By XIE ZHIQIANG
HE stood at early morning on the threshing ground, hand on hip, as with the other he signaled, as if to a vast army of soldiers, and shouted the order, “Weigh the anchor and set sail!”
My father then said with a sigh that the madman’s ship was about to set sail again.
I looked at him, mystified, as I had never seen either the ocean or a ship. There in the warm sunshine that bathed the col and outlined his imposing profile, clad in his neatly pressed uniform, the man appeared in command of all he could see.
The threshing ground was surrounded by lush green rice paddies that extended to the mountain ridges. He began to stroll, as I had observed him do for the past few days, slowly from the east end to the west, as if in deep contemplation. The ground was entirely cemented.
I noticed that he never advanced any further than the edge of the ground, but did an about turn and carried on walking back the other way. Father told me that the sun had tanned his skin deep brown during the time he had worked at sea. I imagined the bright sunshine dancing on the sea waves.
Father said that the man’s ship had been the same size as the threshing ground. I thought to myself, if such a big ship looks like a floating threshing ground, then doesn’t the surrounding green field look like the calm ocean?
Father told me not to bother him, this poor captain who had lost his ship. I felt respect for him. The uniform fitted his lean, robust body well, as if it were on a hanger.
The sun rose as he walked to and fro, as if along the deck. I wished that the threshing ground beneath his feet could sail. As he strolled, the ground appeared to drift as his uniform ruffled in the mountain breeze.
The weather suddenly turned dull, and swelling dark clouds covered the sun. He stopped, looked around, and made hollow fists of his hands before his eyes. Father said these were his binoculars.
Some friends from the village arrived, and father motioned to us all to keep quiet. But I ached to join the man on board.
He raised his arms and said, “Attention all crew, a storm is brewing! Man your posts and maintain speed!”
We laughed. He ran anxiously to the bow – the east end of the threshing ground. He kicked unhusked rice on the ground and said that the cabin was flooded, and that we must take action at once.
He began to look for something, perhaps a bucket, to bail out the water. He kept kicking, and golden rice gushed over the ground. Holding her apron, my mother told father to stop him from wasting grain.
“Man the pump, why are you all hiding!” the man roared. He looked around in search of imaginary sailors. We could barely restrain our composure we so wanted to give him a hand.
“You cowards, are you deserting? I order you to come back. The sea will not forgive you,” he shouted at us.
I looked at father. “Don’t go. He’s insane. Everything will be fine in a while,” he whispered.
I really wanted to help because I could see he needed a hand. He ran frantically around the ground like an ant on a hot pan. I could not bear to see his solitariness. I thought that maybe if we went there we could give him some comfort. He was the only one in my family who had seen the world. l am proud of him – my uncle. But when he came back it was plain to see that he had become unhinged.
Finally he stopped and cried, “Our ship is sinking. Swim for your life, the sharks will have no mercy.”
Father told me that his ship had battled a storm for an entire day, and that as it came close to a small nameless islet it had struck a rock.
The sun came out again. He was still muttering that the ship had sunk, as if chanting a spell. I looked around at the surrounding mountain ridge, and it did seem as though the threshing ground was sinking.
Walking away from the ground, he came towards us, as if he had landed on the imagined islet. He appeared to have returned to normal, as if he had survived a storm at sea, but was dull and indifferent. He looked straight through us as if we did not exist, and passed by us as he headed directly to his room.
We stepped into his ship – the threshing ground – to rearrange the disordered unhusked rice. I imitated his pace as he had walked on the ground and felt like a captain. Every day he would set out on a voyage here. But today’s cloudy sky was out of the ordinary. This storm warned me how ruthless the sea was, and that I should keep it on the fringes of my mind until I grew up and could see it for myself.
XIE ZHIQIANG is a council member of the Chinese Microfiction Society, and has published more than 1,000 works of microfiction.
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