Read The Buddha's Diamonds Online

Authors: Carolyn Marsden

The Buddha's Diamonds (4 page)

But Ba expected him to be a man, helping to take care of Ma and Lan in the storm. Tinh couldn't seek comfort like a child anymore.

He went to the opposite side of the room, far away from Ma,
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
, and the altar of the ancestors, to sleep alone.

Tinh woke to the roosters' crowing. Sunlight fell through cracks in the roof, streaking across the ancestral altar. He covered his eyes against the light, then sat up, remembering the storm.

His chest was bruised from the fall, his arms and legs scratched and dirty.

No one else was in the room.

What had happened while he slept? He wandered to the doorway and found Ma sitting on the step, looking out at the yard.

The sun shone over a world in shambles. It took Tinh a moment to make sense of the confusion before him. “Oh, the guava tree!” he suddenly cried. The tree had fallen and the green fruit lay scattered. The leaves were already wilting.

Ma nodded. “The poor dear. She gave us so much fruit.”

Looking beyond, Tinh saw other trees down, including the one with the long yellow leaves. He glimpsed the wreckage of houses, now just bamboo and thatch in the tangled jungle. Tinh felt tangled, too. Overnight, all had changed.

“Only the palms and bamboo are still standing,” he said.

“That's because they bend with the wind,” Ma replied.

Tinh shielded his eyes and peered in the direction of the bush that sheltered the toy car. He glimpsed a bit of red. But the car wasn't his. He'd have to return it to Trang Ton.

“Where's Ba?” Tinh asked. Had Ba gone to look for the boat? Had he discovered Tinh's carelessness?

“He took Lan to a doctor in the next village. She was feverish. Her leg is infected.” Ma pressed her face into her hands.

Tinh sank down beside her. Just yesterday, Lan had run on the beach, flying the pink kite. If he'd only gotten up when she'd asked him to, she wouldn't have pleaded with him. She wouldn't have been in harm's way. If Lan's leg didn't heal, how could she help Ma carry the fish to market?

If there were fish to sell. He had to know about the boat.

Ma looked up again and, putting her hand on Tinh's knee, said, “This reminds me of the war. After the soldiers came through, ransacking our village, or after a bombing, we had to rebuild our lives. We had almost nothing, but each time we recovered.”

Tinh sighed. Ma didn't know about the boat. Recovering without it would be hard. “I'm going down to the beach,” he said, standing up. “I'll check on the boat.”

He walked out of the yard slowly, hands in his pockets. As though nothing was wrong. He didn't want to worry Ma. But once out of Ma's sight, he ran.

He sank ankle-deep in the puddles. At first, he stopped to shake the mud from his sandals, but soon gave up and went on, muddy to the knees.

He passed houses lying in ruins, leaped over trees fallen across the road. A pig wandered through the remains of the candy stall. Chickens — their feathers bedraggled — roosted in fallen trees. Everything smelled wet.

Second Aunt and her three children stared at the sky. First Aunt and her husband tugged at the rubble. Tinh heard crying and the sharp bark of angry words. Everywhere, he heard the whoosh of brooms sweeping water.

Swarms of mosquitoes attacked Tinh's ankles.

From far off, he could see the ocean, still restless, yet sparkling again, an innocent blue.

At the beach, the
cay duong
trees lay full-length across the sand. Tinh recognized the pink paper of Lan's kite still caught in the long needles of one tree, now fallen.

Broken boats lay underneath the trees. Broken boats were scattered over the beach. Flies gathered on the dead fish still caught in the nets. Tinh held his nose.

He spotted a cluster of boats, jumbled on top of each other. There — could it be? On the bottom? He ran and knelt to touch the golden bamboo, now coated with a layer of white sand. A crack ran through the hull, a wound like that on Lan's leg. The engine was buried in sand.

The Bodhisattva was trapped underneath.

Tinh started to dig with his hands, but with the boats on top, it was no use.

He tried to lift the uppermost boat off, but it was too heavy.

He slumped, his face in his hands.

Just yesterday, his golden boat had glided over the turquoise ocean. Just yesterday, he and Ba had caught fish and all had been well.

Now everything was lost.

With a round thud, a coconut fell to the ground.

“Tinh!” a voice called.

Tinh looked up to see Trang Ton spinning his soccer ball on one finger.

The ball gleamed black and white in the sunshine, untouched by the storm.

“How about a game, Tinh?”

Tinh gestured toward the rubble covering the beach. “How can I just
play
?”

“Why not?” Trang Ton twirled the ball.

“I need to get my boat out.”

Trang Ton stepped closer to the pile. “Isn't that yours on the bottom?”

Tinh nodded.

“There are,”— Trang Ton counted — “seven boats on top. You can't do anything now. You have to wait for the other people to come first.” He paused. “Let's go.”

“It's easy for you to play,” Tinh said. He noticed that Trang Ton was wearing a new striped shirt. “You have a rich uncle.”

Trang Ton spun the ball again. “That's true, Tinh. But you'll still be happier if you come with me.”

Tinh looked around at the soft blue sea and clear sky.

Suddenly, he thought of the monk's talk. It was true that the sun was still in the sky. He even saw a pale moon. He was still breathing. As were Ma and Ba and Lan.

Maybe Trang Ton and the monk were right. In spite of the storm, Tinh could be happy. He still had a handful of diamonds.

His heart, knotted in fear, unfolded.

But how could he leave this spot? Leaving, he'd abandon the boat for a third time.

“Let's go,” Trang Ton repeated. “No one is going to do anything with these boats today, Tinh. They have to fix the houses first.”

Tinh indeed saw no one. He got up and followed Trang Ton, his heart like a boat buried in sand.

Dong and Anh joined them. They threw the ball back and forth as they walked, dancing to avoid the puddles, daring each other to jump high over fallen trees.

But Tinh marched with his hands behind his back. What would Ba do when he saw the boat?

A green snake slipped through the mud, and Tinh jumped back.

As the boys approached the temple, Tinh saw that the soccer field was clear. No trees had blown across it. The hot sun had almost dried it. The place lay ready, like an invitation.

But Tinh wasn't ready. How could he play soccer? What would Ba think to see him kicking the American ball while their boat lay at the bottom of the pile?

Tinh noticed that a tree had crashed over the temple, smashing the clay-tile roof.

Had the inside of the temple been damaged by the storm?

Tinh thought of the monks and nuns chanting
“From the mud of adversity grows the lotus of joy. . . .”
Could the Buddha lighten Tinh's heavy heart?

“Where are you going, Tinh?” Trang Ton called. “We're starting the game.”

“Play without me,” Tinh called back.

He mounted the temple steps, climbing between the stone dragons still standing on guard, their stone fire unquenched.

No one was in the temple.

Rain and wind had scoured the paint from the plaster of the eastern wall, so that Tinh saw only fragments of the Buddha's life.

He stepped onto a floor covered with crushed fruit and flowers, small branches, leaves, and mud mixed with the ashes of burned incense. As he leaned down to pick up the pictures of Banoi and Ong Noi, an incense holder rolled toward him.

Tinh placed the photographs of his grandparents back on the altar and set a wilting blue passionflower in front of them.

The donation box lay on its side in a corner, coins spilling onto the floor.

The once-dim temple was now flooded with light streaming through the broken roof.

Tinh's gaze lifted to the statue of the Buddha towering over him.

The Buddha sat solidly, his eyes half-closed, undisturbed by the night's storm. In fact, he'd been washed clean by the rain and was now lit by fresh sunshine.

Although Tinh's boat had been buried and the village lay in ruins, the Buddha smiled serenely.

Although Tinh's guava tree was down, the Buddha didn't care that his own offerings lay scattered.

All had gone wrong, but the Buddha was still happy.

For a moment, Tinh perceived that happiness as a soft golden aura, the light of the sun itself expanding from the Buddha's body.

He even felt the beginnings of a glow around his own heart.

But, thought Tinh, that was only his imagination. The Buddha was only a statue created by a sculptor many years ago. His chiseled smile meant nothing.

He listened to his cousins kick the American ball, calling to each other. They and the Buddha were wrong to be happy today. Wrong. Tinh refused to look at the Buddha's face. He turned away from happiness and started home.

At the house, Tinh heard crying from the kitchen. He followed the sound to find Ma sitting by the earthen rice jar.

She held up a handful. “The lid blew off. Our rice is ruined! How will I feed you children?” She faced him, her cheeks wet with tears.

Tinh wanted to hold his nose against the smell of the wet rice that had rotted so quickly in the heat.

“At least we have the guavas, Ma,” said Tinh, kneeling beside her. His belly rumbled with hunger.

“Our dear tree,” Ma cried harder.

“And we always have sweet potatoes.” Tinh laid a hand on Ma's arm.

Ma wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.

Had
Phat Ba Quan Ahm
forsaken them? Had her thousand arms been busy elsewhere?

Ba would expect Tinh to be the man until he returned. “I'll find food for us,” Tinh said to Ma. “I'll take care of us.” If he found food, it would help make up for his cowardice with the boat.

He took a bowl from the shelf in the kitchen. “Don't worry,” he said, leaving the yard.

With the sun higher in the sky, the air had grown steamy. Tinh wiped his forehead with the hem of his shirt.

He went to Third Aunt's house. The leaves of the banana trees had been torn into ribbons. All was silent. Was no one home?

“Third Aunt, it's me, Tinh,” he called out. “Do you have any dry rice?”

Third Aunt came to the door, her hair loose from its tight bun. “I'm sorry, Tinh. Our rice was knocked over by the wind. I borrowed from your father's uncle.”

She stared at his empty bowl. “I'm sorry,” she repeated.

Tinh set off for First Uncle's house, tapping the bowl against the side of his leg. He passed the school. Chickens pecked in the puddles, and two white dogs scrounged for food.

In the tall palms, birds sang as though the storm had never happened.

As Tinh rounded the bend in the path, he came to First Uncle's house. One wall had fallen in. Leaning on his cane with one hand, First Uncle pulled at pieces of bamboo and palm fronds with his free hand. He moved unsteadily, having lost a leg when he'd stepped on a land mine after the war.

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