Sunday, May 31 2020


During anchovy season

Update: September, 13/2009 - 00:00

Short Story

Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy


During anchovy season

by Tran Minh Hop

Nuc Village is well known for its anchovies. When anchovy season arrives, the fishermen in the village get their fishing boats ready to head offshore. This job passes down from generation to generation. The anchovies here seem to be much better than those caught in other places – they look fatter and fleshier. Even several days after being caught, the fish still live, kicking convulsively.

During the sea-going season, the atmosphere in the village is lively and festive. Anchovies can be eaten in many different ways. They can be steamed and eaten with vegetables dipped in garlic infused fish sauce, boiled in coconut milk or grilled to eat with burnt rice. What a taste! The fish is also made into fish sauce, the quality of which can not be matched!

When the wind blows powerfully, around the middle of the year, the fishermen go off to catch anchovies. The night before the start of the season, the village is always brightly lit while the villagers prepare for the next day. Old men mend the nets. Women buy meat, rice, vegetables, sugar, salt, coal, alcohol, cigarettes, medicine, and so on and so forth. Girls buy ice to preserve the catch, candies, milk, and coffee, while children run for fresh water. In short, everyone has to help get everything good and ready for their dear ones to live and drift about the sea for several days. All the fishermen, men and boys, are forbidden from consuming any hard alcohol and went to bed earlier than usual to have sufficient energy for the long voyage ahead.

When anchovy season arrives, the villagers in Nuc forage for as many coconut palms as possible from the nearby villages and hamlets because the green leaves help lure more anchovies for the catch. The fish rush to live and play in the green leaves, not knowing about the danger that awaits them there. The coconut palm leaves also have a particular fragrance that could attract a whole school. After throwing the leaves into the water, the fishermen would have time to enjoy some coffee or alcohol. A short while later, they throw in the net to catch a whole lot of fish. It is very funny during anchovy season to see all the threadbare coconut trees left behind on land.

Giang, one of the young boys in the village, aspired to go sea faring one day. At his young age, he already looked robust. He was also a good swimmer with no credible opponents. He had to drop out of school in ninth grade when the school was destroyed by a tidal wave. He did not want to move to the other school, which was a long way from home. His parents agreed with his decision.

Giang was in love with Ngan, another Nuc village citizen. The night before he went out to sea, he asked her to a cafe.

"You’re going off to sea tomorrow, aren’t you, Giang?" Ngan asked.

"Oh, yes. I.... I’ll have a long voyage, you see," Giang answered.

"Please take this. It’s a balm you can use when you have a headache. And hey, don’t vomit into the boat, if you get sea sick."

"Will you miss me?"

"A bit...."

"Don’t ask such a question in this crowded place. It’s so strange, you know!"

Giang laughed.

The morning they started out to sea the beach was jammed with people. Waves rushed with a roar onto the shore. Women, girls and children stood there, waving good-bye to their dear ones, touched with sadness. The boats were gradually dropping out of sight. Those who stayed behind were praying for a favourable and thriving season, with boats full of anchovies.

As usual, during anchovy season, Nuc Village was left unguarded by men. Only a few boys were left behind playing. The women and girls had nothing to do. They sat at home, waiting and listening to old songs in the morning and then going to the market and cooking in the afternoon. Then they cleaned the house and fed the children. Day in and day out, they followed the same routine. In the evening, they would gather in on of the village shops to eat some fruit.

A distant storm was announced one day, so they all sat there in fear and high anxiety. The village was so deserted and dismal then. Ngan sat there thinking that in a few years’ time, she would be bearing the same fate as the other female villagers. She would also have to sit and listen to music, go to the market and do the cooking. And last of all, she would have to feed her child while waiting for news about her husband from a far, far away place. Ngan’s heart seemed to surge with the waves.

During his first day on the high seas, Giang sat on the prow of the boat and looked at the immense sky in amazement, then out over the rippling peaceful sea. The wind was blowing through his hair and his body, covering him with a feeling of freshness. He loved the sea so much, as much as he loved Ngan. He believed that there would be no choice between the sea and Ngan, because Ngan and the sea were one – inseparable.

"Here is ok!" one of the boat’s fishermen shouted. The engine went dead and the boat immediately stopped. All around, the water was a deep blue colour. Giang jumped directly into the sea, so deft and quick, as if he had been going out hunting fish for a long time. Every now and then he rose up to the surface, saying: "Dad, it’s a good place to trap the fish here!" Finally he climbed onto the boat. The fishermen threw the green stems of coconut palm leaves in the water to attract the anchovies.

"Shall I jump into the sea again to see if the fish are coming, Dad?"

"Oh, no! The fish will leave if you do so. Don’t be foolish, dear!" his father said.

The next day, the net would be spread over the area for the first catch. It was night time and almost everyone was enjoying a few drinks on the boat. Giang was still lying on his back on top of the boat, enjoying the bright moon light. The sea wind was blowing cold, freezing Giang, but he liked it. He missed Ngan so much. Tomorrow when the boats returned to shore full of anchovies, he would see his sweetheart again, Giang thought.

The first catch of the season was a great success. When they pulled the net onto the boat, the fish were so heavy that the prow of the boat seemed about to break under the strain. Giang smiled a radiant smile, hoping that he would be the "number one" anchovy catcher in Nuc Village. The boat was roaring home to the shore, back to Nuc Village where the women were desperately expecting their husbands and sons. This time, there were no storms.

On the day the boats were returning home, the beach was again crowded with women, girls and children. It was the same scene as the day their husbands and sons had left the village. Many villagers were coming and carrying baskets full of fish home with their shoulder poles. Tonnes of fish traders were seen crowding the beach, too, just to bargain and buy the fish. It would be very profitable for Nuc Village if these traders were to buy their anchovies from here. The village would again be seething and busy. They would organise a celebration to enjoy a bumper anchovy harvest with lots of overnight drinking.

The anchovies this season were even better than normal. They were fleshy and fresh, and looked delicious. All the boats were bursting with fish. Giang jumped from one boat to another until he reached the wharf to look for Ngan. Ten days away from each other; it was quite a long time for him. The more he loved her, the more he missed her.

And then there was one anchovy season after another…

Year in and year out, Giang and his friends had earned the reputation as key anchovy catchers of Nuc Village. After their fathers were old enough to retire, the younger boys stepped into their shoes. Giang took great pride in achieving his lifelong aspiration, which had hatched when he was still a little boy. The end of this season meant he would marry Ngan, Giang thought. He would buy her a pair of gold earrings and take her to town to buy things for their own home. The house looked out onto the sea and it had a nice quiet view of Nuc Village. Happiness was about to bloom near the sea shore. Giang felt so happy and satisfied. The love between him and Ngan had seen no storms.

The last anchovy catch of the season was over.

Giang went home, took a bath and changed into brand new clothes. He looked at himself in the mirror again and again and then went over to Ngan’s house. The sea waves were beating upon the shore so powerfully tonight. But Ngan was no longer living at the house in Nuc Village. She had left him a letter:

"Giang, go and look for another girl. In this life we won’t belong to each other, even though you love me so dearly...." The letter was like an afternoon song sung by a drunkard at the cafe in the lane.

Ngan had left one afternoon in a howling wind, an afternoon similar to any other during a new anchovy season. She was afraid of having such a small human body on such an afternoon: sitting against the pillar of a house, listening to old songs, eating guavas and waiting for her husband.

Giang was taken aback. It was an unexpected moment for him, that he had to choose between the sea and Ngan. He knew that he belonged to the sea, to Nuc Village. Forever! Now Ngan and the sea were inseparable no more.

The wind was blowing hard, and it was again the middle of the year and anchovy season was coming soon.

The night before all the men went to sea, Nuc Village was brightly lit again.

Translated by Manh Chuong

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