A riverbank and a conversation between father and son sets the scene for this ‘Monsoon Solitaire’ entry from Laurence Stevens.
The mountains surrounding the river were thick with trees and mottled dark and bright green from where clouds blocked the sun. The river ran smooth, shining like a rink of rippled brown glass. Close to the bank the fishing boat bobbed in the water and was tied to the bamboo jetty by a length of frayed blue rope. The boat’s chipped white paint had been baked pale yellow by the sun and a brown water mark stained halfway up the hull. On the deck, the father lay snoozing underneath a stringed tarpaulin as he awaited his son.
The roar of a dry motorbike engine filled the yard. The father turned his head and saw his son lugging a trailer of rattling wooden planks and tools with the rusted 87’ Honda Dream. Chickens clucked and flapped through the cloud of brown dust the bike left in its trail. The boy pulled up next to the riverbank and turned the key in the ignition, killing the engine in a splutter.
“Did you find everything?” said the father.
“Everything,” said the boy.
“Did they understand you?”
“Of course,” said the boy.
The father got up and stretched out his arms. A weak breath of wind stoked the breeze as he stood, and the dry wood of the boat creaked as he descended the ladder to the jetty.
“Throw me a beer,” said the father.
The boy opened the orange plastic cooler, plunged his hand into the iced water and grabbed a semi-frozen can of Angkor Gold, throwing it to his father. The father cracked open the can and drank. It was slushed with ice but went down his gullet refreshing and delicious.
“What do you know about boats?” said the father.
“They float and take you places,” said the boy.
“That’s the short of it,” said the father.
“I don’t think this boat will, though,” said the boy.
The boy looked at the boat.
“There’s too many holes, and the wood looks rotten. When it rains, it’ll sink.”
For 20 years, the former owner had sailed the boat into the Gulf of Thailand to net mackerel and longtail tuna. The fisherman’s sinewed body had been tanned a dark brown by the sun, and he’d been glad to be rid of the boat so he could settle on land to grow mango and short fruit.
“Holes can be patched,” said the father, taking another swig of beer.
The boy’s face hardened.
“I think it’s sailed as far as it can go.”
“Maybe, but the winds will turn soon, and she will sail upriver, renewed. Mark my words,” said the father.
The boy’s eyes rested on his father.
“What?” said the father.
“Nothing,” said the boy. “But why do we have to leave and go up the river?”
“There’s nothing here for us son, not anymore.”
“But what about…” said the boy, looking back towards the yard.
“It’s ok,” said the father, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “We can’t stay on the riverbank forever. I am old, but you will soon be a man, and the world is that way,” he said, pointing upstream.
The boy looked from his father’s shimmering green eyes to the fishing boat that had been whittled by storms and high seas.
“Maybe she’ll sail, if we fix her properly,” said the boy.
“She will. Now, help me with the tools,” said the father, smiling.
The father and the boy walked to the trailer. The father grabbed three lengths of timber and a metal toolbox from the trailer, throwing the stack of timber up onto his shoulder with ease.
“Bring the hand plane, we will need it,” said the father.
The boy picked up a tool shaped like a shoe, with a circular brass handle at either end, one slightly larger than the other. As they reached the boat, the father stopped and waited by the ladder.
“Welcome aboard,” said the father, holding out his hand and motioning the boy forward.
The boat sank and swayed under the boy’s weight as he climbed the ladder and boarded. It was a strange sensation that seemed to treble in power as his father clambered aboard after him. They set the tools and planks down on the deck, its pale-brown panels run smooth from decades of trampling footsteps. On the bow a gaping hole looked like an escape hatch and deep grooves from the pull of ropes pitted the stern. There was much work to be done, the father reflected.
“When will we leave?” said the boy.
“Soon. The fish spawn in upland lakes when the river’s low, but when the rains return, and the rivers rise, they’ll spread. We’ll catch them for food.”
“But what about the storms?”
“Storms make the trees drip fruit, and the frogs come out their holes, and snakes follow to feast upon them. Our larder will be full by the time we reach the city.”
“Will it be the same when we go upriver?” said the boy.
The father paused and grabbed the hand plane.
“No, it will not. And it will not be easy.”
“Then why leave?”
“Do you wish to stay here on the riverbank for the rest of your life?”
The boy looked away to the mountains. The shade of green grew darker as the afternoon approached.
“No, but why can’t we go downstream to the sea? We can go the beach, and fish for tuna and stingray, like usual. We can swim in the ocean and sleep each night under the stars.”
“We head for the city. One day, you will come back the owner of this plot of land, and then you can holiday by the seaside. You will need to take care of…”
The father’s voice trailed off as he looked back toward the yard.
“We all have a journey we must take,” said the father, returning his gaze to the boy. “Come, pass me the tape measure. We will need to patch the hole on the bow.”
“You won’t leave me once we’re there, will you?” said the boy.
The father stopped and stared at his son a moment.
“I can only promise that by the time I leave, you will be ready,” said the father.
“Ready for what?”
“For life, my son, and for wherever it leads you.”
The boy looked to the mountains. They were dark green.