Jing Hwan Khoo
They said they did their best. They couldn’t save her. It was too late. He didn’t blame them. They did what they could.
He cycled home beneath the starry night, a baby nestled in the crook of his elbow. He named the baby Umi, after the sea.
The funeral was a simple one, attended only by the village chief, whom he had been friends with since he was seven. She was buried in the back yard. He didn’t mourn for her after that. She wouldn’t have wanted that. There was only one drop of tear. The agony came out of nowhere. When it happened, he dropped the net and sat down in his boat. Split seconds later, it was gone. By then, the teardrop was indistinguishable from the drops of perspiration on his face. A few minutes later, the teardrop had returned to the sea.
At the age of five, Umi fell in love with the sea. The chief’s wife, who helped take care of Umi when he was out to the sea, once brought Umi out to the sea shore to meet him when he returned. She later told him that, at the sight of his boat surfacing from the horizon, Umi made for the sea. He struggled and swallowed a considerable amount of water, but already he managed to paddle himself around when his father made it to the shore.
For the first time, he felt a sense of pride. That night, he grilled extra fish and had the chief and his family over for dinner. When the festivity was over, he walked out to the sea, a bottle of sake in his hand, and toasted her and the sea.
The very next day, he took a day off to send Umi to school in the town. The chief’s wife could have done it, but he wanted to be there for Umi. He put on his best clothes, including a long-sleeved shirt that would hopefully hide his tan, and cycled to town with Umi behind him.
He watched outside the classroom as Umi befriended the little girl sitting beside him. And he stood there until the teacher asked him to leave. He didn’t leave. He waited outside the school until school was over. Umi came out with the teacher, who asked for a moment of his time. She led him to the principal’s office. Umi waited outside while they told him that his son couldn’t go to school there anymore. They said he wasn’t as smart as the other kids, that he was different. They said that there were better alternatives for Umi, provided he could pay for it. Otherwise, there was nothing they could do.
He didn’t blame them. He thanked them and led Umi home. In the sunset were the silhouettes of a father pushing a bicycle and his son trailing behind him. Umi was telling him about the girl he had met in class. He, on the other hand, was thinking about how to explain to Umi that he couldn’t see the girl any-more.
If Umi was sad about it, he didn’t show it. He was too young to realize the implications. Umi learnt to take care of himself and the shack that they lived in. When his father was not home, he would clean the shack, prepare meals and even help out the chief’s wife on errands to town. He made friends with children from the village. They would organize their own secret excursions that were not so secret into the mountain or the town.
On his twelfth birthday, Umi said it would be nice to have a guitar, just like the one he saw on the TV in the chief’s home. For every day of the next six months, he left for the sea early in the morning and didn’t come back before sundown. He stopped taking days off, even when he was sick or when the storm was approaching.
The present was a week late, but Umi loved it. It never left his arms, not even when he slept or when he ate. He had it with him wherever he went.
On days when the sea was not being especially friendly, he would bring Umi along to the mountain where he picked mushrooms. Other days, Umi would follow him out to the sea. On all these occasions, Umi would have the guitar with him. When Umi sang, it reminded him of his wife. It also scared away the fish some-times.
Then a letter came for Umi. He was sixteen. Presumably in one of Umi’s secret excursions to town, they had heard his singing. They said he was good, so much better than the others. They said that he was different, that he was special.They invited Umi to the big city, way bigger than the town they were used to, where all Umi had to do was to sing and play music instruments. All those for free.
Umi was hesitant to leave his father. But the letter had lit up a flame in Umi’s eyes that even his father didn’t fail to notice.
One day, when Umi was not home, he went into Umi’s room and packed his bag. Then, he cooked all of Umi’s favorite dishes. Umi came back long after dinner time. By then, he was fast asleep on the dinner table. Umi, upon seeing this, woke him up and exclaimed his hunger. They had the late dinner together. The food was cold, but Umi finished it. Then, they took a walk out at the shore. A single star tried to light up the night sky. He told Umi to go.
Umi left the next day.
He had no TV in his shack, nor did he have newspaper subscription. Once in a while, he would go to the chief’s house to watch the TV when he was told that Umi was going to be on it. The chief would also come running, despite his limp, with a newspaper in his hand when there was any news of Umi. He didn’t understand much of what was happening out there, but it seemed that people loved Umi.
Umi came back from time to time. Sometimes, he would be back home for weeks. Sometimes, not for months. He frequently went on what he called “tours”, where he would fly around the world to sing on stages and thousands would sing along with him. He told his father interesting stories about the world out there. He talked about how it felt flying for the first time, going on stage for the first time and getting an award for the first time. And he never failed to tell his father how great it felt to be singing along with a sea of people, and how much it reminded him of his first listeners - his father and the sea.
A crowd of thousands of people was beyond his imagination. He had never seen such a crowd in his life. The only thing that came to mind during these conversations was his son singing on his boat and scaring off all the fishes.
As time went by, they started coming in droves. Some of them would ask for interviews, some for photographs. He would reject them all. When their determination to get a few words out of him was especially dogged, he would simply shut the door or sail out to the sea. He was but an old man who knew nothing about their world out there. He didn’t know what he could say that would be of help to Umi. He was glad enough that he didn’t embarrass his son.
Every month, Umi sent him checks the figure of which was enough to retire him from the sea. He merely kept the money in his bank account, which he had set up for this purpose alone. And every time Umi came back, he had a new guitar on his back. He never brought the old one with him anymore. It only sat in the corner of his room.
Every day, he would clean his son’s guitar. He didn’t know how to properly tune a guitar or to take care of it, but he figured it was wood all the same. Wiping it every day wouldn't hurt.
Umi asked him to go live in the city with him. He said that the tour was over and that he would settle down in the city to do what they called “records”.
He refused. He had lived by the sea all his life. The city was no place for an old man like him. He would be a burden to his son. And she was here. He couldn’t just leave her behind. The chief helped him get a landline telephone in his shack. Human inventions were wondrous, he thought. Now, he didn’t have to walk to the chief’s house to talk to his son anymore.
This “record” thing Umi was doing seemed to be a really time-consuming endeavor. Most of the time, when he felt like talking to his son, somebody else would pick up the phone and tell him to call again later. The telephone in his shack seemed to only accentuate how little he got to talk to his son. After a while, he stopped trying to call his son, and resorted to only wait for Umi’s calls. They were few and far between. When Umi didn’t call for a consecutive six months, he got rid of the telephone in a fit of anger.
A few months later, news about Umi trickled. Also trickled was the frequency with which the chief came running with a newspaper. The chief also told him that the TV was broken and that he couldn’t watch news about Umi in his house anymore.
He was an old man without education, but he was not stupid. He knew that the chief was not the kind of person to let his TV remain broken and not fix it. He knew enough to worry.
Sitting at the porch, he cleaned Umi’s guitar, caressing its every corner almost mechanically. And then it came. Its grip started at his left hand, crawled up his arm and settled on his chest. He collapsed, and the guitar smashed to pieces on the ground.
He was in the sea. It was a calm night. The wind was gentle, and his boat cradled him. The night sky was without star. The waves sang an ancient tune.
He opened his eyes to the chief and a nurse, both staring down at him. Umi was already on his way back, the chief said. He would be here by dawn. Umi wanted to go home. He wanted to leave everything in the city behind and go back to his father. Umi wanted to perform for his father. The chief apologized for keeping Umi’s news from him. He said Umi injured himself falling from the stage and he didn’t want to worry him. But Umi was fine now. And Umi was coming home.
Upon hearing this, a wave of exhilaration hit him, followed almost immediately by fatigue. He was drifting back to sleep. Before lethargy took over him, he said to his friend, “This is my only selfish wish. Don’t tell Umi... He is my son... Make sure he knows that... He is my son.” Umi was coming home. He went to sleep with a smile on his face. Umi would be here the next time he opened his eyes.
That night, he dreamed about leaving the hospital and walking back home. The usual road was dark, but a beam of light and a familiar melody from afar led him to his shack. His wife and Umi were waiting for him. Umi was singing with his old guitar at the front porch where light spilled out from the shack. There was actual food on the table, not the usual bland fish and mushrooms, but chicken and potatoes and his favorite beef stew. She looked up from the dinner table and said to him, “Welcome home.”
He woke up, tears streaming down his face and blood spilling down his nose, and got dressed. He didn’t have much time.
His shack was empty and dark. Pieces of Umi’s guitar glittered under the moonlight. He walked past them to his boat.
The night sky was full dark; and dawn refused to come still.
In the unending night, only the stargazer saw the lone star.
In the fading starlight, an old man rowed into the night.
Never to be seen again.
Humming a familiar tune, the sea took him.
The sea took him.