a/n: An Edible Suffering was a literary response I wrote for an English class in university about Pacific Island legends and stories. This story is, I suppose, a spin-off fan-fiction of sorts to Florence Syme-Buchanan’s “Boat Girl.” Therefore, if you can, I suggest reading her story first to get the backstory for my own piece. You might get more out of this fiction that way. But, even by itself, this story has a lot to offer about the human experience. Enjoy. 🙂
Sweat–that’s all she can feel. It clings to her like slime. It’s pulling her under, dragging her to the depths of the ocean. She struggles to surface, but then it’s like chains have latched onto her ankles, and a sea monster has–
“Good mornin’ darlin’.” She hears it from a faraway place, as if a song whispered into a bubble, sent to her over a hundred miles, to finally tickle her ear. Shocked, she opens her mouth, and the little breath she has left escapes, fleeing.
Her eyes open, and she meets crystal blue eyes, as warm as the island waves.
She’s turning seventeen tomorrow, and nobody remembers.
She keeps waiting for the joke to spring. In a couple minutes, someone’s going to tap her on the shoulder and yell, “Happy birthday!” Any moment now, someone will grab her from behind, blindfold her, and take her to a surprise birthday party, where all her friends and family will be waiting. She imagines a big, towering cake, with lots of icing and coconut toppings. If she’s lucky, they’ll even bring in a big roasted pig.
Of course, deep down, she knows she’s just kidding herself. When she broke the news to them about her newfound profession, her mother started wailing, her loud cries of lament heard throughout the neighbourhood. Her father started swearing, cursing her friend, Tutai, for being such a bad influence.
She kept on saying it wasn’t Tutai’s fault, it wasn’t Tutai’s fault. But in a couple years, she’ll blame Tutai for ruining her life, forcing her to surrender the only thing she wanted out of life without even knowing it. She’ll say she was too young, too innocent, to understand what she was really doing, that the lure of cold, hard cash was too overpowering for a little, naïve village girl whose only sin, if it could qualify as such, was to hope for a better life. She’ll defend herself to the very end to all those that shake their heads in disappointment at her life and her past, she’ll shake her mouth empty of slurred vulgarities and jab her finger into passers-by who stare.
“It’s not my fault,” Rima will croak, the skin on her face sagging like wrinkles of a walnut, eyes so dark as to pierce the heart. One can barely recognise her.
Blaming Tutai is easier than blaming herself.
But, for now, Rima’s only gripe with Tutai is that she’s nowhere to be found and still hasn’t come up to her to wish her happy birthday. She puffs her lips. Just as she’s about to storm off towards the beach, at the very least to have a prettier environment to mope in, a hand grabs her from behind and yanks her down an alley. Her mouth opens to scream, but then she realizes it’s only Tutai, and she manages to stand there looking like a fish, gasping for air (or water?).
“Hey, come on. I have a surprise for you,” Tutai announces, dragging her by her sleeve away from the town centre. Tutai flips a nonchalant glance behind her. “It’s your birthday today, right?”
And for the first few years after this, Rima will remember Tutai as the only person who remembered her birthday. How things change. Rima smiles, skipping to catch up. Oooh, a surprise. Heck, she doesn’t care what it is at this point; she’ll even settle for something more traditional, even simple; breadfruit will do.
“We’re going hunting tonight,” Tutai shrieks, laughing loudly. “Hunting for cocks!”
Every day, she looks at the watch and daydreams the meaning of it. She never takes it off, except to bathe, but even then she keeps it within sight. She looks at it and sees the promises and kisses no one else can.
“He’ll come back for me,” Rima proclaims confidently. Proudly. Even a year and four months later. The other girls whisper amongst themselves, eyes slanting towards her, little looks of disgruntlement exchanged. She has to turn away to smirk.
How can she lie? She loves that they’re jealous.
Rima traces the dragon sculpted into the captain’s right shoulder. He’s told her about the meaning behind it, how he witnessed a ritual in Japan (while on his many voyages) that honoured the majestic creature, and was so moved by it, so entranced by its power, that he had to eternalise it on his skin. The scary eyes and flaming tongue stare back at her as she extinguishes them with her finger.
“The tattoos are better than memories. When they fade, they’ll blend into the skin. When you die, if all records of you have been burned in a cosmic fire, people will lower you into your grave, knowing nothing about you except these etched remnants of what were most important to you.” The captain gets this faraway look in his eyes.
“I have tattoos too,” Rima says suddenly. The captain looks at her, surprised, then his eyes crinkle and he leans forward.
“Show me,” he invites. Rima looks at him unsurely for a moment before lifting up the hem of her shirt. The captain leans down to inspect. Tucked into a small corner of her hip is a tell-tale splotch, dark tentacles warring over lighter skin. He peers up at her questioningly.
“I fell while riding downhill on my bike. I skidded on the ground, and the gravel on the road tore up my skin.” She points down to her knee, to another dark splotch. “I got that at the same time. My best friend at the time didn’t want me riding downtown so fast. She called me crazy. But when I got these bruises without crying, she said I was brave.” She can feel the captain’s gaze on her as she talks.
“I burned myself here while cooking for a communal dinner,” Rima continues, rolling up her sleeve. “It was my first time cooking, but my ah-ma told me the food tasted so good. Although she may have been exaggerating,” she laughs.
“But those are just scars.” The captain tries to let her down lightly.
“No, they’re tattoos too. Not tattoos I put there on purpose… but the undesigned ones. I may not have wanted them when I got them, but… you made me think that they’ll tell people what my life was like. They sure remind me of what my life was like.”
The captain gets quiet then, running his fingers over her bruises and blemishes. He slips his hand under her shirt, and she can feel them creeping up to the same result, the same conclusion to the night. She’ll feel empty again in the morning.
“Oh.” Rima shifts back, getting upset. “You want to have sex now.”
“No,” the captain assures her, tilting her chin up so that her gaze travels back to his. “I want to touch every tattoo on your skin, know them intimately, as if they were my own. Tonight, we make love, darlin’.”
Who knew the captain was a poet? In a couple years, she’ll remember his words and scoff. What a phoney guy, so full of it, what a randy liar. But, until then, this moment imprints itself on her heart like the petal of a sakura: is this what love feels like?
It wasn’t often that I got time to myself. Every day was a constant work-out, from helping my mother get the kids to school to doing chores around the house while the parents were out at work, and of course giving myself over to drunk animals at night; it got to the point where I was starting to feel like I was living for others rather than myself.
“Boat Girl,” I said aloud, “By Florence Syme-Buchanan.”
The title reminded me of myself. But then again, it could have been about any one of us living on the island. The ocean was such a big part of our lives. It sprung us to life from within its billowing curtains and practically cradled us to sleep on its soft, cocooning waves. We were all boats on the ocean.
I skimmed the first page even as I swayed from side to side, poised to return the book to its shelf. I was such an impatient ball of movement that when I suddenly came to a standstill, the cashier turned to throw me a concerned look.
This story… this story was about me!
“What’s a girl like you doing with a watch?”
She wonders why he thinks she wouldn’t have one. An irrational anger arrests her, and she turns away so he won’t see her mask peeling apart under molten waves.
“Why not, idiot?” She gruffly spits out a reply, only to cry out, a long, piercing wail, as the man roughly grabs her hair and throws her flat on the bed. He shoves his ugly troll face right up into hers, eyes aglow with scathing contempt, and it takes all her will power not to vomit. One hand goes to grip his fist and pull it off of her, while the other struggles to push him back to a manageable distance.
He flicks her hands away like they’re pesky lice crawling on his skin. “What did you call me?” Menacing. She can’t help it; the fight drains and she cowers.
Whenever she’s with another man now, she tries to pretend that she is somewhere else, among the rolling hills and endless skies in the place of her dreams. She hates him for corrupting the touch of every subsequent man.
She used to be able to ignore their exploitations of her body, take it quietly because her mind was in a different world, where pain so great she folded under its burden did not exist. But ever since he showed her how she should be touched, how she deserved to be touched, he left her bereft in his wake, stronghardmean Rima becoming frailemptywasting girl in a black dress.
He came and started a fire she immediately became addicted to stoking, then he went and the fire burnt out, the dying embers reminding her of the what could have beens and the why nots and the unsaid I love yous.
“You stole it, didn’t you?” he accuses, roughing her up. She whimpers. She pleads to a god she isn’t sure exists make the nightmare stop. He slaps her till her teeth rattle in her head. Oh, God, please.
“You stinking slut. You pathetic dog. You make me sick. Fucking whore.”
If she listens to him anymore, she’s afraid she’ll start to believe it. The thick, sticky sorrow chokes her. She closes her eyes and the gaping hole in her face wretches out a sob.
Bored, Rima wanders away from the hull of stereotypes, dodging invisibly between stumbling drunken sailors yelling merry yo-ho’s and downing bottles of rum the size of her arm. They’ll skin her alive if she ever whispers a word of it to a stranger’s ear, but they giggle like three-year-old girls with ponytails tied in pink lace. Her gaze roams over the sea of faces that pass her, monolithic hulks knocking over the small tables and lamps lining the hallways of the ship.
In some, she sees ignorant bliss, tampered souls hiding behind alcohol and one-night-stands. In others, she witnesses piercing fury raging and storming in the murky darkness, thinly veiled angered bulls ready to trample over the slightest offence.
And then there’s the third class, the one she’s the most fond of being a voyeur to; these sailors trudge through life, no matter drunk or awake, a deathly ghost reclining leisurely and smoking a pipe in their glass eyes. Nothing can save them. She enjoys those men the most. Their pain awakens them to hers, and they hug each other through the night under blankets thin and torn, like two small children abandoned by their mother. Memories of him begin to bombard her.
“No.” All heads turn in the direction of the voice. Her breath catches as she timidly meets his gaze. “I’ll take her for tonight.”
The sailor he cut off grumbles and swears, but nobody argues against the captain. He strides up to her and makes her feel strong by asking, without any vestige of the chauvinism the other sailors exhibited in poor abundance, if she will have him for the night. He grins broadly as she tucks a stray curl behind her ear, softly assenting.
The gentle wave of the ocean tilts the boat, pressing her by the small of her back into the beer chamber. Her eyes roam over the bottle tags until they land on the one she remembers smelling on him that night.
“You’re so pretty.” He says it the way the other sailors would never dare to.
Without hesitation, she snatches it up and peels the cork off
and the rim’s at her lips–she can smell the heady, drowning toxic wasteland of musk and sailor, almost taste his lips like they’re really on hers–, she’s tilting her head back, and gawd, it tastes so goddamned awful and so goddamned wonderful at the same time, it’s leaving a burn down her throat, sparking a heat in her belly and suddenly–
“Good mornin’ darlin’,” he murmurs, blowing burning kisses on her skin. His eyes, island waves. “Time to wake up.”
–it’s out of her hands. Eyes widening comically, she spins around, finger out and jabbing, ready to harrow the culprit, but stops short when her eyes meet blue ocean waves.
“I wish you were mine.” His lips fold over her ear. She giggles softly.
Her lips form the shape of his name, but then she scans the rest of his face and realizes with heart-rending sorrow, so real it nearly slams her to the ground, that it is not who she thinks it is.
“What are you doing here?” the sailor who is not him growls, grabbing her arm and squeezing so tightly she cries out.
“You trying to steal our rum?” he shouts, shaking her.
“Screw you!” she shouts. Perhaps anger did it, or maybe desperation, but in the heat of the moment, she becomes strong enough to yank herself out of his grip. She throws herself out of the room, sprinting through the labyrinth with hollering Minotaurs on her tail. The walls seem to close in on her with every pounding step she takes. Through a doorway, she spies the ethereal white of a full moon, and lunges up the stairs to rest at the railing. Outside, the wind burns her, wildly running its hands through her hair. Staring down into the dark waters swirling below, she can feel their power, beckoning her. Mesmerized, as if hearing the song of the siren, she lifts herself over the railing. The sailors spill through the door onto spilt milk on the deck but by then it’s too late. She throws herself out into the ocean, the world tilting so that the bright sky becomes the floor and the water swallows her from above. She slips into the ocean’s warm embrace.
From the island, it looks as if the angry mob threw her overboard.
Someone has written a story about me.
It’s someone I don’t know, someone I’ve never met. A woman called Florence Syme-Buchanan. Does she know me? I try to put a face to that name, but I only know a girl called Francine, and she was friendly, nice and positive. I doubt this Florence person is all that friendly, nice and positive.
She wrote in her story of me that I “manipulate, or cheat” the sailors on board. Right on the very first page. I’ve never seen what I do that way, but since reading that, I’ve started to wonder if that is what I do. In my opinion, it is these men who have cheated me of my childhood, stripped me of my clothes, my dignity, my dreams.
When I showed Tutai the story, she squealed in delight, seeing her name in print. Then, within seconds, her expression had darkened, a scowl invading her pretty features, and she spat at me. Why are you always the star?
I’m not a star. I’m not precious, I’m not bright and eternally shining. Nobody looks up at me; only smelly, disgusting men with bellies the size of their sins and lies look down at me, crushing me. I am not a star.
Why do you call me Boat Girl, as if that is all that defines me, will ever define me?
I am not just a boat girl. I am a girl with hopes and dreams. I am not a boat girl; I am a girl that wants to fall in love, and be loved in return.
I just want what everybody else wants. That’s all.
Unwary tourists passing her by will be shoved an empty glass with the plea that it be refilled, and if they stay long enough, will hear Rima speak with sadness in her large unfocusing eyes about her one hope, to fall in love with the right man. “I’ll make such a good wife,” she’ll tell. (Boat Girl, Florence Syme-Buchanan)
Florence Syme-Buchanan makes her feel even more violated than being touched by a hundred callous palms and fingers ever did.
It is only now that she realizes the looks the other girls gave her weren’t looks of envy.