Durnaz never looks at the waters, that place they call the samundar. Not until the sun has safely risen over Balochistan’s coast.
She keeps her eyes on the ground. Seeking salt crystals in dried up shallow pools to grind to powder, seashells to turn to trinkets, or lost metal to sell. Not once does she raise her gaze.
“Do not look upon the sea at night with your heart heavy with wishes, ” her mother warns her every dawn. “For everything has a cost.”
Which means Durnaz must never look, for her heart is ever yearning.
Children ebb and flow around Durnaz at the marketplace and on the streets. Their groups dissolve around her, noses wrinkling at the stench of fish guts that clings to her always.
One dawn she feels truly alone. Her mother’s words smart like salt on blistered feet.
“Once I wished on the night sea,” her mother had said, “for a man, and a house, and a child unlike any other. But the man took to drink, the house was a hut, and the child was only a girl.”
Durnaz thinks of possibilities. She thinks of the school vans that will trundle along the roads soon, carrying children to places whose doors will never open to her. She thinks of her mother, wrong about so much.
For the first time she lifts her eyes.
“I wish,” she whispers to the dark wave furthest away.
But then she turns back. What can the samundar grant her?
That night she dreams she is outside the bookshop where piles of textbooks and magazine digests stand as pillars. She goes straight for the story section. She stands and reads them all, hardbacks and paperbacks in Balochi and Farsi, Urdu and English. Nothing is impossible. Moonlight dripping off her back, she walks slowly as if underwater, finishing each coveted book in a matter of seconds. When she awakens she knows stories about poets and astronauts and dinosaurs. She hugs these to herself as she picks through the sand.
Next time at the shore she sees a word written in the sand. It is her name, it can only be her name.
“I wish,” she whispers to it. But no. She doesn’t dare, though her heart burns with longing.
The waves roll in to rub out her name, and carry it away.
That night she dreams she is entering the library at the nearby university. It is night, and water floods the floors. Nobody stops her or says get that street kid out of here. Old men hold up heavy books with blue and bloated hands, bobbing in time to invisible waves. The librarian welcomes her, moving his lips, but no sound emerges. He beckons and she sees he is covered in seaweed, minnows leeching the flesh from his bones.
She sits at the table next to the drowned scholars scowling at their tomes. They do not flinch away. Perhaps, under invisible waters, she has no smell at all.
She reads. The words swim through her essence spiral-wise before settling into her heart.
* * *
“I wish to talk to you,” she says to the waves.
His face emerges first. Fish skin stretched thin over monkey cheekbones. Eyes white with no pupils, covered in a thin veil stretching between his eyelids. His simian shoulders tower over the rest of him, as if he spends all his time battling waves. He rides side saddle on the back of a giant shrimp, its insectile legs scrabbling on the wet sand. His legs end in a lobster tail, curling around his steed, gripping him in place.
“What do you seek from me, child?”
His voice laps the edges of her consciousness. Somewhere her mother recites the chants of protection in her sleep. He reaches into both their minds. Knowing all.
He rears back his withered ape head and smirks.
“Ask three things, no less and no more.”
“I want to know. To really know. Everything.”
She can hear her mother sigh. Or perhaps it is herself.
“When the moon becomes a full pearl, approach the tide. Do not let your feet get wet, not even a toe. The waters will bring to you a book.”
When she gets the book, its pages are incomprehensible.
She returns to him the next dawn. “I cannot understand a word.”
“Your own folly,” the thing with a tail replies, removing a crawling thing from over his right nipple. “You did not think to ask.”
“I ask now.”
He plucks a large seashell from his saddle.
“It will whisper to you in the language of the book from beneath your pillow. In the morning you will know more than any human alive. And so on, each night.”
After a month the seashell stops. It only says three words.
“It is time,” the monster echoes it.
“No,” she answers.
“Ask your final wish.”
“But I do not wish to pay.”
“If you do not complete the story we have started together,” he says. “I will drown you as you sleep.”
“I wish,” she says, “to be free.”
“Freedom?” He laughs. “Over so many centuries only one has asked the samundar for this gift. Does that not frighten you?”
Durnaz shakes her head. Bravery has mixed in her blood like salt in water.
“Very well!” he claps, “Go forth! Have your freedom. Breathe underwater, scavenge sunken ships, dance on the back of sea-beasts. Forever more.”
Durnaz’s heart soars. Her skin grows thin and leathery but she ignores this as she walks towards her freedom, so entranced she doesn’t see the monster’s tail splitting to become feet nor his face filling out. His steed crawls behind her as her legs fuse to become a tail, nudging her onto its back.
* * *
She leaves her clothes to be found in a heap with the book nobody can read, and a seashell that will boom silence into their ears.
The Arabian Sea blinks blindly, any color it pleases. Connecting the whole world for those who swim in it.
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