‘Neap Tide’, Don Norum

Illustrations © 2009 Robin Kaplan

 [ Fishing tanks, © 2009 Robin Kaplan ] Pham and his mother and father lived on a floating platform along the southern arm of land enclosing Cat Ba Harbor. Weathered grey wooden planks lashed to blue-wrapped bales of styrofoam and stoppered drums stretched across the calm waters in a regular grid. Loose green netting plunged down from the edges of each cell into the green water, trapped schools of fish swirling in tight spirals within.

One dimple held horseshoe crabs, degenerate trilobites reduced from armored lords of the stygian oceans to oddball delicacies; another held squid and cuttlefish. Dirt-packed metal canisters swung in gentle currents from the fringes of the platform as ballast, swarms of molluscs encrusting the rusted steel.

Their house stood in the center of the sprawl, blue tin eaves above green-painted walls. Pham walked along, the boards bobbing beneath his feet, ladling meal into the tanks, mending nets, greeting the buyers from the serried ranks of hotels nestled along the shore with their backs to the mountains.

They came in motorized skiffs, prows bouncing high above the spray, and paid in dollars, Euro and dong. Pham's father saw them for special orders, large quantities, the occasional tourist fisherman or restauranteur insistent on coming along to see the local flavor.

When he was otherwise unoccupied, he sat under the shade of the roof and read through tattered, water-swollen books, looking up and listening every minute to hear if the yearling Shepherd Black-Eyes had fallen into one of the tanks again.

One evening his father missed dinner, sitting crouched on the edge of the planks, watching the junks roll out towards the sea. They'd been leaving since early afternoon, the flotilla of rowboat peddlers falling behind their wakes one after another, called offerings of goods and services vanishing into a steady puff of diesel smoke from burning engines.

As the last of the running lights merged into the channel markers, and lights flickered off in hotels room after room, he spoke a few quiet words to Pham's mother and set off towards shore. He'd never seen the boats of tourists leave like this before, and he had fished here since the military abandoned the island to tourism in the fifties.

He pulled himself along in a steel-shell coracle and stopped to chat at each platform he passed, floating into pools of fluorescent lights at the corners of shacks and exchanging worried murmurs below the chuffing of generators.

Midnight had long since passed before he returned, Pham sleeping on a blanket in the open air, Black-Eyes curled on his chest, tail tucked over nose. The town stretched across the shore had been dead for hours, even the wandering gangs of knockoff youths armed with cellphones who shouted down to skinny-dipping tourists from the landings above and gathered in circles with stacks of Bia Hanoi cans. The last of their calls had sounded before the sun went down.

Pham's father talked with Pham's mother for a long time before the two of them fell into a shallow sleep.

Pham woke in the still, early hours of the morning, before the sun had done more than peek up between the islands hidden in the distant haze. His father stood on the platform looking out over the waters, a battered red kayak tied up in front of him. Pham put a dish of rice into the bottom of the old jug nailed to the floor for Black-Eyes and stumbled out onto the deck.

"Son, are you feeling well?"

Pham blinked as he nodded. His father gestured to the kayak.

"How about you paddle out to Monkey Island and spend a day or two there camping?"

Pham opened his eyes wide.

"Can Black-Eyes come? Will you come with me? What about the fish?"

"Yes, yes, calm down. See, there's a second seat—Black-Eyes can go with you, so long as you take good care of him."

"Of course, of course!"

"I'll be along in a day or two. And don't worry about the fish—business has been good lately, we've sold most of the catch, and Trien will look after the rest while we're gone. Okay?"

"Yes!" Pham started to run around the deck, grabbing spare rope, bottles of water, calling all the while to Black-Eyes. "Monkey Island! Monkey Island! Monkey Island! Monkey, monkey, monkey Island!" Black-Eyes popped his head up from behind the stoop and sprang over the threshold, hopping from board to board barking.

His father reached out and grabbed his shoulder.

"Wait." Pham's face perched on the edge of a cliff. "I've already packed the kayak for you; it's ready to go."

Pham smiled wide and ran to pry the covers off the cargo compartments. They held rope, sandals, bottled water, dried fish, a hammock, everything he needed. He skipped inside and ran back to hug his smiling mother. If he noticed the faint lines at the corners of his parents' mouths, or the worrying tilt in their eyebrows, he didn't show it.

Black-Eyes walked to the edge of the boards and stopped, sniffing at the bobbing hull. Pham pulled the stitched-up remains of an old lifejacket down off a hook and clipped the floatation cells around Black-Eyes's back before setting the pup down inside the front seat of the kayak.

With a last wave back to his parents standing arm in arm, he slipped into the back seat and untied the mooring line there, reaching forward with the paddle to lift the forward loop free of the cleat on the deck, draping it into the front well for Black-Eyes to paw at. Pham lodged the blade of the paddle into a crack in the wood above the nearest barrel and pushed off, kayak dipping and bobbing beneath him.

Clear of the platform, the only other boats on the water far off in the morning haze, he hunched his head an inch and shrugged into a life jacket.

The blades of the oar bit deep into the water and the two of them slid off across the blue-green bay, a light spray speckling fiberglass, tanned skin and fur.

Outside of the sheltered bay, the currents from the South China Sea swirled and cut around the hundreds of islands, catching unwary rowers and pulling them off course. Pham kept to the seaward side of the islands he passed, planning to give himself an easier afternoon. The tourist junks that plied the waters off of Hanoi chugged past, diesel engines churning the water, sounding like the helicopters that now and then passed far off in the distance.

Vendors sat with shipped oars, bobbing in the swells as he coasted past, racks of Oishii Shrimp Puffs and Sprites filling the boat, robbing them of room to lie down. The sun blazed high in the sky, a fierce eye-burning brightness veiled by clouds. Black-Eyes whimpered and tried to crawl down into the shade of the footwell, climbing back out when the stifling heat from the fiberglass oven became too much.

Pham felt the skin of his legs prickle every time they rubbed into the unsealed fibers, and he dipped one short blade into the bay to send them into a gentle turn towards the eaves of a limestone karst.

There was no place to pull the kayak ashore, porous rock rising almost straight up out of the depths, so he glided to a stop underneath a dangling cord left there by some fisherman and tied up in the shade. Black-Eyes scarfed at a few pieces of fish and some rice, lapped from cupped hands of water, and then yawned out asleep on the flat top of the boat, gentle warmth in the cool shadow. Pham lay the oar across his lap, propped into a crack in the wall to hold them in place, and let his head fall to his chest as he slept through the worst of the heat.

The tide had pushed well up onto the strip of white sand on the sheltered side of Monkey Island, so Pham could glide over the submerged shoals of rocks and old metal rods and wreckage without hulling the kayak or shattering the delicate red fronds of coral. Tourist trips often pulled up onto the beach—he could see the small white railing of the official welcome kiosk up at the edge of the forest—so even though dusk was soon approaching, and the only boats he'd seen that day were steaming out of the bay, he continued on, heedful of the plaintive whimpers of Black-Eyes at so many trees, so close.

A half-hidden cave yawned up and out over the water halfway around the island, accessible by the mud flats at low tide and the ocean now when the waters rose. A combination of currents and tides had shaped a small beach inside of rough pebbles and bits of broken glass, still sharp from their sudden deposition.

Pham pulled in and peered around in the dim light reflecting off the waters outside, as Black-Eyes bounded off the bow and ran halfway up towards the fallen rocks at the back of the chamber before hauling up a leg and letting loose. He'd sleep here tonight, and in the morning go around the island and find a spot in the forest to make camp and wait for his father.

The government didn't allow any of the bay people to live on the islands other than Cat Ba, sending them onto their floating platforms and ships moored in place by frozen anchor lines and barnacles. Lack of money kept them from Cat Ba itself, more than any number of laws or regulations.

Still they came, tying up on the rocks and hopping out to gather clams and crabs in the shallow waters alongside shore. A few, like Pham and his father, would risk the patrols to spend a day or two, now and then, feeling the solid ground beneath their feet, sleeping in hammocks strung between stationary trees.

His father had packed a small lantern in the kayak, which Pham wound up and used to illuminate a low shelf of rock back along the right hand wall. He spread a blanket out there, pulled the canoe up above the high water mark, making sure to keep his feet inside the footprint of his sandals as glass crunched and ground underfoot, and went to sleep with Black-Eyes curled up on his chest.

He woke after midnight, roused by Black-Eyes's gentle whimpering. Pham sat up, and the puppy hopped off to the ground and scurried underneath a protruding hunk of limestone. A growling rumble came from outside of the cave mouth, though he could see nothing in the pale moonlight that shone across the mud flats.

Pham made his way down to the shore and walked a little ways outside. From there, he could see the fierce red light burning on the horizon. As he watched, a brief burst of light flared up into the sky and subsided back into the fires below.

A triple crack split the air, as if the mountain above him were breaking asunder, and three white lines whipped across the sky towards Cat Ba and the mainland, coming from the north. He stood there, rising dread gripping his stomach in a writhing clench, until his courage failed him and he sprinted back into the cave, sandals sticking in the mud behind him, glass cutting into his heels and toes.

Pham stooped to grab Black-Eyes, pulling him from his hiding spot, and clambered one-handed over the boulders at the back of the cave. He went until he could see no more, then went on until the cool open air vanished to be replaced with the stale stuffiness of old stone and small places. Only then did he stop and hunker down, dozens of yards of heavy rocks protecting him from the cave mouth, a million tons and more of mountain above him.

The light still reached them, skipping off the pools of water dotting the mud flats and illuminating the cave in black and white shadow. Pham saw the boulders silhouetted against the back wall of the cave in front of him, the stark white glare bouncing and casting itself even further back into the earth beyond.

A minute passed, and then the roar came, a great continual rumbling as if the island, bored with a single sundering crack, had begun to disintegrate into pieces, dissolving into the ocean with a rolling thunder that went on long after he had closed his eyes and started rocking back and forth, Black-Eyes pawing at his chest and shoulders, crying out in fright.

Two days passed before he ventured out of the cave. The first day he spent back among the rocks, emerging only for a few minutes around midday to gulp down water and food before relieving himself and returning. On the second day, at low tide, he walked a few feet out from underneath the overhang of the roof to look at the sky.

Great black clouds hung overhead, dark and still. Ash fell from above in a light shower, soon captured and washed away by the lapping wavelets. Off on the horizon, visible in the noontime twilight, a red glow licked at the sky.

Pham returned to the cave, clutching Black-Eyes. His father wouldn't be coming.

On the third day, Pham took stock of his provisions and knew that he would have to leave the cave. He took a short knife in a wooden sheath on a cord and a bottle of water and set out. Black-Eyes followed along behind, running skip-skip-ski-dip across the sucking mud and slimed rocks of the flats.

He angled around the island and came up on the beach, white sands mixed with fragments of coral and a multitude of shells. Bits of glass, less numerous but larger than those in the cave, and discarded wine corks, flip-flops, and scraps of tarpaulin marked out the high-water line.

Pham sawed a short length of bamboo off from a grove at the forest's edge and gave it a rough point with three short chops of the knife. Clams and abalone clung to the exposed rocks, and these he pried or hammered off and stuffed into his pockets. A crab scuttled along the bottom of one of the muddy pools of saltwater and, with a deft jab, crushed the legs on its right side. It tried to run away, digging the edge of its carapace into the muck like a grounding ferry, and Pham plucked it up behind the claws.

He needed water, for himself and Black-Eyes. Back in the cave, he looked through the cargo bin on the kayak and found the large tin pot his father had put in, painted a chipped black with a short spout coming off of the clamped-down lid. Pham took it out on the beach and filled it with seawater before setting it down in the sunlight. Burying a bottle in the cool mud up to the lip, he ran a short hose from inside the pot to its mouth. In a few hours, the bottle would start to fill.

The clouds above had swept away with the brisk morning breezes, but it would be a week before Pham would trust the rain to drink.

Black-Eyes curled up in a hollow in the rock below the hole where Pham cached the morning's harvest, away from hungry birds and dogs alike. Pham walked up the beach, past the small kiosk into the forest, in search of scraps of dry wood for a fire.

Great ferns grew out of the powdered limestone, and small trees sent out roots that cracked the friable stone into soil-sheltering gaps. He had only managed to find a few handfuls of fallen branches and brown leaves when he heard a shrieking cry, soon taken up and echoed by a small multitude.

Creeping forward, Pham stayed low, sheltered in the undergrowth, until he found the edge of a small clearing. Peering inside, he saw a metal cage as large as the hut on his family's platform, a dozen golden monkeys grabbing at the bars and shouting. A small shack stood nearby, open on three sides with a thatched roof and a small hammock inside, strung behind a low table.

One monkey stretched out its paw again and again, trying to claw at the latch to the cage and falling short. Pham saw the shredded remains of fruit peels on the mesh floor, the water dish reduced to a thin film of muck. He clenched his teeth in a convulsive shiver amid the damp heat and stepped out into the clearing to release the captive monkeys. Hooting and calling, they ran off into the forest towards the shore, eager for the proffered snacks and water bottles of the tourists they were accustomed to.

Pham stood for a minute and listened to their departing hoots and then, with quick, furtive tugs, pulled an armload of thatch from the roof and hurried back to shore.

Enough water had collected in the bottle that he could cook the shellfish and crab, so he took the fuel back to the cave and piled it up on the dry gravel. Returning to the beach to fill a cooking pot, refill the still, and fetch Black-Eyes and the food, he soon had a small fire blazing in the darkness, thin soup bubbling on top of a tripod of stones.

Pham sat on a rock by the mouth of the cave, feet lodged into sandy hollows, staring at the gentle waves and watching for the approaching ripples. The angle of the shadow at the outer edge of the calm water continued to tick along past noon.

Black-Eyes swam up on the shore underneath the overhang emerged shaking his fur. He had taken to swimming out to the island and hunting on his own there, taking clumsy birds and, Pham suspected, the occasional monkey caught on the beach, far from the safety of the trees. The water bottles stayed topped off by the still, the food he plucked from the shallows filled his belly, and the cave protected him from the worst of the sun.

Weeks had passed without a tourist junk mooring offshore, without a long line of white-skinned Westerners arrriving around the island in bright canoes, hopping out on shore with shiny black cameras. Perhaps if he had seen just one rowboat pass over the horizon, heard the whump-thump of a single solitary diesel engine, Pham would have considered leaving.

He walked around the island every day after gathering enough food for the evening. When the tide was high he clambered along the rock shelf just below the surface of the water, and when it was low he strode across the squelching mud.

In the absence of artificial sounds, his gaze sharpened. He could pick out the rubber sole of a discarded shoe from a hundred yards, see the sparkle of sunlight off of brown and green glass, washed clean and sticking up from the mud like razored grass.

He found a scrap of discarded tarp a meter square and, gathering three corners together and tying them off with a length of cord pulled from the plastic frame of a pair of glasses, he made a bag to hang at his waist. As he walked along the coral beaches he picked up the wine corks, plastic packages, and baggies that washed ashore at the high tide mark. At first he would only walk a short way before the bag filled and he returned to the shade of the cave to sort out the useful items.

Several lengths of rope, scraps of fabric that could be cleaned and dried and used to distill more water, filling a couple of small glass bottles still intact, and a disposable cigarette lighter, the translucent reservoir cracked open but the flint and striker still aligned—his bounty for a month.

He tried to burn the plastic, but the grasping tentacles of black smoke found his lungs and doubled him over coughing, so he carried it over the rocks to the back of the cave and buried it there in the middle of a circle of boulders, tossing handfuls of dirt and smaller stones in with it to compact the mixture. The glass he washed in the ocean, let dry on ledges, and then tossed down deep into a crevasse where neither he nor Black-Eyes would risk stepping on it. From time to time he would go back there with a torch of bound palm fronds and watch the firelight reflect in a fury of greens, browns, and red-oranges off of clear glass.

The shore lay at the water's edge, pristine and unsullied. Pham walked along the mud flats or in the shallows, even when the beach was dry and accessible, so that when he sat at the cave mouth and looked back he could see no trace of his presence. The small kiosk he had broken down for fuel, digging up the concrete footers and dragging them back to the cave to bury on top of the plastic. Every now and then he would see a troop of monkeys venture down to the surf, one or two perched in trees to watch for Black-Eyes.

Pham had celebrated the birth of a trio of babies one week by spending two days and a night wrenching the cage free from the slab beneath and, snarling, had slammed the hardened steel bars against the cement until both gave. Into the plastic grave they went, dirt and rocks thrown down on top and stomped firm to finish the burial.

Some of his own tools were breaking down with the months. The pot he used for water grew corroded and thin with rust and caked salt until he poked a finger through the side. Into the burial mound. The ribbons making up his tarp-bag separated and widened. No matter—he had scoured the shores and mud flats for garbage already, hauled the sodden driftwood onto shore to dry for fuel and dug up the sunken rebar to inter under a cairn of the mountain itself.

Every day less and less washed up, until his two hands were more than sufficient to repair the damage brought in by the tides.

Six months after he first landed on Monkey Island, Pham stood on the shore and listened to the sound coming from across the bay. It was too loud to be a tourist boat—he would have seen it by now—and too regular to be the outboard on a skiff. Black-Eyes stood beside him, eyes squinted out over the shining waters.

The helicopter swung into view around the island opposite, bright red lines crossed on the side of a white hull. It spun in place, scanning the shore, and then made to set down a hundred yards to Pham's right. He stood staring as the sand scoured past his face and the wind tore at the ragged shorts tied around his waist.

"Jesus, Gord, is that a kid and a dog down there?" Howard asked. He passed the binoculars across. Gord spun the focus dial, flipped his glasses up onto his forehead and spun it again, then nodded.

"Yes, indeed it is." He tapped the pilot on the shoulder and stabbed his hand down towards the beach. Howard fumbled in his pack for the Vietnamese phrasebook.

"Is he a native?"

"Nobody is supposed to live on these islands," Gordon shouted back over the dying rotors. Pham still stood looking at them.

"Then did he come from Cat Ba?"

"Nobody was supposed to be alive on Cat Ba."

The two men jumped out and walked forward under the spinning blades, plain shirts and slacks marked with the red cross. Their hands spread out, palms up, coming in peace. Pham watched them come as Black-Eyes sat down.

"Good afternoon! Hello!" one of them called out. Pham raised a hand and waved once.

"Do you need a doctor?" the other read off from a pocket card, intonations flitting to and fro.


"Do you need food or water?"

Pham shook his head.

"Is there anyone else here?"

Pham turned and walked back along the shore towards the cave, glancing back once or twice at the men. They turned and chopped a hand signal to the pilot, then set off across the sands after him.

Pham pulled the kayak up out of the water and levered it into a natural cradle of limestone as the men lit flashlights and stared around the gloom beneath the overhang. He picked up the few jars and pieces of fabric and pots he still had left and tucked them into the aft cargo compartment, then fastened the lid over them.

With that, save for a litter of empty shells and bits of chitin clustered by the water's edge, the cave was clean. The two men stood calling out into the darkness as Pham walked out and waited for them on the beach.

They gestured to the helicopter and helped him along as he climbed in.

 [ The cave, © 2009 Robin Kaplan ] "Are we gonna let the dog come?"

"He won't come if it doesn't, I'll bet," Howard said.

"Diseases? Living on an island for six months..."

"We were supposed to be picking up corpses, Gord, rad-burned skeletons. I think we can handle a dog."

They pushed Black-Eyes forward until Pham caught hold of the dog's scruff and half dragged him into the cabin, where he found a nook beneath a jump seat and curled up whimpering.

Howard and Gordon secured the rear doors and jumped in as the rotors spun up.

"Odd, isn't it."

"Oh?" Gordon looked away from the horizon. Pham sat in the back, fingers kneading the back of Black-Eyes' neck.

"Kid's left on the island six months, does what?" Howard asked. "No shelter save for a damp cave, eating shellfish every day, just sitting around."

"Dog was there, too. Goes a long way, beats the hell out of a volleyball."

"Sure, but you'd expect something more. A sign for help, an open fire, lean-to, even just a stockpile of food and water. I mean, look at it—" he gestured to the window as the island fell away below them "—you'd never know that someone was living there for six months. Absolutely no sign."

As the coral sands fell away below them, a breaking wave washed up to subside foaming in the middle of the grid left by the landing skids. A pair of swim goggles, elastic cracked and one lens missing, fell out of suspension and buried itself into the wet sand in the middle of the empty beach. The tide was coming back in.

© 2009 Don Norum

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