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Authors: Brian Caswell and David Chiem

Only the Heart (7 page)

BOOK: Only the Heart
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The whole incident could have taken no more than a few seconds, but it seemed to stretch forever. I saw the man's eyes and I saw the face of the pirate leader. And I waited for the explosion that would end it. But it never arrived.

An expression passed over that arrogant face, which at the time I couldn't read. I think now that it was probably respect. But perhaps he just enjoyed demonstrating his power.

As the silence stretched, and no one breathed, he uttered one word. Not a shout; barely more than a whisper, really. But the authority in his voice stopped the execution. The man with the gun paused with the trigger half-depressed, and turned to face his leader. Nothing more was said, but a slight movement of those eyes and the man stepped back.

I felt my mother's fingers digging into my shoulders, and I realised that she had probably been gripping me like that for some time. I just hadn't noticed. I shifted slightly and the pressure eased, but she didn't let go.

The two pirates continued their search, pushing people around and striking them if they were too slow to respond to orders they didn't really understand, but the leader had lost interest. He was looking towards Aunt Mai.

And Phuong.

Though she was only thirteen, Phuong had always been the most beautiful girl in the street. She was never vain about it, but it was a fact.

And in the middle of the ocean, when the only law is the law of the gun …

*

MAI

“Very pretty!” The big man speaks Vietnamese with a Thai accent, and his eyes are fixed on the girl.

Phuong tries to look away, but his gaze is demanding, and all she can manage is to lower her eyes. He reaches out to touch her, and she flinches as his fingertips linger on her breast.

“Very nice …”

And suddenly his hand is knocked away.

Black anger flares in his eyes and he grabs the offending wrist, but Mai holds his gaze. For the second time in as many minutes he sees defiance, but this time his reaction is different. With his free hand he delivers a stinging blow that snaps her head to the side. She stumbles backwards half a pace but does not fall, and her eyes remain fixed on his.

“She is just a child.” The words are a plea, but there is no weakness there.

After a moment the big man smiles. A cruel curving of the lips without a trace of humour.

“But soon she will be a woman … “His eyes stray back to the girl. “Very soon.” He reaches out again and takes some of the child's long hair between his fingers, watching it slip through. “It would be a shame not to … experience such beauty.”

He holds the child's face in one of his huge hands and studies her.

“Take me.” Mai's voice is steady. The words hang in the air between them, as he turns to face her. “Leave her and take me.”

Before he can answer, an urgent shout drifts down from the deck above. He listens then smiles again.

“We have company.”

He looks up momentarily towards the open hatch. Then his gaze returns to Mai.

“And why should I be interested in this … exchange?”

“She is just a child. I am … experienced. What I can give —”

“What you can give? I think you are in no position to make deals. I think it might be … interesting to take you both. Experience and …” He studies the child, and leaves the sentence unfinished. He is enjoying the game, though his men look nervously towards the hatchway.

“Sai,” one ventures. “The ship …”But the warning is swallowed as his leader's gaze slides dangerously over him.

As if the interruption had never happened, he waits for her reply.

Her face is unreadable as she moves across to place a protective arm around her daughter's shoulder, positioning her body between them. ‘The … exchange is for what I can offer … freely. Not for what you can take.” The pause is almost imperceptible, but there is a sudden coldness in her eyes. And in the words which follow. “And you must know that if you touched her, I would eventually find a way to kill you.”

“What is to stop me from simply killing you now?” Slowly he draws a pistol from his belt and holds it up to her face. She refuses to look at it, holding his eyes with the power of her gaze.

“Nothing. But then I would be dead … And you would always wonder what you might have missed.”

Another shout, and for the first time a faint sense of urgency flashes in his eyes. The moment of truth. No more time for mind-games. She holds her breath.

Again his gaze flicks to Phuong, who has not moved. He licks his lips and touches her cheek.

“Your mother loves you, child. Remember that. Always …”

He draws his eyes away and looks around the shadowy space at the silent group, fixing his gaze for a moment on the bleeding man still kneeling on the boards with his bare feet in the water.

Then turning towards the hatch he takes hold of the woman's arm. “Fair exchange.”

She turns without a word and allows herself to be guided up the steps. But at the top she pulls free, turns and looks back. For a long moment she drowns in her eldest daughter's tears, then she shifts her gaze and stares steadily at her youngest child. She closes her eyes briefly in a silent gesture of farewell.

Then she is gone.

*

TOAN'S STORY

The ship that had scared them off was a container vessel out of Singapore, but the raiders were long gone before it changed direction and pulled alongside.

With Tan dead, the boat was common property, but we were in no shape to make it as far as Malaysia. The pirates had damaged the steering gear when they came aboard, and they had left us with no food and very little water. If the
Hang Soo
had ignored our signal — seventy pairs of arms waving, and a fire made from deck-timbers and a large piece of weathered canvas — we would have been forced to drift in the middle of the sea until a storm finished us or until we died of hunger and thirst.

But they did stop, and as well as helping repair the steering they left us with enough supplies to finish the trip, at least as far as the first landfall.

Not that any of that registered with Linh or Phuong. Or with my parents.

My mother had watched the whole ordeal in silence, and I think that was the hardest thing for her — watching Aunt Mai standing there resisting, while she said nothing, afraid that to offer support was to place herself and her children at risk.

“I was never brave,” she said once.

She was talking to my father, and she didn't realise I was listening. It was years later, and that was what made me realise just how much the incident had affected her. She never spoke of it to any of us, even though it must have been eating at her.

My father had been up on deck the whole time, trying to come to terms with the cold-blooded execution of Tan.

And worse, he'd had to stand there helpless and watch them take his sister with them when they left.

But what could he have done? Made the grand heroic gesture and ended up floating face down in the middle of the South China Sea? It wouldn't have helped Aunt Mai. Besides, he had a family to think about. A family, and her last words to him.

“Take care of them, Minh.”

It was not a request. It was an order. To the last, she was the eldest sister. He told me once that she stepped aboard that pirate vessel with her head up and didn't once look back. And all the time, her eyes were dry.

*

3 March 1977
South China Sea
8°N, 102°E

MAI

Dawn. Sai Rakdee sleeps facing the cabin wall and she watches him.

Fair exchange … That was what he called it. And he is happy with the bargain. And though she shudders at the thought of his touch, and the memory of his animal hands, she feels no shame.

Even the nauseous ache in the pit of her stomach is bearable. She looks through the window at the endless expanse of ocean, then back at the man on the bed.

Then back at the ocean.

Somewhere out there they are safe. Perhaps they are crying; Phuong, anyway. But they are safe. And that, at least, is a fair trade.

From the inside pocket of her coat she draws the secret that she carries with her. One last possession from a life of possessions that the war and the bribes and now this man have stripped from her one by one.

One last possession that fits into the palm of her hand, its razor-sharp blade hidden and waiting.

Slowly, silently, she pulls open her husband's pocket-knife and examines the cutting edge in the light from the window. She tests it on her thumb, drawing it hard across the skin and watching the blood well from deep inside. For a moment she feels nothing, then the cut begins to sting. She sucks it absently and turns towards the man on the bed, who stirs in his sleep but does not wake.

Without a sound she places the blade against his throat and holds it there for a few seconds, watching him sleep, hating him. The blood from her thumb is dripping onto the bed-shet, and she allows it to pour, slowly soaking into the man's filthy shirt.

Then she lays the open knife on the bed next to him and moves across to the mirror, smearing a last message in blood across the glass, and without looking back she walks from the cabin.

At the railing she pauses for just a moment to look out across the sea. It is calm. Green-blue and patient. And welcoming, as she opens her arms to it, and plunges from the deck in a graceful arcing dive.

The sun sits just above the horizon, touching the waves with gold, and the pirate in the wheelhouse has turned to wonder at its beauty. It is all he sees. While the noise of the tiny splash is lost in the rhythmic thump of the engine, as the boat heads home.

Rolling over in his bed, Sai Rakdee feels the discomfort of something hard under his back. He opens his eyes and sees the blood, staining the sheet, soaking his shirt. And reaching beneath him he feels the sting as the sharp blade cuts deep into his hand. He draws it out and stares at it in wonder.

Then at the writing smeared across the mirror on the wall before him.

Two words, traced out in blood.

Trao dòi …
Fair exchange …

He looks at the knife, then back at the mirror, and he understands.

The sea is calm — as calm as such a creature can ever be-and she rides on its back, lulled by the movement of the swell, unaware of the exact moment when the waves close over her. Aware only of the silence and the way the sky looks green and suddenly far away. She is weightless. She is free.

She is smiling as she opens herself to the waters and breathes in eternity.

PART TWO

HEROES
AND VILLAINS

7

OUT OF THE GREEN

TOAN'S STORY

Everyone knew I was destined to be lucky.

After all, I was getting extra help, wasn't I? You see, from the day I was born I had extra … protection. There was my father and mother and everyone who lived, at different times, in the dwelling above the shop. On the night I was born. my grandmother read the signs. A fortuitous time. She said that I was marked for good fortune, that Quan Yin had smiled on me. That though the path of my journey would not be smooth, I would walk it with confidence and I would feel, at times, the hand of providence on my shoulder. It was a good feeling, growing up, to know I was lucky, and I never really lost the security it gave me. My mother always said I would stick my hand in a lion's mouth, if there was something in there that I really wanted.

An old woman's superstition? Maybe. Who knows? All I
do
know is that there were times in my life when I felt …
special.
Protected, maybe, or suddenly confident.

Like the time I went for my first audition; no acting training, no experience, but the word was on the streets, and the ads were in the Vietnamese newspaper, and something inside me said,
Yes, if you want it, you can do it. Go for it!

And I did, and I could. And I got the part. And the rest is history.

So if my family want to attribute it to luck, or help from Quan Yin, who am I to say they're wrong?

My grandmother is a medium for the goddess Quan Yin. She has been for as long as anyone can remember. She was born near Can Tho in 1916 and from the time she was very young the people of the town were already talking about her. The little girl who “knew things”. Things that no one could possibly explain. Unless …

Look, you don't have to believe it. Sometimes when I'm going through one of my logical phases, I'm not too sure I believe it myself. But
she
does, and so do enough of the people I respect for me not to dismiss it out of hand.

Faith is a strange thing. It isn't logical. It can't be. If it's logical, it can't be faith, can it? Because faith breaks all the rules they teach you in Science.

“I believe because I believe” isn't very good scientific method. Where is the proof? Where is the explanation? Define “goddess”. Explain how something can be “known” without some physical access to the information.

My grandmother says that men (and women, I guess) have forgotten how to talk with their gods. It happens, she says, when the world becomes more important to them than the soul. And when she speaks, she makes it sound convincing.

Other times … I don't know.

I talked to Miro about it once, and he suggested that maybe what she had was a kind of telepathy, ESP or something. I guess that was easier for him to believe than something supernatural like gods and goddesses. I suppose it does sound more scientific.

But for me … There really isn't a whole lot of difference between believing in ESP and believing in Quan Yin. If Miro wants to believe in a mind-power that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support, that's fine. But until the scientists find a way of explaining what it is and how it works — until there is some kind of hard evidence — it's just as supernatural and unexplainable as a goddess, or reincarnation, or a man two thousand years ago dying on a cross then coming back to life. You just have to take it on faith.

Anyway …
Grandma
.

My grandmother knows things.

Take the time they tried to shake her down, for example.

It was a couple of weeks after we had left Rach Gia. By that stage, we were “safe” on dry land in Malaysia, but she had no way of knowing that. It wasn't like you could just pick up the phone and call.

It was mid-morning and Aunt Loan was down at the markets. Two men came into the shop when she was there alone. Party officials, complete with badly fitting suits and all the right papers.

Was she Vo Kim Tuyet? Was she aware that members of her family had been caught trying to leave the country illegally, and that they were now being held at Nam Can awaiting further deliberation? That it could mean long imprisonment for the adults, as well as the confiscation of all property. Unless …

Then came the shake-down.

For a “small consideration” it could be arranged for the charges to be dropped, and for them to be returned home without any further action against them. But it had to be done today, and in secret.

“I just knew,” my grandmother told us, years later. “For a moment their words sounded convincing and I was ready to agree to whatever they wanted, but then a feeling of wonderful calm came over me and I knew. That it was all a lie. I knew what to say.”

She told them that she was shocked that members of her family could dare to break the law in such a manner, and that there was only one way for the family honour to be restored. That they must accept the punishment appropriate for their crimes. That much as she would like to pay the … costs involved in setting them free, as a good citizen she must live by the law-as must her family. They would have to accept whatever punishment was in store for them.

“They left,” she said, and she smiled as she remembered. “I didn't hear from them again.”

“But how did you
know
they were lying?” I asked. “How could you be sure they hadn't captured us?” I was sitting across from her on the lounge. She looked into my eyes then away.

She didn't reply immediately, but as I followed the line of her gaze I found myself looking at the statue of the goddess.

“I just knew,” she said at last.

We could have done with my grandmother's “gift” as we approached the Malaysian coast.

Without Tan's experience, we weren't sure exactly where to land, so we set a course which would bring us to the coast somewhere between the northern city of Kota Baharu and the large island of Pulau Redang. All that was really important was that we make it to shore and try to claim our refugee status. There were rumours that the Malaysians and the Thais further north were getting tough with the constant stream of escapees, and were trying to stop them from landing. Towing them back out to sea and leaving them to the mercy of the winds and the pirates. There were even reports of shots being fired to discourage them.

It would have been best from that point of view to arrive at night But maybe it was better that we didn't No one knew the coast, or the dangers it presented, and there was a very real risk of tearing out the bottom on a reef or grounding on a sand-bar too far from shore to swim in. And such a risk was considered worse than the possible resistance of local villagers or the reaction of the authorities to our arrival.

Besides, after the horrors of the trip most people just wanted to get as far away as possible from the stench of their floating prison and the endless buffetting of the waves. And waiting even another twelve hours for nightfall just wouldn't have been an acceptable alternative.

I remember watching my mother trying to comfort my cousins in their loss — Phuong, who leaned against her sobbing quietly, and Linh,who sat just out of reach, staring up at the sky beyond the hatch opening. I moved across and touched her shoulder. She didn't move; didn't look around.

“Linh?” I whispered. But she said nothing.

I was six and a half years old. I didn't have the words to help her. Hell, I didn't even know what had happened to us. So, I did all I could, I put my arm around her and I looked up at the sky too.

At least she didn't pull away.

*

4 March 1977
Malang Beach, Malaysia

ISYAH

Omar sits in the sand watching the waves roll onto the beach a few metres in front of him. He is fourteen years old, and he has the important job of washing the shell-fish in a large bucket of salt-water. But as usual his attention has wandered.

Among the rocks at the end of the beach Isyah, his mother, searches for the dark shells, levering them from the hard surfcaes with the sharpened point of her knife and placing them in her collection bucket. Every now and again she pauses to look back at her son.

Fourteen years old and he sits on the beach like a four-year-old. Which is all he will ever be. He will never take a wife, never earn a living, never give her the grandchildren that all her friends await so eagerly.

But he will never leave her, as other boys leave their mothers. And at least he is alive.

She remembers the day they carried him from the sea, limp and blue. No breath, no pulse. She remembers the man on the beach breathing the spirit back into him. A stranger. A European, who left before she had the chance to thank him for her son's life.

In the months that followed it became clear that the boy would never be the same; that something was lost. jamil, the old man in the marketplace, said it was the payment Death took for returning a life, and that she should be grateful for any mercy He thought fit to bestow. And now, ten years later, Isyah looks at her son sitting in the sand, watching the waves, and she is grateful.

And as she watches, he stands, pointing out to sea.

“Kapal nelayan!“
he shouts.
“Kapal nelayan!”

He is jumping up and down in the sand. She watches him for another moment before turning her gaze to the horizon.

The boat is a fishing vessel and not Malay. It is heading in from the north and making no attempt to parallel the coast. Which can mean only one thing. She shades her eyes from the mid-morning sun and squints to make out the vessel's details. Even from far away she can see the crowd of people crammed onto the deck, and the fact of it confirms her earlier suspicion.

Refugees.

The talk in the neighbouring villages has been of the government finally resisting the invasion from the other side of the Gulf, and driving the boats back to sea.
We are not a rich country, they say. It was not our war. It is not our problem …

But not often do any of the desperate “invaders” find themselves off this particular part of the coast. Further north and south the tides and currents are kinder and the military presence is less concentrated.

She watches as the boat grows gradually larger.

Omar has moved down to the water's edge. Or as close as he ever ventures. He has a fear of the waves, which is quite under—standable —and reassuring. It means that she can leave him on the beach without worrying about …

Her attention is drawn by a sudden movement, captured in the corner of her eye. She turns to watch the coastal patrol vessel speeding into view around the rocky headland. It sounds its horn — a plaintive, lowing sound, at odds with the streamlined aggressiveness of the vessel itself

The incoming boat is no more than half a kilometre off-shore when the patrol opens fire — a single warning shot across the bow of the intruder. She see the puff of white, and a moment later the dull thud of the explosion reaches her ears, just as water plumes into the air twenty metres from the boat.

On the beach the boy squeals with excitement, jumping up and down in the sand, clapping his hands. She drops her bucket onto the rocks and moves to join him beside the water.

The shot has not deterred them. The boat keeps coming, closing the distance between the desperate group and the shore which must mean so much to them. Another shot splashes into the sea — much closer this time. On the deck she can make out the individual shapes of men, women and children crowding against the rails, as the boat creeps painfully closer.

She watches, fascinated. Some of the braver ones have begun diving into the water, starting the long swim to shore. The shelf is not steep, and out where they are the water is probably no deeper than three or four metres, but for a woman trying to support a young child it might as well be forty.

And the currents …

She looks at the boy and remembers the cruel power of the sea. The power that can tear your child from your arms and carry him away, while you scream and grasp at nothing …

*

TOAN'S STORY

We stood there looking down at the green water; my mother, the boys, Linh and Phuong — and me. My father was standing in the middle of a group of men at the rear of the boat, and they were arguing in loud whispers, as if they thought they could keep the seriousness of the situation a secret from us all. I looked over at him, there among the men, and caught himsneaking a glance at us. And the expression in his eyes scared me. Something was happening that I didn't understand, but if it could make my father that frightened …

I turned back to my mother, but she was staring out across the water, towards the rocky point and the approaching patrol boat.

It was coming closer on a course that intercepted ours, firing across us, and though we had ignored the first two shots, we could not trust them to keep using the gun only as a warning.

Then some of the adults began jumping overboard. The ones without families, I guess. We were still to far out for any of the children to have a chance of getting ashore safely. They began swimming desperately for the sand, and as I looked towards where they were going I saw, standing just beyond the breaking waves, a woman and a boy. They were staring across at us, almost close enough to shout out to.

So close. After days of danger and sickness we were almost there. And now it looked as if we were never going to make it.

The group of men broke up and they joined us at the railing, staring down, trying to gauge the depth of the water. My father looked towards the beach then back at the water. Then he made his decision.

“Another hundred metres.”

No one answered, but there seemed to be a kind of unspoken acceptance.

“Get ready,” he said.

BOOK: Only the Heart
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