In the Bottom of the Fish Basket

    “In the Bottom of the Fish Basket,” Friend, Sept. 1988, 44

    In the Bottom of the Fish Basket

    Kam Fung stopped to peer through the gateway on the border between China and Macau. When Papa was away, it was lonely fishing in the South China Sea in the small boat with only Mama and her two brothers.

    Today Papa had promised to return from visiting his sick mother in Canton. Kam Fung watched hopefully for the familiar figure with shoulders slumped from many years of carrying heavy loads. Her own shoulders ached now under the weight of the long pole balancing two large baskets of fish. If Papa only knew what lay hidden under the fish, she thought, he might hurry home faster.

    Kam Fung was about to hurry on to the market when she caught sight of her father. His shoulders were even more stooped than she had remembered, and his face more haggard than she had ever seen it. As Papa passed through the gateway, Kam Fung set down her pole and baskets of fish and ran toward him. “Oh, Papa, we have missed you!”

    He smiled tiredly and took her hand. “I have missed you too. I hope you have been selling a lot of fish in the market.”

    “Oh yes, Papa! But I know that I can sell these twice as fast if you help me.”

    He laughed, but it seemed a little sad.

    “Is Grandmother not well?” she asked.

    “I’m afraid that she will not live much longer. Maybe I will visit her again soon.”

    Papa picked up the pole and shouldered the fish baskets. “We will not talk of it now. We have fish to sell. Besides, I know that my brothers in Canton will take good care of her.”

    As they dodged through the market crowded with people buying squawking chickens, live snakes, and apples from America, Kam Fung again thought of her secret hidden under the fish.

    Papa began slapping the fish out onto the little platform where their family usually brought their daily catches. Before he had finished unloading, people began examining the fish.

    “This is a nice plump one,” said one woman. “How much?” The woman was already loaded down with a chicken stuffed into a pink plastic bag, a huge watermelon, and a sack overflowing with green vegetables.

    Kam Fung plopped the fish onto the pan of a caddy-stick scale to weigh it and moved the weighted string along the stick to balance it. Out of the corner of her eye Kam Fung could see Papa reaching for the last fish in the bottom of the basket and pulling out a plastic sack, instead.

    Peering inside, he asked, “Why are you carrying books in the fish basket?”

    “It is the Bible, Papa,” exclaimed Kam Fung, as she handed the fish to the customer. “Don’t you remember that before you left for Canton, we passed by a Christian church offering Bible classes. You told me that you read the Bible as a small boy with your family in China. Then, when Bible reading wasn’t allowed for a long time in China, your family got rid of your Bible. You said that you wished you could remember some stories about Jesus.”

    Shrugging vaguely, Papa pulled a book out of the sack. “Kam Fung, this isn’t the Bible. It’s a Book of Mormon.”

    “But it talks about Jesus. I know. I already ready part of it,” she said.

    Papa shook his head. “This is only an American book. I had some American boys try to give me one of these when we first came to Macau. I told them that it sounded like a good story made up in the head of an American and that I wanted no part of it.” He reached into the sack again and pulled out another book, and then another, and another. “Kam Fung, there are six copies of the Book of Mormon in here. How did you ever get six?”

    Kam Fung looked down sheepishly. “Well, Papa, yesterday I was dashing across the street with my load of fish. I wasn’t looking where I was going and crashed right into two Chinese missionaries on bikes. We all fell down in a heap. Their books spilled out, and all my fish came down on top of them.” Kam Fung couldn’t help giggling. “The books came up smelling pretty fishy. I told them that I didn’t think anybody else would want to have their books smelling of fish but that I knew my papa would want to read one and that he was really used to fish smells.”

    Papa wasn’t smiling. “I don’t want one, let alone six.”

    Kam Fung said wistfully, “I thought that you would want to give them to your brothers and mother in China.”

    “My mother bought another Bible a few years ago,” Papa replied, “and that’s all she needs.”

    A huge gust of wind almost blew away his last words. A pole loaded with wet clothes plopped heavily on top of him.

    Kam Fung stifled her laughter. “Oh, Papa, are you OK?”

    He was still sputtering under the wet clothes when someone raced by their booth, yelling breathlessly, “There’s a typhoon headed this way! The other end of the market’s already closing up.”

    Raindrops were starting to fall as Kam Fung and Papa rushed home. She hoped that the fishing boat, where she had lived all her life, would be safely anchored. But when they reached the familiar inlet of the South China Sea, her home was nowhere in sight.

    Papa pursed his lips with worry. “We’ll have to take the sampan to find them. Your brothers aren’t that expert in handling a boat in a storm, and they may not realize how serious their situation is.”

    Papa started the engine as Kam Fung clambered into the craft beside him. The sea was rolling angrily, but Kam Fung was never afraid when Papa was handling a boat. She could barely see the outline of the island of Tanzao. It seemed to bob up and down before her eyes. None of the few boats thrashing about looked like her home. She hoped that their fishing boat had not been forced out into the open sea.

    Then she heard Papa yell above the wind and the motor, “I see them! They’re coming in!”

    Mama ran out onto the deck as Papa pulled the sampan up beside the rolling fishing boat. She lowered a rope for securing the sampan to the larger boat.

    Kam Fung felt herself sighing as Papa caught the rope. But she also felt something else. It was the powerful tremor of a gigantic wave roaring toward them. Without glancing up, she knew that it would engulf them. The sampan was capsizing! Kam Fung felt as if she were rolling in slow motion into the swirling sea.

    The frightened girl was certain that Papa would come and scoop her out of the water, but no strong arms came. Thrashing wildly, she tried to escape the surging waves that threatened to envelop her and sink her to the depths. Thrusting her head above the foaming water, she gulped for air. The boat! Where is it? She suddenly glimpsed it between two waves. It was so far away—and it was slipping farther away with each forbidding wave! Then the sea grabbed her and pulled her under again.

    Kam Fung opened her eyes, but nothing registered at first. Finally she could focus on Mama, who was leaning over her with a damp cloth. Kam Fung gradually became aware that she was lying on her own bed in their boat, and she jerked in panic and sat up. “Where’s Papa?”

    “I’m right here,” he said soothingly and took a step toward her. Mama gently laid her back down.

    “Everything’s going to be OK now,” said Papa. “For a while we thought that we’d lost you in that terrible sea—”

    “And then it was like a miracle,” interjected Mama. “We found you battered against some rocks on shore. At first we thought that you were dead. But somehow Papa knew all along that you weren’t.”

    “And it may have been a miracle, too,” said her brother Lung Fai as he held up a bright pink plastic bag. “I watched you capsizing,” he continued, “and couldn’t figure out why you kept clinging to a plastic bag. Now I think I know. We found your bag, still tightly knotted, washed up on the shore not far from you.” Lung Fai held up a soggy copy of the Book of Mormon. “I’ve already read a few pages,” he said. “There’s some reason that you were supposed to have these books.”

    Soon Kam Fung was able to eat some of her mother’s rice soup. She could tell by the sound of the rain and the waves that the worst of the storm was over.

    Kam Fung watched as Papa picked up one of her books. “I might read one of these books just for curiosity’s sake,” he said casually. He opened the front cover, looked at it in surprise, then set it down and opened another. “People’s pictures are inside the books, with words written in Chinese.” When he opened the sixth one, his eyes widened and he drew in a sharp breath. His words spilled out excitedly. “I know this man! He’s my cousin!” He rushed to Mama and jabbed his finger at the picture. “That’s the son of my mother’s oldest brother. My uncle and his family went away many years ago, after the big war, and my mother has wondered for years about her brother and his family. Look! Here’s an American address. Now I can tell my mother the happy news.”

    Papa began reading his cousin’s words out loud: “I never knew when I was still living in China that I could find such a wonderful thing as the true gospel of Jesus Christ and its teachings about how we can live together forever as a family. I only hope that some of the people I have left behind may come to know this important message. I know that the Book of Mormon you are holding has been sent from God to help us. …”

    Papa fell silent. Then he slowly turned to the first chapter of First Nephi and began reading.

    Illustrated by Richard Hull