I first spoke to Shilpa when the high tide was ebbing. I always went to the beach at the same time in those days, when the sun was making its way up. I imagined the sun bobbing under the brine, turning the ocean blue-green as it rose. I’d never seen anyone on the beach that early, not even a fisherman, so it was a surprise when I spotted her, a shadow moving at the water’s edge, gradually gaining color and detail in the brightening light. I may have noticed her before she noticed me but she made the first greeting, raising her skinny arm and waving at me. I smiled and waved back, and though I wanted to wander on by myself, I felt obligated to go to her. As I approached, she watched as though she’d been expecting me. When I got close enough, I saw that she was crouching over a tide pool.
“Hey,” she said, “check this out.”
I knelt down and peered in.
“See that?” she said, pointing at the water. “There’s a crab. It’s sand-colored so it’s like, invisible.”
At first I couldn’t see it, but when I looked long enough I did.
We stayed there like that for about half an hour, necks craned over the pool as the sun continued to rise slowly behind us. We didn’t talk much; we were too busy watching the crabs. If we moved suddenly, they’d panic and scamper, setting off tiny eruptions of sand that clouded the water.
When the sun became too high and warm to ignore any longer, Shilpa got up, picked something off the sand beside her, and walked off without looking back.
“See you later!” I called after her.
She kept walking, kicking at the sand and swinging what I’d realized by then was a polythene bag. It looked heavy and full of seashells. I wondered how she’d found so many. Just as I was about to leave the tide pool as well, she turned around and wiggled her fingers at me. At that distance, in the brightening glare of the sun, they looked like antennae. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she called, before turning around again and walking off.
That day on the beach wasn’t the first time we’d seen each other. We’d known each other by sight since we were very young. In a small vacation town like that, it was unremarkable. Everybody knew everybody else at least by sight. Since we had never spoken, I had no idea if she lived there or if, like me, she’d been brought here on holiday summer after summer, staying with relatives or in the town’s only beach resort. I saw her on and off over the years, skipping among the dunes. I wasn’t allowed on the beach myself until I grew to a certain height, a couple inches around the five-foot mark. Before that I had to be content with sitting on the deck of my grandmother’s house and gazing out at the beach. I’d sit there with my legs up on the railing, feeling large because I could see what felt like the entire stretch of the coast from where I was sitting. I felt immediately disappointed when I saw her. She was smaller than I was and hopping about in the surf, as though the waves were jump ropes.
“Who’s that?” I’d asked Ammamma. “ I’m taller than her. Why can’t I go out and play like that?”
My grandmother, not much bigger than I was, squinted at the shoreline.
“I don’t know, Marykutti,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve seen her before. It’s strange, but perhaps she’s new here? You’ll probably see her in pre-kindergarten.”
I felt large again when she mentioned pre-kindergarten. I tried to bargain with her: if I was big enough for pre-kindergarten, I was big enough for the beach. Ammamma shook her head. She pulled up a rickety coir chair and swung her wrinkled legs onto the railing next to me. She told me a story about the sea, about a man and a whale. I tried to listen, but I was watching the beach instead, watching the tiny girl-shape at the water’s edge, kicking at the waves and making them splatter.
I did see Shilpa in pre-kindergarten. She was the smallest child there, and spent the first day alone by the fish tank, staring into it with her nose almost pressed against the glass. She seemed content there; I didn’t go up to her, nor did anyone else. She didn’t come back to school after that, and I forgot about her until I came back to visit my grandparents the next summer and saw her in the surf again, skipping around where I wanted to be.
The day Shilpa and I first talked by the tide pool was also the first time I’d been allowed to go to the sea. I was finally big enough and it felt important. I was growing very slowly, just starting to reach the five-foot mark, my chest still flat as an oar. All the other girls I knew were shooting up and filling out. I thought of Shilpa that night as I bathed, working salt, sand, and knots out of my hair. I questioned nothing about our brief encounter. I was twelve and lonely and everything in the world was strange. All I felt was relief that anybody wanted to be around me, and I hoped desperately that she’d be on the beach the next morning. She was smaller than me but seemed brighter than anybody I knew, a brightness I hoped might rub off on me. I hoped she’d beckon me over again and let me stay by her.
When I ran to the beach the next morning the moon hadn’t faded yet. It hovered, pale and ghostly, behind a haze of clouds. The sea was choppy and began pulling away from the shore. I sat on a dune, watching the sun emerge. The sea changed color as it happened, from a nocturnal indigo to a lighter, murkier blue-green. Shilpa only turned up after the sun was high. She squinted against the glare, nearly bumping into me.
“Hey,” she said, as though we had never met before.
“Hi,” I said, trying to sound collected.
She stuck her hand into the pocket of her shorts and drew out a balled-up polythene bag. Sunlight glinted off the cheap plastic.
“I’m gonna catch crabs,” she announced, “you wanna help me?”
I nodded and down we went, closer to the water’s edge, where the crabs fled from one hole in the sand to the next. In an hour she’d caught four crabs, while I’d only managed to collect sand burns on my knees and elbows. I let her initiate the little conversation we made; every now and then she’d ask me a question and I’d answer as briefly as possible. I remembered trying to talk to the girls at school and being met with a flat, “Why do you talk so much?” I was terrified of appearing too lonely or too excited. I must have pulled it off somewhat. When I finally caught my first crab she grinned in appreciation. She held out the bag and I dropped it in. She’d put sand and a little water in the bottom, and the crab burrowed into the sand, joining its fellows.
“That’ll do for now,” she declared.
“What are you collecting them for?” I asked, forgetting my own rule.
I wanted to see it but I didn’t ask. I was convinced it would have been too much, would have made her dislike me. Other people knew what and how much to say, but I wasn’t sure I did. We fell silent for a moment there, the wind blowing our hair across our faces.
“I come here every day,” she said suddenly.
“Me too. Or I will until the end of May. Then I have to go back to school.”
“What’s your school like?”
“Come by on Sunday. Sometimes really weird stuff turns up on the beach.”
“Eels, sugar toads, even weirder stuff. I bring a box on Sundays. Those things can poke right through one of these.” She held the polythene bag up and shook it. The sand and water stirred but the crabs did not, holding still in their hiding-place. I knelt on the ground, brine stinging the tiny cuts on my kneecaps.
“Well,” she said, “will you be here on Sunday?”
“Oh,” I said, “sure.”
“Good,” she said, “bring your own box if you want to take things home.”
I watched her until she disappeared into the glare of the sun and sand. I had no idea what a sugar toad was, but it was too late to ask.
Ammamma said grace that night like she always did, but I kept my eyes open, staring down at the fat grains of rice heaped on my plate. We murmured our amens and she slid a piece of fried fish onto my plate. There was always fish for dinner those days. It lay there, a dead banded pearlspot covered in spices and oil. I found myself thinking of sugar toads again as I pried the fish open, peeling flesh off delicate bones, wondering whether sugar toads were fish or snakes or some other kind of sea monster.
“Enjoying your vacation, kunje?” my Ammamma asked.
“Yes,” I said to her. I wanted to tell her I’d made a friend, but what came out of my mouth was, “Ammamma, have you ever heard of sugar toads?”
“Ennatha?” She frowned, then shrugged.“I’m not sure, Marykutti.”
“I think they’re a fish?”
“No, Marykutti. Maybe if you asked one of the locals they’d know. All I know is what the fisherman brings in.”
I nodded. “Thanks for letting me go down to the water.”
“How could I keep you? You’re getting so big.” She grinned.
I smiled too, despite knowing she was lying to make me feel better. She kept talking, saying something about Jesus and something about my mother. With my fingers, I stripped the fish down to a greasy skeleton, then pushed the rice, the grains always too fat and starchy in these parts, around my plate. I thought of Shilpa and her aquarium, and of the things she’d stolen from the shoreline, floating or swimming or lying dormant in the glass box she seemed to love so much.
I thought I might not see Shilpa again until Sunday. Though I’d seen her around for years, I found it hard to believe she really existed. I was wrong. We became something like friends, talking a fair bit without learning very much about each other. She didn’t tell me about her parents and I only mentioned my grandmother. We talked about school, and learned that our classmates seemed more or less similar.
“I don’t give a fuck about them,” she said flatly, toes buried in the sand and eyes trained on the horizon as we stood next to each other in the surf, waiting for the next wave to come in.
It was the first time I’d heard anybody say that word in real life, and it made me even more excited to be around her.
“What?” she said, noticing the look on my face. “Does your Ammamma keep you safe from big bad words?”
I blushed and she grinned. “I’m just teasing,” she said.
“Fuck you,” I shot back, suddenly brave. That got a laugh out of her and I felt like I’d won something.
We ended up behind the only catamaran on the beach. I don’t remember quite what led to it—talk about boys, perhaps—but I remember how she wriggled her feet out of the sand and reached for me before planting her lips on mine. I tasted salt before I tasted her mouth. Fingers wrapped around my forearm, she drew me from the foam and up the shore, then wrestled me gently to the ground. She was heavier than I’d assumed, and her limbs pinned me down as she pressed her chest against mine and her tongue into my mouth, salt dissolving and sand grinding against our skin and clothes. I had no idea what to do, so I moved the way I’d seen people in films, even daring to reach up and touch her face and her hair, snarled and heavy with seawater. She, on the other hand, seemed to know what she was doing. She was quiet and unfaltering, though her breathing grew quicker and deeper. I wasn’t embarrassed by the sounds she wrested from my body. I wasn’t thinking about them at all; I was thinking about her hands and tongue and smell, and the way the sand felt unexpectedly soft under our bodies. When she pulled herself off me and stood up again I wished she hadn’t stopped. She looked down at me, and despite the fact that I was still stretched out on the sand, she looked even smaller than before.
“Shilpa,” I said, getting up, “have you ever done this before?”
Her face was neutral but she was shifting slowly from foot to foot, as though waiting for something. I wasn’t certain where to go from there.
“It was cool,” I told her quietly, reaching for her hand. I was on my feet by then but she was no longer next to me.
“Come by tomorrow,” she said, her voice even, inviting no discussion.
“Sugar toad day?” I asked, for lack of something smart to say. “What are they, anyway?”
“Come before sunrise.” She dusted her hands off on her shorts. “You’ll find out.”
I stayed by the catamaran until the sand went from warm to blazing. Then I walked back down to the water and found a single scallop in the surf, its outer surface blackened and its insides pearly. I held it up, then put it in my pocket. It was the first thing I’d taken home from the beach.
I fidgeted through lunch, keeping my eyes open through the two times Ammamma said grace. I wondered constantly if she could tell what had happened, and did little things to hide or make up for it, insisting that I wash all the dishes once we were done eating, and keeping her company in the evening while she watched a soap opera, instead of heading back out to the beach.
“Are you feeling unwell, kunje?” she asked, watching me bite the skin off the corners of my fingernails.
I took my fingers out of my mouth, not realizing what I’d been doing. On TV, a virtuous young woman was being terrorized by her virago mother-in-law. Outside, the light was fading, sunset falling much earlier than usual. It was only 6 p.m.
“I think I stayed in the sun too long,” I said. “I have a headache. Maybe I should go to sleep.”
Ammamma made a joke as I expected—I usually stayed up late, sitting alone in the dark living-room and listening to the waves crash in the distance—but she didn’t ask me anything else. I kissed her forehead, promised I’d say my prayers, and retreated to the bathroom to wash up before bed. When I stripped my clothes off I notice that sand tucked itself into nooks and folds in the fabric. I turned on the tap and stood there looking at myself as a large tin drum filled with bathwater. I touched myself everywhere Shilpa touched me, wondering if anything changed. Nothing about my body seemed different. I stuck a finger inside myself—a place she hadn’t been—but even that felt the same: wet, tight, slightly alien. I felt that something about my body was being kept from me, that she knew how to draw it out but I didn’t. I stepped under the water, shut my eyes, and opened my mouth. Even the tap water was briny; a reminder that the sea didn’t end at the shoreline, that it stretched outwards as far it could go, worming its way into everything.
I thought of sugar toads again as I fell asleep, but I dreamed of nothing at all. I woke at an hour I had never seen before, jerked out of bed by the tinny alarm from my digital wristwatch. Ordinarily it would have taken me awhile to gather my bearings, to remember where I was, but that night I was clear-headed and unafraid. The moon was high and full, sending gray light through my window, and I knew it was pulling the tides up with it. I could hear the sea, much louder and wilder now than at sundown. I slipped out of my pajamas and into shorts and a t-shirt so I could run out to meet it. The watch read 2:45 a.m., but it would take me ten minutes to get down to the water. I was certain Shilpa would be there on time.
I found a basket to take with me, and I climbed out of the window instead of sneaking through the house, both for the thrill of it and to lessen my chances of getting caught. It was something I could not have done in my parents’ apartment in the city. I felt loneliness lifting as I ran over the sand, across the empty expanse of beach, to the spot on the horizon where a tiny dark figure crouched.
My feet sank into the ground as I neared the surf, the sand gripping my heels and ankles with an intensity I had never encountered before. I slowed from a run to a sort of stagger, and when I got close enough I saw Shilpa and what she was looking at. I saw something familiar lying dead and swollen next to her. She was poking at it with a piece of driftwood, and didn’t so much as raise her head to greet me. I knelt in the sand and looked down at it in disappointment.
Sugar toad, puffer fish, Tylerius spinosissimus. I’d seen the creature before: in a book about the ocean that my grandmother had given me, washed up on the shore every other evening after the tide pulled back down. I had seen so many of them on the sand, engorged and already mummified, and I knew the look of their vicious spines, their puffed-up bodies, their mouths like little beaks. The only surprise would have been seeing one alive, but the sugar toad next to Shilpa was the same as all the others I’d encountered before. A thought came to me, a memory from a very long time ago.
“That’s not a sugar toad,” I said, before I could stop myself.
Shilpa raised her head and looked at me. I couldn’t see her face clearly, but I saw her shoulders rise and drop in a shrug. I had offended her.
“Do you know what they’re called?” she shot back.
“Then they’re sugar toads.”
She was still poking at the fish with the wood. Its body seemed to be changing, growing softer under the pressure. Its flesh gave a little more each time she prodded it. She stopped after a while and waved the driftwood at me.
“Come,” she said. “I’ve got something to show you a little further up.”
She reached over and took my hand, fingers cold and tight around mine. She seemed to have no trouble walking, but I struggled to keep up, working against the strange pull of the sand.
“Tread carefully,” she whispered,.“Don’t scare them off. They don’t come here all the time, and they leave when the sun comes up.”
“What? Who are they?”
“Keep your voice down.”
We could hear the distant sound of church bells from the town, miles away. I cursed softly. “Shilpa,” I said, “my grandmother’s going to be up and off to church soon. She’ll see that I’m gone.”
Shilpa stopped but didn’t turn around. “Are you coming with me or not?” she asked. The wind carried her voice out over the waves.
I let her lead me on. I wanted to snake my hand up her arm, touch her the way she’d touched me before. Nothing about her stance invited it, and she kept her face turned away from me, staring at the curve of the coast instead. We seemed to be moving parallel to the water, but I could no longer tell exactly where we were. We walked much further than I had ever gone.
When she stopped short I wasn’t ready for it. I bumped right into her. She steadied me, her touch gentle.
“We’re here,” she said.
We’d come to a rock outcrop and were standing just inches from a tide pool, a depression in a large rock filled with seawater. Shilpa put her hand in her pocket and drew out a cigarette lighter and a small lamp. She lit the lamp quickly, the flame flickering in the wind. My eyes adjusted to the yellow light, and I saw what looked like the inside of a little pool. Shilpa sat down, holding the lamp over the water. I leaned down, still unsure about sitting on the slick rock.
Inside the pool there was a little school of fish swimming in slow circles, a group of sugar toads, or puffer fish—unremarkable when they weren’t puffed up, just regular fish with eyes slightly larger than average, with spines laid out flat against their gray-brown bodies. I sat down next to Shilpa and watched them move through the water. They were so much more interesting dead and washed-up on the beach, their bodies blackened and inflated.
“Fuck,” Shilpa said. “I was hoping there’d be cuttlefish. Looks like it’s just sugar toads today.”
“No,” I lied, “they’re cool.” The nondescript fish kept moving, tracing their seemingly endless circles.
“They’re not,” she said flatly. “But there are things you can do with them.”
She set the lamp down by her thigh and leaned forward.
“Shilpa, what are you—”
She extended a hand and broke the surface of the water carefully, spreading her fingers open.
“Stay still,” she told me. “This is cool, I promise.”
I did as I was told, but I panicked: what if I had misidentified these fish? What if these were poisonous? We were already unmoored from everything I knew, which wasn’t much in the first place; out here, I could no longer hear the church bells or see the town. On one side of the rock there was only water, on the other side, sand. She cussed softly each time one of the fish evaded her grasp.
“Look!” she exclaimed.
She held her hand out in my direction, a sugar toad nestled between her fingers. It seemed comfortable there, not flailing or slapping about the way fish are supposed to when drawn out of water. I wasn’t really looking at the sugar toad. I looked, instead, at her face. Her eyes, gray in daylight, looked even paler in theglow of the lamp. I had a sudden feeling that I might not see her again after today. She uncurled her fingers, and the sugar toad lay on her palm, daintily fluttering its pectoral fins. It began, then, to balloon, its skin stretching and its various spines extending outwards. It grew perfectly round and much paler, its spines pressing into her skin. Shilpa didn’t flinch.
“Wow,” I whispered.
“Not bad, eh?” she grinned.
“But Shilpa,” I stood. “Aren’t they poisonous?”
“Poisonous?” She asked, her eyes never leaving the fish. “No.”
I wanted to touch her, but there lay the fish, a spiked barrier in her hand, a presence keeping me in my place.
“Do you want to touch it?” she asked after some time. “There’s a trick to it.”
I extended my hands, both palms open. I didn’t ask what the trick was and she didn’t tell me. She tipped the fish carefully into my hands. It lay there, just as calm as before, eyes moving independently of each other. She stroked its dorsal spines while the ventral spines dug into my flesh. Her palms were bleeding, tiny points of blood blossoming from the holes the sugar toad left in her skin. I felt pressure but no pain in my hands, though I knew that my skin would also split. Shilpa ran a finger between two of its spines and its eyes rolled crazily, like a child’s toy. We giggled. She raised her hand again and pushed one of its spikes as far it would go into the pad of her index finger. We watched it move through her flesh, parting tissue as easily as water.
I don’t know how long we stayed there. When she took the fish from me and put it back in the water, the sky was lightening, the moon fading to a white smear.
“Can’t we stay a little longer?”
The feeling I’d had before, that I wouldn’t see her again, crept back. I wanted to stay on the rock as long as I could, with her and the fish and that jagged little circle of seawater.
“No,” Shilpa said flatly, standing up and picking the lamp up off the rock. “There’s a surge in the water before the sun comes up, and it = washes them right back into the sea. We don’t want to be around when that happens.”
She’d called us we. I watched as she blew the lamp out, then stuffed it back into her shorts. I didn’t dare move closer.
“Well,” she said, scrambling off the rock and back onto the sand, “we better go. Tide’s gonna come in any moment now.”
We raced up the sand, a few feet of distance between us. We said goodbye when we were far enough from the water that the sounds of the town waking up were louder than the crashing waves.
“That was so cool,” I told her, “Let’s do that again next year.”
She was frowning up at the sky and I was looking at her, waiting for something. It didn’t come. We walked in opposite directions, heading back to the places we’d each come from.
By the time I climbed back in through my bedroom window, the cuts on my hands began to sting. I stumbled into bed and fell asleep, then woke up an hour later, relieved that the cuts had calmed down. At breakfast, Ammamma didn’t ask if I seemed tired. I hid it well. I ate my puttu and sharkara, then sat there looking down at my plate.
“Aren’t you going down to the beach today, kunje?”
“No,” I told Ammamma/ “I think I’ll just read.”
I went back to my room and stayed there until lunchtime, my chin on the windowsill I’d climbed over a few hours before and my gaze trained on the beach. It felt pointless to go outside. The beach was just sand and harsh water to me now, with little to offer besides the threat of drowning. I ate lunch and then dinner, and watched TV with Ammamma, my mind elsewhere all the while. I showered quickly and put myself to bed. It felt as though something was missing, and while I thought the feeling of loss might keep me up, I slept soundly and dreamlessly.
At some point, a terrible pain in both my palms woke me up. I raised my head, blinking into the darkness and seeing the numbers 4:00 winking back at me from the nightstand. I curled up in bed, hands thrust between my thighs, sobbing softly so I wouldn’t wake Ammamma, who lay sleeping in the next room. I was too wracked with pain to get up and rinse my hands, or do anything else to stop their smarting. No wonder it took me a while to realize that there was something new in the room, flopping wetly against something else. I peered over the headboard. My eyes adjusted to the moonlight, and in the gray quadrangle that spilled through my window, I saw the basket I’d forgotten earlier. I pulled myself out of bed and looked into it, somehow knowing what to expect. A single sugar toad lay still inside, except for its batting fins. I reached in and picked it up, cradling the creature in my injured hands. I watched it flutter its fins again before stretching and blossoming in the moonlight, a pale sphere with wild, darting eyes, driving its spines into my skin and slowly leaching away the pain.