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Authors: Graham Salisbury

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Under the Blood-Red Sun (6 page)

BOOK: Under the Blood-Red Sun
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“Grampa!”

“I hope not,” Billy answered. “Never have been before, anyway.”

Grampa put the eggs by the sink and sat down next to Billy.

Billy stopped picking at his rice.

Mama poured Grampa a cup of tea. I just hoped he wouldn’t start slurping it in front of Billy. Criminy, sometimes he sounded like Lucky drinking water.

Papa’s voice sliced through the nighttime stillness from outside. “Sanji coming soon.… You boys ready?”

“Ready,” I said, pushing my chair back and gulping the last bite of gooey, sweet rice.
“Gochisoh-sama.”

Billy stood up, half the rice still on his plate. “It means you’re done eating,” I said.

Grampa glanced at Billy’s uneaten rice, then at Billy. With his arms resting on the table, Grampa clenched and flexed his jaw, and made his lips curl back to suck air in through his teeth. The tendons in his neck stood out like wires. Mama always told us never to leave even one grain of rice on the table, that it was a small treasure, that a farmer went through a lot of trouble to grow it.

Billy glanced at me.

“He’s just telling you that if you want to be a muscle man like he is you gotta eat all your rice. Come on, let’s go.”

Billy pushed past me and hurried out.

“Che
,” Grampa mumbled under his breath.

Yup, it was going to be a great day, all right.

•  •  •

Sanji met us out on the road, his old fishy-smelling truck rattling as it idled, or tried to idle, anyway. He had to pump on the gas pedal every time it sounded like it was about to die. Sanji nodded to me and Billy, a big grin on his face, as if taking Billy along was the craziest thing he’d ever done. It probably was.

Billy climbed into the back, and I handed him the wooden crate that held Papa’s two racers. I jumped in after him. Papa handed me the bucket of bait and a box of sweet specialties that Mama had made for us to eat on the boat. “Let’s go,” Papa said to Sanji as he slid into the cab.

Sanji worked hard for that truck. Papa said he had two other part-time jobs besides fishing. The only problem
with Sanji’s truck was the fishy stink, which stuck to you like sunburn. But Sanji was very lucky. Not many fishermen had a truck.

The streets were deserted and silent. Only a few lights were on in the dark houses we passed. The slightest hint of morning edged up over the mountains behind us, a faint purple-black glow. Sanji only had to restart the truck twice before we got down to Kewalo Basin, where Papa kept the
Taiyo Maru
.

As usual, Sanji had already gotten the boat ready. When did that guy sleep? There was ice in the fish box and four buckets of fishing line set out on the deck. He’d also filled the wooden keg with fresh drinking water. We’d only be gone two days this time, because we couldn’t miss school, so the one bucket of bait Papa brought along would be enough.

Papa and Sanji looked like twins in their long khaki pants and white BVD tank tops. Sanji even had a ballahead haircut, like Papa.

Papa put the bait in the iced fish box, then fired up the old diesel engine, which made a lot of racket in the quiet harbor. We were lucky to have diesel. Some boats still ran on kiawe wood, where you had to keep a hot fire going all the time.

Sanji took the crate with the pigeons aboard and put it by the deckhouse, where the birds would be out of the wind. “What they call you?” Sanji asked, passing by Billy.

“Billy.”

“Okay. So, Billy. You ever been on one boat?”

“Only ocean liners … my dad works for Matson.”

“Hoo,” Sanji said, making big eyes like he was impressed.
Matson was the biggest shipping line in Honolulu, maybe even the whole Pacific Ocean.

“Well, anyway,” Sanji went on, “the main thing is no fall off, yeah? Easy to fall in the water from this boat.”

Papa’s sampan was about thirty feet long, mostly a flat, open deck with a small deckhouse toward the front where the engine was. Papa steered from a long-armed wooden tiller in the back. There was no shelter. You couldn’t even get out of the sun unless you went down into the fish box under the deckhouse, or else Papa hung the tarp up for shade. But the box made you sick just to smell it, and Papa never put up the tarp unless it was raining. He never thought to get out of the sun. He and Sanji didn’t even wear hats, which is why Papa’s face was ten times browner than the skin under his shirt and had a lot of lines on it, especially by his eyes.

“I can keep myself aboard,” Billy said.

Sanji nodded, and tapped Billy’s shoulder. “Good … One boy in the ocean hard to find.”

Sanji was only nineteen, but he seemed much older. I guess it was because he was married already, and he had that truck and was working. “His parents must have been a couple of jokers,” I whispered. “Sanji means ‘three o’clock.’”

Billy peeked over at Sanji.

“And he’s got a three-year-old daughter, you know, which means he was only three years older than
us
when she was born.”

Billy shook his head, and whispered, “Wow …”

Papa thought Sanji was the greatest thing since diesel engines. He knew the ocean as well as anyone, Papa said.
And Sanji was a good swimmer and he had courage, which sometimes came in handy. Like one time when they got a line wrapped up in the prop and Sanji went down to cut it loose or else they would have been stuck out there until somebody found them. When Sanji got in the water some sharks came nosing around and Papa had to throw chunks of fish meat out to them to keep them away. And Sanji just kept on working under the hull.

I’d gone out on the boat lots of times, but I still worried because Papa didn’t have a radio, so he couldn’t call for help if we needed it. He couldn’t afford one. He said he was lucky just to make the payments on the boat. But with no radio … What if the engine broke? What if the prop got jammed? What if a shark had gotten Sanji that day?

We finished loading up, and Papa walked the boat out of the black harbor. Even at that early hour, we passed fishermen squatting like toads on the rocks with their bamboo poles. Sanji waved at one of them, his deaf cousin. The shadowy man lifted his chin.

Papa aimed the
Taiyo Maru
for open sea. The ocean was as smooth as melting ice, and the lights on shore shimmered out over the dark water like wobbly palm trees.

Papa stood at the tiller, guiding it with his knee while he rummaged through a bucket of line, checking the hooks and sinkers. The boat rose and fell in the dark, smooth and easy, slicing the morning water. The engine chugged and vibrated in the floorboards and spat out smoky bubbles in the wake.

“This is a good place, Tomikazu,” Papa suddenly said. “Smell that sweet air.”

I faced into the breeze and took a long, thirsty breath. Sweet like the jungle. Clean, and rich with salt.

“Ii-na
. Good, nah?” Papa said.

I nodded. “Good.”

•  •  •

In an hour’s time the sun had colored the ocean silver, then deep, deep blue. And you could see puffy white clouds sitting stone-still way out on the horizon, where we were headed. Now, far behind, the purple-green island drew down into the sea as if it were sinking, looking like one pretty good wave could just roll right on over it.

“Tomi,” Papa said, slowing the boat down to a crawl. He pointed his chin toward the racers. “Let ’um go.”

Billy and I set the box in the center of the deck and each lifted a pigeon out, holding them the way Papa had taught me, and I had taught Billy—with the feet tucked between the second and third finger and the belly cupped in the palm of the hand. Mine was gray, with a white neck. Billy’s was all rusty red.

The pigeon seemed to hum in my hand, eager to fly. I put its solid body next to my cheek, and smelled the musty feathers. “See you tomorrow night, bird,” I whispered.

Me and Billy glanced at each other, then threw the pigeons into the air with easy sweeping motions. The birds fluttered out, then rose into the sky. They circled the boat once and raced back toward the island.

Billy got his binoculars out and watched them, with Sanji breathing down his neck. “What’s that?” Sanji asked.

“Binoculars.”

“Oh, yeah. I heard of it.”

“Heard
of them? You mean you’ve never looked through binoculars before?”

Sanji laughed. “Who I know got that thing?”

Billy handed the binoculars to Sanji, who thought they were a miracle. He put his hand out and looked at his fingers. “Ho!”

“Look at the island,” Billy said, turning Sanji so he faced the right way. “Ho!” Sanji said again.

When Papa wanted to look through them, he had to wrestle them away from Sanji. Papa smiled under the binoculars as he studied the island, then the birds getting smaller and smaller, and the ocean all around the boat, and the clouds on the horizon. He even looked at
me
. I had to keep sticking my hand in front of the lenses to get them back.

“Hey,” Billy said, tapping my shoulder. “Look.”

A silver dot on the horizon, growing larger, fast. A single pursuit fighter, flying low and heading straight toward the boat.

Billy took the binoculars from Papa and raised them to his eyes. “P-40. Tomahawk.”

Another plane appeared from the left and banked in to join the first one. Silently, they flew toward us, their shadows racing over the surface of the sea. Then the rumble of their engines, coming louder and louder.

Papa started waving at them.

“He always make like that,” Sanji said, hooking a thumb at Papa. “Just like one kid.”

“Let me
see,”
I said, tugging on Billy’s arm. The planes were almost to the boat.

Just as the fighters reached us, the pilots wagged their wings, then pulled up. They climbed into the sky, circled stars under silver wings flashing down like lightning. The engines roared so loud, the air around the boat seemed to shake. The noise shivered through the decking, up through my feet and into my legs.

“Hoo,” Papa said, shading his eyes with his hand as they headed past toward the island. “I wish this old tub had those engines.”

The fighters faded toward the island landscape, gray specks losing themselves against the barely visible sugarcane and pineapple fields.

“Probably heading for Wheeler Field,” Billy said, putting the binoculars back in the bag.

“You see lots of those planes out here,” Sanji said. “Before, got one, two a week. But now, get maybe ten times that in one day. Bombye this whole island’s going be only army mens.”

“It’s because of the war,” Billy said.

“What war?”

“The one in Europe, and China. That’s why we got so many ships and planes and soldiers here.”

“But no more war here,” Sanji said.

Billy frowned and looked back toward the island.

The Crowded Sea

We headed
right into a swarm of seabirds circling and rising high into the sky, then falling to the sea, making small white explosions when they hit.

“Those birds called
noio,”
Sanji said. “They feeding on those small fish you see flying from the water. But under them, is
aku.”

A school of flying fish the size of three baseball fields skipped over the sea in a frenzy, trying to escape the birds above and the feeding
aku
below. There were nine other boats already there, all Japanese sampans. Papa and the men on the other boats raised their chins to each other.

“Aku?”
Billy asked.

“The
haoles
call ’um skipjack tuna,” Sanji said.

Papa made a wide loop around the school and waited in their path. We would drift quietly toward them as they
fed against the current. The other boats drifted, too, so they wouldn’t scare the fish down.

When the action hit, flying fish started landing on deck. We could use them for bait if the
aku
didn’t go for the opelu we’d brought along. It was wild. I loved it when it got like that.

“Tomi,” Papa said. “You and Billy use the buckets. We going use poles.”

Sanji had cut the bait into raw strips while the sampan had chugged out to the birds. All you had to do was grab a chunk of opelu and stick it on the hook. When the fish were feeding like that you didn’t even have to worry about hiding the steel.

Papa and Sanji grabbed the bamboo poles and tried fishing with no bait. Sometimes the
aku
went for the flashing silver.

Bam!

The
aku
hit.

“Hooie!” Papa yelled. “They grab anything!”

I ran for the two five-gallon buckets of line and gave one to Billy.

“Put the bait on like this,” I said, stabbing a hook as big as my finger through a strip of opelu. I threw it over the side and let the sinker pull it down. “Maybe there are some yellowfins down there.”

Something hit my bait within seconds, then sank like a boulder. The line whipped out of the bucket and I had to let it run freely. With a hand line there was just you and the line. No fishing pole to help you.

Whatever had taken my bait was
big
. The line snapped out of the bucket. I couldn’t stop it. My hands were too
soft, not thick and leathery like Papa’s. I grabbed a pair of canvas gloves.

BOOK: Under the Blood-Red Sun
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