Edition 30: Casting Nets by Rebecca Fraser
He’s just a poor boy from a fishing family but his heart is captured by a bird of paradise, flitting out of his reach. Tino has a plan to bring his dreams of life with Delice to fruition, but every dream requires that some part of yourself is given up. – SY
The crunch of dirt mixed with the coppery taste of blood. Tino worked his jaw, opening and closing his mouth slowly. A burst of fireworks erupted behind his eyes, but it appeared nothing was broken. He rose to his knees and leant his head against the limestone wall that ran the perimeter of Delice’s house. Her house? Nay, her prison. He spat a russet-stained wad onto the ground; and with it his anger and shame.
Delice. Delice. The sound of her name was like running his nails down a skein of finest satin in the marketplace. He had seen her there first. She walked alongside her father, stopping at stalls to test the ripeness of a papaya, or watch a potter turn his wheel. It was as if she sensed his presence, and she’d turned to meet his stare. Eyes the colour of the sea kissed by morning sun.
He held himself in those eyes for as long as he dared; the net he wove forgotten in his hands. It was his grandfather’s voice that broke the spell.
“What exquisite bird of paradise keeps you from your task?” Grandfather kept at his work, strong fingers braiding and pulling, but a knowing smile stretched his sun-creased face. Tino blushed. He busied himself refolding and hanging their wares around the little stall that had served as his family’s livelihood for four generations.
And then, there she was. A net in her hand. Examining the grid-like pattern; turning the fibres this way and that. Her slim fingers traced the rows of tight knots, and Tino wondered what it would feel like to have those fingers run down his spine.
“What beautiful craftsmanship.” Her voice was like the ocean breeze tickling Ma’s wind chimes.
Tino tried to speak but his throat felt stuffed with the netting’s cotton fibres. Grandfather stepped in.
“Fishing nets, Miss Chettiar. The finest in the province. Do you enjoy fishing, I wonder? Catch the best fish in the sea with one of these nets.” Grandfather smiled enigmatically.
“You dare speak to my daughter of fishing, old man?” Her father’s eyes flamed. “You think she cares for fish, or old fools or-” He cast a dangerous look at Tino’s baitcasting kit, “-filthy peasants?”
“I imagine not, sir. Although I do not see any of those things here.” Grandfather’s voice was calm; his fingers knotted and braided.
“Come, Delice.” Her father pincered her arm and steered her away. She looked back once, sought out Tino’s eyes and smiled at him, before disappearing into the market’s throng.
The fibre slowly unknitted from his throat. “You know them, Grandfather?”
“Jannack Chettiar. Wealthy widower from the Upper Coast.”
“And…and, that girl?”
“Your bird of paradise?” Grandfather looked at Tino. “His daughter, Delice. First time I’ve seen her in public. She must have come of age.”
“Delice.” Tino tasted her name.
“Tino, you are a fine boy, but she is not for you. We are people of the sea and the land. The Chettiars, they are gilded folk. Their trade is people and status; who they will couple Delice with to boost their coffers. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Tino blushed again and scowled, but he knew Grandfather was right. He was proud of his craft; their nets were renowned for their strength and longevity. But in that moment he would have traded the respect of his whole village for a chance with Delice.
Grandfather put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Forget her, Tino. The most beautiful birds are kept in the strongest cages.”
But he could not forget her, and every market day his eyes scanned the crowd, sifting through the brightly coloured saris, until he saw her. His bird of paradise.
Delice was always with her father, walking quickly to match Jannack’s purposeful stride. She smiled at Tino as they passed, and he would smile back, emboldened by her attention.
One day, he plucked a hibiscus bloom from a bush that lined the path from his village. It was the brilliant colour of coral, and Tino imagined how it would look against Delice’s skin. He waited a lifetime that morning until she walked past his stall. And then, when Jannack’s head was turned, with a beating heart he held it aloft.
Delice looked at him with such intensity a school of baitfish darted across his stomach. She raised a hand to her heart and mouthed “thank you” before throwing a fearful glance at her father. Jannack was ahead now, and she hurried to catch up to him. But before she was lost to the crowd, she turned and waved, her face alive with happiness.
“Like trying to catch the wind in a net.” Grandfather wasn’t smiling this time. He looked troubled.
“But she likes me, Grandfather. I can tell.” Tino laughed and slipped the hibiscus behind his ear.
“No good can come of it, Tino. Heed my words. Stay away from the Chettiar girl.”
But later that day a ragged boy with almond-coloured eyes darted up and wordlessly thrust an envelope into Tino’s hand. He sprinted off between the stalls, a tatty spider monkey. Tino opened the envelope. There was a single slip of pale blue paper inside.
Meet me at Turtle Shell Bay at sunset. D.
Tino slipped the note into his pocket before Grandfather could see. He completed his chores rapidly and spent the rest of the day willing the sun to sink. Finally, as the sky began to redden, he sped off towards the bay. His sandaled feet pounded the sandy path, matching the rhythm of his heart.
She had chosen their meeting point well. The beach was surrounded on either side by tall cliffs, the bay concealed by jungle foliage. Tino trod the white sand, and there she stood in the lengthening shadows.
He went to her.
They talked that first night of many things; but what Tino remembered most was her perfumed skin. The intoxicating scent of sandalwood as he lay her down on the beach.
After that, they met as often as they could. Their clandestine embraces fueled Tino’s dreams until they could meet again. They grew bold and reckless in their love; Delice slipping away when Jannack had business in neighbouring provinces. They bathed in the crystal waters of the bay, and chased each other through the jungle tracks.
Delice took to stealing Tino into the Chettiar Estate when her father was absent. Just in the grounds at first, laughing as they dodged the team of gardeners that raked and pruned. They hid between the jasmine bushes; overpowered by the heady floral scent and their love for each other.
And later, inside. The trappings of wealth like none Tino had ever seen. Walls hung with tapestries spun with gold thread; the marble flooring echoed beneath his feet causing his breath to catch as they dashed across the foyer and up the sweeping staircase. Delice giggled as they ducked and hid from housemaids in flouncy caps.
They passed what seemed like endless bed chambers until at last, breathless, Delice pulled him into a room hung with brocade and pale green chiffon. She shut the door and guided him toward a postered bed.
“Delice, I shouldn’t be here. Your father—“
“Papa is in Ashtown. He won’t be back until night fall, my love.” She pulled him to her. They sank into the gold-fringed pillows and he plunged his hands into her midnight hair. Afterwards they dozed, wrapped in each other’s arms.
The cry of rage was so guttural that Tino thought at first a wild boar had entered the room. He sprang from the bed.
Jannack loomed in the doorway. His face contorted with fury; his linen suit creased from travel. Ice trickled down Tino’s spine.
“Papa, you’re home early.” Delice’s voice was as faint as she looked.
Jannack’s coal-black eyes remained on Tino. “Get out. Get out now, before I kill you.” His voice was quiet now, dangerous.
“Sir, Mr Chettiar. Delice, I love her. I—“
Jannack took a step forward.
“Papa, please.” Delice began to cry.
Jannack seized Tino by the throat and dragged him into the hallway.
Tino gasped for air as Jannack’s grip tightened. A clutch of wide-eyed maids peered from a doorway. Behind him, Delice’s cries sounded far away. Spots danced before his eyes and he pried at the fingers circling his throat.
And then he was falling, bouncing. He felt every stair as he crashed and rolled. The marble floor broke his fall with bone-rattling intensity, and he lay there, winded.
Jannack strode down the stairs. He bellowed for his manservants.
“Remove this peasant from my home. Teach him to never return nor sully those of the Chettiar name.”
A pair of men in butler whites appeared. They heaved Tino upright and he swayed in front of Jannack. “Never darken my doorstep again, village boy, or I will hang you from the gateposts and skin you alive.”
The manservants dragged Tino from the house and across the lawns. It was by the fragrant jasmine bushes they beat him. After, they pitched him through the gardener’s gate, and so it was that he now found himself bloody and bruised on the outside of the Chettiar residence.
His bruises faded into shadows and the days faded into weeks. A full cycle of the moon passed and he hadn’t seen or heard from Delice. He looked for her every day at the market, and waited every night at Turtle Shell Bay at the setting of the sun.
One day the ragged boy appeared bearing another envelope. The familiar scent of sandalwood drifted from the pale blue slip of paper inside.
Papa has me under guard. I am watched day and night. He says I am to be coupled with a man from Ashworth before my seventeenth birthday. Tino, my love, I am dying without you.
Tino felt Grandfather’s hand on his shoulder. He passed him the note. When he’d returned to the village beaten and bloodied, Grandfather had been kindly. Tino had expected to be berated for his foolishness. But while Ma tended his cuts with a cloth and a pan of salty water, he merely smoked his pipe, listening as Tino told his story in jagged sobs.
Grandfather returned the note. “Love begins with a smile, grows with a kiss and ends with a teardrop. I am sorry, Tino, you must forget her and move on. Alas, the sea cannot be scooped up in a cup.”
He smiled sadly and handed Tino a net to patch. For the next week Tino dutifully wove nets by day, but at night he wove plans, designing how to free his bird of paradise from her gilded cage. And one night as he lay awake listening to the ocean’s gentle slap-slap against the poles that supported his family’s shanty, he decided what must be done.
On the next day of rest Tino rose early to walk into town. It was a pilgrimage he seldom made, and as the sandy forest trail gave way to a wide dirt road the sounds and smells of Town drew closer.
It was very different from his market. Shops were glass fronted here, some adorned with neon lighting that flashed and blinked. There were little restaurants with plastic chairs and tables; hair salons, butchers with greasy ducks displayed upside down on wire hooks. Hawker carts and steel drums barbequing cobs of corn jostled for position on the cracked sidewalks; and scores of people barged and bustled.
Tino crossed Main Street and turned down a narrow laneway on the far side of Town. He wasn’t sure the exact location of Bilaal’s shop, but he’d heard enough—whispered snatches of conversation from the elders—to know the general direction. Alleys twisted from the lane like deformed limbs. They were filled with shadows, the stench of rotting vegetables, and something darker. Tino breathed through his mouth and made his way deeper into the labyrinth. Mongrel dogs barked and lunged from short chains. A crone with bandaged eyes slumped in a doorway scraping at the dusty floor with a tin bowl. The buildings closed in and Tino began to walk faster.
A tattered green awning bore a familiar symbol. He‘d seen the elders draw it in the sand with sticks before quickly scuffing over it.
Tino took a deep breath and knocked on the door. There was a wheezing rasp from within. “Enter.”
He turned the handle and stepped inside. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the fog of incense smoke that cloaked the room like a shroud. The wheezing came from a shape at the back of the room. Tino stepped closer. The man filled an armchair. Bilaal. He wore a giant kaftan, peacock blue. Mounds of flesh overhung the arms of the chair and swung like pendulums. His bald head was slick with the ooze of cracked scabs. Tino was reminded of a dead bullfrog he had seen once, bloated and stinking.
“Come closer, village boy. What is the purpose of your visit?” A waft of fetid breath reached Tino. He didn’t want to come any closer but he forced himself forward on wooden legs.
“I…I need some magic.” Tino said.
“You’re out of luck boy. I don’t deal in magic.” The bullfrog laughed. “I deal in hexes. Is it a hex you need?”
“I don’t know. I’m not too sure what a hex is. I need a kind of spell. Something to make me invisible.”
“Invisible, eh? You tell me your reason and I will decide what it is you need.”
Tino started talking, softly at first, and then his words tumbled out as he told of his love for Delice and of Jannack’s oppression. The bullfrog watched him through tiny eyes. Tino tried not to stare as he picked at his scabs and licked his fingers.
When he was finished, Bilaal looked at him thoughtfully. A slow smile spread across his face. Tino didn’t care much for the smile; it was crafty and joyless.
Bilaal rose, using the armrests to support his shuddering frame. He shuffled to a bookcase where dusty vials rubbed shoulders with candles and volumes of leather bound books. Jars and canisters of every size housed collections of shells and feathers, snake skins, rabbit’s feet, ointments and fossils. Tino saw something that looked like a fetus bobbing in fluid, and quickly looked away.
Bilaal’s sleeve slid back as he reached for the top shelf, exposing a dimpled wing of blubber. “Here it is.” He removed a large glass jar. Tino leaned forward. It appeared to be empty. Bilaal unscrewed the lid and shook a tiny object into his palm. Tino stepped closer. It was just a pebble. A tiny, grey pebble.
“Yes, village boy. It’s just a pebble.” Tino jumped. It was as if Bilaal had read his mind. “But it is a special pebble. Place it under your tongue and it will render you invisible. You will remain invisible to all that you pass. No-one will be able to see you. No-one at all.”
“No-one at all?” Tino’s heart skipped a beat. Could it really be true? He held out his hand eagerly. “I need it. How much is it, please?” He fingered the few coins in his pocket, willing Bilaal to name a price he could afford.
“For you, village boy, no price. I cannot resist such a moving tale of young love. Secure your bird of paradise; that will be payment enough for me.”
“Do you want it or not?”
Bilaal tipped the innocent looking pebble into his hand.
“I cannot thank you enough.”
“What does the likes of me want with thanks?” Bilaal smiled. It did not reach his eyes.
Tino clutched the pebble tightly in his hand and sprinted through the network of lanes and alleys to reenter the bustle and brightness of Main Street. His heart leapt like a freshly hooked marlin as he made his way back to the village. Tonight. He would do it tonight.
Grandfather was sitting with Ma at the table. He looked up from the bamboo spearhead he was whittling and winked at Tino as he entered the room. Ma offered him a plate of pineapple chunks covered in chilli and sugar. He took one from the chipped china platter, and felt a fierce surge of love for them both. He would seem them again, of that he was sure; he just couldn’t risk telling them of his plan.
When the ghost of a crescent moon appeared in the sky, Tino made ready his kimja. The little flat-bottomed dugout floated silently out across the gentle waters beyond the village before entering the mouth of the ocean proper. Tino turned it in the direction of the Upper Coast and raised the triangular sail. It cut through the ink-blue waters as the first stars joined the moon in the darkening sky.
Tino felt in his pocket to check the pebble was there for the thousandth time. It felt smooth and cool in his fingers. He thought of Bilaal’s words—I don’t deal in magic. I deal in hexes—and felt a flicker of unease. Then Delice’s pretty handwriting on pale blue paper: Tino, my love, I am dying without you, and he steered the kimja west towards the secluded bay not far from the Chettiar Estate.
It skimmed to rest on the pebbled shore and Tino tied the kimja loosely to a palm tree that bent to the ground like a village elder. He entered the humid folds of the jungle and let it swallow him into its darkness. The harsh quaver of a cuckoo shrike sounded as he navigated the overhanging foliage, as if outraged by his trespass.
On he pushed, until the jungle thinned and he could peer between giant ferns at the Chettiar’s limestone walls. He took the pebble from his pocket, said a quick prayer to the old gods, and placed it under his tongue. He looked down at his body. He could see himself. Sweat prickled his brow. He took the pebble out and replaced it. He could still see himself, but perhaps that was part of the magic. He had come this far. He would have to trust in Bilaal that no one else would be able to see him.
The double gates fronting the Estate were blessedly open, and Tino crept through them. While he took care to ensure he walked as quietly as possible; his heart beat in his chest louder than village drums at a wedding celebration. The grounds were empty, and he made his way round the house, searching for access.
French doors were open on one side of the house to let in the evening air. Inside, he could see Jannack. He sat cross-legged on a deep sofa; engrossed in a newspaper. Tino watched the smoke from his cigar curl upward as he counted to one hundred to steady his nerves.
Finally he forced one foot in front of the other and walked through the doors. His feet sank into the deep wine-coloured carpet. Jannack coughed and adjusted his newspaper. Tino froze. He was right in front of Jannack now. If he looked up he would see him. He remained a statue for what seemed an eternity, until he realised Jannack couldn’t see him. Feeling bold, he swung his arms in an exaggerated fashion as he walked past Jannack.
The room gave way to the marble flooring overlooked by the sweeping staircase. Tino took the stairs two-by-two, as quietly as a jaguar. A pair of maids, deep in conversation, walked the landing and Tino realised with horror that they were going to come down the stairs. It was too late for him to go back, so he flattened himself against the wall of the staircase. The handmaids passed him with barely a fishing line’s width to spare. He smelled the lye from the soap they used and let his breath out shakily. One of them turned to stare at the space he occupied.
“Did you hear that, Izra?” Her eyes searched the staircase. “Sounded like a spirit wind.”
The other turned to look. “There’s nothing there, you silly old mishpah.” She poked her colleague good-naturedly in the ribs. “You and your spirits and your wraiths.” They carried on down the stairs laughing.
Tino flew up the stairs and counted the bedchambers until he reached the room hung with green chiffon. He quietly pushed the door open.
And there she was. Delice. Delice.
Her back was to him and she stood by the bed, staring through an arched window out across the grounds. Star shine bounced from her hair and danced across her slim shoulders. His bird of paradise.
He went to her as he had done that first time at Turtle Shell Bay. He whispered in her ear, “My love, I have come.”
Delice spun and stared about the room with wild eyes. “Is someone there?” Tino reached out to grasp her hand. When their fingers brushed, Delice started so violently her head collided with the bed’s heavy frame. She sank to the ground, insensible.
Tino cursed his foolishness as he gathered her up. He could feel her heart beating against his though, and thanked the old gods that she was not harmed. Cradling her in his arms, he made his way back onto the landing. He would have to be very careful this time. While the pebble made him invisible, he was sure it would not do the same for Delice.
He waited a full minute to see if anyone was going to cross the marble foyer. The house quiet, he jogged down the stairs as quickly as he dared. He couldn’t use the French doors to make his escape, as Jannack would see Delice. Instead he swung open the heavy front door to the Chettiar residence and fled down the driveway and out through the gates.
Once he entered the cloak of the jungle, he allowed himself to relax a little. He picked his way carefully back towards the kimja, ensuring nothing from the dense foliage scratched Delice’s skin. She breathed deeply in his arms, and he kissed her eyes, her forehead, her lips.
The kimja was where it should be. He untied it and laid Delice gently on the vessel’s floor. He propped her head against a coil of netting, hoisted the sail and cast off.
Tino hugged himself and let out a whoop of joy as the shore receded. It was only then that he dared spit the pebble out. It made a satisfying plop as it hit the water. Tino watched Delice; the gentle rise and fall of her chest. When she woke, he would be the first thing she’d see.
Just after dawn, she stirred. She sat up among the netting and Tino beamed at her, waiting for her delighted realisation. But instead she looked about frightened.
“Delice. It is me, Tino.”
“Tino!” Delice looked about. “Where are you, my love?”
“I am here,” He clambered toward her. She held out her arms, groping blindly.
“I cannot see you, my love,” she whispered.
And as she continued to look about wistful and confused, Bilaal’s words sent wildfire through his veins. You will remain invisible to all that you pass. No-one will be able to see you.
No-one at all.
Rebecca Fraser is an Australian author based on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Her short stories, poems, and flash fiction have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, and journals and showcase her love of all things darkly speculative. To provide her muse with life’s essentials she supplements by freelance copy and content writing for the corporate world, however her true passion lies in storytelling. Rebecca holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing, and a Certificate of Publishing (Copy Editing and Proofreading). You can view visit her blog at www.rebeccafraser.wordpress.com, or follow her infrequent tweeting @BecksMuse.