It started to rain. The sea seemed angry, and this made the adults really nervous. There was a familiar smell in the air, that sultry smell of rain as it evaporated from boat’s baked surfaces. I can’t remember much as to what happened next, but I do remember what ensued was very frightening.
It wasn’t the usual fears that I experienced: not the one of ghosts that walked the steps leading up to the temple behind my house, nor was it the fear of facing the bamboo stick for having done something bad. It was a new fear. It was the cognitive fear of death.
“Put the children into the hàm!” One of my uncles ordered, raising his voice to match the sound of the rolling thunder. Hàm was a box shape compartment built into the boat to serve as storage for the day’s catch. There were three or four of these, if memory serves me correctly, arranged one after another in the middle and lengthwise of the boat. Each had a heavy tar-sealed wooden cover to protect its content. They were cleaned out and were intended to be used for protection in case of such unwelcome event. “One adult per hàm! Quickly! It’s coming!”
The sea was now throwing a tantrum. It spat salty foam at the boat in loud crashes. The rain and wind joined in the fray. They were now like three terrible children, each raging to have possession of the boat. Each exerting its power to wrench the toy boat from the other two.
The hàm was dark. Its space seemed unbound in this enclosed darkness. It smelled like like the smell on the deck, but with a new dimension: fear. I hated being in there. I sat in the cold water that the hàm began to collect. I kept my eyes opened and tried to imagine who and what I might see if there was light. I felt the others around me as we were all tossed about like wet laundry in a dilapidated tumbler. A couple of the younger ones began to cry. I didn’t feel like crying but the urge slowly crept up on me. So I did. Then one by one, we all started crying, louder and louder as if to drown out the violent tug-of-war outside.
“Pray to Buddha, my children! Pray, little ones!” My aunt encouraged us. She didn’t mask her fear nor hold back her crying. In unison, we began chanting after our aunt. The children only knew six words from that sacred chant and repeated them over and over again. My aunt prayed to Buddha, to the heaven and the earth imploring for blessings. She chanted these words, accompanied by the Choir of Hàm No. 2, in this wet coffin of darkness.
I must have been lullabied to sleep, wrestling between fatigue and repetitive chanting. I slept right through the storm. I remember nothing more about it. A rumor went around later, on the safety and comfort of land, that a whale had saved us. The whale had sought shelter from the storm and found our boat. It steadied the boat and kept us from capsizing as it hid beneath us.
I believed that wonderfully fantastic rumor, and I still choose to believe it to this day.