By Wong Wen Pu
Death by Water
Let me tell you this before it is forgotten: when a whale dies at sea, it is the beginning of a festival. You must understand that this is a celebration that will last exactly a hundred years. The carcass will sink and settle onto the dark seabed, and everyone in the marine neighbourhood will join in the revelry. In the first two years, the body will be stripped down to the bones by sleeper sharks and lampreys, and the seabed will be strewn with meaty scrapes as the scavengers tear away at the lumbering mass. Then the enrichment opportunists, albino crabs and blind stargazers, will arrive, and feast on the enriched sediments surrounding the colossal wreck for the next eight decades. In the final years of the festival, sulfophilic mussels and bioluminescent shrimps dance in the effervescence of the dissolving bones. In the time of a whale’s dissolution, there will be time for cities to rise and empires to fall. Cholera will kill a million people and the fornicating throng will produce a hundred million more. Only at the end of one hundred years, when all that is edible has been eaten, then is the skeletal hull abandoned, and the colonies of life that the carcass had supported will scatter to the four waters. When that day comes, that spot of cold dark seabed becomes waste land again.
The Queen of Faeries sleeps supine at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. She drowned one hundred years ago, and she has since lain there unmoving, unseeing, slowly decaying. In the first year of her death, her body had remained pristine and untouched by the sharks and the fishes. Five-legged starfishes and many-legged isopods flit in and out of her hair. But in our time, the algae have crept over her and microbes began nibbling away at her toes and fingertips and cornea. The bite wounds do not bleed and the sores are white eyes that stare right back at you. In another few centuries, there will be nothing left of her on the seafloor except her vertebrae intermingled with a few scattered parts of bones inedible even to the most carnivorous of bacteria.
When the little mermaid was first lowered onto her rock by the Copenhagen waterfront 100 years ago, Edvard Eriksen declared that she would watch the Danish waterway forever, which is a very long time. Since then, nitric acid had been poured on her once by feminists, she had been decapitated by vandals twice, and pirates and bootleggers had knocked off her perch into the sea with dynamite several times. She has survived all these attempts on her life, each time miraculously restored at the tender loving craft of master artisans. But her longevity by our artificial means must one day be trumped by the sea. The waves chafe away at her brazen tail, and the northern rains that terminate night ferries and strand lovers between Bornholm and Copenhagen buffers her day and night. About eleven thousand years from the day we stop maintaining her, as we eventually must, her body will be fully washed, like Ariel, into the sea as foam and spray.
All of these deaths mean nothing to the iron heart of the unplumbed sea. When all the science textbooks on whales are rotted away by mildew, when the monuments are reduced by desert winds to salt and sand, when ages of men and animals and living things are long forgotten, the great shroud of the sea will still roll on relentlessly, as it had six billion years ago.
What the Thunder Said
In the fishing village I grew up, the adults paid close attention to what the thunder said.
Every day, at three in the morning, the menfolk would gather at the shrine of the thunder god to hear its portents. On the days the thunder deigned to rumble benignly beyond the crisp mountains surrounding the village, the fishermen would push their nets and cages into their motor boats and chug off slowly into the darkness. You could see their green squid lamps glowing like will-o-wisps from the shore even when the boats were far, far out at sea.
Later in the day, the divers would push their canoes into the warm water and row to the middle of the bay and dive for pearls. Their bare tawny skin would glisten and blood would stream from their ears when they broke surface with a bag full of pearl oysters between their teeth. They would sell the pearls to the trader that visited the village every month. Sometimes, a diver would dip beneath the waves to never surface again. The villagers would say that the poor fellow had his leg caught between the mantle of a giant man-eating clam, and they would allow his canoe to drift out of the bay with the rising evening tide.
But on the days the thunder raged across the firmament, the lush mountainsides would tremble and reverberate with the sound and the fury. The men would stay in and mend their fishing nets and lobster pots, while the women darned the clothes and carved pearls out of mounds of quivering pink flesh. The sound of thunder was the one inviolable law in our village. On such nights, we would always have chowder with kelp crackers for dinner.
In those days of no name, I was happy as the grass was green. Each day after my classes in the village school ended, I would go to the seashore and dig for clams and oysters burrowed lightly into the sand. The molluscs would be sunbathing under a veil of warm sand. You simply picked them up and dropped them with a clatter into your red plastic pail. Once in a while, if a shell was especially pretty or looked unappetising, I would push it back into the sand.
The littoral was an explosion of microscopic activity and life, and the critters that lived on the shore never ceased to entertain me throughout my childhood. I grew up turning red rocks over green to expose the hiding places of small ringed octopuses and scuttling hermit crabs. One time, I found the fossilised tooth of a prehistoric shark in a rock pool. I still keep with me for good luck. When the weather was clear, I would watch seabirds drop unfortunate turtles from mid-air onto the rocks below, where dugongs would sometimes beach themselves. Frequently, the birds would miss the rocks, and I would cheer in my heart as I imagined the turtles diving freely, deeply, into the inscrutable ocean once more. And several times, I found glass bottles with messages written in indecipherable squiggles embedded in the sand. I would retrieve them and preserve their contents in front of the fire carefully. Only much later in life, after I had encountered similar squiggles along the corridors of my college, would I learn that they were the words of foreign men who lived at the very end of the world.
Not very much remains in my memory of those youthful days in that village by the sea. Only one particular episode in all of those years still shines starkly, like a green squid lamp out in the foggy bay, irreproachably correct, through the changing seasons and accumulated clutter of life experiences. The morning three days after the seasonal storm abated, the men who had set off in the misty direction of the distant lighthouse had returned earlier, their empty nets trailing conspicuously behind them even though they sky was clear and a sharp wind whistled against the cliffs in the bay. They had found a girl tossed lightly on the waves, and had tied a rope around her ankles, towed her back to the shore, with seaweed trailing in her fanned golden hair and little fishes nibbling at her toes. They called her the hyacinth girl for the flowers she still held in her gentle caresses. The teacher that came down to the beach with us herded us urgently back into the classroom. Later, when the men and women of the village huddled together in the elder’s courtyard, I slipped out of the schoolhouse to take a closer look at her. She was beautiful; the first dead person I ever saw. When I reached to unclench her fingers around the hyacinths, she relinquished the flowers and closed her fingers around my wrist. Weakly at first, then firmly. Her hand was as warm as newly baked bread, and her watery eyes tried to smile at me beyond their glassy blueness.
In the next days, more detritus washed up onto the shore. Driftwood from different ages of the world. Unopened bottles of champagne. Cold cuts of ham on fine china that seagulls abandoned the turtles for. One night, a one-legged man with a rope around his neck was quietly carried on to the shore by the waves, and a one-eyed man was found trapped in the eddies of one of the nearby mermaid caves that flood fully at high tide. For a few days, a TV crew came from the big city from behind the green mountain ranges and interviewed the villagers; took pictures of the bodies laid out side by side on the beach. The police later identified the one-eyed man as M. Eugenides, a currency trader from Smyrna, and we learnt that the one-legged man used to live luxuriously in a house of ivory and ambergris. But it is Laura I remember most clearly as an adult, long after I had left the now-derelict seaside village and gone out into the world. Each night, she floats swimmingly into my dreams with seaweed in her flowing hair, hyacinth in her arms warm as a lover’s caress, her chalky blue lips, her sapphire eyes bright and lively as Olympia’s.
A Game of Chess
One January evening, the weather turned cooler, so they moved their chess game upstairs to the high window, where the spray warmed on their brown faces. After the sun set over the wine dark sea, late in these deep southerly latitudes, they continued their game by candle light. Their shadows stretched long and thin against the ancient stone of the room, and the only sounds were the clips of chessmen on the board.
The old scholar stayed three months. He was on his way to see the waterfalls at Iguazu when he had decided to visit the lighthouse en route, where Old McAlister was keeper. He had seen the lighthouse featured in an old Hong Kong movie many years ago, he told McAlister when they first met, and had found it breathtakingly beautiful. After that movie, he had thought about the lighthouse in many moments of his life: when flipping through a travel magazine in his hometown by the Himalayan Alps, or when sleepless on the overnight bus from Eindhoven to Prague. Now in the twilight of his years, he wanted to see the place for himself before he died.
Ushuaia, fin del mundo, principio de todo, he said quietly to the open ocean when they had first climbed out of the lanthorn into the washed-out gray sky and January sleet, their boots clanging on the white metal catwalk. May I stay a month, till spring, when the world turns blue? Because he had brought a pound of tobacco and a pound of gouda as gifts, McAlister, usually wary of visitors, had grudgingly acquiesced.
Since then, they had settled into a comfortable day-to-day routine together. In the mornings, the old scholar would help McAlister with the maintenance of the lighthouse. McAlister taught him how to correctly wipe down the storm windows, adjust the rotating shutters, test the lamps. After the work was finished, they would fish together on the windy foundation rock of the lighthouse in companionable silence. They threw all they caught back to the sea: silvery-blue puffer fishes, lines of brown Sargasso weed, barnacle-encrusted green glass bottles. Sometimes they would talk – McAlister spoke of seeing the Statue of Zeus at Olympia crumble, the old scholar had walked through the ruins of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and they both had, many years ago, gazed into the cold eyes of the King of Kings at Giza. Other times, they would sit quietly together, make small white clouds with their pipes; watch the world go by.
When spring came around, as albatrosses began headed north with the changing winds, the old scholar prepared to follow their migratory path to the Iguazu Falls. Old McAlister could hear him stamping around the upstairs room, packing his bags. On the morning he left, a light rain was falling, and they played one final game of chess by the window. The room was cool and dim, and the marble chessmen were cold to their warm fingertips. Neither men spoke – they were not young men, and being so near death, they had none of the tumultuous expressions of grief of the young. After the game was over, the old scholar went up to his room, to collect his bags and bring them down to the pier. Old McAlister stumped over to the window, and blinked at the sea. He had lost friends before, and had become so versed in the art of losing that the present departure of the scholar, he knew, was no lasting disaster. He would row the man back to the mainland, he decided, and that would be their final farewell.
But something was different about the sea today, McAlister realized, as he gazed at the sea. In the many years he had spent at this tor at this end of the world, he had come to know the sea, all of its rhythms and rhymes, its swells and lulls, its lunar moods, its musics, its caprices and furies. Something was different, something had broken. Rather than its usual calm green-gray mein, the sea in the distance, where the submerged rocks were, was frothing and glistening angrily today.
Was it the whales? They swam by sometimes, in their singing pods. Most of the time they stayed out of sight, but he had seen them on moonless nights, when the bright sweeping beams of the lighthouses rose and fell, rose and fell, upon their sleek black backs as they breached the dark surface of the waves. Or perhaps it was frolicking manatees, bedevilling sailors since the time of Odysseus and Tiresias.
When the old scholar returned to the room, Old McAlister beckoned him over, and there they stood – two ancient mariners – side by side before the window, watching the sea. They stood and watched the opening foam, the white crests of the perilous sea for a long time.
“The mermaids”, the old scholar finally replied evenly, “are excitable today”.
The Fire Sermon
I once knew a young Taiwanese pilgrim who swam across the sea in one breath from Tainan to Xiamen, then walked for a thousand and one nights to Varanasi by the Ganges, to learn the secrets of eternal life.
In the first year of his pilgrimage, he wore out his sandals, and ate bread and fish he begged from the riverside residents of the Yangtze. In the second year, he shed forty pounds as he scavenged locusts and wild honey from the arid wilderness of Qinghai. And for the last two hundred and seventy one days (Scheherazade’s palindromic figures, unfortunately, do not work out too beautifully when you put it to a Georgian timescale), he aged thirty years. His hair fell out, the whites of his eyes turned greenish-yellow, and he fed on manna and quail he found on the steep slopes of Tibet and Nepal. On the two hundredth and seventy-second day of his journey, he finally arrived, poor traveller on a winter’s night, at the golden gates of the Water City. He fell to his knees, from exhaustion and in praise, then passed out from the joy of having arrived at beginning of his timeless journey.
If I were telling you a story about a fictional pilgrim on a fictional journey to a fictional land, perhaps a little girl in a ragged petticoat selling matchsticks on that hoary winter night would have taken him home to her family and nursed him till his strength was recovered. Or less charitably, a passing monk would have stoutly carried him back to a nearby monastery to spend the night out of the winter winds. Otherwise a gang of marauding robbers would have pulled him into their den behind the local tavern and made him one of their numbers before a roaring fire. Such is the stuff of stories, where you can always count on the kindness of strangers. But, in truth, no careworn but loving family fed the young Taiwanese man bread and warm broth till he recovered. Nor did any passing monk take pity on the collapsed stranger on the street.
When the young Taiwanese man opened his eyes the following morning, he discovered that the proverbial robbers were not the stuff of old wives tales, but had descended on him in the night like carrion birds, making off with his walking staff, his threadbare purse containing only five coins, his right kidney and left cornea, and left him unconscious on a pile of rotting leaf. The real world was an ugly place. The young Taiwanese man tore at his hair and gnashed his teeth in sorrow. After weeping his fill, he hobbled to his feet and slowly made his way to the guru’s house.
At the door of the guru’s house, the young Taiwanese man was received by a young initiate who told him to return the next day, for the cockerel had crowed thrice this day and the guru did not enlighten guests after dawn. So the young man went sightseeing along the riverside till evening, then huddled under a chicken roost for the night. The next morning, he woke before any of the cockerels he had spent the night with had cooed and made his way to the guru’s house. But, again, he was turned away, for the initiate insisted that the guru’s cockerel had crowed thrice and that the guru was already deep in meditation for the rest of the day. And here you might imagine that the guru was testing the young man’s resolve, like the sages of so many Chinese myths. But this was not the case – for in good faith, as I must honestly tell you, the guru’s rooster had indeed crowed thrice and the guru was no longer enlightening any guests that day.
It was an especially early rising cockerel that belonged to the guru. It always caught the early rising worms.
The young Taiwanese man was a fast learner. Before dawn of the third morning, he went to the holy man’s ashram again and strangled the wretched bird (coo! said the bird in surprise, but so softly no one heard) so that it would cause no more grief to visiting pilgrims. He triumphantly knocked on the door of the ashram and was met by tearful acolytes, who told him that the guru had suddenly passed away in the middle of the night, and the body had mysteriously disappeared three hours later when the disciple watching the body had dozed off. The young Taiwanese man was devastated. His pilgrimage was over. Bitterly cursing his life and luck and all the futile suffering had endured, he stumbled to the Manikarnika Ghat by the riverside to drown himself. In the river, bloated logs wrapped in white cloth were lifelessly were drifting with the current. As he took his first step into the water, out of the corner of his remaining eye he saw the guru, so recognisable in the hundreds of photos he was reproduced in, warming his hands by a large fire beside the Ghat.
"O Master," he cried, "Your disciples told me you were dead just half an hour ago."
"I have experienced death, even yet I have risen again," replied the guru serenely.
"Teach me please the art of the immortality you have just performed."
"Immortality? The way of the immortal you seek is not mastered here on the Ganga, young friend. The Ganga is the river that runs to the outspread hair of Shiva – it is the river of life and death, of continuity and samsara. The immortal is not born on the river of ebb and flow."
"Where must I go to learn the secret of immortal life?"
"Down south, to Ushuaia, where time does not pass."
"It's cold there."
"It's the end of the world. There’s a lighthouse there where heartbroken people go to leave their sadness behind forever."
"People still do that?"
So the young Taiwanese man went to the lighthouse at the end of the world, in Ushuaia where time does not pass, and where heartbroken people go to leave their sadness behind forever. Here, the swirling blue green waters poured off the continental disc into the mouth of the giant turtle A’tuin, and men foolish enough to sail too close to the edge of the world in the wild hopes of a peep at the quadruped ran the risk of being forever lost to other men. The young Taiwanese man became the caretaker of the lighthouse and stayed there for thirty years, playing chess with the occasional pilgrim who visited with his own burden of sorrow.
On some nights, he would hear mermaids singing each to each in hauntingly sad songs. Other nights, they sang reedy notes to the lonely sailors on passing ships out on their futile quest to prove that the world was spherical. They never sang to him, unmovable rock in his stone tower. They were only interested in the hearts of wild men whose footing were sure by the swaying sense of things in the day, but dreamt delirious dreams by night. Never once did he felt tempted to plunge into the swirling emerald waters and swim to the mermaids’ sun-bleached rocks just visible in the distance, as he had seen many others on passing ships do; never was his heart moved by the seductive song of the sounding sea.
Once a day, in the afternoon, he would write a fragment of his unhappiness onto a silver of paper and seal it into a green bottle, which he hurled into the sea. He hoped that it would float into another ocean, to another lighthouse, where another lonely caretaker would fish the bottle out of the water and share in his remote sorrow. Most of the bottles were returned to sender when the waves dashed them against the foundational rock of the lighthouse. Nearly thirty years of ink bled needlessly into the swirling foam. But, once in a while, a bottle would escape from the oceanic gyre around his lighthouse and wash up onto alien shores or deserted coasts. They made good curios for retiree beachcombers walking their dogs at dawn.
At the end of thirty years seven months and four days, after throwing his last green bottle into the sea, the Taiwanese man could no longer feel unhappiness in his heart, try as he might. Neither could he feel happiness – for what is light without the darkness, sea without land? He had poured all that he had seen, heard, and felt in his life, into the green bottles and had no more memories left in him. He had become immortal and would outlast the sun. He then – let us give him the name of Tze, for he has thrown his old names with everything else into the sea... Tze then packed his meagre belongings into a sack and went on his way.
Eventually, he died of the fever on the shores of Singapore, then died again in a remote village in South America – but that’s another story altogether. When he left the lighthouse, he left behind him only the light and sound and darkness of the sea.
Burial of the Dead
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me at one place search another
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
The people you love do not stay dead forever. Ghosts and revenants, they return in the most incidental moments to remind you that they are never truly gone. Here is the smell of their skin lingering in the petrichor after a long summer month, in the absence keenly felt in the sour sweet pang of love as you give up old for new. There they are in the salt sea spray; there, in the sand between your toes when you walk along the beach... There, in warm hands, blue eyes, forever summer sky.
It rained the night before the burial, and, in the morning, the forget-me-nots were pregnant with tears.
When we arrived at the forest clearing nestled in the pale hills we found the sides of the graves had fallen in and the holes had to be re-dug. In the lofty canopies birds were potoo-tweeing in crisp notes. We laid out our summer mats, and had our sandwiches and juice in the shade of the gently rustling trees, while the gravediggers hollowed out again the burial plots. Black, armoured ants carried off our crumbs into their subterranean mazes. It was a picnic to the regular rhythm of shovels scrunching into wet soil.
Towards mid-day, the re-evacuation was completed. The men threw their shovels aside and lowered the coffins into the earth with ropes as we milled around, their boot-soles digging deeply into the soft mud as they strained against the grim boxes, thirty, forty of them slowly descending out of sight. I stood on the far end of the clearing, and watched Laura’s coffin disappear into the rusty, gaping mouth of the earth. Marking the spot. Then priest said a few words from the tablet of the thunder god over the open graves, blessed the dead, and, as if an invisible enchanted bubble over the morning had burst, the ceremony ended.
People turned to stroll back through the disappearing forest path, the weak sunlight. It started drizzling softly again as the first shovel of dirt thudded against the wooden lids of the coffins. Acorns now pushed into the sod by the rain, and the boot-soles would sprout next spring - weak-necked young saplings, but ambitious as oaks. It would take a hundred years for the roots to slowly penetrate the six, seven, eight feet into the earth, while the lush green crowns impatiently burst a hundred feet into the sky. In this hundred years, empires will rise and countries will fall. HIV will kill a million, and the throbbing masses will churn out a billion more. Jungles will turn into waste lands and deserts into unplumbed seas.
None of this means anything to me. Except perhaps one April, at the end of a hundred years, the roots will probe deep enough to touch your hearts of hearts – becoming you, you becoming. You, in the genius of the place, you in the loose soil that I touch, you against the firmament, blocking out the sky. Perhaps, at the end of a hundred years, I will still be alive, and you will find me sitting under the shade of this old tree breathing you in. And if not, if a hundred years prove too long for this life, be assured, I will stop somewhere else waiting for you.
Wong Wen Pu has lived in a lighthouse for many years. He plans to leave when he finishes his present writing project.