Grailing Vol. 1, No. 2
Meat Eater, a story of decay by Bruna Gomes
Tangier was more than a memory of oranges, new poetry from Feby Joseph
One Small Battle..., Part 2 of 4 in the Orang Laut series by adventurer Captain Warren Blake
Witness Protection, poetry of dissembling by Ben Niles
by Bruna Gomes
I never smiled when the professor liked my answer. I didn’t want him to see my teeth, my mouth. I liked giving him thoughtful answers, though. He would pose a question to the class, his brows slanted, his voice grave, and while other students answered, I crafted sentences silently in my head, considering alternate routes of thought, abandoning a word if a student just said it, repairing the hole in the sentence, ensuring the answer was complete. Then, when I was confident, I would raise my hand, wait for his floating gaze to fall on me, for his palm and pressed fingers to slice the air in my direction. I spoke quickly, I tried to get my answer out all at once. I had a great fear of being interrupted, and worse, of being boring. I was a middle-aged student, I didn’t have the luxury of meandering thoughts spoken aloud, of ideas half-cooked. Compared to the other students, I’d already had a lifetime to consider my answers. So I spat my responses out and felt secretly jubilant when it triggered Professor Volwassen to elaborate on his previous notes and lectures. I enjoyed the strange evidence that something which came from inside of me could be regurgitated and used to urge someone on. But I never smiled.
Ever since I became a vegetarian, I’d been spitting out blood in my toothpaste. The blood turned the foam light pink and ran slowly down the sink. My son said that if I had vitamins from meat in my diet then my gums would stop deteriorating but I’m not so sure. I just think I ate a lot of spiky food, like the tops of baguettes and water crackers and corn chips. After many nights of spitting out blood, the bristles of my toothbrush became tinged with rust-orange. The roof of my mouth tasted like a coin. It was like my tongue was lolling in a slaughterhouse.
My son said I just needed to get a new toothbrush. He said my current one was disgusting, too old, look how splayed the bristles are, look at the grime beneath them, you brush too hard, get a new toothbrush. And I’d buy one, but sooner or later the soft bristles turned stiff and my gums kept bleeding.
The questions Professor Volwassen posed to the class were always highly convoluted, full of stringy contexts and fleeting insinuations. It was difficult to navigate them, to find out exactly what, beneath all the words, he was truly looking for. I enjoyed watching him speak. He had a colloquial eloquence, a blithe Dutch accent, a confident throat he showed off above the stiff collar of his shirt. He made eye contact with everyone in the class, his glance making its way around the room like it had its own body, its own secret need to greet every person, to tell each of us, I am talking to you, yes, you. And when I was answering a question, his gaze settled happily on me—he never blinked. His eyes always concentrated with a seemingly honest suggestion of intimacy. The stare, though, made me nervous. I ended up finishing my answers with a weak, cowardly redaction of my voice, like throwing up food just eaten, If you know what I mean.
Before I turned vegetarian, I was carnivorous. I ate pigs and cows and birds, even shark, if the fish-market rumours are true. I always ate meat quickly and competitively, packing it into my mouth like Styrofoam peanuts. But then after swallowing it all, after wiping the grease from my mouth with the back of my hand, I imagined the meat sitting inside my stomach, ground to mush by my large teeth, rotting, full of intestinal juices and bacteria. I imagined the meat getting soaked up by the walls of my stomach, a squelching sound, the liquid meat seeping into my blood, turning all the red cells white. I would feel very heavy afterwards, my head rolling around on my neck, and I would blame it on my thick white blood, my stomach not yet drained. I liked to promise vehemently that I would become a vegetarian, if not to stop this heaviness then at least to save the environment, to be morally wiped clean, to breathe fresh air and not cow for once.
While my gums were deteriorating, I couldn’t bear the thought of the professor smelling my breath. I was unsure if it truly smelt bad or if it was just my imagination, but a subconscious urge forced me to sit at the back of the classroom. It seemed a cruel twist that as soon as I became vegetarian, my mouth would constantly smell of meat, my rotted, bruised gums purple with hurt, my tongue hot, as if in a kebab oven. The professor, who always seemed so self-assured, with clean shirts and a large Adam’s apple protruding from his lean neck, would have probably thought I was some type of primitive, something underdeveloped despite my dotage. The other students, although they were smaller than me, their bodies slight and dewy, were surer of themselves. I never knew the names of the other students, I only ever spoke to them to apologise, in a thin breath, oh, ha, sorry. They had a hostile flicker in their eyes, one that avoided landing directly on me. They were careful not to stare or ogle; they knew their faces would only warp into an expression of disgust, or if they were truly self-assured, pity. They wore their clothes either very close to their bodies or drooping over their shoulders like fallen tents. Some had braces, some had glinting pearls of teeth. They wore lip balms and glosses, I never saw a tube of lipstick on campus. I made sure to keep my own hidden in my bag. I never used it. It rolled about beneath my laptop and notes, getting caught between splayed pages of textbooks and novels. I kept it to comfort myself, knowing that I could cover my mouth with it, fix some waxy grin on my face. But I was wary about drawing that much attention to my mouth, I was cautious about making it redder, about attracting a stare that would never let up until my lips, quivering, parted.
I also had a bad habit of burning my mouth on hot foods. The coffee cart on campus was run by large women who made every coffee extra hot. The paper cup was difficult to carry, my fingertips prickled with pain, I always felt a strong urge to drop the coffee, to let it splatter on the floor, steam rising from the brown puddle. But I held on, I forced the lip of the plastic lid to my mouth, I grimaced as the burnt milk scalded my insides. It’s terrible to burn your gums when they are already disintegrating from vegetarianism. After drinking the coffee, or drinking miso soup or biting into an empanada, the lining of my mouth went numb, the roof throbbed, the skeletal structure of my mouth protruded as if the meaty part of my gums were emaciated, like I was malnourished and rotting away, and all the flesh got torn up so that sometimes I accidentally chewed on it. Flecks of my gums got mixed into my food.
My tongue shredded, too, as it searched the back of my mouth, picking at food stuck in my sharp molars which seemed like weapons, like coarse boulders at the bottom of a cliff, designed to trap my tongue, to wound it.
One night, I had a dream that my two front bottom teeth fell out of my mouth. The gums holding them in place had loosened like well-worn sweaters, and the teeth simply slipped from their grip. I carried on throughout the rest of the dream smiling with my lips pressed together. I spoke to people without much of a lisp, it was easy to disguise the missing teeth. I reluctantly but honourably came to terms with my ruined smile and continued the dream until I woke up. I always thought I was someone who would consider my life ruined if I lost one of my adult teeth. It’s not that my teeth are particularly good teeth—as a child, my dentist always suggested I get braces, my teeth are crooked because of a narrow jaw, but braces were always considered a pointless thing to pay for—it’s just that smiling is usually the one thing that can make someone attractive, even if everything else about them is plain, or even ugly, a smile is always very beautiful, so long as it’s real. So I always felt sick thinking about losing a tooth. But the dream proved otherwise. The dream was proof that my subconscious was truly concerned about my terrible gums, perhaps pressing me to do something about it, go to the dentist. But the memory of my tongue sliding through the smooth gap at the front of my mouth is fresh in my mind, soft, and above all, addictive.
In class, I felt urged to analyse the dream with the same literary rigour we analysed texts. Silently, I shoved my dream beneath different lenses and peered at it like a scientist. Was my mouth a colonial empire, the two missing teeth its slaves? Was my jaw a collective of brutish men, pushing the two front female teeth to flee, or was my tongue the man and the teeth the women? Was my mouth a totalitarian, cruel to its proletariat teeth? Or was some great war occurring behind my lips, the enamel soldiers digging trenches through the gums, the molars putting up spirals of barbed wire? I couldn’t settle on a single answer, and the analysis distracted me. I neglected crafting my thoughts for the professor. I became daft. When he released the participation marks mid-way through the semester, I held my breath. You are an inquisitive thinker, he had written beneath my grade. Collaboration would allow your thoughts to flourish. My cheeks flushed. I was embarrassed by the remark. Deep down, I knew he wanted to write meat eater, not inquisitive thinker, and crustaceans, not collaboration, but had refrained. I felt defeated.
My adult teeth became more and more yellow. They were stained with coffee and gravy. I didn’t bother buying whitening toothpaste, I was dubious about the difference it makes, I thought it was just an advertising ploy. I didn’t trust anyone, especially dental information. When I was young and my adult teeth came through, their edges were corrugated, small bumps lining the top like an eroded picket fence. My dentist said they’d fade away, I'd grow out of them, my teeth would smooth out. But here I was, middle-aged with corrugated teeth, an adolescent mouth. There were white spots on my teeth, too, like the stains of calcium on fingernails. My dentist said they were from breathing with my mouth open while I sleep, but I couldn’t control my sleeping breath. She gave me no alternative other than to not breathe at all—so what, I should die rather than have white stains of breath on my teeth?
I went to class, I tried not to smile. It was difficult, the other students made funny jokes. Their sense of humour was witty, full of quips and sarcasm. But when I smiled, my top lip rose high above my teeth, curling in on itself at the top of my gums, and when the joke was over, when my face relaxed, I could feel my lip lowering back down. It was an awkward moment of self-awareness, and the coverup was never fast enough—I could always feel the wind on my exposed teeth, the slowness of the caught lip, the movement of an amusement that has come and gone.
I stopped being vegetarian. I became a carnivorous, feral rabbit, gnawing at stray pieces of chicken and fish like a scavenger animal looting a carcass of roadkill. I was carnivorous to repair my gums. I didn’t want a shredded mouth.
But still, my mouth threw tantrums, it did anything in its power to make sure I was uncomfortable. Regularly, ulcers formed on the inner walls of my cheeks, open wounds that were tender and volcanic, especially sensitive to citrus and tomatoes and very dark chocolate. Before going to bed, I swished salted water around my mouth and held it against the ulcers with a force of the lips before spitting it out into the kitchen sink. I only spat once the salt truly made the wound sting. When I sensed the ulcers coming, I tried to drink more juice and water, tried to remove mayonnaise and other fatty foods from my diet, I ate cucumbers, I ate lemons and winced at the pain. I did anything to heal my gums. But of course, if I could sense the ulcer coming then it was already too late, I couldn’t stop them from erupting, I could only take aspirin to blunt the sting, to fizz my mind, to remove my mouth from the centre of attention.
Near the end of the semester, I had an ulcer that for weeks would not go away. It was in the middle of my cheek, a long pellet of bulbous flesh—the tongue made love to it. I tried every remedy, but instead of healing, the ulcer continued to grow. It grew longer, stretching from the very back of my mouth to the corner of my lips. I stood in front of the mirror and pulled my cheek away from my jaw, leaning in close, tilting my head on an angle. The ulcer was clearly no longer an ulcer: it was a great infection, shaped like a strike of lightning, zigzagging down my mouth like a white electric worm. I bought a special gel for it, rubbed it on the infection every morning and night, but the gel did nothing, the infection hurt so much that I had to keep my mouth firmly shut—the slightest stretch of my check would send a bolt of pain down my neck and into my shoulder.
I didn’t talk for a week. I nodded yes and no, made up my own sign language at home, pointed at objects that symbolised my abstract ideas. My son guessed wildly at what I truly meant when I pointed to these objects, bringing me a glass of water when I gestured at the rain, washing my bedsheets when I placed one hand on the headboard and the other across my forehead. My son, who was the same age as the other students in my class, seemed to have the same issue as them, constantly trying to understand me with the same discomfort one asks a foreigner to repeat themselves: wondering if they will ever truly connect. I continued with my gestures, assuring myself that, yes, my son loved me, there’s no reason to calculate anything. The water was good, as were the clean sheets. Still, I suffered. Each sign of miscommunication was like a stab at my meaty stomach.
During this period of infection, I didn’t go to class. I refused to let myself be a silent shadow at the back of the classroom, grey and lurking, my face slowly erasing itself from the front of my head. I stayed home, I imagined what questions Professor Volwassen was asking, imagined what answers I would give in return. I couldn't believe it, I was angry at my mouth for taking over my life so entirely that I couldn't even speak. My mouth had corrupted itself, had rebelled against me with a cruelness that left me crying through the day.
Weeks later, after the infection finally healed and I could speak again, I went to my dentist and told her about my terrible gums. “Brush your gums,” she advised, “to toughen them. While you brush your teeth you must also brush your gums. You’ll ruin them at first, they’ll bleed, but then they’ll get stronger.” She said this while her gloved fingers were plunged into my mouth, powdered tentacles which I struggled not to choke on. Her suggestion seemed ridiculous—my gums were not boys, tough love wouldn’t solve anything. For the rest of the appointment, I listened to the dentist talk about her life. She was a rich woman, a self-proclaimed millionaire whose son rowed in the States and might have a shot at the Olympics if he sorts out his anxiety issues. She spoke about her house, once owned by a prolific writer whose novels we studied in class, its panoramic windows looking out onto an uninterrupted view of Sydney Harbour. I thought how unfair it was that my own mouth was making another woman rich and not me. Its rebelliousness made itself clear to me once more as the dentist recounted her trip to Rio. The idea that my mouth was a capitalist enterprise for someone who wasn’t me felt increasingly ludicrous. There it finally was: the lens through which I could pin my mouth down and reveal its true evil. I wanted to curse my mouth, to verbally berate it, but I could only do it with the very mouth I wanted to defame, and the irony of that sickened me. I let the dentist continue to fish around my mouth, prodding at certain places with the small mirror, letting the mouth admire itself. I squirmed as her assistant sucked the saliva out of my pooling cheeks, creating a desert in me, a barren cavity.
Lying in the dentist chair, I used the special lens I had found and crafted an answer for the professor, an answer to what question, I don’t know, but I felt desperate to come to a conclusion, to end the semester with the self-assurance of the other students.
I wanted to show Professor Volwassen an x-ray of my mouth, the square of my macho jaw, the skeleton and its arsenal of bullet teeth. Nothing red, nothing wet or soft, only the black and white map of my flattened smile. The x-ray would prove everything.
The dentist mopped saliva from my chin and rubbed swabs of gritty paste into the canyons of my molars. My jaw ached. I thought about how I hated my mouth, its rabbit-toothed smile, the salted leech of my tongue. I hated the stench of dehydration, the tacky taste, the itching throat. I hated the sores, lumps, rips, the cuts. I hated the taste of blood. I hated dry lips and the endless reapplication of Vaseline, a robotic movement. I hated the way the breath retained the smell of pesto, of garlic. Most of all, I hated that I could hide everything with a smile. My lips closed and upturned, I could look so pleased with myself, I could seem so utterly painless, I could erase everything, and no one needed to ask: Does it hurt? It looks sore. The world of my mouth could be swallowed into the pocket of my face, sucked into a black hole, and forgotten.
Before leaving, I was gifted a complimentary toothbrush. I held it tight, I examined its stiff bristles. Outside the building, on the street, I threw the toothbrush into the bin. I wouldn’t let it go near my teeth, wouldn’t let it mother my mouth into a loveless boy.
Bruna Gomes is an Australian-Brazilian novelist and poet. She is the author of the YA novel How to Disappear and the poetry collection Triple Citizenship. Bruna has been a writer-in-residence at The Museum of Loss and Renewal, Italy, and Buinho, Portugal. Her work is featured and forthcoming in various literary journals, including the Cordite Review, World Literature Today, Overland, and The Columbia Review. Bruna was born in Boston, Massachusetts and currently resides on the Northern Beaches of Sydney on Gadigal land, where she grew up.
Tangier was more than a memory of oranges
by Feby Joseph
It was more than just a white, white afternoon and a docked ship forgotten—Sun and Medina; you climbed Kasbah to see the pillars of Hercules, I allegorized Alighieri to seek purgatory. It was more than a sharp memory of oranges— Tangier was an open golden cage; sunny relief for seasickness—ruby pomegranate, couscous, lamb tagine, mint tea and you, reading Kerouac. It was more than Orlando—that afternoon we swapped bodies; we had committed clichés and turned into ships in the night— In the end as the Minaret called, I had lost you to Marrakesh.
Hailing from state of Kerala, Feby Joseph describes himself as a spiritual vagabond, currently working as a Piano teacher in Mumbai. Feby is the winner of Reuel International Prize for Poetry, 2020. Some of his works have appeared in The Bombay Literary Magazine, Zoetic Press, The Bangalore Review and Café Dissensus.
One Small Battle Won; A War, Indeed a Planet, Lost
by Captain Warren Blake
In stories from my earlier years of exploring the myriad isles of the South China Sea, I described several encounters with some of the Sea Nomads, wanderers in that vast marine world, in particular the Orang Laut, Men of the Sea, “Sea Gypsies” in the popular view.
After three decades of further voyages I can now look back with some understanding of the slow but inexorable decline of this once robust, self-sufficient way of seafaring life.
This life, when I first met it some forty years ago was a mainly nomadic one, at least during the benign months of the South Monsoon, from May to October. This was the season when the Orang Laut wandered in sailing perahus, in later years motorised, with a flotilla of tiny dugout canoes in tow, from island to island, reef to reef, across a broad swathe of the sea from the Natunas Archipelago in 4 degrees North, to the Karimata Islands in 2 degrees South.
Their unequaled knowledge of the riches of the sea, and their unrivaled skill in hooking, netting, harpooning or diving on one breath to scoop up every edible species, and some decorative ones, provided their sole means of support.
They preserved their catch with salt, a commodity which they sometimes produced themselves in shallow pans behind the beach crest.
They dried and salted the flesh of the grouper, snapper, carang, hump-head wrasse, octopus, shark, turtle, squid, the giant clam, (of which the muscle alone, alas, as the solely edible, tiny portion); the meat, as well as the colourful carapaces of the Trochus, Trident and Helmet shells, plus numerous other species.
The surplus of this bounty, after feeding their families, was carefully tended, kept dry, periodically salted again, in order to sustain them through four months of the North East Monsoon, from December to March, when strong winds and cloudy, rainy skies made sailing and navigation in their fragile vessels difficult
These harsh months were spent ashore, variously in the Badas Islands group, in the South East corner, or in islands of the Anambas Archipelago, in the North West corner of their range. There they depended solely on their surplus of dried fish products as food, and for barter for rice, cooking oil, diesel oil, and other necessities. They lived in small shacks of mangrove poles with thatched roofs and walls of coco-palm fronds to shelter them from the daily rain squalls. Their only activity during this period was the repair of their boats, their nets, and the telling of stories by the elders, the sole schooling for the children.
One story illustrates the harshness of this life. My ketch, Four Friends, was engaged in a search for ship-wrecks in company with John Guthrie’s schooner Dwyn Wen. We were working at Acasta Shoal, a solitary rock awash at high tide, that has always offered a great danger to shipping. Scattered around that rock, in various depths of water, we found the Rajah Brooke, a steamer wrecked there in 1896, a modern ship of 1974, a totally unknown big ship NW of the rock in 80 metres of water, and therefore hidden from casual investigation, and some hints of a ship of the T’ang Dynasty, of about the year 800.
On some of our expeditions to this site, John brought his young family along. The two small girls, Daphne, 6, and Cecile, 3, became, of course, bored with the life on board, with their father spending most of the daylight hours underwater. We took them to the nearby island of Pengibu, where the Orang Laut had set up a temporary camp ashore while they fished the island’s reef. Daphne and Cecile spent the daylight hours of several days on shore with their Mum, Nanou, and in the process became friends, and played with children of their own age on the island.
On a subsequent expedition, Daphne and Cecile went in the rubber boat with their mother to visit their little friends on Pangibu, proudly carrying colouring books, coloured pens, and various other gifts. They came back later distraught and bewildered, for two of their closest friends, both girls of about their ages, had died of a dysentery-like disease during the few months since their last visit. Daphne and Cecile, of such youth and sheltered upbringing, were scarcely able to comprehend the nature of life, and death…they dimly realized only that the lives of their friends were “finished!”. The parents of the lost children, and their small community, were sadly only too accustomed to such losses. On a more optimistic note, my story “Two Small Children” (forthcoming in Grailing) tells of a much happier outcome in the health of very young Sea Nomads thanks to modern medicine, administered by very unsure Mariners unskilled in Medical arts.
Some years later Four Friends visited another island further to the Southeast, Tokong Kemudi, where I had first met the characters in my story “A Memorable Lunch” years before. There was a fairly large encampment of Orang Laut behind the palms of the beach front, and I took my charter guests, all divers from Europe, ashore to meet them. My guests had heard my stories of the life of these nomads of the sea, and were anxious to meet them.
My Sea Gypsy friends, numbering about 70 all told, were suffering a severe crisis of virtual starvation. For the past two weeks they had been surviving on coconuts alone, and many were suffering from debilitating dysentery. I asked why they had caught no fish? They told us that there were no fish left to catch, because “dynamite boats” from the Riau Islands had been blasting the reefs and scooping up as many dead fish as possible, leaving a wasteland underwater in which every living thing, even shellfish and anemones were killed and buried.
My diver guests were appalled. We were, at that stage on day 18 of a 21 day diving expedition around all the island groups of the South China Sea, and they insisted that we must take ashore every last scrap of food, that they would cheerfully go hungry for three days to help my hapless friends. Some of the islanders followed us out to Four Friends, and helped load every manner of provender from rice to biscuits and pasta, from cornflakes to frozen chickens and tinned tuna, and from cooking oil to kerosene and diesel into our tender.
While we thus engaged, the Orang Laut, with their incredibly sharp eyesight, identified an approaching black boat as the pirates who had been devastating their reefs. I saw the possibility of effective intervention of some sort, and asked the island men to stay with me while we pulled the anchor up, and sent our tender onshore with the urgently needed provisions.
I determined to dog the dynamiters closely, to demonstrate at least that their activities were being observed, by taking numerous photos, with notes of the boat’s number, and perhaps by remonstrating with them.
I was already familiar with the methods of dynamite fishing, indeed I had previously described them to my diver guests, who were now agog to see such an outrage, and were all eager to take photos to publish in newspapers back home and in diving magazines.
The mother boat carried the explosives, a small dugout canoe, and a crude paint compressor to provide air to a diver who would dive breathing from a green garden hose gripped between his teeth. He would dive after the explosion in order to scoop up that vast majority of the dead fish that do not float, that sink due to ruptured swim-bladders. The dug-out would carry one “bomb”, in this case a beer bottle filled with “black powder”, crude gunpowder, with a fuse. The canoe would also carry a swimmer equipped with diving mask, whose job was to locate a school of edible fish of sufficient size to warrant using a bomb. The swimmer would direct the canoe directly over the school, signal for the fuse to be lit, and for the bomb to be thrown into the right spot in the water, before hastily scrambling out into the rickety safety of the tiny dugout. This canoe and its occupants would, generally, survive the blast that erupted very close, while the mother vessel, more vulnerable because of her weight, would hang a few tens of metres away.
I edged my 50 ton, ferro-cement, ocean-going ketch close in behind the mother-ship, reasoning that her sturdy construction would make her safer than the wooden mother ship. My divers, with cameras, and four island men all crowded at the bow ready to observe the first blast. I slipped the engine into neutral, and joined my crew.
Our bow now hung almost over the pirate’s stern. I addressed the pirate captain in Indonesian, and asked him what he was doing? He mumbled something incoherent, and then asked me, quite politely, what I was doing? I explained that my friends were from England and Holland, that everybody on our vessel, especially the islanders, were unhappy about what he, the pirate, was doing, and that my friends were ready to take photos to publish in newspapers all around the world to show how people like him, the pirate, were destroying coral reefs and all the life on them.
The pirate explained, still quite politely, that he was merely “catching a few fish” and that it was really no business of ours what an honest fisherman was up to.
Rather more offensively, he then asked why I, an “Orang Puteh” (White Man) was consorting with “black, primitive people?” Somewhat impolitely I suggested that he was “kurang ajar” (lacking in courtesy).
The man in the water became excited, indicating a school of fish below, and the mother ship moved closer to the action, ready to scoop up all floating fish. I moved my ketch to tower over the pirate again.
Now I understood our best gambit. With twelve skilled divers on board, far more mobile in their scuba gear than the sole pirate on the end of a cumbersome air-hose, and carrying their goody bags, we would be able to scoop up most of the fish on the bottom, to the great benefit of our deserving island friends, and to the deserved discomfort of the pirates.
I urged my crew to action, and they all eagerly gathered along the rails, conspicuous in their gear, and in their intentions.
The pirate captain clearly understood our aims, and now he lost his polite composure. He stood up high on his deckhouse, to be a little less in an inferior position, and brandished another beer bottle full of powder. In a loud voice, and with unmistakable gestures he threatened that if my divers went down after the first bomb “to steal my fish” he would throw another bomb in on top of them, with lethal effect, as we all understood.
Now it was my turn to lose my composure. I rushed back to find my pump-action shot-gun, loaded it with bear-killing ball shot, and stalked to the bow again. I noisily cocked the weapon, pointed it at the pirate, and told him that should he throw a bomb on top of my divers, I would blast his head off. This was the only time in a long life of action where I have actually pointed a loaded gun at anyone.
Faced with the three quarter-inch gaping muzzle of a 12-gauge shot-gun at close range, the man dropped his bomb on the deck, rather heavily I thought, considering its destructive power. He whistled and gestured at his men in the canoe, and when they were back on board, roared away at full throttle and in bad temper. We watched as the long, black, rakish hull disappeared fast towards the horizon.
This was one small battle won in a war that has long since been lost.
The rampant dynamite fishing in the South China Sea laid waste to most of the coral reefs. This destructive fishing method was bad enough, but even when it had run its natural course, when there were no more schools of fish numerous enough to warrant the use of a bomb, another threat to marine life emerged. Cyanide poisoning was inflicted on the reefs to supply the booming live-fish trade of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and any other city where rich Chinese could afford the extraordinary prices…several hundred $US per kilo of prime grouper. These two assaults reduced fish life, indeed most marine life, to what I estimate to be 5% of its level of the time I first went exploring and diving in these waters. “You should have been here forty years ago!” is my common lament.
This toxic approach to marine life worked in this way: divers equipped with an enormous syringe of Sodium Cyanide solution would spread out along a coral reef. Even if that reef had previously been heavily dynamited there would still exist an upright coral head or two, and the last few remaining grouper would swim to hide under these heads as the diver approached. Several doses of cyanide injected through various crevices would merely stun the large fish, which could then be fished out by hand, strung on the diver’s belt, and dragged along to be revived with clean water. Meanwhile every remaining living organism on or under that coral head would be dying of poison: coral polyps, juveniles of countless fish and crustacean and other invertebrate species, anenomies,…the list is endless. The grouper would often be carried by sampan to a well-equipped, foreign financed mother-vessel, and sustained and fed in an oxygenated tank until he reached the restaurants of Kowloon or Pudong.
The extensive damage done by these human methods was compounded by the very complexity of our Mother’s exquisite organization, which became unraveled under the impact. My daughter did her Marine Biology thesis on the Connectivity of Coral systems, and showed clearly that no tropical island, indeed no coral reef, is an island unto itself. In the tropic seas the corals thrive best when there are chains of islands and reefs, swept one way and then the other by the currents of the two opposing Monsoons. In this way larvae, and juveniles are swept along on the current to colonize reefs further downstream, bringing new genes, and new individuals, even new species to neighboring reefs. These beneficiaries return the favours six months later when the Monsoon winds change direction, and with them the currents. So even if a solitary marine sanctuary were to be properly run and protected, it would still slowly starve due to a lack of rejuvenating plankton from afar…and none of the littoral nations of South East Asia has the capability to run a proper island conservation programme, in fact none of them gives a damn about such matters….”make as many bucks now while the going is good, and salt away the proceeds in a Swiss bank” is the secret aim of every politician and businessman in the region. They are mostly aware that they are ruining the sea, and the jungle, but they are consoled by knowing their children will have those Swiss francs to live somewhere else…not in my native New Zealand, I hope.
But my poor friends, the Nomads of the Sea have no francs, no bank accounts, and they mostly have disappeared into the urban slums of Indonesia, poorly equipped culturally, and ill-educated to cope with the corrosive City Life, where their profound knowledge of the Sea and its inhabitants will die with the older ones.
A few eke out a tenuous life on the sea today catching, by hook, the last remaining good-eating fish, and they attempt to keep them alive in perforated blue barrels hanging over the side of their dugouts, hoping to get them thus to the Chinese trader on the main island, who runs an electric compressor to aerate his tanks. In the worst irony, these last Orang Laut can no longer afford to eat such fare, fit now only for Towkays and Taipans, and so survive on the despised meat of clams and helmet shells. The rarity of their occasional catches of grouper only adds to the allure and prestige, it merely whets the obscene appetites of status-conscious Fat Cats in Asian cities, and thus propels the exponential price per kilo…ensuring this and numerous similar trades will lead to extinction…of animal species and minority human cultures.
The way of life of the Sea Nomads, nurtured since the misty times of Homo erectus hundreds of thousands of years ago, and essentially sustainable if left to itself, is doomed, crushed by Progress. Marine life in the South China Sea is likewise doomed. This fate is a harbinger of the future of Civilization itself. We are good at making money and devising new, ingenious ways of plundering our planet, but we cannot continue much longer. I fear for the later lives of my grandchildren.
Being too obviously bold to capture in one brief bio, a longer biography of the author will appear in a future issue of Grailing. Suffice it to say, Captain Warren Blake is a man of the high seas and high adventure. Please look out for episodes three and four in the Orang Laut series, to appear in sequential issues of Grailing.
by Ben Niles
Somehow I don’t know your middle name. The stories you tell involve characters you call friends, with first names like real people. You feign inclusive, as if you’re worried I’d check your truths. Faceless, without stature or color of eyes, their proximity to you is distance from me, as, I’ve come to think, you like it. I see now who it is you are protecting.
Ben Niles studied English & American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and he earned his Master’s degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. He lives in Boston with his wife, Sophie, and their dog, Roo.
[Cover Photo: @yu_pribytkova]
Grailing, Vol 1., No. 2
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