The ocean curved itself around. Beta could see the story of the storm, starting far out to sea on one side and making its way inland. He wrapped his shawl tight. Long tendrils of rain were falling down as the waves rose up to meet them. They looked like a giant octopus coming ashore. As the light waned the wind blew harder and the sand and sea became indistinguishable. A bit like monsoon season, only everything was less wet and more dead.
He imagined he could step out on one side and find himself on a balcony in the warm rain with his father. A rare hail would’ve just fallen, and for a little while, maybe twenty minutes at most, they could make castles out of hailstones and pretend they were at the sea with buckets of sand, or in the mountains with piles of snow. The rain would come quickly, in broad sheets, melting the hail and whipping everything sidewise. They would happily greet the warm water, and soon paper boats would be tumbling down the gutters, taking the year’s waste with them.
Lightning came in great flashes now, brightening huge swathes of ocean. It was dark in between the flashes. And he felt terrified, more so than made sense given the warmth of the chair and the quiet of inside. Something had happened. Whole flocks of birds had tumbled into one another and shed their wings like husks of corn. They had lain about all naked and folded over while rats plucked out their eyes like seeds. And soon the rats too were gone.
They would publish a report of their joint findings soon, Allen assured them. In the meantime, it was vital that they each work at their own task. He gave much the same speech from day to day. Beta, Aleph, and Gamine would put on their lab coats and hunch over their gloveboxes, plating out samples. They worked silently and efficiently in the lab. Only Gamine sometimes knocked things over as she moved around. The fierce white light over everything made her nervous, Beta thought. That, rather than Aleph’s proximity.
They spent their afternoons at the beach, in the mild water. Some days, they stood on shore and watched the great oil slicks go by. Beta imagined they were whales and he could ride them all the way to Alaska.
It had occurred to him that they lived somewhere very nice. The sands were gold and the water was blue. Only the sun had nothing to do with it. The sky was the same steely grey from one day to the next. He remembered reading poems about the sun breaking through clouds, but these clouds had no breaks. He thought about asking Allen if the sun had died, but then thought better. He was supposed to have his own answers.
Allen came with them and left after he had seen them safely to the beach. Once, he had hinted that there were hundreds of sectors on the peninsula, all working on the great domain. But Beta never saw anyone else, and couldn’t figure out where they might eat lunch, or hide. The beach ran the length of the peninsula and went around impassable bends. He had walked inland and come across the same tall fence. He would study the faded signs and little ribbons of color tied to the posts, marking the dead on both sides. He kept hoping to meet someone, but Allen said they had given up and left the team in peace.
Just past the fence he could see that the sand stopped and small grasses took root. But there were no animals. He looked for his own image in the mirage of distance where waves of heat rose up from the pathways that ended here from all sides. These roads were used once, he decided. But there was nothing to go on.
The afternoon had that hot day romance. From where he floated between the swells he could see Gamine wading near the shore. His mother wouldn’t like her. But his father might. And anyway, she liked Aleph, or seemed free with him and quiet with Beta. He knew her beauty marks and dimples and her striped knees, but little more. And now, from the water, he could tell that she was afraid. She kept trying for a casual look in her eyes because Aleph watched her. But each wave was a little terror, and she stayed carefully outside their reach.
When Aleph ran off for exercise, they sat quietly on the beach, sharing their lunch. It was standard issue: sandwiches on brown plates with little ramekins of dessert on the side, colored differently for each day of the week. To make believe, they acted as though each had something different.
“Mine’s spaghetti and meatballs,” Gamine said. “What’s yours?”
“Chicken curry and rice.” They traded and ate happily. When Aleph was far away, Beta became more like himself. Once he braided Gamine’s hair down the side. But Aleph noticed and became sullen and Beta stopped touching her hair.
Another day, they saw a seagull. He waded out to his knees and cried, although he couldn’t have said why. Gamine waited for him, just outside the water, and took his hand. He felt so grateful. But then he expected to feel more, and he could tell she wanted something else.
He fell sick the next two days and had to stay in bed, staring up at the ceiling until he was sure Gamine forgave him or had forgotten. The fabric of the world seemed to him as fine as ever before. He watched, reminded of those afternoons his mother hung sheets from windows to block the sun so that they might lie together in the cool pattern of darkness. “Beta, bring me some water,” she would ask, and he never hesitated, because he wanted to feel awake just then. When he gave her the water, she said blessings were upon him.
He never slept afterwards. Rents around the fabric where sun seeped through worried him. He worried he only saw the edges of a vision. He knew so little of what his mother ever knew, and so much more than her. The edges dimmed instead of brightening.
A package had arrived from his mother all the way from home. Rich tea biscuits, potato rings, a jar of mango pickle, all wrapped in pieces of the same sari. This extravagance didn’t seem to suit her. For a moment he wondered if Gamine had sent the package by way of forgiveness. But with all its stamps and labels it seemed to have come from the other side of the world even though there was no musty Indian smell, and the sari looked much too new to have been torn up and wasted for wrapping.
The cookies did make him feel better. They put him in mind of street vendors and their unforgiving food. How they would ride on their scooter on Sunday afternoons in Chandni Chowk, handkerchiefs wrapped around their faces. He held on tight, and his mother held on tighter. The link was unbroken. He felt safe wedged between his parents, even though the road slipped and quibbled and all of humanity jostled for its place. Vegetable market first, ice cream for him and golgappa for his mother, and all the while his father reaching carefully inside his pockets for change. The same handkerchiefs that wiped their hands and mouths wrapped around their faces when they headed home with the last of sun. He would invariably fall asleep without falling, or dreaming. It felt nice.
Aleph was at his most efficient in the lab. Beta couldn’t deny the appeal. Smart and handsome, his father would have said admiringly. While his mother tsked beside him, as if to say we should be encouraging our son instead. As his younger cousins saw it, Beta’s way was paved with stars. He was the only son of a rich family, the one who left the village. He was the one who was picked for Delhi Public School and passed the IIT entrance exams. He was the one who was packed off to America, with a shiny blue Samsonite suitcase in his hand. But the older ones could tell he was lonely. He couldn’t remember their grown up faces, but he assumed that because he had grown older and sallower they had too.
The letters never explained, though they came regularly. For Beta, home was a thought that had lost much of its elasticity, an unworked thought without any strength or pleasure. Beta, are you married yet, the letters would say. Beta, I’m saving my gold ring, the one with the diamonds in it, for your new wife. Beta, don’t make an ordinary choice. That last was from his father, whose belief in Beta’s greatness had never yet dwindled. It was harder than his mother’s square mediocrity and less sustaining. He wasn’t sure whether the world was large enough for his father’s ambition.
Beta tried to get their project straight in his mind. Allen said they had to wait to leave their outcropping of land. They were an infinitesimal part of a great puzzle, Allen explained. As lead scientist, Allen’s job was to fit their little piece to the whole. They had to inoculate the flasks, plate out samples, and monitor bacterial growth by total and viable counts. He liked to describe the colonies he saw, and he often wondered what Gamine and Aleph found. But they were never to ask each other about their work.
Beta was used to rules and didn’t mind. There had been long queues and piles of paperwork and countless bribes that had brought him over to this side. He counted himself among the lucky ones, sent forth by his family under an auspicious sign. There was no doubt he would follow the lines.
“Look, right there,” Beta said to Allen, turning over the sea stars. This was his own discovery, and it seemed important. Beta had been walking further than before from the grey building that housed their work. And he came to this rocky stretch of beach, which looked like it bent around the coast to another sector. There were tide pools half filled with oil and water. This one had sea stars. He remembered about never touching and turned them over with a stick. Their bottoms were all wrong, whitish and cottony, like drawings that had never been colored in. The stick seemed to just disappear into them.
“You think it’s a fungus of some sort?” he asked Allen. “I thought we might collect some samples and bring them back to the lab.”
“It’s nothing, just star fish. They’re always white underneath.” He looked at Beta, and then past him to where the coastline creeped around to the other side. The tide was low but the water came right up to the edge.
“Why do you come so far,” Allen said. He poked cruelly at the sea stars and threw the stick into the pool. “Stay close to home. We have work to do.” Beta watched him walk back to the sector. He must’ve been quite old, in his sixties maybe. There were things Beta admired about Allen, his neatly pressed pants, the wirerimmed glasses that he cleaned meticulously with tiny cloths he kept in his pockets for just that purpose. He was probably an immigrant too, from Shanghai maybe. Or was it his parents or their parents. Beta wasn’t sure. It hadn’t occurred to him to ask anything that wasn’t about work. This sea would remind Allen of home, Beta thought. Somewhere, where the waters stretched outward, was the other shore. And if Beta went far enough in that direction, he could see his father sitting on the verandah reading the paper while his mother peeled potatoes by his side.
He looked for the stick as soon as Allen was far enough away, but he couldn’t see it. The sea stars were stuck to the sides. He could barely make out what was past them, through the murky water. The bottom seemed to be white, maybe in reflection of the sky. He rolled up his sleeve and stuck his hand in but it seemed to go right through the bottom. The whole hand disappeared into that murky whiteness. Something wasn’t right. He felt around left and right, but couldn’t seem to find the stick. It had been a nice one too, all mottled and smoothed from the waves.
Beta woke up at night feeling sick. His legs tingled and were cold. He saw Gamine asleep in the bunk across the room. He heard soft footsteps. Someone came into view and then went out, as though pacing down the middle of the room. A strange light was shining on the blinds from inside. He blinked his eyes and thought he saw his own face looking down at him from above. He could see that something was wrong, some distortion through waves of water or heat. He pushed himself up, scared.
He tried to convince himself that the dream was a dream. They had run past the lone figure at the barricades and locked themselves inside while the march came around from the other bend. Some plan for surprise. Only his tongue had caught and swelled until he ripped it out and looked for a place to throw it. People came out of their offices and tried to get outside. But his friends stopped them. He moved deeper and deeper down the grey halls with their amber light. And his tongue stared up at him, twitching from side to side.
No garbage cans. From cement to carpet, to cooler lights. He found the remains of a small feast, a colander of chicken fingers with fancy mayonnaise, and threw his tongue there thinking it would burn up in the fire. But there was no fire. And the chicken fingers started to look like fingers and he wanted to get outside. Wall of soldiers around the bend.
Gamine was watching him from her bed, through her thick eyes. He felt for his tongue in the dark and started to say something. But she rolled over and the moment passed. She would never admit to looking at him in the middle of the night.
No one was up and down the beach that night. Oil platforms dotted the horizon and lit up the sky like monstrous lanterns. The sand was sandy and the sea was salty wet. Beta walked on the hard-packed parts and looked along the waterline for small treasures. The moon helped. He had seen it rise over the bluffs to the South, a large yellow eye with a wisp of cloud slowly uncovering itself and growing smaller.
He headed for the ship that had washed up on shore. He was pretty sure no one else knew about it. Between the flashes of lightning of the latest storm, he had seen something lodge itself far down the coast. Now he could see that it was big. It was already changing the shape of the sea around it. Some parts were clear where the moonlight hit at just the right angles, but the rest faded into darkness. He knew nothing about boats, but he would’ve guessed this one was used for fishing from the big spires that rose up from it and the posts that crisscrossed at regular intervals. It was dirty too, and rusted. Whole colonies clung to it. Sea stars, mussels, algae, barnacles, and other creatures he couldn’t identify. He couldn’t translate the writing on the side.
The boat was high, much too high to climb into. And besides, he couldn’t be sure that it was stuck there in the sand. The waves were unsettled and looked ready to reclaim it. He walked around, wondering if there were some way inside. He almost ran into Aleph standing on the moonlit side, looking out to sea. It was too late to turn around. But Aleph didn’t seem upset or surprised.
“In a book I read when I was young, the seas dried. A comet was coming and all the little creatures were sure they would die. But they wanted to get home to their mothers and fathers before it happened. Only they’d come in a boat, and now it was useless. So they made stilts out of trees and walked all the way home across the ocean bed,” Aleph said.
“We could use some stilts,” Beta replied, not quite sure what to say. He could tell that Aleph was thinking of climbing into the boat. He wasn’t sure he liked the vision of an empty sea bed stretching out before him, or the sound of no waves as far as he could hear. The waves were comforting. They kept time and felt like change even though they came repeatedly. Besides the ocean was bigger than in any story, and they would never get across with stilts.
“The best part of it was that it was impossible,” said Aleph. “They figured out how to use the stilts, and no one fell off and broke their neck. The trip was so short that they didn’t need food. And they slept safely on sea mountains through the night. They found treasures and saved themselves from a giant octopus.”
Beta thought about getting on the boat and waiting for it to be sent out to sea. If he was sure it would go out in the night, he might climb on it. But he couldn’t face the idea of waking up in the morning and finding himself in the same place with Allen’s face looking up over the side.
Tide was coming in. The boat seemed to shift and they jumped instinctively out from under its shadow.
“Stop staring,” Gamine said as she took off her clothes.
Beta couldn’t help it. He was looking behind her to where the boat had been. A big gap in the sand and a strange ripple in the current proved that he hadn’t been dreaming.
In her unflattering bathing suit, Gamine looked like his mother. He was reminded of a family trip to Goa many years ago before hardly any tourists knew about it. They drove through a dark forest with some kind of tree he didn’t remember. Very little light came through. It was their first time in a car. He sat in the back with the windows rolled down. Mummy was sick up front and they kept having to pull over even though they didn’t want to. There was something in the road up ahead, driftwood maybe, or someone’s dead body. Papa wanted to stop, but his uncle grew shrill about some local rebellion and they rolled up their windows and drove around.
It was his first memory of fear. Had things always been scary inside his head before the rest of the world caught up to them? It was the window that had made him afraid. It marked a distance that he could still see beyond. He was the person who was passing through while others had stayed behind.
He remembered the photo better than the memory. He was ten, or maybe nine. Short and stubby and scratched on his knees and elbows. His mother and father were standing straight next to him, each holding on to one hand, while the panicked swirl of the waves came up around their ankles. His feet had sunk into the sand. And so had his uncle’s, while he was taking their picture.
Gamine looked determined. “I’m going swimming.” She placed her glasses on top of her folded dress. “Watch out for these.”
“Let me come with you,” he said.
“No. You stay here. Go for help if I don’t come back.”
What if she died and they blamed him? What if she left and went somewhere with other people and birds? Aleph was a strong swimmer but he was off on a run. Beta considered not listening to her and jumping right in afterwards.
She started out big, ankle deep, with the waves far off behind her. The polka dots stretched around her rear. He kept hoping she’d look back and call to him.
He imagined her face looking out, the cleft in her chin poking forward. She was at that part where the waves keep getting higher but her head wasn’t in. He looked out further and could see a big wave coming. But she was focused a few feet ahead, getting wetter and wetter. When the wave hit her, she was small, too small, her little black head bobbing up and down. She couldn’t decide whether to go through or above so she went under and disappeared in the brown foam. He was excited. He looked down at his hands. He felt desire, not so much for her as for something to happen.
The next two waves were big, but she came out alright. She was figuring it out, ducking under and bobbing up on the other side. She kept to where she could stand and smiled now and again, at him maybe, or every time the waves picked her off. The forest of kelp was on the far side, so she stayed close to shore. But the waves kept taking her down the coastline. He waved to her, and she waved back right before she slipped in to where the water went dark and oily. The waves creased over and she came out like a seal pup, mottled brown.
He could tell she was upset, so he walked out to meet her. But she marched right past him back to their things. This was it, he thought, one of those turn around moments where the feeling you went with is not the one you have when you come back. She looked like a sad penguin fussing. She’d put her glasses back on and was drying herself, rubbing at the oily patches of skin. He sat down beside her and kept looking carefully out to sea.
“The first time I went swimming they lined us all up on the edge of the pool and pushed us in,” Gamine said. “I fell and the water and the smell of it came in through my eyes and my ears and my nose. I could see the bubbles flying to the top and my teacher’s face through the water. I think he was yelling at me to swim. When I finally figured out how to stand up, he was no longer watching. No one was watching. Not being noticed was worse.”
She had hated it when he moved. She had wanted to drift down the coast with him watching her, and to look back and see how far she had gone. The oil had ruined it. He had ruined it.
“You won’t get it out that way,” he said. “Let’s go and find a solvent.”
“You think I don’t know,” she replied. There was no feeling in her voice. “The oil’s nothing,” she said, gathering up her things and leaving him behind.
It was so quick, barely a whisper in the hallway outside their lab. “You and your stupid romance. Look around you. Things aren’t right,” said Aleph. He grew so impassive when Allen came around the corner that Beta thought maybe he had never spoken. But his arm hurt where Aleph had grabbed him and he felt it throbbing as he came out into the open.
He tried to look casual as he walked to the fence. There was no way outside except maybe under the sand, which seemed possible. He bent over and scratched the packed grains. Not too hard. But he was already parched and there was no water to be had on the other side as far as he could see. Aleph, on his run, came closer and closer and stopped. Through all that glare, he could barely make out his face. No, it was Allen walking to fetch him, something about a change in their sampling regimen.
“Where are we going?” Gamine asked. Her voice came in snatches, and he put it together from every other word. Aleph never slowed down. His back was wide and unfriendly. Beta kept trying to come around the side to see his grim face set against the world and the wind. It was sort of inspiring.
The wind whitened the waves at their peaks. It blew hard and cold, colder than Beta remembered. Allen had said something about squalls headed their way. It was early in the morning. They still had on their standard issue robes and papery underthings. For a second he thought he heard the fabric ripping and felt down in alarm. Gamine gave him one of her rare smiles. Sand was getting in all the places. It felt really good.
“Dig,” Aleph had said, when they arrived at the small hollow where the sand had piled up from one part of the fence to the next. He gave them each one of the plastic dinner plates he’d been carrying. It felt wrong getting the plate dirty, more than the digging. Beta thought about running back to his bunk and sliding between the sheets with the sand in all the folds. But he could no longer see the building. Gamine had already started, and he knew it would be worse to turn around alone.
It was a chain link fence. The lattice was thin but buried deep. It bowed in and out and rattled with the wind. They could have easily cut through with the right sort of tools. But the wind had done some of their work for them. Aleph and Gamine were going in turns, trying to get to the bottom. He saw the sand kept falling back in and began to move the pile away from them.
The weather had turned everything a shade of steely grey. So when he squinted, he could barely see the fence. The other side looked much the same as theirs, with the sand blown over. Shreds of seaweed had caught on the metal. His arms were tired from doing nothing for so many months, and he thought of breakfast. He could smell Gamine over the wind. She looked sweaty and formidable, like she’d caught whatever fever Aleph had brought with him. Aleph was fading away, just two feet from him. He was down to his last move, Beta could tell. And he felt better about never having made any himself.
Gamine suddenly stopped. “I can see under!” she yelled. The sand had whipped grey streaks on her legs. And her hair kept getting caught in her open mouth. It was probably full of sand by now. They crawled below the fence one by one. Gamine let Aleph go first. He might have been crying as far as Beta could tell. But he couldn’t seem to stand up on the other side to get a good enough look. Beta couldn’t stand either. His legs had gone weak, or maybe the ground had gone soft. There was nothing to push up against. He felt sick, really sick, and threw up all over his hands. The same grey color. He rubbed his arms in the sand to get rid of the smell.
The others were beside him and he could tell they didn’t feel good either. Gamine pushed up and up and got into a crouch, but it wasn’t worth the effort and she came right down beside him. “Keep moving,” Aleph said. “Ahead.”
It felt more like defeat than an adventure. The wind came straight at them, tearing everything to shreds. Everything became whitish and the roughness of the sand even disappeared. He was reminded of the bottoms of the sea stars. A great big ball welled up in his throat. He felt it swell and retched, but nothing came out. Everything was plugged with cotton.
When he woke up that night, he knew this at last was the other side. The dream had been a sweet wonder.
“You see now?” He heard Allen’s voice. It was gentle and reminded him of home.
“Papa’s dead,” he said. It was a good guess and Allen did not refuse. “You wrote mummy’s letters.”
“Yes, I wanted to keep you alive in the old way. These sectors, they’re for bereavement. We live somewhere else. We help each other. We do things in our minds,” Allen said.
Beta blinked once or twice and started to focus. It was a blue and black room, long and thin, like the inside of a vein all drained out. There was a bed, but how he knew this he could not have explained. Lights shone at intervals, vitreous, whites of eyes. Tubes came in and out. Pumps beeped and bellowed. Somewhere under their noise his own breath kept time, and the breath of another and another.
“Is Aleph awake? And Gamine?” he asked.
“They’re sleeping.” Allen said.
Beta could understand. There was pain. He was of a piece with it. He could not go where there was no pain, he realized, except to his mother’s letters, and the thought of Gamine with her fat brown thighs, and Aleph’s mincing smile.
Piles and piles were heaped around the edges. Beta looked at them and Allen brought something closer. It was a plate, with wires poking out from all sides. One surface was grey and blank and brittle, like those slates he’d had as a child. The other reminded him of a porcelain doll, smoothly featured. A beautiful face with little touches of paint for the lips and the eyes. Allen was proud of them. He brought him more and more. It was a tender gesture, like that of a mother.
“It’s the F Sector,” Allen said. “I make the faces. I save you from your lives. We’re allowed as many as we like. Sometimes they need a new plate, sometimes they die. But I keep the faces.”
They were people Allen knew, Beta realized. “Whose face am I wearing?”
“My son’s.” Allen said. “And Gamine is your daughter?” asked Beta. “What about Aleph?”
“I made him for myself, so you wouldn’t be lonely.”
Beta smiled. But the plates hid more than they showed. They were a kindness for someone else. The vision burst. Of hundreds, lying side by side with their sad guardians. They slept so sound. Allen turned down the lights.
Beta’s parents had two white metal chairs on their balcony. They had high backs, and when he brought them face to face he could just cover the space between them with a bedsheet and fit himself underneath. The morning sun would be coming down hard on the balcony. The coolness of the bath would have vanished and the wet hair plastered to his head would have started to dry. Mummy was in the bathroom now, and he knew not to disturb her. They let each other have this quiet, when the birds had gone silent and the day was starting to settle into place. He could see the neighbor’s balcony, and past that, another and another. When he went under the sheet they were invisible. Once in a while, shapes would come close, a bird, a daytime ghost, but they weren’t really scary and they mostly kept away. Under the paisley flowers and the lines of marching elephants on the sheet, he felt safe and invincible.
“Where’s my Beta?” Mummy would ask when she finally came outside. She’d walk along the length of the balcony and look over the side. She’d look around in all the corners and call out from each one. “I miss you, Bittu. Come back home now.” When her voice changed like that, whether with love or impatience, he knew to come out and run into her arms. She would never have lifted the sheet and spoiled the game.