plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue Two

Tradition


by Rachel Carlson

Untitled by Maggie Oran Untitled by Maggie Oran

Don’t cry, little one. The change will only last a second. It feels like the collapse of time, I know. I can tell you because I saw it happen during the hunt many years ago. You don’t believe me, staring though my skin with your parched eyes. Like two seas that are drying to dust. But wait, and listen—I’ll tell you my story.

First, I will tell you that I was born in the town of Taiji. Of course, you don’t know what that means, for a thing like you is not born into a village, but into the whole of the world. But listen, still listen. I was born to a father and a mother who carried nothing but a fishing net and the sole ambition to die where they grew up. I did too. I did not have flippers and waves to carry me, as you do.

The Taiji of my childhood had wild green hills and the sweet smell of homes that have always been lived in. The air of the village tasted of salt and cedar and the mold that clings to heavy yellow nets. The women of each house dried their sheets by hanging them in the front yard, so that the wind in the morning billowed white and shivered with the stiff crackling of cloth. The Taiji of my childhood had countless docks that cut into the sea like stitched seams, like scars.

When I loved Taiji, little one, I loved the boats. Some boats were splintering shafts with white tarp ceilings. They sprung from crest to crest like acrobats on a trapeze. Some boats were as thin and scabbed as the fish bones that the grandfathers used to pick their teeth. Some boats were so tattered and bulky that even the sight of them made your eyes heavy. These were always tethered to the shore, and the children would flit like minnows around their thousand rusty nooks.

My father’s boat was elegant. The hull formed a fluid hemisphere, like water taken from the underbelly of a wave. One mast at the prow was painted a dark red, and this heavy shaft snagged my gaze whenever I looked for my father’s boat from shore. The horizontal boom made a wide, sweeping arc, and from afar resembled a small hook, pinning the sky to the sea. Somehow, though, I always saw my father himself before I saw the boat, at least in my memory. He towered at the bowsprit, one arm clipped around a string of rigging, his body rigid despite the tipping of the boat’s weight. When the schooner vibrated under the pull of a full catch, he would spring like something inhuman to heave the mass of net on board. I used to sneak into the boat some nights, little one, to play with that net. As soon as I heard my parents’ snores, I would slip out my window and run barefoot down to our dock, jumping onto the bowsprit to imitate my father. Taking up the net, I would press its thin rope squares over my eyes for hours, examining the world’s simple segments one by one.

My father started taking me fishing when I was eight. One morning before dawn, I felt a soft knock on my shoulder and his rolling voice telling me to wake quickly. A crisp etching of moon cinched the black-velvet sky, and a green mist hung over my father’s boat. Lingering strands of sleep wrapped the scene in the unreality of a dream.

He told me to hold a rope as he wove and threaded thick folds of netting. The rope canvas I had once pressed against my face now billowed and sank in an open layer over the sea. My father threw himself against shuddering cranks and suddenly the net sprang up, writhing with the shock of bodies. The fish burst with a frenzy into every inch of air, trying to escape their pain through the sheerness of movement. Dancing, I thought. My father’s sharp skin scraped against the flaccid fish scales and there was a storm of motion as their flesh slapped against him. I was awed by these breathing wild bodies, my father’s and the fishes’. His hands sifted in and out of the net, working so fast that the rope seemed to disappear at his touch. He was a magician, an artist.

That night, little one, my father smiled over his soba noodles as he told my mother of my first fishing day. I’ll always remember how he could make his smile even graver than his frown. My father’s face was like an ax. His nose was small and blunt like the end of the wood handle, but his eyes struck at everything they landed on with heavy steel.

“Next fall, he will be ready for the dolphin hunt,” he said.

Concern loomed over my mother’s features and her lips moved in a small pattern of protest. “He is too young.”

“Too young for his heritage? Too young for tradition?” My father always spoke in mountains, building his tone into peaks in the air and stacking his words like boulders. “Too young to understand the reason for the food in front of him, his bed at night, his own flesh?” My mother bent her head and murmured something, a tender impulse at the end of her voice.

“Ah, you are on their side.”

I knew of whom he spoke. Two years before, more visitors had started coming to Taiji during the hunting season. They came in long buses filled with white cardboard squares that burst through the air like mad butterflies. Huge crowds followed my father and spoke to him in shoving tones while striking the butterfly signs in the air. “You Shame Japan,” they stormed. “Dolphin Slaughter!” I didn’t know, little one, what these words meant.

“Why do they hate you?” I asked my father once. He had come home glowering. The dolphin hunting had been cancelled that day due to a belligerent crowd.

“They believe that I treat the catch cruelly,” he answered. “They say that fishermen violate the laws of man and nature.”

“Is that true?” He paused, staring at me with his metal eyes. Finally, he spoke.

“Listen.”

I listened. I heard a chanting crowd right outside our door.

“Do you hear the beating of the waves?”

I could not, the crowd was too loud. I nodded.

“That beating is the pulse of our village. The fishermen spend every day on the sea, give it their lifeblood, and the sea draws it away. In the winter, the sea sends our blood back to us with the dolphins.” His voice sang the verse of his convictions, trembling in finality.

The next morning, when he called me to fish, I bounded awake. I was eager for the moment when I could see the joyful dance of the fish and my father again. But this morning, there was something different in my father’s face, a smoldering red look. I was frightened, little one, for I had only seen his face like this once before, during the first year of the protestors. One day, my mother and I had peered from the window as my father strode down the dusty street to the dock. The white signs swarmed on him as soon as he stepped out the door, battering the air around him all the way down to the road. My mother and I paced our rooms all day, less nervous about the protesters’ actions than what my father might do when cornered. When he returned very late that night, his face shone with that determined red gleam. This day, when he woke me to go fishing, he growled, “What your mother says does not matter. Today you are going to gut the fish.”

We stood on the wooden deck, the waves curling up and under us so that Taiji and its green hills swayed distantly. It was all as before, with me untangling the net and my father casting the dense grid over the waves. The boat sighed and shuddered, my father heaved at the crank, and the fish sprang up again and squirmed over the planks. Then, my father plucked a jumble of shivering scales up from the deck and held it out to me. His other hand clutched a knife. The fish’s skin flashed in the glare of my father’s red face as I took it from him.

There was a warm pulse in my father’s voice as he told me how to apply the knife to the fish’s gut. Its skin slid gently over my palm, like a fluid film. The fish’s cool body, still vital with life, arched and sank each time it breathed. I moved my knife to its stomach. Suddenly, I saw its eyes, which were foggy but with black centers that coruscated like the sheen of water. My blade hesitated, quivering above its smooth gut. For the first time, I wondered if my father was right about the meaning of the protestors’ signs. But then his face pressed closely on my own, his hand grasped mine, the knife pierced the fish, and it was done in a second.

Every morning thereafter, I went fishing with my father, and every morning, he told me to gut the catch. Soon, I stopped shuddering at the gleaming blade as it slid under eyes and skin. But when I watched those scales arch their light over the deck after the first net was pulled up, I no longer thought that the fish were dancing.

The next winter, I went to hunt dolphins. Little one, to hunt you. My father and I rose early, dressed ourselves in rubber, slipped into his boat. We wended our way through narrow channels that looked like arteries of rock, avoiding the view of the angry crowds that had already settled in layers over the beach. When we arrived at the hunting cove, my father sprang to help the other fishermen and I shuffled aside, watching. They placed bait in the crystal water, luring you. Your fins slid gently nearer, making small wakes that pleated together in the center of the cove. Your silver skin trembled under the dim morning sunlight.

Then, in a moment, everything changed. It was as though someone had placed a tinted lens over my eyes, so suddenly and completely did the world turn red. It molded thickly into impressions of waves, etched into the air, seeped like hot sickness into my lungs. The fishermen wanted their blood back from the sea. My father too, my father most of all. He launched into a flurry of harpoons and nets and he clawed, grasped, heaved like a fever at the dolphins’ limp rubber. He knew I was watching, and his beastly motions told me how he wanted me to gut a fish.

And then I heard it, a high scream inside the air, like the cold pierce of a harpoon. The dolphins’ cry. I called my father for help, I wanted to stop listening but I didn’t know how, and the scream was so completely a part of the air that if it stopped, so would my breath. I started to fall, called him again. There he was, below me in a skiff, perched on a tower of tight wet skin and staring at me. The fire in his eyes matched the roiling inferno of the waves and it choked the plea in my throat. This was no magician, no artist. This was a man insensible to hot suffering, a man enraged by my weakness and the weakness of his world, a man who now turned his head away from me in shame. It is strange and frightening, little one, to see something you love change before your eyes.

I ran away that night. I took a few coins that I had earned from small errands, three days’ worth of food, and the clothing on my back. Without a word to anyone, I slid into the night. Here was a place where there was no color and no noise and no division between man and fish and air and sea. Only black. I did not know why I was running away, little one, only that I had to rid myself of the red smell of dolphin flesh. I stayed in the darkness, sweeping my shadow between the bright planks of moon on the road. There was a low wind, and it scraped over my skin in rasps. Once, a light burst on in a nearby window and my black air shrank swiftly; the whole night recoiled from the sudden beam. I recoiled too, and have done so many times since. That is how I survived alone: shrink and recoil. I hid under a protest group’s bus, huddling by the tire and facing the sea. In the night, the space where the sea had been was nothing more than a ghastly void.

When the protestors awoke the next morning, I begged for a ride. They took me away, far away, so suddenly away from the sea. When my nostrils were emptied of the smell of wet flesh and my eyes no longer haunted by red, I longed to be home again, but it was too late. It does not matter what I have done since then, little one. I grew into the world at the age of nine. Now I have many lines on my face, but you see I have no look of my father.

One week ago, I picked up a newspaper from the region of Taiji, as I do from time to time, and saw an obituary for my father. When I came home for the funeral, I found that he had forbidden my mother to search for me while he lived. But he was happy, she said, to die where he grew up.

I took a stroll along the green, misty beach this morning to breathe in salt again. That’s when I found you, little one, huddled in the rusty corner of a boat, a forgotten catch. I cradle you and wait with you. Your eyes are almost all dried up now. I see your fins turn into legs and arms, I see the bare, sad song in your smile. You are the tragedy of the earth, little one, you are the wreck of a thing. But I am here now, rocking you against my beating chest. And there, a second…

About the Author


Rachel Carlson

Rice University

A junior studying environmental engineering and English at Rice University, Rachel Carlson is originally from Portland, Oregon.