"In the year before liberation, America and Japan were at war. Japan still occupied Taiwan, and every day, American planes bombed our village. It was a rough time for the people of the Pescadores. We couldn't fish, nor could we work the land. Food was scarce, and neither strong nor weak had e nough. It was then we thought: "if we stay, we die; if we go, we may also die. . . we might as well try and get across to Taiwan and get potatoes t o feed our families." This was told us by my grandfather fifty years later, in the spring of 1993, sitting in front of our family house in the Pescadores.
"We were young then," he told us, "four men, four pairs of hands that didn't rest. By night we watched the stars, by day, the sun. We rowed all th e way to Pu-tai on the coast of Taiwan, were we bought potatoes from the people there. Loaded with potatoes, we again crossed the pitch-black sea, r owing for our lives. When we saw the hills of the Pescadores in the distance, tears washed our faces. We lit three sticks of incense and gave than ks to Heaven, Earth and Ma-tsu, goddess of seafarers, who had protected us."
"Some boats weren't as lucky as ours. They were machine-gunned by American planes as they reached the coast. The rice they brought was soaked in b lood, but even that bloody rice was food for our stomachs" I looked at the wrinkled face of my grandfather and saw in his pride and melancholy a map of the Pescadores. How he has aged.
My grandfather turns eighty this year. Like most fishermen on the island who lived through the war, he has grown used to long hours of daily toil. In all but the stormiest weather, he would set out to sea every day of the year. This active life upon the sea made his body hard and tanned.
I remember that in my childhood, grandpa was always either repairing his nets at the quay, or out looking for bait by the shore. In summer, the war m currents would bring huge schools of fish down to the harbor at Shan-shui. My grandfather, who would stand lookout on top of Pig Mountain, would r aise his arms and throw his straw hat into the air. At that moment, the fishermen would cast their nets. Their women and children gathered by the s hore would haul in the nets until sundown. At dusk, amidst the shouting, there would be a mountain of silvery fish would be heaped on the sand. Imag es of such bountiful harvests live on in my memories of childhood.
With the passage of years I grew-up, and many friends left the island to study or find jobs. I felt like a lonely tern, circling and recircling eve ry inch of inch of the land.
Once, on a morning in late winter, I joined a band of fishing boats at Ch'i-k'an, and sat among the clamor of drums and gongs as they sailed for Ku- p'o to gather seaweed.
One summer, standing on a ridge on Ch'i-mei island, I looked down onto the jade green of the peanut fields, where families of peasants sat beneath t heir ox-charts shelling peanuts.
In the first winds after the autumn harvest, I recall a women standing by a barren field, pulling her scarf tight as the wind pulled at its edges.
Through the howling winds of winters' end, ferries and airplanes bring back hordes of wandering sons.
In the spring that slowly brings life back to the island . . . I watch, listen and walk, step by step.
One night in 1986, Hurricane Wayne hit the island and reduced the fishing boats moored at Hsi-chuan island to driftwood. The Great North-East Ferry lay half drowned in the ruins of the Fourth harbor. Electricity poles and trees were uprooted, and broken branches were strewn about the village st reets. That year, my grandmother, with tear streaked face, piled the stones back onto the broken walls. Drought also assailed the Pescadores, on th e heels of the gales of 1987. I looked at the gourds that hadn't the chance to grow hanging withered on their stalks, row upon row against the walls . The brown-black leaves seemed ready to turn to ash; the water level at the Cheng-kong reservoir reached its lowest point ever; beside the temples white prayer-flags, invoking rain, fluttered listlessly in the wind.
In 1988, I left the Pescadores to find work. Through several years of shuttling between the big city and the islands, I learned the anguish of sepa ration; my thoughts of home became filled with sorrow.
Last year, when I returned home to the Pescadores for the Spring Festival, I found the sheet of red paper, which was yearly stuck on the living room wall, had been torn down. Only four red corners remained. This sheet named those families who would go out with the boats and haul in the nets that season.
"What has happened to the list ?" I asked.
"Over the past years, who knows where the fish have gone. Besides, the old are getting older, and the dead are no more; the young want none of this fisherman's life. It's been years since we've been out to sea." Sitting deep in his armchair, my grandfather sighed.
I realized now how our home had changed these years I have been away. The white sands of the beach had risen up into a wall, blocking the sea from our view. There was a new harbor at Shan-shui village, but the fish came there no longer. I didn't recognize this place of my youth anymore. The p eanut fields at the foot of East mountain where grandmother and I had gathered peanuts had given their last harvest long ago. Only the graves of the ancestors remained, with wild grass as their only companions.
When had the hordes of tourists started to flock here, and motorbikes swarm the island like locusts? When had the book shops and rice stores of Mak ong's streets been replaced by local produce marts and karaoke bars? The Chian-kuo cinema had become the T'ung-ling Dance Hall, and worst of all, t he wild bird reservations were being destroyed.
The hill at An Shan has been flattened, and the angular blocks of the concrete breakwater have changed the character of the coast entirely. The car ved windows of the old Scholars' House have disappeared, and the ground is covered with fallen roof tiles, laying about in the dust of history. So ma ny venerable houses, now roofless, fester like an open wound. The molded bricks that decorated the houses and the mill stones that stood before the door have been bought up by businessmen from Taiwan to sell as antiques. Everything has changed, really changed!
In 1993, the local edition of the national papers reported that some influential people wanted to quarry the Hsuan-wu cliffs for rock to build the s econd national highway. In 1994, the head of the county government proclaimed the need to build a casino . . . but then again, what disasters haven' t the people lived through. The history of these islands are full of disasters and the people have lived through the successive famines, gales and i nvasions.
I don't know when returning to the Pescadores began to frighten me. My homesickness became something new . . . fond memories of childhood. Year af ter year I missed the gathering of the seaweed harvest; my mother's hair turned gray. I missed the summer sky full of dragonflies and the drums of t he autumn sacrifice, filled with sorrow; I missed the chill of winter.
More and more, I became afraid of returning; but the memories of the windswept plains, spotted with agave and cactus remained. Toppled by the wind, they would grow anew. I felt like a potato buried in the mud after the spring rain; cold, dark and waiting to grow.
How I would like to hear Lian Hsi-kong play the p'i-pa and sing sad songs in the temple of Ma-tsu. I would love to see grandpa Ch'ing-teng cast his nets once more.
Night. I want to go home and watch the old granny in Tung-wei make ke-bu-kau-ah sweets; to see if A-chun from Shuang T'ou-kua has grown; to see if the woman from C'hi-k'an remembers the night we went out fishing for squid; to see if my aunt's flowers have been plucked away by the wind.
Night. Will the lights of the fishing boats shine near An-Shan tonight?