x x x
I always hear him before I see him, the man with many names. I cover my ears as his moans rise deep from the earth. They’re long and low and seem to fill the air, drowning out the nearby music. My mother pulls me closer but she doesn’t wake. He stumbles by our tent, kicking sand onto the tarp as he passes.
Please don’t come inside. Please don’t come inside. Please don’t come inside.
I squeeze my eyes tight but I can still picture his puffy face, bulging bloodshot eyes, and the rusty chain hung about his neck. When he tries to speak, his tongue hangs loose to the side and all his words are slurred. He gets mad when I can’t understand him, so he shows me the ripped piece of paper clutched in one hand. My mother’s been teaching me to read but the writing on his paper is faded and hard to see.
I open my eyes and see his looming shadow just outside. One hand fumbles at the front, he’s searching for the entrance. I make myself round like a little ball, try to disappear into my mother.
“Get lost you stupid git!” Another figure appears, pushes him away. “Go rattle your chains somewhere else. No one wants to read your damn letter.”
There’s a bit of a shoving match, but then the moans grow fainter as the man is escorted back into the jungle. After a few minutes, the music starts again.
When I’m sure he’s gone, I roll out from under my mother’s arm and edge away from her. I wait to see if she wakens. When she doesn’t, I crawl quietly out of the tent. A small campfire beckons by the ocean. Three people are gathered around it. Bonnie and Greta sit on a log, arms linked together. They’re never here during the day, they usually stick with their own people on the other side of the island. They’re whispering to each other, pretending not to listen to the song, but I think that’s why they’ve come.
I move a little closer, squat in the sand, hugging my knees and listen to Charlie strum his guitar and sing about a woman named Eleanor. I wonder if his song’s about a woman who used to live here.
“…picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been, lives in a dream. Who is it for?” The light from the fire makes his face glow with colour, washes away the greyness that’s so apparent in the daylight. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
Bonnie notices me, nudges her friend and points. Charlie turns around and sees me behind him. He stops singing. “Hey Peanut. Sorry, am I keeping you up?”
I shake my head.
“Does your mum know you’re out here?”
I shake my head again. Charlie glances over to our tent, then pats the spot beside him. When I come over, he starts playing again, finds where he left off and finishes his sad song. I wish he’d play the one about the octopus next but instead he puts down his guitar and stares out at the ocean, chewing on his finger nails. Once he stops singing the two women wander off without a word.
I almost thought he’d forgotten I was there when he starts talking.
“When it comes down to it, what I really lament about our situation, besides the obvious, is that you’re never gonna hear proper music. All you’ve got is me and my voice hasn’t been the same since…” Charlie waves his hands in front of his throat, makes a fake gasping noise. “Course, Liam would say nothing’s changed.”
I nod because Charlie’s nodding. He grins and ruffles my hair. We both jump at the screams. It’s my mother, she’s standing in front of the tent calling for me. Her panic ignites shrieks from other people and suddenly the whole camp is awake. Dozens of people stumble out of their slumber looking confused and scared.
“You better get back,” Charlie says and picks up his guitar again. I run back to our tent and take her hand. She stops screaming as soon as she sees me, but remains dazed, frightened at the chaos around us.
A nice lady, the doctor with the pretty yellow hair, comes over, asks if everything is okay. She talks to my mother, rubs her back, calmly explains to the stunned onlookers that nothing’s wrong. It takes a while for the crowd to disperse, settle down. When we go back inside the tent, my mother scolds me for leaving.
“I was dreaming about your father.” She tucks the blankets around me. “The three of us were together, playing in the water. He was showing you how to catch a fish but you were too excited, you kept scaring them away.”
She lies down beside me and I snuggled closer, play with her hair while she talks. I like hearing stories about my father, even if this one was just dream.
“Then a boat came and he left us,” she frowns and her forehead wrinkles. I reach up and touch her face, it softens. “When I woke up, you were gone. I thought I had lost you too.”
I promise I will never leave her. She smiles and rubs her nose against mine.
x x x
In the morning we take a walk along the beach. It’s early and there’re few people around. I go ahead, but not too far. I zig zag across the wet sand, following the waves out to sea and then run back when the water returns to chase me, licking my ankles. This is one of my favourite games. My mother says when I do this I squeal like a pig. I’ve never seen a pig so she draws a picture for me in the sand. I like its curly tail. I tell her that I wish there were pigs here. She says once, when she first came, she saw three very large pigs called boars, but they’ve gone away now.
Like my father, I think.
I take the stick and write my name and hers in the sand next to the drawing of the pig. She takes the stick back and then writes another name. I don’t recognize it but I think it’s his.
While we do this, a man watches us in the distance. It’s the priest. I wave to him and he waves back, then he returns to chopping wood. He’s building something, sometimes Charlie helps him. They work very hard but never seem to finish. I ask my mother what it is and she tells me she thinks it was suppose to be a church, a place where some people go to be close to God.
Later, I sit in the sand near our tent, digging a hole. I want to make it very deep and then dig a trench all the way to the ocean so that it will flood with water. My mother watches me from the shade by the trees. She’s doing yoga with her friends. They do this together every afternoon. She says it helps her relax.
Digging holes helps me relax so I get annoyed when the two girls show up and spread their towels beside me. All they do is talk, talk, talk.
“And then, he said ‘We’ll be in touch’, but the next day I read in Variety that Cameron Diaz already had the part.” Nikki flops down on her towel. “I mean, she can’t act at all.”
“Yeah but I bet she doesn’t put out until the contract is signed, ” says Shannon, who takes off her shirt and adjusts her bikini straps. She stretches out on her stomach, which is good because I don’t like looking at it. A lot of the women have these angry red marks on their stomachs, like they were all poked through their bellies with the same sharp stick. Shannon’s the only one who shows it off.
Shannon and Nikki are in my way so I can’t work on my trench anymore. I smooth the pile of sand beside my hole. They chatter on and on, ignoring me completely so I let the sand fly around a little, not caring if it hits them.
“You little brat,” Nikki hisses, and jumps up, shaking the grains out of her hair. “He got some in my eye.”
“Ah, just leave him alone.” Shannon glances my way, then returns to her magazine. “You’re always complaining about the sand in your eyes, your nose, your ears...”
Nikki grabs her towel and stomps off, muttering bad words under her breath. Shannon just sighs and turns a page in her magazine. “Just you and me, kid.”
I wanted to ask if she would play in the sand with me. Once we made a big castle together. She told me about the real ones she had seen in Europe which is a big island on the other side of the ocean. Her brother had even helped. She kept sending him off to find shells for us to use as decorations, which he happily did, even though it took him a long time to go back and forth with his limp.
I once told her that I wished I had a big brother. Shannon said there used to be other kids here, one boy who was just a little bit older than me but he left. Then she got that look on her face that they all did when they mentioned before, the same look my mother got when she talked about my father.
Before I get a chance to ask her to play, a man appears out of the jungle. He runs around the camp, stopping to look at everyone, pleading with them. He stumbles and falls, gets up, looks around some more.
“Here we go again,” Shannon says with a yawn. “Like clockwork.”
I avoid eye contact, hoping he won’t come over to us. He’s not scary like the man from last night, with the chains, but he looks worse. Although the wounds on his chest and face are sewed up they always seem to be leaking, oozing red, yellow and green goo, and the frantic look in his eyes makes me nervous. I consider going into the tent, but worry that might just draw more attention to myself, so I stay small and still.
It doesn’t do any good and suddenly he’s dropped to his knees before us. “Where is she? She’s dangerous.”
“She wasn’t here yesterday and she’s not here today.” Shannon doesn’t even look up. “She won’t be here tomorrow.”
“Have to find her! Have to bring her back!”
“Good luck with that.”
He holds his head in his hands. “My cuffs, my handcuffs. Where are my cuffs?
“I think I saw them over there.” She points randomly down the beach, and he takes off in that direction. “And they say I’m the drama queen. Get over yourself. The crash was four years ago.”
I no longer feel like playing so I leave Shannon and go sit beside my mother. While I wait for her to be done, I cross my legs and sit with my eyes closed, resting the backs of my hands on my knees. She’s right, this is relaxing and I forget about the frantic man.
x x x
Afterwards we go to the garden. It’s my job to move the fallen leaves and branches away from the plants. Then we pull the weeds out and I like the feeling of the cool earth on my hands. My mother digs up some of the plants, names them. Aloe for burns. Culpepper for sores. Lavender for headaches. She holds that one up to my nose and I inhale. It reminds me of her.
She transplants them to another row, back and forth we move them. When we’re done, we kneel by the garden and my mother tells me a story. She says it was one my grandfather, my father’s dad, told him when he was a little boy. And he used to tell it to me when I was still inside her.
“Hundreds of years ago there was a king who had a very special stone hand mill. All he had to do was say what he wanted and turn it and out would come what had been requested. If gold was requested, gold would come out. If rice was requested, rice would come out.”
I ask myself, what I would ask for if I had such a hand mill?
“One day a thief made up his mind to steal the hand mill. He tricked the king and took it for himself, escaping on a boat. Then he thought about what to request. He didn’t want to ask for something easy to obtain. ‘Salt! Salt!’ he suddenly shouted.” And she does a funny voice for the thief which is high and whiny and reminds me a bit of Paulo. She waits for me to stop giggling before she continues. “‘I'll ask for salt! Everyone needs salt. I can sell it and become a rich man. I'll be the richest man in the country.’”
I have to interrupt to ask my mother what rich means and she explains it’s having everything you can possibly want but not necessary what you need.
“So he asked for salt and the mill began to produce it. Mountains of it poured out and finally the boat was so full of salt that it sank to the bottom of the sea. And since no one has ever told the hand mill to stop, it’s still turning and making salt, which is why the sea is salty.”
This is a good story. I try hard to remember back to when I was no smaller than a fish swimming inside my mother’s belly but I can’t. That was too long ago. I can’t remember my father’s voice at all. I wonder if he remembers me. I don’t say this out loud but my mother senses my question.
“Your father may be very far away but I know he thinks about us every day. Just like we think of him. If he had a magic mill, he would have asked for more time. All we needed was more time. The helicopters came so soon after…”
We’re quiet on our way back to the camp. As we always do, we stop for a moment at the cemetery. Normally it’s quite busy at this time of day, those who were buried here like to come at sunset, but tonight there’s only one other person, Ana. She’s sitting on her grave with her back to us. When we approach, she gets up, wipes her eyes and smiles. She’s holding some red flowers.
I don’t see Ana very often, but when I do she always has a gift for me, a rock shaped like a heart or a whistle she whittled. She told me she had a baby once, and she wishes she had died with it, so they could always be together, like my mother and me, though she didn’t know if it worked that way off the island.
Wordlessly, she thrusts the flowers into my hand and walks down the path to the beach.
We stay at the cemetery for a while longer, until the sun falls. Then I place the flowers on our grave. The marker has both our names on it, written in Korean and English. I can read them even though the writing is messy and crooked. I imagine my father’s hands shook when he carved it, his eyes blinded by tears.
My mother picks me up and carries me back to the camp. I wrap my arms around her and rest my head on her shoulder. As we get closer I can hear the music. Charlie’s playing the song about the octopuses. It’s my favourite.
x x x
Guishin – means ghost or spirit in Korean.
Sun’s story, “Why the Sea is Salty?” is based on a Korean fairy tale written by Suzanne Crowder Han.