I’ve always been good at reading the tides. My father taught me. From the moment I could walk he took me to the water and showed me how to fish. He was the best fisherman on the Trang Peninsula and, although I’m only a girl, I’ve inherited his gift. I’ve got his plain looks too.
After the big wave hit the shore nothing was the same. I had finished the long walk up the hill to meet Kai from school when the bird song stopped. The eerie silence was pierced by the scream of the siren. The wave didn’t reach us on the hill. We arrived home, hours later, to hell. Nothing was the same. The houses had disappeared, reduced to piles of wood or gone completely. The palm trees had toppled over as if they were matchsticks. Only the mangrove swamp remained. I shielded Kai’s eyes from the body parts which draped the battered branches of the remaining trees. It was as if the world had ended. Our world had. My parents were never found. We were on our own my little sister Kai and me.
You have to watch the ebb and flow of the water to know the exact moment to wade out into its depths. Time it right and you get a net full of writhing fish. Sometimes the water reaches my neck and the huge net I’m dragging becomes heavy, but my arms are strong and I never lose my footing. When the tide goes out the sand flats are laid bare displaying all kinds of marine life and rubbish – mostly plastic. I like to pick out anything useful. Once I found a cracked mirror glinting in the sun. I gazed at my reflection in the fractured light and saw the battle-scars of life with Taam. I slipped the mirror into my pocket. I’ve still got it, but I don’t look in it; not any more.
With the water gone, the mangrove roots appear in the muddy estuary, twisted and cavernous. It was a place I loved to play as a child. Now I sometimes think I hear the whispers of the dead, my father’s voice among them.
Taam knew I was good at fishing. That’s why he asked me to be his wife. So many of our people had been killed when the wave flattened our village. He needed me. He thought he was the perfect catch. There was no father to arrange my marriage. I had little choice – Taam knew that too. I thought I was strong enough to cope with him. I remember thinking that Kai and I would be safe with a man to protect us. At least I proved myself with my fishing skills and that seemed enough, at first. But, Taam wanted a son. And then the tide turned with the arrival of the tourists.
Now when Taam and I wade out into the sea, just before the sun sinks and bleeds orange into the water, we can see the big hotel. The faint clink of glasses is carried across the water as the rich European guests sip cocktails.
We watched the structure growing day by day, changing shape. Now, Taam watches the ladies as they stroll along the beach, their sun-kissed bodies in contrast to the bright colours of their tiny bikinis. I catch their scent on the wind and hear their laughter. I feel their eyes on my back. I know they take photos of me as I fish.
Kai works in the beauty parlour of the hotel. She’s pretty and just looking at her long dark hair and almond shaped face reminds me of our mother. Sometimes Kai rubs oil into the bruises on my body. The liquid smells sweet and eases the pain, at least for a while.
Kai is clever too. She brings me half her tips when she knows Taam isn’t around. I’ve seen the way he looks at her, like one of the village feral cats watching a mouse. Taam is still waiting for me to produce a child. He says I’m barren and he’s married the wrong sister. Kai’s all the family I have left. Taam doesn’t know about the money. I hide it in my sewing box. It will come in handy one day.
There used to be more fish in the sea. Now we barely catch enough for dinner let alone to sell. Our wooden house, which I helped build, sits on stilts overlooking the estuary on the opposite bank to the hotel. At night, when I mend the nets, I see the lights twinkling and hear the distant thud of music.
As the nylon fibres bite into my calloused hands I wonder what life would be like without Taam. He never helps with the repairs of the nets; he calls it woman’s work. Instead, each evening he disappears. He says he’s working, but I know he goes drinking. And I know what will happen when he returns.
I followed him last night to the local bar. I stood outside in the shadows and watched as he chatted to a group of young girls from the hotel. Then one of them stepped forward and handed him a bottle. She wore a gold dress cut low at the back, revealing the sharp bones of her shoulders. It was so different to the long sleeved cotton tunic I wear and I imagined the soft smoothness of the fabric against my skin.
As Taam and the girl walked away from the group his fingers crept across the delicate straps to the area of white skin, like a crab scuttling across the sand. She made no move to brush his hand away. I pulled back into the shadows, but not before I heard Taam tell her how well he knew the tides; how, if the moon was bright enough, you could dive and see pink corals clinging to the mangrove roots.
He came home long after midnight. As he crawled into bed I lay rigid, but he turned away and soon his drunken snores penetrated the darkness. He smelt of nicotine, but also of something else. I turned my head towards him and realised it was the scent of Frangipani flowers, like the fancy soap the guests use at the hotel and Kai sometimes gives me. He complains I smell of fish. I’ve learnt to bite my tongue, hide my bruises and bide my time.
I wake with the sunlight. Taam is gone. I am late. Hurriedly I dress and gather up the nets. He’s at the edge of the water and as I approach he flings a cigarette down and grinds it into the sand with the heel of his boot. I flinch as his hand comes towards me, but he merely adjusts my headscarf. We fish in silence for the rest of the day.
Later, when darkness has settled Taam whistles a tune as he moves around our hut. It’s a full moon tonight, which means the tide will be high – a perfect night for fishing. The water rushing into the estuary will be teeming with fish. I turn back to our simple room. In the flickering candle light Taam combs his hair with slow, measured movements. Our eyes meet. He smiles. He says nothing as he leaves the house and I watch from the door as he unties the canoe. Why hasn’t he asked me to go fishing with him?
I stand in the doorway as he disappears, whistling into the night. The reflection of the moon on the water makes it shimmer like fish scales. I go back indoors and there’s my sewing box, broken, the contents spewed over the bed. On hands and knees I pick through the detritus of the broken mirror and plastic treasures. The money has gone. I grab the mirror, make to fling it at the wall, but my reflection stops me. I peer more closely and Father’s eyes stare back. My father used to tell me stories, tales of sea princesses and monsters that came out of the mangrove forest on nights like these.
Slipping my bare feet into my rubber boots I gather up my nets, the coils still wet and heavy, and make my way to the water’s edge. High tides can be dangerous, but I can feel my father’s spirit as I follow a narrow path upriver and deeper into the mangrove forest. In the moonlight the trees look sinister, but I’m not frightened; this is my territory.
My feet sink into the mud and warm liquid fills my boots as I wade out into the inky depths. My clothes cling to my body and soon the water is lapping around my chest, but I know it won’t get any deeper. The current tugs at my legs and something brushes against my thigh. The water is alive with tiny fish, but they are too small to eat.
I usually set my nets in the same spot, but tonight I’m trying somewhere different. I make my way to the place where the mangrove roots form a deep cavernous pool and, if you’re brave enough, you can hold your breath and dive down to see the luminous colourful coral that hides there.
The nets secure, I wade back towards the bank and wait in the shadows, my heart thumping in my chest. I hear their laughter before I see them. The moon spills light over their naked bodies as they stand in the kayak clinging hold of each other for balance, laughing as they are rocked by the water. I watch transfixed.
Taam struts to the end of the canoe. He raises his arms high above his head then dives, his body making a perfect arc. His dark head breaks the surface of the water. He calls out to her. Her name is Natalie. After a few seconds she leaps from the boat, her small white breasts barely move. She surfaces with a shriek, which he silences with a kiss. Eventually, they pull apart.
They swim together deeper into the mangrove forest. Her hair, the colour of sun, streams out behind her as they head towards the nets. One tug is all it takes. Their shrieks of pleasure turn to screams of terror. I wade out to the boat. Taam’s clothes are in a pile at the bottom. My money is in his trouser pocket as I had known it would be. I free the vessel and watch as it is swept out to sea on the current. I turn away as the estuary continues to swell with water.
No one knows the tides like I do; not even Taam.