My father has five sons, but today he will take me fishing, and not on a lake. We will go far out where the sky’s round lid covers the sea.
The street lights cut triangles from the afternoon shade forming under the roof of our apartment. I close my eyes and sniff my way to my father’s green truck, to the smell of seaweed and dead fish. All can be forgiven because of that smell.
I scoot next to the lunch box sandwiched between him and me. Ba drags on his Marlboro while steering the truck out of the gravel parking lot. The smell I like is slowly swallowed by burning tobacco, a smell I hate. I count the number of red cars on the parkway and try not to cough or roll down the window, because the boys would never do that. Even my younger brother, who’s only seven, can take lungs and lungs of that smoke. I am ten. When Ba was ten, he had his own boat and fished by himself.
I turn the volume of the car stereo all the way to the right; it only hums and buzzes. Ba has put on tires, brakes, mufflers, and other parts he bought from Don’s Auto Salvage but he never bothers with the radio. A little cassette player is just what we need—I keep the thought to myself.
“There’s no wind, we’ll catch a few tuna, won’t we, Ba?” I want to say a boat-full of tuna, but Ba would scold me because boasting would make the Sea God mad.
“Uh.” Ba lights another cigarette.
He drives off Parkway South and loops through the double circle of exit 98. Route 10 is the shortest part of our way to Belmar. On both sides of the road, dozens of small shops face empty parking lots. A few family restaurants advertise fish sandwiches on hand-painted signs with drawings of waves, clams, and lobsters, but no fish.
Ba stops in front of Dianna’s Minimarket opposite Golden Eagle Harbor with big white ships, tree-lined sidewalks, concrete benches, and a new dock with metal railings. Dianna’s Minimarket, although smaller than the 7-Eleven in the center of the harbor, offers everything from sodas to hot dogs. Ba buys a bag of ice. He lets me pop a cube into my mouth while we wait at the bottom of Belmar Drawbridge. In a slow upward lift, the two metal spans part. Inch by inch, they expose the body of water beneath. A loud bang, like railcars disconnecting, runs my imagination wild—some jerks messing with the bridge locks, a power outage, collapsing spans? Our truck and all the cars behind us would be caught in an all-night traffic storm, my father would turn his truck around, and the boys would laugh and blame the whole mishap on me because I’m just bad luck. A large gray ship breaks through the inlet. The vertical spans come down faster than they went up. We make it across the bridge. The truck takes a sharp left and follows the small signs planted on both sides of a long gravel road. The words “Tom’s Marina” are scribbled on the wooden boards like those on a child’s treasure map.
Arriving at Tom’s Marina is special, like coming home from school hungry and finding leftover caramel chicken being warmed on the stove. One boat, two boats, a village of boats, their cabin lights dim in the den of dusk like oil lamps in straw huts. The boats docking in Tom’s Marina are toy sized compared to the yachts in fancy harbors. I jump out of the truck to a dock full of Ba’s smell, a whole sea of him, salty and wet. I am glad. This is the only place where Ba can be happy, and when he’s happy, my father is a good man.
Raincoats, plastic water cans, empty baskets, and mended nets—Ba juggles everything in both arms. “Don’t forget the lunch box,” he reminds me. His voice is only a small note on the pier, smaller than the thumping of the waves against the many legs of the dock.
I throw the lunch box strap around my neck and run after him. I wait for Ba to get out of the engine cabin before jumping onto the boat. I want him to see how I can leap and land without making a sound.
Wind finds Ba’s small boat before we can break through the inlet. Five-foot waves come straight at us. They take our boat in their palms, toss it, and throw it to one another to tell Ba that his Vietnamese boat-making skills aren’t good enough for the American sea—thin wood and few nails. But Ba leans against the wind and steers our boat to shout back that he has ridden much bigger waves. I stand next to him without flinching or holding onto the cabin rail. My stomach comes up my throat. I bite my teeth and push the churn back down.
The waves do not give in until midnight. No clouds, nothing to steal the light from the star-festive sky. Thousands of light dots swim downstream of our boat. A moon would have put Ba in the mood for a country song, an ancient proverb, or a story, perhaps one about a fishing trip with his father when he had the biggest catch of his life.
Ba shows me how to control the hand gear, pulling it toward me and pushing it away. Water taps the sides of the boat as we slow down. Ba throws down the anchor. Within seconds, the deep sea swallows our entire anchor rope. He waves and I put the boat in reverse to let the anchor prongs bite into the seafloor. Ba lifts his face to the sky to mark where we are.
I turn off the engine. Our boat relaxes. The bright halo of our cabin light rocks on the calmer sea.
Holding a green net in both hands, Ba draws a big circle from one hip to the crown of his head and back. The net follows his arms and flies to the water.
I make the same move. My net does not make the leap. It drops right next to the boat.
I stop and study how Ba’s fingers rope around the border of the net—tighten when he draws the first half of the circle and open when the hand returns to the hip. His eyes sweep across the open sea while his body anchors from the knees like a kung fu master. The move, I realize, begins in the heels of his feet, not in his arms or hips.
I go over the steps in my head before casting my net.
Ba laughs and I hear cymbals and bells louder than pagoda music during Tet. It’s not the laugh of rice wine. On stormy days, when he can’t go to the sea, Ba drinks and laughs and breaks things in the house and hits Ma and curses at everybody, even at my youngest brother whom Ba carries on his shoulders like a prince. Rice wine is another smell of my father that I hate. At sea, Ba drinks only water. Out here he can’t see land and I think he pretends he’s still in Viet Nam where his parents are waiting for his fish at home, and his brothers and sisters and the entire village call him “Captain Thanh.”
We eat our noodles, waiting for dawn. Baby waves follow us, gray and silver. Dolphins and seals dive in and out of the water. When I finish, Ba quietly pours the rest of his noodles into my plastic cup. Everything tastes better at sea, even when you’re not hungry or too excited to eat. Like every other part of you, your tongue is happy.
Near the bow, fluorescent jellyfish synchronize their dances, opening and closing their gleaming skirts, disappearing and glowing with the quick flashes of fireflies.
Every sound—howling and shivering and whispering—makes a perfect backdrop for Ba’s ghost stories. Stories that I have heard a million times before but are still so scary I can’t sleep. Ba lets me lie on his lap. It’s the first time Ba has held me without giving me a beating.
I wake to a much colder sea even though the sky is warmed with morning.
Ba turns off the stern light and hands me a long pole with a big rusty metal hook at the end. He uses the hook to catch the fish that fall out of the net. The pole is so heavy and long that it almost pulls me into the water.
It’s ten times harder to gather the heavy nets than to cast them, but my blood just keeps rushing and I keep going. Bonitos, blue fish, mackerel, tuna, albacore. I like the roughness of the net and the slime of the fish. Suddenly, the cold is gone from my bones.
We catch so many fish that Ba tells me to throw back the small ones. They’re worth nothing and just weigh down the boat.
Two birds soar above us. One breaks in and out of the water as fast as a flying fish. Has to be a girl! I throw a small albacore in her direction. Within seconds, she rises from the water’s surface with the bait in her beak. More birds fly toward us. They don’t circle the boat like the girl. They work the baits fast, catching some of the fish in the air.
“It’s too heavy,” I complain, hooking the border of the net to the rail pole before it slips back into the water.
“Heavy net, heavy fish,” says Ba.
I lean over to see if it is a large tuna or blue fish that is weighing the boat to the side. My heart jumps at the sight of a large dorsal fin. “Ba!” I point at the shark, longer than my arm span, half caught and half free in the water.
Ba continues to sort his fish. Not even a glance in my direction.
The beast waits in the water, alive and staring at me with daunting eyes. His silvery purple head is twice as big as mine, jaws as square as match boxes. Should I kill him or let him go? He’s not a bug or a fly. He has father fish and brother fish waiting to avenge him. If I could only clamp him between my knees, as I can with my youngest brother, he would be dead meat. But looking at his rows and rows of teeth, I see how quickly my hand would come off if it were to be anywhere near his mouth.
Ba is busy filleting a baby bonito for baits. And this is my shark!
Using the metal pole with a large hook, I try to untangle the net around the shark’s fins, but he keeps launching his mouth at the pole. I end up bonking his head. He coils, flexes, and thrashes the water white. The more he wriggles, the tighter the net holds him. I pull back the pole and shake the net with my hand, hoping he will escape on his own.
He lunges at me.
I jump back, lurch around, slip in the slime of fish, and fly. The net follows my fall and the shark leaps free into the air. We land on the stern floor.
On board, the shark still beats his tail. I try to grab it, but his head whips around full circle. I flip to the side. My leg misses his mouth by an inch.
I almost call for Ba.
I try the pole again. The stubborn beast goes for the hook as if it were my hand. Once he has the hook in his mouth, no matter how deep or hard I plunge the pole, he grips on. I drag him to the mound of fishing nets and throw layers on top of him.
The shark’s head bobs up and down as if it were still in deep water. At whatever angle I position myself, I know his humongous mouth will strike for a piece of me. I should probably wait; sooner or later, he will die. But without looking my way, Ba throws me his long knife coated with fish blood. I can tell from the way he has been ignoring me that he’s very disappointed. A boy would have killed that shark already. I grab the knife and jump on top of the shark and lock him between my thighs. Holding onto his fin with one hand, I drive the knife into his eyes. The shark jerks, not as quickly or forcefully as when he could see. I rub his rough cold back to calm him down, the way my grandmother does after Ba gives me a beating. The beast stays still. I release some of the net, hook my hand under his gill, and draw the knife across his throat.
Wavelets gather to roof-tile the sea. I swing the severed head far away from the boat. It enters the water with ease—barely a splash. The ocean takes time swallowing it as if aware that the offering cannot swim away.
The bright star Ba marked with his eyes is no longer above us. I stretch out, arms resting on the stern rail. Tuna and bluefish are piled up to the height of the cabin, their faces as defenseless now as when they were in the nets—mouths shut and eyes plastic.
Ba reaches for his knife next to the headless shark. He presses a hard hand on a tiny mackerel and slides the knife along its backbone. The sharp edge slices across the fish, tail to head, down the spine. With the blade flat, he flips the fish and slits another even piece. The third cut chops down at the neck and detaches not only fillets but also the head. Ba drops the fish skeleton in a separate bucket for us to make sour soup on our way back to the shore, the way his father did when Ba was a boy.
A wave jolts the boat. Bruise-colored blood flushes out of the shark and spreads. The hard part is over, I tell myself. No need to flip a coin now. How hard could it be to move a headless shark? I sit up and reach for its tail.
“Aaaah!” Along with liver and intestines, something alive spills out of the hole where the shark’s head used to be, tiny and white, moving in the pool of red slime.
It’s back. No longer headless, and not as one shark, but three.