The South China Sea
By Z.M. Quỳnh
They are in the fragmentation of raindrops during monsoon season and the quivering of evaporating dew in the dawn of sea salt mornings. I am intimately familiar with them for I have always been surrounded by spirits. Our village was built around a cemetery abandoned during the war. That was where we migrated to when our hamlet was massacred and over a thousand lives lost. Ghosts were seen as regularly as any villager, wandering through the tombstones in our gardens, passing the evening dinner table, and swirling in the incense in our temples. I often caught a glimpse of them in the air as if in shards of broken glass. With them always lingered a scent.
It was this same scent that permeated the air when we drifted into the crests of the South China Sea. It was intermingled with the smell of misery and remorse and the taste of sweetened rust, as if you plunged an abandoned nail into sugar cane and then sucked on it for days on end. I knew then that we had ventured into that ghostly stretch of sea in which the souls of people still lingered aimlessly, struggling against the powerful waves, gagging at the descent of salt water into their lungs, playing out their deaths over and over again as their hope for life somehow continued long after their demise.
As soon as her swells began to coil around the boat, I felt the mood on board shift. Elders grouped together above us on the deck to set up a small altar. Damp joss sticks were lit and inserted into nicks in the wood and muffled invocations whispered.
“Let us pass in peace dear sister, dear brother, dear mother, father.”
From the darkness of the cabin below, I felt them pass through me, the victims of the sea, friends and family and strangers.
Twice she had beaten me. Swallowed my brother and sister, captured scores of people in my village, and betrayed my father.
“I hate you.” I whispered to her.
“Mine…” I thought I heard her whisper back to me.
But it was only the sound of her salty tentacles rippling against the rotten wood of our fishing boat. My back was turned to her as I methodically dumped the mixture of bile, feces and urine that had been collected in the buckets kept at various corners of the small boat. She felt uncharacteristically calm, a quietness that made me nervous. I averted my eyes from her, focused on my task. The mere sight of her caused such anxiety to well in me that I had taken to severe bouts of vomiting.
She was nearly impossible to avoid though; her blue green eyes taunted me from all directions. Trying my best to shut her out, and preferring the familiarity of the contents of the buckets to her misleading beauty, I studied the mixture of bits of rice and undisturbed fish bones from the previous night’s meal. They were the markers of our life. So long as we breathed, these buckets would be filled.
Leaning back, I dipped the first bucket into the warm waters, keeping my eyes on the deck in front of me, following the lines of the wood grain. I felt her tongue brush against my fingers, lapping at the blistering salt seared there. I pulled back reflexively, causing the bucket to fall overboard. Swearing, I reached to retrieve the bucket. It was then that I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a smudge of blackness on the horizon, half dipped into the ocean, half set against the sky. I turned toward it, although it loomed over the sea.
Within seconds the vastness of the sea reached out and struck me flat across my face. A wave of nausea overwhelmed me as I was flooded with visions of my brother and sister devoured whole in our second attempt to escape Việt Nam and the faces of children, shallow and starving, in the arms of their mothers who held them above water as they themselves were slowly pulled down, their legs entangled in the seas’ slimy tresses. Nausea buckled my knees, dry heaving the dehydrated contents of my stomach onto the deck.
“What use is this child of yours?” said a man near me. He gave me a disdainful look and then turned to seek out my mother whom everyone had paid with blood and gold for passage on our family’s small rickety fishing boat.
His scan of the deck was stopped short at the black mass that was once nothing more than a stain in the corner of the sky. It was gaining size as if it was absorbing
the sky, the clouds and the ocean around it.
“Row – row the other way!” my mother yelled.
“But that will take us back!” But the oncoming blackness motivated all hands. People rowed back towards the country we had fled. Try as we might though, we could not travel as fast as the patch was growing. I felt paralyzed as I watched it consume everything around it, blanketing us in darkness. With it came a deafening howl and the stench of sweetened rust filled my senses, pungent and sharp. But, the black void brought something different – the distinct musk of human sweat perspired in desperation.
At one time I had loved the sea. Every waking morning was filled with rituals of welcoming her waters, which always stayed damp on my skin. Nearly ten years ago when our father first purchased this boat, we had all looked towards her as our savior, a means to carry us away from Việt Nam. Since we lost Khánh and Trúc though, she was nothing more to me than a cruel deceitful being that could never be trusted.
Our first attempt was foiled almost immediately by the police patrols along the shoreline. The patrol boat had forced us ashore and all those passengers that did not dive into the waters had been shot on land. Several dozen people decimated within seconds.
On our second attempt, we got as far as we are now, the South China Sea. On that trip the fear of police had passed into the fear of pirates. We had been six days at sea and our supplies were low. That was when she betrayed us. When we were at our weakest, when the human waste we threw overboard spoke of death and starvation, she let out her siren’s call. And then they came, partners in treachery.
They invaded our boat, carried away our food and supplies, captured all the women and girls. The screaming was manic with people lunging, flesh and bones sacrificed to attempt to stop them. But they had strength and machetes. And we had nothing. It became a nightmare that ran on repeat in my head. My brother had charged at two men who had grabbed my sister. For this the sea clamored up and claimed him.
As they dragged us onto their ship, I grabbed my sister and dragged her overboard. The sea promptly pulled us down until we were both under our boat. I felt her hand loosen from me in the same instant that my consciousness slipped from me. When I awoke I was lying on the deck, the sound of sobs all around me, my sister gone. My mother hovered above me, her graying hair disarrayed about her face, the body of my father, his face bearing the sharp laceration of a machete, in her arms.
Despite all this, or in spite of it, three years after burying our father, we began anew, recruiting the same families that had once lost members with us. What else did we have to lose? Many thought we were cursed. All the more reason to flee. We had two choices. A country that had lost all respect for human rights or the sea with her unpredictable melodies. Which was more treacherous? We chose the sea.
On this third trip, only twenty-five people came with us. The boat felt oddly spacious, as if each individual had at least five extra inches of space in which to breath. In past attempts, we had crammed a hundred people into our tiny fishing boat. Every inch of space on the boat had been filled with a body, often sitting on top of each other, the hope of escape overriding the need for personal space. Two hundred total for both attempts. Fewer than seventy-five survived those, only to return to Việt Nam where they languished in prison for the treasonous act of attempting to escape. My mother and I were the last of our family of five. We had nothing left to lose but each other.
With no light, there were no markers of the days. Time rolled into itself, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, until it became irrelevant. We had among us a single box of matches and a few candles. Though their wicks were long, we conserved them, not knowing how long we’d wander in the dark void. It was on my watch that I realized that the candle, like my hunger, remained still as if frozen in time.
The wick seemed not to diminish nor the candle wax to drip. The spoonful of salted rice I had eaten lay savored on my tongue and cooling in my belly as if I had just swallowed it. And yet in the next instant, I was hungry again as if I had not eaten in a month and the candle had burnt down almost to the end of its wick. When I rose to blow it out, for fear of losing our only source of light, I was once again staring at a candle that seemed to have been burning for only a moment.
Like a story told in reverse, out of order and out of context, moments passed or were about to occur and occurred over and over again as if they just happened. I could not take the inconsistencies anymore. I retreated to the cabin underneath the deck, huddling among the children and elders where I sat numbly staring at blackness all around me.
Mother poked her head down into the cabin from the deck.
“Child!” she hissed.
I ignored her.
“My child!” She marched down the steps, trampling over people as she made her way to me. Peering right into my face, the flame of the candle in her hand burning my eyes, she pinched me. Hard. But still I refused to respond. What would be the purpose? The damn sea had won again. There was nothing that can explain the darkness above except our deaths.
“We are dead mother,” I said, “Dead.”
“Shut up and get up. I need your help!” She grabbed my arm and dragged me up to the deck. She was fierce, like a firefly, unwilling to be defeated. She attempted to lift me up but gravity helped me stay dumb and motionless.
“No mother. There is nothing out there. No light, no life, no fish, no sound, nothing. We are on our journey to the next life. I want to see father. I want to see Khánh and Trúc again.”
She slapped me then. It stung and I blinked.
“Father would be ashamed of you,” she said.
The words struck at me harder than her slap. I shook her off and started up the stairway, into the impending darkness.
Reaching the deck, a wave of intense anxiety overtook my senses. I could feel the sway of the water so much more strongly than below deck and the boat leaned, tremulously unbalanced on one side. I searched for something to grasp onto as the feeling of sinking came over me. I whimpered and my knees gave out. I fell onto the deck.
On deck stood and squatted all of the adults on the fishing boat. I should have been with them. I had come of age last year and was by far the strongest and tallest among them. I could see all this in my mother’s fierce eyes. But instead I had chosen to cower among the elderly and the children, welcoming death to my side. At least there my family members would outnumber the living.
“We need you to help us bring down the broken mast. Its weight is making the boat lean into the water. If it falls, it will bash a hole in the hull.”
“No…ma…no…I can’t…” Violent images began to flood me. Mother guided me to the mast that leaned to its side nearly cracked in half but not quite broken all the way through. It hung over the side of the boat, pulling it into the water. People were furiously bailing water. The sight of water immediately threw me into a fit.
I started wheezing, my eyes shut tight. I dropped to the ground again, pulling my arms around my head, blocking out the image of water pummeling me, water pulling Trúc and Khánh into the sea.
Mother shook me. “This is our boat, this is our responsibility. You know this boat better than anyone here and you are the right size. We are all too small, the children all too small, you are strong. You need to do this or else this boat will sink.”
I began to inch backwards. I felt my mother’s arms around me, trying to grab me, and I broke into a sprint until I reached the stairs. Before she could catch me, I had made my way back down to the corner of the cabin where I pressed myself against the children there.
Mother did not return. I sat with the children and elders and we listened as the adults shouted commands above us. I clamped my hands over my ears shutting out their voices, shutting out my cowardice. Then came yells and screams that I couldn’t shut out and a heavy splash into the water.
The boat rocked and shook as footsteps stomped on the deck, running back and forth – then more shouts and splashing before a sudden chilling silence. We all looked up towards the opening even though the darkness was so profound that we could see nothing.
Then I heard my mother’s wail. A pang of guilt stabbed at me and I bolted up the stairs onto the deck, reckless of the wrenching in my belly. A frantic man accosted me.
“This is your boat, we paid you to take us on this hellish trip. Get up and do something or you’ll see your mother die. What kind of ungrateful child are you?”
Pushing him aside, I ran onto the deck. For the first time since the darkness had descended upon us, the deck was completely illuminated with a bright light that seemed to come out of nowhere. The strong smell of sweet iron filled my nostrils and a chill seeped into my bones.
Before me, rising rapidly from the water, was a serpentine creature glowing silver, and massive in proportion. The whipping lashes of the sea framed it on all sides. It roared as loud as thunder, echoing with tortured voices. At the very top of the beast was the face of a man, small and severely disproportionate to the rest of the creature’s body. Thin as a skeleton, the hollow of the man’s cheeks caved inward while his mouth distended unnaturally. He reached two long arms towards mother who was hanging onto the tip of the broken mast, a butcher’s knife poised in her hand.
“Mother!” I screamed, remorse vibrating violently on my tongue as I realized that she sat where I was supposed to be, doing what I had refused to. I scrambled up the mast, attempting to reach her.
Several men and women grabbed oars and hacked at the monstrosity. With each strike, limbs sprouted along the monster’s torso – arms, legs, and hands distended from its trunk. Mother stabbed her knife at the man reaching down towards her. I inched closer to her, but the sweat and slime of the sea and my own anxiety created a slippery coat on the mast, forcing me to slide back down.
To accompany the disjointed limbs, faces emerged from the beast’s body, each grotesquely pulled back as if stretched too far. They peered at us, screaming words that were blended one into each other. Their voices dripped of grief and sorrow, speaking of the dream we all had, of escape, of freedom. Faces wavered in and out, faces I knew well.
“Khánh! Mother, its Khánh!”
I caught mother’s confused expression. In that moment a man directly in front of me pierced his oar deep into the creature, sinking it between the faces of two villagers that once lived side by side, both lost to the sea in our last attempt to escape. Their faces scrunched up in pain.
For an instant, their voices became clear, calling my mother by her name: “Hoa.” Different tones, different dialects, different pitches, but all the same name. Mother wrapped herself around the broken mast. The arms of the man at the top of the creature elongated, grabbing mother, tearing the broken mast from the boat. The boat swayed backwards, sending everyone on deck tumbling.
Mother’s face twisted in pain as her torso and legs were swallowed by the mutilated human appendages, the trail of a tear etching a faint scar along her cheek. Within seconds she disappeared into the creature. Almost as suddenly as it appeared, it sank swiftly into the water taking its glow deep into the abyss, leaving us shrouded in total darkness.
Once again, I had been inches away when the sea stole someone from me. I stood and screamed out at her with all the rage in my being.
“Give her back to me!”
For durations I cannot remember, the instances of my mother’s disappearance, of arriving on deck to see her perched on top of the mast, of staring at the tumble of arms and legs and tormented faces, replayed itself out of order.
Around me people began screaming as they slipped in and out of what had happened, what was happening, and what was to happen. Attempting to avoid insanity, we talked ourselves through each interval of time, moving collectively so that we could prevent madness from tearing at our minds.
When I could grab cognizance of the now, it felt as if I was taking a seat within my own body. As soon as confusion passed us and it was evident that we were in the present, someone would shout, “Now!” Everyone would throw themselves into motion, trying to get as much done as possible, preparing food, feeding the children, the various tasks of staying alive. Everything we did became paramount to losing our minds. We became more and more cognizant of when we were, of the instant moment and when we would fall out of it. I sharpened oars and created makeshift weapons. I darted back and forth from the deck to the cabin to check on the children who ran in circles, unable to cope with the ever-changing slippages in time, and the elders who sat holding their heads.
“What is happening to us?” they moaned to each other.
Excrement, urine and bile lay strewn haphazardly in the cabin. No one cared anymore to use the buckets, their minds a field of havoc. I packed the raw pieces of their innards into the buckets, feeling the familiar comfort of their stench relaxing me in between intervals of my own memory lapses.
It came again several times again. Each time we fought it off, our sharpened oars piercing through it and each time it claimed more members of our boat. The last time it came, the deck was full of children and elders. Our inattention to hygiene in wake of all that had happened had started to produce sores on the skin of the children. Children were brought up to be bathed with salt water. The same was done for elders.
It was in this instance, when every child was on deck and running about naked glistening, salty and clean, and elders were being escorted upstairs that the sweet stench of iron filled the air.
“It’s coming!” I yelled.
The children were rushed downstairs and the elders were carried one by one into the cabin below. Those on deck grabbed their makeshift weapons and readied themselves. A roar broke from the waters of the sea and rising once again in a pitiful wail was the creature framed by a tidal wave of water. Voices screamed from within the wave. Arms reached out and faces pressed forward, changing between expressions of grief and happiness.
Each face cried the name of a person on board and random limbs and fingers reached out, brushing up against our skin, attempting to grab us. Then, a woman’s face emerged, soft and flattened, beautiful almost. Staring down on the deck she wailed, “Grandmother!” and reached her arms out to an elder who had been left behind. The elder screamed up at the woman, sobs coming out of her chest in crests. “My child, my child!” she cried. Her arms reached out to the woman.
“No!” I yelled, running to block the girls’ descent.
“I want to go with her!” sobbed the elder.
The girl’s face flitted in and out of distortion until she looked just as she did when I last saw her. It was our second attempt. She had jumped, like me, like Khánh. The sea had grabbed her. I remember her face sinking below the water.
“Moi,” I said, “Moi was your name.”
She smiled then and it was neither unnatural nor terrifying. Before I could stop her, the elder jumped up and grabbed Moi, pulling her back onto the boat. Arms reached out to cling onto the elder. We pulled her back onto the deck but her hold on Moi was steadfast. She pulled until Moi fell onto the deck and behind her tumbled a line of people who had held on to Moi’s legs. More people squeezed through the beasts’ torso, trying to follow Moi.
“Grab them! Grab them!” yelled the elder as she reached for the faces that appeared from the creature, pulling at arms and hands. Her strength seemed amazing. One by one people tumbled, children, infants, adults, crying, smiling, relief thick in their voices.
I dropped my oar and grabbed at arms and faces. Others stared at us in horror but when the bodies of people, naked and smiling, appeared, they all joined in, pulling more and more bodies out of the creature. Oars were dropped. Knives were thrown into the sea and the boat became a clamor of arms reaching out to grab at hands, fingers, toes, hair. I called out the names of my family.
I heard myself echoed in the voices all around me as people yelled out the names of loved ones they had lost. One by one they tumbled from the creature that hovered over our boat. The creature shrank and slimmed with each person that we pulled out, transforming back into nothing more than a tidal wave, dangling frozen above our boat.
Then a face emerged. A face I knew like the back of my hand. Khánh. My sister. I grabbed her. She fell onto me, bursting into sobs, burying her face into my neck, her hair long and twining about her body.
From within the wave we had pulled out nearly a hundred people. We sat like sardines on the deck passing a candle back and forth, identifying faces, calling out names. I sat staring at my brother and my sister as my mother held onto them both. Beyond them were the faces of people dear to me, people I had passed every day in our village, people I had convinced myself to forget because missing them was too painful. Voices continued forever into the darkness as people spoke, whispered, cried about a haven, the sea’s safe harbor.
Had it been like this all this time? That the sea had been a solace for lost souls all along? Going back and forth between trying to catch glimpses of my family and the wavering movement of the candle, I curled my fingers into the sea. In the sheath of the darkness, I made my peace with her.
When the darkness parted, fading into the soft blush of dawn, the fear that had plagued us all left as suddenly as it had came. Screams and yelps of relief broke out as sunlight filtered through the darkness. Though I hid my face, I knew the sea was opening all around me. The musical lapping of her waves were drowned out only partially by the celebratory cacophony of the passengers. Fearing an episode, I drew my attention to the deck, focusing on the ragged worn lines of the wood as it trailed old stories. I drew down closer to it, squatting until all I could see was feet. I watched the interplay of small feet with big feet, heavy feet, tiny feet all walking, running, jumping, dancing.
A familiar hand rested on my back. Then a head, grey hair falling into my face, tears soaking warm on my torn shirt. She came into full view and I remembered how beautiful my mother was. I wrapped myself around her, becoming a child again. I let myself cry, darkening her shirt with sobs for all those faces I did not see, those that were not returned to us, those not taken into the protection of the sea. Like father. Her arms curled about my body and we clutched each other. Khánh and Trúc joined us, tangling their limbs in ours.
“Open your eyes,” Khanh laughed at me.
I peeked open one eye and spied the vastness of the blue sea. I expected to be curled into myself within an instant, dry heaving onto the deck. But instead, waves of calmness washed through me. The sea was winking bright flashes of sunlight at me, her arms spread wide and inviting. I took a deep breath and opened both of my eyes.
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