That was the first in five. Away. She washed dishes; I walked near the jetty thousand-fifty miles away on our fifth.
I thought of her. Dan. Like every year.
On foreign shores, three months without friends. Needing somebody to talk to, I plucked a man in a hat tugging a flat-bottomed country boat.
‘Oye, Halloo, sir!’
‘I’m drowning!’ There’s great bravado in anonymity. I just spilled.
‘Life, sir?’ He offered.
‘We take a sleep. Under stardust. Twelve years stretched!’
‘Fifty plus expenses.’ He laid bait. A cheap one.
‘Aye? Think I’m a foolin’ ye?’
I could be indifferent. I chose to get that hook between my teeth.
He let me on his rickety fishing boat.
Rosy Starlings were flying in formation after sunset. The bay opened up and a gap in the surf marked where the river channel ran out to sea. On both its sides, a thick deep green showed the outlines of a virgin forest. Above them rose the grey-green hills, like clouds cast in stone.
We approached the island enveloped in brooding silence, anchored the boat he’d named Castaway, lit a lantern, and walked inland in the eroding light.
Wading through the marshes, negotiating long grass, we reached a clearing.
‘Here it is, sir! Make yourself at home!’
He abandoned me, disappeared into one of the shanties nearby.
A little afar, the condescendingly burning lantern in my hand revealed a merry group around a bonfire. They were strangely warm, welcomed me to a feast. I know not what we ate.
As darkness firmed up, the group prepared for the stardust that they said lasted until everyone was asleep.
‘First celebrations, then long sleep!’
For some unknown reason, I didn’t want to disbelieve.
I watched awed as the sky lit up in due time and stardust rained bountifully. A discernible glass-like air coalesced nearby. The men got up, danced around the fire to a sickening beating of drums.
I felt drowsy: effect of a rush of pure oxygen from the stardust? I still had time to reason.
My heartbeats became slower and slower. I noticed the dancers increasingly unsteady, falling one by one. Imagine a Ferris wheel slowing down, but moving yet, nobody to stop it. Stream of light like a firecracker show gone wrong. Hitting the ground like pounding rain, a thousand drops all at once. Like when Lila and I drove into a ditch. Was it blinding rain, or were we too drunk to notice directions? And too young to be annoyed by clothes caked in mud! That was the time I had just pried her away from Dan. Six months later, we were married!
I watched in trance, not asleep yet, not awake enough to escape. The drummers continued to beat to a crescendo around the men. One of them made an effort, dragged his feet to the women huddled just beyond the circle of light. The woman he gestured to, stood up. She embraced the male not very unlike Dan.
I narrowed my eyes.
Lila who’d be home with our kids? Dan who’d be on the trading floor on Wall Street!
The two of them, barely able to stand, staggered towards a giant Mahogany, whose top was already on fire.
Stardust was falling still and the sky illuminated like on Carnival Night, our trailer parked on the right of the roundabout, our happy family giggling, kids running about with pinwheels in hand. Like the Sunday before I came here.
I could see Lila and Dan, silhouetted against the growing flames, still in tight unison, insistent drumbeats driving me to lunacy.
Something trickled in my skull, something like antipathy. I stumbled, fell a few times. When I came really close and hovered over their clasped forms, they did not even notice. A minute later I made the strike.
Then I slept.
I’ve recollections of being dragged, shuffled about in huge courtrooms, ending up in slithering lines with compartmentalized steel plate in hand waiting for meals.
I woke up today, twelve years on; to change into tee and jeans that feel like dead skin, hug my body like a long-lost friend.
The prison overalls lie in a heap at the corner of my cell.
Mandira Pattnaik writes in India and considers herself lucky to have appeared in The Times of India, Eclectica, Commuterlit, Splonk, Heavy Feather Review, (Mac)ro(mic), Nightingale&Sparrow, Lunate, DoorIsAJar and Spelk, among others. Her work is forthcoming in Ilanot Review and Watershed Review. ‘Adab’, one of her short stories, is currently showcased under Editor’s Picks at Juggernaut Books. She was also included in NFFD NZ and Flash Flood UK 2020.
Find her at @MandiraPattnaik