She woke up in the middle of the night from the most magnificent dream of her life; she was chasing a mermaid underwater, who always remained just beyond her reach. Her pale skin was luminous, and a cloud of long black hair trailed behind her like streaks of ink swirling in water. When the mermaid turned and smiled at her, she saw that her eyes were a peculiar shade of grey. Her long and slender tail was speckled like tarnished silver.
She knew it was night above, although everything was perfectly visible; the light from the mermaid’s body gave the water a beaming clarity. She could sense exotic marine creatures following the trail of her pursuit.
She could hear the deep, rumbling breaths of a distant sleeping whale. Her hands brushed against richly-coloured corals and sea-horses whispered to her in their marine language.
In her dream, she was a merman with hair as dark as that of the mermaid, but her skin was almond-brown, her body sinewy and strong, and her eyes were twinkling black, deeper than the depths they were in. In her dream she looked like someone she knew a long time ago.
She sighed and wondered how late it was, and whether this was a good dream. The bit about the sea, of course, she understood.
Jayant couldn’t be brought home to be cremated. It had been a while since the people from his company called her up and informed in a matter-of-fact voice about his fatal heart attack in the middle of the Atlantic.
Captain Chaudhary went peacefully in his sleep. He would have to receive a sea-burial according to protocol; there weren’t any other options. They hoped she would understand. Of course, she said, of course she did. It was the only thing to do.
Deep down, she couldn’t feel anything at all — let alone the ability to understand things. This was one of those incidents that you only heard about at sailors’ club parties, never imagining in your wildest nightmares that it could happen to you. But now that it had happened, she didn’t know what to do about it. The numbness was followed by days of rage, and even envy — but never grief, not even for one moment.
It was so typical of him, she thought, marching off somewhere without a care in the world. God knows she had tried stopping him. Going for another voyage wasn’t at all necessary for Jayant at his age.
The kids took care of everything these days and, for once in their lives, she felt comfortable without the sea in between them. Jayant’s sudden yet inflexible urge for one last trip could only be explained as a final act towards reaching his destiny — if one believed in such things.
“You know it’s not about the money,” he said, “Besides, you’ve seen the medical reports, haven’t you? I’m perfectly fit to go.”
The reports, obviously, hadn’t predicted this. Now he was lying sewn up in a sack somewhere deep down — the coffin soon to be rotted away, leaving his bare flesh to be nibbled on by the fishes — oblivious of her and what her life had become.
A part of the dream didn’t make sense, but she wasn’t sure which. Any dream about Jayant usually had a ship or a corpse. She tried remembering what the mermaid looked like and felt quite sure she didn’t look anything like her.
Yet the merman (whom she had been in the dream) was unquestionably a younger Jayant, from about the time when he was thirty-something.
As she tried to settle herself back to sleep, her memory gave a sudden jolt. In a flash, she was sitting upright on her bed.
The meaning had finally begun to come to light. It was incredible how clearly she remembered every bit of that morning three decades ago; even that letter.
There would always be two letters, one for the children and the other for her. Those weren’t the e-mail days and the satellite phone with its infernal sound system charged twenty dollars a minute. Letters were the only hope, even if they took months to arrive. Those particular ones were eight weeks old.
There was always much excitement at home about Jayant’s letters. He had the gift of telling great stories, which the kids loved.
In fact, she enjoyed their letters way more than her own. Hers would always be more prosaic, like answer keys that robbed all the magic off really engaging riddles. All the amazing adventures mentioned in their letters had their elucidations in hers.
It was fun to get to know the makings of the stories, of course, but to appreciate them you had to read the stories first.
“Dad saw a mermaid!” cried Pablo, her seven-year-old.
“He must have dreamt it,” said Nisha decisively. Unlike her older brother, she was a sceptic.
“Well, why don’t you two let me see it?” she asked, amused and anticipating.
Twenty eight years later, she could recall the letter word for word. It was an enchanting account of spotting a mermaid in the ocean. Apparently the deck officer had run up to Jayant in a frenzy while he was on his way to the engine-room. Following the man to the deck, he had encountered the most astounding sight of his life.
A mermaid with long, dark hair had emerged from the blue waters that stretched for miles around them, thrashing her huge silver tail on the surface, creating giant waves.
She seemed to radiate a light of her own that was discernible even in broad daylight. They had been mesmerised by her presence, and remained standing silently on the deck long after she was gone.
“Do you really think he saw a mermaid, Ma?” asked Pablo holding his breath, “a real mermaid?”
“I don’t know, darling,” she said vaguely, tearing off her own envelope with haste.
This story had struck quite a different note, and she wasn’t sure if it was a harmonious one. Jayant loved cooking up stories for the children but they were mostly exaggerated accounts of his own everyday experiences and troubles at work.
This story, on the other hand, was altogether fantastic, which was rather unlike him. If Jayant didn’t positively dislike fairytales, he wasn’t too enthusiastic about them either.
He always indulged the children with the books they wanted to buy but deep down he wanted them to be thorough pragmatists like he was. What could it really have been? A seal? A dolphin? A flying fish? She took a moment to wonder as her fumbling hands unfolded the paper. The riddle had caught her this time.
She couldn’t decide if she was totally taken aback by her letter or had totally expected this. There was nothing in there, not a single oblique reference to the story in the other letter. It was as if Jayant had never written about a mermaid to anyone.
She tried hard not to think anything because she didn’t know what to think. In fact, maybe she had over-thought the whole matter in the first place. A father could tell his own children stories. Maybe her theory on Jayant’s letter-writing pattern was a bit far-fetched. Why would he bother so hard to put an explanation to everything he said to the kids, at all?
She found all the reasons in the world not to fret. All these reasons told her that something wasn’t right.
Was it this plaguing her suddenly after all these years? This was the only point which –— it would only be fair to say — they had chosen not to settle.
In retrospect, she could see how cautious they had grown with each other over the years, especially Jayant, even though both had forgotten why. But surely, he would have wanted her to know.
She switched on the table lamp, turned to her bedside chest of drawers and slid open the top one. Dozens of notebooks were stacked inside. She had never tried looking through his journals before.
These days she slept on Jayant’s side of the bed but the chest had remained untouched.If she needed any of her own things in bed, she would laboriously move to the rather distant other side. The one she was looking for was a thick, hard-bound book with a blue silk jacket. She gazed into the semi-darkness for a while before opening it, trying to remember. She couldn’t read through everything here; she didn’t even want to.
Hadn’t that letter arrived some time during the rains? Of course, a week before Nisha’s birthday. She flipped through the pages for the June entries. There was an entry made on the same day as the letter was dated.
She felt her mouth going dry as she squinted through her glasses in the inadequate light of the bedside lamp.
5th June 1984,
Tuesday, 1 am
I’ve just finished writing letters to Pablo and Nisha, and to their mother. Hers is a separate one like always — this time, a little more separate than usual. I don’t know if she will read the kids’ letter. I never thought I’d make up fairytales for my children. And yet, they can be so wonderfully handy when you want to say something but you can’t.
It happened in the crews’ breakfast room. I don’t even remember what I was doing there — I must have gone in to look for someone. I couldn’t see anything from the lounge because the door was open just by a crack. I pushed open the door — roughly I think, because I was in a hurry — and wanted to call out, but the moment I stepped in, I froze.
She was standing by the porthole, looking out absently, twirling a strand of hair in hand. Her hair was so thick, long and black, that I didn’t realise — not until she turned around — that she was completely nude. She looked as if one of Aphrodite’s paintings had suddenly come alive. For a moment I thought I had looked right into the sun. Her skin was such a searing white that it almost burned my eyes.
Yet her eyes were calm and deep enough to read minds. They were an unusual shade of grey that I had never seen in anyone’s eyes before. She didn’t look even remotely human to me. I was so sure that if I touched her, my hand would pass right through, because she couldn’t be anything but a projection. She seemed startled at first; then she observed me for a while, and finally spread her white lips to an utterly innocent, utterly devastating smile. She wasn’t imagination. She was there, right there, standing at the other end of the table. She couldn’t be real, but she was there alright. What was I supposed to do? Honestly, what could any man in my place do?
I still can’t stop telling myself that it was a dream, although I very well know it wasn’t. I mean, what is so unusual about a girl hanging around the crew cabins, with the ship finally stationed at a port after months? But a part of me still can’t believe that she is just one of those women at the docks of Livorno, ready for anything to get their hands on a little food and money. And I had to tell someone about this; not the ordinary, predictable version that would surely be misread, but the part which was like a dream, or magic…
She shut the book gently and removed the glasses from her now hurting eyes. Carefully, she placed the journal back, shut the heavy drawer with some effort, and poured herself a glass of water.
After every drop of it was taken in, she turned the lamp off and put her head back on the pillow to drift into a deep and dreamless sleep.