The wind blew in from the ocean. It bit and stung all that were in its way. The thin man’s nipples pushed up through his rough cotton shirt. His face was pinched beneath his beard’s wiry bush. But his hair rippled, and at times stood up and waved like victorious gladiators. His toes were ten pale shrimps upon the beach, clutching the sand, as if waiting for their turn on the surf.
The moon would be up soon for our party. We had wanted only the moon; no trees with trimmings and shiny wrapped gifts, no cake, no chatter gathered at a laden table. We had packets of Bombay Mix, and some spicy batter fried fish on plantain leaves bought from the vendors at the beach. We had shots of vodka ready for the green coconuts with their tops lopped off. We hoped the women were ready too, and as eager as us.
The women were the ones that had brought us to this beach. But the man had gotten in the way or so it seemed now. We didn’t know when he had appeared. Perhaps we hadn’t noticed him in the crowd, and he’d had his eyes on us all the time. Tourists attract all kinds of people. Besides, the beaches of India are always crowded; even the smaller, more secluded and unimportant ones like ours. One has to be wary of pick pockets, beggars, insistent vendors and urchins. Then there are the little piles of faeces along the line of the ocean. One has to be wariest of those, and of course the God men.
The evening deepened as we watched him. We tried to be discreet even though nobody seemed to care. The man’s white sarong or lungi as they call it here, had caught the spray, and now clung to his legs like a fragile shell. It excited us in a strange way. We took care not to look at each other. Instead we let our eyes drill holes into him.
He stood facing the sky, the portion where the horizon arced back and the moon rolled in. The pointed edge of his beard curved out like a sickle from his tilted chin. He looked as serene as the saints did in pamphlets and calendars. Maybe even more because of the slow way his eyes braced the wind that flew up and whirled, flinging sand and droplets of seawater everywhere. He seemed oblivious of us, even unafraid. He made us uncomfortable. We had not gone to the beach to be serene.
We saw the women shedding their slippers, and also their inhibitions. Their soft titters were easily shushed by the ocean and the wind. They left shallow prints on the sand as they went into the water. They didn’t look at us. But we circled the shoreline, ready with our offerings.
By the time the moon had ridden up the sky’s dome, the women had swum deeper into the ocean. We knew, with the hopelessness of men who try too hard, that they were watching him. The movement of their heads jerking in his direction betrayed their interest. We didn’t have to utter it. We could feel our blood rising on a vodka tide. We circled closer. We moved as a single entity. But the thin man ignored us. Some of us growled. Some of us sucked in the salty air, holding it in our mouths until it grew warm and dissipated into saliva.
There was something about him that defied the logic of war, and even anger. He ambled towards the women without appearing to be conscious of them. They could have been a flock of sea birds bobbing about. His eyes were fixed on the far horizon when he stepped into the water. He walked as he would have on solid ground. Right there, before our astonished eyes! Light-footed, and with practised ease, he walked towards the women, never once slackening his pace. Never once sinking to his ankles in the water. And the women tread water in a circle. They seemed like sirens without tongues. Their bodies wrapped in phosphorescent waves; their faces aglow with the anticipation that comes from having waited for long and with much longing. They waited as if they’d been waiting an eternity for this moonlit evening to arrive. And for the man to walk on the water for them.
RK Biswas has been published in countries in all the five continents in both online and print journals and anthologies. She is the author of two books: Culling Mynahs and Crows, a literary novel, and Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women, a collection of short stories. She won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Competition 2012.