CHAPTER ONE (EXTRACT)
Ayan gasped for breath and panicked, disoriented by the darkness. He stared, eyes opened wide, hoping to see something, yet fearing what might be there.
It moved. The darkness undulated. At least it seemed that way.
A spasm of heavy coughs racked his body. He fell to his hands and knees and coughed hard to clear the mucus from his lungs. He gulped, searching greedily for fresh air and then retched as he clawed his way forward.
The black prison inexplicably narrowed and Ayan felt a wall to his right and a wall to his left.
The darkness pitched and rolled under his feet, causing him to lose his balance and hit the floor hard. A vile stench forced him back up. He must still be alive. He knew pain and stench from the orphanage. Being alive meant pain and stench. A wave of relief swept over him. He only needed to move beyond the darkness, and then he would find his brother.
Then he became aware of something different. A cool tangy scent tingled in his nose - salt.
The floor shuddered once more beneath his feet.
Could this be? No, it couldn’t! He was aboard a ship. It didn’t make sense. He couldn’t be on a ship. Men worked on ships. People paid to ride on ships. Boys did not belong on a ship.
A scream tore from his throat. Saltwater washed over his feet. He knelt, tears burning trails down his cheeks. There was no caretaker to tell him what to do.
“Help me,” Ayan screamed. “Please. Hear my cries.”
He stood and inched his way forward, measuring distance by the water level on his calves, then his knees and finally, his thighs.
“Kazi?” Ayan listened for his brother’s breathing. “Kazi?” The word echoed endlessly, swallowed in the dark.
“Brother. I need you.”
The water rose higher making it impossible to stand. Ayan treaded water until a flailing hand struck the ceiling.
And then the water closed over his head. He lost all sense of direction, touching the floor and walls, struggling to find the surface.
A small square of light pierced the blackness. Ayan swam desperately upward. Somehow he just knew that salvation lay beyond the light. Flailing wildly he struggled forward, never closing his eyes for fear the light might disappear.
Ayan thrust hard with his legs, broke the surface and sucked in the sweet air. He could just make out the outline of a large man. Ayan couldn’t focus on any details except for a brilliant red wrapping.
“I am trapped in here. Help. I am trapped in here. Someone please. Kazi!”
The man continued to stare down into the darkness. He never beckoned or spoke, just stared. The stranger never took his eyes off Ayan. He never blinked, never moved. He did not recoil from the stench. He didn’t wrinkle his nose up at Ayan’s filthy clothes like the people in the streets often did.
Ayan held his breath with trepidation. The man did not close the door. He would not disappear leaving Ayan alone in the darkness.
The stranger’s head tilted sideways. Something sweet emitted from the man’s gaze, maybe compassion, or even stronger, love?
“Wait.” Ayan gasped for breath. “Wait. I hurry. I hurry.”
Determination enabled him to drag himself through the water. Another step closer to his beloved father. His father stood in the door, waiting for him. His father died when Ayan was very young. Now they were together.
“Praise be to Allah! My father,” Ayan cried. “Father. It is I, Ayan. It is your boy. Ayan. Wait father. I am coming.”
This is why Ayan was on a ship. It all made sense now. Kazi’s stories about their father working aboard a ship explained it all. For years, he worked so hard that his back grew hard with muscle. Men praised their father whose powerful hands could lift bundles of concrete without a shiver. Ayan saw those arms now, bands of steel, the size of a man’s thigh.
The water vanished. Ayan stumbled once and ran. Beneath his feet, the ship faded into ground, not quite solid but not water. He walked on air.
“Father,” he yelped. “It’s me, your little boy. Do you recognise me?”
The man in the doorway did not return Ayan’s smile.
Something was wrong.
He cried again. “How long I’ve wanted to meet you, father.”
The man drew closer; at the same time, the distance between them widened. Ayan sped up, desperate to lunge into his father’s arms. Ayan ached for a hug, dreamed of being embraced by the loving touch of his father. The image of Kazi looking at him and shaking his head made it hard to focus. He pushed thoughts of Kazi away. But they would not leave. Ayan tried harder. Kazi took good care of him, but brothers are, after all, only brothers. Ayan wanted his father.
His father’s hand reached out and only inches separated them. Ayan’s mind screamed, to run harder. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that something bad would happen if he didn’t run faster.
His father’s face twisted into a frightened frown. White froth oozed from between his lips. The trickle of spittle dripped and started to run. Ayan’s hand withdrew. The darkness swirled faster then pulled him back. There was something important he had to remember. His blood turned ice cold as Ayan remembered; When Kazi spoke of their father, he said that he had drowned.
Panic widened his father’s eyes as the distance between them increased. His father opened his mouth to cry out. Instead, he unleashed enough water to flood the darkness. The current dragged at Ayan’s deadened legs, pulling him under, swirling him around. Ayan surfaced. His father opened his mouth again. Another wave filled the darkness. Ayan pushed against the ceiling He fought the water, desperately searching for an air pocket. He forced his mouth close to the ceiling and gasped for air. He struggled as cold water filled his mouth, his stomach - his lungs.
Ayan lurched hard, throwing himself onto the hard floor. He struggled and coughed, fighting for another moment before realising that the darkness was dry. His clothes and hair were dry.
A bed creaked and then another. Large curved windows at the end of the long dorm let in a thin grey stream of light. Beyond the window, the Bengal city lay silent. Dark colonial buildings blocked the view from the ancient mission orphanage. Ayan listened for the soft pad of caretaker footprints on the wooden floor. Silence filled the room. He sighed in relief. The mission teachers were not pleased when a child disturbed the routine.
Ayan touched his throat. He greedily gulped the hot summer air, desperate for coolness to ease his parched tongue. The Eastern Indian summer air refused to offer any comfort. It filled the dorm room, hot and humid. He padded down the long row of beds, careful to avoid bumping into the steel frames. He reached the court window and squatted by the bucket, empty. He licked the dry cup and then dropped it. The wooden clang echoed down the room.
Ayan spun, frightened. Several long minutes passed before he realised no one heard. His nose pressed against the dirty glass. The large moon turned the courtyard into a collage of blue shadows. The stone edge of the water-well stood grey against the flat grass of the yard. The moonlight rippled on the water that filled the outside bucket almost to overflowing. Ayan dismissed the thought of fetching water without being accompanied by a caretaker. Going out at night was not part of the routine.
The white mission teachers only came to the orphanage last year. Until then, no one cared about a routine. He might go out for water at night. In fact, he could even go into the street and watch the strange white people from the east. They dressed strange and the way they talked sounded funny to his young ears. They brought the mission teachers with them. They talked about making the boys respectable.
Ayan knew about being low-caste. His father was low-caste. His grandfather was low-caste. He didn’t understand what it meant, except that his father’s death meant he went to an orphanage. It meant that he sat on a bench all day listening to the white teacher talk about things that would make him respectable. Ayan wondered why
going for water at night made him less…respectable.
His tongue moved around the inside of his mouth to alleviate his thirst. He sighed. Why didn’t he remember not to recoil in terror when his father started to drool? He knew, in his heart, that he must touch his father before the water came. That would make the dream real. If he could do it, just once, then they would all be together again. Ayan would make everything right again.
His memory was good, better than Kazi’s. He would keep this dream in his mind. It was a good dream. He smiled. He almost touched his father this time. Next time, he would forget the pain in his feet. Forget the stink and the blackness. He would move faster and reach the door before the foam came, before the blackness drew him back.
He once told the caretakers about the dream where his father came to him. At that time, Ayan thought his father gave him directions on how they could be together again. The caregivers rolled their eyes and flapped their lips. Then they gave Ayan a beating. They dragged him before the mission teacher who talked a long time about a white place where good people went when they died. It didn’t make sense. Good people enjoyed a better life. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go to a place in the sky. His father wasn’t in the sky. He was on a ship.