Short Fiction ~ Venkataramanan Ganesan
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 15
A moon completely swallowed by the night sky lent a more ominous feel to the river than what was otherwise warranted. Jet black. Dark. Deep. Brooding. It was like staring into an abyss. A vast expanse of nothingness. If you were to thrust out a hand in front of you, you wouldn’t be able to spot it. The dozen people sitting waist-to-waist in the cramped confines of the rickety boat were as blind as bats. The wheezy whirring and sputtering of the complaining outboard motor was an exercise in unavoidable monotony. On a clear night, the foaming trails of white left in the wake of the swathe cut by the boat would be clearly visible. But tonight was neither clear nor usual. A chill breeze cutting across both the river as well as the worn out life vests made the tourists shiver and horripilate.
“The most essential requirement of this tour is silence”, drawled the lean and cadaverous tour guide as an excited bunch of tourists formed a half circle around him in the briefing room twenty odd minutes before the actual boat ride. An unlit cigarette hung precariously from a corner of his mouth. Lit by a single dull bulb, the room had a musty and damp odour to it. Paint peeled off the walls creating random and cartographical patterns similar to that made by spontaneously formed archipelagos. A table with fine layers of dust had arrayed on them in no logical order a few brochures advertising the resort’s old glory days. The Government had more pressing priorities warranting attention, and subsidizing a once thriving “firefly park” resort was definitely not one of them. “Please do not scream or wave and most importantly do not get up from your seats. The motor would be cut by the captain, and the boat needs to be steady and balanced. No flash cameras or video. Sometimes a curious firefly may make its way into the boat and may even alight on your person. Please do not touch it.”
Taking a wide berth, the boat rounded a bend and the captain manning the conveyance cut off the motor. A collective gasp escaped the mouths of the tourists. The foreboding veil of darkness was pierced by millions of miniature pin pricks of light. A small copse abutted both sides of the boat. Perched on every thicket and clump and darting between irregularly spaced trees were an uncountable number of fireflies. Tiny scatter shots of magnificent resplendence. Infinite specks of joyous light. Microscopic bursts of lambent glow. The largest firefly is about 1 inch long and is diurnal. Fireflies emit a chemically produced "cold light" from their lower abdomen. This light is either yellow, green, or pale red, with wavelengths from 510 to 670 nanometers. The iridescent glow is a paean to the most primaeval urge to which every animate being is unwittingly subservient – the satisfaction of carnal pleasure. The luminance emitters are egregious males enthusiastically trying to get the attention of their feminine counterparts.
This biological intricacy was completely irrelevant for the astounded gang sitting poleaxed in the boat. The biting chill ceased to be an impertinence. A surreal sense of existential bliss enveloped the tourists as some quivering fingers shot out in various directions, while a few palms cupped around mouths gaping wide in a display of unabashed incredulity. There was a stony yet welcoming quiet all around. Fireflies flutter their wings, but their minuscule size means that unless such fluttering takes place very close to one’s ear, no perceivable sound is heard.
Just as the less than avuncular tour guide had proposed, a few intrepid fireflies came wafting into the boat and settled themselves at various points. A few perched on the sturdy ropes laid across the floor for mooring purposes, while some rested on the transparent glass door that separated the captain’s compact cabin from the passenger seating. An obese youth, unable to contain his delight, leapt up, and letting out an uncontained yell of delight put out his arm in an attempt to grab at a firefly. As ill-luck and fate would contrive, at that exact moment, influenced by high tide a restless crest swelled just underneath the boat, which in an undulating pattern lolled and tilted to one side. Losing his balance, the boy teetered over the edge of the boat for a few fleeting seconds before dropping into the water. A heavy tonk or a thump akin to that generated when a boulder is plonked into the water emanated instead of the usual splash. Propelled by sheer maternal instinct, the boy’s mother lunged after him into the river. The Captain by now an apoplectic wreck dove into the water. Absolute pandemonium squeezed the boat in a vice-like grip. The glittering spectacle of fireflies was relegated to the confines of nature. A hysterical set of Homo Sapiens lamented, cursed, cried, and shivered. A sprightly young lady fainted and collapsed on the hard surface of the boat, cutting open her forehead in the process.
Mobile signals in such geographies constitute a futile wish. The malfunctioning wireless in the boat was long discarded. The only logical hope was the satellite phone in the briefing room. The room’s occupant was currently gasping for breath in the ice cold waters. In their frenetic bid to stay alive, and in a fit of absolute delirium, both mother and son unfastened their life vests in a bid to tighten them. Now they were sinking fast and taking their potential saviour along with them.
There was stillness as the river swallowed the three thrashing souls. But after a few agonizing hours as the remaining people onboard were left benumbed from the shock, the water spat out the drowned figures and they bobbed towards the surface. Curious fireflies flew from all directions, and surrounded the bodies.
When rescuers alerted by a worried spouse of a tourist on the boat finally arrived, the floating and bloating corpses looked as though they were encircled by electric wreathes.
Venkataraman Ganesan is a Chartered Accountant by accident and a lawyer by intent. He has a maniacal penchant for books, more books, still more books and a lot more books. He is a cricket (not the insect) tragic who loves his Scotch & scribbles for fun. He maintains a blog www.blogternator.com, which his own mother steadfastly refuses to read, even when bribed.