The net teemed with fish. Round. Conical. Plump. Paper-thin. Fish that contorted like a diviner. Fish that stayed stoic like a monk. The fish were of varied sizes, and all the fish were silver. The net would have let some slip back into the sea, had Sama not arrived at the pier to help relieve some of the weight. No one offered to help Sama, however, when she lugged two buckets filled with fish across the busy village to her studio.
Sama spread the fish out on the floor of her studio and descaled them in one go. Unfazed by a prick here and there, she scooped up the gobs of doughy flesh and dumped them down an eye-shaped chute in the wall. All that was left of the fish were the scales—mounds of them everywhere, spinning with the fan, wedged under the keys of the keyboard, sliding off the lamps. She collected them and stitched them onto the bare underside of a rug.
Those seemingly innumerable scales could cover only a fraction of the rug. Still, that tiny, pearly fraction managed to light up the studio. It didn’t let the bloody vases hide in the corners and made the gristly sofa pulsate with aquatic luminescence. Lending a beat were the neighs of warring horses, the screams of barter, and the trill of children returning from school; all signs of a village-at-ease Sama was used to, all harbingers she preferred to keep locked out of her studio.
Every subsequent morning, Sama hiked down to the pier and back. The fish in the net dwindled, and the scales on the rug multiplied. The scales no longer remained silver. Sama soaked them in the colors she needed, like the red of her childhood tricycle and the turquoise of her sister’s gems, and stitched them onto the rug to depict the scene of her sister, nine years her senior, selling everything of value to prevent their land from being repossessed. As Sama needled out more scenes—a square in which her sister secured a fresh loan from the bank, a circle in which she and her sister celebrated an abundant harvest—more was the life that flowed through her fish-scale rug. Caressing her fingertips, the rug moved in waves, undulating, like the arching back of a dragon readying to take flight.
Sama’s daily trips to the pier turned into weekly ones because the fish in the net weren’t getting replenished at the required rate. Her fish-scale rug languished. The scene of her sister getting upbraided by the village headman for perceived flaunting of success took her twice as long to bring to fruition as the scene of her sister having to defend against accusations of witchcraft, forgery, cattle sacrifice, and general dissent. Only after stitching on the scene of her sister’s conciliatory donation to the temple could Sama regain the will to go in search of the fisherman. She found him writhing inside a wrestling pit, from where he hollered that he wasn’t aware why more fish weren’t showing up. Maybe a trawler had picked up most of the fish. Maybe the fish had got bored and begun migrating to a saltier sea. He told her not to worry since no one in the village ate fish anyway. All that would be caught would be kept reserved for her.
However, no more fish were caught, and the net lay empty. Sama stopped visiting the pier. She used the last cupful of scales she had to stitch on the scene of villagers, torches in hand, descending upon her sister and her. She paid due homage in the scene to her sister unflinchingly setting a fish curry to simmer. Before Sama could get started on the fire that had grown from torch to torch, she ran out of scales. Across her knees, coiled along the studio floor, her fish-scale rug lay lifeless, half dragon, half skinned-chicken, cold to the touch. She stood up and stepped out of her studio, her throat clogged with a cry for help. But there was no one to turn to—the entire village was empty, bereft of all its inhabitants, of all humans and animals, of all breathing, yelling, stinking mounds of flesh. A few rocks rolled past and some ash floated by, more so than usual. Sama retreated to her studio and locked the door. She wasn’t going to find the scales needed to stitch on the story of the attack’s aftermath; she wasn’t going to be able to bring out in glorious detail her sister’s fate, the fish curry’s fate, the villagers’ incredulity at what had unfolded. Rather than leave her sister’s story half-told, she preferred to wipe out all trace of it. So she got down on her knees and plucked each and every fish scale out of the rug. She didn’t mind that some scales slashed through her fingers, that her blood seeped out and into the rug, into what was now no more than a carcass.
Sama strolled across the ghost village, making light of the two buckets filled with fish scales that she carried along. She peeked into barren huts and knocked over rusted tube wells before marching down to the pier. She climbed up to the net that she had been solely responsible for emptying and stitched the multi-colored scales onto every sinewy inch available. The colors that had been striving to narrate her sister’s triumph now transformed the net into a flag. As could be expected from a flag, it broke free and escaped into the sea. Behind Sama, the return of familiar neighing, screaming, and tittering signaled the return of normalcy, of people, of vehemence to the village. But Sama couldn’t even be bothered to glance in their direction. So astounded she was by the flag that chose to sink rather than float, that beamed anew her sister’s story from the rainbow depths of the sea.
Subhravanu Das is an Indian writer living in Bhubaneswar. His work has appeared in Gone Lawn, Atlas and Alice, South Florida Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.