From “Eliamma Goes Fishing”
The important thing to remember about ghosts, Mangala began, is that there were not always like that: souls with no bodies; bodies with no matter, or life as we know it.
So when I first saw Eliamma at her usual waiting-post, the seashore lit by a harvest moon, she was not aghost but a woman with a very real body. She was in fact beautiful, with thick, long hair and tapering, fish-shaped eyes. She wore an old but spotless white mundu, and her choli was a deep midnight blue.
She lived in the old fishing village by the sea, and was brought up to be a fisherwoman lit the rest of her kind. But something set her apart from the other villagers. It could have been her remote, disturbing sort of beauty – her eyes always intent as if straining to see something at a great distance; something as yet unknown, hidden perhaps ion the depths of the waters mid-sea.
Eliamma did her share of fisherwomen’s work: she made herself useful mending nets, cleaning fish, drying them. She went to Church with the other young women. But she did not seem to have either family or friends. The story was that she had many admirers and could have married any of the young fishermen; but she continued to live in her hut, and to wander by the seashore all hours of the night like an orphan looking for her home.
People said they had never seen her smile. They said she had a secret; that she was in love, though no one knew who the beloved was.
Eliamma walked alone by the sea night after night. She looked out into the watery horizon with longing. She yearned to go far beyond the distance she could swim. She wanted to be in the centre of the expanse she saw, in a womb held in place by the ocean’s ancient secrets.
As a girl she had thought she could do this by persuading the fishermen to take her with them when they set out on the open sea. She knew now that this would never happen; they would only laugh at her and tease her as they had then, or call her mad.
On the nights when the fishermen set out in their long, narrow boats which made trembling arrow-like shadows on the water, she hid herself, but she watched them till the dark spots were swallowed up by the night sea.
One night, Eliamma was sitting behind an old boat that was no longer sea-worthy. It was grounded high up on the sand near the two guardians of the village, a man and a woman with fearsome faces. Their bodies were plastered white except for the eyes which were painted a fixed, staring black. Their blood-red mouths were stretched wide open so that their tongues could hang out. Both figures were seated on horse-like creatures; both faced the sea with their grim, forbidding faces, as if daring the waters to intrude beyond their allotted territory.
Eliamma looked at them for a while; then she turned her face and fixed her gaze on the sea, just like the guardians. She fell asleep.
When she woke up, everything around her was dim and unfamiliar. Then she remembered where she was; she licked her lips and felt salt on her tongue. The sea nearby sounded choppy and rough. Eliamma suddenly scrambled to her feet, wondering if a freak storm was about to break.
Then she saw the stranger. He stood only a few feet away, so she couldn’t believe she had not seen him a minute back.
Her first thought was escape. In her moment of panic, she looked into the stranger’s face and was about to make a flurried sign of the cross. She also turned around to run, but didn’t. She made herself look at him again. He was tall, thin; his bones jutted out in sharp angles so that he looked skeletal in the moonlight. Though he did not seem young, the face was smooth; and it wore a sweet, gentle expression as if it belonged to a kind, benevolent uncle.
In a sudden flash of lightning, she also saw his eyes. There was nothing frightening about them either. They were as limpid as hers; they seemed in fact to be pleading with her.
Eliamma suspected that their meeting was no accident. Though he had not yet said a word to her, she felt the stranger had sought her out; to give her a very special, unusual gift.
Who are you, she asked him. What do you want?
He looked at her steadily.
Then he suddenly whispered, And you, Eliamma, what do you want? Do you still want to travel across the ocean?
She was so amazed that he knew her name and her secret – all of her it seemed – that she immediately said, Yes.
I can help you, he told her. I can help you go out to sea in the fishing boats.
She felt a sharp pang of disappointment. I’ve tried that for years now, she said impatiently. They won’t let me.
But they see you now. What if they don’t know you are with them?
He had her attention again. Tell me what to do, she said. I’ll do anything.
When he heard these words, his face relaxed; he was almost smiling.