I scooped a starfish marooned in the gale, nestled it among the glossy rocks; then returned to the Sesotris. Winds licked her from all sides; the cyclone hadn’t let up even the next day and she had lost her longboat and cooking coopers. Scads of birds — hawks and nightjars — from forested nearby islands, lay strewn on board. Under leaden skies, she knifed ahead; passed north of Enaani lighthouse at her full 19 knots. Thiger, one of her lower deck hands said — I’ve never seen these parts this rough, and he’d know; I’d seen Thiger in here before, serenaded him with a thousand frozen wavelets. He was one of four-hundred-twenty-six soldiers of the 80th British Foot Regiment, that had set sail from Sydney barracks, called on Timor Islands for replenishments, and was due to dock at Calcutta in a week.
The tempest picked up; the stormy night poured like tar; Sesotris trembled from stem to stern; quarter boats and meat boxes were thrown down the hatchway. Thiger saw a spark; so did I. There was a metallic-sounding heavy slamming that reverberated through her body, like a whiplash. The lower deck crew labored to seal leakage. Kitchen-hand Wei with Raen and Sou struggled to save provisions from getting spoilt.
Thiger saw a vessel shadowing Sesotris. So did I; only about a mile away, shaped like a dugong. Or was it steered by a drunken helmsman?
Sesotris ran aground; barged on to the soft surface of a mangrove swamp. Howls of crew sounded above the roar of wind. It should be now. Now! Now! I shouted. Thiger, Wei and soldier Samson, breathed in the stink of seaweed mingled with salt. I shouted again, Thiger, come to me! Brine stung their eyes, noses, mouths; flashes of lightning illuminated them. I never knew if they realized.
Oh! They scrambled to de-board, but precious moments having been spilled, the island inhabitants, more beasts than men, like big mastiff dogs, drenched and aggressive, began to surround the ship. Thiger shouted — Cannibals! There were more flashes of lightning and the four-hundred-twenty-six of them stayed put, huddled on the deck, wet to the bones and clenching teeth. The vessel held stable for the rest of the night and beyond the night, into days of which I lost count. The islanders kept vigil; waiting to raid; while the soldiers ate only morsels of food; hoping to be rescued. When water ran scarce, a riot broke out. A picket opened fire and I saw Thiger falling by the stern, neither writhing in pain nor bleeding. Sou stood stoic and dumb, though he was hit by fire.
The ocean raged; a homogenous mass; amalgamation of sky and earth. Sesotris dissolved in the gray morass, fed by hopelessness. Fringes of days bled in the horizon.
One of those days, the carpenters wanted to resurrect the only boat and worked through the squall. David, hoisted on the bridge, pointed to the vessel I’d seen earlier, in spite of the feeble light, with the same insignia, cried — Sail! Sail! I scampered to catch a glimpse as it appeared to anchor. The soldiers on the upper deck went into commotion; fluorescent yellow sponges glistened in their torchlight as they watched a stream of particles, hazy and random, floating around several forms that alighted — I call them forms because they were hardly humans, swathed in cloth of various hues. The soldiers sounded the distress bell but the forms appeared not to notice the stranded ship and began to offload crates of rum, shiny golden horses that limped and a dozen horribly bleating calves, before they strode to their vessel and melted into the darkness.
A dawn, in several, bloomed. The storm was spent, but four-hundred-twenty-six people stayed assembled close on the deck, fearful of the marauding islanders. They peeped over the port and woke up to a frosted dream. A soundless shriek perforated their muffled selves.
I lay curled up between the rocks; waited for the moon, waited to withdraw from the shore and back to mid-sea where my siblings, calmer and gentler, waited for me. Four-hundred-twenty-six souls alighted on the soft white sand carrying their famished bodies and found among the crates, a huge rock tablet erected with their names.
Mandira Pattnaik writes flash and poetry. She considers herself lucky to be featured in Eclectica, MadSwirl, FewerThan500, (Mac)ro(mic), Lunate and DoorIsAJar.
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