When The Boat Comes In (July 2021)
By Liam A. Spinage
Every morning, Anfu walks over the rickety wooden bridge at the entrance to the harbour and sits cross-legged on the pier, staring out at the ocean.
Other inhabitants of their little fishing town bring him hot sticky buns, little bowls of noodle broth and thimbles of plum wine, which they leave on a salt-stained wooden tray that Xoshi the carpenter has made for him. He always looks up, smiles enigmatically for a moment and then returns to his vigil. Hours later, when they return to collect the empty bowls, he is still there.
When strangers come to the village, which they rarely do except to bring fresh produce or bad news, they often remark at Anfu in his robe of red silk and his wooden painted shoes, sitting at the edge of the water, looking out into the ocean.
“That’s Anfu,” one of the harbourfolk would reply. “His love died at sea.” They say this like it explains everything. It never does, not to a visitor. The stranger would then nod sagely, or lower their head in sorrow, or both. Then they would conclude their business and be back on their way inland. Anfu remains seated throughout, alone and vigilant, silently contemplating the fathoms before him.
One day, dignitaries come to the village. This time they come not from inland, but down the coast in a little boat. They have their servants with them, who do all the rowing and then all the carrying. Meanwhile, the old men try to write on scrolls while being tossed from side to side in their little boat. Anfu watches them come into the harbour and then turns his attention back into the ocean. One of the venerable old men, his wispy grey beard blown sideways by the stiff spring breeze, asks him a question, but Anfu does not hear it nor does he answer. Only when one of the servants tugged his sleeve does Anfu pay any attention.
“I have been asked to ask you what it is that you do here.”
Anfu looks thoughtful, but his gaze does not shift. “I am looking out to sea for my love who was lost but will one day return.”
The servant turns to his master, who confers at length with his fellows. They do not seem to agree on a response but eventually one of them replies.
“Why mourn all day and all night? Why hope beyond hope? There is much to be done in the fields hereabouts to plant and sow. There is much to be done in the villages to fix rope and hammer nails for the boats.”
Anfu strokes his beard thoughtfully. “I will wait here until the boat comes in. It will be here soon. This I do every day for all those who have lost their loved ones to the ocean. It is tradition.”
Other townsfolk, who have gathered round to see who has arrived, all agree.
“It is tradition, he waits for the boat to come in.”
One of the dignitaries speaks up, berating his servant with a stick as he does so to ensure that he carries the packages with a straight back. “It is naught but a waste! There are better ways to spend your time than to wait forlornly and hope foolishly. Come with us, we will set you to work.”
Anfu does not move. He takes a bite of sweet pastry and lets the warm juices from the filling run down his chin. “I know where my place is. I know what my ritual is, how I want to live my life. The people would not bring me food if they did not think that the task I performed had merit.” This is the most he has said at one time in nearly a year. The townsfolk are amazed.
Another dignitary turns to the folk who stand on the harbour by them and addresses the crowd. “For what reason do you permit this sullen slovenliness?”
A young woman stands forward, unafraid. “We rely on the sea. We know it will give back as much as it has taken away. Anfu stands vigil for the day when the boat comes in.” She withdraws back to the crowd, arms locked in her sleeves. The crowd murmurs in agreement. The dignitary looks horrified but says nothing. Then, in a procession of heavily-laden servants, long beards and walking sticks, they make their way to a nearby hostelry to inquire of a room.
The sun sets. Anfu shifts on his jetty, but does not move. The young Mei, who spoke to the dignitaries earlier and whose wife was a pearl diver until she was lost, brings him a bowl of steaming noodles which smells strongly of ginger and two small red bean pastries with sesame in the crust. She stands next to Anfu and looks out as the red of the sun dips over the lip of the dark blue sea, decorating it with ribbons of red and pink as it says farewell for the day. She sighs.
“How long, Anfu. How long must we wait?”
“Not long now, no. Soon, I should think”. He raises a finger to the wind and dips a toe in the water “Yes," he repeats, “It will not be long now.”
Mei looks back at his long serene face, tanned with days of waiting under the sun, lined with months of waiting under warm skies, his eyes grey and his beard flecked with salt and tiny crumbs of pastry. Then she looks back at the gently lapping waves and the foam they leave around the struts of the jetty. She folds her arms, standing there beside him in silence until the moon rises and the stars shine.
The dignitaries sit quietly, their bellies full of noodles and their cups full of plum wine. Each of them is thinking nearly the same thing, but each of them has a different plan of action. Their disagreements are curtailed while they enjoy their food. Their servants in the next room are enjoying a round of dice. It is the only time they are left alone and they take that time very seriously, gambling with each other and comparing stories about their masters.
The door opens and there is Anfu. The room, once loud with laughter and the clanking of cups, descends into a low hush, One of the venerable masters notices and rises awkwardly from his chair.
“I see you have decided to agree with us. This is good. If there is nothing you can do here, you may sail with us down to the next village and then the next and so on until we find something productive for you to do.” Another of the dignitaries begins to rise as if to disagree with his companion, but evidently thinks better of it.
Anfu does not move. What was once a hush has become a murmur, the murmur becomes a tide of whispers until all their questions come crashing over their lips and break against the silent, unwavering Anfu.
“The boat has come in.”
Then there is a hurried fluster of activity. Chairs are pulled back as people rise. They clap each other on the back. Tears roll down faces. Behind the counter, Xoshi the carpenter hugs his wife Xi who runs the inn. Then everyone does the same thing - they reach into their garments and pull out a folded paper lantern. These are unfurled in unison. Candles are passed round and soon the tables are empty of light. The only lights in the inn now come from the lamps everyone is holding. Everyone but the confused dignitaries and their raucous gambling servants.
They all follow him out of the door: Mei first and then Xoshi and then Xi and then all the others. As the procession makes its way to the dock, they are joined by dark silhouetted figures lit only by their single, solitary candles in lanterns of red and pink folded paper. A thousand pinpricks of light descend to the sea where they huddle along the piers and jetties, each looking out to sea.
Floating into the bay is a boat. One might call it a ship, even, given its size. On this ship there are also a thousand pinpricks of light, a thousand candles in a thousand lanterns of pink and red, bobbing on a dark sea lit by the silver of the moon and its reflection in a thousand tiny ripples in the current as the boat draws near.
At the back of the crowd, without a candle and without a clue, stand the dignitaries. Their wizened faces are lined with confusion and dotted with bemusement.
The boat is very close now. The lights on its deck become more distinct. As it draws near to the harbour, a bell sounds on board and a plank is lowered. The crowd falls silent but surges slightly forward, right to the edge of the docks.
Figures begin to make their way down the plank, figures distinguishable only by the intricate colours and patterns on their lanterns, their forms otherwise indistinct from one another. Each is met in turn by a villager in tears which are a perfect mixture of the most profound sadness and the most radiant joy. There is laughter in those moments, there is warmth in the brief companionship, there is serenity in the meeting and the parting. Xoshi and Xi talk loudly with their eldest son. Mei puts her arms around her wife and is lost in her embrace.
Finally, Anfu is left alone on the edge of the water, looking out at the boat, then past the boat toward the sea and the distant skies beyond. When nobody is looking, he climbs the plank and boards, making his way to the middle of the deck. A figure envelops him. Their lanterns entwine. His love is no longer lost. They bow to each other, then clasp hands and finally hug for what feels like a lifetime.
Only the visitors stand alone now. Everyone else has a boon companion with a matching lantern and there are two thousand lights in the town square and across the street and all the way back to the harbour. The dignitaries scratch their long beards and nod quietly in reverence, then return to the inn to berate their gambling servants.
Finally, the ceremony of ghosts is over. Anfu rings the bell on the boat and the lanterns on the land part, half retreating into tall, thin houses and half back up the plank. When the tide turns — and turn it does within the hour — the boat floats gently back out to sea with its cargo of memories and its crew of the lost.
The next morning, everyone rises as if nothing has happened and goes about their business. But something has happened: their footfalls are less weary, their heads are held higher, their backs are straighter as they bow. Seeds are scattered, water is drawn from the wells, nails are hammered into planks. Each of these tasks is done a little faster than before, with a little more attention, with a little more flair. Everyone is busy.
Except for Mei, who walks over the rickety wooden bridge at the entrance to the harbour and sits cross-legged on the pier, staring out at the ocean. She waves a goodbye to her friend Anfu and then waits patiently.
Until the boat comes in.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Liam (@Tweedlesmart) is a former philosophy student, former archaeology educator and former police clerk who spends most of his spare time on the beach gazing up at the sky and across the channel while his imagination runs riot.