Waves do not care about you or what you think about them. They just keep crashing out of there, with a deep growl, only to convulse on the beach and die. And then they come all over again.
One Sunday morning in May at Anjuna beach, the waves had company.
A young girl, her hair tousled and dark, lay face down in the water, head turned away from the land as if she had had enough of it.
She wore nothing on her skin, save for scales on her hips, which made their way to what seemed like legs. Only they weren’t legs. They were a mass of flesh welded together from the lower torso, tapering into what appeared to be a tail.
Her breasts showed occasionally as the water swirled, turning her over scattering her long hair over the sand.
After a while, as the sun rose higher, a crow which was nibbling at a rotting mackerel nearby, settled on her back and started cawing in amusement.
At the other end of the beach, Antonio Vaz had nothing much to show for his labour yet. In his sleeveless vest and shorts, Antonio was always the first person to walk along Anjuna beach every day, a little before the sun rose.
He would step onto the beach using the path behind Shore bar with a round net or a pager slung over his left forearm. Antonio would then stalk along the invisible, irregular line on the beach where the waves died clumsily and fling his net into the knee-deep water for about an hour hoping to catch some fish, darting about in the surf.
He worked as a peon at the municipal office in Mapusa town. But rare was the day when he would set off to work without netting some fresh-caught fish and dropping it in the kitchen basket. On such a rare day, Antonio would skip work and sulk at home. His home was a one-storied mansion, located so close to the sea, that the waves would spew fury on its walls when the monsoon was at its peak.
But this Sunday morning was an exceptionally rare one.
After an hour and more of flinging his net in the sea and drawing it back, his own shadow had begun taunting him now. Antonio once again felt his empty nylon-string pouch, which hung limply from the back of his waist. He was just about to fling his net again when he saw her.
He’d seen corpses washed ashore before. Often, the sea spat out tourists who walked into the water on tottering legs emboldened by cheap booze.
Their eyes were usually nibbled away by fish and their colourful holiday T-shirts were barely able to contain their bloated bodies. Their pockets were usually empty because they would leave their belongings behind on the beach or with friends before wading into the water. Rummaging these corpses never really netted much for Antonio, but now and then he would pocket a gold chain from these corpses. The rings he could never wrench off the bloated fingers.
Antonio would then call the local police, who would arrive at their own pace and take away the corpse.
As he walked towards the body, he reached out for his expensive mobile phone, which was wrapped in a piece of plastic. He used the plastic to protect the phone from the salty spray and moisture.
It was an expensive phone and cost twice the salary he drew from the municipality every month. But then he worked in the land records section and the phone was a generous bribe given to him by a real estate dealer who was interested in sourcing some documents from the dusty archives of the municipality’s warehouse.
As he approached the body, however, he decided to slip the phone back into the pouch and into his pocket.
Expectedly, he took time to fathom what he saw; the unusual form which did not seem to have any feet. “Zaulo Baik!” he exclaimed, as his eyes struggled to cope with what lay before him.
The scales on her body had now begun to glisten in the sun.
He waded in closer and tentatively tried to turn the body towards him.
As he did, he jumped back in shock. It was a woman of unusual beauty. But what startled him the most, was the tail and a set of what appeared to be gills, on her cheeks.
And she looked alive because the gills seemed to be gasping for air, just like the fish wheezed as he pried them out of his net and slipped them into his waist pouch as they slithered and struggled.
Now Antonio was a religious man, who feared both the wrath of God and the gaze of the Devil. But life had taught him to be pragmatic. That was one thing that corruption naturally taught you.
He realised, he had to make a decision quickly before tourists and joggers hit the beach. This time, he decided to keep the cops out of it.
It was a tough task running home and driving his open jeep to the edge of the beach. He hadn’t hurried like this in a while. And then he had to drag the body all the way back to the jeep after rolling it into a heavy tarpaulin, which he had ripped off the sea-facing wall of his house. For the last few years, the thick plastic sheet had been the barrier that had saved the wall from the onslaught of the waves and prevented it from caving in.
As he had dragged her along the beach, praying fervently that no one saw him pulling the suspicious-looking load, his mind had already started working on his next step.
He was dragging her home alright, but what would he do with her. He was a family man. He would have to justify his action to his wife and children. What if she died in his house? What if she wasn’t human? What if she was some sea monster? Should he inform the parish priest about it? And what were those goddamn grooves on her cheeks? Were they really gills, or was he mistaken?
As he sipped on a beer after the tiring chore, he wondered about what was to be done with his haul for the day, even as grey rain clouds gathered in the sky. It was summer. Hardly the season for rain clouds.
One thing he was sure about, was that he had not erred in not calling the police. The other thing he was sure of, was that he was in possession of a freak. And in Goa, that meant a pile of money.
For a peon, Antonio had a well-appointed house. Air conditioning in most rooms, LED television sets, marble flooring and an imported inflatable pool.
The pool had been gifted to him, after he had managed to successfully liaise a coastal regulation zone clearance for a resort owner with the local authorities, despite the fact that the hotel was a mere few metres from where the beach ended.
It was in this inflatable pool, that she presently lay. Her eyes were still closed, but the gills still gasped, creating an unsteady stream of bubbles in the shallow water.
As he waited for his wife and children to return from the Sunday morning mass, Antonio had wondered whether he should push her head into the water or rest the head above it, using an inverted steel pot as a cushion. But after he had dragged her home, and unwrapped the tarpaulin in the comfort of his mansion, he had seen that her breathing had become ragged and laced with effort. The moment he pushed her head inside the water, the breathing evened somewhat. So he let her lie submerged in the water and rigged his fishing net above the tub, to ensure that she did not escape. He dragged an easy chair into the bathroom, alongside the pool and began to ponder about what he would have to do next.
“You understand this one thing. There’s no use for a woman who cannot spread her legs,” Alberta, Antonio’s wife told him after she heard of his account of Sunday morning. She had just returned from Church where the priest had preached the importance of keeping Sabbath.
Alberta was shocked when she first laid her eyes on the creature.
“Should I at least ask the parish priest to come and bless her? What if she is the devil herself? Some kind of anti-Christ?” she asked Antonio again.
Antonio ignored her. He was looking at his children, nine-year-old Sydney and 13-year-old Sonka who were staring at her intently. Sonka stroked her fingers lovingly along the creature’s hand, still submerged in the water.
“It’s so smooth. But her hips and legs are so rough in comparison. Papa, I hope you know you have brought home a mermaid!”
“Shit!” Antonio exclaimed. This was it. He had heard about mermaids when he was a young boy from Pasparakis, an old former Greek sailor, a hippie who lived in Camilo’s hut on the beach those days.
“A storm smashed our ship somewhere near Pigeon island off Ceylon. Five of us managed to swim to the island. With little food and water, we waited for six days hoping for a rescue. It was on the sixth day that we saw a part of the sea turn pink in the hot noon sun. And then we saw them prancing around in the shallows. They were taunting us. We were hungry, thirsty and there they were teasing us as if asking us to follow them into the water. There were five of them. Drops of water bounced off their hair like a spray of diamonds. The more we walked into the water after them, the more they retreated into the sea, leaving behind a trail of bright pink in the water. Perhaps it was this trail of pink which had caught the eye of a ship passing by because we heard a foghorn in the distance and we were rescued. When we told the sailors about what had happened, they told us we were delirious from hunger and thirst and had seen visions. But we saw them... I swear we saw those mermaids”.
Camilo too had shared this story with Antonio, once when they had gone fishing together into the sea in a canoe.
“What if we come across a mermaid. What if we see two?”
Antonio had heard Camilo’s fantasies several times before this. Stories about sand boas with three heads, a feni which gives you superpower and even one about the secret landing of British commandos during World War II. He did not even merit Camilo’s mermaid fantasy with an answer.
But decades later, it looked like Antonio would have to eat his unspoken words.
He was jolted out of this reverie when he heard a cry. Sydney had tried to pluck a scale from the mermaid’s hip and that had brought the creature to life. That was a cry of pain, the kind he had never heard of before. So shocked was his son with the scream, that he had jumped back and crashed into his equally astonished mother, who backed into a bathroom drape. The drape tumbled down as the curtain hooks gave way under the collective weight of the mother-son duo.
The creature continued to scream until the bathroom fittings shivered with the echoes. Something must be done about the sound, he thought, even as it suddenly started raining heavily outside.
His nearest neighbours lived two hundred metres inland. They did not have the nerve to build a house, as close to the sea as Antonio’s, fearing the law. So there was little chance they would hear the sound, especially with the lightning and the unusually loud roar of the sea outside.
But what if some beachgoer walked by his mansion?
Antonio brought a few cloth napkins and a piece of rope from his kitchen.
He asked his wife to hold the mermaid’s hands, which were now flapping in the tub.
With some effort, they tied her hands and stuffed the rags in her mouth.
Assured that the immediate problem was taken care of, the family retreated to the living room.
“I am sure we can look for a buyer. We know she is a real mermaid!
Someone has got to be interested in her right? There are so many nightclubs that may like to keep her in an aquarium. Or maybe we can talk to our MLA and see if he can find a contact to export it abroad to some zoo or someone who collects unique animals? She must be worth a lot of money!” Antonio told his wife.
Despite his lowly designation as a peon, Antonio was a networker of sorts for the local legislator Suresh Chodankar. He would coordinate the affairs of the local community and serve as a liaison between the people residing in the vicinity and the lawmaker.
“Why should you go around blabbering already? Why can’t we deal with this ourselves? What if he asks you to drop her off at his house, then we would have no control over the situation. He will anyway probably give you a pittance for her,” Alberta countered.
“So what do you expect me to do? If we are to keep her for several days, what do we feed her? And what if she is an evil spirit and ends up harming our children?” he shot back.
As the parents, discussed ways and means to keep her alive, Sonka crept back into the bathroom to take a closer look at the beast. The mermaid looked back at her with a sense of alarm, which cut through the water from which she was staring at the girl.
Sonka had heard her parents discuss plans for the mermaid. She too wished she could have taken her to school to impress her friends.
Perhaps she could even make the mermaid speak. Maybe she could begin right now.
Thinking she could goad the mermaid into a conversation, she pulled out the rags from her mouth. As soon as she did, the mermaid contorted her face into a canvas of pain and she let loose a scream, which completely stunned the young girl.
The screams continued until, Sonka’s parents rushed in and forced the rags back into her mouth again.
By the time the couple came out of their house, exhausted by the chore of silencing the mermaid, the skies had changed colour. Grim, dark clouds were kindling a symphony of lightning and the rain-fed sea appeared to turn pink, with every wave which rippled towards the shore.
Riding on the waves, the pink-coloured water lashed onto the beach leaving luminous traces on the sand. As the lightning subsided, they heard another scream cutting through the night. As if something or rather someone was calling out in desperation. The screams kept getting louder and closer as the seconds went by, like they were riding the luminescent shorebound waves.
As the screams became unbearable, the rising waters of the sea did not spare the bare sea-facing wall of Antonio’s house, which the waves appeared to hit hard against, every time they curled over.
The lashing rain had already drenched the wall — now bereft of the tarpaulin — and had rendered it soggy.
The mermaid tried hard to respond to the screams coming in from the sea, but she could not, with her mouth stuffed with the rags.
But in the bathroom, the water in the tub in which the mermaid was trapped, had also begun to turn pink with her tears.
Suddenly there was a crash and the wall, which protected the house from the sea caved in. The pinkish sea water gushed into the house.
The intruding waves lifted the inflatable tub and started dragging it into the sea.
Sonka, who stood still, numbed by what she saw around her, was knocked by the impact of the shifting tub and she fell right into it. She was unable to pull herself out of the tub, because her hands and at least one foot got entangled, in the same net which covered the mermaid. The rags which were stuffed in the mermaid’s mouth had also fallen off as the beast struggled desperately.
Sonka drifted helplessly into the sea of pink fluorescence, her screams drowned in the high-pitched medley of the mermaid and the sound coming in from the sea.
As she was struggling for breath, Sonka thought she saw another creature swim up to the tub, knocking it sideways and letting the mermaid slip out into the water. She too tumbled out of the tub and into the sea, the net still stuck to her limbs, making it impossible for her to maneuver in order to stay afloat.
The other creature must have also untied the mermaid’s hands because in moments, both of them hugged each other like lovers feasting on each other, after an age of separation. At this point, Sonka, who had given up trying to float and fight her way out of the tangled net, started gagging on sea water and passed out. The net sank with her.
Within seconds, both creatures, as well as Sonka disappeared from sight.
When the sea eventually calmed and the rain had washed away the last of the pink streaks in the sand, the empty inflatable pool drifted towards the beach with the tide.
Empty, except for the net, which was neatly folded at the bottom.
(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar is a Goa-based writer/journalist. Views expressed in the article are personal and may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine)