Guilt of the Innocents – a shipwreck survival story

This is the first in a series of short stories about growing up available online. These stories won’t be found in print or eBook on Amazon or any other digital store. The only way you can access these is via this website. Guilt of the Innocents is a shipwreck survival story of grit and determination. The hero is Tianyi Chi, a fifteen-year-old refugee from China. Tianyi plays a key role in the story of Small Fish Big Fish.

This story is in two parts. Please enjoy part 1 and stay tuned for news of part 2 coming soon.

Tianyi Chi

Tianyi Chi gripped the iron railing of the ancient bridge spanning the Cart and searched the shallow water below. After a hundred years of industrial pollution, trout had recently been spotted making their way upriver from the Clyde. She saw no fish, but as she watched, a snowy white swan emerged from under the bridge. Tianyi gasped in delight as the bird fanned its wings in a graceful display then lowered its head to drink. The girl rummaged in her backpack for something to feed it and found a biscuit from yesterday’s lunch.

The swan was her lucky mascot. She’d adopted it six years ago after reading the story of The Ugly Duckling her uncle sent her for her ninth birthday.

*

Tianyi and her younger brother, Shiou, were helping their father plant rice seedlings in the paddy fields on the terraced slopes not far from their village. There were two hours of daylight left when she saw her mother running uphill towards them. Her face glowed with exertion, and she waved her arms, urging them to return home. Her father was reluctant to leave the field because a lot of work still needed to be done, but her mother insisted.

‘You must come. We have a guest!’

When they arrived back at their two-roomed stone cabin, Tianyi gaped at the stranger seated at the table. He looked Chinese, yes, but he wasn’t like the adults in her village. She’d never seen a man so perfectly dressed, with sharp creases in his trousers, shining black shoes, and immaculately groomed hair.

He bowed and introduced himself as a friend of her mother’s brother, who lived in Great Britain. Tianyi didn’t know this country he spoke of. He explained it was an island on the other side of the world, populated by pale-skinned people. These were an uncivilized race who worshiped a God they’d put to death in the most violent manner imaginable.

‘I am visiting Jilin Province on business,’ he said, speaking in perfect Manchurian. ‘And you must be Tianyi. Your uncle sends his greetings and fond wishes for your birthday.’ He opened his briefcase and brought out a parcel wrapped in colorful paper. Affixed to this was a brown label with her name in broad, languid strokes.

Her whole family craned forward. None had ever received a gift wrapped in paper with a label attached. The visitor explained that he’d carried the parcel all the way from Scotland and was now making his way back there. He politely refused her mother’s offer of tea and cake because he needed to leave immediately to catch the train to Peking.

When he’d gone, the family marveled at the package for an hour, passing it from hand to hand. The wrapping bore intriguing caricatures of a yellow bird, a black and white cat, and a pink pig.

Eventually, her mother said Tianyi should open the present, which she did, taking care to put the paper aside without creasing it. That night, she would pin it to the wall above her bed. Inside, she discovered a picture book: a fairy-tale, she realized later, by Hans Christian Andersen about the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan. The text was in English, and hence unfamiliar. Still, the family pored over the pages night after night, creating their own words to match the pictures and admiring the colorful illustrations.

*

Since that night, Tianyi had often dreamed of one day being transformed into a beautiful creature. It was silly, she knew. Her father would have told her to put away such childish notions. The world was a harsh place, he’d say, and she needed to be strong and brave to survive. I am strong, father, I am brave. I will survive.

Paisley Abbey

She watched until the swan disappeared around the bend, then crossed to the grand Gothic building on the opposite bank.

When she’d first arrived in Scotland, Tianyi was enrolled in Ferguslie Park Public School, where she developed a passion for reading. She progressed quickly from primary school texts to books like Alice in Wonderland, and in her last six months, she’d devoured Little Women and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Religious observance at the school was a compulsory part of the curriculum and was based on the Christian ethic. Tianyi’s history teacher, Miss Hughes, also doubled as an instructor of religion. Occasionally, she would bring her class to visit the Abbey of Paisley to take advantage of the synergy between her two subjects. Tianyi absorbed every detail.

Built during the twelfth century, the imposing grey-stone building, with tall arched windows and a square tower perched midway along its roof, was one of the holiest and most historic buildings in Scotland. After her first visit, Tianyi came back often to pray for the souls of her family. She pushed against the massive wooden door that led into the nave and entered.

Historic church in Scotland
Photo courtesy of paisleyabbey.org.uk

It was tranquil and cool under the tall vaulted ceiling, and she sensed the presence of the Christian God she had learned about at school. Sunday service wasn’t for another hour, and the church was empty save for a few tourists dotted here and there. Tianyi walked softly along the central aisle past the choir stalls, until she reached the East window that depicted the ascended Christ.

She bowed her head in silent prayer for a few moments, and then moved on until she came to the tomb of Marjory Bruce, the Princess of Scotland and daughter of Robert de Bruce, the famous heroic king. As was often the case, the sarcophagus was decked out in wildflowers, and Tianyi added her posy to the floral display.

She sat on a nearby chair, appreciating the delicate colors that radiated from the stained glass windows to play on the bluestone walls and floor around the tomb.

Tianyi breathed deeply. The ancient church had a dank smell that reminded her of the boat.

The East Wind

Her mother had protested the vessel was too small, little more than a wooden fishing trawler. Surely, it would not survive such a voyage. Her father replied she knew nothing of the sea, and the captain had assured him he’d made the journey many times without incident. ‘We have no choice in any case,’ he said. ‘I have paid the money. Either we go now, or we stay and starve.’

Her mother gripped Tianyi’s hand so tightly she squirmed. Her younger brother Shiou clung on to his father’s coat, wiping the tears from his eyes, and trying to appear brave.

Tianyi felt she would always remember that moment: the despair of her mother, and the resolution that shone from her father’s eyes.

It took three weeks for the East Wind to cross the South China Sea. During daylight hours, the captain allowed no more than a dozen on deck at one time. He told the passengers he was worried the boat might be spotted by a warship from one of the many countries competing for territorial claims over the area.

Tianyi thought he was mean, especially after the weather closed in, and the boat began to rock like a giant cradle. She retched until there was nothing left in her stomach except sour bile, and she became too weak to rise from her bunk. Her mother was made of sterner stuff, and each day she and the other women would lower buckets of seawater into the hold to clean it. It was never enough to take away the nauseating smell of vomit and human waste.

When they anchored off a small island on the coast of Indonesia, the captain forced them to remain below decks in the foul air for two days while the crew took on fresh water and provisions.

*

A shadow hovered over Tianyi, rousing her from her reverie. A dark figure stood in front of the window, surrounded by a bright halo. Tianyi’s heart leaped.

Mother?

The shape resolved itself into the earthly form of a parishioner who’d arrived for the morning service. She nodded, recognizing Tianyi as a regular. ‘Lovely day outside, Miss Chi. Summer’s well and truly arrived.’

Her heartbeat slowed to normal, and Tianyi returned the smile while trying to recall the woman’s name. Since arriving in Scotland, almost two years ago, she’d come to appreciate its reputation for poor weather, but today was perfect. ‘Yes, Mrs. Albright, it is—how do you say—a bonnie day.’

*

It had been midsummer too when the East Wind neared its destination off the coast of Western Australia. The weather should have been fine, but instead, the passengers were welcomed by the raging seas and howling gale of a category three cyclone. When the captain tried to outrun the storm, the mainmast snapped, and the boat swung broadside-on to the wind.

shipwreck survival story

The engine was powerless against the fifteen-foot waves, and the boat tilted grotesquely before crashing onto a jagged reef. Tianyi, already weakened by seasickness, was knocked off her feet by the impact. The Indian Ocean gushed through a rupture in the hull, and the passengers below deck panicked.

Her father emerged from the gloom and swept her into his arms as though she weighed nothing, then waded through calf-deep water towards the stairs. They clambered out of the hold and were instantly set upon by the wind.

The rain stabbed at Tianyi’s eyes as she clung to her father’s sleeve. The storm lessened momentarily, and she heard him shout, pointing to where Shiou and her mother were clinging to the shattered remnant of the mast protruding from the deck. He grasped her by her arm and dragged her to its temporary safety.

Reunited, the family huddled together. Tianyi whimpered against her mother’s body and thought her teeth would never stop chattering.

*

A tear trickled down her cheek as she remembered. Her father always seemed the strong one in the family, but her mother was ever the comforter.

The therapist at Perth Hospital In Australia had encouraged her to think and talk about her experiences on the East Wind, but it was still a bitter memory.

She glanced around. The pews were filling up with parishioners, and choir-members were settling into the loft, high above. A low murmur filled the Abbey. Men escorted their families to their seats, and there were nods, and polite greetings exchanged as friends recognized each other. Tianyi searched for any sign of falseness in their faces. But no, all appeared pleased to be here, sharing fellowship. The well-mannered courtesy the churchgoers paid to each other stood in stark contrast to the primeval self-preservation of the passengers on the East Wind.

*

They’d grasped at anything to prevent themselves from sliding overboard: steel hawsers, capstans, masts, and nearby people. Some were pushed away by those they thought of as friends. Rejected, they scrambled and scraped at the deck as gravity took hold. Many disappeared over the side.

A cluster of male passengers and crew were brawling over the few remaining life vests. Tianyi watched her normally placid father howl like a jackal as he burrowed into the pack and heaved at one of the jackets. He staggered back towards his family, blood running from his nose, but with the trophy grasped in his hands.

*

Abruptly, Tianyi heard the doleful pealing of bells.

No, that’s not right. There were no bells.

They echoed again, louder this time, and Tianyi woke. The abbey bells, high above, were calling the faithful to service.

The first notes played on the organ, and Tianyi stood. Today, she would pray for her father. He’d cried when he looked first at her mother then at her and finally placed the life vest over the head of her younger brother. Her father had held her close and whispered that he loved her, that he was proud of her, and to always be brave.

I am strong, father, I am brave. I will survive.

WATCH OUT FOR PART 2 OF Guilt of the Innocent – a shipwreck survival story – COMING SOON

In the meantime, check out my special feature on the true-life setting for the novel, Small Fish Big Fish.

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