Children of the Sea

She’s moving slowly there under the village. Under the floorboards. A couple of hours ago the water would have reached far over her head. In another couple of hours this whole area will be dry. She’s moving slowly so not to distort the visibility. It’s just now, when the water is slowly withdrawing over the reef that the chance is best to spot a sea cucumber, an abalone snail or something else she can make a coin on. Not one movement is accidental. This is what she knows.

He is nine and the youngest, but still the one put in charge of the outboard motor. The east coast of Borneo is now just a thin line in the horizon. Dad is standing at the bow. One foot one the steering oar, gaze fixed 50 feet ahead. Their bogo skimming over the shallow reef. There’s the signal.

When she was first taught how, she can’t remember. Maybe it was as early as the very first day. The day she was born and her father invited the spirit in. When she in her father’s big hands was carried into the night and down into the boat. When her tiny bare feet where slowly lowered down through the water’s surface. Did she cry? She doesn’t know. But from that day the spirit of the sea was a part of her. Some call her sea gypsy. Some call her Bajau Laut. She doesn’t use any of those words. They’re just expressions made by land folk. Land is just an obstacle. She could swim before she learnt how to walk.

He turns off the engine and slides out over the gunwale with one end of the fishnet in his hands. A minute later they have surrounded all the fish in an area of one thousand square feet. The net being pulled in in such a way that only a few lucky pakapo manages to escape. The net is boiling with fish. The sound of thousands of them beating their tails against each other at the same time is like in a fryer, but not quite. Like small, living pieces og metal, yet not. They keep the catch, even though the largest fish is hardly an inch.

Before long her father is going to bring her smaller brother and her to the shore. She knows that. It’s like that in all the families in the village. After hundreds of years at sea, they will be the generation giving up. But since their aren’t from a country, no country wants them. Without papers they won’t let her go to school, and without education she is doomed to live her life begging. The trades she knows can’t be taught on a blackboard, and is worth nothing in the dry world. The world where the fish is bone free, and the children are raised in carriages.

Dad’s quiet on the way back to the village. After a whole day fishing there’s only one needle fish and to snappers laying on the flooring. His older brother glazes over at him laying on top of the net. Suddenly he reaches over pulling the net over him as if it was a duvet. A duvet just like the ones he’s been told that they have on shore. Then he starts singing loudly, the same song as the pretty girl sang when they left the village. Dad’s laughing, and the wet, sticky duvet is soothing under the harsh sun.

She’s watching mum watching dad while he is cleaning the net. Land folk taught dad to fish with dynamite and cyanide. Land folk taught mom that she’s nothing but “a rat”. That has taught her, their daughter, that it is only here, on this small stilt village, that she has any value. That this is the only place that will ever be her home.

Who ever said that you need to understand their language to understand? Who ever said that you need shoes to get somewhere? Have they ever heard the drums at sunrise? Have they ever ran, chased by the tide? Have they held a turtle egg?

Before long she will have to set her feet on dry land. Will dad cry? She thinks so.

by Kristian Bålsrød

Copyright 2014 A time to talk project. All rights reserved. Contact: atimetotalkproject at gmail dot com