Authors: Carolyn Marsden
Wilted flowers lay strewn around the gravestones. Everyone was too busy attending to the living to tend the dead.
Coming home tonight, he'd have to go by this cemetery again. Ghosts would be out. Unhappy, hungry ghosts who hadn't been cared for. Tinh shivered at the thought. Silently, he chanted:
“Phat Ba Quan Ahm, watch over me. Phat Ba Quan Ahm . . .”
He entered the region of the sand dunes. The light brown sand was flecked with gold shining in the sunlight.
Before Tinh was big enough to go to market with Ma, he'd waited here in the sand dunes for her return in the evening. When he saw her, he'd run to check the buckets of her
for a special treat: a lump of brown-sugar candy, a mango or banana, or maybe an ear of roasted corn.
Now as Tinh walked to the top of a dune, his feet crunched in the dry sand. In the damp of the dune valleys, mosquitoes bit his ankles.
With every step, he felt the slap of the pendant in one pocket and the rustle of money in the other. What if someone tried to take the money from him? He held the propeller like a shield.
Behind him, his dark shadow slipped over the sand.
During the war, soldiers had fought here. They'd hidden behind the dunes, firing their rifles. They'd thrown grenades and planted land mines.
The land mines still lay underneath the sand. Sometimes, when the sun shone on them, they exploded from the heat. If someone stepped on a land mine, it tore off his legs. First Uncle had lost his leg that way.
Tinh examined the ground as he walked. What would buried land mines look like? Bumps in the sand? Rough patches? His palms sweated.
He stopped and tilted the soda bottle up to his mouth. He drank all his water.
At last the sand dunes tapered down into the village. The storm had hit here, too. Tinh passed downed trees, damaged houses. As in Hai Nhuan, he saw people working together to clean up.
When a man rode by on a bicycle carrying long sticks of brown-sugar candy, Tinh's mouth watered.
Finally, he spotted the brick hut of the machine shop, smoke rising from the chimney. Tinh approached and peered inside.
Men wearing thick glasses and masks were gathered around a hot charcoal fire.
One man looked up at Tinh. Walking over, he took the propeller. He touched the sharp, broken edges with his fingertip. “Wait outside,” he said, gesturing to a bench. “The storm has brought us a lot of work.”
Tinh sat down on the bench, his back against the wall. Even if he had to wait a long time, he'd made it to the machine shop. He'd walked by himself to Phong Chuong and had delivered the propeller.
Tinh felt the heat from the open doorway. Soon, he heard the sound of pounding. He unwrapped his sweet potatoes and peeled them carefully. The pink flesh was soft and sugary. He ate the peelings, then licked his fingers. By the side of the building, he found a large jar of water and refilled his soda bottle.
Tinh lay down on the bench. He fell asleep to the songs of the birds in the trees overhead.
“Boy,” he heard from the air above him. The man was holding the propeller with a pair of tongs. It glowed a dull red. The man laid it on the ground. All three petals were now complete. “Don't touch this yet. It's still hot.”
Tinh handed the man the money.
The man gave back a small bill in change.
Tinh watched as the propeller cooled, slowly losing its red tinge. He touched the edge of a blade, then laid his hand on the shaft, now barely warm. He lifted the propeller into his lap and sat with it. This last piece would make the boat whole. This propeller would spin in the water, carrying him and Ba out to the fish.
Now he had to get home.
Just as the town gave way to the sand dunes, Tinh found a small purple flower growing in the shade. He picked it, and gathered bamboo leaves to keep it company. He wrapped the small bouquet with a blade of thin grass.
As he climbed the first sand dune, his heart quickened. Ahead lay a twilight filled with ghosts and unexploded land mines. He began to chant:
“Phat Ba Quan Ahm, see me. . . .”
Balancing the propeller first in one hand, then the other, he wiped his palms on his shirt.
Tinh stopped and stood still. He thought of making the tray of sweet offerings with Banoi at Lunar New Year. He imagined the weight of the tray on his head. He felt Banoi's hand in his as she'd led him to the center of the yard.
While Tinh had held the tray, Banoi sat smiling like the Buddha.
Tinh thought of the Buddha sitting in the temple, now flooded with light. If the real Buddha were here now, he wouldn't be afraid. He'd be walking with his relaxed half smile.
The Buddha knew how to be happy no matter what. Even confronted with danger. Even with the villages and countryside in ruins.
Yet Tinh had turned away from happiness. Why hadn't he stayed and learned the secret of the Buddha's smile?
The sun rode lower.
Tinh took the green pendant from his pocket. As it grew warm in his hand, he imagined the Buddha walking beside him, taking slow, deliberate steps.
Tinh's own steps calmed. His foot landed â heel, then toe â on the copper-colored sand. Then the other foot arrived. The sand closed over the footprints behind him.
By tomorrow the boat would be ready for the ocean once again. But for now, he was just walking over the sand. The repaired propeller and the flower bouquet firmly in his hands, Tinh began to smile.
He was ready to accept the Buddha's diamonds: the first stars, the dome of the sky overhead, the birds hurrying to nest, his own heart beating.
Steadily, Tinh crossed the sand dunes. No ghosts came to torture him. No land mines exploded.
He reached the cemetery as the light faded. He found the gravestones of Banoi and Ong Noi. Kneeling, he laid down his tiny bouquet for his beloved ancestors. Beside it, he laid the pendant. Taking a last look at the Buddha's smile, Tinh walked into the night.
The next morning, Lan and Ma came to the beach with Tinh and Ba.
Lan wore only a thin bandage now and walked easily, holding Tinh's hand. “Tomorrow we'll build a kite together,” he told her.
“A pink one?” she asked.
“That'll depend on what color paper you can find.”
“Pink. I have some pink.”
Lan and Ma had spent many hours removing the dead fish from the net and mending the holes. Now the nets lay ready in the boat.
As Ba attached the propeller to the engine, he said, “No one could tell that this propeller was once broken.”
Ma and Lan lashed the slim statue to the bow, along with a sprig of leaves and sticks of incense.
The four of them â Third Uncle helping with the final shove â pushed the boat down the sand and into the waves. It floated out, reflected in the water, no longer golden, but a pearly gray.
The storm had changed the boat, Tinh thought. And it had changed him, too.
Ba pulled on the cord, and the engine sprang to life.
As they shoved off â Ma and Lan and Third Uncle waving â Tinh's heart felt as large as the huge blue ocean. He saw Phu on the shore, the red car in his arms. This bamboo boat, he suddenly realized, was better than one hundred remote-controlled cars.
As they made for the open sea, Tinh lit a stick of incense. The smoke drifted in the light breeze.
When Hai Nhuan was out of sight, Ba silenced the engine.
He and Tinh threw out the nets, then cast the lines.
Tinh waved to Trang Ton in his green boat across the water.
Ba caught a small brown fish and Tinh a huge
which he pulled in without Ba's help.
“You've caught a bigger fish than I have,” Ba said. “You're growing up, Tinh.”
When the sun was high overhead, Ba poured diesel into the stove and lit the wood fire.
Tinh put on the pot of water and added the flavorings. Soon, steam rose, hot and fragrant.
“Someday, Tinh, this will be yours.” Ba patted the boat.
“Oh, Ba . . .” Tinh leaned forward. “I'll take good care of it. I promise.”
When they headed home in the middle of the afternoon, Tinh steered the boat to shore all by himself.
Standing side by side, Ma and Lan waited on the beach, wearing their cone-shaped hats.
When the boat drew close, Tinh ran to the bow and shouted, “There's soup! We have soup!”
Late in the afternoon, Tinh visited the temple.
He tiptoed in.
Although the sky still showed through the gaping roof and the wall of paintings was still damaged, the temple had been cleaned. The photographs of the ancestors were lined neatly on the ancestral altar. The donation box stood upright again.
Someone had laid out dry matches and incense.
Tinh lit a stick of incense and placed it in the bowl of sand in front of the Buddha. As the sweet smoke spiraled, Tinh peeked up.
The spot where people left offerings remained empty. No fruit, no flowers. Yet the Buddha was still at peace, smiling as though he knew a beautiful secret.
Tinh sat down cross-legged on the floor, imitating the position of the Buddha. He placed one hand in the mudra for peace, the other in his lap, close to the earth.
He listened to his breathing. His breath reminded him of waves coming in and out, waves caressing the beach.
He listened to the songs of the birds outside.
The storm-ravaged world settled around Tinh, each part utterly perfect. The sun dropped lower, the rays hitting his back.
Then he heard the sounds of his cousins playing soccer on the field outside.
Tinh stood and bowed three times to the Buddha, pressing his forehead to the earth. After the last bow, he looked into the Buddha's face. The Buddha was right to smile. Tinh smiled back.
Standing in the doorway of the temple, Tinh watched his cousins play. They played like the birds, full of the happiness of the moment.
Tinh walked down the steps between the two stone dragons, calling, “Trang Ton! Dong! Anh! I'm ready to play!”
He ran onto the green field, free of all but the soccer ball and the bright day, the sun balancing on a cloudless blue horizon.
one committed to enlightening oneself and others so that all may be liberated from suffering
ca kinh â
ca ngu â
large gray fish
ca nuc â
small silver fish
cay duong â
trees with long needles, pronounced “cay yuong”
chim hai au â
seagulls, literally “birds big ocean”
ganh hang â
a contraption consisting of a bamboo pole carried over the shoulders with a flat, round basket hanging from each end of the pole
a fruit that grows in clumps. It has a hard, woody skin and a chewy, white center.
Lunar New Year â
celebrated either in late January or in February, according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which takes into account both lunar and solar cycles of time. Instead of celebrating individual birthdays, all children are one year older on Lunar New Year.
hand gesture used in Buddhist meditation
Ong Noi â
Phat Ba Quan Ahm â
the Vietnamese Bodhisattva of Compassion, who began her life as a princess called Wondrous Goodness. Faced with the suffering of the world, she chose to become a nun in order to relieve suffering. Her father, the king, tried to kill her because of her decision. Later on, Wondrous Goodness sacrificed both her arms and both her eyes to heal her father. This Bodhisattva is often depicted as having one thousand arms and one thousand eyes because of her limitless commitment to helping others.