Authors: Carolyn Marsden
Tinh walked into the yard, carrying his bowl in front of him.
First Uncle glanced at the bowl and shook his head. “I just gave my last rice away, Tinh.”
“I hope you saved some for yourself.”
“No, children need food more than I do.” First Uncle stroked his long, narrow beard. “Ask your aunt who lives in the brick house.”
He meant Trang Ton's mother.
As Tinh walked on, he wondered if Trang Ton and the others were still playing soccer.
Fourth Aunt's beautiful brick house was splashed with mud. Clay roof tiles lay on the ground. Sticks floated in the brown sea flooding the yard.
Trang Ton's older brother, Linh, appeared in the doorway.
Recalling the small green snake of the morning, Tinh stopped before the mud. “Do you have dry rice?” he asked, gesturing with the bowl.
“We can give you a little.” Linh eyed the huge puddle. “Come around to the window.”
Tinh stepped lightly over the wet ground. His family would eat after all.
He held the bowl to the open window while Linh scooped in rice. At the sound of the dry grains, Tinh's stomach clenched. When a few grains dropped into the mud below, he almost sank to his knees to gather them.
On the way home, Tinh stopped off at First Uncle's house. “I have rice now, Uncle. Let me give you some.”
First Uncle held out a coconut shell while Tinh poured in a few spoonfuls.
“Keep this for yourself,” Tinh cautioned. “Don't give it away.”
“Thank you, Tinh,” said First Uncle. “This reminds me of how we used to share during the war.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a pendant of green stone, a tiny Buddha. “Here, take this.” He laid the pendant on top of the rice. “The Buddha will bless you, Tinh.”
“Thank you very much, Uncle.”
Tinh carried his bowl of rice with both hands, balancing his family's food and the image. He looked ahead and stepped carefully around debris fallen across the road.
Once he stopped to gaze at the Buddha, sea green against the white grains. The Buddha was seated on a lotus throne, the soft petals supporting him. Tinh thought of how the lotus grew only in thick, dank mud.
In the distance, Tinh saw Lan and Ba walking toward him. He squinted â Lan had a new bandage on her leg.
“The doctor gave me a shot!” she called out when they drew closer.
“Did it hurt?”
“A little. But now I feel better.”
A wisp of breeze touched Tinh's cheek. “I'm so glad, Lan,” he said.
“I see you found rice,” Ba commented. “And the Buddha besides.”
Tinh lifted the bowl proudly and smiled. But then he remembered. He lowered the rice and looked at the ground. “Our boat . . .” The rice in his hands suddenly seemed insignificant.
“I've seen it,” Ba said. He sighed, and Tinh felt as though the storm was hitting all over again. “Go on ahead, Lan,” said Ba. Then, as Lan limped off, he said to Tinh, “Why didn't you tie it?”
Tinh clutched the bowl. He had to tell Ba the truth. “I didn't ask anyone to help me bring the boat onto the beach,” he began. “I . . .” He swallowed hard. “I ran away. A big wave came and I got scared.” He didn't mention the red car. He kept his eyes on a line of ants crossing a log. He wished he were an ant.
“That boat is our only way of making a living. . . .”
Tinh drew a circle in the damp ground with his toe. “I know.”
“Then why didn't you make sure it was safe?”
“The waves were so big, Ba. . . .” His father hadn't seen those waves.
Ba just squinted, as though trying to see something in the distance.
“Everyone's boat was damaged,” Tinh continued. “None was safe.”
Ba grunted and said nothing.
Tinh felt smaller than an ant.
That evening as the smell of cooking rice filled the yard, Tinh took the red car from the bush. It was splattered with mud but otherwise seemed unhurt.
Tinh rolled each wheel against his palm. He needed to give the car to Trang Ton, but not yet.
He hid it back in the bush.
The next day, Tinh and Ba mended the roof. First they untied the sandbags and loosened the ropes over the thatch. “Without these ropes,” Ba said, “we might have lost our whole house.”
Tinh smiled a little. Was Ba saying he'd done a good job with the ropes? Did he feel bad about his harshness the day before?
As though to make up for its own destructiveness, the wind had blown down some palm fronds they could use to repair the roof. Tinh dragged them like huge feathers across the yard.
This time there was no guava tree for Tinh to climb. Ba stood on a coconut tree stump and helped Tinh reach the roof.
From high up, Tinh had a view of the jungle and the ruined bamboo houses tangling together.
He leaned down while Ba handed up the palm fronds.
Tinh lashed the fronds, one by one, with rope made from palm leaves. He tied each knot tight against the next storm.
A day later, a crowd gathered at the beach to repair the boats. People carried a collection of hand tools: drills, screwdrivers, saws. Trang Ton's grandparents came to watch, sitting in the shade of the coconut palms.
Trang Ton and Linh tossed the soccer ball back and forth. Trang Ton hit it once with his head.
The waves caressed the beach as though to soothe it. When Tinh looked out at the glinting turquoise ocean, it seemed to wink at him with a thousand eyes. He could hardly imagine it rearing up against them all, a ferocious green dragon.
When Trang Ton tucked the soccer ball under a bush, Tinh thought of the red car. “I rescued your remote-controlled car from the beach,” he said.
Trang Ton shrugged. “It won't work anymore. The batteries in the remote got wet.”
“You can't dry them out?” Tinh asked.
Trang Ton shrugged. “The inside of the remote is green and corroded. You can have the car if you want.”
it?” Tinh asked. Was the diamond falling into his hands so easily?
Trang Ton nodded.
Tinh gave a low whistle. But then he quickly realized that without the remote, the car wouldn't run. It would be just a child's toy. He might as well give it to Trang Ton's little cousin Phu.
Tinh helped Trang Ton, Linh, Fourth Uncle, and Ba lift off the top boat. Though the paint was peeling and the shrine had fallen off, the body seemed undamaged.
Tinh watched as the boat was carried to the ocean. Fourth Uncle tugged at the line of the engine. The engine sputtered once, then roared, letting out a cloud of black smoke. Everyone cheered.
If only it were so simple with
boat, Tinh thought. He scratched away at the nest of sand it lay in.
Fourth Uncle and Linh took off aboard the first boat. “We'll catch fish for all of you,” Linh shouted over the sound of the engine.
Another cheer went up from the beach. Tinh's mouth suddenly watered. The supplies of rice in the village were almost gone.
The next boat needed more work. The engine had broken off. Dong used the hand drill while Trang Ton dug out the accumulation of sand in the bottom of the boat.
Tinh searched for lost bolts in the sand.
“We're missing all but two,” Dong said, and Tinh searched deeper until he found five bolts, the threads gritty with sand.
He wouldn't rest until his own boat was floating on the ocean again. It would be a while before he'd be able to work on it. To distract himself, he pulled the remnants of Lan's pink kite from the fallen tree. One piece of the bamboo frame was broken. He tore the paper loose from the other piece and laid it aside. When Lan's leg healed, they'd build another kite.
Soon the second boat was also launched. It, too, would bring fish for the village.
Up and down the beach as far as Tinh could see, more boats were taking to the water.
Finally Tinh's bamboo boat lay alone, half buried in sand. Everyone else was either already at sea or repairing other boats, so Tinh and Ba worked alone.
In any case, Tinh thought, with some people already fishing, everyone's stomachs would be full tonight.
At first, Tinh used a stick, while Ba used the shovel. But when the boat was almost freed, they dug with their hands so they wouldn't damage the bamboo. Sand lodged deep under Tinh's fingernails.
They yanked the boat from its bed of sand and stood back to survey the damage: the once-golden bamboo was gray. The hull was fractured. The engine was packed with sand.
Ba kicked at a rock and said a bad word.
Tinh clenched his fists so the fingernails bit into the palms. How could he and Ba repair all this?
They flipped the boat over. Fish, rotting in the nets, stared at Tinh. They'd died for nothing. If he'd set them free when the storm hit, the Buddha might have blessed him with better fortune.
Then he saw the statue of the Bodhisattva still lashed to her shrine. Tinh untied her and, cradling her in his arms, ran to the ocean. He bathed the statue and dried her with his shirt. He set
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
in the shade, smoothing the sand around her.
Tinh made a sling of his shirt and carried water to wash the boat.
Ba looked over at Trang Ton's green boat, and Tinh followed his gaze. Trang Ton and an uncle were pushing it into the waves.
“Go fish with Trang Ton if you like,” said Ba. “He could use your help.”
It would be fun to go with Trang Ton. They could have a fish-catching contest. They could tell ghost stories.
But Tinh needed to work on the boat with Ba. He needed to be a man. “I'll stay with you,” he said to Ba, meeting his eyes.
Ba gave a tiny nod. A pulse of cool air from the ocean caressed Tinh's cheek.
After Ba cut away the damaged bamboo, Tinh helped to fit in new pieces. Tinh drilled holes with the hand drill. Ba pounded short lengths of bamboo into the holes. Tinh sawed the bamboo nails even with the surface.
Ba drained the diesel from the engine into coconut shells. He handed Tinh a screwdriver to take apart the engine. Tinh laid each piece carefully on a length of cloth. Together, they cleaned off the sand, using rags soaked in diesel.
When all the parts shone, Tinh's breathing softened.
“The boat will never be as beautiful again, but at least it'll be whole,” Ba said as Tinh glued on the conch-shell eyes.
“Yes,” said Tinh, daring to smile at Ba. “Our boat is a diamond.”
Ba grunted, but also smiled.
“Where's the propeller?” Ba suddenly asked.
The propeller was no longer attached to the engine. Tinh glanced around the beach. He saw a bit of metal poking through the sand where the boat had lain. “Maybe here,” he said to Ba, and began digging.
The propeller revealed itself little by little.
Ba dug, too, but it was Tinh who cut himself on the jagged edge. When he lifted the propeller free, blood ran down his wrist.
Ba grabbed Tinh's hand. “Careful this doesn't get infected like Lan's leg.”
But to Tinh, only the boat mattered now.
The propeller looked like a huge metal flower, one petal twisted, another gashed.
Ba turned the propeller around and around. “We can't fix this.”
Tinh's lower lip trembled. The repairs had gone well. And now a problem . . .
“In Phong Chuong there's a machine shop,” Ba said. “The propeller will cost precious money to repair, but there's no other way. I can't go tomorrow because I need to take Lan to Dien Hai to be checked again by the doctor.”
Phong Chuong lay on the other side of the sand dunes. Tinh had never gone so far all by himself. A trip to Phong Chuong would have been fun with Ba at his side. But alone?
Tinh sucked his cut finger. He'd been careless enough to injure himself. How could he travel so far as Phong Chuong without Ba?
And yet if he got the propeller repaired tomorrow, he and Ba could be out fishing one day sooner. They'd be able to feed Ma and Lan. Ba would be proud of him.
Tinh took the propeller from Ba. “I'll go to Phong Chuong. I'll take the propeller to the men to fix.”
“Alone?” Ba asked. “That's a long walk for a boy your age.”
Tinh sat up taller. “I'm growing up now. If I'm old enough to fish on the boat, I'm old enough to get it repaired.”
That evening, Tinh handed the red car to Phu. “It doesn't drive by itself anymore,” he said, “but if you want it, it's yours.”
Phu's eyes grew wide. He took the toy with both hands and cradled it close.
“I'm too old for it now,” Tinh explained. “I have a fishing boat to take care of.”
The next morning, Tinh set off for the village of Phong Chuong. He wore his cone-shaped straw hat and carried a bag containing two pink sweet potatoes wrapped in banana leaves, water in an old soda bottle, and the propeller. Deep in one pocket was the money Ba had given him. Deep in the other was First Uncle's green Buddha.
As he left Hai Nhuan, Tinh passed the cemetery in back of the village. Banoi and Ong Noi were buried here. He'd been sad when they'd died. But by now they'd turned into trees or stars, or maybe ocean waves. Knowing that, Tinh felt better.