Longlisted for Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2019. First published in Himal Southasian: https://www.himalmag.com/adrift-mir-arif-2019/
Over the last few days of that tortuous journey our boatman developed a taste for human flesh. He hid the old man’s carcass under a tarpaulin. It was to save the flesh from getting soaked in rain. Poor man! He would have died anyway if he had stayed back home. Would have been killed by the blood purifiers: the army, the angry Mogs. Worse, his own folk were eating his flesh now.
I remember things in pieces. I cannot tell you for sure if Yunus killed the old man. Or he had died of hunger. But he was starving for weeks. So was I. We were lost in a watery wilderness weeks ago. Our engine broke. Our food depleted. Our clothes rotted in the heat and rain. And one day we saw the sun rising behind us. But we told ourselves that we must sail towards it. Not away from it. We realised that death was crawling into our boat. So, one by one, all the passengers died. Starving. Except the three of us.
Yunus thought we were only two. Left now at the mercy of the sea. He could not see my baby daughter in the hold. He did not hear her cry when I gave birth to her. The sea was calm in the morning. And there was no cloud in the sky. But a storm broke out towards the evening. It came from nowhere. First, I could see only a strip of pale cloud. Soon it became thick and black. Like a woman’s black hair – with yellow tints streaking across it. It looked as if it was the sky of the keyamat day. I had never seen such a strange sky in my life. It was then I felt the dull aching pain in my lower back. I felt somebody was trying to make a way out of my womb!
You see a boat riding a stormy sea was not the room a mother would want her baby to be born in. Big waves rolled under the boat. Crashed against the hull. The poor vessel began to bob nervously. It tossed and turned. As if in a nightmare. It was ready to dive into the bottom of the sea. With each wave rushing in, I feared the boat would capsize. I descended the small ladder that led to the hold, clawing at anything I found within reach. It was the last place I would have chosen for my delivery. I had been there during those hellish days, crammed in with ninety-nine people dreaming to cross the Andaman. You could barely breathe inside. You could never see the sky. It still had the stench of our urine and faeces. A foul odour always hovered between the floor and walls. But I had nowhere else to go now.
The waves tried to wipe us off the face of the sea. I could not understand how the calm and gentle sea I had seen earlier suddenly became so violent. I waded through the rising water. Then I saw a heap of clothes, left by the dead passengers. I slumped into the heap and lifted up my sari. I pushed myself as best as I could to help my baby get out. I do not know how I cut the thing that connected our blood. But there was something sharp that I used in the flashing darkness.
The pain of delivery left me unconscious before I caught a glimpse of my baby. Floating in blood. Then I saw her once again. In a bad dream. She was swimming in a blood-filled sea. Sometimes like a shark. Sometimes like a human. She neither seemed afraid nor unaccustomed. She was flexing her body. Her slim, fin-like legs. It seemed to me that she was not born of my womb, but of a fish!
I regained my consciousness at midnight. She was lying between my legs. Without a cry, without a stir. Her eyes were strangely yellow. Her arms the colour of amber. She was trying to blow hope into my lungs. With her open, lambent eyes. “Poor girl,” I whispered, “we’ve survived hell!” She, however, did not blink her eyes. I took her in my lap. I noticed her pricked ears. She was listening to the thunder and the lashing rain that drumbeat on the deck. It occurred to me she was trying to adapt to her strange world.
The agonising storm was not over. It felt like the boat was rocking end over end in a raging sea. Each wave turned into a mountain and came to eat us up. Then more waves lapped over the boat. On and on. My back hit against the wall. I was in a stupor. But a sliver of thought still told me to hold my baby as closely as I could.
The boat began to mount regular waves in the morning. The rain abated finally. We were fortunate to have outlasted the storm. But now I found the hold filled with water. It had entered through every chink of the boat. Fortunately, there were pails in the hold. I began to pump out the water. It was really painful. The height did not allow me to stand fully. I almost fell down in swoon. The labour and hunger exhausted me indescribably. My legs became stiff. They were as heavy as metal pieces. However, I did not faint.
The only thing I said to my baby was: we will have to keep ourselves alive. I did not know how, but I knew we would have to survive anything we were to face during that unforgiving journey. It was then that I heard the thudding of his feet.
The sea was already calm. There was no sound outside except the sound of the gentle waves. Yunus was walking over our head. Like a many-legged creature. He stopped by the engine and came back at the same speed. Round and round. The sound of his feet rang through every nook of the hold. She was still, sucking my breast and listening to his footsteps. Perhaps she was trying to understand if there was any danger in her little world. But you see I would not let any harm reach her. While I was alive. She seemed to have understood me. She waved her little fingers to clutch my hair. I leaned to kiss her cheeks, her forehead. We looked at each other in silence. Our eyes conversed without sound.
I realised that I must be on the deck. I might have to convince Yunus that I was only sheltering in the hold during the storm. I swaddled my baby and put her in a safe corner of the hold. I stole the ladder to the deck. I sat, guarding the hatch that led to the hold. It promised to be a bright, sunny day. The sea lay beautifully calm. The sky was clear. There was no trace of the last night’s storm. I could not see Yunus anywhere. The thought of him falling overboard crossed my mind. Though I was not sure how to feel about his disappearance.
My head was light from the labour. From hunger. But I could still recognise that we were going towards the horizon where the sun rose in the morning. I was never sure if drifting towards the sun would take us to land. Or make us survive. But I was overcome with joy. Some inexplicable feeling floated in my hollow frame. However, it vanished as soon as I saw Yunus appear from behind the boat’s engine. He was sleeping under the tarpaulin with the old man’s carcass. He had already tied the carcass to the engine. It was to save the old man from falling overboard. I could see suspicion lurking in every movement of his eyelids. Was he thinking of the glow of my body that he could not see anymore? I did not like him looking at me like this. I did not know if he was aware of my newborn daughter in the hold. But he scanned me for a long time. From head to toe.
I had not seen him well in weeks. He had wide set eyes. A long nose with a sharp tip. A large forehead. He had looked gaunt and weak only a week ago. His flat stomach had tapered to narrow hips. It would swell badly. His lungs would throb like bellows. He was desperate to survive at any cost. Like the rest of us. But now he appeared to be a strong man. Growing stronger each day on his new diet. His muscles glistened in the metallic heat. I was frightened. How lean and weak I was, in contrast to his growth! The only thing that was common between us was our skin colour: it had turned coppery. Hardened by the salty wind.
He brought out a little knife from his pocket and lifted up the tarpaulin. There lay the old man’s carcass. Pale and lacerated in a few places. One of his eyes was gone – the left one. Yunus kissed the hollow socket. As if he was kissing a holy thing. He then bared the skin of the old man’s thigh. He cut into the flesh with the knife. Hot, salty weather had preserved the carcass from rotting quickly. It would have putrefied a lot earlier on land. The flesh seemed soft beneath the skin. He cut a few slivers of flesh and did not hesitate to push the morsels into his mouth. He ate carelessly. As if he was eating beef. Then he looked at me in the most casual manner.
The sight of a man eating another man’s carcass horrified me so much that I sat paralysed. It seemed some of the slivers were stuck in his throat. He needed to drink water to get them to go down. He went to a plastic pail tied to the gunwale. He drank the entire pail. The pails had been used by the dead passengers. The boat owners knew it would rain at sea. So, they had fastened a few pails for the poor folk.
Yunus noticed my hatred for him. He needed to clear his mind and, finally, began to speak at noon, “There’s nothing wrong in eating your own folk, Sufia.” He was convinced that the old man had asked him before his death, to eat his carcass. He talked to me without stop. At one point he laughed as if remembering something funny. He said, “The old man kept telling me: if I didn’t eat him, he’d come back and kick my ass to make sure I end up in the stomach of a sea-beast!” It seemed to me that he was trying to forget the whole thing. “Besides it’s only a carcass. His soul has already found a place elsewhere,” he told me.
He offered me a piece of meat afterwards. Repulsed, I spoke nothing. He thrust it down his own throat after a few minutes. He kept seeing me. I had eaten nothing but water for about a week. I had little flesh left on my body. My eyes sunk into their sockets. Cheeks revealed the bones beneath. Breasts shrunk away and sagged downwards. Only a few passages of milk ran to my shrivelled-up nipples. Perhaps they were still nourished by the water I was drinking. Water was the only thing I could drink. The old man’s flesh was the only thing I could eat. But I could never think of eating the carcass of our own folk. Someone who had lived among us only a few days ago.
We spoke nothing until the sun disappeared. I wanted to go down as silently as I could. But he asked me to move from the hatch when I was about to stand up. “I need to bring some clothes from the hold, Sufia. It’s so cold out here. I can’t sleep properly,” he told me.
I was so frightened that I yelled at him, “No need! I’m going there for you, Yunus!”
Then he said impatiently, “I can go there all by myself. What makes you think I can’t go there?”
I knew I reacted oddly. But I was not sure how else to stop him from going down to the hold. My daughter was on the heap of clothes. He would notice her first thing in the dark. She had amber skin that glowed softly. It would be easy for him to spot her. I should not have guarded the hatch at all. He must have been wondering why I was sitting here all day.
I felt vexed. However, I tried to calm myself as best as I could. “You can’t go there,” I said firmly.
You see the tender and soft moonlight flooded the surface of the sea. Flooded the whole sky. I descended the small ladder. I kissed my baby and fed her until my milk passages dried up. I felt light. Floating. Yunus did not follow me immediately. I was not sure why he did not come. But I felt relieved. The night deepened and grew cold. I heard nothing. There was no sound on the deck, made by his strange manner of walking. It felt he was not with us anymore. The boat was rocking on the wave, in soft moonlight.
A few strips of light streamed through the cracks in the hold at midnight. Touching my baby’s face, her feet, her navel. I noticed her eyes once again. They were yellower than before. Her skin had the same colour, with red tinges all over her body. The colour, the red tinge, was her birthmark. I realised that she was actually struggling with an ill-health.
I felt she would not survive unless I took her up on the deck. She needed the sunlight to live. She had never cried since she was born. In fact, she did not make any sound at all, as if she had the premonition that making any sound would jeopardise her life. She only held out her hands as if to catch the soft beams of light. But her frail little hands were not big enough to reach them.
It was dawn when I heard Yunus crying by the old man’s carcass. He cried so much that he invoked the poor man’s soul. They spoke for hours. But I realised the old man was not talking with his lips. His memories – resting inside the bowel of his eater for a long time – now moaned through his every organ. It was as if a slew of men were talking through Yunus’s eyes, ears and every blade of hair. Yunus told him how he had cut his flesh and eaten him, “…Your eye was very soft – I swear, Abdul! Blood clotted inside your eye. But it still felt like the eye of a fish.” However, he screamed at him at some point, saying, “Now get out of me! You’ve been speaking all this nonsense for the last two days!”
He howled on end and called my name a few times. I latched the hatch properly from inside. “Sufia, help me, please! Come out, you pregnant cow! Help me regurgitate all this nonsense from my stomach!” But he was calm as soon as the sun was up. He placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder. They talked like old friends. The old man seemed a little green around the gills. He told Yunus how his daughters and sons had fled in crescent-shaped boats to camps on the other side of the river. “I didn’t find them in those mud-walled shelters either…I crossed the Naf in monsoon…I was praying in waist-deep water that night…They came to set our houses on fire…I was praying for your life, you know!”
He recounted his day-long stories as if they happened once upon a time. In some distant past. Then the old man thanked Yunus for relieving him of carrying these bad memories all these years. Alone. He thanked him for eating him up. It transferred his soul into Yunus. It made them friends for the rest of their lives. Later they reminisced about their village life. They sobbed and patted each other on the back. They laughed. Wearily. Like seamen at the end of their journey.
Yunus planned his future with the ghost of his stomach. He said he would be nice to people when he landed on shore. He would work in a factory. He would love the land where he was going to live. He did not want to carry his bad memories either. He wanted to become someone else. The old man agreed to everything Yunus dreamt of his life.
At noon, when I was on the deck, Yunus threw up over the gunwale. His eyes were bloodshot, his face drawn. He raved for the rest of the day, “The poor man was knifed in his back. He was only praying to a deaf God! Can you believe this? Nobody helped him that night! Nobody! Can’t you see blood gushing out of his cuts? Are you blind?” He held his own stomach and shoulder with his hands. As if he was trying to stop the blood seeping out of his limbs. The carcass lay uncovered in the sun. It was still recognisable. The long, black hair of the old man still looked the same as before. His white beard ruffled in the wind. Day after day. It was his stomach that swelled very badly. His left eye was missing, and some flesh of his arms and thighs.
The boat still drifted towards the side of the sea where the sun rose. I was looking for a way to bring my baby on the deck. But I could not even think of it now. I was starving badly. I remembered Yunus had offered me a piece of flesh yesterday. Now I began to think that it might be the only option I had. The only way I could survive this endless drifting. But my stomach revolted at the thought. It was then that I saw the school of sharks approaching our boat.
They flashed their sharp teeth in the bright light of the sun. They nudged the hull, swam past the boat and came back in droves. Yunus leaned over the gunwale and watched them jubilantly. They looked up at him in the same manner. With their endlessly blue, hungry eyes. They made much noise for the calm water. But it did not affect his nerve. He gave them strips of meat from the carcass. Then he told me with conviction, “They’re the ones calling out at sea. They’ve all come back, Sufia! Can’t you recognise them? Our ninety-seven brothers and sisters!”
He talked stupid. I was not also in good shape to judge his words. My stomach twisted – now seeing a group of wild sharks eating the flesh of the man who was with us only a few nights ago. I wanted to grab a bite of anything. If I could eat a lump of meat of these white-bellied creatures! Yunus told me which shark resembled which dead passenger of our boat. “Here you go, Dil Bahar. You were very hungry on your last day as human. This is for you, Rohima. I know! I know! You were hungry, too. Here’s another piece for you…that’s all I have, Nasir! I understand your pain. You were very thirsty, weren’t you? Now the entire sea is yours!” He called them out one by one – all the ninety-seven dead passengers. He fed each one of them. They were swimming frenziedly around our boat.
Each hungry face popped up from under water. They followed us and waited for more flesh. They were not satiated with the old man’s carcass. Yunus seemed spent. Fatigued. He told me we should have saved a few other carcasses as well. We should not have thrown them overboard. Now they were in pain. Lost in strange water. They will come in such a swarm that we will never be able to feed them enough – you see! He was still lucid when he also told me, the day after the sharks appeared, “Now we can only help ourselves by eating each other. That’s how you preserve floating folk from extinction, so they live within you, not at the bottom of the goddamn sea!”
He was really convinced that the prowling sharks were the dead passengers of our boat. He then tried to explain me the intricate ways of souls floating nowhere. Transmigrating into other beings – even into objects. But I did not make out anything he was saying. He spoke as if he was seeing a dream. I suspected someone else was talking through him. Among other things, I now remember him telling me during that strange monologue: our animal state is a punishment imposed upon the soul for the crime committed under our human form. With each day passing, he was being crazier than before. He seemed to have gone beyond the idea of hell and heaven. Even God. He told me in a peculiar tone, before throwing himself overboard at dusk, “Our Khuda, our God, will be scratching his ass to recognise us in the form of a blue-eyed hangor! He’ll surely lose his mind when he tries to find out which is which! Ha ha….”
The roving sharks cut him into pieces as soon as he fell into the blue water. However, he managed to bid me a farewell, “Join us, Sufia! We’ll come back and wait for you. Don’t hide the shame of your daughter’s birth! We’ll meet in the next phase of our life. It will relieve our pain we’ve endured in our homeland and at sea.”
There was still light in the sky when I saw the sharks devouring his eyes with razor sharp teeth. They nosed around the water even after eating him up. They looked up at the boat and waited for hours. Perhaps they thought more food was coming.
Can we take a short break? I would like to help my baby sleep. Thank you.
We saw our houses for the last time before sailing at midnight from the west coast of Rakhine. They were set ablaze. They had to consume someone else’s anger. Someone else’s hatred. The ashes flew up in the sky. Bellowing smoke vanished in the darkness. So Maungdaw seemed a valley of death to us. But it was the same land across which our ancestors had once travelled to Sittwe and Magwe. And all the way to Yangon or Naypyitaw. We would never forget the names of these villages and towns. But we had to leave them forever. We had to leave everything behind. Our future to the stars.
They called us boat people, but we did not know anything about the sea. Anything about the world except our country. I was too eager to meet my husband who had left ahead of me months ago. I did not hesitate to sell everything I had and to pay six hundred thousand kyat to a man wearing five gold rings on both his hands. Someone I had never met in my life.
The boat we crammed into was painted the colour of our mountains. Deep green. But beneath it a tarry black was waiting to reveal its existence. We found ourselves drifting at sea after a few weeks. They told us so many things. They gave us so many hopes: “It’s going to be a smooth journey. And in two weeks, you’ll be sailing by the isthmus of Thailand for Malaysia… Allah be with you.”
However, we soon knew we had sailed for Death. We could not stay back home. It meant death as well. Some of us cursed our fate. Some cursed doijja, the unforgiving sea. The passengers had all disappeared by now. I tried to remember how long we had been at sea. How many days had I spent without eating anything? How many days can anyone spend without food? I must have done something with the number. You see the number speaks of fame and infamy. It seemed to me that I had drifted for a thousand nights. Perhaps even more. A number always speaks for something. You never know.
Soon I realised that this journey, this circuitous drifting, had no end. There was no rain in the sky. The water pails were empty. I was as thirsty as dry earth. The fold of sharks followed the boat for days. They were ninety-eight now. Then more sharks joined them. They came in small groups. They began to redouble until they were two million forty-two thousand and one hundred. As if an entire race of sharks had risen out of the sea. A putrefied smell still hung over the boat. I lifted up the tarpaulin and saw a piece of rotten meat. It looked ghastly white and flabby. I realised the sharks had come for this last piece. And they came for me. And my daughter. And all those who were drifting at sea like us.
The sharks began to make strange sounds. First, I heard big sighs. Some long aaaaaahs. Then came the relief. The lingering oooooo. It seemed to me that a very large crowd was releasing their grief and melancholy. The wooden boat drifted over the lamenting sharks. I could see a big, strong shark leading the shiver. An old shark swam very close to it. Its skin looked like parchment. They followed the boat for days on end. When I was in a stupor, they brushed their fins and tails against the hull. They tried to remind me of some choice I could still make. One day, they tried to stop the boat from moving. So, I had to scream out, “We’re not throwing ourselves, Yunus! The time hasn’t come yet! Go back!”
The following day they disappeared. Altogether. They seemed to have understood me. But I knew they were still floating, in other seas, other places. I was starving badly. I knew nothing of where I was, what sky I was under, what country I belonged in. The world slipped away like a ghost. I felt the worst pain in my limbs. I could not even lift my arms to hold and breastfeed my daughter.
She had strong lungs. Despite her frail health, her breath was always audible. The beating of her heart travelled through each nerve of my ear, shrouding me with tender feeling. It was this music that kept me alive. I thought if I could only eat something! I remember at some point I began to regret – I should have eaten the last piece of flesh of that carcass! I suspected Yunus had left it deliberately.
My body was hollowed out entirely. And I saw bad dreams. One after another. I saw my daughter rolling on the deck. Some big, strange sea birds were flying around the boat to swoop down on her. I could do nothing to save her from death! I saw the sharks coming back. They tore her apart in an instant. Like they did with Yunus’s body. They seemed relentless in their task. Hundreds of thousands of hungry sharks floated in my stomach, enraged. I reached the phase when hunger meets death. One feels nothing in the head then.
I lay motionless for days.
Now it was evident that I was going to die. So, I decided to join them. I would throw myself into the water. Along with my baby. I gathered the last remaining strength in my body one afternoon. I walked to the gunwale, my daughter latched onto my withered, dry chest. I saw our shadow on the smooth water. The sea looked refreshingly new. The wind blew gently.
As dusk neared the sea turned amber. The colour of my daughter’s skin. Then I saw the big fishes with their young babies. You say they were whales. Some calves rolled under their mothers’ underbellies and, after a while, swam back to the surface. It seemed they were suckling. The mothers eyed us for hours. They circled around our shadow a few times. And sent up spurts of water that rained down on the boat. Like blessings coming down from heaven. I drank a few drops of flying water before dropping down on the deck. Perhaps I did not want to jump into the water. Perhaps I was not still ready for my death.
I remember nothing after that.
You say we are now in a hospital on this island. We are lucky. Some good people rescued us from that drifting boat. It is a miracle that we have survived. You do not know anything about my husband working in any factory here. You say Hayat means ‘Life’. The name of my daughter. Yes, I thought of her name the moment she was born. You promise to visit us once again. You take our photo, my daughter in my lap. You say goodbye. Thank you. With best wishes, Clarissa Mayer, BBC.