He washed ashore. The tide heaved his body onto the warm sand, but he didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel his salt-caked hair, upright like the fern at the bottom of the ocean. Neither did he feel the bloated plank of wood he floated with. His agony wouldn’t start for a couple of hours, time enough for the afternoon sun to evaporate water off his body and leave the salt behind. Later he would wonder that he should have died. Twice. He shouldn’t have washed onto this shore. He should have sunk to the bottom like the rest. If that was to be the case, his story would have been a lot shorter. But it wasn’t.
He woke up. His eyes were welded shut by the salt. The skin of his parched lips flaked off, leaving new flesh to be infected. The back of his tongue tasted the acrid seawater. His throat gurgled to find some saliva, becoming drier due to these futile efforts.
He expected someone to give him water. Where was everyone? He turned and laid on his back. He felt the heat of the sun on his face. He tried to open his eyelids but it pained his head. He regained sensation in his hands and felt the sand underneath. The fingers of his right hand seemed to be grating over the surface of some pebble. He turned his head to left and forced his eyes open.
The light blinded him for a moment. He squinted to make out the hazy form in front. It was huge and grey. He could feel his feet now. They were still in contact with water. The shape in front came into focus. It must be a rock. I have crashed onto an island, he reasoned. He tried to remember the last memories.
There was a boat. No, a ship. It was bright everywhere. It was night but it was bright everywhere. The floorboards, the curtains, the door, the sails, the mast, the hull. They were all on fire. But why? The people onboard were screaming. Someone had woken him up. Told him that he was sleeping through the fire. And then there was the cold water. Even the ablaze ship didn’t have the finality of the cold water. Fire rained from the sky. People were jumping into the water. A man danced on the deck, his clothes and skin charring in the swirl of fire.
I tried to wade away, he remembered. Something crashed into my head. It must have been this plank. The plank must have been a part of some door, a part of its design was still discernible. There was an eye. Some blue colour washed around it. At the edge was a darker shade. It must have been some bird. Probably a woodpecker.
Puzzling over the plank, he licked his dry lips. He felt sick but he resisted the urge to retch. He must have swallowed a lot of water. He looked towards the horizon. The water stretched forward until it probably fell off the edge of the world. None of it could quench his thirst. It could only make him sicker. He felt revulsion at the sight.
He looked upwards. The sun was almost above his head, beaming down in its sneer. He caught sight of some leaves, high up in the sky. He turned around and saw the island. Or if you could call it that. Ten feet away, stood a palm tree. It looked to grow straight from the island’s centre. He followed its length and saw the top seated directly below the sun. There must be some coconuts there. He crawled towards its base, to rest in its scattered shadow. A few feet farther away, there was a line of rocks. He reached the foot of the tree and tried to raise himself. He fell down on his first attempt. He raised himself again, gripping handfuls of the dry bark. The line of rocks was the end of the island. The same ocean lay beyond.
He sat down and heaved. His eyes drooped shut but he couldn’t afford to drift off to sleep. I might not wake up this time, he thought. I need to drink something. Water.
As he sat, he bumped his head into the tree, hoping that a coconut or two might fall off. Nothing happened. He looked up and tried to count them. The sunlight filtering through the leaves hurt his eyes. He squinted and tried again. One. Two. Three. Four. Water.
There were at least ten of them. They must have some water. I should climb, he thought. He had never climbed trees. Not even when he was little. He was too afraid that he might fall down and hurt his neck. He could barely raise himself, than climb a tree.
He caught sight of the plank. He could try hitting the tree with the plank. It was a long shot but that was the best he could try in his state. He crawled over to the edge of the island and picked up the plank. He was able to raise himself and stumbled towards the tree. This might be a consecrated tree, he thought. He waved the thought away and lurched forward. He raised the plank to shoulder height and slammed it into the trunk. It made a lot of noise but the trees showed no sign of relenting. It was then that he noticed the ocean around him was becalmed. There were no waves and the water barely rippled.
He hit the tree again, with greater force. Still nothing, only the sound seemed to increase. He thrashed the trunk until his arms grew tired. The sound grew louder and seemed to echo off the horizon. He gave one final swing. The plank struck around his waist level, giving a lower note ringing. The plank broke off into two parts, one with a sharp edge fell towards the water.
He gave up and slumped again. His arms and shoulders ached from the effort. He could barely even think now. He wished that the sun would set by the time he died. His breathing became more labored with passing moments. The loudest sound on the island was his pained wheezing. He rubbed his chest, his mouth drooped to let in more air. The ocean seemed to have decided to suffocate him. He wished he had gone down with the ship. They were lucky souls. He must have sinned more. He would cry if he had enough water on his tongue. Drama is pointless without an audience.
He gazed into the sand, at the point where the shade of the leaves ended. He observed the shadows lengthen. The sun must have understood that the show was over and decided to climb down from its high seat. He wished for clouds, for rain, for the sky to open its chest. But the ocean was up there too. An unending field of blue, no spots or blemishes visible. He must be in a sphere of water, a solitary piece of land in the middle. The universe enjoyed watching him suffer. He closed his eyes and prayed for a quiet sleep. He will find out if there is peace beyond this or if this is the final end.
As his thoughts began to leave him and he felt his suffering ease, a sound brought him back to his misery. He heard a melody, coming from the horizon. Or maybe that was the echo of the melody. But somebody was singing. In a voice suited for a better world.
He opened his eyes and saw the light recede from the sky. In the yellowish tinge, the water rippled. He looked towards the horizon and saw something splashing. Maybe a boat. But why would the boat be singing? Or was there someone on the boat singing? He rose to his feet, faster than ever before, and raced towards the edge of the island. ‘Help’, he shouted, jumping up and down to catch the boat’s attention. The boat seemed to be headed in his direction. What a relief.
But he could see a fin flapping, sweeping water up and down. A fish maybe, a dolphin or a whale. He picked up the sharp edged part which had separated from the plank. But why would a fish sing. That didn’t make sense. He must be hallucinating.
He waved his plank to and fro, guiding his savior in the right direction. The tune of the song wafted over him like the tide and he thought about the treehouse where he used to play. The fin slapping the water produced a constant beat, against which someone hummed a simple melody. He closed his eyes and listened. Hadn’t I heard that tune once in that treehouse, he thought? The sound grew stronger, echoing off the horizon as if there was a giant hill.
He opened his eyes and squinted. For a moment he thought that his eyes had deceived him. There was someone riding the fish. Someone with very long hair. But he couldn’t make out the features. Even in the painful clarity of the overhead sun, the figure approaching him seemed hazy. There is no one, I must have gone mad, he thought. But insane people don’t know that they are insane. Or do they?
He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs of his mind away. For a moment he hoped that it had been dark. That he didn’t have to see the creature swimming towards him. He’d rather deal with shadows and whispers. The form grew clearer. He held his breath in. He wished he had died earlier. Maybe I am dying, he thought, and this is just my mind playing tricks on me.
It was a woman. But she wasn’t riding a fish. She was the fish. She reared her head out of water and pushed the hair clinging to her forehead away. Then she smiled. She hovered at the edge of the island. Her hair cascaded down her shoulders, falling till where her waist ended. She had no legs, a long tail extended from the line her torso ended. The fin at the end was huge, flapping up and down casually, sending ripples which crashed into the island.
“At that instant, doubt left me. I had been questioning my senses and mind constantly on this island, but that was the first moment where I was completely sure of my reality. I knew that this woman/fish was as real as me, maybe even more. I wasn’t shocked, her being there was the most natural thing possible. I wanted to say something. I don’t know if I wanted to scream or say thank you. I opened my mouth, expecting sound to emerge from the depths of my throat. Instead I felt a dull choking. I gasped for air, sucking in bountiful amounts, but nothing reached my lungs. The back of my throat felt sandpaper rough. I fell forward on my knees. My vision blurred, the air seemed too thick to see through, but she remained clear. I fell down and my head hit a pebble. I didn’t know if I made a sound or not, but my ears heard a cracking sound. The kind of sounds the dead make when trapped gases escape after a few hours.”
“Then I felt water on my lips. It wasn’t the crusty, salty sea water I had swallowed before. It was the purest water I had ever tasted. Fresher than any rain, sweeter than any waterfall. My throat drenched in the drops dripping down my lips and I thought of the tiny insects which gather around small fires. My vision regained clarity and I saw her above me. She cupped water in her hands and let it fall over my face. The same water my hair were floating in. The water which had gobbled a mighty ship. I understood that the water passing through her cupped hands was not the one she was standing in. It changed. It ceased to hold any impurities.”
“I coughed up some water when I had enough. She parted her hands and peered at me in concern. I put my hands by my side and raised myself. I reevaluated my surroundings. I was alive and seeing a mermaid. And I was hungry. As soon as that thought entered my mind, everything else seemed irrelevant. I spoke to her, but she looked confused. I shouldn’t have hoped for her to understand human tongue. I forced a smile and made the universal gesture for hunger. I rubbed my stomach and pointed to my mouth. She didn’t understand that either.”
“She opened her mouth and spoke in an alien tongue. She clicked her tongue a lot and shook her head. Her hair swished violently and I noticed that they were completely dry. A hunger pang washed over me and I doubled over. She stopped talking. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the terrible churning in my stomach to go away. It felt like someone inside was trying to knife his way out.”
“When I opened my eyes I noticed the wooden plank a couple of feet away. Its serrated edge ended at a sharp point. I could probably catch fish if I stood alert in the water for a couple of hours. But not here. I hadn’t seen any other creature in this forsaken sea except for me and the mermaid. The water stood as calm as a jarful of honey.”
“I raised my hands and tried to show her the manner a bigger fish swallows a smaller one. My right hand swallowed the oval shape made by my left hand, but I could sense the futility of the effort. I didn’t even have to look up to her to know that she didn’t know of fishes. Maybe she knew nothing about eating too. No one in this ocean was supposed to eat. I was an aberration, a glitch in the texture of the universe.”
He lowered his hands and rested them on the warm sand. His right hand was inches away from the plank. She raised herself, clicking in her foreign tongue. A part of her tail emerged out of the water, shining in the twilight. She’s the only fish here, he thought.
He picked up the plank and slashed it across her tail. The mermaid let out a yawp. She lost her balance and fell down, arms flailing and tongue clacking. He thrust the pointed tip of the plank through her neck. He braced to see a river of blood, but a clear fluid came gushing out of the hole. A bit of steam oozed out of the top of the hole, rising in the placid evening air. He watched as she struggled to breathe, her hand cupping the hole in her neck, her mouth agape, eyes accusing. I am sorry, he breathed, but he wasn’t sure what he felt. The hunger pangs in his stomach were the only thing which permeated the reality.
Her hands stopped flailing, her jaws slackened, she laid her head on the sand as if to rest. He checked her breath. It wasn’t there. Still clutching the plank, he marked a soft spot on the tail to make an incision. He slashed in the manner the sailors had taught him, making a clean cut. Unlike the wound at her neck, thick blood oozed out of this cut. It dripped down her tail, making big red blotches in the sand. He tried to carve a new section but the plank was too heavy to perform a task requiring precision. The blood made the job even more difficult, settling so fast that he felt as if he was twisting his knife in frozen butter.
Somehow, he managed to carve off a sizable piece of the tail. He wiped the blood off and dug his teeth into the flesh. It was softer than any fish he had ever eaten. There was no need to cook it. In fact exposing it to fire might ruin the tenderness. He gulped down mouthfuls of the flesh, almost running out of breath. When he finished, he sat down and carved another piece of the tail. Fresh blood oozed from the wound, but he couldn’t tell if it smelled or not. In a few hours, it might stink. I ought to cover it up, he thought.
When he had his stomach filled, he laid on his back for a few minutes, staring at the sky where a few stars had begun to appear. Counting them, he fell asleep.
“I woke up with a start. Something was amiss, there had been a sound. I looked around but I could barely make out anything. The moon had come up but it took my eyes a few minutes to adjust. The mermaid lay a few feet away, a huge part of its tail missing down the middle. Shit, I should have covered it up. I got up and looked around. My sweat soaked shirt would surely infect it. I walked towards the palm tree, hoping to find something which could serve my purposes. To my luck, or bad luck you might say now, I found a palm leaf lying behind the tree. It was perfect for my purposes, clean, fresh and large. I took the leaf and walked back to the mermaid.”
“From the tree, she looked as if she had fallen asleep peacefully, looking at the stars. There was nothing amiss with her except for the hole in her tail. She looked as alive as I had seen in the evening. Maybe even more so. When I knelt besides her, her body still seemed warm. I had heard about rigor mortis and livor mortis from sailors but she showed no signs of death. Her eyes were wide open and mouth agape. I was afraid she might be breathing. But she wasn’t. I settled on my haunches and began applying the leaf to the wound. I could see everything, all the details of her body I didn’t notice in the daylight. She had a tiny mole on her left arm and the scales on her tail converged at the middle. I picked off some broken scales, hanging loose from the skin and applied the leaf. I wished I knew more about dressing wounds, but I had done my job as well as I could have hoped to.”
He felt thirsty. He smacked his lips together and gulped some saliva. He remembered that the mermaid had poured sea water through her hands. It had become clean, purified by her touch. He tried to cup some water into her hand, but it felt limp as if the fingers didn’t want to come together. He managed to drip some water through her hands but it was ordinary seawater, chafing his tongue. He thought about going back to sleep, but he couldn’t risk losing too much water in his frail state. Then he remembered the clear fluid that had oozed out of the mermaid’s neck. It looked like water, maybe even clearer.
“As soon as the thought popped into my head, my thirst intensified. My tongue seemed to grate against the roof of my mouth. I got up and brought my plank. When I got back, her eyes had opened a little and her mouth had slackened again. Hope she doesn’t mind. What a weird thought. I hadn’t thought about that before. Maybe she didn’t even know that normal beings depend on others for survival. I sliced her wrist across the arm. The fluid oozed out. I put my lips to the wound and sucked out the life. My suspicions were right. It was water, pure and pleasant. I sucked on my fill and then applied some of the leaf left over to the new wound. Now I really felt sleepy.”
“I got up and dragged my feet back to the tree. All I could think of was the faint melody I had heard in the evening. It was vaguely familiar, even though I could not recall it. Something I had heard a long time ago. Was it soothing? Was it ominous? I couldn’t remember.”
As he slumped by the side of the tree, the melody became clear to him. It was ‘Happy Birthday’. And then he heard the sound which had woken him. It was a loud burp, followed by a noisy exhale. He sucked in his breath, breaking out in sweat. The mermaid. She was the one burping and sighing into the night. He felt an urgent need to pee. Maybe even defecate. He stood alert, listening to the silence. The island was quiet again. He wished for anything else, the waves rushing, the tree leaves rustling, birds cawing. But not here. In this place, the only sound possible was of a shipwrecked coward and a dead mermaid.
“In a few minutes I gathered enough courage to go over to the mermaid. I came out of hiding and she was there. Maybe it wasn’t her who was dead. Maybe I had died and this is just an afterlife nightmare. But wouldn’t that be like a dream. I can never tell if I am in a dream. It’s only after that I know what I had seen was not real. But this is real enough. Too real to bear. The dead make sounds, the sailors had told me. Gases trapped inside escape slowly, making sighs and burps on their way out. That had to be it. I am scaring myself without sense or reason. But logic exists only in communion. Alone, there is no sense in the island.”
“She was the same as before, eyes wide open, mouth agape. I knelt a few feet away, hoping that turning her onto her side might solve the problem. I crept towards her, ready to run away at the first sound. I closed her mouth, shut her eyes and turned her sideways. She faced away from me, her matted hair scattering all around. I picked up the part of the leaf I had left besides her. Why was I here, helping dead burping mermaids sleep? Maybe there is a god and he is playing a sick joke one me. Or had I played a sick joke on him?”
“As I turned to leave, I heard it again. The loud burp and exhale. Maybe she was smiling, now that she faced away from me. I wanted to run away, but I knew I wouldn’t return.”
He sat down, turned the mermaid onto her back. Then he stuffed her open mouth with the leaf and put her hands on her eyes. She looked like a child playing dead.
“Another loud burp, and the leaves came flying out. I swear on my mother’s grave, her lips curled up into a smile. The air in my lungs refused to come out and I felt I would choke on the night. I jumped up and kicked at her. Her hands fell away. Her eyes were smiling too. I pushed her into the water again. An acrid stench rose up into the air, her skin charred. Big fat tears rolled out of my eyes and for the second time that day, I felt death would be easier.”
“I ran away and began climbing the palm tree.”