An Afternoon At The Beach

This was an entry to the recent Flavorwire Short Fiction Contest that didn’t win. 

An Afternoon At The Beach

 It was the hottest afternoon of the month, but the Boy was in a state of tranquility. His toes were buried under the glowing ochre sand, his body was glazed with warm sweat that rapidly cooled, his hands were in his pockets and his eyes were on the horizon where the sea met the sky and infinity lay in between. The cool, salty breeze billowed his T-shirt, ruffled his hair, and left his lips dry, his tongue licked them frequently. The sea glittered and shimmered under the bright light, but it didn’t hurt his eyes, he was used to it. The languid waves slowly rolled in and withdrew much before his legs, so weak was their reach. A few boats dotted the azure landscape, their outlines wavering in the afternoon haze. He breathed with equanimity, his mind had switched itself off, forgotten the problem that had plagued it all day.

For weeks now, the Boy had sat in front of a blank white screen with a blinking black line on its left hand side, waiting. Waiting for the right word, the right sentence, the right beginning. His mind was a vessel that ferried stories from the cosmos into the world, but it had been docked for a long time, this new story was taking its own sweet time to emerge. Any fugitive sentences that arrived prematurely before the others were promptly excised from the page altogether. When he was not in front of the screen, doing other things to pass the time, he could feel the story coursing through his brain in all its resplendent glory, but he couldn’t hold on to it more than he could grasp a handful of water, such was its fluid shape. The Boy didn’t wait idly: whole paragraphs, characters, dialogs, scenarios, whole pages formed inside him, bursting his mind at the seams. But he lacked the conviction to put it down, what if he didn’t get it right? He thought up a volume a day and it made him sick in the heart and the mind, without having written a line. Life went on, but the block remained.

The Boy attributed this creative drought to a lack of worldly experience. His transition from infancy to childhood to adolescence had taken seventeen years, and in that time he hadn’t really walked the earth. The true artists really struggled and suffered before they achieved greatness, like Fitzgerald, Carver and Updike with alcohol, Dostoyevsky with his gambling and Plath with her depression. The Boy had never suffered for a day in his life. He wished that his parents had divorced early on or that they were poor indentured servants who had accumulated massive amounts of debt to the local loan shark, but unfortunately he had had a relatively normal childhood. To go through a truly harrowing experience and feel real pain and suffering, the kind of pain that didn’t arise from having to take the bus to school when the family chauffeur was sick, that was what he whispered to forces unseen before he went to bed at night. That was the only thing that could refill his writing well.

This wasn’t the first time he had come to the beach, and it wouldn’t be his last. He comes here for the Sun to melt the block away and let his imagination flow through his body. He comes here for the sea, the city’s true confidant, to wash away his paralysis and renew his resolve. He comes here to sweat out the story and to distract his mind from it. He comes here to be inspired by beauty and to remind himself that colors other than white exist.

He was interrupted from his placid solitude by The Beach Soothsayer. The Soothsayer was an old, dark woman, in a yellow sari with red fringes. Her figure conjured an image of a sapota resting on a yellow watermelon in the Boy’s mind. She held a short bamboo stick in her right hand and a string of colorful beads in her left. A large, thick mole stuck out from her left cheek.

“My dear boy, would you like to know your future?” she asked him in Tamil. “I’m one of the few people who can tell you. Just for thirty rupees.”

The Boy was no fool, he had never humored these obvious frauds. They foretold futures of success, fame, happiness and wealth, futures that remained the same for everyone. For who really wants to hear the truth, that Life is unfair? That ten years from now, their wives will suffer from miscarriages? That they will have to suffer the loss of their family because of an incurable plague, or that they are doomed to years of cleaning public toilets for basic sustenance?

But in the state that he was in, he needed the encouragement, false though it may have been. And he had always wanted to see the process up close and personal, his friends and family are cynics just like him. The heat dissolved his prejudices and he nodded. The Soothsayer smiled, her brown teeth, stained by years of chewing tobacco, peeking out.

They sat opposite each other on the sand, she with her legs crossed and he kneeling on his knees. She motioned for his right hand. He stuck it out, palm faced upwards. She held it with the hand that held the strings of beads. Her bamboo stick hovered over his palm.

“Lord Sakkamma!” she cried upward. “Tell me this boy’s fate!”

Her eyes rolled upward and the bamboo stick circled the Boy’s hand slowly. Once, twice, three times, and then it stopped at the center of the palm, still in mid-air.

“Troubles are imminent for you!” the entranced Soothsayer whispered. “You think you have problems now, but more troubles are coming!”

Great, so much for encouragement, thought the Boy.

“Ah, your mind has been strangled by a spirit into submission and you seek an escape from its crushing vice,” she continued. “This is your punishment for forgetting the power of the gods that roam the heavens, you have been stripped of your purpose!”

It was true that he had recently become an atheist, but he did not think that that had anything to do with the block. Evidently this Soothsayer wasn’t in the business of having repeat customers. He had had enough of this nonsense, the next thing she would be telling him would be to apologize to the gods in a weird fashion.

“You must apologize to the Almighty by visiting the six Sacred Murugan Temples in the South and rolling around the perimeter of each temple fifty times!” declared the Soothsayer. “Only then will you stop blocking yourself from your chosen path!”

There was a blast of thunder (in a clear sunny afternoon no less) to drive home her point. The Boy pulled his hand from the crazy woman’s grasp. Her eyes quickly returned to normal, but she was fuming with anger because her seance (if you could call it that) had been cut short by an insolent and impatient cursed boy.

“You have angered the gods still further! You were supposed to spit on the thagudu thrice to take care of your other troubles! Mark my words, I-”

“Now look here lady,” the Boy interjected, “why can’t you be more like the other fortune tellers and feed me a bit of superficial good news? You’ve got to improve your beachside manner, it’s unbecoming for us vulnerable souls. Here’s your damn money.”

He pulled out thirty rupees from his wallet, the last remnants of the thousand bucks his dad gave him last week when he had to go out with his friends, and shoved it into her beaded hand. The Soothsayer glared at him and stuffed it in her bra.

“Watch out, you cursed swine,” the Soothsayer warned. “God has his own way of saying what he feels.”

“Well tell him to say it directly, I’m tired of his messages getting lost in translation because of his incompetent chosen few,” replied the Boy.

The Soothsayer glared at him, got on her feet, dusted the sand off her and walked toward a couple necking under the shade of an abandoned stall. The Boy resumed his endless gaze into the sea, searching for its mysteries and secrets buried within its depths. He wondered what the Beach Soothsayer’s life was like every day and how she got into the fortune telling business. Religion clearly had a role, but he wondered if she truly believed in what she’s selling.

The beach was deserted at this time of the day, the only visible signs of life were a few couples making their scheduled rendezvous, the ice cream vendor with his red cycle stall dozing on his cooler, two photographers and the occasional vehicle the drove on the road facing the beach. And then the Boy saw the transgenders.

The six of them were dressed in faded and soiled saris that were too small for them and emanated a signature stench that the Boy could get faint whiffs of even at his distance from them. The trinkets that adorned their body were cheap and plasticky (they gave an odd glint under the sun), their makeup was splotchy and didn’t quite hide their true masculine features. The Boy had nothing against transgenders in particular, but their Chennai manifestations just happened to be a feared public menace. He felt awkward around them; he tried not to stare at them too hard because of how they looked, but he also tried to act as if he wasn’t trying to control himself and that he was normal.

The Boy had had similar awkward experiences with transgenders before when they stopped him on the street, but he had only encountered one or two of them together. He saw the focus of the group shift from horsing around amongst themselves to singling him out as a potential target, he could see it in their eyes and the way they were hurtling in his direction. He felt fear grab his throat and he quickly walked back to the road, but it was too late. One of them called out to him eagerly and hailed him with the satisfaction of a spider having caught a fly in its trap. The Boy tried to ignore him (or her?) but he (or she?) grabbed his shoulder. The rest of the gang caught up with them.

“Where are you running off to, boy? one of them, the Boy labeled him (they were definitely effeminate men, not manly women) as the Ringleader, chuckled. “Don’t want to spend time with us?”

The Boy shook his head. Behind him was the beach police station. He considered shouting for help if things got out of hand. The group circled around him, sniggering to each other with shared excitement.

“Come on, give us the money, and nothing will happen,” said another.

It was unfortunate that the Boy had spent the last thirty rupees he had on the Soothsayer’s prediction, which seemed to have come true. He took his wallet out, opened it wide, and showed the group by circling round, that he didn’t have anything to give them.

“Uh…sorry, I don’t have any money with me. Can I go now?” the Boy shrugged apologetically. He put his wallet back in his pocket.

“In a hurry eh? But what can you give us instead of money? Perhaps a bit of fun?” the Ringleader said slowly, each word escaping his mouth like the final drops from an empty Coke can. A shiver passed through the Boy as he realized what was going to happen, his eyes welled up from the fear. The circle closed in on him.

The Ringleader snapped his fingers. “Boys, on three!”

“Come on, sir, just let me go, I, I haven’t…”

“One!”

“Sir, please sir, let me go! HELP! HELP! POLICE!”

The transgender standing behind him put his hand on the Boy’s mouth. It reeked of grime and sweat and the remnants of the roadside mutton biriyani that the group had had for lunch. He started struggling, but it was no use because his assailant twisted his left nipple hard. The other five had their hands on the edges of their lungis in utter glee.

“Two!”

The tears flowed without hesitation, the Boy was truly scared. The hand moved from his throbbing nipple down to his dick and crushed it, he couldn’t even piss his pants.

“THREE!”

The group simultaneously pulled their lungis apart and revealed their privates to the Boy. He squirmed under the grasp of the other transgender, trying to turn away from this gross public display of nudity. The three of them that could afford the sex operation had ugly, hairy vaginas. All of them laughed boisterously. The Ringleader came up to him and grabbed his face.

“Next time, you see us, you don’t run. You come to us and give us our money. Understand?”

He shoved the Boy in the sand, where he was left to wallow in his tears, spit, sweat and piss. The group tied their lungis back on and shuffled away whence they came, their laughter the only trace they left behind. The Boy lay in the warm sand as he waited for the Sun to evaporate the whole experience from his body and mind. He rolled on his back and wiped his face with his shirt.

A round copper plate blocked the Sun from his face and fell on his stomach. He picked it up and spat on it three times. The Soothsayer picked up the copper plate, the thagudu, and threw it into the sea like a Frisbee, where it joined several others like it. Then she whacked the Boy with her bamboo stick for his stupidity.

As the Boy lay back on the sand, gazing at the spirals of white in the sky, he chuckled to himself. He had asked for pain and suffering, and he had got just that. There was no point in groaning over what had happened. A couple of months from now he would be recounting this tale with his friends over pitchers of beer. So the Boy got on his feet, dusted himself down, wiped off the crap all over his face and headed home, back to that white expanse, to the world of infinite possibilities.

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