Wang T’o (born Wang Hung-chiu) is perhaps the most action-oriented writer of native Taiwan literature in the late 1970s. In his view, a writer’s duty is to “struggle for the realization of the ideal of a more just, equal, and enlightened society,” and contemporary literature should “give its strength for not only life and society, but also for the future.”
Wang T’o was born in 1944 to a poor fishing family in the village of Pa-tou-tzu near the major northern port of Keelung in Taiwan. Early experiences of class prejudice instilled in him a strong class consciousness. He came of age in a period when Taiwan had a rapidly developing economy and a relatively mobile society. Wang T’o was one of the few from his home town to receive a college education. After graduating in Chinese Literature from Taiwan Normal University, he taught in a junior high school in the then remote town of Hua-lien. Soon he grew dissatisfied with his destiny as an obscure country schoolteacher, so he began to travel around Taiwan and immerse himself in life. At this time he tried his hand at writing. Wang T’o’s consciousness of nationalism and sociopolitical activism was sparked by the Pao-Tiao Movement in the late 1960s, and was further fueled by changes in Taiwan’s status in the international arena in the 1970s. As Wang became more active politically, his writing, which had always been concerned with social injustice, became more activist and strident in tone. He has to his credit two collections of short stories, Chin-shui Shen and May He Return Soon (Wang chün tsao kuei), published in 1976 and 1977 respectively; a collection of political interviews entitled Voices outside the Party (Tang-wai te sheng-yin, 1978); and numerous essays on contemporary literature.
Wang T’o also was a lecturer in Chinese literature at the National University of Political Science in Taipei. He is currently serving a six year sentence following his arrest along with other political dissenters in December 1979. “May He Return Soon” is largely based on his child-hood experiences in a fishing village, and as such, is realistic and convincing in spite of its social mission.
AT NINE O’CLOCK in the morning the sun suddenly disappeared. Gloomy darkness descended on the earth. An aria from the Taiwanese opera “Wang Pao-ch’uan and Hsüeh P’ing-kuei”* blared from the radio in the living room. Grandma Chin sat on a stool by the doorway, listening to the opera while sewing a button on the school uniform for her third-grader grandson, Chia-hsiung. Bending down her head and holding the garment right under her spectacles, she was a picture of perfect concentration.
“Ma, with the sky so dark, how can you see without the light?” Her daughter-in-law Ch’iu-lan walked past her and out the front door, carrying a bucket of freshly washed clothes.
Grandma Chin tilted her head and shifted the garment around to face the light. Holding a needle in her right hand, she groped on the garment for a while, then pulled the needle and thread through.
“Curse it! What kind of September weather is this? This early in the morning and the sun’s gone out already, everything’s so dark. I can’t even see the needle to sew on a button.” She looked up. Ch’iu-lan had already carried the bucketful of clothes to the clothesrack in the front yard.
“Aiyo! How can you wash bedding in this kind of weather? They’ll never dry out!”
“Who could have known the sky would cloud over? Earlier this morning the sun was blazing like a fire,” Ch’iu-lan said, wringing out the wet sheet with both hands. She then spread it dextrously over the bamboo pole and tugged at the corners to smooth it out.
“In five or six days Wan-fu will be home. If I don’t wash them now, he’ll scold me again for lazing around the house,” she said.
“How dare Wan-fu scold you for being lazy? He isn’t exactly hardworking himself. I’ve never seen him pick up a broom or wash a bowl when he comes home, yet he has the nerve to say that others are lazy. He’s got a mouth to criticize others but not himself!”
“He works hard all day long on the boat. When he comes home he deserves a good rest. Things like sweeping and washing dishes are best left to us women. No reason why he should bother with them.” So Ch’iu-lan defended her husband.
“You’re right. What you said makes sense.” Grandma Chin felt comforted by her daughter-in-law’s words. She tied a knot in the thread and carefully broke it off with her teeth. She then folded up the garment, all the while muttering to herself, “That child Chiahsiung. He’s as wild as an ox. There aren’t even two buttons left on his uniform. God knows how he pulled them off.” She stood up, holding the uniform in both hands. Then suddenly she turned and asked Ch’iu-lan, “You say Wan-fu will be home in five or six days?”
“That’s right. They left port on the seventh. Today is the sixteenth. It’s been ten days already.”
“That’s about right, isn’t it?” Grandma Chin turned and walked into the house still muttering to herself, “I’m really getting muddle-headed. I can’t even remember how many days Wan-fu’s been at sea anymore.”
The opera suddenly stopped. A woman announcer came on, speaking Taiwanese in a crisp voice. “Emergency typhoon report. Packing powerful winds, typhoon Zola is three hundred kilometers west of Luzan Island. Due to southwest air currents, typhoon Zola has veered northeastward and is heading for the Taiwan Strait.”
Hanging up clothes outside the house, Ch’iu-lan suddenly felt her heart contract. She threw down the wet clothes, ran into the living room, and stood listening intently to the radio.
“The Weather Bureau issued a typhoon warning half an hour ago. Boats in the Taiwan Strait are advised to keep on the alert. Boats should prepare to go to the nearest harbor to avoid the typhoon.”
Ch’iu-lan turned off the radio and walked silently out the front door. All around was a deep gloom with not a speck of sunlight. Grandma Chin followed Ch’iu-lan out of the house, then said to her back, “Ch’iu-lan, is the opera over?”
“Another typhoon is coming,” Ch’iu-lan said weakly.
“Curse this September weather! A typhoon every three or five days! It’s clearly conspiring to make trouble for us people who eke out a living from the sea.”
Night descended gradually. Grandma Chin sat with the whole family in front of the radio in the living room listening to the broadcast. Several times she glanced at Ch’iu-lan, uneasily scrutinizing her face. At dinner, Ch’iu-lan had only swallowed a few mouthfuls. Her mother-in-law had urged earnestly, “Eat, you’ve got to eat a little more.” But Ch’iu-lan just brushed her aside, “I’m full. I can’t eat anymore.” Every time a typhoon came,Ch’iu-lan was always like this: unable to eat or sleep. Her behavior only deepened Grandma Chin’s own anxiety.
After the news broadcast came the weather report. Chia-hsiung yelled out, “I don’t want to hear anymore! I don’t want to hear anymore!”
Grandma Chin coaxed in a low, wheedling voice, “Chia-hsiung, behave. Don’t make a fuss. A typhoon is coming. Let’s listen to the weather report.” Her little granddaughter, Yü-chiao, had fallen asleep in Ch’iu-lan’s lap. Ch’iu-lan pursed her lips and gazed silently at the radio.
“Weather report on typhoon Zola. Strong southwesterly air currents have pushed typhoon Zola to two hundred kilometers southwest of the Banshi Channel, and it is picking up intensity. According to the Weather Bureau, barring unforeseen factors, Zola is due to enter the Taiwan Strait tomorrow afternoon. The typhoon center will land at Heng-ch’un at midnight tomorrow. The Department of the Interior has issued this statement: Regional typhoon emergency centers have been set up. All citizens should keep tuned for news of the typhoon’s progress and be on the alert at all times in order to minimize typhoon damage. Now, the fishing industry’s report: Туphoon Zola has increased wind velocity in the southeastern Taiwan seas to an average speed of grade twelve to fourteen …”
Hugging the child to her bosom, Ch’iu-lan stood up and walked silently toward the bedroom. Grandma Chin gazed after her retreating figure, shook her head, and sighed. She then got up and snapped off the radio. Chia-hsiung immediately began wailing, “I’m still listening! I’m still listening! Why did you turn it off?”
Grandma Chin scowled. “How can you be so naughty! Can’t you see that Mommy is upset? Don’t be such a nuisance at a time like this,” she scolded.
“I still want to listen some more,” Chia-hsiung grumbled, looking sullenly at his grandmother.
“The hell with your listening. We don’t even know what’s happening with your father out at sea, and here you want to keep listening to the radio.” Grandma Chin tugged at him. “Come along. Come along. Go to bed. Big people are really worried . . . and you want to keep listening to the radio. Only bad children are like that.”
Ch’iu-lan came striding angrily into the living room and scolded him loudly. “You think no one here dares to give you a beating, don’t you? You don’t listen when people talk nicely to you. In a minute I’m going to beat you until you crawl like a dog.”
At this Chia-hsiung finally stood up. He pouted as if suffering from a grave injustice. Dragging his feet he went off slowly to the bedroom muttering to himself, “So I’ll go to bed. What’s the big deal?”
Grandma Chin followed him with her gaze. Shaking her head she said tender-heartedly, “That child. He just doesn’t listen to reason.” Then she turned to Ch’iu-lan, “You ought to go to bed a little early too. No need to be so upset. This isn’t the first time Wan-fu has gone out to sea. Hasn’t he come back safely every time there’s been a typhoon? You’re just getting yourself all worked up for nothing.”
Ch’iu-lan did not respond. She stood stiffly and watched Chia-hsiung’s back disappear through the bedroom door. Then she walked after him.
Grandma Chin gazed at Ch’iu-lan’s bedroom and heaved a sigh. Then she picked up a bunch of incense from the red wooden table in the living room. Lighting a candle she bowed reverently to the gods on the altar table and prayed quietly for Wan-fu’s safety. She then bowed to the ancestral tablets. After she had completed this ritual, she retired to her own bedroom, leaving the two candles burning. Through the wind-whistling night, from their stations on the altar table, the austere countenances of the gods and the dim ancestors looked through the flickering candles into the pervasive silence.
Ch’iu-lan lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling with her wide-open eyes. The distant howling of the wind and the roaring of the waves pounded on her ears. It was already midnight, but she was still being kept awake by an unconquerable anxiety. Over and over again she comforted herself with her mother-in-law’s words: “This isn’t the first time Wan-fu has gone out to sea. Hasn’t he come home safely every time there’s been a typhoon?”
And yet, the voice from the radio echoed repeatedly in her mind, “Emergency typhoon alert . . . Emergency typhoon alert.”
She turned irritably on her side. Just then she saw that Chiahsiung, who was asleep on the bottom bunk against the wall, had kicked off his blanket. He was lying flat on his back, with his tummy exposed. His breathing was coming in wheezes. She considered getting up, but her head felt heavy and her limbs didn’t want to move. She hesitated. Chia-hsiung’s wheezing breath finally got to her, forcing her to get up and go over to his bedside. She pulled up his pants, tucked his shirt in, and gently pulled the blanket up over him. Then she tiptoed back to her own bed.
“You’ve been married almost ten years already. How come you are still so nervous about this? Wan-fu’s no child. Whenever a typhoon comes you go crazy worrying about him. You practically stop eating and sleeping. You’re only being ridiculous.”
Her mother-in-law had teased her this way many times, but only because her mother-in-law was fond of her. Ch’iu-lan knew that Wan-fu was no child. Since he had been a boy he had been out to sea with his father, and for all his life he had eked out a living fromfishing. There was no reason for her to worry. Yet every time a typhoon came, she felt as if her heart were hung up on tenterhooks. Wan-fu had told her he didn’t like for her to be like this. He teased her about being so neurotic. But . . .
“Aiee.” She lay on the bed and sighed. She thought of the first time her marriage to Wan-fu was discussed. Her parents had said to her, “Anybody who chooses the route of a sea fisherman puts half his life in the clutches of the Sea Dragon God. You are putting your whole future on the line. Wan-fu’s a good man, but you’d better think this over carefully.”
No, it wasn’t that she regretted her decision to marry Wan-fu. It was just that from the outset she had been determined to get him to change his occupation. But already ten years had gone by and he was still a fisherman. She was annoyed and somewhat angry with him. They had argued about it many times. He would always say, “I’ve been a fisherman since I was a kid. It’s the only thing I’m good at. You think I can change jobs just like that? Well, it’s easier said than done. We’re not kids playing house who can quit whenever they feel like it. If I leave the sea how will I support the family? What will we all eat?”
With his kind of reasoning, she could never win. But . . .
Aiee. Why doesn’t he show any consideration for those who worry about him and suffer over him?
Waves of aching swelled in her chest. Tears trickled down her temples. She felt all alone. In the deep of night with a typhoon approaching, how she wished that Wan-fu were lying safely by her side. She wouldn’t mind it even if they had to endure greater hardship and poverty.
“When Wan-fu comes back this time he’ll have to find another job no matter what.” So she told herself as she lay on the bed. The howling of the wind and the distant roaring of the waves sounded like a dirge, singing of the bitter life of the fisherman.
By early next morning, the wind and waves had intensified. The tall foaming breakers outside the harbor could be seen from the window. Ch’iu-lan made breakfast for Chia-hsiung and got him off to school. Then she did the wash. By now it was already past nine o’clock. Her daughter, Yü-chiao, was still fast asleep. Ch’iu-lan looked over at Grandma Chin, who was combing her hair.
“Ma, look after Yü-chiao for me, will you? When she wakes up be sure to put some extra clothes on her. It’s really windy out there. I’m going to Wan-fu’s company to find out what’s going on.”
“You really are one to worry. Wan-fu’s been captain of his boat for almost five years now. Whenever there’s a typhoon warning he always rushes back before anybody else. How could anything happen to him?” Grandma Chin cocked her head to one side. Too occupied with coiling the bun on the back of her head to notice that Ch’iu-lan had gone out the door, she continued garrulously, “Since you love to worry, go ahead and ask around at the company, that’ll at least set your heart at ease.”
Their house was on a mound behind a row of houses right up the street from Wan-fu’s company. Directly opposite the company was the fish market, while the Fishermen’s Union office was cater cornered. From the front door of their house one could see the bustie of pedestrians and cars up and down the street and, just a bit beyond, the two breakwaters of Keelung harbor extending out like pincers. When Ch’iu-lan was pregnant with Chia-hsiung she liked to accompany Wan-fu to the docks to see him off when he was putting out to sea. But after Chia-hsiung was born, she stopped seeing him off. For one thing, she had become more tied down; and for another, the fellows on Wan-fu’s boat teased them about it, saying that they wore the same pair of pants and that was why they couldn’t be apart. She’d always lived in the city, so she felt no embarrassment at this kind of joking and even found it rather amusing. But Wan-fu would get all flustered. He told her that this just wasn’t done and that it really put him on the spot. She concluded that Wan-fu objected to her seeing him off. Peeved, she stopped going to the harbor with him. However, she would still stand by the window in her house and watch the boats going in and out of the harbor. When she could vaguely make out the name, “Hua Feng I,” on Wan-fu’s boat, she would gaze after it as it sailed out of the harbor and faded into the vast sea.
Ch’iu-lan opened her umbrella, but the strong wind blew it around wildly even though she was hanging on to it with both hands. She gave up and pulled the umbrella shut. The slanted weave of the rain beat down mercilessly on her. She smoothed her hair back with her hand and ran down the steps.
When she reached the company’s front door, her nostrils were assailed by the odor of engine oil mixed with that of rancid fish. The office was completely deserted. Coils of thick rope were piled on one side. On the large blackboard against the wall was written the name of each company boat with its departure and arrival times. Ch’iu-lan quickly scanned the blackboard for Wan-fu’s boat. Only the departure time had been recorded. She looked at the names of the other boats and saw that some had already returned. Her heart suddenly sank, and a sense of foreboding filled her. But then in the next instant she reprimanded herself, “How can I think like this? Nothing is going to happen. Nothing is going to happen.”
She called loudly into the inner office, “Anyone here?” She waited for a minute, but no response came. She felt slightly annoyed and grumbled to herself, “How come there’s not a soul here?”
She waited a bit longer. Just as she was about to leave, a tall thin man suddenly emerged. “Who’s there?” he asked.
Ch’iu-lan rushed over to him, “Lin, it’s me.”
“Oh. So it’s Mrs. Wang. Come sit down,” he said.
“With such a terrific typhoon, fierce wind and waves and all, I wonder what’s happened to Wan-fu’s boat.”
“The Hua Feng I and II should be just fine. They cabled us yesterday that they’re already enroute home. You can set your mind at rest. Go home, eat well, and get some good sleep. Everything will be OK,” Lin said. “It’s well known in Keelung that Wan-fu is very cautious. You can rest assured, Mrs. Wang.”
“If it’s like you say, I won’t worry anymore,” Ch’iu-lan said with a short laugh. “I was just afraid he’s too stubborn, that he won’t think about sailing to safety until the storm is right over his head.”
“No way. I can’t say the same for the others, but I wouldn’t be worried about Wan-fu. He always starts back first when a typhoon is on its way.”
“But …” Ch’iu-lan looked at the records on the blackboard and felt her worry rise up again. She knit her brows and, pointing at the blackboard, said, “The others’ boats have come back already. But the Hua Feng I and II … ”
“Oh, you’re talking about the records on the blackboard. They’re not a hundred percent accurate either. Each pair of trawlers works in a different area. Some are pretty close to Keelung harbor and others are far off. This time, the Hua Feng I and II were working in the Bashi Channel. They couldn’t have gotten back to Keelung harbor so soon,” Lin smiled. “Mrs. Wang, just relax. I’ll guarantee that Wan-fu’s OK. He’s probably in Kaohsiung drinking beer and playing games with the crew right now. Why worry so much about him?” After listening to Lin, Ch’iu-lan felt less anxious.
“I guess you’re right. It’s too early to start worrying. Everyone should be OK, as you say.” She thanked him repeatedly and left.
The street was drenched. Cars cruising by splashed up sheets of muddy water, making the whole street seem even filthier. Small groups of fishermen, wearing knee-high boots and stinking of fish hurriedly worked their way up to the street carrying bundles of rope and boxes of fish.
So this time Wan-fu had gone to work in the Bashi Channel. No wonder his boat was slower than the others in getting back. But didn’t the radio broadcast say that the typhoon was coming up from the Bashi Channel? And if the typhoon came up so suddenly, could he have escaped in time?
Uneasiness began gnawing in her chest. If the boat had sailed to Kaohsiung harbor, the company would undoubtedly know by now. The boat company has always kept a watchful eye on the where abouts of each boat. The radio dispatcher would have cabled back a report. Why hadn’t Lin mentioned this?
Ch’iu-lan suddenly stopped in her tracks. But she caught up her own thoughts, and again reassured herself, “If the boat really had an accident, Lin wouldn’t have been so offhand about it. He was laughing and joking . . . An accident is a serious matter after all.”
She calmed down a bit, but suspicion still weighed on her heart. She considered going back to the company and really clearing this thing up for herself. But she was afraid they would think she was a nuisance and laugh at her for being neurotic. Don’t bother then? That too left her feeling uneasy. Her mind seesawed back and forth as she bowed her head and walked slowly on. When she had already reached the stone steps leading to her house, she finally made up her mind: she turned around and walked back to the company.
This time, Lin wasn’t there. The only person there was the accounting girl who had just returned from the bank. She said that Lin had gone to the fish market. As for the whereabouts of the boats, she knew absolutely nothing.
The noise of people and cars swirled together in a vast, confused hubbub in the fish market. Fishermen were carrying boxes of fish from the boat at the dock to the auction ground. Some boxes were being transported on conveyor belts directly from the dock to freezer lockers. Competing voices blared from megaphones, quoting the prices, “Eighteen dollars. Twenty-five dollars.” Occasionally a loud curse or a vulgar joke rose above the din. Although Ch’iu-lan had been to the market many times before, she could never get used to the thick, fishy smell and the confused uproar. Ch’iu-lan looked around in the crowd, hoping to catch sight of Lin or one of Wan-fu’s friends. At the same time she had to be on guard to dodge the men carrying boxes of fish in order to avoid being knocked down by one of them.
The bay was jam-packed with boats. One by one Ch’iu-lan scrutinized the name of each boat, Man Fu, Ch’ing Feng, Lung Ta, Fu Hua. . . . Some boats were right up against the dock. The rest were lined up row upon row extending out from the dock. Thick steel cables, fastened securely to the round moorings on the dock, lashed the boats together.
“Wan-fu’s wife!”* Suddenly someone called her from one side. Ch’iu-lan turned and saw that it was K’un-huo, a fellow who had once worked on the same boat with Wan-fu. A towel was tied around his head. He wore cotton gloves as he pulled on a steel cable.
“K’un-huo, have you seen Wan-fu’s boat?”
“No. We just got into the harbor ourselves. We didn’t see any boats behind us either. The typhoon really came on fast this time. As soon as we heard the alert we pulled our nets in and made a dash for it. We almost didn’t make it.”
“I wonder if anything has happened to Wan-fu.” Ch’iu-lan said.
“No, nothing would go wrong with Wan-fu . . . he’s always been very careful,” K’un-huo reassured her. “Have you gone over to ask at the boat company yet?”
“They also said there would be no problem, but . . .”
“Well, if the company says so, then you needn’t worry. Wan-fu’s very cautious.”
As Ch’iu-lan left the fish market, her heart felt more troubled than ever. By the time she got home it was almost noon. Holding Yü-chiao in her arms, Grandma Chin rushed out to meet her.
“How come you went off for so long? When Yü-chiao woke up she was crying and calling for you. I couldn’t get her to stop. I can’t make sense out of her babble. It’s driving me crazy.”
When Yü-chiao saw her mother she immediately reached out her little arms and cried, “Hug mommy. Hug mommy.”
Ch’iu-lan took the child into her arms. Grandma Chin asked at once, “What’s happened? Is Wan-fu’s boat all right?”
Not a sound came from Ch’iu-lan’s throat. Hugging the child tightly to her bosom she slumped into a chair. She looked exhausted. Grandma Chin sat down opposite her, gazing at her intently, waiting for a response. After an uneasy pause Ch’iu-lan finally said, “Everything is going to be all right. Lin from over at the company said they’ve already gone to Kaohsiung to sit out the storm.”
Grandma Chin’s face broke out in a smile. Deep wrinkles crinkled up at the corners of her eyes. Her voice perked up. “See. Didn’t I tell you? Wan-fu’s no child. He’s been fishing since he was just a kid, and even studied at the Maritime Institute. He’s also been a captain for many years now. He doesn’t need you to get all anxious over him.”
Ch’iu-lan just sat in the chair, totally unaware of the child wriggling around in her hap. Her eyes gazed vacantly out the window at the waves and mist being whipped up by the wind outside the harbor. She thought of the typhoon, of Wan-fu’s boat, of what Lin and K’un-huo had said, of the boats that had already returned to the harbor . . . Everything fell into a jumble.
The night gradually deepened; the room had grown pitch black, so black that one couldn’t even see the fingers of one’s own out stretched hand. Ch’iu-lan clutched a quilt as she sat on her bed, head down on her knees, listening to the wind howling over the roof. The door and the windows shook and clattered incessantly, punctuated intermittantly by the creaking and crackling of the timbers. The whole earth was quaking violently under the onslaught of the typhoon.
Even though Ch’iu-lan was exhausted, she tossed and turned about, unable to fall asleep. She heaved a sigh and reached out to stroke the two children by her side. On this stormy night, she was afraid that Chia-hsiung would catch cold if he kicked off his blanket, so she made him sleep by her. This boy, who had inherited his father’s features, was a little wild. He was so mischievous that he even gave his teachers headaches. Wan-fu often said this was because Ch’iu-lan had spoiled him. She maintained that, to the contrary, it was because Wan-fu was never home to discipline him. She used this as another argument to get Wan-fu to quit his work on the boat and find a different kind of job. That way, she said, he would be able to spend a little more time bringing up his children.
However, he would always give her the same retort, “My abilities lie entirely in the kind of work I’m doing now. If I left my work on the sea, what do I have to compete with others for a job on land? I have to think about our family. How will I feed five or six mouths?
Aiee. When Wan-fu came home this time, he would have to change his job, no matter what. Ch’iu-lan was lost in thought. She was dead tired. Finally she dozed off into a fitful sleep.
Suddenly she woke up. Still groggy, she thought she heard someone knocking at the door shouting “Ch’iu-lan! Ch’iu-lan!”
Her heart gave a start. In a flash she sat up in bed. “Wan-fu’s back,” she thought.
Without even taking the time to light a match, she jumped out of bed. Groping in the darkness she stumbled out of the bedroom and went to the front door. In a tremulous voice she asked, “Who is it? Who’s there?”
She pressed her ear to the door and listened. She heard only the moan of the wind. She raised her voice, “Who is it? Who’s there?”
She waited. Again no one responded. She hesitated a moment.
Then, trembling all over, she pulled the door open a crack. A blast of icy wind shot straight through to her heart. With a whoosh the candle on the altar table was extinguished. Her heart sank at once. She shut the door and her head slumped against the wood. Irrepressible tears flowed steadily down her face.
The typhoon passed over. One after another, most of the fishing boats had gone back out to sea. News that the pair of trawlers Hua Feng I and Hua Feng II were missing spread rapidly through Keelung Harbor and the surrounding area. The families of the missing crew members from such villages as Nantzuliao, Aoti, Shenaok’eng, Patoutzu, and Pachihmen all drifted to the fishing company. Old and young, men and women, all crowded into the main office of the fishing company inquiring anxiously after the fate of their kinsmen.
“Nothing has gone wrong. Everyone please calm down and go home. Get some good food and rest.” Lin tried in vain to pacify the families that continued milling about the office, unwilling to leave. “The boats have temporarily lost touch with the company. We’re trying to track them down. We’ve already cabled every harbor. We should be getting some information soon. Everybody please calm down. There is absolutely nothing to worry about.”
“What’s the use of cabling! How could they have lost contact if they’re safely at anchor in another harbor? It’s pretty clear they’re still at sea and didn’t make it to safety, otherwise, the company would surely know where those boats are.”
An old man, his face a mass of wrinkles and his head wrapped up in a piece of cloth, said in a voice quivering with urgency, “I’ve worked on boats myself for half a century. I’m no three-year-old child. You guys had better send boats and planes out immediately to search. That’s what you should do. You won’t find a goddamn thing by sitting in your office sending cables.”
“That’s right. God damn it! The lives of twenty-some men are at stake here and you just pussyfoot around sending out cables. You had goddam better send people out there to search right away.” A man wearing a farmer’s hat, his face contorted with anger, roared out, “You don’t give a damn for the lives of other people’s sons! You act as though this is nothing!”
“Now, now. How could the company take people’s lives so lightly? We’ve already asked all the other boats in the area to keep a lookout. How can you say no one has been sent out to search?” Lin said.
“What’s the use of asking the other boats? You couldn’t even fool a three-year-old child! Other people’s boats don’t eat your food or get your money. Why should they bother to search for you? Even a half-brained idiot can see that!”
“That’s right! You’ve got to send people out to search immediately, not just sit on your ass in the office!”
“Our whole family with five or six mouths to feed depends on our one man to get by. Where’s your conscience? You can’t just brush the matter off this lightly,” Grandma Chin chimed in.
The crowd became stirred up. People began to grumble and clamor. Suddenly a person standing by the door shouted out excitedly, “Yung-fu is coming!”
That caught everyone’s attention. All eyes swung to the street outside the doorway. “Where? Where is Yung-fu?”
“There. Isn’t that him?” The person by the door pointed out into the street. They saw a sturdy thirtyish man of medium build striding firmly across the street. He approached the doorway of the fishing company.
“OK. Let’s wait for Yung-fu to get here, then we’ll really talk business with Lin,” everyone said.
As Lin glanced through the doorway into the street, his expression suddenly darkened.
Ch’iu Yung-fu was an employee of the Keelung Fisherman’s Union. He had joined the Union almost eight years ago, after graduating from the Maritime Institute and doing his stint in the army. When he was in junior high school, his father had been the captain of a trawler that was lost in a particularly severe typhoon. The fate of its crew remained unknown. At the time, Yung-fu’s mother and older brother took him along to the boat company. There they joined the families of the other crew members. They all milled about blubbering and weeping. The fishing company put them off by saying that the whereabouts of the trawler was temporarily unknown and that they had to wait until more accurate information was available before a settlement meeting with the families could be convened. In this manner, the affair dragged on, and it had dragged on for fifteen years now. The company had, in fact, not only failed to pay a bereavement settlement but also had not paid any other form of compensation. Out of sheer helplessness the families swallowed their grief and accepted their fate. Unable to collect and galvanize their anger and grief to make any demands on the company, they went their separate ways. Since then Yung-fu’s mother had depended on their small sundries store to support the family. Through much belt-tightening she had managed to keep the family together and to raise him and his older brother’s whole family. Each time Ch’iu Yung-fu thought back on that affair, deep down in his heart he blamed his mother and older brother for their weakness in dealing with it.
“Goddamn! We let them off the hook too easily!” he would often say.
Ch’iu Yung-fu had inherited his father’s sturdy physique and was a born sailor. In studying at the Maritime Institute, he was, consciously or unconsciously, paying a memorial to his father. However, when he graduated from the Institute his mother firmly opposed his going to work on a boat.
With tears streaming down her face, his mother had entreated him, “You and your brother are the only ones left in the Ch’iu family. What if you too have some kind of disaster at sea? I’ve suffered half my life over your father’s fate. How could you take the same route as your father and make me suffer for the rest of my life?”
Thus, Ch’iu Yung-fu was forced to remain on land. When he first started working at the Fisherman’s Union, he saw with his own eyes the consequences of sea disasters. The crew members’ families, the old and the young, would come crying to the Fisherman’s Union seeking help. However, the Fisherman’s Union was, for the most part, a puppet of the company bosses. It was the tool by which the bosses mollified the families. When Yung-fu saw this, the anger that had been smoldering in him since his father’s death flared up. However, nobody paid any attention to the objections of an inexperienced youth who had just begun working in the Union. At first he could do nothing but swallow his anger. But the more he saw, the more his understanding and wisdom developed. He came to regard the hardship of the fishermen as his own. He exerted himself on their behalf and gradually won their respect and support. This enabled him to become a spokesman for the fishermen and to fight for their rights and welfare. Especially in negotiating financial settlements for sea disasters, he spared no effort in helping the bereaved kinsmen devise strategies. And during negotiations, he often led protests against the tactics of the boat companies. Although he seldom emerged the victor in these struggles, no one could deny that the companies had become much less ruthless in settling sea disasters with the Fishermen’s Union than they had been ten or twenty years ago. They could no longer walk all over the fishermen. As a result, there wasn’t a single company boss who did not detest him to the bone. Rumor had it that four years ago the bosses of several fishing companies jointly exerted pressure on the president of the Union to fire Ch’iu Yung-fu. However, the Union president was afraid of incurring the wrath of the fishermen and didn’t dare fire him. There were also several fishing companies that had wanted to give him the title of “consultant” or some other kind of immaterial office. He would have received a substantial monthly subsidy. They hoped that he would thereby at least not stand against the boat companies. However, Ch’iu Yung-fu could not be budged.
This time a nephew of his was on the crew of one of the lost Hua-feng trawlers. Yung-fu’s mother—the boy’s grandmother—had been all worked up for the past several days. With a runny nose and tear-filled eyes, she berated him, “He’s just a boy of sixteen. His voice hadn’t even changed completely. How could you be so cruel? You didn’t teach him to study hard. Instead you told him stories about the sea and got him all excited so that he signed on with the crew of a fishing boat. He was a perfectly good kid until you . . . Damn you! You deserve hell for this!”
His grandfather’s sea-faring blood had flowed in the nephew’s veins. Since he had been a small child the boy had shared his grandfather’s passion for the sea, for a life of battling the wind and the waves. Although he was only sixteen, he was already as tough as an ox. He never took a liking to books, but dreamed about sailing on the open sea. Yung-fu and this nephew had always hit it off well. Perhaps out of his own frustrated passion for the sea, Yung-fu had encouraged the boy. He had even gone so far as to help him sweet-talk and convince his grandmother.
Now that something had happened to the Hua Feng I and II, Ch’iu Yung-fu was more worried and upset than anyone else. As everyone watched, he strode ashen-faced through the doorway. People rushed up to him and asked, “What’s happened? Is there any news?”
“We don’t know anything yet. I hope the boats are safe.” He forced a smile to put everyone at ease. Then, glaring at Lin who was sitting behind a desk, he asked, “What the hell is your company planning to do? So far you haven’t done a goddamn thing! You haven’t sent out a single boat or plane to search. You’ve got the lives of twenty some-crew members here and you guys are sitting around as if nothing has happened.”
“Yung-fu. How can you say such a thing? It’s not that I’m unwilling to do something. It’s just that the boss hasn’t arrived yet. I’m powerless to make any decisions.” Lin spread out his hands in exasperation, as if he were a helpless victim, wrongly accused. “What’s more, a typhoon of grade thirteen-fourteen . . . Anything smaller than an aircraft carrier wouldn’t hold up. What’s the use of sending out boats and hiring planes? It would all be for nothing!”
“Hey, hey, Lin. What the hell are you saying? You dress like a man but you’re talking like a shit-eating dog.” It was Bonshi* the woman fish dealer who spoke. She was built like a tall husky man and had a sharp, resonating voice. At the market, she jostled with the men to get the first shot at the newly arrived catch. In bargaining she was second to no man. Her younger brother was also on one of the Hua Feng’s trawlers. Listening to Lin speak, she couldn’t keep from bursting out at him. “There are twenty-some human lives on those two boats. Their young ones and old ones are so worried their hearts are about to burst. And you have the nerve to say that sending boats and planes out to search is a waste of time. You’re not made of flesh and blood! You must have grown up on shit! Even a pig or a dog is more human than you!”
Her anger aroused now, Grandma Chin pointed a trembling finger at Lin.
“Lin, how can you say what you just did? You haven’t got a conscience! You’ve always been so chummy with our Wan-fu, and now you act like nothing is the matter, and you even have the nerve to talk that way! Heaven and earth won’t let you get away with this!”
“Haiya. That’s not what I meant. You all don’t understand.” Lin wanted to explain but he had no idea what he could say. He was sitting in his chair, shaking his head, with a nervous bitter smile on his ashen green face. His exasperated expression was that of a helpless victim of false accusations.
“What’s the use of yelling at me over and over? I’m not the boss. I just work for him and get my pay. The boss hasn’t come in yet. What can I do?”
“There’s no point in talking to a lackey of the rich,” Bonshi said to the crowd. Then she knocked on Lin’s desk with her knuckles. “Lin, where’s your boss? Get him out here. He doesn’t even pop his head in for something as major as this. That’s really going too far!”
“How do I know where the boss is? I was hired to work for him, not to keep an eye on him,” Lin said defensively.
“What nerve you have passing the buck at a time like this. Everybody knows that your boss has entrusted you with the management of the company, down to the smallest detail,” Ch’iu Yung-fu said in a sober emotional voice. “Think of your father who made a living as a fisherman and brought you up. He suffered the same hardships as all fishermen. Now that you’ve become the manager of a fishing company, you seem to have forgotten all that.”
Lin’s greenish face dodged Ch’iu Yung-fu’s piercing gaze. He said weakly, “I really can’t do anything. I really can’t do anything.”
“Damn it! Talk gets you nowhere when you’re dealing with an ingrate who turns his back on his roots.” Suddenly someone brawled out, “Give the scum a good beating, it’s the only thing he’ll understand.”
The angry voice had its effect on the crowd. The mood became ugly. Lin paled and turned to Ch’iu Yung-fu. He asked timorously, “Why get so violent? We can handle this in a civil way.”
“You must know how the families feel. You can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen,” Ch’iu Yung-fu said. “You can’t wait until a house has burned down to put out the fire. You’ve got to rent a plane and begin searching right away.”
“The boss hasn’t given any instructions. I really don’t have the authority to decide …”
“Fuck your mother! You’re talking in circles. You’re the manager, and yet you say you don’t have the authority to decide. You mean your position as manager is all a hoax?”
“Don’t reason with him anymore. Beat him up first and then let’s see if he’ll talk sense.”
Tension was running higher and higher. Angry voices, curses, and shouts frothed up like the waves in the ocean. Lin stood up and implored Ch’iu Yung-fu with a timid expression.
“Please everyone, cool down a bit! Cool down a bit please!” Ch’iu Yung-fu faced the angry crowd and shouted over the uproar. He restrained a middle-aged man who was making a rush for Lin.
At this moment, a black sedan pulled up at the entrance to the boat company. Lin looked as if he had just seen his savior. He rushed out, calling out excitedly, “The boss is here!”
All eyes followed Lin as he rushed up to the sedan outside the door. They saw a squat, balding, middle-aged man sitting in the car. Over his round pot-bellied body he wore a spanking Western suit. Sticking his head out the window, he greeted Lin.
“How goes it? Any news?”
“There’s still no news, sir,” Lin said obsequiously.
The crowd came pouring out the door and surrounded the car. In great commotion they pressed in. “Hey boss. What’s happened to the boats? You’ve got to give us an answer!”
“How’s the company going to deal with this? You’ve got to tell us. This is a serious matter. Putting it aside as if it’s nothing is going a little too far, don’t you think?”
The boss surveyed the crowd surrounding his car.
“What do these people want?” he asked Lin.
“These are the families of the Hua Feng crews. They’ve come to inquire about those boats.” In a low voice Lin spoke into the boss’s ear. “They’re making a row because they want the company to hire boats and planes to go out and search. They’re getting vicious, even threatening to punch and kill …”
“Get a grip on yourself. Here, I’ll tell you how to deal with this.” He whispered some advice into Lin’s ear.
“Yes sir,” Lin said obsequiously. “You’re not going to come in and sit awhile?”
“There’s too much of a crowd. There may be trouble with me here. I’ll leave it to you to cope with it.”
“Mr. Chen,” Ch’iu Yung-fu took several strides toward the car and called loudly, “I’ve got a nephew on one of the Hua Feng crews too. I represent all the families of the crew members in asking you what the company intends to do. The typhoon has passed, but nothing has been done to search for the missing boats, not a boat or plane has been sent out. What after all . . .”
“Don’t worry Mr. Ch’iu.” The boss’s round, flabby face broke into a grin. In a smooth voice he said, “Just now in Taipei, I tele-phoned the air force and requested them to send planes out to search. I don’t think anything serious has happened. The boats are probably just temporarily out of contact.”
“Really?” Ch’iu Yung-fu looked askance at the boss and asked suspiciously, “I’ve just come from the Fishermen’s Union, and I called to ask …”
“The planes probably haven’t taken off yet,” the boss said cutting Ch’iu Yung-fu short. He added nervously, “I’ll have Lin call again in a little while to make sure they get moving on it. I’ve entrusted everything to Lin. If you’ve got something, talking to him is as good as talking to me.”
“OK. You’re the one who said it.” Ch’iu Yung-fu wheeled about and faced Lin. “Lin, you heard what your boss said, didn’t you?”
Even before Ch’iu Yung-fu finished speaking the fishing company boss hurriedly started up his engine.
“Hey, hey! You’re going to leave us like this? Nothing has been resolved yet,” everyone began shouting.
However, the boss paid no attention to them. Sticking his head out of the window, he exhorted Lin, “Do as I told you.”
People cursed after the car as it sped away, “Damn you slick talker! You haven’t cleared up a damn thing and you take off just like that!”
All this while Ch’iu-lan was leaning against the wall, with Yü-chiao on her back. Sitting down beside her was Grandma Chin. Throughout the whole confrontation with the boss, Ch’iu-lan had only listened in silence, her eyes red. Grandma Chin kept wiping away her tears, and occasionally she turned to those next to her, telling them how good her son was and what good care he took of his family. “He’s our family’s only able-bodied man. We all depend on him to live. The goddess Ma-tsu* couldn’t be so blind.” As she said this tears welled up in her eyes again. But then her faith in Ma-tsu soon restored her strength. She turned her face up to comfort Ch’iu-lan, “Everything will be all right. Ma-tsu will look after him. Whenever Wan-fu goes out to sea, he takes the Ma-tsu talis-man with him. He’ll be all right.”
However, these words of comfort had a contrary effect on Ch’iu-Ian. The tears that had welled up in her eyes began to course down her face.
Five days after the typhoon had passed, the sun was blazing a fiery orange in the sky. The families of the boat crews had congregated in the corridor of the Fishermen’s Union office building. As before, they were asking each about news of the boats, sighing helplessly, shaking their heads, and consoling each other endlessly. Just then, Ch’iu Yung-fu came walking down the corridor; his eyes were red, and his expression was full of anguish.
Ch’iu-lan immediately felt a sense of foreboding. Her heart felt as if a metal hammer had just pounded on it. A booming sounded in her ears, and her limbs went cold and limp. The walls around her seemed to be crashing down, mercilessly crushing her. By the time she got a grip on herself she could hear the anguished, heart rending cry of a woman. The sound of muffled sobbing surrounded her. People from all sides surrounded the woman who was wailing uncontrollably, but she was lost in a world of her own, oblivious to those around her. Hugging one of her children she doubled over, shrieking her husband’s name, “Ah-huo, Ah-huo!” The child on her back was asleep, but the three boys by her side, frightened by their mother’s wails, began to sob fearfully, “Papa. Papa. Papa.”
Grandma Chin stood to one side and held Chia-hsiung’s hand. She too began a sad, heart-rending cry. “My son . . . Aaahh . . . My own flesh and blood . . . How could you have left this way . . . leaving behind your wife, children and old mother? How will we survive? . . . Aaahhh . . . My own flesh and blood.”
Seeing his grandmother like this, Chia-hsiung cried out in alarm, “Granny, Granny.” Grandma Chin immediately pulled him into her bosom. “How pitiful … So young and already fatherless . . . Who will bring you up? Ahh …”
Chia-hsiung had never experienced anything like this. His young and naive heart was confused and frightened. He could only make vague guesses as to what had befallen his father but he had no way of really knowing. Hearing his grandmother carrying on like this, he was unable to control himself and began to howl.
“Don’t cry anymore. At a time like this, crying won’t do any good.”
Ch’iu Yung-fu suppressed his anguish and comforted the woman with five children who had cried herself hoarse. He then walked over to Grandma Chin and gently patted her on the shoulder. “Grandma Chin, get a hold of yourself. Nothing has been confirmed yet. You mustn’t cry.”
Ch’iu-lan held Yü-chiao in her arms. Her mind was a total blank and her eyes gazed vacantly straight ahead—like a lifeless shell. She walked straight through the crowd, down the corridor and into the street. Sobbing piteously, Grandma Chin followed, leading Chia-hsiung by the hand.
When they got home, Ch’iu-lan walked straight to her bedroom still carrying Yü-chiao. Only then did Grandma Chin suddenly realize that there was something odd about Ch’iu-lan. She quickly wiped her tears and apprehensively followed Ch’iu-lan into the bedroom. Ch’iu-lan was sitting bolt upright on the edge of her bed, her mouth pursed tightly and her face a deathly pale. She was staring vacantly straight ahead. Grandma Chin reached out and took over Yü-chiao. She asked timidly, “Ch’iu-lan, what’s wrong?”
Ch’iu-lan sat absolutely still, as if she had heard nothing.
“Ch’iu-lan,” Grandma Chin raised her voice. “What’s the matter with you?”
She leaned forward and peered intently at Ch’iu-lan. Ch’iu-lan’s lips quivered for a second but, as before, no sound came out. Grandma Chin gave a start. She tugged at Ch’iu-lan’s sleeve and called out in alarm, “Ch’iu-lan, say something!”
She began shaking Ch’iu-lan and crying out wildly, “Ch’iu-lan! Ch’iu-lan!” Just then Chia-hsiung also came into the bedroom. Hearing his grandmother crying he was frightened again and began sobbing, “Ma, ma!” Seeing the others crying, Yü-chiao began to bawl. Grandma Chin and her two grandchildren surrounded Ch’iu-lan, crying in a chorus.
After quite a while Ch’iu-lan suddenly said, “You all mustn’t cry.” Her voice was strangely calm.
Startled, Grandma Chin immediately stopped crying. In a tremulous voice she called out, “Ch’iu-lan.”
“Nothing has happened to Wan-fu,” Ch’iu-lan said. “He’s all right. He’s coming back!”
Grandma Chin looked up apprehensively at her. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing has happened to Wan-fu. He’ll be back soon.” Ch’iu-lan spoke with certainty, as if it were true.
“How do you know?”
“Didn’t Wan-fu say so when he left?”
Dumbfounded, Grandma Chin gazed at her. Had her daughter-in-law gone crazy from grief? But her words and expression were too controlled, not at all like someone deranged.
Grandma Chin followed Ch’iu-lan into the kitchen. She watched as Ch’iu-lan washed and boiled the rice and cooked the vegetables. It was just as always.
Could someone gone crazy act like this? She wondered: Wan-fu had always been very careful. Whenever there was a typhoon warning he was always the first to head for safety. How could anything have happened to him? The families of the crews must not have been thinking straight. They may have heard some rumor, and when they saw one person crying, they all started crying. Without having seen a single corpse, they went ahead and believed in some rumor. Curse them! Their crying can bring on real bad luck! When she had gone to the temple to offer incense the other day, the goddess Ma-tsu too had said, “Your son is alive. Rest assured. He will be home in three days.” If Ma-tsu had said so, then it must be true. As these thoughts ran through her mind, she felt somewhat reassured.
However, there was still this nagging anxiety in her heart because the three days that Ma-tsu had spoken of had already gone by and Wan-fu was still not back. But then she again reassured herself by rationalizing: Well, actually three days is almost the same as five. In any case Ma-tsu had said he will return, so he certainly will return.
Having reached this frame of mind, Grandma Chin walked into the living room and announced to Chia-hsiung, “Your father is OK. He’ll be home tomorrow.” Her voice was unnaturally loud, as if she needed to convince herself.
However, the next morning, Tu Shih-hsien from the Fishermen’s Union came running to their house. He called agitatedly to Grandma Chin, “The families of the Hua-feng crews are all at the settlement meeting at the Fishermen’s Union. Why haven’t you come? Hurry, hurry! We’re all waiting for you.”
“A settlement for what?” Grandma Chin looked at him, her heart pounding wildly.
“You mean you haven’t heard?” Tu Shih-hsien glanced at her in disbelief. Then in a suppressed voice he said, “Wan-fu’s boat sank.”
“Who . . . who told you that?” Grandma Chin’s face paled. In an anguished voice she charged Tu Shih-hsien, “How can you say something so sinister! Wan-fu was a good friend of yours. How could you put a curse on him like this!”
“Grandma Chin, you must be losing your wits in your old age. Would I dare lie to you about this?” Tu Shih-hsien continued anxiously. “Some tires, boards, and a water bucket from the Hua Feng were floating on the water; they’ve been picked up and brought back by other boats.”
Grandma Chin turned her tragic, pale face towards Tu Shihhsien. Tears were already streaming down.
“Grandma Chin” Tu Shih-hsien said as he walked out the door. “You’ve got to come soon. Either you or your daughter-in-law will do. We are all waiting for you to start.”
She stumbled into Ch’iu-lan’s bedroom. Ch’iu-lan was busy polishing up Wan-fu’s leather shoes. Seeing her thus, Grandma Chin’s heart gave a start. A flash of pain shot through her chest.
“Ch’iu-lan,” she called out sorrowfully. She could say no more, her voice was too choked up.
Numbly, Ch’iu-lan lifted her head up. Ashen-faced, she stared at Grandma Chin. In a strained voice she muttered, “It couldn’t have happened to Wan-fu. He’s going to come back. He couldn’t have...”
As Grandma Chin heard this her tears started up again.
By the time Grandma Chin got to the Fishermen’s Union, the meeting was well underway. She wiped away her tears and sat down in a vacant chair near the doorway. All around her were women with babies tied to their backs or with toddlers in their arms. Their eyes were red from weeping and occasionally they brushed away a tear. Grandma Chin’s eyes were drawn to Lin who stood on the far side of the round table at the front of the room. Slowly and coolly he said, “The company feels as grieved at the fate of the Hua Feng I and II as the families. The boat company is sympathetic to the financial difficulties the families are facing. Even though the death of the crews have not yet been verified, the company will give each family a support subsidy of 5,000 yuan*. Upon verification of the deaths of the crew members, the company will pay the family of each crew member a compensatory fund of 25,000 yuan, irrespective of the job-rank of the deceased. The 5,000 yuan support subsidy may be picked up at nine o’clock tomorrow morning at the company office. Please bring along your family’s census records.”
Lin finished talking and sat down. Immediately a loud voice piped up. “Hold on a minute. Hold on a minute. I have some questions here!” The speaker was a seventyish, dark-complexioned old man. He stood up and spoke in a quavering voice, “You mean to tell me a human life is worth only this bit of money? Your company is big enough to send out eight or nine boats each time. The crews of the boats are the ones who battle the wind and waves and earn big money for you, while their families depend solely on them for their bare subsistence. But as soon as something happens, you totally ignore your responsibility to their families. The old and the young, all seven, eight or ten of them in each household, have no way to earn a living. The menfolks have given their lives for the company, yet you just fart around and only give 30,000 yuan! Isn’t this . . . isn’t this going a little too far? Aren’t you being downright ruthless?”
“So that’s it? Go to hell! A human life . . . and the fate of an entire family . . . They’re worth only 30,000 yuan to you? Don’t you have any conscience?”
“Money, what do I want with your money? Human life is what matters. You give me back my son,” Grandma Chin said through her sobs. “You were born of a father and a mother like anybody else. You’re made of flesh and blood. What nerve you have setting down these inhuman terms!”
The families were filled with grief and anger. The meeting seethed with righteous indignation.
“Please everybody, calm down a little. Don’t get all worked up. This is a meeting,” the paunchy man in the chairman’s seat spoke up. He was a department head of the Fishermen’s Union named Chao. “If there is a disagreement, let’s talk it out calmly. We’re here to resolve a problem, not to squabble!”
“I’m just a roughneck. I’ve never gone to school and I don’t talk as genteel as you do,” the old man stood up again and said in a shaky voice. “But I’ve lived almost seventy years. I’ve only got this one son; he’s worked on the Hua Feng for five years now. Our entire family depends on him for our livelihood. And now he’s died at sea for the company, and you can’t even find his body. How do you expect me to talk genteel at a time like this?”
“Talk politely? You can talk politely for all anybody cares! Goddam, let’s see somebody die in your family, then we’ll all see how politely you can talk!” Bonshi joined in.
“Fuck you, you fat pig! Your words are sweeter than songs. You can talk like that just because nobody died in your family.”
“You’re an officer in the Fishermen’s Union and chairman of this meeting. It’s your job to speak up for us. For a human life and the fate of a whole family, you’d give only 30,000 yuan. Why the company is a downright bloodsucker!”
“I said if you have things to say, you can say it turn. Don’t just yell. Otherwise how can we conduct the meeting?”
“What do you mean don’t yell? Should we just sit here quietly and let the company trample all over us? Damn the blood-sucking company!”
At this Ch’iu Yung-fu stood up.
“Will everyone please calm down. The time hasn’t come yet to bicker with the company about the size of the financial settlement.”
Everyone immediately quieted down. All eyes were fastened upon him. The tone of the meeting became somber.
“Now that a city official and Director Chao from the Fishermen’s Union are here, I beg them to uphold justice. I charge them to thoroughly investigate who is responsible for the death of the twenty some crew members on the Hua Feng boats.”
“Ch’iu Yung-fu, what’s your point in dredging that up at this late stage?” Lin shot back, a tremor in his voice.
“What’s my point?” Ch’iu Yung-fu glared at him. Enunciating each word deliberately, he said angrily, “For the twenty-some men on board the two boats, I accuse the Ch’ing-Ch’ang Fishing Company of outright murder.”
Everyone was visibly startled. Lost for words, they just stared at the awesome figure of Ch’iu Yung-fu. For a moment the meeting room was frozen in a fathomless silence.
Then in a flash Lin was on his feet. Ashen-faced, he said in a trembling voice, “That . . . that’s just absurd! Why . . . you’re . . . you’re a slanderer!”
As if a stone had smashed through heaven and earth, curses, cries and accusing voices exploded in the meeting room.
“You murderers! You murderers! Damn you, you ruthless pigs! Go to hell!”
“Slanderer? Bah! If you’ve got a shred of conscience left, if you remember how your father suffered the hardships of a fisherman in order to raise you, you’d drown yourself in the sea to do penance to your deceased father!” Ch’iu Yung-fu’s eyes glittered with anger. Gritting his teeth, he pointed at Lin and shouted, “It’s been five or six days already since the typhoon passed through. If the boats really did sink, perhaps some of the crew are still floating out at sea, or they could be stranded on some deserted island awaiting rescue. Not only did the Ch’ing-Ch’ang Fishing Company fail to send out a single boat or plane to search, you even lied to the families of the crews, saying that search planes had been sent out. If this isn’t deliberate murder on the part of your boss and you yourself, I don’t know what is!”
“Hear, hear! Yung-fu is really talking sense now. Just because the Ch’ing-Ch’ang Fishery has money and power on its side, you think you can take advantage of the bereaved families—the old and the young. You think no one dares stand up to you? You think you can just gobble us up alive, don’t you?” Bonshi stood up. With one hand on her hip and the other pointing at Lin, she burst out, “It’s not that simple. Let me tell you something Lin! You and your boss are responsible for the deaths of the twenty-some men. You’re the murderers! We’ll make you pay back those lives!”
Like an unleashed typhoon, a storm of curses and accusations rose to a furious height:
“Yeah! Yeah! You owe us those lives!”
“Damn you. You heartless murderers! You’ll pay with your own lives!”
Lin’s face became as gray as death. Turning to Director Chao and the city official sitting at his side, he forced a bitter smile. As if pleading for help, he said in a trembling voice, “What are they saying? I don’t understand.”
“Everybody please settle down. Settle down.” The director pounded fiercely on the table. “This is the Fishermen’s Union!” he bellowed. “It’s not a court or a police station. We’re holding a settlement meeting to resolve a concrete problem. We’re not here to accuse anybody. If you want to make accusations go to a court or a police station.”
The city official put down the tea he had been sipping and stood up. “The lives of the twenty-some crewmen are a serious matter. The government will certainly conduct a thorough investigation and arrive at a verdict that is fair to all parties involved. If the Ch’ing-Ch’ang Fishing Company is found to be guilty of negligence in the deaths of the crewmen, the government will deal with it through legal channels. We can all rest assured of that!”
“It is not within the scope of this settlement meeting to investigate who is at fault. Everyone please observe the rules of this meeting,” the director said to Ch’iu Yung-fu. Then, turning to Lin, he said, “Please continue.”
Lin swallowed a mouthful of tea and took a deep breath. Thus fortified, he stood up. “People. People. Please quiet down, let me have my say. My father was also a fisherman, so I speak from my heart. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have done nothing that compromises my conscience. In its decision to pay a financial settlement of 30,000 yuan to each family, the company has taken into account the adverse circumstances of each family. At a time when the company is undergoing its own financial difficulties, we have decided to squeeze out the money. No other company has ever paid out such a generous settlement. If you ladies and gentlemen want to verify what I say, Director Chao of the Fishermen’s Union is sitting right here. He specializes in this kind of accident settlement. You can just ask him.”
“What Lin says is absolutely true. I’ll vouch for that. The Fishermen’s Union wants to see justice done for all involved. We hope that the families and the company will appreciate each other’s difficult circumstances and resolve this problem as quickly as possible.” Sitting in the chairman’s seat, the director spoke in a sincere tone. “In addition to the 30,000 yuan settlement from the company, the Fishermen’s Union will pay out a mutual aid fund of 10,000 yuan per family. There’s also over 10,000 yuan in worker’s insurance.”
“The social security office of the city government also has a relief fund of 5,000 yuan per person,” Lin added.
“Right. There’s also the social security relief fund. Added altogether that’s more than 60,000 yuan. Of course, 60,000 or 70,000 yuan is not enough to support a family forever. However, it will meet all your needs for the time being.” Director Chao continued, “You can’t bring a dead person back to life. There’s nothing to be gained by bickering. If the matter is settled quickly, you can get the money and start thinking of your next move, . . . start a small business or what have you. Now that’s the right track to be on!”
“To hell with you! We’re not here to put on a play. You guys are picking up cues from each other. It sure looks like you’ve had it worked out in advance.”
“What the hell is this, Chao? You toady up to the company just because they’ve got money.”
“We don’t need this kind of meeting. I haven’t heard a single fair word on behalf of us fishermen.”
Grandma Chin sat numbly in her seat listening to others’ voices batting back and forth as if Wan-fu’s boat had really sunk; she became choked up with anguish. But when she thought of Ch’iu-lan’s steely conviction as she said, “Nothing has happened to Wan-fu. He’ll be back soon,” those words seemed to ring true. She couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. She asked herself over and over, Who said that Wan-fu’s boat had sunk? Who saw it happen? A few planks and a bucket can’t prove that Wan-fu’s boat had sunk. Through much effort she finally succeeded in convincing herself that the boats had not sunk and that she had been duped only moments before. Goddamnit! What are these people up to anyway? Even Ma-tsu had promised that Wan-fu would return safe and sound. Why are they carrying on like this? They are just putting the curse on. These thoughts gradually turned her grief to anger.
“Nobody knows if the boats sank or not, or if the men are dead or alive. It’s ridiculous that everyone is wrangling about the bereavement settlement. I’ve gone to ask Ma-tsu and she said that Wan-fu’s boat will return safely. It’s only lost now. People should be sent out to search right away!”
“Yeah! Grandma Chin is really talking now. Lin, what in the hell are you guys doing anyhow? The boats have been lost almost a week now, and yet the company hasn’t even sent out a single boat or plane to search. And now, on the basis of a few planks and a water bucket you’re ready to pronounce the fate of the crewmen. Do you really have a heart?” A woman in her thirties, her eyes red at the rims said plaintively, “Even if the boats really did sink there may still be some survivors floating at sea or stranded on a deserted island, just like Yung-fu said.”
“Yeah. We want our men to come back alive! Who gives a damn about your 60,000 yuan! You’ve got to send boats out to search immediately!”
“Hai! How can you all be so irrational? We’ve already found a bucket, planks and tires floating out on the sea and you people still want to cling to your futile hope.” Director Chao had lost all patience. He turned to the city official and muttered with a sigh, as if to himself, “If this keeps up, how will the meeting ever end?”
The city official, wearing a somber expression, uttered not a word.
“It would be most fortunate if they’re still alive, however …” Lin finally stood up. Looking at the woman in her thirties, he said solemnly, “Remains from the Hua Feng I and II have been found and brought back by other boats. Going by past experience, this is decisive evidence that the boats have sunk. In a typhoon that severe it’s not inconceivable that even a hundred lives might be lost. To say that there might be survivors after the boats sank . . . I’m afraid that …”
“How can you say that? Did you see any bodies? How do you know for sure that the men are dead?” A well-dressed, middle-aged woman, apparently a distant relative of one of the crewmen, spoke with composure, challenging him. “Even if there’s only one chance in a million that some lives can be saved, you should go all-out to organize a search. I don’t understand why your company is so unwilling to send boats out to try and save the crewmen. On the contrary, you hastily announce that the boats sank and the crewmen drowned. What does your company expect to gain from this?”
“What does the company expect to gain from this? Not a goddamn thing.” Lin eyed Director Chao, then continued, “In fact, the company would be better off if the affair is dragged on. The company could invest the relief funds and draw interest to the tune of 29,000 to 30,000 yuan a month.”
“For your sake, there’s really no point in dragging this matter on,” Director Chao backed Lin up.
At this point, Ch’iu Yung-fu, who had remained silent for some time, stood up. In a composed manner he faced the families and said, “Ladies and gentlemen. Today, for my nephew Ch’ing-hua who gave his life, and in the interest of everybody’s rights, I’m going to divulge some facts that have been kept secret.” His voice betrayed his emotion. He glared challengingly at Lin and Director Chao. Steadily enunciating each syllable, he said, “I’ve done some investigating and found that the boats have been insured. The crewmen are most likely covered by the company’s accident insurance as well. Their identification cards, personal signets, and the signets of the beneficiaries have all been deposited with the company, so even the crewmen may not know that they’ve been insured. Using the water bucket, the tires and the planks as evidence that the boats sank with all hands on board, the company can collect compensation and replace the boats with new ones. The fishing company won’t suffer any financial loss. The company has decided to pay the family of each crewman 30,000 yuan in relief funds. On the surface the company may seem charitable, but nobody really knows how much money the company is getting from its accident insurance. Probably the company not only won’t suffer any loss, but may even stand to profit from the insurance for the fishermen who lost their lives. That’s why the company is so eager to pronounce the boats sunk and the crewmen dead, and that’s why they didn’t make any effort to organize a search . . .”
“Bullshit!” Lin stood up in a flash without waiting for Ch’iu Yung-fu to finish. His face was red and the veins on his neck were bulging. In a hoarse voice he shouted, “I’ll tell you something. The company’ll haul you to court for the lies you’ve told today, for the way you’ve slandered the company’s reputation!”
His stomach bulging, Director Chao also stood up. Pointing a threatening finger at Ch’iu Yung-fu, he said, “Yung-fu, you have violated your responsibility as an employee of the Fishermen’s Union to speak from the impartial standpoint of the Union. Instead, you’re making groundless accusations, sowing discord between the company and the families with your wild accusations. What the hell are you trying to do?”
“The Fishermen’s Union! Hah! The Fishermen’s Union has gone to the dogs. They’ll work for whoever feeds them. What’s the fucking use of the Union?” Ch’iu Yung-fu pounded the table with his fist. He continued with passion, “You can’t frighten me. I can stand tall and walk straight. I’m not afraid of your threats!”
The city official stood up. With a solemn expression on his face he said, “This is an extremely serious matter. The government has always been very concerned with the welfare and livelihood of the fishermen. It would never permit any underhanded plots on the part of the fishing company to exploit the fishermen. I will report any allegations against the company to my superiors. The public security office will investigate this matter. It will see justice done for all concerned”
This threw the crowd into an uproar. Shouts, curses, and accusations flying back and forth turned the meeting into a turmoil. Several stalwarts pushed their way to the front, intent on giving Lin a beating. Director Chao pounded on the table repeatedly, exhorting everyone to calm down.
“People. People. The Fishermen’s Union stands by justice. We do not know whether the fishing company does in fact have insurance on the boats and crewmen. But if any of you have proof, the Fishermen’s Union will fight for your rights. But please everyone, use your sound judgment, don’t just listen to unfounded rumors.” Chao paused and glanced at the city official as if seeking consent.
“As I see it,” he continued, “the meeting will adjourn here for today. Those of you who agree to the 30,000 yuan settlement can go to the fishing company office tomorrow morning and pick up the first 5,000 yuan relief fund. Those of you who don’t agree can call for the meeting to be reconvened. This meeting is officially adjourned.” Having announced this in a loud voice, he stalked out of the room, along with Lin and the city official.
“So the matter is settled, just like that? Damn it! You call this a negotiation meeting?” people cursed after them.
Grandma Chin walked up to Ch’iu Yung-fu. “Did the boats really sink?” she asked timidly.
“Aiyee!” Ch’iu Yung-fu hung his head and heaved a dejected sigh. “No use talking about that anymore.”
Tears welled up in Grandma Chin’s eyes and began trickling down her cheeks. Women holding their children wept openly. “What are we to do? A whole family. Five or six kids and not a single wage earner.”
Ch’iu Yung-fu surveyed the crowd silently. Finally he took a deep breath and said in a voice taut with determination, “The boats have already sunk. It’s no use crying anymore. What’s important now is that we stick together. I’ve worked in the Fishermen’s Union for several years now and I’m most familiar with this kind of thing.” Gesticulating with clenched fists he continued, “If we don’t all work together, the fishing company will just trample all over us. We’ll end up having to settle for whatever crumbs the company is willing to give us. How could a human life on which the survival of a family depends be worth only 30,000 or even 50,000 yuan? To hell with all the company bosses! There isn’t a decent one among them all!”
“Yeah! We’ve got to work together. If we allow these bosses to make money off the dead bodies of loved ones, our consciences will never forgive us,” Bonshi put in.
“OK. Let’s send someone to go inquire at the insurance company. If we get our hands on some evidence, then the fishing company will be caught with nothing to say”
“No way. The insurance company would never tell us a damn thing.” Ch’iu Yung-fu knitted his brows and pondered for a moment. Then suddenly a determined expression formed on his face.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” he said in a forceful, steady voice. “Tomorrow let’s all go to the fishing company, but don’t anyone pick up the relief funds. Bring everybody, all the young ones and the old. If you feel like crying, cry with all your might. We’ll go ahead and raise a big ruckus.”
“Yeah, we’ll fight it out with them!” Bonshi said. “Thirty thousand yuan for a human life and the survival of a family! Shit! They’re nothing but black-hearted scoundrels!”
“Let’s hear it. We’ll fight it out with them. Those goddamn dogs.” The crowd voiced its assent.
“OK, everybody, let’s stick to our guns!”
The late afternoon sun cast slanting rays on the road. Cars cruised by, kicking dust up into the air. The entire street was a worn-out gray. Grandma Chin walked along, her head downcast and her back hunched up. She seemed a little unsteady on her feet, as if her legs were made of rubber. Her topknot had come undone and was hanging loosely. The hair around her temples was dishevelled, accentuating her aged and worn features.
For the past several days there had been constant speculations, rumors, disputes, and anxieties concerning the Hua Feng I and II. It had all happened so quickly—a confused mass of events—that everyone was at a loss as to what to do. It was a nightmare. One minute things appeared one way; the next minute everything was turned upside down. At first it was said the boats had only lost contact, then it was said the boats were lost, and now it was said they had sunk. As in a dream, nothing seemed real. How Grandma Chin wished that she would wake up from the dream to find everything as it had always been before. Wan-fu would come home carrying a bag of dirty clothes. His voice would ring out, “Hurry up and heat up a pot of water. I want to take a bath!”
However, what had just transpired at the settlement meeting was clearly etched on her mond. The people, the noise, the confusion: it was all too real. Even Ch’iu Yung-fu said that the boat had sunk. So there wasn’t any hope for what Ch’iu-lan and Ma-tsu had said after all? Grandma Chin felt a piercing pain through her heart.
From here on, there would just be the four of them, all either too old or too young. She could not help but get all choked up again. As she stumbled along as if in a daze, she repeatedly dabbed at her eyes with her shirt sleeve.
Suddenly she heard an urgent voice calling out behind her, “Mother Chin! Mother Chin!” Grandma Chin raised her eyes and saw a plump fiftyish woman walking up to her. When she recognized her to be her in-law, Ch’iu-lan’s mother, she burst into tears. “Ooh, In-law!”
“What? Still no trace of the boats?”
“Uh-uh. The boat company said that . . . the boat already . . . already . . .”
Her in-law’s face blanched. She too raised her arm and wiped away a tear. “So, Ch’iu-lan . . . ”
“Ooh, Ch’iu-lan, she …”
“What’s wrong with Ch’iu-lan?” Her in-law pulled excitedly at Grandma Chin’s sleeve and asked anxiously, “What’s wrong with Ch’iu-lan?”
“Aiyee.” Grandma Chin heaved a sigh; then in a choked voice she said, “At first Ch’iu-lan seemed all right, but she’s not really herself anymore. She still can’t believe that anything has happened to Wan-fu.”
“How could that happen?”
“You’ve got to come and talk her into her senses. After all, the two little ones still need someone to look after them. She has a long life ahead of her.” As Grandma Chin thought of her two grandchildren, so young and now fatherless, she was overwhelmed with sorrow.
As the two old women approached the front door of the house they could see Ch’iu-lan’s frail, solitary figure standing by the window. Her face was expressionless, her eyes gazed out at the sea. When Ch’iu-lan’s mother saw this, she was overcome with sorrow. With tears in her eyes she walked over to Ch’iu-lan and called her name in a voice filled with pity. “Ooh, my poor Ch’iu-lan.” She was too choked up to say more.
Ch’iu-lan appeared not to have heard. She continued gazing vacantly out to sea. Her expression was one of intense concentration and anticipation, as if hoping against hope.
Tugging at the corner of Ch’iu-lan’s shirt, Grandma Chin raised her voice, “Ch’iu-lan, your mother has come to see you.”
Ch’iu-lan slowly turned her head around and looked blankly at her mother. Her mouth trembled. She struggled as if wanting to say something, but no words came.
“Ch’iu-lan. It’s me. Don’t you even recognize your own mother?” As she spoke, tears flowed unchecked down the older woman’s face.
Ch’iu-lan’s face twitched suddenly as if in pain. Her mouth trembled silently for what seemed like a long time. Finally in an almost inaudible voice she squeezed out a single word, “Ma-a!” Then she began sobbing uncontrollably.
Her mother reached out her arms and pulled her into her bosom, patting her, as if consoling a sobbing child. “Ch’iu-lan, you mustn’t cry. You mustn’t cry.”
Standing on the side, Grandma Chin too broke down. “Wan-fu! My son! My flesh and blood! Wan-fu . . . ”
Ch’iu-lan’s mother helped her into a chair as she comforted her, but her wailing grew even more disconsolate. She gave out sounds like a wounded, helpless animal wailing mournfully in the silent, deserted wilderness, “Waaaan-fuuuuu!”
The settlement meeting was never reconvened. Every day the families, with their young and old, congregated at the fishing company and clamored for the company to raise the amount of the settlement. The company pleaded financial difficulties and firmly maintained it could afford only 30,000 yuan, not a cent more. After a while even Lin began to shy away from the families. They were left to mill around by themselves protesting aimlessly. Finally the families were forced to go again to the Fishermen’s Union and ask them to reconvene the meeting. However, Director Chao’s reply was, “Haven’t we already had a settlement meeting? It was you all who wouldn’t resolve the issues. What more can I do? The company representatives aren’t available now, how can we reconvene the meeting?”
“It’s up to the Fishermen’s Union to call the company representatives to a meeting.”
“What’s the use of calling them? Even if notices are sent out, they can simply ignore them. I can’t tie them up and drag them here. The Fishermen’s Union is just a civilian organization. It has no legal authority to make people do this or that. It can only mediate disputes, not give orders. There’s not much I can do.” Director Chao sat in his desk chair puffing away on a cigarette. Then assuming a concerned, sympathetic tone of voice, he continued, “Of course, 30,000 yuan isn’t a whole lot of money, but the fishing company really is strapped. It just won’t do any good to try to put the heat on them. Fact is, it was only through the intervention of the Fishermen’s Union that you got even 30,000 yuan in the first place. Of all the sea disasters, it’s the largest settlement to date. That’s the plain truth. Take the Lung Ch’ang Fishing Company, for example. This July they paid out only 15,000 yuan per family. In the case of the Hai Feng Fishing Company last month, the company at first agreed to a settlement of 10,000 yuan per family. But when pressed to pay more, they were forced in the end to declare bankruptcy and the boss ran off. The bereaved families ended up with nothing, not even a dime. You can’t go wrong on what I tell you. I wouldn’t try to screw you. I know it’s only 30,000 yuan, but it’s better than nothing. You shouldn’t let people incite you and get you all worked up, you’ll only lose out in the end.”
Thus the matter dragged on and on. The whole thing was beginning to wear out the families. But Ch’iu Yung-fu was not about to give in. He remained tireless in encouraging everybody.
“We’ve held out this long. Why can’t we hang in there a little longer?” he said with great emotion. “We can’t count on the Fishermen’s Union to help us with this. I’ll be frank with you, the Fishermen’s Union is nothing but a puppet. We have only ourselves to depend on. We’ve got to hang together till we see this thing through. We’ll raise a big hullabaloo. The newspapers will have a big write-up, it might even get some TV coverage. Then we’ll see if the company won’t give in.”
“Yeah. As soon as it gets into the papers, the boss’ll hand the money over without a fuss,” Bonshi said. “In this kind of situation, the bosses all give you the same story: that they are strapped, they’re in financial difficulties, etc., etc. How the hell do they expect people to believe that? A guy who’s supporting a wife and three or four mistresses on the side—and he says he has no money? He wouldn’t give us a cent if he had his way!”
“You said it! Those damn bosses are all black-hearted sons-of-bitches! The lousy dogs!”
“We’ve got to fight it out to the end! Otherwise our loved ones will have died for nothing,” Ch’iu Yung-fu said with cool determination. “We’ll stage a hunger-strike. Let me first get in touch with some reporters, then we’ll get all the families together. The more people the better. We won’t eat until the company agrees to our demands!”
“Will that do any good? They’ve got hearts that are hard as rocks. If we don’t eat, they’ll just let us starve to death. Do you think they’d give a damn?”
“Whether or not we can succeed will depend on everybody’s will and determination,” Ch’iu Yung-fu said decisively. “We’ll fight it out to the end!”
Lin and Director Chao soon heard about this plan. They also received word that the courts were investigating the incident. Evidently the city official had reported to his superiors what had transpired at the meeting.
“If we let this thing evolve, it may really get out of hand.” Director Chao clasped his hands over his protruding belly. In a grave tone he said, “Lin, you’ve got to come up with something. Why don’t you give them some token increase to placate them? That’ll give me a way out too. I know damn well you guys can afford it.”
“If it was possible, I’d be more than happy to give them more money. It’s not my money after all,” Lin replied apprehensively. “But the boss won’t hear of it—there’s nothing I can do. I’m just his errand boy.”
“How am I supposed to deal with this?” Director Chao’s voice grew tense. “This thing is getting out of hand. Even the courts are sending people out to investigate. You’re leaving me in the lurch. This will be my ruin!”
“Now, now,” Lin said soothingly. “Don’t get upset. We’ll think of something. There’s got to be a way to deal with the whole thing.”
“You’re good at sweet-talking! Deal with it yourself, if you can! Damn you. The whole thing’s already been blown way up, and now this investigation. When the ax falls, it’ll be my head that rolls. I’m supposed to be the director . . . well, damn it, I don’t need this goddamn job!”
“Hey, Chao, calm down. Nothing’s going to happen. You know as well as anybody what it’s like between the President of the Fishermen’s Union and my boss. If it weren’t for my boss’s backing, do you think he could have been elected president? Keep your cool.” As he calmed Chao down, Lin was hatching a scheme in his mind. “It’s all because of that Yung-fu . . . stirring up everybody.” He thought for a moment. Gnashing his teeth together, he chopped his hands through the air. “If we get rid of him, it will be curtains for them all.”
“Get rid of him? How do you propose to do that?” Director Chao looked at him doubtfully.
“Fire him! Man, you really know how to talk! If I fire him at a time like this, I’ll be the goat for all the abuse and mistrust! You’re only scheming to save your own hide. When things get bad you can always count on someone else to take the blame!” Director Chao fought down his rising temper. In a flat voice he said, “Don’t write this Ch’iu Yung-fu off as a petty officer. He’s worked in the Union for several years now and is popular with the fishermen. The last time the Union was electing a president, a lot of fishermen wanted him to run. It’s a good thing he decided not to. Otherwise you really would have had a tough one on your hands.”
“OK, OK, Old Chao, don’t get mad at me. We’ve been friends for a long time. You know that I always have your interests at heart. I’m not trying to make brownie points. It’s just . . . just . . . Would I do anything nasty to you?” Lin laughed, putting on his sincerest expression. “If firing him will put you on the spot, I won’t press you to do it. I wouldn’t want to do a friend a wrong turn. Let’s see if there isn’t another way out.”
Lin cocked his head to one side and cogitated for a few moments. He then leaned over and whispered into Director Chao’s ear. As Chao listened, he nodded occasionally, his face gradually relaxing into a smile.
“Good thinking!” He slapped his thigh. “We’ll do it!”
That same day Lin sent the girl accountant to the bank to with-draw a bundle of cash. Then he sent her down to meet the bereaved relatives who were milling around the company, and she invited them one by one up to see Lin at his office.
Events of the past couple of weeks had worn the families thin. There had not been a bit of news concerning the missing boats; the relatives gradually gave up all hope. The men were already dead, so what was the point of fighting anymore? Overwhelmed by grief, their will melted into despair.
Yet, in their hearts they still couldn’t resign themselves to accepting the 30,000 yuan settlement. Even a pig or an ox is worth more than 10,000 yuan. How could a human life be worth so little? These thoughts again aroused their deep hatred for the fishing company boss. Ch’iu Yung-fu’s words again pounded like the surf inside their heads. “We must hang together. If we stand united we’ll see this thing through. If we don’t . . . goddamn it, the boat company will just trample all over us.”
However, when the families went one by one to see Lin, he spoke to them with the most solicitous expression.
“You shouldn’t let yourselves be led around blindly by the nose. Do you really think that Ch’iu Yung-fu is working in good faith for your benefit? You all have eyes. His family has a big sundries store. He doesn’t need the 30,000 yuan. Of course he can afford to let things drag on. But what about the rest of you? You’re all sitting around with empty pots waiting for the rice for your next meal. The longer it drags on, the harder it is on you. If Ch’iu Yung-fu is really on your side, go and try to borrow some money from him. He won’t even lend you 300 yuan! Now I’m concerned only for your welfare. It’s not my company, so why would I want to make this hard for you? It’s just that … ah … if things drag on much longer I’m afraid you may end up with not even one thin dime. Look at what happened with the Hai Feng Fishing Company. It just declared bankruptcy and the boss ran out. When a boat sinks, the boss loses out, too, eh?”
He piled stacks of bright new bills in front of each bereaved family. In a most sincere voice he urged, “This money is all ready for you to take home . . . ah, ah . . . All you have to do is stamp your signet on this agreement form and the receipt. If anyone still has qualms about this, we can call another meeting later.”
By the time Ch’iu Yung-fu had the media coverage lined up two days later, most of the families had already stamped their signets on the documents and taken the money home.
“Aiya! How could you all . . . How could you all be taken in so easily?” Bonshi stamped her feet and thumped her chest. Snorting angrily she said, “You might as well have sold the ancestral tablets of your dead loved ones. What is there left to fight with?”
Ch’iu Yung-fu’s eyes were shot through with red veins; his normally dark, healthy complexion looked a little haggard. He gazed contemplatively at Bonshi. When he finally spoke, it was in a clear, measured voice, each word being pressed out from behind clenched teeth, “We’ll keep up the fight! We’ve got to fight it out to the end!”
“Fight it out to the end?” Bonshi was astonished. “But there’s no one left.”
“It’s OK to take the money, but we’ll still fight on. Why shouldn’t the families take the money? Everyone has to eat after all.” With clenched fists, he continued, “If we don’t fight now we’ll never see better days, company bosses will forever tyrannize us. The courts have begun an investigation now. Small wonder the boss is running scared. If we win just this once, we will set a precedent, things will be a lot easier.
For the past several days Ch’iu-lan had been just a burnt-out shell. From morning till night she stood by the window gazing vacantly out to sea. Her face grew visibly emaciated, her eyes were sunk into black sockets.
Grandma Chin and her in-law kept a close eye on Ch’iu-lan. Afraid that she might try to kill herself in a moment of despair, Ch’iu-lan’s mother didn’t dare go back home, and Grandma Chin didn’t dare leave the house.
“Ch’iu-lan, you should listen to what your mother has to say. You’ve got to think of Chia-hsiung and Yü-chiao. They are still so young. If something should happen to you, what would they do?” Grandma Chin said, with tears welling in her eyes.
“Ch’iu-lan, think this thing through. You’re my only daughter …” Before she could finish, she broke down and sobbed.
Every time Ch’iu-lan heard Wan-fu’s name, her face would twitch with contortion. She would bite her lower lip, struggling to restrain her tears. But in the end she would give up the struggle, and tears would stream down her face.
The two old women were even more apprehensive at night. They strained their ears for the slightest sound. They would wait until all had quieted down in Ch’iu-lan’s room. Then they would tip-toe over and peek in to make sure Ch’iu-lan had fallen asleep. Only then could the two old women lay down their groggy heads.
As Ch’iu-lan lay on the bed every night, images of Wan-fu kept surfacing vividly in her mind. It was as if he had come home. She could hear him talking to her, see him puttering around the room. She would then doubt her own senses. Events of the past two weeks did not seem real to her, as if she’d been in a dream. But then she could clearly see her own mother in the house and hear her mother talking. If the whole thing weren’t true, surely her mother wouldn’t have come all the way from Kaohsiung to say these things to her. At this realization, Ch’iu-lan could no longer suppress the flow of tears. She would wait until the two old women in the next room had fallen asleep, then she would get out of bed and, silent as a ghost, she would drift out to the living room. There she would stand by the window and gaze obliviously at the murky sea, just as she had always done when Wan-fu went out to sea. She had always stood here to see him off, now she was standing here to welcome him home.
The candle on the altar table had almost burnt itself out. Only a tiny flame was left flickering in the wind, turning shadows on the wall into many dancing ghosts.
As she gazed at the hazy beam from the lighthouse that cut through the blackness, scenes of days with Wan-fu floated into her mind. She thought of the days yet to come, of the family with four mouths to feed, their food and clothing, the children’s education, and numerous other foreseeable and unforeseeable difficulties. All these responsibilities would fall on her shoulders from here on. These burdens would be hers alone. Pain and apprehension bored into her heart as if an army of ants were gnawing steadily away inside her chest. She understood now why Ch’iu Yung-fu was determined to fight the comapny to the end; it wasn’t just the matter of one human life, it involved the fate of an entire family! Two streams of tears flowed steadily down her cheeks.
“Chyang! Tongkwang!” “Chyang! Tongkwang!” These tragic jarring notes of gong and drum, intermixed with a crowd’s clamor, broke the midday silence. Grandma Chin had been hanging out laundry under the hot sun. Startled, she looked up and saw people approaching from around the bend, carrying a coffin. Behind the pallbearers was a gong-band. A woman dressed in hemp funeral clothing, leading several children, followed behind the band. A crowd of people brought up the rear. “Chyang! Tongkwang!” The gongs and drums sounded all along the road, as the procession approached the Fishermen’s Union building.
“Someone must have died and they’re having a funeral,” thought Grandma Chin. “But I haven’t heard of anybody dying in the past few days.”
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the procession. In a short while the procession reached the front entrance of the Ch’ing Ch’ang Fishing Company. The pallbearers suddenly came to a stand-still. The people bringing up the rear circled around. The gong band intensified its earth-shattering “Chyang! Tongkwang! Chyang! Tongkwang!”
“Good Lord, what are they up to?” Grandma Chin was baffled.
Just then, her in-law came out of the house and stood by Grandma Chin, watching.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I don’t know. They’re carrying a coffin, but it doesn’t look like a funeral procession.”
After a few moments, they saw, to their puzzlement, the pallbearers walk through the doorway into the office of the Ch’ing Ch’ang Fishing Company. A crowd pushing in from all directions soon blocked the road. Gradually a long line of cars formed, extending back in both directions.
“What are they up to?”
As Grandma Chin stood there puzzled, she suddenly saw Chiahsiung come charging up the steps carrying his bookbag, shouting, “Granny! Granny!”
“Good Lord! Chia-hsiung. Slow down. What are you trying to prove running so fast?” Grandma Chin scolded in a voice that betrayed her affection.
Chia-hsiung stopped in front of Grandma Chin. Huffing and puffing, he tried to catch his breath and talk at the same time.
“Granny . . . Uncle, Uncle Yung-fu . . . he’s leading a bunch of people . . . carrying a coffin … to the fishing company.”
“Really? That’s incredible! Good Lord! Yung-fu.” Grandma Chin looked at Chia-hsiung wide-eyed and mumbled to herself as if in disbelief.
“It’s true! It’s true! I’m not lying,” Chia-hsiung continued excitedly. “They say K’un-cheng’s dad’s body is in the coffin. Someone found it on the beach!” As he spoke, Chia-hsiung slung off his bookbag and handed it to Grandma Chin.
“I’m going back to watch. Uncle Yung-fu is getting really tough. He’s shouting for Lin to come out if he’s got any guts. I’m going down to watch. Man! Uncle Yung-fu’s really tough.”
Chia-hsiung flew down the steps. As he ran down the street, Grandma Chin could hear him yelling the curses he had picked up from the men, “Lin, you shit-eating scum. You ingrate cur! Damn you! Come out and look if you have any conscience. Damn you! Tell your boss to get his ass out here and look!”
Grandma Chin suddenly felt a fire flaring up in her chest. She trembled violently as if an electric current had just coursed through her entire body. Hot tears sprang to her eyes.
“That’s right! We’ve got to fight like this, or else we fishermen will always be treated like dirt. Only 30,000 yuan for a human life and the fate of a whole family. It’s inhuman, it’s downright inhuman!”
In a voice trembling uncontrollably she turned to the house and called out, “Ch’iu-lan, Ch’iu-lan …”
She found Ch’iu-lan standing by the window, watching the commotion in the street. Tears were already coursing down her face.
* Wang Pao-ch’uan is a character in a popular romance set in the T’ang dynasty. She is said to have endured stoically in an abandoned kiln for eighteen years, before her husband, Hsüeh P’ing-kuei, came back to be reunited with her after having led successful military expeditions in Korea.
* In the Chinese original it is “Wang-fu sao,” emphasizing that the speaker regards the addressee’s husband as a brother.
* Bonshi is a typical Taiwanese name given to girls at birth. It reflects both the family’s disappointment that the newborn is a girl and its reluctant willingness to raise the child.
* Worshipped as the patron goddess of fishermen.
* A U.S. doller is equivalent to roughly 35-40 Taiwanese yuan.