Everyday on the open sea was a theater between frenzy and listlessness. We were hot and just barely on the threshold of hunger. Our hunger, actually, was distracted by our thirst—an unquenchable thirst. I constantly desired to take gulps and gulps, and unreserved, overflowing gulps of water. Instead, we each took a couple of sips from a shallow lid of water that was infrequently passed around. When it came, I eagerly awaited its balmy relief, but at the same time repulsed it. I could smell it before it reached my parched lips. The content of lid was a mixture of water and some kind of mineral or vitamins. Whatever it was, it was horrible. It etched an unforgettable, unnatural taste in my olfactory nerves.
As I stared blankly at the always-changing-but-looking-the-same aqueous surface around me, someone sounded the familiar alarm: A ship! A ship! There were countless of these cries during the course of the sweltering day. We would all muster up our strength and put ourselves in a spastic state of arm waving and jumping up an down. Time and time again, it seemed the harder we tried to get a ship’s attention, the further away it moved—drawn to and swallowed by the horizon. Some days, some of us didn’t even try. We just lay there, usually in the same spot as the day before, listless and hopeful.
My oldest brother kept a journal. He told me once that he had stopped counting the number of ships that nullified our existence and went on their own ways. The last counted ship entry in his journal was 103.
I sat back down on the deck and felt the steady breeze that had slowly becoming murmuring wind. The tarp that shielded us from the sun was beginning to flicker louder and becoming more animated. A dark mass was spotted and it was moving toward us, slowly but surely. My stomach churned the empty space inside as I thought about having to go down again into the ham—that wet, dark hole in the boat. The adults nervously busied themselves, tying things down and securing the meager food and water. The boat had already taken a savage beating by last storm. We nearly perished. This time around, nothing would prevent the ocean from being fed, not even the great whale.
There was something else that we had been keeping track besides the dark mass. It was something unusual. We all, one by one, focused our attention on it. I squinted at this blur on the horizon. It was unlike all the caterpillars I’ve seen. This one was longer and had three sections. It was also slow—very slow, almost standing still.
“Let’s go! Go for it!” Someone erupted. “They’re barges. It’s a ship pulling barges. That’s why it’s been so slow,” he continued rapturously. “We can catch it. We have to do it. We can make it!”
The renewed hope was felt by us all. It picked us up, one by one, from our positions. The engine roared. I watched as the caterpillar swelled bigger and bigger. It slowly transformed into a metallic being, long and awesome, slicing the ocean as it moved forward ever so slowly. As our boat gained proximity, I was fascinated by the smooth trail that it left behind in its wake. The width of the trail was so vast and still that I imagined we were floating on a sleeping river, one that hadn’t been waken by the dawn and hadn’t been disturbed by fishers.
I was reminded of the river behind the house that my grandfather’s once lived. The river afforded his boat access to the ocean where he would go and catch his living. There was a landing behind his property that lay right on the river’s edge. Within the safety of the shallow shore, I used to wade and swam in the river’s palm green body. The adults continually discouraged the kids from playing in it, but of course, we ignored them. It didn’t register with us that the river was used not only for mobility, but also as convenient deposit for life’s daily refuse. I would often see and wave to the villagers traversing it in their boats and thung—a canoe-like vessel. The odd thing about the thung was that it shaped like a bowl, made from woven bamboo and sealed with tar. In any Vietnamese fishing village, it was the quick and common means to get around on the water.
Our boat slowly approached the massive rear wall of the last barge. I craned my neck and marveled at the sight before me: the sheer height created a steep vertical, a towering monument. The wall seemed as if would topple any second and utterly flatten our boat, not dissimilar to the effect of a flyswatter on a fly. The stillness of the trail was like a carpet of silky fabric, majestically rolling out from under the monolithic vessel. Welcoming us. Receiving us. I stared at the tangent that divided the trail and the rest of the tumultuous ocean; I was transfixed by the contrast. The Silk River hypnotized me, convincing me of the shallowness and firmness of its body. I felt safe under its spell and I thought to myself: I’m not so scared of the ocean…. If I accidentally fell over now, I would just pick myself up, walk across the surface, and climb back on the boat.
A few people had already scaled the barge while I was lost in my reverie. I think my oldest brother was among them. I recall being proud of him for being one of the brave ones to venture up to the top surface. “Secure the rope and give it a lot of slack…!” One of my uncles shouted up to the reconnaissance team above. “Or else our boat will get pulled under!” Once secured, we began to transport the passengers and necessities up to the barge.
“Hold on tightly to the cuffs of your shorts,” someone instructed me as he looped and fastened a rope around me. Then I felt the tightening grip of the rope around my chest. I clutched my cuffs harder than I ever did and watched as our boat slowly drifted downward, moving away from under my feet. A sense of adventure washed over me in the midst of my fear. I looked around as I floated higher up: I felt insignificant as I saw the infinite ocean around us. One by one, we were all hoisted aboard.
I untied the rope and scanned the new landscape. I felt relieved that I was again standing on a stationary object, firm and unwavering under my feet. It was the impression of terra firma. Standing, literally, at the edge of this new world, I wonder at the landscape before me, one that I had never seen before. From the cool, metallic ground on which I stood sprouted iron trees and metal ponds. There were sections of perfectly round caves that opened at both ends. The canopies of pendulous chains trickled and created uneven hollow dripping sounds. Steep vertical hill and blocky metal boulders regularly lined the surface.
The fresh ocean breeze, mixed with the petroleum scented flora of bolts and nuts, permeated my nostril. I was saved from being swallowed by the horrible ocean. I stood there, mesmerized by strange beauty the Steel Garden.