longer afraid of the challenges of the ocean but thought only of the humans he had still to encounter. He had been treated very well yesterday, but deep down he was keenly aware of the danger that lay ahead.
The sun was hanging high above, shrinking the rowboat’s meager shadow. Ngoc saw the entrance to the fishing harbor, and he directed his boat to shore. Groups of young men and women wearing hats with earflaps rushed out. He put his anchor down, got out of his boat, and came forward to beg for food. As soon as he finished eating, they asked him to leave. He showed his bottle, asked for some water. A person who was hanging clothes to dry pointed to a well. An old man showed his mercy by giving him a bowl of soup. He crouched, sipped the soup, a mixture of shrimp and crab; it was delicious. He mumbled his thanks to the kind old man as he returned the empty bowl. He then drew on the sand a picture of a ship with a rope to guide the tiny boat. They shook their head after giving him a package of biscuits in a plastic bag. While he was still begging for assistance, another group of fishermen shoved his boat off. He ran toward the water, held on to his boat, climbed aboard and rowed out to sea. He paddled continuously until dark when he met with fierce waves, which prevented him from going ashore. He then rowed to a small island about six kilometers from the shore. As soon as he reached the island, he took off two rudders and dragged the boat onto the sand. Then he walked around the island but found only rocks and knee-high shrubs. There were no signs of any human being. He felt nervous to discover that he was on a deserted island, but he had to take the risk. He ate his dinner of biscuits and water, turned his boat upside down and crept under to pass the night.
The following morning, Ngoc rowed his boat further along the coast. He kept on paddling until noon when he came across a bustling seaside area. He went ashore, his eyes glowing with the sight of low-roofed houses and small market stalls for selling fruit, shoes and cookies. It looked like a tiny open market in Viet Nam. He arrived at a food stall to beg. His unkempt, brazen face helped him beg for food in an unashamed way. They gave him a bowl of porridge with some sugar plus a boiled piece of fish. The “nuc” fish, both salty and bad smelling, was difficult to swallow though he was hungry. An old lady sitting next to him gave him some paper money. Perhaps it was worth one something because he saw the number 1 on it. He took it, thanked her and dragged himself to the stall selling cakes and cookies. He showed the seller his money and pointed to the bag of cakes. She handed him one bag, dug in her pocket for the change. He made a gesture of denial with his hand and pointed to a fried round cake, like “banh cam” in Vietnam. She gave him two of them. How wonderful and tasty they were!
An elderly man, walking the opposite way, looked at him with a smile. Ngoc bowed to him. The man shook his hand and wanted to talk. Ngoc asked him to crouch and drew a Vietnamese map on the land and pointed to himself and said Vietnam. The man nodded to show that he understood. Ngoc pointed to the ground and asked if it was Hai-Nam. The old man nodded. Ngoc used his hand to make gestures and asked how to go to Hong Kong. The old man shook his head.
Ngoc returned to his boat to continue his journey. He set his sail to follow the southwest wind and rowed till sundown, when he stopped his boat to observe white spots visible under the water: coral reefs. The tall rocks covered with sharp coral looked frightening. Any waves that slapped against them could drive his boat into a dangerous situation. Luckily, his was a tiny boat floating on top of the water, not easily hit by the reefs. After leaving them behind, Ngoc looked back, shuddering. Suppose his boat was big and heavy, he did not know what his fate would have been.
The sun touched the ocean surface. Twilight reminded him to seek shelter. He saw a wave-covered strait and headed directly toward it. He thought his vision was blurring when he caught sight of a curved dory on the sand. Ngoc was very familiar with this kind of boat. It was built to traverse the open seas. It could slice through the waves smoothly. Even in a storm, this dory’s bow lifted safely. China did not have this type of boat. It was surely one of the Vietnamese boat people’s dories. Ngoc felt terribly anxious and told himself to be careful. He nervously kept watch on its position, sensing his survival was at stake. This instinct clung to him like a miserable hump on the back of a hump-backed person. Seeing compatriots in a foreign land troubled. Pretending indifference, he walked toward the dory. A group of about 20 people had gathered near the dory’s bow, cooking on the sand. They were talking in Vietnamese. It had been a long time since he’d heard that sweet-sounding language. He pretended to look at the strange motorized boat. One man glanced at him, swearing: “Motherfucker! Why does that Chinese man come to see the boat?” Ngoc felt strangely warm. How nice it was to hear a curse in Vietnamese! Turning his head toward the boat people, he asked:
-Where are you from?
The whole group sat in silence, looking at him with astonishment. The one who uttered the curse asked coyly:
-Are you a native or a boat person?
Their eyes brightened with merriment. Many questions echoed:
-Where did you start?
-Lang Co, and where are you from?
-Our ten-person group is from Hue; and eleven-person group is from Nha Trang. With whom do you go?
-I go by myself!
Surprised faces stared at him, askance. One man asked timidly:
-By yourself? Where is your boat?
Ngoc pointed to his rowboat. They all ran forward to see it. The sail still had the S.O.S. sign cutting against the sky like a challenging arm. Another man turned to ask him:
-Did you say you escaped from Lang Co by this tiny boat? How dreadful!
He was invited to join them for a meal. Their noisy conversations gave Ngoc an impression of being in a fishing village on the central Viet Nam coast. The group from Nha Trang related that their boat’s engine died close to the Philippine’s territorial waters. They drifted to Hai Nam. Two of their companions, unable to cope with thirst and hunger, had died at sea. Approaching the island, they bartered a golden ring to be towed ashore. When they landed, they were as thin as skeletons, hardly able to drag their feet; they stumbled while walking on the sand. The authority of the island helped by taking them to the hospital and giving them medicine and food. Gradually they recuperated. Their boat was damaged and needed repair.
Ngoc felt like a lost bird among this group. They had started together, had shouldered danger, suffered hunger and thirst for a long time as a solid group. And now he, separate and lonely, wished to join them on their journey. Taking advantage of a moment of good humor, Ngoc asked the Hue group leader if that would be possible. The answer from the leader made Ngoc sad:
-Let me ask the people in my group.
Early the following morning while Ngoc was sleeping, he heard a boat’s engine start. He sprang up and saw that the boat from Hue was heading out to sea. He hurried to launch his rowboat but could not catch up with them. Never had Ngoc felt as dejected as he did now. He haggardly paddled his boat. It seemed to be heavier than it was before. Ngoc wanted to let his fate go with the current. Noon came, his stomach was empty but there was nothing to eat. He rowed his boat to a strait where some fishermen were having lunch. He waited close by for them to finish eating. He was a seasoned beggar asking for food with his shameless face. Those kind fishermen gave him some buns of rice and a chunk of boiled fish. He bowed his head, swallowing the food hastily. After he was finished eating, they asked him to leave immediately. He continued his journey, downhearted and discouraged. His tiny boat, compared to the fishing boats around, looked like a sick and messy boy. More water was leaking into the boat. He constantly had to bail it out. Violent waves and hidden rocks continued to batter the rowboat, which had become like a spent patient. Feeling both dejected and fearful of danger, Ngoc got his boat ashore, tied it up carefully and walked back toward the men in the Nha Trang group. Glancing back at the rowboat, which had shared with him all good and bitter things, he could not keep back his tears.
The path he walked was torturous and full of danger. He needed to climb to the top of cliffs, over winding, tree-clad paths, and slide down into perilous caves. In five hours he covered just a short distance. Dog-tired and terribly hungry, he dug a hole to sleep in despite the risk. He slept fitfully like a dead person in his own grave.
The early sunrise woke Ngoc up. He resumed his difficult path. Luckily he ran across a group of fishermen returning home from the night’s catch. They had just finished unloading and were about to eat. He stopped, stood nearby and waited to beg for food. They gave him some rice with fish, the staple food of fishermen. They were happy to chat with him. He signalled that he didn’t understand. They gestured to see if he had a wife and children. He wrote on the sand two Chinese characters, one for woman, one for son, pointed to them and nodded. They showed their sympathy and one young man even gave him a cigarette, though he had just a few left.
Ngoc bid farewell to the kind group of people and walked all day until he reached the Nha Trang boat people gathering in the evening. Their welcome made him feel as warm as if he were returning to his own family. Those days of hardship had turned him against a life of solitude. He needed to live in a crowd, especially among his fellow men. He was lucky to arrive just in time. The Nha Trang boat had just been repaired by the island authority. A security guard, who knew some Vietnamese, came to let the group know of the island authority’s decision by a slow, staccato Vietnamese phrase: “You ship done repaired. Now go on reach Hong Kong.” Two boxes of cakes were carried down to the ship as a gift to the boat people. The ship moved slowly to the sea. Ngoc was surprised with the new journey. The people’s shadows around him, in addition to the big, stable ship, made him feel that the sea was much more peaceful and gentle. He looked down at the sea and inside felt as buoyant as the ship itself, riding placidly on the gentle, ordinary waves.
The ship’s engine died after running just a few hours. The pilot couldn’t fix it, so he headed back to the shore. The group agreed to walk back to the starting place. Security guards were angry to see them returning. The unwelcome guests caused so much trouble. The Vietnamese speaking security guard directed his anger toward Ngoc:
-Were you got the SOS’s rowboat?
-Why not go on by that boat?
-It was damaged.
-It looked still good. Why throw away 2 packages of cakes?
-The boat was no good to carry them.
-You guys not tell truth.
Ngoc did not dare to laugh at the security guard’s broken Vietnamese
The twelve boat people were not provided with food as usual. They were given 4 kilos of rice instead and they had to cook for themselves. They accepted what happened. It was still better than to be hungry on the sea. A few days later when their anger subsided, the security guards returned. The Vietnamese speaking guard announced eagerly: “I got good news for you folk. Comrade Le Duan (he shook his head, saying it again) Mr. Le Duan has died.”
On July 15th, security gave the boat people another ship to go on their journey. They started out after noon. and sailed along the coast. At night, the wind picked up and the sea began to churn. The ship’s engine became hot. Soon the propeller twisted and the pilot had to get the ship on the beach. But shots were fired to drive the ship away. The pilot had to anchor out in open water and wait for daylight to come.
The following morning the ship turned its bow to the shore requesting to land. Security guards asked everybody to stay on board. Some young men unscrewed the propeller to bring it in for repair. The guards showed them where the blacksmith was. After the propeller was fixed, the security guards followed them back to the ship and sent them away.
The unfortunate people returned to the sea to continue their journey. The sun rose and set. Days passed with everyone hoping to reach HongKong; the sooner the better. In their anticipation the fragrance of Hong Kong filled their nostrils. A fishing ship bearing HongKong’s flag appeared. Everybody climbed up on the rail, waving merrily. The friendly Hong Kong ship maneuvered alongside their boat. Sailors gave them rice, cigarettes and soft drinks. In addition, they also waved their hands; to show them in which direction Hong Kong lay. With a big smile, they wished them well. That was a warm enough welcome for those displaced people looking for a new country.
The ship came to the end of Hai Nam. The undulating range of seven mountain tops on the island seemed to wish them farewell. Farewell to the friendly island, which provided them with cosy days of shelter on their odyssey. But a sudden storm arose, twirling the ship about madly till finally it washed up on the beach, broken and as exposed as a cadaver.
Twelve people stood motionless, facing a desperate reality. The gloomy atmosphere was like a funeral. A security jeep drove up. The most fluent English speaking person, Ms. Hien, was asked to lead the investigation, and make a list of all the refugees on board. A bigger security car transported all of them to a secret location, a restaurant! The security guard asked everybody to come in and order whatever they want. The Chinese menu was unfamiliar, but using all kinds of hand signals, finally each person ordered a big bowl of noodle soup. A customer at the next table turned around and asked a blunt question in Vietnamese:
-Ya Viet Nam?
-Ordered. Waiting. You speak Vietnamese very well.
-Long time ago, me stay Viet Nam. And you, where stay? Formerly, me stayed Phan Thiet.
Security guards at the door looked into the room, serious expressions occupied their faces, as if they were in charge of caring for a group of international visitors. After eating, worried looks were exchanged among the group. How do we pay? Where was the money? As if reading the anxiety on the boat people’s face, a security guard came to the counter to pay and asked everybody to leave. They were taken to an unexpected place, a nice hotel. Rooms were clean and equipped with TV sets. A security officer, fluent in Vietnamese, came to make reports and asked them to stay at the hotel while their cases were resolved.
Four days later, the whole group was taken to the harbor. A four-section ship named Quang Ngai, which already had 24 refugees on board, was waiting for them. They climbed aboard. The weather was nice and the ship was big enough to make everybody feel safe and hopeful. At three p.m.. on July 23rd, the ship set sail for Hong Kong. The last sea journey was one Ngoc would never forget. The ship, with thirty-six refugees on board, had run smoothly for three days and arrived at a place brilliantly lit from the water’s surface to the top of the mountain. Hong Kong at near dawn lay seductively like a paradise within human grasp. Thirty-six people became intoxicated with joy. They were so filled with happiness that they threw all their belongings and clothing into the water below. Then a Hong Kong police vessel came out to announce that the government had closed the refugee camp since July 2nd, 1982. If the people wanted to go on, they would be free to do so, otherwise, they had to enter the restricted refugee camp. Everyone agreed to go to the restricted camp. The police directed them to transfer to their vessel, leaving only two men on the refugee ship to follow. The police vessel pulled alongside a barge where Immigration employees came down to work. At two p.m.. on July 26th, the boat people were transferred to separate rooms. Ngoc’s mind was paralyzed. He had left his native country, separated from his loved ones, had been away from the painful days afloat in the ocean. Separation! How cruel a word could be!
One month and nine days was not a long period of time. But if counted by each minute one had to face disappointment, danger and even death, then every minute seemed very long. One month and nine days was thus such a chain of torturous minutes that it was enough to twist a human being into a ghostly catastrophe. Ngoc, sitting in front of me in a dilapidated room in the basement of a rickety house in Montreal, did not seem like the audacious type to launch himself into the uncertain immensity of the ocean; neither did he look strong enough to brace himself against violent squalls, billows and roaring storms on the open seas. I saw no particular trait on this placid, thin face, on the blackened shiny hands, over the rest of his body. Only the eyes and the eyebrows revealed his determination. Traces of ill treatment and shame in the old country still showed in his unflinching eyes. The bushy eyebrows were so closely knit that they seemed about to collide. There was one thing I could not see but could feel deep down in my guts, which was that when I went on listening to the peaceful narration of a journey, in reality it was just the opposite.
There were many people crossing the sea. There were many ways of going. Each journey could be considered an indefinite adventure. The Vietnamese people who had to leave their country for good shouldered a tremendous loss to which only other immigrants might fully relate. To recount such an adventure is to expose unimaginable pain and loss. Yet, I could not help taking up my pen to relate this story - the story of a man who crossed the ocean, alone.
Translated by Thien Nhat Phuong & Kelli Craig Dang
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Translattion copyright © N. Thien Nhat Phuong & Kelli Craig Dang.
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