“There’s going to be a ship today,” the older boy said.
The younger glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “You heard someone say something about it?”
The older boy shrugged. “I just know there’s going to be a ship.”
The other boy didn’t say anything. They sat, dangling their legs from the pier over the scummy green of the river. They were both naked except for loincloths. The day was too hot to require more elaborate clothing. Clouds of tiny insects whirled above the surface of the water. In the middle distance, the river took the turn beyond which the world ended.
“If the world ends there,” the younger boy had argued, “where do the ships come from?”
“You’re too young to understand,” his parents always said when he asked questions like this – or, for that matter, any question to which they didn’t know the answer. “Wait till you’re older.”
But he was older now – all of thirteen, almost a man – and in this time he still hadn’t got an answer to the question. Not that anyone else had an answer either.
“They’re coming less and less often now,” the older boy said, swinging his legs. “Maybe soon they won’t come at all.”
“Maybe today will be the last one,” the younger boy agreed. “What do you think, Aanai?”
Aanai did not reply for a moment. “I wonder what we’ll do when the ships don’t come any more,” he said finally. “Everything we need comes with the ships.”
“Doesn’t that prove the world doesn’t end over there?” the younger boy said, pointing at the bend in the river. “If we go beyond that, won’t we find the world from where the ships come?”
Aanai shifted uncomfortably. “You’d better not let anyone hear you say these things, Kadavai. It’s forbidden talk.”
“Forbidden by whom? The chief? The council?” Kadavai gestured angrily with the hand which was still pointing. “”They can say the sun’s forbidden to cross the sky, but it still does, doesn’t it?”
“That’s different,” Aanai said stiffly. “The sun is a god.”
“If you say so.” Kadavai glanced over his shoulder at the village. It had deteriorated visibly in his own short memory, the huts fewer and more dilapidated than before, the people fewer. “Has anyone ever tried to go beyond the place the world ends, do you think?”
“How can they?” Aanai snapped. “The world ends there, doesn’t it?”
Kadavai didn’t reply. They sat dangling their legs over the water. Aanai tossed a pebble in the river and they watched the spreading green ripples.
“If the ship comes today,” Kadavai said suddenly, “I’m going to try to leave on it.”
Aanai snorted. “You’re mad. As though they’d even take you.”
“I’ll just sneak on board and hide,” Kadavai declared. “There’s nothing for me here anyway. You have your Poonai, anyway.”
“Yes…look, there she goes.” Both boys watched appreciatively as the girl walked smooth-limbed down to the river and bent to fill a container with the scummy water. She didn’t deign to look at them.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Aanai asked, as though anxious for confirmation. “Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”
Kadavai nodded, his mind far away. The ship would come today – or it would come some other day. But whenever it came, he would be ready.
He remembered the last ship that had come. It had been a big one, very large, floating easily over the scummy water, barely brushing the surface. The ship had come, and unloaded the things the villagers needed – iron and cloth and packets of food and medicine – and then as quietly disappeared. He had watched the men in the ship, with their grey clothes and smooth faces, staring down at them from their high platform, and had called up to them, asking them where they came from, and what their world was like. One of them had looked down at him and said something in a low voice to another. But they hadn’t answered his questions.
Once, and he had never told of this to anyone, he had made his way along the bank down river and to the bend, to take a look at the end of the world. It had been a white mist, and he had heard a roar as of falling water – but the river flowed as slowly, as turbid and near-stagnant as ever. He had wanted to go closer, but the banks had curved away from the mist, and he hadn’t been able to approach. He’d stood looking at the end of the world as long as he could, and then he’d come back again.
He saw the water begin to roil at the bend of the river and touched Aanai’s arm. The two boys got up and stood on the dock, watching the ship come round the bend of the river.
This time it was a big one again, though not as big as the last. It was pale blue, and bright white, and rode high on black rubber skirts brushing the water. It slid to a stop by the dock, settling down on the water with a sigh like a fat old woman, and the ramps slid downwards as the villagers came flocking forward to unload the goods.
Afterwards, Kadavai could never be quite certain at what point he sneaked on board, and why nobody caught him doing it. It must have been while everyone’s attention was on the unloading of the bales and boxes. In any event, he found himself crouching in the corner of the dark cargo hold, with his back and head bent to fit the curve of the hull. There were noises and the sounds of machinery, and then, with a soft clanging noise, the ramp withdrew and the light from the door disappeared.
For a moment that lasted forever, Kadavai was paralysed by fear. For the first time he realised what he’d actually done – left behind his village, his world, everything he’d ever known, all for faith that there was something else. And by now, he knew, the ship would already be turning away, lifting off the water on its rubber skirts and moving off down the river.
It was the fear that drove him out of the cargo hold and on to the deck. He began to be afraid that if he stayed where he was any longer, he could never bring himself to move again. He walked up the flight of metal steps and onto the deck, the river bank sliding past to the side, and up a further flight of steps.
There were three men there, standing before a line of buttons and dials and levers. They turned in unison to look at him. None of them appeared more than mildly surprised.
“That’s the one,” the one on the right said. “I told you about him, last time round, Captain.”
“So he stowed away aboard?” The man in the centre looked hard at Kadavai. “We have to talk.”
“You see,” the man called Captain said, “we have a choice. We can either send you back, or you can come with us.”
“Come with you – where?”
“Beyond.” The man called Captain waved a grey-clad arm at the approaching mist. “The other side.”
“What’s there?” Kadavai asked. “They say that’s the end of the world. Are you from another world?”
The man called Captain smiled slightly and without humour. “It’s another world for the likes of you, sure enough. See, son, your village is a…nature preserve, let’s call it. It’s one of the last vestiges of a culture preserved as it used to be, as far as that’s possible in this day and age. Outside, there, is the – other world.”
“What’s it like?” Kadavai asked. “What is it like there?”
“It’s – different,” the man in grey said. “You may like it. You may hate it. But if you come along, be assured, there’s no turning back. You can’t be allowed to go back again, ever.”
“In that case,” Kadavai asked, “why are you taking me along at all? Why not simply put me back in the village?”
“Because you’ve been able to think your way past the taboo that’s been put in place. If we didn’t give you this choice, then you’d have sooner or later begun infecting the others with your doubts and disquiet. Also, it’s only fair to you that you have this chance.” He paused. “Well? Whgat will you do?”
Kadavai swallowed, watching the mist begin to curl and twist around the craft. “I’ll go with you,” he said.
The mist that marked the point where the world ended began to rise all around them.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011