Sunday, April 10, 2005

vignette: boatman

Almost fifteen years before the fall of Saigon and the beginning of the Vietnamese diaspora, just before sunrise on a day whose omens only portended good, Bau Long Huynh set out alone and eastwards in his poorly stocked boat from a secluded bay into the South China Sea. The sea glinting in the sun was filled with the promise of lands far away, places where the daily misery that Bau knew were unknown, where the divisions of north and south had no meaning. When he began to speak about leaving his country, his brothers and uncles shook their heads and called him a fool for abandoning hope, convinced that his proposed action was born of cowardice and an unwillingness to see things through. But though the hurtful words were partially true, Bau was compelled by a greater reason, driven by an undeniable desire to exchange a sense of belonging for a sense of freedom, and was determined to risk the potential loss of his life in uncertain waters for the potential new life that he could begin elsewhere.

Those who heard about his crossing years later would not agree on the precise circumstances of his journey. Some said that Bau possessed the finest scientific mind of the past four hundred years and thus calculated the exact distance between his point of origin and intended destination using figures derived from his observations of stars, clouds and the refraction of light in a bit of smoked glass he had found in a ruined temple when he was but a child, granting him the actual and hypothetical logistical advantages of science.

Others believed that salt water coursed through his veins, courtesy of a romantic liaison between an unnamed great-great-grandmother and a merman, and thus was able to seek the advice of fish and wandering turtles and helpful dolphins, finding in the cacophony of responding splashing gurgles, bubbling staccatos, high-pitched whines, half-drowned falsettos, gill-flapping exclamations, and rhythmic piscine, reptilian and mammalian voices the necessary ways and means to cross the vast South China Sea.

Some people assumed that he had encountered an itinerant waterspout that housed a lonely woman who was secretly a water elemental; that the power of instantaneous attraction was more potent than the chains of solitude; that she had taken him, boat and all, into the funnel of her swirling peripatetic home for the span of a year and day during which time she bore him little bastard organisms that were torn between his longing for land and her love for the sea; and that their union ended badly due to irreconcilable differences, resulting in Bau’s expulsion several kilometers away from where he wanted to go in the first place.

A few older people, recalling the stories their own mothers and fathers told them as incredulous children, insisted on their version: lost, half-mad and out of potable water, Bau undertook a desperate quest to find the source of the sea’s saltiness. Through a series of smaller adventures that he completed thanks to the assistance of a kindly whale and a cantankerous crab, he ultimately located the protruding knee of the giant who continued to manipulate a supernatural saltshaker in his sleep, saturating the waters with untold millions of metric tons of salt. They say that Bau woke the giant up with the weight of his castigations and made him aware that his somnambulist actions would one day have the dire consequence of transforming the earth into an inhabitable crystalline sphere. The repentant giant vowed to be more careful, praised Bau for his courage, let Bau drink his fill of fresh water, and brought the man, the whale and the complaining crab near the Philippine archipelago, where the four parted ways.

The truth was that as he sailed in the direction of the sunrise Bau did not know how long his journey would take, had no inkling whether he would pass days or weeks or months searching for the land of his dreams, did not speak nor was spoken to by fish or turtles or porpoises, was not aided by a lonely elemental that had fallen in love with him, and neither admonished nor awakened a careless dreaming giant.

His provisions were barely enough for a week and a half, but he reasoned that the waters teemed with marine life and that his net and fishing pole would sustain him. He knew that occasional rain was not impossible and that downpours would refill his clay jars with drinkable water. And having grown up a child of coastal village, he did not fear the touch of the ocean. Beyond that, he refused to think.

By the seventh week of his journey, Bau’s small boat had capsized too many times to count, victimized by the waves larger than any he had ever seen. Each time this happened he managed to flip his narrow vessel over but lost something precious – first, a jar; then his jacket; then his hat, until finally he had only himself and the boat.

He hallucinated frequently, talking to his parents and arguing with his insistent grandparents and all the members of his family that had died and had become spirits, offering apologies but never giving in to their choral demand that he return home. He told them that there was a place, that there had to be a place beyond all he knew, a place that was the stuff of his dreams, because otherwise there was no point in dreaming and that the Communists were right.

When he was not conversing with the illusions his mind conjured, Bau waited for rain. When the days fell upon themselves with painful slowness, he cursed the placid sea and the cloudless skies, angered by the paucity of typhoons. When the rain came, he allowed his boat to fill until it was dangerously close to sinking before feverishly scooping out the excess water with the cup of his palms, calmly turning over the boat when it went upside-down. Monsoon winds, which sent towering waves, joined forces with lightning and thunder to drive him into the depths of sea. But the man refused to sink, clinging steadfastly to the hope that warmed him, protected him and comforted him through the interminable voyage.

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