In the event of being just matured, we could be jellyfish — pliable, buoyant, floral.
Big Sister Oana — translucent limbs, watery umbrella — dared us to breach the code. We, excited by fecundity, followed her lead, explored the ocean like a game, and were up for any. Turned to view the whales. Exotic world of vertebrates always lurking around us. Pretended to listen to their account of woes, because we like them men when they’re sorry for everything, ready to surrender to the flow. “Tell us a song?” one of them said to Oana. “None that you can sing,” she tossed by way of charity, and floated to the next suitor, and the next, until she had found her choice, her tentacles with the stinging cells trailing her like entranced. Her choice, on his part, wasn’t amused. Mahmood toyed with his fins, his whale-shark body sloth and heavy from all the drinking. Oana began to hum, “Kabhi to nazar milao….” We could see Mahmood baring all his three-hundred rows of tiny teeth, but he didn’t budge, didn’t extend a courtesy glance. Oana didn’t like the allure of her skin failing for once, and at her command, each of us moved to show our light, for we wanted to be Big Sister too, we’d display the sudden fancy of danger too.
Day would’ve ended soon enough, without action, except when we were almost sick with excess, we saw a troop of new never-seen vertebrates — torches shining upon us, helmets of steel, grinning mouths shielded by glass, and that nozzle that went all the way up. Oana was the first, a dare like no other. She proceeded to examine the group of three, ecstatic at their solid rimmed bodies, strong synthetic webbed toes. Dashing, ferocious, the way she always wanted them men to be. She was gone in seconds, and then one by one, too shocked and numbed to react, we saw the most adventurous of us, pocketed into a gleaming net. Turning away, as fast as we could, it was a dart to survival, and camouflaged by the darker shadows of deeper waters, we escaped, living to think of them vertebrates, as the ones without the backbones.
MANDIRA PATTNAIK’s (she/her) fiction is forthcoming/appeared in AAWW, The McNeese Review, The Penn Review, Passages North, Miracle Monocle, DASH, Quarterly West and elsewhere. She writes columns for Trampset and Reckon Review and is the Contributing Editor of Vestal Review. Mandira’s body of work explores issues of identity, displacement and climate. mandirapattnaik.com