"The Beachcomber of Dong Hoi"
Monday, Đồng Hới - the centre of the Vietnamese coastline:
With the sun high in the sky and all the locals siesta-ing, one brown face — formerly pale, less formerly burnt and peeling — wandered around the beach. The eyes flitted to and fro across the sand, standing out wildly from the haggard, bearded face. His path too, slow and halting, was erratic. If one were to watch for a long time, it might be observed that he covered the ground with little redundancy, but certainly it did not appear so at a glance. Over his right shoulder was slung an old fishing net — tied, retied and finally abandoned, now his. In his left hand, a black faux-leather briefcase — missing its handle, so suspended by fraying cords braided out of plastic bags. It twisted back and forth gently as he shuffled across the sand. His clothes told history as succinctly as his face — worn with age and bleached by the sun. The shoes however — once owned by a man on a business trip, who lost them along with his life whilst going for a drunken midnight swim — looked almost smart, aside from the missing toe caps — messily sawn off to fit his feet. The net was almost empty: a lump of drift wood and a china plate — intact but having collected a few limpets. Today had been a better day for small items. He stopped, staring at the ground from his great height, then stooped to retrieve a small, oddly shaped glass bottle. Perhaps it once held a fancy perfume. After holding it aloft and examining it from every angle with an experienced or arrogant eye, he knelt to open the briefcase. The bottle was placed amongst the other junk: bottles, china fragments with faded patterns, shells, a doll's head, rusty coins & keys, bones, glass shards worn smooth by the sea, bottle caps, all manner of plastic toys, and today's prize: an analogue watch, stopped at about quarter past eight. The familiar sensations of the sound of the waves and the salt breeze masked the little presence of the city at his back. He smiled and continued on his way, because it was Monday.
Tuesday, the tidal waters of the Nhật Lệ River:
While the locals and the intrepid few tourists who visited Đồng Hới had lunch, the beachcomber sat by the water washing yesterday's haul, shaded by a large parasol proclaiming "Bia Hanoi" — salvaged after being abandoned by the owner of a beach front café. The owner had a different opinion on the matter, but had conceded some months ago. His arguments had been met with silence and a patience possessed only by pilgrims, fugitives and the insane. Each item was dunked in the salt water, shaken languorously, then pulled out and scrubbed with a discarded toothbrush. Limpets were persuaded off with a thick bladed carpet knife. His work proceeded slowly, not only through meticulousness, but by pace. As the sun set, the pile in the sand to his right had entirely moved to the tarp on his left. He just sat for half an hour, then lay down to sleep because it was Tuesday, and tomorrow was Wednesday.
Wednesday, on a street called Nguyễn Du just off the AH1 highway:
Dawn found the beachcomber laying items on his tarp in neat rows, waiting laconically for customers to arrive. Suspended by wire coat-hangers from his parasol was a plank with words burned into it: "Treasures from the Sea", poorly translated into French and German. The promise was not kept by his wares. The few rusty coins and bottle caps could not be mistaken for gold doubloons, nor the sea-smoothed shards of glass for gemstones. It was 10 when the first tourist came past and noon before anyone stopped to look. His only sales came around 3 in the afternoon. A child fascinated by a handful of porpoise teeth he had pried out of a bleached jawbone and a young man convinced he could return a rusty zippo lighter to life. He sat unmoved as the sun set. Only once the bridge's colourful lights were turned off and the city had begun to sleep did he pack up. He smiled because nobody had taken his photo today and because it was Wednesday.
Thursday, Đồng Hới market:
The beachcomber moved from stall to stall. He didn't speak but pointed at what he wanted like a mute or a tourist. The locals were wary however, they were unsure how much of their language he understood. He haggled, sometimes indicating a price by holding up fingers, but mostly just waiting for the vendor to make a lower offer. He took all day and with the money from yesterday's sales he bought enough food for the week, at a mendicant's ration. He stayed up late to watch the stars wheel about the sky, only sleeping when the faintest light appeared in the east.
Because by then it was Friday.
Saturday, the ruins of Tam Toa Church by the waterfront:
"I was told I might find you here."
The beachcomber spun around in alarm.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to startle you. My name's Paul."
The stranger held out his hand, the beachcomber did not reach out to shake it. After a moment the stranger shrugged and said, "May I take your photo?" holding up his camera. Vigorous head shaking. The stranger was looking increasingly put out.
"You see, I write for the guide book and I've heard you're something of a fixture here. I wanted to put in a word or two about your business, I thought you could answer a few questions?"
The stranger paused, hoping for a sign of approval. . . rejection. . . comprehension.
"Not too much of course, don't want to spoil the mystery. But it could do wonders for your sales!"
Still no response. The beachcomber had heard nothing after "guide book". The phrase and what it meant for his life had transported him to the bottom of a deep well, devoid of sensation while also overwhelming to each sense. But he was fighting his way back up. Moments passed, as the stranger internally debated his next move.
"guide book. . ." croaked the beachcomber.
"That's right." responded the stranger encouragingly.
"guide book. . ."
"Yes, one of the big ones!" The stranger's next words saved his life. "I mean, you're already on the internet travel sites and our forum. It's about time you were in print."
There followed five minutes of silence, during which the stranger lingered, feeling that the conversation was over, but too polite to leave without a response. The beachcomber rose and, stopping only to pick up his tarp and his food, pushed past the stranger and set off at a steady pace down the AH1, thumb out. Paul stood uncomprehending, aware only that he had been the bringer of bad news. Hours later, in a southbound goods truck, the beachcomber frowned and didn't sleep because it wasn't Saturday. This was not what was supposed to happen on Saturday.
He was at a roadside café where the truck had left him. He felt off balance and uncomfortable, like the plastic chair didn't fit him, like the world didn't fit him. Sounds drifted through him unheard and painful by their multitude. The sights which reached his eyes were boiled away to a harsh grey ache by the constant flitting of mopeds across his vision. Down the road near a fruit stall, a car gave a loud backfire. All heads turned but his, and in this momentary opening his body quickly glowed to a brilliant white then vanished, leaving only the chair, smoking and gradually sagging under its molten weight.
When? Where? All was dark and silent, the environment was cool and he felt neutrally buoyant, which is to say he didn't feel. He might even be a brain in a jar. He enjoyed this relaxing solipsism idly. At length a voice sounded, resonant in such a way as to give no impression of space.
"What in the hell were you doing, Scout? Hiding as a sun-addled fool, scratching a living selling junk to tourists in a city with barely any visitors. You were supposed to check in three years ago. We only found you because something so futile is intriguing to those monkeys!"
"monkeys. . . ?"
"The humans, dammit! Did the sun really fry your mind? The species you were supposed to be studying. The species whose social customs we spent a decade teaching you! What were you doing hiding at the edge of the world?"
The beachcomber uttered only three syllables, expressing finally an understanding of his torment and confusion.
"Wrong planet. . ."
Addison Trev is an Aspie from the U.K.. He works as a programmer, but likes to daydream while his code compiles.