“The Boatman” by Shakira Sison
The boatman picked me up at the dock when the sun was still busy trading sob stories with the leftover stragglers at the bar. The water, dark purple with slivers of pink and chrome, was split by the keel of the palm boat, painted blue and white but appeared gray to my squinted eyes that morning. I didn’t get any sleep because Marco snored all night. He does this when he’s had too much to drink. When this happens I usually spend the night in the study, but while on vacation in an obscure backpacker’s resort, there was no refuge. I wasn’t interested in heading outside to watch the other tourists head off in pairs to their rooms.
I told Marco the previous day that he wouldn’t be able to get up for our planned island expedition, but he insisted on booking the trip anyway. After my hasty scrambling didn’t even interrupt the tornado in his throat, I left with a few pesos, a magazine, a pack of Spanish rolls and my sunglasses, and met Puding, a dark, quiet and bearded man, and boarded his wobbly boat.
I reckoned that the sound of the boat’s engine would be no match for Marco’s mouth. It wouldn’t even bother him that I won’t be there when the faint yellow finally seeps into the straw shades of our thin-walled room. I tried to lie beside him the previous night and not mind the fruity, spirited breath I’ve gotten accustomed to the past year. I tried to sleep on his bare, pale chest that was like rock, dead to the world. I felt through the cracks in the walls that the couple we met at dinner did not care that we could hear them screwing next door. So I spent the time meant for sleeping being furious that I had nothing with which to retaliate, other than the sound of Marco’s snores.
By the time Puding docked at the island the sky had turned light blue. I realized that while I dressed for a day at the beach, I didn’t anticipate the cold breeze I felt through the gaps the sarong left as it wrapped my body that was otherwise only wearing a bathing suit. Puding didn’t stare. He had the kind of eyes that were used to looking away when someone of perceived stature was in a compromised position. Instead I stared at him when he turned the wheel, his thick nails typical of someone who made a living on the water, legs that spent more time on a swaying surface than on land, and the leathery skin on his arms as he dropped a makeshift anchor made of bent construction steel.
I flattered myself believing at once that Puding had the easier life between us. Touring visitors was probably a trade passed on to him from his father, and will likely be carried on to a son when Puding is older. His life must be simple, not like mine, filled with the shortcomings of a complex routine of work and unspoken grievances, the monotony of which was only broken by the erratic consequences of Marco’s drinking. But even that was becoming ordinary, a nuisance that was now part of my day. I longed for the singular dimension of Puding’s life I imagined, that he probably had a kind wife at home, a child or two to look after, a life on the water which was only the stuff of my dreams.
“When you are settled, Ma’am,” Puding asked, “do you want me to go back for Sir?”
“No it’s okay. I don’t know what time he’s getting up today.”
“Ah,” Puding answered, although I knew he remembered from yesterday that it was Marco who booked this trip despite my disapproval.
Marco had planned this vacation since the previous year, mentioning it every time we made up from a fight and promised to make things better.
“Don’t worry, Baby, we’ll have a good time at the beach,” he’d say. Somehow the anger would all fall away, in the way greyhounds race for the promise of a rabbit despite the distracting noise of the crowd, or the fact that the dogs never got the rabbit, ever.
When greyhounds age and stop racing, they become almost too crazy to place in homes. They’ve spent their lives on tracks and have been repeatedly punished by their trainers if a single lapse in focus resulted in an increased race time. Rescue organizations attempt to rehabilitate them, but a large number end up having to be put down. Not knowing what to do with themselves when they’re kept from constant motion, these athletes go crazy when they’re told they have to stop eyeing the prize.
Perhaps it had come to this between Marco and me. When I miscarried the baby that was the only result of costly fertility treatments over a couple of years, the grief was comparable only to what happens when the last bit of air leaks out of a balloon, or what transpires when an old engine dies for the last time. Both just sit there and wait for nature’s course, or for some force to take them away. Marco and I fell into a state of moving stagnation which I dealt with by sitting there frozen, and he looked into the bottle for some semblance of change.
I had always feared that parenthood would change the friendship I so cherished between us because I found our kind of connection so rare among our peers who had a head start having kids. It was always Marco who was the optimist, who in his heart believed that our story would only benefit by having a child, that our love would only be accentuated by a growing witness to it. I never asked him during our moments of separate sorrow what the upside to all of this was. Marco and I were once each other’s rabbits, but when we made parenthood our prize, we changed in the most fundamental way. We could never bring back how we were before this grand idea of a baby, much like tired racing dogs cannot suddenly make affection their prize. We had been speeding on a track with our tongues hanging out, our focus drowning out the crowd, and then at the very last second, someone took the rabbit away.
“Are you okay, Ma’am?” Puding was standing in front of me when I opened my moist eyes. In his periphery the sun created a glow that made him look even darker as I was momentarily blinded by the light. I nodded and gathered myself, pretending that the sharp sucking sound I made through my nose was merely an itch that needed to be scratched.
“You got kids, Puding?” Of course he must, and how else to break the ice with any adult of age than to speak about offspring, no matter if that opened up my own can of worms? To ease the awkward situation I lined up the subtopics in my head: kids, ages, schools, grades, parenthood, marriage, grandchildren, legacies. That would be easy enough to fill the time and would assure I’d be decent company for my boatman.
Puding cleared his throat and I prepared for his answer. But he bowed his head and looked at the ground.
“One,” he said, “a son.” His face turned sour.
“Sorry, Ma’am, nobody really asks me about myself. This is the first time.”
“You don’t have to continue,” I said, eyeing a magazine in my bag.
“No,” Puding said, “I’ve wanted to hear this story out of my own mouth.”
Puding married his high school sweetheart Clara shortly after he built his boat. After a few years, their son Tomas was born. He was Puding’s pride and joy as he had his built and color, but with the charm and kindness of Clara’s face. Clara became busy with raising the baby and Puding spent his days taking tourists like me out on island trips, a bottle of gin his companion for when he waited for his clients to finish their R&R. He had a routine for lunch, he said. He would spear a fish or retrieve an urchin with his oar, and then eat it on his boat chased by swigs from his bottle. This would be followed by a nap, and after an hour or two, it would be time to take his clients home.
One day, Clara had to go to a nearby town and left Tomas with Puding for him to look after. It wasn’t his first time. Tomas loved the water like his father did, he had a natural compass about him, and Puding believed it was never too early to get him started on the water. Besides, he was a joy to the tourists and made Puding seem more trustworthy. There would be no doubt in their minds that the man who drove their boat with his toddler had only safety on his mind.
He remembers it clearly, he said. He docked the boat on the beach of the island Banhule. The tourists were American free divers and quickly left shore to dive along the mast of the nearby sunken Japanese warship. Puding had his eye on Tomas as he speared a fish for their lunch, giving him first a conch to play with, and then a blue sea star. Puding kept a bottle of vinegar in his boat to make a quick ceviche of the afternoon’s catch (it was also handy when his guests were stung by invisible jellyfish that frequented the shore). He fed his son and put him down for a nap, and after a few drinks he took a nap himself.
Puding said that even after ten years, what followed that afternoon has never left his mind. The sky was tangerine when he opened his eyes. He jumped when he realized Tomas was not by his side and started screaming his name. But he only found the lifeless boy at the bottom of the water, the sea star still in his hand. He dove in and grabbed him from the few feet of water that claimed his little body, but it was too late. He wrapped his son in a towel and drove the boat back along with the group of shocked and appalled tourists.
After I heard that story I felt my gut twist like that of a mother, even if I wasn’t one. I knew that at the end of that day the disgust of Puding’s guests also caused an upheaval for him and the tourism industry of Coron. I pictured the coldness of Tomas’ body against Puding’s chest amidst the breeze of the early evening sky. I wondered about the purple horizon that matched Tomas’ lips. I ached with the silent cries within Puding’s throat among the ripples in the blue green water. I reached out and touched Puding’s thick, calloused hands.
Clara left him as soon as Tomas was buried, and since then Puding has lived alone in their home. He spends his days in the water and often gets up from bed to sleep on the boat at night. He stopped drinking, he said, not only because it was the cause of his loss, but because he felt he deserved to feel every bit of pain and suffering it had to offer. He said that when he smelled Marco’s drunken breath the previous day, it took all he had not to grab him by the shoulders and tell him to stop, especially because he still had the chance.
Stop. I’ve wanted to say that to Marco for such a long time. Stop hiding, stop drowning, stop with that glass in your hand. He probably felt the same way about me and the hole of inconsolable sorrow I’ve created for myself. If Marco was drowning, so was I. We didn’t need a beach vacation after all. We’d been underwater since our baby died.
Stop. I wouldn’t have been able to say that to Puding if he approached me then. I wanted him to press the scruff of his face on my neck. I wanted him to inhale me in a way that pulled the ache in my belly out and into the air to be taken away by the light and tide. If I put my mouth on his, he would be salty, just as I was from the ocean, or from weeping. One is only the generous form of the other.
When I became aware of the silence, the air smelled like loss and the distant but terrifying possibility of comfort. I wanted to inch closer to him but Puding left my side and got into the water.
“You must be starved,” Puding said. I hadn’t thought of it, really. I had half a Spanish roll earlier and could still taste the coagulated bright yellow margarine on my tongue. He plunged his oar into the water and maneuvered a large sea urchin onto the boat. With a bolo he kept at the foot of the wheel, he opened the urchin and fished out its bright orange roe which I took with my fingers and put in my mouth. It was thick, sweet, and full of life.
Sea urchins are one of the oldest creatures on earth, curious and intimidating animals that protect themselves with long, poisonous spines. Marco and I met via urchin, actually. We helped shuttle a fellow scuba diver to a hospital after he stepped on one at the bottom of a reef in Anilao.
As I ate the urchin’s insides I wondered if we’ve all grown spines. Recognizing that our gut is made of fragile tissues, it only takes one blow to begin growing a protective layer that keeps everyone else at bay. For Marco, it was drinking. For me, it was silence. For Puding, it was the water. On the boat that day, I could feel the sting of hesitation between us, threatening each other like spines.
The only thing that did not hesitate was the night. It had turned the color it was when we left. I wanted Puding to stall or to say something meaningful. I wanted the crisp sound of his well-maintained engine to die and leave us bobbing in the water for a while until I could think of a plan. But he got us back so quickly, docking right where I could see Marco’s figure already seated at the waterfront bar.
“Do you think you’d have space for another in your life on the water?” I asked before he helped me off the boat.
“I don’t know, Ma’am,” he said with an averted gaze.
I thanked him for the day. It felt inadequate and spiteful, the way gratitude often does when expressed by lovers at the end of their story. Except that ours was a short one, on a boat, over the silence that is the only real solace after loss.
I walked into the bar. From the back Marco’s head was already nodding off when the bartender put another glass in front of him. I wanted him to turn around and apologize for completely missing our day, or for the last year. I realized that I wanted him to apologize for all the changes in our lives. I wanted to say I was sorry too, for dropping off, for pushing him away with the distance I put between us. But the closer I got, the more I felt repelled. I smelled the liquor on his breath and stopped before he knew I was there.
I turned around and ran back to the dock, where Puding had just pulled his anchor out of the water. The boat was moving backwards and away when I saw for the first time the name of the vessel on its side. I formed the name in my mouth like a whisper: Tomas.
Puding didn’t look back at the dock, nor at me. I watched him turn the wheel as the silver glow of the water formed a clear sheet over his son’s name. He already had a prize and refused to set his eyes on another. I walked back inside to see if I could still find my own.
A response to this Creative Exercise: For visual artists – use only one color of the chosen medium (i.e. black charcoal, green pencil, red acrylics, etc.) to make a drawing of the temperature change. For writers – incorporate 5 to 10 colors to describe your experience of weather change throughout the day.
- Bridgette Lee
- basmati boy