Thursday, October 13, 2005

Deep [inspired by the movie of the same name]

Down by the salt-stained boats and men, there is a story told of black haired girls who would disappear into the sea, in the days when my father was a boy.

“What did they go looking for?” I asked. The old man snorted and churned his ass into the polished wood of the chair that had been bleached sad by the sun. He squinted, in spite of the grey dull clouds and light rain, and spat 5 feet to his side. “Sea cock. They believed old witches’ words of mer-men and love at high tide”.

Before I could ask anymore, he humped out of his chair and stood for a minute in the blinding light of the rectangle sky, his hands clinging to the doorposts. Then he swayed down to the docks, where the others stood sniffing at the wind, wondering when the tide would come in.

“Old bastard. It was more than that, but this is what happens when you spend your life slitting soft fish skin, with all them young boys watching out on the lonely water”.

Her forearms were like street-light poles; she swung the wet rag over the counter, lifting my mug to leave a wet gash where the wood was dry before. The water smelt like rotten cabbage. Dolores was known as a barmaid who loved Yeats. I looked a question at her, over the rim of suds.

“Wicca. Part of the stones we walk on, in this town. Can’t shut away history, lad. We all didn’t just get up, pull on our clothes and go to work. This land’s older than all the old bastards put together”. Her voice and the smell of rotten cabbage receded with her into the back room.

We walked down later that day to her cottage. It smelt of old woman and dog. Her mother sat crumpled in a chair, gazing through the television to her bed that lay a wall away. The dog scratched the door as Dolores fumbled with the key. Whining, he dashed out in a streak of musty fur to the scraggled grass outside.

Her voice tore my eyes away from the arcing back, and the brown memories of lunch which now lay steaming with the marigolds. “Here’s a book of my mother’s. It’ll tell you more than I could. Lemonade, lovey?”

I sat next to the old woman as she farted in a deflated, woebegone way. Dolores was in the kitchen, her black nylon behind straining in front of the fridge.

The book had no covers, and was filled with the yellow faded pages that come with being left by the window. It told of the sorrow that came with a black haired daughter, of her will to return to the sea. Stories of families who had left this island for fear of losing their daughter to Manannan Mac Lir, the sea god who followed his own wishes. Tales of girls gone missing, their bodies never found. That when they did, the fish would be plenty that year. And finally, the myth of the blood-vow.

Come high tide, if a young girl was to prick her vein and drop her warm blood into the waves, a mer-man would come and claim her for his love that night.

“But Dolores, she wouldn’t be able to breathe. There were no bodies found”.

She flicked grains of butter, shining their sweat onto the knife before grinding them into the bread.

“Wicca. Magic to you, laddie. Don’t ask me how it works. All I know is there are no more black haired lasses on this island. The ones who went missing were never seen again by human eyes”.



The old woman blinked. I had not expected her to speak. Dolores walked into the room, butter on her fingers, and crumbs over her breasts.

“Touch. She wasn’t supposed to touch him”. Her watery eyes looked at the space between Dolores and me. “They all had to swim out; they knew when he was there. They had to swim and swim, out to deep water, past the point when you’re tired and want to sink, just let her take you in her cold arms and hug you. He would swim alongside all the time, smiling and urging you to swim further. If they could keep swimming till the water turned sweet, then he would hold them to his heart, and take them home”.

We sat silent. Dolores in patient silence, me fingering the page that held a Gaelic chant, her mother’s crumbled figure nodding in the chair that had become a part of her.

“But not all of them could do it, could they Dolores? I—

“Mother, it’s time for your bed. Lad, you can let yourself out? I’ll have to give her her bedpan as well, and there’s time enough before you have to be around such work, yes? Tomorrow”. So saying, she of the strong arms lifted the frail body and gently dragged it to the room beyond the television.

The dog walked me out. A picture on the shelf caught my eye: an old print, a tiny face in a mass of dark hair… black hair…

Black hair.

The dog shook his fur and looked pointedly at the door.

I couldn’t sleep. The cold shingle under my boots crunched and shone with the moon’s light.

The sea called me that night. Moon called to tide, tide called to man. Madness or loneliness overtook me, and the moon had not traveled far before I pulled out my Swiss army knife and, legs blue-veined under rolled trousers, I stood in icy waves that sucked my feet lower into their wet underlip, dripping blood into the sea. Salt stung the fresh slit.

Clothes were lost. I dove in, striking arm-length after arm-length.

I don’t know how long I swam. Black water shining where my arm left a trail, covering me up, bearing me on, but I could feel the time underneath my tiny body, the ships and dead men, the coral in skulls, the sea weed forests, the fish guards who would come for me when I could breathe no more.

His arms tired, he struggled, and then paused lying on his back, closing his eyes. A porpoise rose out of the waves and nudged his feet. In fear he swallowed a lot of water, then came up to stare at the fish. He reached for its back in fear, and when he realized the slippery cool skin would not desert him, he clung to her, his face out of the water.

She took him to where the whales sing, to where they feed endlessly. They swam past green ice, and fishing polar bears. They swam past Orion and the water was sweet, her heart warm and beating where his ear pressed against her skin.

Before dawn, she left him close to shallow water, nudging him towards the soft-sucking sand. She turned and swam—the ocean ripples she left behind streamed like soft black hair.

He was found sitting where the tide left white foam lines over his thighs and face. He refused to move. Dolores brought him food for three days and three nights, which the sea took without a fuss. On the fourth night, he uttered a great cry, and plunged into the waves, again beating forward towards the moon.

A year later, Dolores found a squealing little boy with black hair lying on the shingle. She put him in her fish basket, his gills flared red and gasping against the silvered-mackerel death under him. She put him in a clean fish tank when she got home, gasping from the run. He coughed, eyes shining, kicked his legs and darted about the tank.

Her mother went missing 3 evenings later. She was found sleeping on shingle, smiling. Her hair had come undone, thin silvered black strands mixed with dancing crabs and red seaweed. An empty fish tank lay next to her.

There was good fish that year, the old man said, speaking to the bored tourist. He then squinted, in spite of the grey dull clouds and light rain, and spat 5 feet to his side.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


She sat outside, staring at her boots.

She always wore boots with this skirt, this vermillion patterned generous-like-curtains flared skirt. It had been her mothers, who had been a little lady wrapped in red breezing around her like a cape, peeping over the rails to watch the ship plough through the water below.

The name vermillion derives from the Latin word vermes, which originally referred to the kermes insect that was used in the preparation of red dye in ancient Rome. Since prehistoric times, vermillion has been highly valued by the Chinese and has been used not only in works of art, such as scroll paintings, but in burials and in alchemy experiments as well.

She always wore boots with this skirt. Only because no one expected it. All that flaringdaring beating red life, singing women carrying children on aching shoulders while leaving tea gardens in Sri Lanka at dusk [for the skirt was from Sri Lanka], and then-- boots. Shined. Black. Prufrock going to work on the tube, eating a cheese sandwich, brushing crumbs away from his black umbrella.

Since vermillion was a rare pigment, it was as costly as gilding in the early years of its use, but by the 1400s, it was so commonplace that Cellini Cennino chose not to include a recipe for it in his famous treatise. Renaissance artists considered vermillion one of the most stable and pure-colored pigments. It was the perfect complement to ultramarine and gold leaf.

She used to make her skirts swish in company on purpose, so they would see her neat, rounded legs end in boots. But now, the sun and dust and traffic made them seem forlorn. The skirt was like a limp flag seeking a breeze on august 15th. Like an Englishman in a lonely station, her boots waiting for movement.

They should've been worn by the sweat drenched acidic little man in the counter, 40 feet away, selling tickets to a mob. He was safe behind a glass wall, his whiskers trembling with the movement of the universe in ever nerve, as he gave back 15 rupees and a pink slip that said balcony and then snapped at the next girl to hurry up.

The movie had begun 15 minutes ago. A ticket, with her name scrawled in black ink over it, waited with the guy at the door.

Two children playing a game, they had decided on this months ago.

He would go in and wait. She would collect her ticket, and then slip into the seat next to him. Unless one of them wanted to risk the light of an ipod or nokia, they would stay like this, watching each other out of the corners of their eyes, lit by 70mm of light. Refusing to truly meet till the movie was over. Content to sit next to each other, learning of body warmth and scent. They would keep to this agreement . Like gentlemen walking 10 paces, guns and ears cocked: Good form. Three months ago, they had laughed over this plan, delighted the way five year olds are when the wave misses the sandcastle. Laughing, and then covering their phone receivers with fervent kisses, the sounds like suction cups leaving a cold tiled wall, resonating over 10,000miles of churning salt water.

And now she couldn't bring herself to go in.

1:25pm. The only company she had was a contemplative dog, and a lonely teenager who wept over his cell phone before redialing. The acidic little man had gone into the back room with a poster of Bipasha Basu in Ajnabee. Somewhere inside the theatre, a man shifted in his seat, a frown deepening in his forehead.

she couldn't bring herself to go in.


It wasn't 'why': 'what if' was the terrible question this time. Doubt. Like a toothache, it got worse as the actual appointment neared. They had talked about the possibility of the feng shui being wrong, and it was all worked out, like an a la carte menu, tax inclusive. They would watch the movie, then get coffee, watching each other for signs of a lack of rhythm. When there was nothing more to say, he would drop her back at the hotel. This was their exit strategy. They would use it, without fuss, like grown ups do.

But she didn't want to have to use it. There had been such a light grace about their... communication? dance? Relationship was too big a word... team work. Two people playing tennis, two people rowing a boat...

She walked towards the big swing doors. Vermillion against black granite. Up four steps, towards the three second zone where a clone of the acidic man stood, outstretched hand and lifted eyebrows demanding proof of purchase. Her skirt billowed in the wind, her hand unconsciously going to where the two panels of the wrap-around ended, steadying the stormy ship.

Vermillion is not used by contemporary artists, because of its unpredictable nature.

Deep breath.

Cold blast of air. She's in, clutching a piece of coloured paper. She doesn't analyze the handwriting; instead, she concentrates on not stepping on the generous folds of the skirt while climbing the stairs. Balcony. She is nodded in, the ticket finally a crumpled ball in her hand. Darkness. 9M. Right corner, the last but one seat in the row. And he was there, in the last seat. Right leg stretched into the aisle. Sandal under big toe. Screen reflected in glasses.

This moment was worked out in her mind-- noiselessly slipping past his knees, gathering the vermillion folds so that she wouldn't curtain the view of the fat man in the seat on her left, and then stare calmly ahead till he made the first move.

Vermillion is a red pigment based on artificially produced mercuric sulfide (HgS). Its hues vary from brilliant reds to more purplish tones.

Her face was heated; the temperature was causing a fall in air pressure around her. She noiselessly slipped past his knees. Gathering the vermillion folds so she wouldn't curtain the view of the fat man on her left, she sat down, and glanced up at the screen. A small movement, his watch glinting in the reflected faces of the Dolby digitalled screen. She glanced down.

In her attempt to keep her skirt away from the fat man, she had forgotten about a large soft panel of vermillion that now lay spooled across his left forearm and thigh. A cool draft of air licked at her calf muscle, her knee. It was the curse of a wrap around, and this was karmatic punishment. His hand moved gently, replacing a sleeping cobra, a curling vine. His fingertips grazed against the bare space of warm skin, before the red could cloak her again. Tingle.

The final color corresponds to the amount of grinding it undergoes: the more finely it is ground, the more vivid its hue will be.

Her face was heated; the temperature was causing a fall in air pressure around her. He leaned in, seeking her ear, his nose greeting her lobe. Raspy warmth breath. Tingle.

"You're late" he said.


References: Hildebrandt, Rachel & Cindy Heller. Student reports on pigments, 1998.