The rain outside had stopped, but its apparition still flicked its idle fingers against the galvanised roof. A slow tut tut tut sound as the water dripped into the already overflowing barrels. Krishna rubbed his eyes. His parents asleep. A few nicks of light pinched through the slats in the upper part of the wall. Still, inside the barrack remained dimly lit in the dawn. The languid shuffling of dust like methane from a rice paddy. The ground mostly dry. The caulk had managed to hold, though rainwater was still dripping from the roof.
Krishna, careful not to wake his mother, unlatched the door. Before he could get to the barrack exit, a whisper came from behind him, ‘Krishna. Krishna. Where you goin, Krishna?’
Sachin – Rookmin and Murali’s idiot son. A twenty-four-year-old man child. His sharp face would be intimidating if it weren’t for his slow eyes and quivering ratlike nostrils. His speech often so quick that it came off as incoherent, like his mouth was filled with something hot. He stuck his head out of his room and said, ‘I come? I come, Krishna?’
‘Go back to sleep.’
‘Krishna? Krishna? I come, Krishna? Niala vomit on me.’
‘Leave me alone. Go.’
Krishna made his way towards the barrack yard. From there, he could see the plains. Everywhere flooded. The rich petrichor smell. The wide expanse of water thick as dal, washing over the field. In the water, a vast reflection of the mauve sky. The morning wind chilly, drowsy. The first sight of the rising sun like a pinwheel through the wind-tilted paragrass.
A voice. ‘Fish! Get your fresh fish! Tilapia, sardine, cascadura!’
Tarak stood at the other end of the yard, two flour bags in hand. His feet also wrapped in flour bags, tied with twine above the ankles.
‘Where them fish at?’
Tarak gestured north, towards the rice paddies. ‘The whole river wash up.’ Whenever the plain flooded, the overflow from the ponds and rivers crept into the roads and paddies. The tilapia were easy to spot. Belts of red, floundering through the coppery haze of muckwater.
He added, ‘Rudra and Rustam gon be out there too, I sure.’
Though their usual haunt was at the riverside shack, it was a customary event that the twins Rudra and Rustam Lakhan crossed paths with them in the paddies. It was how their paths converged in the first place, catalysed by the weather, as if their fellowship had always been brewing in the skies.‘ They wasn’t at the river last week. Is like they gone into hiding. Think somethin happen?’
Krishna wondered as well. ‘I aint worryin.’
Tarak let out a whistle. White Lady came crawling out from below her iron-sheet shelter. Her entire belly black and stringy with mud, though the rest of her had managed to stay clean. Tarak liked believing that White Lady was his dog. He ran a jagged fingernail through some matted hair on her ears. Her eyes limpid, tiny black splotches dotting the whiskers, a pucker of scar tissue at her left thigh where she had a hotspot. Her fur on a normal day smelled of the sugarcane she often galloped through. She was not a big dog. But she was able to reach Tarak’s arms if she were to stand on her hind legs. Enough for them to lead each other into a slow dance. To Krishna, she was the single innocent creature to frequent this yard. She was an old dog, and she liked their company enough to spend the twilight of her life with them. In that way, he thought, White Lady was better than most people. A creature that worshipped those who loved her and begged no worship in return.
Tarak reached down to scratch the dog’s scruff. In response, she angled her head upward and licked his ear. ‘You need to stay your ass here,’ he spoke to the dog as if she were a younger sibling. ‘You go out there, you gon scare away all them fish.’
‘Have a rope right there by that barrel. Why you don’t tie she up?’
Tarak went solemn. ‘Nah, I aint tyin up the dog.’
‘Nothin you tell this dog gon stop she from runnin bout in that water.’
Tarak clicked his tongue, shook his head. ‘I say I aint tyin she up.’ He breathed a sigh. ‘You know them three dogs they have there in that Changoor house?’
‘Yeah. The big ones. German shepherds.’
‘Some days ago, when the rain come down hard like this, seem they leave one of them tie up near the ravine. The dog slip down, the leash still on him. He tread water till he realise the rain wasn’t stoppin. And I suppose he give up at a point.’
‘What you sayin? The dog drown?’
‘I aint never want to drown. Worst way to dead.’
Krishna shook his head. ‘You sure this is the Changoor house you talkin bout?’
‘My pa aint never say nothin bout no dog drownin.’
Tarak turned to the dog. ‘He probably aint like thinkin bout it. Same way I aint like thinkin bout it.’
‘How you find this out then?’
‘My pa play cards with a man who work up there sometimes – Mr Baig. My pa was laughing when he was tellin it but it make my blood boil. That Mr Changoor probably just say is a dumb dog. Nothin worth going out in the rain for. Them people aint care bout nothin. Dogs smart, you know, but is only dumb animals to them. Just like we. So, I aint tyin up the dog, you hear?’
Krishna bit his lip. ‘What you gon do when she scare away all the fish then?’
‘Nothin. The fish live to see another day –’
‘Your ma know you goin swimmin in shitwater, Krishna?’ a voice behind them called out.
It was Lata. Her trousers catching the morning breeze. A white shawl over her hair. A colander of unshelled peas in her grip. She laid a large jute bag over a wooden crate and sat on it.
‘You sound like you want to come,’ Krishna said.
She pointed to her clean trousers. ‘No thanks. I have to wash my own clothes when they get dirty. Boys aint have to do that.’
‘We gon wash them for you, Lata,’ Tarak said.
‘Yeah,’ Krishna added.
She shook her head. ‘Damn liars.’
‘You want we bring back a fish for you, Lata?’ asked Krishna with a small grin.
‘Unless you scaling and cookin that fish for me, don’t bring back nothin for me, not even a tadpole.’
‘We bringin back five for you then.’ Krishna held up a splayed palm.
She laughed. ‘You even gonna catch five?’ She began shelling the peas. ‘Also, you lookin to catch the typhoon? Gon grab them bags by that woodpile there and cover your feet.’
Krishna retrieved the two crocus bags and tied them around his feet.
‘What you gon do without me, boy?’ She feigned a wide smile before placing her focus back on the colander.
Krishna stood watching her, lost in thought until Tarak hit his shoulder. ‘Stop daydreamin. Let’s go.’
The two boys and the dog set off in the direction of the paddies. The rice plants were still young and looked more like weeds. The water opaque. Each step they took raised a plume of muck to the surface. When they stood still, tiny outlines of fishes swam in spirals. They ran the bag through the water and scooped up a catch of mostly tadpoles and guppies. They spent about half an hour doing this, hoping to get something juicy in there.
‘The big ones round here somewhere,’ Tarak mumbled.
Krishna spotted a pocket with a couple of larger outlines. ‘I think they swimmin over there.’
Before they could get there, the dog bounded to the pocket and began splashing, spattering mud all over her back. ‘White Lady!’ Krishna called out. ‘Why you gone and do that for?’
‘Is because you was pointing with your hand,’ said Tarak, wiping some mud from his chin. ‘Point with your chin next time.’
The water so murky now that all the outlines were obscured. ‘This paddy is a big waste of time,’ said Krishna, shaking his head.
‘All them fish swimmin right back into the river now.’
Tarak thought for a while. ‘Is a long way and gonna be even longer walkin through this damn flood, but it have some catchments down by the old Hudswell. We could corner them easy there. If the dog start barkin, the fish just gon get scared and flop right onto land.’
They set out to find the catchments, first crossing the remains of the abandoned estate. In the distance, shadows of old buildings still standing flaked and weathered, a compound of warehouses lain like crumpled matchboxes. The two kept on the path where the land undulated until they came to a fractured track of wood and warped iron. The water had pooled in several spots in this area. Ten strides from there was a long mint-green locomotive sitting lopsided on the track. Briars of bagasse and straw protruded from its trolley like the carcass of a giant metal porcupine. On its side the name read in tarnished letters: Hudswell Clarke.
They waded into a shallow catchment, the water scaling their knees.
‘Don’t move!’ Tarak exclaimed, pointing to Krishna’s feet. He stooped, gripping the flour bag between his teeth, and plunged his hands down into the water. He moved them back and forth, his fingers splayed out and wiggling like starfish legs. Then swung his arms up, cleaving the water’s crest and splashing Krishna in the face.
‘Ptuh!’ Krishna spat in disgust. ‘Boy, watch it with that water!’ Tarak held his palms up, revealing two tomato-red tilapia nipping at his thumbs. With one quick motion, he slapped both of them into the bag. A wide grin. He pinched the top of the bag into a small hole to show Krishna. ‘You see that? Two in one, brother!’
‘You damn good at this,’ said Krishna, impressed. ‘Go ahead, give it a try,’ said Tarak, still giddy.
Krishna retracted. ‘I don’t catch nothin. Them fish aint like me.’
‘Make the fish like you then. So, think bout the things that the fish like.’ He instructed Krishna to crane forward, only one hand in the water this time. ‘Fish like to eat worms. So, you have to move your fingers like worms. The right amount of movement. You have to believe each finger is a separate worm. Like they aint part of you no more.’
‘I have to stop believing I have a hand?’
‘Yeah. At least until you feel them. Is a soft kinda feeling. Like if you was holding a small hummingbird. You curl your finger like a hook and pull it up.’
A trio of tilapia approached Krishna’s hand. ‘And they don’t bite your finger?’ Krishna asked, leaning over to watch.
‘The teeth too small for it to be any kinda bite. You just have to remain still. You hear?’
‘Yeah.’ One of the fish kissed Krishna’s finger.
‘When you gonna marry Lata?’ Tarak suddenly asked. Krishna swooped his arm up, nearly losing his balance. ‘What?’ All the fish dispersed.
Tarak burst into laughter, nearly dropping the bag into the water. ‘You shoulda see your face! It gone red like a tomato!’
‘That aint funny! I nearly fall in this water!’
‘She gon make a good wife for you one day, that Lata. I can see it.’
Krishna splashed some water at Tarak. ‘Stop sayin them things!’
‘When you have children, they could call me Uncle Tarak.’
‘Hush!’ He splashed again.
‘She like you too?’
‘Nobody aint like nobody! I thought we come to catch fish?’
‘Calm down, calm down,’ he said, sucking his teeth, pointing to an adjacent pool. ‘Some slow ones here.’
‘We being serious now?’ said Krishna, still flustered.
‘Serious now.’ Tarak gave a big nod, almost like a bow.
Krishna reached his hand into the water, his eyes closed in concentration. He tried to do as Tarak said – to release his hand from his own body.
But the stillness this time was interrupted by White Lady’s barking.
Then a voice: ‘What you doing squattin down there? You takin a shit in that water there?’
Krishna opened his eyes, looked to the top of the hill. Tarak and White Lady did too.
There, a group of three boys, figures silhouetted by the morning sun. Even though Krishna couldn’t see their faces, he knew who they were. In the middle, Mikey Badree, bareback, the ringleader, and at his side, two toadies – Shane and Addy – the latter’s name was actually Adhiraj but he couldn’t stand how it sounded. Krishna’s classmates and tormentors. The toadies holding empty crocus bags slowly filling with breeze. The trio were in raincoats and galoshes. At Mikey’s left temple, sprawling over his cheek like brown tendrils was a bad scar that made him look like he had a lazy eye. Made the skin look like it was folded and doubled over itself.
‘Looking like he trying to catch a crab up he asshole,’ Addy blurted out with a laugh.
‘Them’s we fish,’ said Shane.
Tarak twitched his shoulders. ‘How them’s your fish? Them fish have your father name on it?’
‘How you would know, dumb-dumb?’ asked Mikey. ‘Bet you can’t even spell your own name.’
Tarak’s face immediately fell.
‘We was here first!’ shouted Krishna.
Mikey scooted down the hill, Shane and Addy following. The two groups came face to face.
Addy said with a chuckle, ‘Go home and suck your mother breast, you hear?’
Shane added, ‘Yeah, your balls aint even drop yet.’
‘What bout your balls . . .’ Tarak started but couldn’t think of a comeback.
Shane asked Krishna, ‘You start gettin hair on your prick yet, lice boy?’ Before Krishna could say anything, ‘Pull down your pants, lemme see. I bet it real small. Small like a canned sausage.’
‘Don’t worry, cockroach,’ Mikey said, holding up a hand to quiet the two at his side. ‘We gon leave the tadpoles for you and the pothound.’ White Lady’s tail pointed straight up now, a vigilant look in her eyes. She started barking. Mikey’s palm shot up to his scarred eye. ‘If that dog come near me, I gon dropkick it, you hear?’
‘She aint want to come near you.’ Tarak put a gentle hand on her and she stopped. ‘And you aint want to come near we. Just be fair. We was here first.’
‘First? Aint matter who first,’ said Shane. ‘The only thing that matter is that it have three of we. And two of you.’
‘I gon say it louder for you. Go home and suck your mother breast,’ said Addy. ‘Or I will go there and suck it for you.’
Tarak narrowed his eyes at Addy, another spasm in his shoulders. Krishna put a hand on his shoulder, trying to calm the boy’s laboured breathing. He remembered what his father had once told him – that you cannot let your enemies know you’re angry. They’ll know what’s coming if you do that.
Mikey went over to the tail end of the locomotive and grabbed a wooden plank. He already knew that he had riled Tarak enough for him to consider taking a swing. Mikey was ready with the plank.
Krishna thought it didn’t make sense to challenge them here – not for two fish.
‘Take it back,’ Tarak grunted, eyes burning into Addy. ‘Take what back?’ said Addy, chuckling.
‘Don’t talk bout my mother, you hear me? My mother aint do nothin to you.’
‘Leave him alone, Adhiraj,’ Krishna said, emphasising the name in a subtle taunt.
Addy gritted his teeth a little.
‘He’s right,’ said Mikey, taking note of Tarak’s hands, now balled into fists. He turned to Addy.
‘Tell the man you sorry, Addy.’
Addy approached Tarak with his hands out. ‘Sorry. We gonna come to an agreement then.’ He turned to the others and began walking back. Halfway there, he spun around, and his voice rose to a shout,
‘You suck one breast, and I will suck the other!’ In unison, the three village boys burst into laughter.
Tarak dropped the bag. Lunged at Addy. The two tilapia flopped out into the pangola grass. Shane rushed over. Yanked Tarak off. Tried to, anyway. Tarak was stronger than them both. Pulled Shane into the grime. Their shirts soaked and heavy with grey mud.
Mikey, for a few seconds, gave a bewildered look at the muddle of bodies before him. Raised the plank high.
Brought it down sharp onto Tarak’s shoulder.
Tarak let out a loud, pained grunt. Mikey raised the plank again. Was about to bring it down again when Krishna signalled to Tarak as a warning.
‘Go!’ Tarak yelled and White Lady went running. Pounced on Mikey, threw him down. The plank in the pool.
Two separate tussles now.
Mikey bawling, ‘Get-it-off get-it-off get-it-off!’ then, ‘Gon-kill-it gon-kill-it gon-kill-it!’
A hot iron ball weighing down Krishna’s stomach.
The dog bit down on Mikey’s wrist. He screamed like he was dying.
Krishna ran to get the plank. Skated in the mud. Crashed face-first into the water. The two tilapia still flopping madly. Krishna scrambled for the wood. Reached his hand into the water. Finally got hold of it. Hoisted it into the air as if he’d already claimed victory. A shrill line of kingfishers fluttered over them.
Mikey yelled out, wrapped his arms around the dog’s hind. Rotated her, turned her upside down. Her bottom half dangling like some unstable pendulum. The way she flailed – like a fowl at the cutting block. Mikey rushed over to another pool. Grip sturdy on her rear.
Submerged the dog face-forward into the turbid water.
The sound she made as she thrashed about, Krishna had never heard anything like it before. The gurgling and wheezing as bubbles of mud came up. Then high-pitched squealing. The second the dog managed to squirm upward for air, her head was thrust back down into the water.
Tarak cried out, ‘Let she go! You gon kill she!’
Krishna made a fierce dash up to Mikey. Put his fists out to him. Too late. Came crashing to the ground again as Shane broke from his tussle and tackled him.
At the last moment, with all of his might, Krishna tossed the plank into the pile of bagasse sitting in the locomotive. Addy pressed his knee on Tarak’s neck and told him to watch. Learn a lesson. Tarak stared morosely, hands shaking. Face mud-stained.
This was no longer a fight, Krishna realised. This was a point of no return.
The dog stopped jerking. Stopped moving. Legs gone limp.
‘Get im!’ Another voice.
Two figures of equal height sprinted down the hill.
Rudra and Rustam. Rustam and Rudra. Dirt worked into their flesh. Eyes like boiling tar. Unbuttoned shirt-jacks, creases like writing on parchment, hiding the scars on their backs. Hair long and wild, like tendrils of black smoke trailing behind them. Rudra brought Addy down with one left hook to the temple. Another to make sure. Rustam wrapped his fingers around Mikey’s neck. Threw him to the ground. Stomped his heel on his sternum. Even with White Lady free of Mikey’s grasp, her snout remained buried in the pool.
Tarak, now free as well, hurried to the dog. Pulled her out onto the grass.
Shane let loose of Krishna. And before Krishna could turn to look, Shane was gone. So was Addy. At the same time, he noticed the bloody bandage wrapped around Rudra’s right palm.
There was still movement within the dog’s thorax. Her breathing forced and irregular as if she were in her last throes of life. Tarak knelt beside her, desperate as a votary ready to self-flagellate.
Pumped his hands on her belly. Did it again. And again. And again, until a squirt of water came out of her nose. Then pumped some more.
Still under Rustam’s foot, Mikey to the twins, ‘You gon pay for this. I tellin you.’
‘Pay for what?’ said Rustam. ‘You’s the one out here startin shit, asshole.’
‘You gon be sorry. All of you, real sorry,’ hissed Mikey.
Rudra flicked his hand, signalling for his brother to let him go. The dog was of greater concern right now. Rustam kicked Mikey in his ribs one last time. Then let him go. Mikey stumbled back, spoke like a weight was on his tongue, ‘That dog give me rabies!’
‘Listen to me, rabies boy,’ Rustam said. ‘If that dog die, you die.’
Mikey scurried to the hill. When he got to the top, he looked like he was about to yell something, but instead stole away from sight, the four boys now focused on keeping the dog from death.
Photograph © XoMEoX