(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
By morning, the great storm had blown itself out, so Pedro went down to
He always did this after storms, striding along the beach while the
still agitated waves sucked at the gravel, looking for what the ocean had
thrown up. Many times he had found things useful, things saleable, and
sometimes things of wonder.
He was short and thin with the stunted growth of one whose parents had
never been able to afford to feed a large number of children enough. Although
nudging middle age, he was still determinedly unmarried, and his single state
had become something of a scandal among his relatives and the neighbours. It
had even got the priest talking to him once or twice.
Once a woman had decided that she was the one for him. She was no
raving flighty beauty either, not someone with education, but one of his own
people – a plump widow of his own age, illiterate as he was illiterate, and not
barren either, for all that she had buried the six children the Lord had
brought to her when she had buried her husband. The Lord’s purpose in sending
epidemics to try poor people was difficult to fathom for a woman, and the
priest had had to explain things to her. She had not been easy to convince.
When she had decided to marry him, and told him so, he had had a moment
of weakness. He had almost succumbed. Living in a small hut alone had its share
of bleak loneliness, and the idea of companionship was attractive. But then he
had a sudden mental image, keen as steel, of ten siblings sharing out one
middle sized fish between them, and chewing small scraps of days-old bread to
stuff the empty spaces of their craving for food. That memory had decided him.
He had not even needed to recall the snuffling of a baby waking in the small
hours out of hunger to decline.
It was that refusal that had brought the priest to talk to him. The
priest was angry then, but had hidden it well, and had merely asked him why he
wasn’t doing his duty by God. He had mumbled something, wishing the old man
would let him go away; and eventually the old man had. That was the old
priest, who had been bad enough, and who was dead now. The new one terrified
Pedro. He kept out of his way as far as possible.
But even if his neighbours disapproved, even if the priest might say he
was neglecting his duty, even if his dreary little hut could have done with
warmth and a woman’s touch, Pedro was happy as he was. Last night he had
wrapped himself up in his blanket and lain listening to the roaring of the wind
and to the lashing of rain on the wooden window of his tiny, two-room hut and
he had decided that he was probably happier than he had ever been.
Now, he thought of it again as he went down to the shore. He could,
free as he was of responsibilities, afford to spend the morning like this, as
he wanted, beachcombing. Nobody to tell him that the hut was empty of food and
that he had to find some, or that the old rotten tree branch that had fallen on
the roof had to be removed, or anything else. He could do as he wished.
He leaned upon a staff made of a straight, moderately thick branch
stripped of leaves. He used it to maintain his footing among the rocks and
sliding gravel, and used it, as well, to poke and prod things he was not quite
sure about, lumps of seaweed and dead jellyfish or other things the sea had
brought it. He wore an old blue jacket, tattered and threadbare at collar and
cuffs, black trousers patched at the knee with leather, a flat cap and a pair
of old sea boots a sailor had given him. His eyes were black and keen, his
unshaven face grizzled and brown with the outdoors.
It was a raw morning, with the wind still a stiff breeze, whipping the
waves, the sky still patched with clouds. The sun came out sometimes and hid
again, throwing around splashes of gold that melted away to grey and back. The
sea was still far from pacified, and the waves still came in with a force that
could, if they caught him, snap his bones like twigs. He stayed far enough from
the edge so the farthest reach of the water did not quite get to him.
Frustrated, it sucked at the shingle and retreated to gather force once more.
It was a rocky shore, paved with shingle and gravel. There were none of
the golden sands he had heard of, the golden sands and the waving palm trees
that the sailors spoke of. He did not know if they existed. He did not know,
for that matter, if the mountains he had been told of existed, with snow piled
on top through the year. He had never been further than a day’s journey from
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