Mandira Pattnaik

Tide

We marvel at the hypocrisy of the waves— gnawing away at our barely-standing home, but never quite gobbling it. Ena and I sit by the broken table, on the floor, the corners of which are encroached by drifted sand and watch a dinghy being cradled. We keep an eye on the road between the port and the city; Mum would be here any moment, and we can’t believe so will be Dan, one more time.

Monsoon clouds are closing in; we’ll be ambushed again. I draw the awning of our tiny store, carved out of this home by razing a wall; stocking everything a traveler may need --- knick-knacks, salted peanuts, tobacco--- because there’s not another one in miles. Across the marsh, a rickety blue bus, swaying like a drunken elephant, makes a stop. Minutes later, Mum drags in Dan by the elbow; like an errant schoolboy. Mum’s face is lit up by the innocence of abandon. So is Dan’s, who is adequately impressed having Mum waiting for him at the bus-stop. He ruffles his hair styled like a moffussil actor; wears over-sized goggles that slide on his bony face, and ignores us as he enters though we’re at sniffing distance.

Dan throws his rucksack on the bed and lights up. We want to vanish but our home is only one-roomed, we can distance ourselves only so much. Ena begins to arrange Dad’s books one more time and I wash the dishes. We hear him ask about the goats we’re rearing, and what there’s for dinner. She tells him about the wave that expunged part of our yard last week, her aching neck. I can’t hear as much as a sigh.

The rice-steamer begins to rattle but it can’t drown out Dan’s boisterous bragging about his life in Mumbai. We doubt every word; think Mum’s distant cousin only visits her when he needs to escape the law. We’ve spied on him on previous occasions; discovered watches and gizmos in his rucksack; currency peeping from his socks but Mum chooses to be oblivious, stuffing his palms with scrapings from our meager cashbox every time he leaves.

For a week after he leaves, we go hungry; there’s no money but Mum stays in that dream, smiling to herself, before descending into delusions; screaming about the tide that had eaten our cornfield five years ago; eaten our Dad, because our field had turned saline, uncultivable. We can’t stop her, from piercing her forearm with crotchet-needle until it resembles a minefield, or her emotions to explode in a tirade against Dad who poisoned himself and escaped, and against us who outlived him.

Gusts of strong winds beat down the windows, heralding another storm. Dan fishes out a Smartphone from his hip-pocket and begins to click Mum; she ripens; thrusts her breasts at the lens. He joins her; holds the camera so he can capture a moment of orchestrated intimacy; brings his lips down.

We relegate ourselves; wish we melted into our whitewashed walls.

Running down the stone steps, we can still hear them as we escape, barefoot, over the jutting concrete remnants of the sea-wall that once ensconced us and into the wrath of the elements, but feel relieved.

The sea wasn’t here last summer and still farther the year before. It has encroached upon our home, subsumed us a little more today.

Over the salting behind the casuarinas on our right, it is already drizzling. We descend into the brine; let the baby waves nibble at our feet. They aren’t that bad after all; they caress and giggle, dissipate into swarming bubbles that drown out the simmering pangs within.

Ena stretches out her arms, begging to be hugged.

Winds slap at our faces with a generous sprinkling of warmth and salt. The black clouds close in. We hold our breaths; wait for a loving embrace.

Mandira Pattnaik writes stories documenting the people and atmosphere from her country of origin India. She hopes they might have a universal resonance. Her work has been published or shortly due in The Times of India, Commuterlit, Cabinet of Heed, FewerThan500, FictionBerlin, RuncibleSpoon, DoorIsAJar, Lunate, (Mac)ro(mic) and Eclectica, among others.

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