Sampan by Anne Freier

The girl expects a wave as she steps into the shallow wooden boat but the water holds calm. Motion is trapped as it squeezes between an assembly of vessels their interiors painted blue or red or green.

“Ka,” the woman seated at the back says and points to herself. She wears a pubescent pink sweat suit and a cone straw hat. Her feet hold the oars steady. The toenails are crinkled and caramel, consumed by the trade. 

The girl sits on the low wooden plank at the front. Her long legs almost fall into her chest. A fine mist cools her forehead. With feline precision, Judyth eases into position next to her. She stands up again and folds her jacket three times to cushion her frail pubic bones. 

“Good idea,” Iris says and copies her friend before she drops onto the plank behind them with the energy of a person half her age. Hers is a swirling elegance. The worn wood creaks but the sound is fleeting as if the boat has been expecting them and doesn’t want to ruin the moment by drawing attention to itself. 

Ka exchanges words with another rower. Then she pushes off with her feet and they’re caught by the intimacy of the lake. Rousing shore chatter is drowned by the dripping purr of diving oars, and the clanking of the wood against the hips of the sampan. Judyth closes her eyes to zoom into conversations of nature – birds, crickets, bats, toads create a steady transmission like pursed lips blowing on metallic wire. There’s madness to serenity. The girl follows the old woman’s lead but her mind drifts to picture his triangular ears – elvish, she called them. She must open her moist eyes. 

“Your mother should have come,” Iris says and exhales all she’s held onto. The thick scent of diesel is displaced by a washy mix of fresh, spicy sweetness, and rotten eggs.

“Her knees are bad,” the girl says. “She worried there was going to be more walking.” But the girl is glad her mother hasn’t come because it’s a chance to know what it’s like to travel by herself. The last time was with him. Switzerland. Full-time walking. He held her hand to cross the waterfall ravine; a melted glacier gushing beneath the bridge. Kindness dilutes fear. 

Iris takes off her shoes and rests the shins on the wooden edges for the naked feet to dangle above the water. Her legs are covered in red bumps but she has no need to scratch the itch. 

“It’s calm out her. Not like the city,” Iris says. The women are glad to have escaped the surging cars that dress the sky in a torrent of fog, the array of sky scrapers in which voices layer like tar, and the thinned attempts by nature to communicate through wire cages. And that last part always makes the girl forget to swallow: that we give up nature for money only to need it so badly that we ship it to where it doesn’t want to be and build fences to keep it there. He called her radical.

“How long are you staying for?” Iris asks.

“It’s our final stop. We’re flying home in three days,” the girl says and bends to her left to stroke the water. It looked dirty from the shore, but now she can see the river weeds below. Is it really her face in the glassy surface? She hoped it would look different by now, infused with the collective experiences of the last two weeks.

“We started south and have been traveling north ever since,” she says.

Judyth mms and ahs, keeping her eyes closed, like she wants to be part of the conversation but is afraid to rise from her private pleasure. The warm air sinks like a soothing blanket over the women who have a propensity for the cold. 

“How about you?”

The pair have been travelling for the past two months. It began in Nepal, where they volunteered to help dispense natural remedies and medicines to pregnant women. 

“We enrol every year. It’s a sobering experience. Harrowing.” Iris speaks of the crippling poverty and how materialessness couldn’t impoverish the souls of the locals. Starvation, however, can. The girl has never been forced to starve, only by choice. 

“I’m always relieved to depart. Disappointed that there isn’t more I can do to help,” she says. 

“There’s only so much one can do,” her friend professes and repositions the clip that tames her sprawling, grey mane. They’ve known each other since college. That was 40 years ago. Judyth lives in Seattle. Iris moved her family to Philadelphia. She has been practicing holistic healthcare since the 80s. A certified midwife, she helps women navigate pregnancy and the postpartum year based on her deep understanding of spiritual philosophies, herbal medicinal approaches, and alternative healing techniques. Judyth is a founder of a Somatic Psychology program taught in San Francisco. She’s an expert in Reichian psychotherapy and sensory awareness. Both women teach at workshops worldwide. They see one another once a year – on their passage through Asia.

“Really, we’re lifelong students,” Judyth jokes. Even her laughter is frictionless, offering serenity never demanding it. It reminds the girl of his voice. He had swallowed velvet. 

“What does your mom do?” Iris asks.

“She’s retired. She reads a lot.” Books on traditional Western medicine and the scientific discoveries that govern the secrets to eternal life. The girl cannot imagine to live forever; too much pain and sadness leak into the world. 

Nepal was followed by Thailand. And the memory of it eases Judyth into a spatter of giggles and then the words rush out of her: elephant sanctuary, rescue and rehabilitation, more volunteering, community, most spiritual adventure.

“Elephants are such gentle creatures. If only we understood them better,” she says and flattens the long skirt with the white elephants printed on it. A woman wrapped in empathy.

“You should go!” 

“It’s a good thing you’re too young for back aches. Those worn spring mattresses at the sanctuary left an imprint on my spine,” Iris jokes like it’s a key selling point. The girl’s mother is hyper-sensitive to bad sleeping arrangements. The stiff neck brings about a crippling migraine. Pain is a lonely experience. The woman has shown her the world even though she’ll often stay behind to attend massages and spa days. It is an admirable skill, to find contentment. The girl must dilute herself into all adventures. Maybe she’ll go with a friend. Maybe he’ll be her friend some day when they’re both no longer crying.

Habit or affection, Iris separates the vibrant bracelets, at least twenty of them – beads and metal, and fabrics mingle against the tanned, wrinkled wrists. If each bracelet means a place she’s visited, Iris has seen much of the world. Suddenly, Ka points to the limestone karsts cloaked in the curly hair of trees and shrubs. Green hill formations lift on all sides. The girl snaps pictures with her phone. She’ll be showing them to her mother later, back in the room on the 54th floor of the hotel that is counting stars. 

“Where will you go after this?”

“Home,” Judyth says. It is their last stop also. Before the girl left home, she wrote a letter to thank him for all the years. Before the airplane took off, he left a voicemail to thank her for the letter. She still remembers his words, a soup of humility and love, and respect. Home strikes her like a concept now; every inch a degree of separation between them. She sighs his name in her mind. And it makes her think of the poetry he wrote but never shared, and the two cups of coffee they each would drink in the morning alone – sometimes together – and the fox cubs in the garden they’d throw stale bread out for. 

“Is it strange to come back to a place of familiarity after being away for so long?”

“I like to think of it as a new space. That’s why you travel,” Judyth says. “You step into something familiar, but you’ll be a slightly different person now, and so all is peculiar.” The exploration continues.

“I look forward to seeing my husband,” Iris says softly. And the girl turns her face as a tear dislodges and plummets into the river, riding a wave of oar motion. 

“You’ve got yourself a good one,” her friend says. There’ll be no one waiting for Judyth at the airport when she returns. There’ll be no one waiting for the girl either, not anymore. But Judyth speaks of her solitude as if it is privilege. 

“And in those moments, where I need to see a face, I’ll call a friend or go for a walk. One is never truly alone. It’s a blessing and a curse.” She speaks with an openness that requires practice. With trained precision, the sampan glides through the dark of a cave and into bustling reverberations. Its wooden bodice moans – the smallest movements echo here, caught between the stone walls. If she cried right now no one would see it. But a whimper would bounce forever. 

“Down,” Ka shouts. And the women lean forward, pressing their torsos onto their thighs to avoid the stalactites from piercing their heads. They bend over until light oozes into the black and the vessel slips back into the heat of the afternoon sun. Iris takes the opportunity to sprawl out on her back on the hood of the boat. Her long white hair covers the creases of the neck, shielding their secrets from evaporation. Hair like the girl hopes hers to be at 70.

“How blue can a sky be?” she asks.

The girl looks up. A flock of white storks passes overhead. She cannot remember the last time she’s seen a stork. They’re probably extinct in England. 

Boats overtake theirs now, eager for a competition. The rowers exchange friendly banter and erupt in juicy laughter. The shore emerges out of nowhere, too fast to negotiate acceptance of the end. The girl wipes the sweat from her forehead as the sampan slots into an opening along a row. The three women tip Ka and thank her. She nods and folds the bills into a purse that is strung around her neck. It is the girl’s turn to disembark. She expects a ripple, but the water is still. Then a family of four rush forward and the sampan bemoans their enthusiasm.  

Iris, Judyth, and the girl trot back to where the rest of the group congregate in a line to climb onto the refrigerated bus. The girl takes the single seat by the window. She leans her forehead against the chilled glass. Then the bus pulls out from a procession of coaches and turns onto the main road. The guide recites facts about the local history but the girl is drowsy now and closes her eyes, her body softly swaying side to side. 

“It was lovely to meet you,” Iris says and hands her a piece of paper with their phone numbers. “If you’re ever in Philly, come say hi.”

She stands up and hugs first Judyth then Iris. The women step from the bus. They interlink arms and wave to the girl beneath the neon sign that says Nice Silk Hanoi. And in that moment, the girl forgets about the boy at home who broke her heart. And optimism secretes and shocks the body. Encrusted despair washes away and leaves residues of warm comfort. Every exhalation is weightless. With each blink of the eyelid a more saturated pixel emerges to form a snapshot of an opportunity. Suddenly all seems possible.  

Then it is her stop. She steps from the bus into a flow of people. And she cannot wait to show her mother the pictures. 

Anne Freier is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Her foray into publishing began when, as a child, she self-published booklets on pet care that she sold in front of supermarkets to collect donations for the local animal shelter. Her first book is being published by a Berlin-based indie press in 2021.