Hours before the British surrendered, Japanese soldiers entered the school being used as a hospital at the front lines. They bayoneted wounded soldiers incapable of hiding, gang-raped the nurses, and mutilated every single person inside. Carcasses were left out like empty shells on the field.
The Japanese slept in fortresses built in Kowloon, in between villages like ours surrounding the border. They spared no one in their march through China. Is that why you came back?
From the jetty, I spotted your grey silhouette above the shallow tide. The sun had set. Black-faced spoonbills had flown off. Wind blew ripples into the water, peppering what was clear with little black dents that lined the smooth, blue surface. Cool air reminded me of the first time we met. The crickets stopped hissing and the crabs and mollusks had retreated back into their shells. You dove and fed from the seabed, hidden in the dark of the mangrove forest.
Do you remember that time you got caught in our nets? Our men tried hacking the ropes with dull knives and our women splashed water on all of you to stop the bleating.
I was a boy then, too weak to throw you off our boat, too scared to try. The low tide that year hurt us too. The oysters weren’t plump enough to sell; their flesh a third of the size of what they once were. Remember when my father cried out, “There’s a boy in here! One of the dugongs has eaten a boy!” Our men crowded around to see your pale face. I can recall those eyes even when I dream: forlorn, deep-set murky eyes like typhoon clouds so pregnant with water even sunlight could not penetrate through. We thought you were dead but then you opened your mouth and whistled a sound so shrill, we dropped everything to cover our ears. Your shell leapt back into the water, dragging nets and knives, but not the rest of your herd.
We buried them in the sand. Since then, our harvest started later and later every year. Some of us blamed the metal, some blamed the polluted water swept in from the Mainland, some of us blamed you. Larvae eventually settled on wooden posts planted across the tidal flat. We waited for our oysters to blossom but raked only barnacles. I thought if dugongs held little lives inside, why couldn’t oysters hold onto their worlds?
I heard drunken Japanese nearby, and knew they were coming. If they didn’t come now, they’d come tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine living beyond them—just like I couldn’t imagine our oysters dying, or your body in a dugong. My brother had gone to bed, right before my parents made love in their room. I left our front door open. Wading waist-deep into the tide, I brought my face down to hear you underwater holding my breath. At what point will we forgive ourselves for leaving? At what point do we join barnacles on their posts or hide in giant dugongs lost at sea?
Ploi Pirapokin’s work is featured in Tor.com, Apogee Journal, the Bellingham Review, Fiction International, HYPHEN Magazine, and more. She has received grants and fellowships from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Creative Capacity Fund, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Kundiman, and others. Ploi Pirapokin holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University.
Image credit: Wikipedia