Ariya’s first voyage – Siriworn Kaewkan
17/06/2011 § 1 Comment
The Indian Ocean was heaving, exhausted, after sending a tide of demented waves lashing at seaside resorts and towns in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives and, beyond, along the eastern shores of Africa, on the morning of the last Sunday five days only before the end of the year 2004.
Saturday morning 1st January 2005…
Ariya dreams she is floating in the Dead Sea, the sea with the saltiest waters in the world – at least ten times the salt concentration of the Mediterranean, so that swimming is out of the question, hence no human life will ever be lost there.
The Dead Sea in Ariya’s dream is full of marine animals of all kinds swimming about in profusion all around her – whole shoals of sharks, whales, tunas, giant squids, sea slugs, lobsters, oysters, turtles, sea lions and oodles of nagas – even though in reality hardly any living organism can survive in the Dead Sea, apart from bacteria and a few species of salt-inured marine plants by its shores.
Besides those sea creatures, all around Ariya tourists from all over the world are milling about, floating here, floating there, children and adults alike. Some lie smoking cigars in the middle of lucent blue-green seawater; others lie reading the morning papers in English. Some are singing songs of praise of Bedouin shepherds, others writing electronic epistles to their lovers. Some yell and thrash about and make a fuss; others lie caked in black mud in health spas.
A gag of children shouts al-Bahir al-Mayyit!; another shouts back Yam HaMelach!
Ariya knows that the first expression is Arabic for Dead Sea. As for the latter, it is Hebrew and means Salt Sea. From there, Ariya sinks into a reverie, squints at the sky and tries to find the borderline between Israel and Jordan, but what is moving in the sky over the Dead Sea turns out to be a flock of thousands of migrant birds. She knows that these birds have flown from Europe.
But how odd! Instead of veering towards Africa, the birds are all heading for Southeast Asia.
Absorbed in sky, clouds and birds, Ariya starts humming a song, the song of a widow on an island in the middle of the Andaman Sea endeavouring to raise her daughter by herself after her fisherman husband took his boat out to sea one evening and vanished into the horizon.
And it is that song that sets Ariya thinking of her mother.
The widow on the island in the middle of the Andaman Sea is the same person as the mother in the song Ariya is singing. She wonders what her mother is doing at the moment and where, and how come she finds herself in this sea, given that her fondest dream has always been to travel to the Maldives, Paradise in the middle of the Indian Ocean, not to this Dead Sea here.
As she tries to find an answer to herself, a giant shark suddenly pounces and snaps at her ribs with full might.
Pain and shock yank her out of her dream.
But as soon as she opens her eyes, she finds that the shark of her dream is the corner of a table or, if not, the corner of a sofa, or something like that, which the force of a wave has thrust into her side.
Ariya tries to push that object away from her, but as soon as it is shunted aside other debris move in instead.
For something like an hour she fights off drifting debris that come whirling at her from all sides, leaving her aching and bruised all over.
The more she tries to swim away from them the more they harass her as if endowed with a life of their own – divers’ oxygen cylinders, fishermen’s floats, bulbs, slabs of foam, boat planks, sofas, house partitions, window frames, bamboo hut roofs, fridges, car tyres and countless other objects.
In all the twenty-two years of her life, Ariya has never felt as exhausted as this, exhausted and lonely in the middle of surrounding danger. Besides, the morning rays that glitter on the surface of the waves blur her vision all the more.
To regain some of her strength, she merely stays still protecting herself just above the water, squinting at the flock of seabirds swimming in the open space of the deep-blue morning sky.
Ariya knows how terrible these birds can be, because three days earlier some of these oh so beautiful birds dived and pecked at the eyes of a young Japanese girl. Ariya is sorry that she was unable to help her little friend because at the time she was fighting off a column of crabs that were storming her.
As she broods over the little Japanese girl, a clamour edges through the surrounding wreckage and reaches her.
Sometimes it sounds like weeping, sometimes it sounds like laughter; sometimes it fades out as if that rumour had travelled all the way from the far-flung horizon; sometimes it is so clear it seems to buzz right inside her ear.
Mingled in that clamour, there is what Ariya perceives as a young woman’s shout calling for her mother, and the language is neither Arabic nor Hebrew but Thai.
‘Mummy, hold fast to my hand, mummy.’
At this very second, Ariya realises that actually she is not floating in the Dead Sea, but she can’t think what part of the world it is she is in.
‘Mummy, hold fast to my hand, mummy.’
The call sounds scared and doleful; it is weak and comes in waves.
After listening attentively for a while, the young woman is both excited and happy when she realizes that it is her own voice.
It is she shouting on this late morning of Sunday 26th December 2004.
When it started, the first giant wave hurled Ariya onto a red mangrove bush. Her mother had tumbled into the water, but the young woman caught hold of her in time, so that her mother’s body dangled between the roaring wave and the clear late-morning air.
As Ariya snatched away her mother’s body from the paws of the demented wave, a new wave swept through the top of the coconut trees just as she felt a heavy object of some kind crash into her side.
So the clasped hands of mother and child were prised apart and each went tumbling under the might of the wave.
Later, Ariya found herself lying dumb and sore under the belly of the sea amid the wrecks of so many fishing boats, houses, shops, and fellow human beings by the hundreds, by the thousands, people from all corners of the world.
Unable to stand the dumbness and harassment from sea animals any longer, she heaved her thoroughly battered body towards the surface.
That was on the night of 28th December 2004. The late-evening waning moon lit up the whole expanse of sky and sea.
That night should have been a beautiful night had not the surface of the mighty sea been ridden with dark splotches of human beings and wreckage brought on by its fury all the way from the shores of Sumatra.
It seems Ariya still had no idea what had happened to her, what had happened to the open sea and to the small island where she had lived since infancy and had never stepped out of in the twenty-two years of her life.
Maybe out of utter exhaustion or because of the rocking of the moonlit waves, Ariya fell asleep for three days and three nights, and woke up again under the storming of sea crabs among the shrieks of the little Japanese girl, after which she dozed off briefly until she was ripped in the ribs by a shark in her dream.
After that, she heard a young woman calling for her mother in Thai. The next minute, she realized that that shout was her own and that actually she wasn’t floating in the Dead Sea, although she couldn’t think which sea in the world this was.
After piecing together the snapshots of her memory – the sight of her mother whirled away in a coiling wall of water, the sight of foreign tourists hurled by the giant wave into coconut trees, the sight of fishing boats and cars sent crashing into the hills, the sight of children wrenched from their mothers’ hands straight into the watery depths, the sight of some islanders hacked in two by flying tin roofing slabs, the shouts of family members calling out for each other…
If that’s how it was, Ariya murmured to herself, then I must by now be floating in the Andaman Sea or else in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean!
Even though sad pain and fright swept over her, as soon as the words ‘Indian Ocean’ resounded in her head, Ariya forgot all details of the tragic event.
She forgot that before it all happened she was thinking of her mother – her mother who had detained her on the island trapped in the confines of love and utter faith in Allah for all of twenty-two years.
Ariya couldn’t control her excitement when she thought that right now she was floating in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean.
Allah! Is my dream really taking shape, Ariya mumbled to herself. Is my dream really coming true? I am starting on a voyage… I am starting on a voyage…
It was then that Ariya heard the distant sound of a little girl crying followed by voices quarrelling in Thai with a southern accent. She tried to listen carefully, but what she heard was some people speaking in English and in Japanese.
The next minute, the mumbling, whispering, calling and quarrelling rippled forth in dozens of languages.
All adding up to a deafening din in her ears.
Ariya tried to make sense of the clamour but her efforts were almost in vain.
Who are you? This is my sea. Don’t get near me, you hear! Rich people like you should get the hell out of here. Believe in Jesus! Give me a chance, will you. Daddy? Daddy? Daddyyyy? Oh Lord! Put your faith in Jesus! I guarantee I’ll lift you out of your underprivileged condition in— Allah! —one day. You should ask yourself what it is exactly you want. Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Because this is my house, my ancestors here have been— Man, let me tell you something. —for hundreds of years. Get a little closer to me, hon’. See that blond lad? That one there. Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Ah-ha! Actually you’re just a small-fry angler. Mummy? Mummy? Mummy? Get away from me! Believe in Jesus! Or else I’ll have one of my servants throw you out. My darling, my darling, mummy’s here! Allah! Allah! Believe in Jesus! Put your faith in Jesus! Go away! To redeem your sins. Go away! You seashore whore! You dirty massage girl! Will you all shut up! Don’t you know I own the hotel and all the grains of sand on this beach? Just get away from me. I’m on furlough. I don’t want to be soiled by you! Shut the fuck up, all of you! I’m here darling, I’m here darling – darling? Leave me alone, you hear. Those damn ragheads! Oh God! Don’t you dare touch me! Oh no son, that’s not a shark, don’t be afraid. Oh mummy! That’s not a shark at all. Oh! Oh! You heathens! Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid. You fiends! Orahang samma samphutthophakha-wa— Orahang samma… Help! Help me! See? I’ve got money. In the name of all mendicant monks, everything that the people of the world including angels, devils, Brah— Here’s my money, see? Help me! Go away! You Burmese trash! They’re just cheap foreign labour. Hurry up to climb the coconut tree. Go away! Run up the hill, quick! You dago! Climb higher! Higher! A shark! Dirty foreign labour. A shark! Higher! A shark! Shut your mouth, you hear! I come from America, dammit…
A long time later, those voices gradually weakened until they faded into the distance.
As the morning sun grew fierce, a wake of buzzards drew circles on the dark-indigo slate of the sky.
Far away, on the horizon, a black dot appeared and grew and a deafening roar spread between sea and sky.
The next moment, a similar noise was heard also, but this time it was the drone of a boat. Not long after the drone of the boat, another helicopter rattled the sky from a direction opposite to the first two.
They must be searching for me, Ariya thought.
A wave pushed a batch of wreckage towards her and in the middle of that wreckage a young white man was fighting off a sheath of quivering fish clinging to his slender body.
The next minute another wave rolled over the young man, bringing him close to Ariya, so the whole shoal of fish left his slim golden body and turned round to assault her.
By then Ariya was thinking of her mother, thinking of travelling far away. If her mother was close by, the door to a long voyage would be locked, but in the absence of her mother she felt lonely and sad.
The young woman thus asked herself what was better: being found by a helicopter crew and returned to her mother on the Andaman island or eluding their search to make for the archipelago of her dream.
But then harassment by the fish was such that the thread of her thoughts snapped.
Mummy, help me. Please mummy.
Ariya tried to flail her arms around blindly but her body was too numb and sluggish to be able to protect itself from the nimbleness of the fish.
She felt drained as bits of her flesh were torn off and gobbled up by the fish. And then a wave pulled her body underwater for a few seconds and the wicked shoal of fish fled in terror.
That was the first thing that flashed through Ariya’s mind.
In this extensive stretch of sea, she thought, no other animal than the killer from the deep could have raised panic among the gnawing fish.
But then a voice arose from the clutter of wreckage bobbing towards the young woman’s body.
The voice was hoarse and off pitch; the accent, that of a farang speaking Thai.
* Assalamu ’Alaikum, Arabic for ‘Peace be with you’; Sawatdee or Sawasdi, Thai for ‘goodness, virtue, beauty, prosperity, progress’ – in one word, in this context, for both expressions: ‘Hello!’
That voice was heard again, right as the same rush of fish returned to assault her once again.
In her astonishment and gagging panic, Ariya heard a loud voice chasing the nasty shoal of fish from her body but they were swift enough to steal a chunk of flesh off her hip.
Happy New Year, the voice said from close by. My name is Jonathan.
Ariya cast her eyes towards the source of the voice. A young man with golden hair was sending her a smile from among the wrecks. The young woman from the Andaman lowered her eyes out of modesty.
Happy New Year. My name is Jonathan.
Happy New Year. I… my name is Ariya.
From the day she fell under the full fury of the mighty sea on that late morning of Sunday 26th December 2004, from the day her body was snatched into its murky numbing depths, from the day she bobbed back to the surface, from the day she was assailed by evil creatures from the open sea and open sky, it was only this minute that Ariya felt the mighty sea to be a comfort and a true friend.
She wasn’t sure whether this was because today was the first morning of the new year or for some other reason.
Where are you from, Ariya? Jonathan twisted his body towards her.
Instead of answering, Ariya asked in turn, What about you, Jonathan? Where are you from?
From Scandinavia and I’m on my way to the Maldives.
The Maldives. I’m going to the Maldives, Ariya.
Jonathan, are you telling me we are now in the Indian Ocean?
That’s what I figure.
Are you kidding me, Jonathan? The young woman from the Andaman just couldn’t keep her excitement and pleasure out of her voice.
I was born on a small island in the Andaman, Ariya said, but those Paradise-like islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean are the only dream in my life.
Are you kidding me, Ariya?
Something tells me, the young woman said, that my true life is there, Jonathan.
In that case… The young Scandinavian smiled sweetly. We’ll go and celebrate the New Year there together. Shall we?
The Indian Ocean lightly ripples. Jonathan flings out an arm and his hand touches the hand of the young woman. Ariya closes her eyes. A smile blossoms at the corner of her mouth as she gently takes the young man’s hand.
The helicopters and the boat roar around again but it seems that the young man and woman don’t hear them.
A spring of flying fish plays leapfrog with the waves, their small bodies sheathed in gold by the morning sun.
And in the rippling of the waves two bodies float side by side, headed towards the Maldive archipelago, the Promised Land in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
[Translated from Khao Karn Hai Pai Khong A-riya Lae Rueang Uen-uen (About Ariya’s Disappearance and Other Stories), Siriworn Kaewkan, Phajon Phai Samnakphim, Bangkok, 2006; short-listed for the 2008 SEA Write Award. First published in English in the Bangkok Post 6 October 2008.]