by Keyan Bowes
This story was previously published in The Book of Tentacles in January 2010.
Joya was already headed toward the river when a passer-by told her about the mysterious boat.
She intended to make the most of her freedom while she had it. By this time next week, she’d be dressed in a saree and shown off to boys and going nowhere unescorted. Her uncle, doing the right thing by his orphaned niece, had decided it was time to get her married despite her inadequate dowry. Certainly there’d be no more sneaking off dressed as a boy to go fishing and hang out with the river-urchins on the docks.
The boat had appeared overnight on the River Nauthey at Boro Nagore with no crew or passengers. White as though dipped in lime-wash, it was a medium-sized sixty-foot vessel like a coastal ship. Its upswept prow reminded her of the Arab dhows that sometimes visited the port.
Joya joined the crowd that had gathered to watch and stare.
“Someone should inform the authorities,” said a bald man. “The ship has no name or identity. The government will not like it.”
“Why don’t you go and tell them, Mister?”
“What’s the use? It must be magical. No ordinary boat just appears on the Nauthey like that.”
Intensely curious, Joya was determined to board before someone called the police or government officials. But if she made her intent clear, the crowd would start an argument about whether she should or not, and if the bureaucrats showed up before it was over, they would stop her. Surreptitiously, she drifted closer to the boat. The gangplank, grating on the stone of the riverbank, seemed to beckon her.
“I went and called the River Authority,” said someone on the edge of the crowd, out of breath from his self-appointed errand. That was enough distraction for Joya; she leapt for the gangplank. She nearly dropped her shoulder-bag and her head-cloth snagged on a splintery post. She grabbed both bag and cloth and disappeared into the boat. Her hair spilled onto her shoulders, giving her away as a girl, but that didn’t matter now. She was safely on board.
The crowd saw her too late, and exclaimed. “Stop!” someone shouted. “That’s a foolish thing to do! Come back!” Others took up the call. From the deck, Joya looked down at the people below.
A group of officials now stood on the riverbank, afraid to board but determined to take charge. The authorities had arrived. “Get off the boat!” one shouted to Joya. “Who said you could go aboard?”
“Why should I get off?” Joya yelled back, nettled at their rudeness. “Is that any way to talk to a respectable girl?”
“That’s true,” said someone else. “Sir, you should be more polite. Ask her nicely.”
“Why are you interfering, fool?” said the official. “How does it bother you? Would any respectable girl dress like a boy?” The crowd joined in the argument.
While they wrangled gleefully, Joya turned to the prow of the boat.
“Chollo!” she yelled in Bangla, assuming that the boat, being on an Indian river, wouldn’t speak English. Then she thought better of it. “Let’s go!” she told the boat. “Chalo! Yela!” she added in Hindi and Arabic for good measure. Something worked. The gangplank flew up and locked.
“Stop her! She is stealing the ship!” shouted an official.
“Maybe it’s her boat,” said someone in an argumentative tone.
The boat pulled away, and sailed swiftly down the Nauthey.
Joya was entranced by the sights and sounds of the river, the small fishing boats with rice-straw shelters, the villages and temples on the banks, the vivid green fields of young rice, women washing clothes while children splashed in the river. She had been on the water before, but only round the busy Boro Nagore docks.
The sunset lit the sky in pinks and golds, and screeching flocks of seagulls circled the boat. The scents of incense from the evening prayer and dying flowers drifted to her from stone temples on the riverbanks. The sun sank behind the paddy-fields. Reluctantly, she decided to return. It would be dark by the time she returned to Boro Nagore, the crowd would have dispersed, and she could sneak away home. Aunty would be angry, wondering where she’d got to; she’d probably get a few slaps for being out late and shirking her chores.
She stood at the prow, and commanded the boat to turn about in Bangla, then in Hindi and English and Arabic. She didn’t know much Arabic, just a few words learned from the traders at the river-port, but it should have been enough. It wasn’t. She shouted commands in every language she knew, over and over. The boat wouldn’t turn.
Soon it was completely dark. Hungry, thirsty, tired, and very scared, she couldn’t decide what to do. She couldn’t see very much by the light of the waning moon. She found her way to a cabin, and a bunk, and climbed in. It smelled fresh and clean. The problem would have to wait for the morning.
She awoke to a greenish light streaming through a porthole, in a cabin furnished with silk in colors of turmeric-yellow and turquoise blue. Wondering if the boat had changed course during the night, she ran up to the deck. There was only water, from horizon to horizon.
Joya had never before seen the sea, and the vast openness overwhelmed her. Its dark green color was quite different from the Nauthey, and the surface a lot rougher. It smelled different from the muddy, fishy, river-water. She leaned on the rail and watched the ship leave a V-shaped wake edged with white. The boat showed no sign of turning. It wasn’t under her command; the departure had just been a fluke. She was trapped on this magical boat until it reached its unknown destination. Where was it going?
She looked down into the water, wondering what she should do. From her shoulder-bag, she took a small knife and a length of line. Tying the end of the line to the rail and the other end to a balance point at the center of the knife, she stared intently into the water. She aimed and threw, and pulled up a speared and wriggling fish. After she’d gutted and cleaned it, she took the fish down to the galley. In the little kitchen, she found three pots sitting on a stove. They held cooked rice, vegetables and spicy lentil soup. Fresh water flowed from the tap. She wouldn’t starve immediately, anyway.
The ship sailed on and on, night and day. Joya discovered the pots she’d eaten from were evidently the legendary akshaya patram, the inexhaustible pots. Each morning, they were all full again.
The sea was endlessly enthralling, green and dark blue, and flying fish leapt beside the boat. Occasionally one flopped onto the deck. She saw no other ships, no sign of land.
She started to dream about the boat. It flew a royal pennant embroidered with gold. Several richly dressed men stood on the deck, looking intently at the sea. A group of musicians seated on the deck played martial tunes of courage and sacrifice. It sailed out of a fog bank toward a whirlpool, where waves roiled like ripples from a monstrous dropped rock.
At the prow stood a young man muscular but lithe, not quite grown into his man’s body. He wore a long brocade coat, and the folds of his turban were held in place with an emerald-and-diamond pin that supported a golden feather. A prince. His dark eyes looked determined, and his jaw was set like that of a man who goes to war knowing he will be killed.
As they approached, a kraken became visible in the waves, its huge tentacles extended toward the ship. The musicians fell silent. No one said a word, but froze in attitudes of grief and apprehension. The prince stood tall. A shadow of dread crossed his face, and was gone as he regained control. He removed his turban, and handed it to an attendant, shaking his hair loose about his shoulders. A tentacle shot out, grabbed him and dragged him into the sea.
Immediately, the pennant was lowered. The boat swung around. The musicians played slow, mournful music. The boat sailed back into the fog bank from where it had come.
Joya awoke feeling melancholy and pensive. She wondered if her dream had anything to do with reality.
Gradually, she lost count of the days. The seas she sailed grew somehow stranger, as did the fish she caught. As a Bengali girl and a fisher herself, she was familiar with many types of marine animals, but these were outside her experience. When she caught one that had nine eyes and something resembling human limbs, she threw it back and gave up fishing.
After some weeks at sea, the boat plunged through a huge fog bank. On the other side the green sea looked like translucent glass where the sun caught the waves. It was a strange place, ringed with a wall of fog. At the center, she saw some kind of vortex like a large whirlpool, nearly as big as the boat. Around the edges, the water seemed to bubble up, as from a circle of springs. Beyond this was a ring of fairly calm water, in which her boat sailed. The turbulence looked surreal. It reminded Joya of her dreams.
In the midst of the waves, small red translucent balls were being thrown out of the whirlpool. They bobbed in the water and glowed wherever the light hit them. Joya found a long pole, and rigging a make-shift net with a piece of her head-cloth, she succeeded in snagging a ball. It felt warm and smooth like amber, but was a brilliant blood red and clear, as though red ink had been poured into a drop of clean water and formed into a globule the size of her smallest fingernail. Joya turned the jewel this way and that in the sunlight, enjoying its spectacular beauty.
The boat circled the vortex. Joya expected to pass back through the wall of fog that surrounded the marine anomaly, but instead the boat went around again. It seemed to be staying just outside the perimeter of the disturbance.
By the third day at the whirlpool, Joya was fed up. The boat was going in circles. Fishing yielded no catch, weird or plain. She imagined doing this for the rest of her life, eating the same food from the same pots, staring at the same sea enclosed by its fogbank, and going around the same whirlpool for ever. The only thing that was remotely interesting was the stream of jewels. If she ever got back to Boro Nagore, they’d make her rich, if only she could catch them. She tried to net a few more, unsuccessfully.
She would have to go in.
She wrapped her head-cloth tightly around her braided hair. Tying a sash round her waist, she slung on her shoulder bag, and lowered the boat’s rope ladder. Then she dived in, held her breath, and swam down in the translucent green water. Staying as long as she dared, she pushed herself to the limit of her endurance as she netted the glowing spheres and put them in her bag.
On her third dive, she stayed down too long and went too deep. She swam frantically upward, still holding her breath. She wasn’t going to make it to the surface. Her lungs gave out and she panicked and gasped, taking in a breath of sea-water. Stupid, she thought in an oddly detached way, Stupid, idiot, should have come up sooner. Now I’ll drown.
To Joya’s surprise, she didn’t. She didn’t even cough and splutter. Instead, she found she could breathe quite normally. Some enchantment, she thought. Should have guessed. She dived down, down, down, following the twisting vortex to the sandy bottom of the sea.
In front of her was a high curving wall, white as a sea-shell, abutting an underwater cliff-face and enclosing a space in between. A stream of the red jewels rose from inside it and fell into it, with lots of noisy bubbles. She swam to the wall and tried to look over the top, but an invisible current kept pushing her away. She went around, and found an entrance to the enclosure, a sculpted archway at the bottom of the wall. A richly carved door blocked the entrance. She expected the same magical current to prevent her entry, but the door opened at a touch.
Inside, two figures lay on a golden platform like a huge bed. One was the monster of her dream. It was much bigger than a man and had a warty blackish green hide, rougher than an elephant’s. Its tentacles sprawled over the bed. A stream of bubbles rose from it as it breathed.
The other side of the bed was strewn with falling jewels. A naked youth lay face-down on it, and she could see the streamlined muscles under the skin, which bore faint marks of lashes, and odd circles. He looked terribly vulnerable beside the monster.
Joya had never seen a man entirely naked before, though of course Boro Nagore teemed with rickshaw pullers and poor men who wore skimpy loincloths and no shirts. This was different. He was clearly no poor toiler, for all his muscle. Joya moved closer.
And gasped in horror. She was looking at a corpse. The man’s neck had been sliced through. His head was separate from his body. Drops of blood slowly emerged from the wounds. Instead of diffusing into the water, they were caught by the magic current, which took them to the surface. As they neared the top, they changed into red amber and fell back again. Even as she watched, a thin shower of jewels fell over the body.
Joya crept forward. Next to the body were a scimitar and a gold rod. She lifted the rod to look at it. She must have brushed it against him as she did so, for all at once, the head and body came together and the man rolled over and opened his eyes. It was the man from her dream, the one captured by the monstrous octopus.
He looked at Joya, astounded, then over at the monster. He immediately placed his finger on his lips. Signaling the need for caution, he got up quietly and carefully, and led the way outside the room. He closed the carved door.
“Who are you?” he asked urgently, “What are you doing here? You need to get away, quickly. If he wakes now, you’re dead. Deader than me!”
“You’re not dead now!” said Joya. “Who are you?”
“Prince Sami. The monster’s captive. His… toy. You must go, right away, before he awakes.”
“Not a chance,” said Joya. “I’m not leaving you trapped here.”
“Go,” he said seriously. “This creature is … horrible. He’s afraid I’ll escape when he sleeps. That’s why he cuts my head off and leaves me there. When he wants, he touches me with the gold rod, and I am alive again. …Go! Now!”
“Come on then!” said Joya. “Let’s go! Escape from this place!”
“Do you think I haven’t tried? He’ll wake if I leave. That’s when he started killing me.”
“We’ll kill it, then!”
Sami gave a harsh laugh. “I tried that too. I took his scimitar, and tried to kill him with it. But it’s magic, only he can use it. He caught me easily, stripped me and thrashed me with those tentacles. Gently, he said. If he had been less gentle, maybe I would have died beyond reach of his reviving rod. That scimitar is loyal to him.”
Joya shuddered. She took out a dagger and a throwing knife from her bag and said, “What about these?”
At that moment, they heard a change in the monster’s breathing. First one tentacle stirred, then another. There was no escaping now, no time to think, only to act. Joya darted in through the doorway.
“No!” shouted Prince Sami, “Don’t go in there!”
He charged in after Joya, who had run around behind the bed and crouched down to hide. The monster was indeed awakening, and it had just begun to realize that Sami was not lying on the bed. The cephalopod trumpeted like an angry elephant.
“I’m right here, Sir,” Sami said hurriedly. “I just stepped out for a little exercise. I did not want to disturb your sleep.”
“Why are you alive?” said the creature. Its voice sounded bubbly, furious, and baffled. “I killed you before I slept. How are you walking around? What magic did you use?”
“None, sir, no magic. I lay waiting for you to kill me. All I remember is falling asleep and waking before you. Perhaps you didn’t cut off my head this time? There’s no other explanation. I don’t have any magic. It is all yours.”
“Hllloom! You should know better than to leave the hall.” The monster grabbed him with one tentacle and forced him down onto the bed. He raised another to beat him.
Sami started wailing loudly, and making a noisy fuss, pleading and cajoling the monster. “Oh please sir, I did not disobey you! Please! No, no, please don’t whip me with your tentacles.”
Joya knew he was trying to give her time to escape, and cover any sounds she might make. Instead, she used the distraction to position herself behind the monster’s head.
“What’s wrong with you today?” the monster shouted. “You’ve never resisted your punishment before!” It secured its hold on Sami with another pair of tentacles. As it did so, Joya jumped onto its head and reached under, aiming the dagger for the middle of its bell.
The monster squawked loudly and flung Joya off its head. She landed some distance away, and sprang to her feet. The monster reached for her, releasing Sami, but she evaded it, and ran round the other side of the bed. A tentacle shot out and its tip hit her arm, making her yell, but it couldn’t wrap around and get a hold on her. She backed away, daring it to follow her, and dropped to the ground.
“Sir! You’ve forgotten about me, sir!” shouted Sami. The monster turned, and rose ominously above the bed. “Weren’t you about to whip me, sir?”
Before the monster could answer, Joya flung her knife upward to plunge deep into the cephalopod’s bell. That’s how the Boro Nagore fishermen killed octopus and she hoped that the same technique would work. The creature sank to the bed, tentacles writhing furiously.
Joya leapt to her feet. Dodging the tentacles, she grabbed the head, avoided the beak, and reached under the bell with her dagger. She stabbed furiously into its nerve centers. Its spasms threatened to dislodge her, and Joya needed to keep her dagger in place. She held on in desperation, knowing that if it got away, she and Sami were both horribly dead or worse. She clung to it as it tried to rise. Sami raced over to tackle the creature. The dagger had done its work. The monster’s grip weakened, and it toppled sideways onto the bed again, all its tentacles going limp.
“Let me finish him off,” said Sami grimly. He drew the dagger from the corpse, and sawing down hard, severed each of its tentacles. Blue blood gushed from the wounds and was caught in the current. Joya picked up the horrible remnant and put it outside the room, retrieving her throwing-knife from inside it. She wiped it on the coarse hide of the monster.
Sami thanked Joya with tears in his eyes. The magic current grabbed the tears, and as they watched, a few pearls fell down on them. They started to laugh. “Let me get some clothes out of that chest,” he said, “and I’ll come with you.”
As they made for the surface, they saw the jewels in the water had changed. They were a clear deep blue now. Sapphires, maybe.
“The monster’s blood,” said Joya, scooping a few from the water. “I wouldn’t have thought it would become something so pretty.”
“Why, this is my boat!” said Sami. “This is the boat that brought me here.”
“I saw you in a dream,” Joya said, as they climbed up the rope ladder onto the deck. “I saw how the creature caught you. And your shipmates – they just abandoned you and sailed away.”
“I wasn’t caught,” said Sami. “I was a sacrifice.”
She looked at him. “A sacrifice?”
“That creature marauded through our seaside villages causing havoc and slaughter,” said Sami, “We thought of him as a storm, a hurricane, a tidal wave. Once or twice in a generation, he came, he destroyed, he went away. Then something changed. He started coming every ten years, then every five, then every year.”
Joya imagined the creature she had seen, swimming in with the waves to coastal villages whose people ran screaming. She visualized it grabbing the slow and unwary with those darting tentacles. She imagined it dropping crushed bones. She shuddered.
“Our fishing fleet was destroyed,” Sami continued. “Eventually our sages determined that he must be given a sacrifice. A scion of the royal House.”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Joya. “Why one person? Why royal? Why you?”
Sami shrugged. “Ask the sages. I suppose I was available. My brother was the heir, recently married with small children. He will be king one day. I was a young unmarried man. Armies are full of such. I expected to be eaten alive.” His knuckles were white where he gripped the rail. “I went consenting.”
Joya waited, but Sami said nothing more. She stood up and joined him at the rail. “He didn’t … eat you.”
“No. It was worse.” Sami turned to her. “I don’t think I thanked you properly,” he said, and he bowed before her, touching her feet.
“Oh, don’t,” said Joya uncomfortably. She found herself on the verge of tears. She lifted him up, and they fell into an embrace.
Later, she gathered up the little spheres of blood amber and gave them to Sami. “These are yours,” she said, explaining where she got them.
“I always wondered,” he said. “I used to waken in a rain of jewels. But please keep them. What else can I give you? Would you like to keep the boat? You can, you know. I can teach you how to control it.”
Her mind felt like the fogbank they were sailing through, and she didn’t reply. Instead she asked, “Will you go home now?”
“I don’t think so.” His voice was bitter. “I’ve done my duty there. I’m dead to them, and I’ll stay that way. Shall I take you back to your home?”
Home. Joya thought about no longer being the pitiful poor relation, now she had the jewel-wealth for a dowry. She thought marrying really well, about living in a large bungalow with her own horse-carriage and being a dignified respectable married woman with a white boat moored on the Nauthey for sedate little river picnics.
“There’s nothing for me in Boro Nagore,” she said as they broke through the fog into evening glow and satin skies. “I’ll take your offer of the boat.” She looking out over the expanse of ever-changing waves, and dancing flying fish. “Do you come with it?”
He laughed. “Yes!” he said, and they set sail into the sunset.More stories like this by topic: Asia, Authors of color, Characters of color, Desi authors, India, Indian authors, Women authors