Fiction | Hungry Season – Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

The story always returns to hunger, and how it can drive a man to madness. 15-year-old Nahin kills his fisherman father’s otters to satiate his hunger, and his father suffers the brunt of having to buy a new one each month. This cycle of bloodshed and loss comes to a head as Nahin is caught in the act, and suffers a horrific punishment not of his father’s doing. As always, the story depicts that the horrors wrought by human deprivation far outweigh anything made up in the supernatural imagination. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

In the initial years of catching the addiction, it took Nahin around 10 minutes to kill an otter. Now, it took the fifteen-year-old boy only five, at most. Years of practice made him the master of that skill—claiming firm grip on a shimmering, slippery, puppy-faced, squealing, smooth-furred, brown otter with one hand and showering on it blows with a sickle, or at times, an axe or machete, with the other as the alkaline of its blood salivated his mouth.  His father, Abdul, always wondered where his otters had disappeared, that too, ritually. Finding no other plausible answer every time one went missing (even though they remained chained in a hutch mostly), he soaked up the treacherously credible words of Nahin with utmost belief. Nahin would tell his father that sometimes it had been the work of the elusive grey wolf that ventured into their compound at the dead of night and sometimes the ubiquitous monitor lizard; he would tell him that he had witnessed the horror of the fictitious abduction all the time.

Abdul did not have an inkling of the fact that his favourite otters—aqua puppies that helped him catch fish from the wildly snaking, precarious, mangrove-poked rivers of the Sundarbans—always ended up in his son’s digestive system. They disappeared, true, but they did so in perfect deception, in close proximity to Abdul, roiling among the fleshy insides of his son, sliding away into complete non-existence. His otters, their smoky souls to be specific, caressed Abdul without his knowledge, and said countless “Fuck you”s to his son, before taking their flight to another world.

Nahin killed only one otter a week because the population of fish in the zigzagging rivers was dwindling and Abdul was not a rich fellow; Abdul had to depend on his otters to catch those tricky, scaly, silver beings hiding in the skin of the Sundarbans—that much Nahin understood. Although his conscience was claimed by an unsettling fixation for an unsettling act, it knew its limits. It knew that daily disappearance would mean the birth of unflinching suspicion in the heart of his father. Even one disappearance per week was somewhat enough to get Abdul riled up, since he had to empty his pockets at the end of every month to buy a new otter. Nearly hunted to extinction, otters were not readily available, which is why he had to depend on smugglers who brought them from West Bengal for a hefty price.

A frustrated, bony man, denuded of strength and energy, ultimately accepted the ritual of weekly disappearance. After all, he did not have a companion — only a young son —, came home late and went out to work very early in the morning. He needed enough sleep. Lack of sufficient sleep always messed with his head and digestion; he knew it very well. He could not let them risk his already-at-risk job and starve his little family of two. Even though enough measures were taken to safeguard the otters’ hutch, one went missing every damn week. Abdul had no hint that Nahin owned a pair of keys to the hutch.

Owing to the disappearances coupled with the diminishing population of fish, Abdul always remained drowned in the waters of a morose state, his worn-out mind pregnant with exasperation and despondency. Why couldn’t his otters stop vanishing? Why did he have to keep buying a new one every month? Couldn’t the grey wolves and the monitor lizards have mercy upon him? Didn’t God understand that without the otters his livelihood would crumble to dust?

Nahin could sense that; the hands of misery choking his father. But he could also sense the need to satiate his addiction; this tentacled addiction of hunger that governed his psyche, held him captive with its tentacles. Once, Abdul came up with a pilot plan of keeping the hutch under the bed that he shared with his son for a few days. The plan failed; the stench of shit and body odour of the creatures, alongside their constant murmur and buzz annihilated the possibility of a healthy sleep. Nahin was in a fix while the plan breathed, which was approximately for five days. He was worried he would not get an otter that week because the possibility of getting caught red-handed while taking out an otter from the cage loomed large then. But after the plan’s bones withered away, he found peace in the bubbling prospect of an afternoon feast.

On a hot July morning, when the tide was low and the air was suffused with birdsongs and an orchestra of smells emanating from various leaves that the Sundarbans had to offer, Abdul, alongside Jashim, a fellow fisherman, ventured into an inlet with high hopes of catching scores of Telapia and Maagur fish.

“Why do you buy a new otter every month?” asked Jashim as he and Abdul released their otters into the emerald waters and they started working their ways through the grey, soggy banks detecting the presence of a miniature civilization of fish.

Abdul turned to him, squinting at his dark figure against the fiery sun, and replied, “What can I say? One disappears every week, bhaijaan. Every week!”

Jashim grew suspicious hearing his reply, as anyone would. How could an otter go missing every week from a locked cage?

“How so! It sounds impossible. I mean, look, it doesn’t happen to the rest of us. Even if it does, it is usually once every two months or so,” Jashim said, a frown plastering his sweaty face, the din of the otters at work growing loud in the background.

“I don’t know. My son says he has seen monitor lizards and grey wolves taking them”

“Did you ever see it?”

“No, I cannot manage to stay awake at night. I have to rely on my son’s information.”

“Keep the cage inside your house then, instead of that hut!”

“I can’t. They smell like shit.”

Their conversation was leading nowhere; it was a fruitless interaction. The only thing fruitful was the otters’ work. As they hopped on the boat, their mouths full of silvery fish, light reflecting off their scaly bodies as though they were heavenly blessings, both Abdul and Jashim forgot about the dilemma at hand. Today, they would glean an impressive earning from the market.

***

Rivulets of sweat gathered on Nahin’s skin as he pinned a black otter to the ground. Witnessing the unfolding of scenes, the rest kept shrieking from inside the cage. Nahin pressed its belly with his knee, exerting significant force so it would stop clawing at his skin. Blobs of sweat slowly dripped off his forehead and crashed into the otter’s gaping eyes steeped in pain. It flinched. He reached for the rusty sickle with his right hand, and then, after momentarily wielding it in the air for reasons unknown, ran it through the otter’s throat. Splotches of dark blood splattered his face and shirt, his hands were catching the wild frenzy of a deluge flowing out of its throat. Then he amputated its limbs and skinned it for his weekly, raw feasting. A few minutes rolled by, and, as if with divine intervention, Abdul stormed in, a long, thick stick in his hand, with a motley crew of armed neighbours.

He, like the others, stood shocked witnessing the scene: his fifteen-year-old boy eating the meat off an otter’s bones, his face smeared with its blood, its furry skin lying on a bloodied patch beside him, its eyes and claws here, its muzzle there.

“Hay Allah, what is this? How is this possible?” some screamed. Some threw up. Some simply ran away.

But Abdul stood motionless, glassy eyed, his mouth gaping.

He had decided to come home early that day, since he felt feverish whiling away his time in the fiery hotness of the bazar. As he approached home, he heard the shrieks of his otters inside the hut — where the otters stayed. Fearing that it might be a dangerous animal that had intimidated the otters inside, he ran to his neighbours’ houses desperately and formed an armed mass before storming in. He could not fathom that the animal he had been fearing would be no one else but his own son.

***

A few months later, Nahin passed away as a result of a long, vicious illness. Of course, it had a lot to do with the fact that his diet included otters. He died a painful death. Rapid convulsions followed by vomiting throughout days and nights. It was not known why his body decided to act up suddenly, though. He had been a popular consumer for a long time, why had there been no illnesses or anything before? No one knew, no one cared to know.

Perhaps, when he was foaming at the mouth in the hospital bed as Abdul screamed his heart out, the phantoms of all those otters that he had feasted on mocked him and worked their ways inside his body (like they did in rivers for catching fish) to yank the shadowy hint of life out of him. Perhaps, they cried a little for Abdul, whose grief would aggravate leading a solitary life without a family. But the joy of witnessing their killer’s death overpowered their glum sentiments for Abdul, the one who had trained, fed and adored them for their brief stint on earth.

The day Nahin was surrendered to the belly of the copper earth, to another world which shared no bridge of coexistence with this one, Abdul, pulverised by grief, killed his otters. The remaining seven of them.

He ate one each day. For a week. Living the secret life his son had led and finding solace in the shadowy presence of Nahin that came with the act.

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a freshman studying International Relations and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Daily Star, Dhaka Tribune, The Aleph Review, Kitaab, Daily Times, The Metaworker, Penmen Review, and Six Seasons Review. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

This piece is also forthcoming in “Critical Muslim: Artificial” from Hurst Publishers.

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