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The promise made twenty years ago

Excerpt from “Again I See the Gaillardias” (Balestier Press, 2016)

by Li Tong (translated by Brandon Yen)

The promenade deck is slightly trembling. Astern of the ship, the propeller breaks the water into splashing noises. The Taipeng ferry I’m on is about to leave Kaohsiung Port, sailing towards my hometown.

Leaning against the railings, I send my glance around: the morning sun, mellow and gentle, has just penetrated the gap between the hills; one ray after another, its light is incorporated into the sea mist rising from the stern. Within only an instant, a rainbow, shaped like an overbridge, has materialised over the port. Our ferry turns round, passing through the arch of the rainbow.

In the distance, the houses that stand upright like a forest—as well as the nearby warehouses of Kaohsiung Port and the lighthouse on Qijin Island—are all spinning backwards. The gigantic vessels berthed in the port, hearing the reverberating sound of the steam whistle, which signifies our departure, are languidly waking up, as if, shaken by the rolling waves, they were stretching and yawning—all of them still half buried in their slumbers.

I gaze upon the port, which is vanishing little by little into the distance, gulp down a mouthful of sea air, which has a fishy, salty odour, and cannot help but burst into laughter!

Twenty years ago, when I left Penghu’s Magong Port, standing upon the deck and casting one last glance at my hometown, did I not have the same feeling? It was this subtle dizziness, these waves of thought coming and going, while everything before me was retreating into all directions. It was the land that was moving and trembling; it was my hometown that was gradually leaving me behind. Not until the ferry had sailed beyond the bounds of the harbour—the steam whistle once again sent forth its resonating peal, the land had disappeared, and the waves were raging against the hull—did it dawn upon me, with a sudden shudder in my heart, that it was I who was leaving it all behind.

After all these years, I have decided to return to my hometown in the same way because, as I once left it sea mile by sea mile—leaving behind that archipelago composed of sixty-four isles—so I want to approach it again sea mile by sea mile now: the isles of Hujing, Bazhao, Hua, Tongpan… I want them to watch me serenely from outside Magong Port—watch me, always a son of Penghu, come back to my hometown.

An aeroplane moves too fast. They wouldn’t be able to see me clearly. The comfort on the plane couldn’t allay my nervousness. Only the sea wind that blows against the hull can dry my sweating palms; it alone can give those isles, bit by bit, a full view of me.

That promise made twenty years ago—how many people will remember it?

Time has left its mark on everyone. We’re all grown up, mature, some of us gaining weight, others becoming thinner. Even if our facial features and expressions look the same, can it be possible that we still think the same way? Will the friendship that once bound us together, leavened by time, turn out to be attenuated, or all the stronger?

Twenty years—in retrospect, it seems just a transient moment. But when I look more closely, time lays itself out before me, like an interminable road winding its way through a rough terrain interspersed with myriads of mountains and rivers. No one can ever thread them all together. With a bitter smile, I shake my head, asking myself this question:

So I’m back. This very date has never escaped my memory; will others remember it too? Ye Ying-San and Chen Xiang-Zhen should remember it well.

What about the Thin Boy, Lin Bin?

Might A-Pan and Touch-Me-Not have forgotten about it?

And Wu Chun-Hua?

Have we all been well, the seven of us, since we parted? Those precious ties nourished by sweat and tears—might it be possible that they will have been withered by relentless time? What will it feel like when we meet again? These questions are enmeshed in more bewildering questions.

We’ve all entered middle age, and Brother-in-Law is well beyond middle age.

It was he who proposed this promise, with his own clear, sonorous voice. ‘Twenty years from today, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the moon sits high in the sky above Fort Xitai, please come back here for a reunion,’ he said. ‘And for each of you who makes it back, I will prepare a present. Until then, please take good care of yourselves.’

We, being young, were excitedly making guesses at what presents Brother-in-Law would bring us. He smiled but said nothing, leaving us to our wild guesses. A while later he added: ‘There will be no reason for being shy. Some of you will have had a splendid career. Perhaps others will still be groping. It doesn’t matter. Do come back if you can remember. This pottery workshop will never be closed to you. If you come, you can always enter. Bear this in mind!’

The melody of the waves is wafted to my ears. I feel as if I had set foot upon that beach again.

Our pottery lessons were drawing to a close. The bonfire, lit for the farewell party, was blazing heartily. We stood, sat, and walked, our laughter bouncing here and there around the bonfire. No one seemed to understand what it meant to say good-bye.

Brother-in-Law, short and stalwart, was standing upon a block of coral stone.

Behind him stood a windbreak of horsetail trees and densely populated white popinacs, which grew in abundance in our hometown.

The lemon-yellow moon and the flickering bonfire shone upon his face. The scar above the tip of his eyebrow was faintly visible. The spirited and earnest look on his face made me wonder whether I would ever come across such a good teacher again, a teacher who would guide me on the way to knowledge. I wondered whether Chun-Hua and the others, like me, felt sorry for Sister.

‘I for one will remember,’ Ye Ying-San was the first to speak. And loudly he spoke: ‘And if we meet during these twenty years, no one should mention this again. We’ll see who forgets about it in the end.’

Chun-Hua and Touch-Me-Not made their way to the big cauldron over the bonfire to scoop up the peanuts, which were then carried to us, steaming hot. Chun-Hua peeled some of the peanuts for me, asking: ‘We cooked these peanuts for your farewell party. Will you remember today’s promise?’

Lin Bin answered on my behalf, before anyone else could say anything: ‘Of course Glasses will remember it. He values our friendship most. And he likes presents too!’

Gales of laughter, billowing across the bonfire, flung themselves upon me. To my surprise, those rows of horsetail trees, glistening in the fiery light and trembling in the sea breeze, seemed at this moment to join the uproar, laughing so hard as to appear to bend over.

A-Pan suddenly rose, turned his face to the moon, and began to sing that famous song he had adapted, ‘The Sea Sheds Water’.

In the meanwhile, the moon was hanging high above Fort Xitai on Fisherman’s Isle, illuminating our tranquil Penghu Bay. The isles, shaped like
straight-mouthed clay pots around the bay, were also set aglow by the moon above the sea.

A-Pan sang and sang. Sad at heart, I picked up a twig and poked the embers of the bonfire. Then, along the wildly soaring sparks, I sent my eyes abroad to the night sky, which resembled an ink-blue vault made of glass, also glittering above our heads.

Does everyone still remember? Are all my old friends well, after all these years?

So solemn was the promise that Brother-in-Law made that night. What on earth will be the presents he is preparing for us?

* * *

The ferry is thrown into jolting convulsions. I hold fast onto the railings, looking around, flustered. A spatter of water crashes down upon the deck without any warning, making half of my clothes wet. Around the hull is a foaming hem churning and bouncing on all sides. Everything suddenly blurs in my eyes. Gripped by a nauseating dizziness, I can only sense that the ferry is moving upwards and downwards.

An old man with a swarthy complexion grasps my arm, saying: ‘Don’t stand here, young man. Go into the cabins for a rest. You visitors don’t know the danger. People get swept into this Black Water Trough.’

There are a few fixed iron benches inside the ferry. We seat ourselves.

‘You don’t know. The sea is deepest here, the wind and waves most ferocious. Two ocean currents converge here. But it’ll be alright in a quarter of an hour or so. Do you get seasick? From your looks, I can tell at once that you’re coming to Penghu on holiday!’

‘Sir, I’m also from Penghu. I’ve just come back from Canada.’

‘Oh young man, you’re joking, aren’t you?’ Intense scrutiny follows. He splays my hand out and presses my palm. ‘Are you sure? Your palm is soft and delicate. You’re wearing glasses. Such a gentle look… And you say you’re from Penghu? Are you sure?’ The old man taps on the bench back, gesturing towards an isle on the right, saying: ‘But you can’t fool me. Let me ask you. What’s the name of that island?’

The vessel having sailed across the Black Water Trough, the view over the sea has cleared up. Just a single glance, and I know exactly what lies ahead of me. ‘The one in front is General’s Isle. Behind it is Bazhao Isle.’

A flock of seabirds flit across the lighthouse on Fisherman’s Isle and progress towards the vessel in a light, elegant movement. ‘What are these
birds? Any ideas?’ the old man asks again.

I adjust my glasses, looking up. ‘Bridled terns! They live on Mao Isle.’

‘Brilliant! You have the right answers! Absolutely brilliant!’ The old man claps his hands and laughs. ‘If only all youngsters in Penghu were like you. Are you coming back for the Mid-Autumn Festival?’

Hearing the old man’s coarse voice and hearty laughter, and seeing the isles, lighthouse, and seabirds that are welcoming me, I know I’m back.

Although everyone in my family has left Penghu, this gradual approach stirs up such feelings as make me answer the old man without any hesitation: ‘Yes, I am. I am coming home.’

Excerpt from  Again I See the Gaillardias  by Li Tong, translated by Brandon Yen (Balestier Press, 2016)

© Li Tong, Brandon Yen, Balestier Press 2016

Illustration © Bi-Ai Shiu