Caterpillar on the Horizon

The agitated waves and the sporadic sputtering engine woke me. The sun was glaring and the heat made my ears felt hot. I picked up my head and looked around. There were already people shuffling about, mostly adults. The other kids were still asleep, feeling sea sick or like me taking in the situation. I made a 360° scan of the horizon—no land to be seen. We were way out at sea.

“May I have some water?” I asked someone.

“Wait a little bit, child,” she responded, “when we pass it around. We don’t have much of it.”

I surveyed the passengers and found only a couple of unfamiliar faces. I knew the rest: uncles, aunts, cousins…. I picked out my siblings: Hoang, the second child and my oldest brother; Loi, two before me; Thanh, one before me; Huong, one after me; and Oanh, two after me, also third from youngest. Out of the eleven, six made it. And there was also Tuan, my half-brother. Yes, my father was a friendly and verile man. Say, where is the old man? Where’s dad? And mom, where is she?

“My father and mother, where are they?”

“They got left behind, my child.” She put an arm around me. “Children,” she began with the preambled, scanning the faces of my brothers and sisters—the seven of us, “your father and mother didn’t make it with us.” She seemed to be holding back the tears and continued, “Oh, you poor children.” An adult nearby put his hand on my head and rubbed it as though to make me feel better. His heavy hand lingered there.

I felt ambivalent. I’ll see them again, I thought. I wasn’t upset by the news, although I sensed that collective tone wasn’t a good one. I’m a big boy. I can do without them for a while. Why did she sound so distressful, I wondered. And why couldn’t my folks go on this trip? Where are we going anyway?

¤ ¤ ¤

The sun continued to wring out the stench of oil and seawater that had been trapped in the wood. The smell continually washed over my olfactory like an unsavory perfume. It made me feel nauseous. Or was it the sea? I felt hungry but the thought of food didn’t appeal to my appetite. I reached for the water that finally came my way.

“Only a little, child. We have to conserve water.” I took drink and felt a resistance as I tried to tip the cup to a more lucrative angle. It was passed on to the next person. I was barely quenched.

There was a stir among the passengers. A couple of my aunts were passing out food. I was given a handful of packed rice and a sprinkle of dried shaved pork. Someone announced that we had to abort the rendezvous to pick up water, ration and fuel.

“We have to conserve our resources,” one of my uncle began in an unsteady courageous tone. The children mustn’t panic. “The men will have more food for energy to mind the boat. The rest of you don’t move around too much. Stay under the tent to keep from dehydration.” I looked down at the vast body of water and thought it would be nice if I could scoop some in my hand and have a sip. I saw a few glistening, silvery winged fish shot out from the water. They trajected along a shallow arch above the surface then speared back into the sea. I was fascinated. I only heard about them until now.

“And all the children must stay in the center of the boat! I don’t want anyone to walk around without supervision.” My nausea didn’t allow me to stand up, say alone meander about. I really wanted, though very much, to explore my grandfather’s boat which I was rarely given the chance to board. The gravity of the situation began to dawn on me. We are at sea, vuot bien — to escape across the borders of Viet Nam. I’ve heard about it here and there, but never openly. Compatriots escaping the country on boats like ours. I thought what would happen if we were caught; I felt scared at not knowing. I felt like a criminal. I wanted my parents. I wanted to be home, eating the fish fillet and having ice cream. I desperately wanted to be on land again.

¤ ¤ ¤

Many of the children were more agitated now from the innocent excitement of being at sea. The sun seemed hotter still as it reached noon time. It was bad to be outside, I was told growing up, when the sun is at the apex. It is the time of dung bong, the time when the shadows are motionless. It is said that if a child is caught outside in the sun during dung bong, his shadow will be stolen. By whom I never knew. It was an effective scare tactic; it kept me inside most of the time.

I looked out beyond the boat as someone pointed to the horizon. Everyone stirred and stood up. “There! Shout! Everyone shout for help! Whoaaa! Help here!” One of my aunt’s brother-in-law climbed up on top of the cabin roof, pulling off his shirt over his head. He tore at it as though the shirt was on fire. “Help!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, madly waving the makeshift flag.

There was a crescendo of cacophonous cry for attention. Everyone jumped up and down, waving and shouting. “Mind the children!” Someone reminded. “Just shout, children, and stay in the center of the boat!”

I too shouted and flailed my arms around, calling out to the caterpillar on the horizon. Our engine was engaged and began to roar. Our boat seemed to be going quite fast, but it wasn’t getting anywhere. The distant fuzzy caterpillar was moving away, getting further and smaller. I was transfixed on this object, this object of need, feeling disappointed and helpless as it inched away into my memory.

Our engine stopped and quieted down to a sputtering. One by one we discontinue our waving frenzy. The pursuit had been called off.

It dawned on us that the ship was farther than it seemed.

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