I’m swimming halfway back to shore when I see her standing by the water’s edge.
She’s pulling her pigtail and chewing her lip. I lift my body out of the saltwater and wipe the sting from my eyes. I avoid her stare, sit down hard on the sand and wrap my arms loosely around my knees. I need to steady my breath and rest for a moment before I go in again.
I angle my chin to feel the splintering sunlight beat down on my face. To my left, a green Kingfisher pint bottle catches the sunlight and winks at me. Next to it is an empty shell of Teacher’s Pride, half-buried in the sand. The sea has its addictions too. My fingernails automatically go to the edges of my teeth. I don’t even mind the salt taste and grit. I spit, stare at the bitten-down nubs and then at my sister’s straight, small back. She lifts her tiny, plump hands to her forehead to shade her unflinching stare out to sea, even in the noon heat. She’s afraid to look at me as much as I’m afraid to look at her, even though she’s too young to know for a fact what I already know.
It’s been two whole days since Mama left us tucked in our bed in Furtado’s guesthouse and went for a night walk on the beach. I knew about Mama’s fondness for the sea and after that last episode, it didn’t surprise me when she told my sister and me that we were going to Sernabatim beach for a short stay.
The guesthouse was basic, but clean, with faded bedlinen that smelled of detergent, bright yellow curtains that had seen better days and fresh naphthalene balls placed on the bathroom drain. My sister and I tired ourselves out building sandcastle empires that first day we arrived. But, I knew that Mama was distracted as I watched her from a distance, walking towards Benaulim, until she was a fine polka-dotted speck blending in with the other beach-goers. She kept looking out to sea, mumbling something to herself and then listening intently, as if in conversation with the waves. Even from a distance, I could feel her body wanting to merge with their endless drum-roll. She didn’t flinch from the silver-edged swell that rushed in suddenly, wetting the hem of her dress.
My sister and I were raised on bedtime stories filled with vast oceans, meandering rivers and damp jungles smothered in mist. She’d read us stories full of secret waterfalls and blood-thirsty pirates, of King Neptune and sultry sirens. Her life was immersed in water. Once, she said that her ancestors must have been sea-faring captains or fishermen because the Indian Ocean thrummed in her blood.
If my mother was about water, then my father was of fire. He had always been a hard man. But after I turned twelve, things seemed to get more difficult around the house. Mama started to wear bright, halter-neck dresses instead of long-sleeved ones, showing off the purple patches on her arms, as if on a dare. I’d only seen her wear those merry outfits in bruise-less old photographs, from before when I was born. I’d never actually seen him hit her, but maybe that was his gift: controlled violence. He always seemed to hold himself in check around us, even after he came home stinking of beer and cigarette smoke. He had, what Mama called, a respectable job working in a government office, managing a team of staff under him. But respect wasn’t a word I associated with him.
I can recall the names they called each other that morning we left. I was afraid the neighbours could hear them shouting, but didn’t dare venture out of my room. When Anna stirred, I sat her at her ‘Hello Kitty’ themed dressing table, brushed her hair and sang loudly to her, hoping to drown out the sounds of our parents’ verbal bullets fired at each other, all the time wishing someone would sing to me instead.
Papa drove off to work, slamming doors on his way out, and Mama locked herself in the bedroom for an hour. I listened outside the door and then, when Anna was hungry, sat her down at our dining table and poured cold milk over her Kellogg’s cornflakes. I’d just finished washing our plastic breakfast bowls when I heard the bedroom door open. Mama was wearing a flowery sundress and had a wide grin on her face that didn’t travel to her eyes. I couldn’t spot any signs of new weals on her arms.
“We’re going to the beach,” she said brightly in a voice that she reserved only for Anna and me.
She helped us pack a few clothes into her slightly worn, dark green American Tourister strolley, and added two sundresses I hadn’t seen before, except in photographs of her on her honeymoon. One had polka-dots, the other had bright red flowers on it. I had stolen one of those photos from an overburdened, tattered photo-album nobody looked at anymore, and occasionally took the photo out of my secret hidey-hole to stare at the two of them together. They had fixed smiles on their faces, but I could see that their eyes were full of laughter. Maybe even love. They looked like strangers to me.
We’d had a whole day together at the beach, the three of us. The June monsoon had kicked off, but downpours were still coming in extended stops and starts. We played for hours before we saw the clouds rushing in from the horizon. Mama stared out into the distance and said, “We have thirty seconds. Get ready, set, go!” She raced us towards the nearest beach restaurant where we took shelter and had lunch, as we watched the sky’s extravagant deluge drown everything in a wall of water. Mama picked at my plate of fries and sipped her pint of Kingfisher. I’d never seen her drink alcohol before.
When I asked her once, why she didn’t like alcohol, she told me that she used to enjoy a glass of beer now and then with my father but stopped when she was pregnant with me. “Afterwards, I just lost the taste for it,” she said.
After sunset we had an early dinner and Mama tucked us into bed, making sure the bulb of liquid mosquito repellent she’d packed was switched on in a corner of the room and that the fan wasn’t running too fast for us. She’d even asked for a spare room key and left the main one with me. She stroked my sister’s head until she was a peaceful comma on the large double bed, sound asleep.
“I’m just going for a walk on the beach. I’ll be back soon. Keep the door locked,” she whispered in my ear.
I was sound asleep before I could hear her shut the door behind her.
The next morning, I couldn’t tell whether Mama had been to bed and woken up early, or not. I helped Anna with her morning wash and we went to the beach shack next to the guesthouse for breakfast. I charged the meal to the room, just like Mama had before. No one blinked an eye. I was pleased that I seemed mature enough to do something like that.
We went to the beach to play. But even as I chiselled upturned pails of sand into castles for my sister to stomp on, my eyes scoured the beach looking for any sign of Mama. Whenever a grown-up asked where she was, I managed to keep the lie going that she’d gone to pick up something she’d forgotten from home and would be back that night. After feeding my sister and tucking her into bed, I went for a walk on the beach. I stayed close to the edge where the streetlights along the walkway threw the curdling waves into relief. The water gave me nothing. I didn’t know yet that the sea kept its secrets locked deep in its chest.
The day after, the hotel manager asked me where my mother was and I fibbed again. By the time Anna turned to me midst-play in the afternoon, against the backdrop of dark clouds threatening to bear down on us, and asked me where Mama was, I was done with lying. The fear in me snapped and I pointed out to sea. In her innocence, she looked out to where I was pointing and squinted her eyes. “I don’t see her,” she said in response.
Those four words broke my heart. I couldn’t tell anyone, not yet. I waited another night and a day. My sister was used to me taking care of her. She trusted me, so it was easy to lie to her.
When the hot afternoon melts into a humid evening, I check quietly, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves. Nobody has found a body washed ashore. No one has come asking for us. I go for another swim, while keeping an eye on my sister as she plays on the beach. I am thankful that she’s forgotten to miss her Mama for a moment, as I dive and dive. I avoid the places that are flagged red, just the way Mama taught me to, and course-correct when I see the lifeguard watching me nervously and motioning with his arms for me to move further away from a dangerous spot. He doesn’t know how strong my upper body has become since I hit puberty or that I’m the gold medallist in this year’s All-state Swimming Championships – Junior Boys Division.
I dive down deep and swim further away from the continental shelf in search of my mother. There’s a place inside me that tells me she’s here, somewhere, loitering in the murky depths of the Arabian Sea, but I need to know for sure. I stop swimming and stay in one spot, eyes wide open, waiting, scanning the dim depths around me in a three-sixty-degree angle. I shut my eyes for a moment, and imagine what it would be like to stay here forever; to never return to shore. My breathing slows in my ears. I feel a little more like myself here. Finally, just before I know I won’t be able to resist the immensity of the sea entering my body a moment longer, I open my eyes and a dolphin nose, out of nowhere, prods my bare tummy. I kick wildly, propelling myself upwards, taken aback with the shock of the unexpected sight of the dolphin. I gasp for air as I break through the waterline, knowing I’m too far out for the lifeguard to spot me. I glance around. There’s no sight of the dolphin, as I start swimming to shore.
Just before I reach shallow water, I stop to rest and let my tears blend in with the drops of seawater on my face. I can’t let my sister see me crying. Even from a distance, I can feel panic starting to build up inside her as I see her standing alone on the beach, staring at me. Oddly, that feeling reminds me of my father. I push it aside, just as I push aside the thought of his rage when I will try to tell him what has happened. She watches me anxiously as I break in and out of the water’s surface. The sea is rougher than usual. I can sense huge grey clouds building up in the distance, even as the setting sun breaks through for long periods to watch over us.
When I come out of the water for the last time, I rub the sea out of my eyes and for a moment, half-expect Mama to be there on the water’s edge, looking back at me with her arms folded and that honeymoon picture smile on her face. I see my baby sister tearing up instead.
I walk up to her and pull her taut, five-year-old body towards mine. I’m her only protector now.
“Where’s Mama?” she sobs.
I practice saying the words in my mind first, as if preparing my tongue to pronounce something new.
As I sound out the words, I realize that they are true.
“The sea has her,” I say, knowing that whatever has happened, my mother doesn’t want to be found.