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A kingfisher flashed across his vision, wings transformed to emerald against the lilac sky. Rahul could hear the crew moving in the galley at the back, the clang of pans blending with the chirrup of crickets. The rains were coming but they weren’t here yet. There was something about the concentration of water in the air that made it shimmer, made this time of day seem bewitched. It was the time the mosquitoes preferred too, but someone would be along soon to let down the nets and set the dinner-table. The next morning would complete the journey from Allepey to Vembanad lake. A few days there, in the pleasure of his own company, would fortify him for the bustle of Goa, and the crowds at his cousin’s house. He was looking forward to appraising the professional picture-taker at the wedding. The office could try to manage without him for two weeks.
He set his tripod to compensate for the rocking of the boat, and retrieved the polarising lens. The scene might be better in black and white, to magnify the contrasts. Wood smoke from a cooking fire permeated the crisp smell of the backwaters. Kerala had become too popular. Herds of ravenous tourists were moored somewhere else or returned to port. These photogenic stretches of water had been documented many times but there was always something interesting if you knew where to look. Rahul waited for a target, the heavy light tinting the clouds pink, the heat dampening the back of his neck. An egret paused in a clump of water lilies, facing a rower in a small boat resting before returning home for the evening, the wake still rippling. Two different expert fishers, the egret more aware it was photogenic. A fringe of coconut palms behind them. The sun embuing the clouds and water with shades of orange and purple as it dipped.
Back in Texas, the sky was vast and cloudless, needing a wide-angled lens. This sky was denser, more intimate and the clouds were sending delicate tendrils down, as if creating letters. He idly tried to find his name. The scribble became stylized and angular, spelt out a longer word as the sun continued its journey. Rahul exhaled as his personal message became sooty streaks, became smoke. The smell of burning wood thickened. The air crackled. The clouds were licked with flame.
The small buildings he’d passed in the houseboat were white brick and tile or coconut thatch. A cooking fire must have flared out of control. He’d been communicating with the crew in half-remembered Hindi, rusty from neglect in Houston. They’d speak better Malayalam but he’d spent most of the day in his cabin reading the end of financial year reports, and didn’t know for sure.
A man came to free the nets. “Fuego, aag, fire”, Rahul used all the languages he could remember and dragged the man to view the smouldering haze. “Aag, aag, look, emergency”. He almost knocked the tripod over and clutched at it, scraping his palm.
The man pointed, “Yes sir, look.” There were people carrying pots and buckets into the river, some forming a chain. Each person had a task, moved together in a seamless pattern. The smoke shifted to black wisps, the crackle became a damp sizzle.
“No-one is alone here, sir.” The man turned away to his table duties. His English was accented and flowing. “Should I fetch you a bandage?”
“No need, no need!” Rahul’s giggle was long and high-pitched, and it hung in the saturated air. He pressed his injury to his chest and tried to remember starting to laugh. His place setting was neatly at one side of the expanse of pristine white tablecloth.
He bent back to his camera, ignoring his throbbing palm. In the morning, he would over-tip with dollars and thank them all loudly. He would remember to greet the servers at the wedding, and nod hello to the office cleaner when he got home. He wouldn’t ask their names. Now, there was still time to capture some of the fire-fighting group in the river before they drifted away and the light dispersed. The boat had gone. White feathers tinged with purple and gold against the pale grey sky, the egret took flight.