TiBE 台北國際書展 2024.2.20-25

Syaman Rapongan: The Old Fisherman Excerpt

2 September 2019 /

    The old seafarer, Lomabika, returned from his ocean dive, sold six octopuses for New Taiwan Dollars, and bought a 6-pack of beer. He still had more than 500 dollars. He drank while he walked to his secret base, the place where he was before he went diving. The place was about a forty-minute walk from his tribal land. Upon arrival, he only had two beers left. He put his diving equipment into the reef cave, which wasn’t even ten square meters, then walked out of the cave to investigate the metal sheet on his right. He collected the cogon grass that protected against leaks covering the rusted sheet. Then he began to move rocks, stacking them according to their size on top of the metal sheet. At times he’d look to the sky and at others he gaze at the sea.

    A massive layer of gloomy gray clouds hung in the air. He had nearly been working three hours when black clouds began to hide the mountaintops on his right. The wind that blew in was not only laden with humidity, it brought a slight chill to his skin. The sea surface that was already rather murky during his morning dive had unquestionably become a great deal murkier. He knew that these natural atmospheric changes were the marks of a fast-approaching typhoon. He raised his head to gaze at the sky once again; the wind blew the rain and clouds with greater and greater urgency pushing him to speed up his rock-stacking so he could complete his work of weighing down the metal sheet. He thought that after he’d dealt with the attacks from the typhoon gusts and hard rains he could quickly get back to his tribal home and do what was necessary to protect against the wind. His concrete home would surely be just fine! That’s what he thought. He paid another visit to Old Chen’s Grocery Store and bought another six-pack of beer and a box of red candles. Three packs of beef-flavored instant noodles, and he returned nonchalantly to his secret base facing the sea. With a naked upper body and a naked spirit, he faced the oncoming strike of wind and rain as if he were the only person living on the island.

    He’d show up now and then in the tribe’s alleys. He didn’t really have a pattern. His existence in the daytime and the descent of nighttime were determined by his mood or his drunkenness. His emotions seemed to follow a rhythm on his own channel. Even when it came to some of his older male cousins who cared for him greatly, it didn’t matter, he preferred to go at it alone. To put it bluntly he simply ignored the sincere concern coming from his relatives. When two of his cousins, who loved him dearly, passed in away in short succession he never participated in any of the funerary ceremonies. When he got into trouble on the sea with some Southern Min people because of his reckless behavior, it was these few cousins that had helped him deal with his parents’ final affairs. Basic human decency dictates that he ought to have taken care of the funeral arrangements for his cousins. But he didn’t. Being like this over time caused a dozen or so of his nephews to keep a distance. The typhoon was approaching fast, but the fact that he persisted in his my-way-only lifestyle, the younger generation was getting further and further away, and it was all the doing of the old seafarer.

    “It’s a typhoon day. Where in the world are you goin!” the boss, Mr. Chen shouted.

    “To my home by the sea!” Lomabika replied.

    “C’mon it’s too dangerous!”

    “I ain’t afraid of a typhoon.”

    Mr. Chen, who came from Fujian Province thirty years ago, opened this grocery store in the tribal land of the old seafarer after he’d finished a career in the army. One year when Mr. Chen went back to mainland China to visit relatives, he had the old seafarer help him prepare the storefront for typhoons and do several other big and small tasks. He could then feel at ease leaving. When the old seafarer was young, it was a sure thing that he would get drunk and let out his resentments toward the Han Chinese, calling them invaders—assassins who destroyed the traditional customs of the Tao people. And Mr. Chen was a well-trained local dog, who never once, gave even half a response. Mr. Chen’s glass storefront doors were the size of two tatami mats and were quite often broken by Lomabika. They were regularly the target of the old seafarer’s frustrations, but just as regularly repaired by him after sobering up, so Mr. Chen never did report him to the local police station. He knew that the old seafarer had a kind demeanor and he also knew about prisoner 0297 and how the old seafarer would often blather on about how he was an “intellectual.” Mr. Chen was a witness to this past. In his youth, when the old seafarer got drunk, he had violent tendencies. He vented his frustrations with his fists, but now he vented them with his mouth, causing consternation at the grocery store and among his tribal members.  Chen also understood that the old seafarer’s short temper was like fragile glass; it was so easy for his dignity to be hurt.

    “Be careful out there!” Mr. Chen urged. The old seafarer raised the hand with his beer showing that he heard.

    Mr. Chen pulled down the typhoon-safeguard rolling metal door. Lomabika left the store naked from the waist up, walking into the powerful wind and rain. He drank as he walked, past the post office, the health center, and past the field overgrown with calla flowers. The reeds and cogon grass to his left danced vigorously in the wind and rain. The wind from the north blew away the long-crested waves and the waves gushed onto the winding reef. One swell after another heaved up and down, pounding the shore indifferently with roars and rumbles. Besides Lomabika there was no one else walking on the streets.

    Lomabika relished a slightly drunken state, swaying back and forth on the road. This was the greatest feeling in the world. It was like being on the ocean in his youth, catching fish and weaving dreams. Perhaps, he thought, sobriety is for the ocean deep not for contemplating the history of humankind. And he relished the generously spectacular manner the stormy seas pounded the shore. Or at least when he was drunk that’s how it was depicted in his head. The sea god spewed forth the stormy seas to purge the earth’s garbage, but this provoked the righteous indignation of the people towards him. After he’d drunk three cans of beer he was already back at his secret base. He took off his soaking wet shorts and underpants and entered the cave completely naked.

    The entrance to the cave faced the sea. The length was a bit more than four meters and the back of the cave inside the mountain was about two meters wide with piles of rocks. Anything that was a little bigger than a crack he stuffed with worn-out clothing to keep out the strong winds. Then he went to a corner and actually started to fashion a cooking stove. With the door open and the wind and seafoam coming right inside he started to make a fire. He looked at the dark gray ocean horizon then put two thick longan tree logs on the stove, allowing the dry firewood to slowly warm up the cave and his body temperature.

    He put on the underpants that Mr. Chen had given him, sat on a rock with his back against the wooden pillow he made himself, and began to gaze out at the ocean admiring the gradually strengthening waves.

    “C’mon! I’m ready! Smack this reef beach with some force!” he said in a low voice.

    “Anyhow, the beach ain’t scared of you just cuz you’re a typhoon.”

    “But don’t you dare block up the cave of those octopuses.”

    The old seafarer drank as he spoke to the great sea. He finished another can of Taiwan Beer and crushed it softly in his palm. The can became garbage. “It’s you who made me drunk, ya know?” he said pointing at the can. Then he opened another can of beer resuming his drinking and resuming his admirations of the stormy sea.

    The big leaves of the fish poison tree at left front side of the cave were being blown off rapidly by this force 10 wind. They blew into the cave and he gathered them up one by one throwing them outside.

    “You devil tree leaves stay away from this seafarer’s home. You devils, don’t you even think about sharing my bed,” he muttered to himself again.

    The wind and rain were getting stronger and stronger, the waves bigger and bigger. Orchid Island was clearly already in the midst of a violent wind. The crests on the waves, arriving to vent their anger, were being sprayed in all directions by the wind, across the surface of the ocean as far as Lomabika could see. Ashen gray just like the skies. If it wasn’t that dark black clouds were swiftly drifting by, then every day would be just one color. It was this that brought the painful story of his past to the forefront of his feelings.

    There’s a harbor in eastern Taiwan, the people of Taitung call it Fugang Harbor, it’s basically a smaller-size fish harbor. The town of Fugang has three communities. The Amis tribe, the people of Dachen Island, and a small town made up of Southern Min people, they all belong to a Fisherman’s Association, belonging to the Chenggong area, which also has jurisdiction over fishing matters in Green Island and Orchid Island.

    One month in 1974, when Lomabika was twenty-two, was also the time he started working for free as a transporter of goods on the cargo ship going back and forth from Taitung to Orchid Island, the Orchid Island Cargo Ship.  After a year he remained in the small town of Fugang.

    His original reasoning was that he hoped to run into his elementary school classmate, his first love, the only girl to ever arouse his physical desire, and the only woman with whom he’d ever had sexual relations in his life.

    Perhaps it was in his very nature to have a life of hard labor. And then there was the physical stamina his father had trained in him combined with the qualities of working hard, simple honesty, and integrity. When he was on the crew of the Orchid Island Cargo Ship, he was exactly the kind of partner the captain was looking for. Although he said he didn’t need money, just food to eat, and he’d get by, but the captain sensed that Lomabika was hard-working and honest so every month he’d still give him a thousand yuan for personal use.

    Besides the income from the Orchid Island freighter, he helped all the other fishing boats in Fugang Harbor to transport their catches to the fish market earning himself some good karma. Due to those qualities of working hard, simple honesty, and integrity he earned quite a bit of money.

    Lomabika felt like this was unexpected extra income so he’d spontaneously stuff it into the worn-out pocket of his jacket making that his pillow. When the freighter wasn’t moving cargo, he would spontaneously pull several hundred from his jacket and treat the young fisherfolk to a meal at a luwei restaurant in Fugang, so he could earn some good karma. He hoped that one day if the ocean liners didn’t have goods to transport that he could go out on the ocean with these fisherfolk to catch fish. This was his second career plan from the beginning and also his greatest interest: to eke out a living on the sea, drifting on the waves without a care in the world. If he didn’t find his first love, that is.

    His youth was capital. Although his Tao ethnic group didn’t have the collective practice of either brewing or drinking alcohol, Lomabika was born with the capital of bearing hard labor, so naturally his stamina was also better than his friends of the same age, as was his capacity for liquor. He went out drinking for a few months and soon became quite well-acquainted with many young fishermen in Fugang; they became good friends. They bestowed on him the title of “Drinking Immortal,” but he didn’t like it. One time at the drinking table, to his fisher friends, especially Ah Zhong from the Amis tribe, he said:

     “Call me Seafarer,” and after some enthusiastic racket and drinking a toast, they raised a cry, “Seafarer!” and this title became an appellation that gave him extreme satisfaction. It became his exclusive name.

     Fugang is but a small town, saturated with the spirit of hospitality. Everyone always treats one another with sincerity.  Together they are embraced into one people by the ocean and its fishes. There is no concept of class distinction. Add to that the fact that every time the fishing boats went to sea they came back with a plentiful catch. So among Fugang’s luwei and seafood restaurants not a one didn’t warmly welcome the patronage of the seafarer. His integrity and generosity captured the respect and love of the residents of this small town, it wasn’t that the seafarer was out squandering money.

    In the winter, Orchid Island frequently gets hit by the monsoons from the northeast, just as Taiwan itself does. When the Northeast Monsoons come, the sea surface is blown into sixth to seventh degree waves. The wind speed can be higher than force 10 and the Orchid Island Cargo Ship didn’t even have a net weight of 100 tons so at those times the ship was docked for several days or even longer. During that time ocean liners were the only means of transport for young Taos to go to Taiwan for work or to get home. Once the cargo ship was docked Taos were frequently detained in Fugang. They’d wait in cheap inns for the the weather conditions to turn clear so the next ship could leave.

     Perhaps Lomabika was fated to have a life of hard labor.  He was the seafarer, a wandering ghost far from home. He did not have the fortune brought by an infant’s gentle spirit. One evening, Lomabika and his fisher friends came out from a seafood restaurant. Moderately drunk, they walked towards the Orchid Island Cargo Ship in the harbor. En route, the temperature of his mood lowered instantaneously. At that moment, it became just like the current winter chill coming from the northeast. Just over 20 years old, his moderately drunk appearance became sober instantly, like he had a feeling that some unpleasant news was about to lay assault on his heart.

    Even though the night air was saturated in a cold nip, he was still naked from the waist up. The pores of his flesh felt the invasion of the cold wind. He sneezed. “Mangay ka dan o laklaktat ko. (I wish my back luck would go away.)”

    On the left side of the middle section of Fugang Road, outside of the entrance of a cheap inn was a young couple sitting and holding a child. They must’ve been around the same age as him. From a distance he still could see the simple honest manner of the Tao in them. His friends’ intoxication interfered with his ability to concentrate. He forced a smile and went on walking along. He bowed his head wondering what had made his mind uneasy. Are they family? A letter. He’d never written a letter to his father and mother to tell them he was fine. Even were he to write one his parents couldn’t read it. The envelope and paper would be torn by his old dad to roll cigarettes. In fact, a part of his soul still begrudged his father for not allowing him to go to Taiwan for school. Even though he still came to Taiwan he didn’t know how to get enrolled and start his studies. And what was this unpleasant premonition? He fixed his look again towards the entrance of the family-run inn. The young man faced the road, with his back to his wife and son, toking on a cigarette. The young mother had her hair pulled back very neatly, occasionally gazing over at the crowds moving to and fro on the road, and periodically looking down in fascination to the child she held in her embrace. When the young mother raised her head, their pairs of eyes met unexpectedly. 

    Was it her? No, that’s impossible! His child? Impossible! She said it before. In this life she only loved him. Perhaps it was someone else’s. That’s what the seafarer told himself.

    Was it her? No, that’s impossible! His child? Impossible! She said it before. In this life she only loved him. Perhaps it was someone else’s. That’s how the seafarer comforted himself.

    He hoped that the fairy goddess could tell him this wasn’t true. With all his strength he tried to think of how his mom had described the fairy. He walked and walked. Single-mindedly devoted to this task, he took eight or nine steps.  An image of the fairy wearing traditional Tao attire appeared in his mind. Yes…

    “A…na, A…na, mu…Guvag, mu…Guvag. (Hello…, Hello… Guvag…Guvag.)”

    The fairy was leading a small girl. Their backs were towards him and he simply couldn’t catch up. The seafarer’s eyes flooded with tears. He knew what this meant. His mother had taught him about this before. He had no chance with this girl.

    It had already been five years since seeing one another. In this moment, that brain archive on top of his eyes was more complicated than the image of a jellyfish at night. The two of them were classmates that loved and respected each other ever since they were nine years old, up until the night they graduated. After their graduation ceremony finished Lomabika gave some of his reward to Lofat. That day they stayed at the sandy beach at nighttime. These distinct scenes from Lomabika’s past floated by, in sequence, from the memories in his brain archive, and he let slip a knowing, bashful smile. His dear first love. These past few years he had remained in Fugang until now, the person in his hopes had finally shown up. After he did the math, he realized the answer to his question. Not only was it his mistake, the answer was the result that he could never remake this choice again. The young Lomabika stopped in his tracks, bowed his head, and wiped off the only tear for a lover that would ever stain his face over the course of his life. Clearing his throat, he rushed up to match the pace of his friends; the posture of his walk pretended that nothing was amiss. But on the inside, waves from a typhoon walloped his soul, walloping a wanderer’s wooden boat in the middle of the expansive sea. Right then, his cellular response was that this wooden boat would forever be unable to find a safe harbor to avoid the waves of sorrow. He was predestined to live a life like a plankton drifting with the ocean currents. When the sun rose, it could be assumed that it was to destroy yesterday night’s dream. The dim light of night descended once again. It was no longer possible to reignite the childlike dream that had been sprinkled down from the stars in the sky.

    “Seafarer. Come. Drink.”

    “Seafarer, come over and drink man!” urged Ah Zhong from the Amis tribe, Ah Liang from the Dachen, Dog who was Southern Min, and Ah Hui from Green Island all at the same table.

    If it weren’t for the events of tonight, his emotions suddenly dropping from heaven to hell, then he certainly wouldn’t have had second thoughts, and agreed immediately to stay for the continued rounds of drinking. That was his personality.

    However, the seafarer could not foresee the fluctuations of the winds and waves. If you’re the chief mate on an ocean ship and you frequently make mistaken predictions about changes in the weather, the terrible germ of self-destruction takes root and thus from that night forward, hell began its upward trend drilling into the seafarer’s heart and soul.

    “C’mon now. Seafarer, get over here and drink,” the luwei restaurant was in that very family-run inn.

    “OK! Bottoms up!” he told himself.

    The seafarer glanced at her again to make sure it was actually Lofat, his first love. He also wanted to send a secret message through his eyes, “Do we still have a chance?” She carried a sullen expression and wore a veneer of worry. She was missing the unbridled nature of her young womanhood. A deep sense of kindness that comes from being a mother for the first time was added to her person. Lomabika took it in and thought about it honestly. It was her, Lofat. Was that her child? Should I talk with her? Just as the seafarer had decided to muster his courage and go speak to Lofat, she turned around to survey the evening scene at the dock. Gazing at those rocking fishing boats and the murky night sky, her two arms intermittently rocked the small infant she held at her chest.

    “Seafarer, what are you drinking?”

    “I’m drinking it all!”