By Dave Chua
When we saw the grey ship, the excitement rippled through all of us. It made a sound that filled up the sky and water, scaring the gulls and scattering them. On the boat, my mother looked up from her cooking and nodded to me in defeated surrender. Being careful not to gloat, I walked carefully past her to the back of the boat and carefully dug out the wooden box. I opened it and stared at the pearls. Three small ones, each no bigger than my little finger. At least they would fetch a price.
As the ship neared, the man with hair like the sun stepped out, smiling. He always smiled. Our chief, Khun, is the first to greet him. When the white man, whom we call “Pawul”, first arrived, we were wary. We had never seen a man like him, before, and he approached us with strange music playing from his boat. His crew was comprised of Chinamen who wore odd pieces of clothing like Pawul did.
Pawul knew enough of our language to communicate and offered us food that smelt like nothing we had ever known. Bread that tore apart in your hands, and fruit so red and sweet you only wanted more. He also showed us his gun. The sound it made was deafening; now every boy in the tribe wanted one. Knives and spears were too slow, and some of the boys said they had seen Pawul shoot and kill a shark, using his pistol. The creature had flopped around madly, slapping the water until it just turned over and died.
Khun trusted Pawul from the start. We had seen the ships of other countries come. No longer just the wooden junks of China, nor the sampans of Malaya. The ones coming from the far winds of the West were made of material like we had never seen. Khun had learnt Teochew from trading with the Chinese. Pawul knew some of the language and had crew that understood the tongue. When they both spoke, it was like having chickens next to you, cackling away. I did not understand any of what they said, but always laughed at their exaggerated actions as they tried to make themselves understood.
On his second trip, after about five moons where we were doubtful that he would return, Pawul brought Khun a special gift. He said it was a map of the world. It was brown and weathered, but still with fine lines and the shape of lands far away. The chief hung it proudly in his stilthouse and we would go to steal glances at it. Pawul had pointed out the country from which he came in the upper left. When we studied the map, we were surprised at how vast the world was and how much of it was sea. As we traced the outlines, we wondered what mysteries they contained. I thought one day I would be able to sail on it with my mother, to see the countless marvels of the world that Pawul spoke about to Khun. At first, I wanted to tell my mother about them, but she shook her head, shutting her ears.
Pawul stayed longer this time, as we had more to barter with him and he enjoyed Khun’s hospitality. We learnt that, before he became a trader, Pawul had worked on a great ship that dropped long ropes across the ocean that connected two huge pieces of land on the map, so people could talk to each other. He had made enough of that thing he called “money”, but still wanted to travel and see the world. Pawul would point at certain countries on the map and talk about the wonders they had. We made him repeat the words of countries until we knew them. Egypt, with its pyramids. America, where new rules and great engines were being made.
But exchanging stories was not why he came. Pawul was here for pearls and gradually, the boys fished less as we surrendered our bodies to the deep waters, plunging deeper into the sea, scouring for oysters to rob.
We tied heavy stones to our legs to bring us down, where the water felt like mud, where sound became muffled as though you had stuffed dirt in your ears, and you could feel your head become so heavy it could just float down with the stone.
I do not know why my luck was so bad. Many of the oysters I opened were empty or ruined. I threw them back into the sea, but a certain sadness came over me when I realised I had killed them each time by opening them. Yet, I continued to dive; the memory of the map, with the ridges of the countries, like coral, called to me, and the coins he gave were the key to the world.
The other boys started to dive deeper and deeper for the oysters, waiting until the last moment before heading up. The water was thick and cold beneath, and the currents were unforgiving. Sandul was ripped away by one and his family could not find his body. My oldest friend, Rama, no longer spent days catching the tailfins of young sharks and riding along with them. Swimming alongside rays and diving into schools of barracuda were no longer important.
Pawul spoke much with the chieftain and the other adults. He shared with them drink, as though this were the most natural thing in the world. He said that once, he dropped a rope into the ocean and they kept dropping it, as though the ocean had no bottom. But there was more to the story, as we asked Adi about it later on. How could the line keep on dropping? Was it like string and made from hair? How had the whiteskin and his men had so much of it?
Rama was rewarded a visit to Pawul’s boat. He told me of what he had seen within, carving shapes out of space. He said Pawul’s cabin contained treasures from every land: wooden naga where every scale was an intricate piece of art; those things called “books”, which were covered with the language of faraway countries; containers that held flowers; and, most impressively, an assortment of guns.
My mother dissuaded me from listening to the stories Pawul told. She said the men who sought us never brought good fortune and did not understand the ways of the sea.
Eventually, my mother was outraged by my constant disobedience and told me that if I were to go listen to Pawul’s tales, I would expect to feast on them. She told me not to expect to have dinner if I did.
However, she did not stop me from diving for pearls, even though her fishing skills were good enough for us. She haggled with the traders that came to sell herbs, spices and clothes, and they would curse her for every transaction, saying how they would have to sell their own boats to earn any money from her.
I did not know what she expected of me. Even the traders and the puppetmasters told of cities growing, of men leaving their villages to make a living there. But that was my mother; some of the other boatmen said that when she heard of my father’s disappearance into a raging night sea, she had covered her ears, told them all to go away and cooked his favourite meal, rich with spice and coconut milk, hoping the odour would bring him back.
Only months later could she come to terms that he was not returning, and she poured his favourite wine into the sea, and no longer looked out to the horizon for him.
A week after he had departed to visit another tribe, the puppetmaster Wakhun performed a show that featured Pawul. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but we could tell it was him. The shadow his puppet threw was tall and thin, and he had a big, crescent smile. In the performance, Pawul’s shadow took pearls from everyone, even mighty Rama and Bumi, and stuffed them into his mouth.
My mother told me not to continue with the pearl harvesting – the water spirits must be respected – and I pretended to obey.
Inevitably, my mother argued with Khun about him. She said the tribe was forgetting its ways and the spirits were getting angry. Be warned, she told him. There would not be a good outcome. Khun did not dare reply.
Three nights later, when the moon was full and shed yellow light on the world, I could feel the sea whispering to me. My mother had heard it, too. I woke her up and we desperately paddled to shore. We could see the trees rattling and shaking, and the ground cracking. She screamed at the other boats, but she could barely be heard above the raging waves. Some heard her, but others did not. Khun was one of those who paddled hardest to shore.
She pulled and dragged me as far onto the land as she could. Her nails tore into my skin as she pulled and she hit me whenever I slowed. She told me to hurry. She said that this was the water god, who was angry. Rain started to come down. With each step, our feet sank deeper into the mud.
By the thin moonlight, we saw the waves sucked in so far that fish were stranded on the beach, wondering where the water had gone.
Then the water began to rise – higher than trees, almost touching the sky, picking up boats in a great claw and slamming onto the shore. My mother told me to keep quiet, as though afraid the mad sea god would hear us and send the waters to our hiding place.
When it came down, it was like the sky had ripped open and water pounded the shore, greedily destroying everything, rising so fast it tore through the land. The sound was so loud, as trees beneath us cracked and broke, that my ears rang.
After the devastation, with the palm trees broken like sticks, the bodies taken, there was hardly anything left of us. My mother hugged me close, unwilling to let me go, denying whatever spirit that wanted to claim us away.
I thought I could hear screams, the familiar voices of my playmates imploring me to come save them. I knew it was a trick of the water ghosts, calling to me to join them.
Eventually, I was so tired from the climb and exertion that I slept. When I woke up, the sun was on my face, my hands still clutched around mother. Birds sang as though nothing had happened. We carefully made our way back down into the water, though the ground was like brown porridge. As we descended, we saw corpses, but she told me not to look, as crabs and giant lizards fed upon the rotting flesh.
There were only six boats out of twenty after the great wave. One of the boats was rammed against the trees. We found half of Dend’s body on one beach; the other half was gone. A shark thrashed about in a field of flowers; jellyfish flailed their tentacles from the broken branches of a naked tree. Odd-looking stones with strange markings carved into them were also strewn about. It hurt to look at them, like my mind was being stabbed with a knife.
For days and nights, as I scrounged for whatever food we could find, the crying wouldn’t stop. Women wailed to the sky. Most of the men had been at sea, fishing or catching pearls, when the great wave descended. My mother continued to hide herself; her warning came too late and I heard at least one voice blaming her for the disaster. But most knew why the great wave had come.
As another week passed, we returned to the water. We dived, for there was nothing else we could do. We could not shed our sorrow. Our tribe had been halved; we were sure the other sea tribes would be like us.
Rama mourned and cursed, and his diving became desperate. I followed his boat, while my mother settled what had to be done with the dead and the drowned.
It was during one of our dives that we saw it: a shell as big as one of our stilt houses. I thought we had been in the water too long, and that our eyes and heads were now deceiving us. It was striped with red and brown. We thought it might be alive, at first. Rama swam toward it. He was too fast for me. I had to retreat back to the surface to take in another breath. Then I dived down again, my head pointed directly at the depths.
Rama was now there and he appeared to be conversing with an oddly-shaped creature: almost human, but with a strangely formed head. Its eyes were unblinking and ancient, and it knew us. It murmured words. Though, at first, they made no sense, as I approached, they became clearer. It was an almost human voice, or at least, a voice that knew our tongue.
Rama was calling it a god, a spirit. He wanted the bodies of his parents back. The creature appeared to understand and went back into its great shell. I grabbed Rama’s hand and started to pull him up. How could he have stayed down there so long? He did not resist; his limbs were weak, like a dead crab’s. I tried not to go too fast, even though water was threatening to shove down my throat and into my lungs.
When I dragged him onto the boat, Rama was mumbling. His eyes stared past me. His body shivered. I slapped him a few times, but he continued to babble in a language I could not comprehend. It was like the sound you hear when you dive deep – the muttering of the waves. I did not dare go back into the water. Even though the waters were blue and clear now, I could not catch sight of the shell. It had disappeared.
I rejoined my mother, but I did not dare tell her of what I had seen. Rama rested in a cave and I lit a fire to warm his still-cold body. That night, while mother slept, I sneaked away. She was too tired from the day’s work to wake. I found Rama, his eyes pale. He was sitting in a lotus position and his body shook from side to side. He was mumbling again. I gave him some of the food my mother had prepared and he suddenly turned to me, his voice a whisper.
“The fishman warned me. We are not to listen, anymore, to the white men. We have a destiny,” Rama said.
I was taken aback, wondering if Rama were bluffing or deluded, but his eyes had sheer conviction, and Rama could not lie even to a baby.
“You should just finish the food,” I told him.
“We need to bring the boys. In three days,” he said.
I nodded my head. I needed to obey and the determination in Rama’s eyes was frightening.
For the next two days, I had to hide my intentions from mother; she was suspicious but still distraught. She had to help with the grieving, and others who had lost their relatives and children came to her. One scolded her for not warning them earlier, but she was merely a woman of the tribe. She refused to tell them about her warning to the chief. He was still in a daze and could only give feeble commands.
We brought the children as we were told. There were only seven of us; most of the others had disappeared, swept away. Only three had parents. Some of the other children refused to go with us and Rama threatened them, saying that, if they spoke about this, we would cut off their heads and feed them to the sharks and stingrays. With the pure madness in his eyes, they dared not refuse.
The night of the meeting came. We rowed our boats to the meeting point. From above, we could see the blue-green lights below, which Rama saidwere the fishmen waiting for us. We tied rocks to our legs and dropped into the water. It was colder than I could imagine. Rama’s eyes lit up on seeing the fishmen again, as though he were seeing one of the apsaras.
There were four of them beneath, whispering to each other in their odd fish-tongue. They seemed pleased to see us and one of them placed a caul over our faces that allowed us to breathe underwater, though it was hard to trust the thin, jelly-like material. It was like putting a jellyfish on our mouths and noses. But soon, we could breathe, even though it was like being choked at the same time.
The largest fishman was twice the size of the others. It was a she, from her voluminous breasts, and she placed her slimy hands on our heads, congratulating us on our arrival. She wore huge plates of armour that looked like the shells of overgrown crayfish, on which were inscribed words and writing in a language that resembled that of the stones we had seen. The water in front of us was radiant with colours and we saw within it bizarre, new creatures that we had never seen before. Above us, a shark glided, throwing its moonshadow upon us.
They took the pearls from us as if they were stone, because to them they were common and small as pebbles. Images swirled and formed in the white stone, and we shook in fear. The skin of the fishmen changed colour excitedly as the images became clearer.
The images of the stone were unclear, but soon, we knew we were staring into the eye of one so wise, whose knowledge was so great it could not compare with our pithy truths. The hunger that the creature had was deep and it was patient. That was what it wanted to teach us; we saw the ruin that Pawul’s men would bring upon us with their ship and gold. The sea would be eradicated, our villages would be destroyed, we would be merely greater slaves to their poisons. We would toil inside their ships, rowing, feeding a metallic monster that growled and spat at us. The whiteskins would bring an age of devastation. But even they would not survive the last flood that would come, where the fishmen would rule the drowned world.
The great being placed a promise in our minds. We could be one of the fishmen, rather than slaves of the whiteskins.
We were each given a choice. We exchanged looks and remembered those amongst us dead. We remembered how Pawul had run one of the men through with his sword as we would spear a fish.
What choice did we have? We had been deceived by Pawul’s gifts and mock-kindness. We assented.
The great being was pleased with our choice. The fishmen cut our palms and poured a liquid upon our skin that felt like ointment. It formed a cloud in the water. I drew back my hand, but the fishmen had strong arms and their scaly hands upon my arm gripped it like the closed claws of a crab. I shivered and did not feel changed, but the fishmen said it would take years. We would outlive our fathers and other men. Then the ritual was over and my head felt heavy.
We drifted up, kicking to the sun. It touched and burned our skin. We kicked, we jumped, but the nature of joy had been taken from us. There was no sense of elation, only duty, and inside, a need to stare into that great eye again and to serve the creature that owned it.
The tide cradled us in. I thought we would not have the energy to swim to shore, but the sea handled us like a caress and placed us upon the calm sand. Once we reached shore, we parted ways, going back to our families, unwilling to speak of the ceremony.
When I returned from the sea to the cave, my mother was waiting.
“Where have you been?” she asked. She was hacking away at a coconut. We did not dare eat any fish; it was too likely to have devoured the bodies of the dead.
“I was helping Rama … He thought he saw his parents,” I replied.
“Do not lie to me,” she said. She waved the parang at me. The coconut water spilled on the still-muddy soil. She dug her knife into its flesh.
“Where have you been?” She saw the mark on my hand and grabbed it.
“What is this?” she said. With the huge knife, it almost seemed as though she was ready to cut off my arm.
“I cut myself on a rock,” I said.
“Do you think I do not know what a wound from a rock would look like? It is nothing like that,” she said. A fever was rushing to her eyes. Whenever I lied, she would go into this rage. “Do you know what is done to those boys who lie?”
So, I started to tell her everything. I was too old and too strong to fear her slaps, but I did not want to lose her trust. I told her about Rama, and the fishmen, and the sounds and songs of the sea, the visions that they showed us. She shook her head as I spoke. The anger did not decrease. At the end of it, she did not speak for a while. I crouched, ashamed.
“Go! Go! You do not know what you have become!” she shouted. “The fishmen spoke to our people before. Much like this time, after a great wave. They took my brothers. You do not know what they will make of you!”
She raised the knife and I ran.
That night, I stayed in the cave. I caught a crab and tore it apart in my bare hands; its claws nicked me several times and I bled deep, thick blood. I was still human. The wound on my palm ached terribly. If I closed my eyes and focused, I could once again hear the humming, the singing, the dark song of the sea. I hummed along with it, as it gave me comfort. I tried to change to a lullaby my mother used to sing to me, but the notes sounded wrong.
Rama came to find me. He said that he had heard the humming and it could only be me. He was now the boy of old, but stronger, energised, as if he had found his fate, his reason for being. He lifted rocks around the cave and waved a stick as though it were an elegant sword. We dived into the sea, whose surface was still wild and shaking. Fish came to us easily now, offering their bodies.
As we tossed and twisted, we heard a sound not of the waters, nothing like the slow popping and crisp bubbling of new coral, nor the breath of fishes and their waving fins.
“The first sacrifices are coming,” Rama told me. He lifted his head to the surface and pointed out to the horizon; I could see the outline of a boat and the chugging sound that it made, like coughing metal. Rama’s smile was a sneer.
Rama sped towards it, his body straight as a spear. I thought he would smash himself against the rocks, but he emerged, still making large strokes, going through the water like a shark intent upon its prey.
He shouted and the other children came to join him. I could see them running towards the waters, jumping in. There was nothing to fear, anymore, in the water and the waves. We were now able to hold our breaths for far longer than we ever could before, waiting for the approach of the boat. There were only four men. I assumed most of his men had died.
Rama took a conch shell and blew on it, and the fishmen came near the surface. They were intent, knowing that the enemy had returned. We watched Pawul come out. He looked fearful and his clothes were ragged.
Pawul disembarked with one of his men and went to Khun, but the chief had nothing to offer. There was much shouting and Pawul waved his pistol madly around. The fishmen observed. I could not tell if they were amused or bewildered. Their expressions were unfathomable. Did they have no joy? No laughter? What would happen when I became one of them?
Pawul grew impatient. He was demanding more pearls, fish, or even sea cucumbers. He ordered his men to take out their guns. I was armed only with a spear. The moon lurked upon the water, its face shining.
The fishmen emerged. They skimmed upon the water like stones you throw. They leapt out, with bone knives and barbed spears. Pawul and his men were taken by surprise and Khun cowered in a corner of his hut, begging for his life. They sliced the necks of Pawul’s men. Pawul screamed; there was recognition on his face. He fired his gun and took two of the fishmen down. The blood they leaked from their scales was pale and milky.
But there were too many of them. And we, too, joined in the massacre with our almost-blunt knives and stones. He was surrounded and we slashed at him slowly. The fishmen did not pay attention to his calls for mercy. Their spears cut long strokes on his flesh, letting the blood leak upon the water. He screamed until almost dawn. When the fishmen left his corpse, with skin flayed away, upon the beach, the morning tide took it greedily. By the evening, the crabs had ripped away the flesh.
The fishmen departed and did not even leave a trail of bubbles beneath the sea.
When I went back to land, my mother was not there. The hut we had made had collapsed. She had left a bowl of nuts and fruit. My heart felt like it would burst from sorrow.
I rowed away from the tribe. There were too few left and Khun had been driven mad by the incident. He stayed on land, refusing to ever go into the water. The remainder would merge with the other sea tribes and spread the way of the fishmen to them. I did not wave goodbye to Rama, nor to any of the other Changed; I took the boat and departed, knowing we would meet again when we became fishmen.
As I rowed away from the island, I saw a figure that I knew had to be my mother. She started to sing and my heart cried out. I struggled with the boat; I could not row and steer. Eventually, I managed to turn the boat near to the shore. I wailed out to her, for the nights were too quiet and I needed her voice. I knew that the gift the fishmen had given would gradually change me, but it was a slow transformation that would take years. My skin had become scalier and my eyes had started to protrude, but the change was slow.
I called out to her for five days and nights. Finally, she could not ignore my wails and came down to the beach. Her face was haggard and worn, her hair disheveled, as though she has woken from a great headache.
“Son, what have you done? Do you know what you will become?” she said.
The choice had been made. I could not answer back. The words stuck in my throat. In front of me was an oilcloth, with the pearls and shells and sea cucumber that I had no one to sell to.
“I am still me, Mother,” was the only reply I could muster. “I still row with my lean arms, but the boat may as well be of wood. I still breathe air.”
Her feet trudged through the sand. Her hands were stained with coconut milk. She walked into the waters and carefully came over to me. Specks of sand splotched her face.
She leapt onto the boat, like a water spirit from a story. She turned to me, but did not look me in the face.
“Row. My years are not many left, and I do not know if the water or the new men or you will take me, but I will not let you die. I saw your rowing; your father would be displeased,” she said.
I did as she told me.
“And we are not to speak of what happened again,” she said. Her eyes were upon the water, as the sunlight flickered upon it. She let out the sail and the boat started to move, pulled by the wind. Soon, we were out upon the sea, leaving our broken tribe behind. I did not tell her about the whispers I heard from the depths, the promises and the prayers uttered to me as I slept, or how my eyes could now peer deep beneath the waves to see the silver streaks of fish that cut through the water.
That night, after she had made a meal out of a crab, she stood over me with a knife in her hand. I pretended to sleep.
The dagger, dull as it was, shone upon my face, but I did not feel its fall. She sighed and threw it into the water, then went to her side of her boat and cradled herself to sleep, moaning. I watched her and hid my face as I shed salt tears.
Bio: Dave Chua is a writer based in Singapore. He has written a novel, Gone Case, and won 2nd prize for ChiZine’s short story contest in 2009 for his short story, “Last Days”.