Read The Buddha's Diamonds Online

Authors: Carolyn Marsden

The Buddha's Diamonds (3 page)

Others were not so lucky. Even Tinh's aunties had to wade into the raging waves to rescue boats. He needed to help them. He walked toward the water.

Another wave gathered itself as it rolled toward the shore. It reared up, bottle green and treacherous, as high as the first. More people screamed and fled.

Tinh hurried along the sand, past the line of
cay duong
trees. Then he looked back — was his boat still on high ground? But instead of the boat, he saw — nested in the sand, completely helpless — Trang Ton's red car. He ran back and grabbed it before the wave broke.

As the earth quaked, Tinh clutched the car tightly to his chest. He clutched it harder as the wave slipped up behind him, reaching for him hungrily. Then he dashed away from the beach and the angry ocean.

He dashed past the canal where people tied boats. Past the bamboo houses and the school and the tiny stall that sold brown-sugar candy.

Everywhere, families called to loved ones, urging children inside.

Finally, Tinh reached his own house, long and low under a thatched roof, a guava tree growing in the front yard. He looked through the doorway of the kitchen building, which was outside the house, and saw Ma standing over a cooking fire. The wind carried the smell of rice soup cooking, this time without fish.

There was no sign of Lan.

Tinh looked down at the car in his hands. Ba mustn't see it. He'd wonder why Tinh had rescued a toy at a time like this. Tinh tucked the red car behind a bush.

“Help me with the sandbags, Tinh,” Ba shouted over the roar.

Tinh held the burlap bags open, and Ba shoveled in sand. The wind howled around them, carrying sand from the shovel.

“How is Lan?” Tinh yelled into Ba's ear, the approaching storm roaring.

“Cut.”

“Doctor?” Tinh screamed.

“Not now,” Ba screamed back.

Tinh opened a new bag. First he'd abandoned Lan to the waves, then he'd left the boat. Ba hadn't asked about the boat. He'd blamed Tinh for Lan's cut. What would he think of the way Tinh had left the precious boat?

He'd abandoned the fishing boat, had taken a toy home instead.

He should tell Ba. But as he tried to speak, the wind stole his words.

When the bags were full, Ba tied a long rope onto each.

Only Tinh was light enough to go on the roof without damaging the thatch. He climbed up a branch of the guava tree, then onto the layer of palm fronds.

Ba threw him the end of a rope.

The wind tore at the thatch, and fronds had already blown loose. As Tinh worked, he hung on tight so the wind wouldn't knock him to the ground below.

He knelt, wishing that he could see the beach and the boat from here. Had the wave carried it high enough? Had the second huge swell taken it out to sea? How many more giant waves had pounded the beach?

He wished he had a thousand eyes to see all that was happening.

He wished he could close his eyes and see nothing.

Once the rope was over the roof, Ba ran to the other side of the house and tied the loose end to another sandbag. The crisscrossing ropes, weighted by the sand, would hold the thatch in place.

They worked on in the wind: two ropes, three . . .

Then the wind paused and the rain began, the first fat drops splatting on the palm fronds.

Ma had bandaged Lan's leg with one of Tinh's shirts. Blood seeped through the cloth, and Lan limped to her spot on the sleeping mat.

Tinh bit his lip. “I'm sorry, Lan,” he said. “I should have gotten up from the sand faster.”

Lan, as though to forgive him, laid a hand on his shoulder.

Tinh lay down beside her. But he couldn't sleep with the wind rocking the bamboo house.

Lan clung to him.

Suddenly, the sky erupted, casting down a sheet of rain. The world outside became nothing but the crash of water. The air in the room grew sticky.

“I'm scared,” whispered Lan. “Let's go to Ma and Ba's room.”

Tinh helped her up. They walked through the middle room, past the family altar, to stand in the doorway of their parents' room.

“It's only a storm, Tinh,” Ba grumbled. “The war was much worse.”

But this wasn't a normal storm, Tinh thought as Lan cuddled up to Ma. He'd never seen such a storm. He sat down and pulled his knees up, making himself small.

“Don't turn off the lamp tonight,” Lan begged.

So the flame of the oil lamp burned on within its cone of glass.

The thunder knocked the sky open. The thunder reminded Tinh of the bombs that fell in the war. The war had stopped soon after Lan's birth, but Tinh would never forget its sounds. He covered his ears and shut his eyes hard.

The rain drove like long needles trying to penetrate the palm-frond roof.

Lan leaned up on her elbow. “Couldn't we go to Trang Ton's house?”

Tinh listened for Ba's answer. Trang Ton's brick house with the clay-tile roof was strong enough to protect them. Maybe he and Trang Ton could even wait out the storm by playing with Trang Ton's marble collection.

“It's too dangerous to go now,” Ba answered. “
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
will take care of us here.”

As though proving Ba wrong, the wind suddenly tugged at the palm fronds on the roof. Tinh stared up, hoping the ropes would hold. But no. The fronds ripped loose. Tinh heard the swish as they sailed into the night.

When rain streamed into the bedroom, Lan began to cry.

Ba picked her up and stood just holding her, as though uncertain.

Surely now, Tinh thought, Ba would take them to Trang Ton's house.

But Ma said, “Come, Tinh. Let's go to the room of the ancestors,” and Ba carried Lan to the middle room.

It was very black.

Ba set down Lan and returned with the oil lamp, still burning in its glass, a small world apart from the wild night.

No one slept. Lan tossed, her face damp with sweat. Ma and Ba sat with their shoulders touching.

Tinh paced back and forth, every now and then pausing in front of the ancestral altar.

There were photographs of the ancestors along with offerings of miniature bananas, sticks of incense, and bright red flowers that Tinh had gathered that morning. The petals drooped. Would the ancestors have protected the house better if he'd searched harder for fresher blooms?

The pictures of Banoi and Ong Noi were placed in front of the other photographs. If his grandparents were here now, Tinh thought, wouldn't they be able to help?

On a smaller, lower table in front of the altar stood a statue of
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
. Sometimes Ma let Tinh dust her. He was always careful when wiping the pale green stone, the delicate face with its half smile.

When Tinh thought of how he'd deserted the Bodhisattva along with the boat, he looked away.

During Lunar New Year, Tinh and his grandmother used to prepare a special tray of food. First, they'd gathered leaves of all shapes and colors of green, blooms of fluted hibiscus and golden jasmine, arranging them in a circular pattern on the round tray. Then Banoi helped Tinh place cups of pudding, bananas, and morsels of brown-sugar candy among the flowers.

Finally, Tinh had held still while Banoi lifted the tray onto his head.

He'd stood for a quarter of an hour under the blue sky, balancing the offering to the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Banoi had sat nearby, smiling.

Tinh had felt
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
come to him. He'd felt her in the sunshine and in the breeze that tickled his cheeks. She manifested in the ripple of sun and shade under the trees. He sensed her in the air he breathed as he presented his sweet gift while the round shadow of the tray fell over his shoulders.

He saw
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
in his grandmother's shining eyes.

Tinh's grandfather used to take Tinh and his boy cousins to sleep on the beach at night. They'd lain, looking into the sky while Ong Noi talked about the stars and how they moved in relation to the rise and fall of the ocean.

Sometimes they'd gazed out to sea. As the night fishermen cast their nets and lines, the excited fish bumped against each other, creating a green glow in the black water.

Ong Noi also told war stories. Once when the soldiers burned a hut, the tree next to it had burst into white blossoms from the heat. Ong Noi opened his hands slowly, showing how the flowers had bloomed as the hut fell into a chaos of red embers.

“May the Buddha bless us with peace from now on,” he'd said at the end of each story.

When Ong Noi's stories were finished, they'd slept, cradled by the sand. Now, Tinh thought of how the beach, once a refuge, was being pummeled by a furious sea.

Ma lit stick after stick of incense, placing them in a bowl of sand. As she prayed, her lips moved silently.

Breathing in the thick, sweet smoke, Tinh thought again of the boat. Had the ocean pushed it higher, thrusting it among the
cay duong
trees? Had
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
taken care of it? Or had the waves devoured it?

Ba had expected him to be a man, but Tinh had acted like a boy.

Without the boat and daily catch of fish, the family would have nothing. Tinh looked at his sister's small face, white in the glare of the lightning.

No vegetables. No rice. No clothes. And definitely no remote-controlled car.

They'd have
almost
nothing. Pink sweet potatoes grew in the village of Hai Nhuan. At least they'd have those, Tinh reminded himself.

Thunder exploded overhead, shaking the house. Lan cried out.

Tinh thought of Trang Ton's red car hidden in the bush. At least he'd saved that. But a small bit of plastic wouldn't feed a family.

When Ba found out, he would speak harshly. He might lift his hand to hit Tinh. He would make Tinh feel small.

The night was dangerous. But Tinh had to know where the boat was. Maybe he could even save the statue.

Before anyone could stop him, Tinh darted across the room into the black night.

Ma's voice followed him like a chant: “Tinh! Tinh!”

He heard someone — probably Ba — chasing after him. Tinh ran faster. He ran past the bush where the car was stashed.

Ba mustn't catch him. Tinh had to learn the worst before his father did.

Tinh ran first one way and then another, lost in the angle of the rain. The wind sounded like a horde of demons. Tinh's head spun when the lightning flashed, as it shouted,
This way! No, that!

All around, tree trunks snapped. Big trees that had once marked pathways crashed to the ground. Raindrops pelted Tinh like small pebbles.

Finally, he heard sharp knocks and the sound of splintering. He'd reached the canal where boats were tied. The hulls banged against each other, cracking apart.

The beach was to his right. In the whirl of the darkness, the ocean threw its weight, over and over, onto the sand. The earth trembled as each wave hit.

The boat?
How could Tinh find such a small thing now? How could he find anything as tiny as a statue? His task was impossible. And yet he had to search. He crawled on hands and knees through the wind and rain.

A coconut landed in front of him. Another hit the back of his leg, and he gasped.

It was no use: the wind and rain conspired with the night to hide the boat.

For the second time, Tinh turned away from the beach, away from his boat, his heart churning like the waves.

At least he had the red car. He could hide it behind the altar where Ba never looked.

In the darkness, he ran through the branches of a fallen tree, fighting his way in the snarl of leaves. Twigs tore at him, scratching his skin.

Then he tripped and fell hard onto his chest. The breath knocked out of him, Tinh lay without moving, his tears mixing with the muddy water. The rain drummed on his back.

When lightning struck the ground ahead of him, Tinh saw Ba coming toward him. He jerked himself to his feet.

“Come home now!” Ba shouted.

Tinh stood still, waiting for Ba to grab him.

As they approached the house, Ba's fingers biting into his arm, Tinh saw the faint glow of the oil lamp through the window.

He saw the silhouette of Ma waiting outside. “Tinh!” she cried. “Oh, Tinh, you are safe!” She held out her arms.

But Ba pushed Tinh past her, and they entered the house, panting, puddles forming where they stood while Lan stirred in her sleep.

Ba folded his arms across his chest. “Where did you go?” he demanded. “Your mother called you back. You disobeyed her.”

Tinh put his hands on his knees, bending over, breathing and dripping. This was the right moment to tell Ba everything. But Tinh felt seasick, as though he were on the boat, rocking uncontrollably, tossed by the night.

“Shhh,” Ma said to Ba, pushing her wet hair off her forehead. “Our son is home now. Here, Tinh.” Ma sat down and patted the spot beside her.

Ma, like the Bodhisattva of Compassion, beckoned him. But how could Tinh go to her with Ba watching? More than anything, Tinh wanted to crawl across the mat, muddy and wet, to snuggle close to Ma.

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