They found Lal guilty of a crime he didn't commit.
Theft, to be exact. Of a silver coin. From Shinko, the market trader he sold his fish to every morning.
Whoever took it, whatever had happened to the wretched coin, Lal had nothing to do with it. Not that it mattered. At the end of the same day that the alleged crime was committed, he was led from the crowded cage that all the day's prisoners were herded into after judgement and before punishment.
The sun beat down and the humid, sticky air clung to his skin. Lal's knees sagged and he almost fell to the ground as he walked to the middle of the courtyard. The two guards on either side of him had to jerk hard on his ropes to keep him upright. Around the perimeter of the courtyard, the crowd laughed and cheered and pelted him with rotten vegetables, fruit and fish.
Lal's legs had given way as much out of thirst as fear; he'd been in the cage since late morning, in open sunlight with no food or drink.
The air was wet, but it didn't drown out the smell of blood on the courtyard's cobblestones. Ahead, by a large block in the middle, two men waited for him. One was stoking the embers of an open fire. The other was holding an axe.
"He's not the normal hand-man," one of Lal's guards said. "You'd better hope he makes a clean cut."
Lal didn't say anything. If he'd tried to, he would have started screaming. All the same, despite his terror, he knew the guard was lying. One of the prisoners in the cage, about to lose his remaining hand, had said the guards always did this. Lal was glad he'd been warned about it, but he was scared enough without the joke. He couldn't stop shaking or sweating, and how his feet kept moving he didn't know. They did, though, slipping and sliding over the cobbles towards the block and the axe and the cauterising fire.
"Knew a thief once, the hand-man took ten cuts to hack his hand off. Screaming and screaming, he was."
"The prisoner?" the other guard asked.
"Him too, yes, but the hand-man, mainly."
Both of the guards smirked at the joke, but although Lal had heard it, he blocked the meaning out. It wasn't really the thought of the pain that bothered him so much as how he was going to get by in life with only one hand. The pain would go, eventually. It would be awful, but it would go. The problem was, so would his hand. Lal had no idea how he was going to provide for his family after this.
The walk was awful, with the noise of the crowd and the high, arcing vegetables, fruit and fish splattering the cobbles all around. His wrenching thirst, exacerbated by the heat, and the ghoulish banter of the guards made it worse, but he would have given anything to extend it, to just keep on walking forever without reaching his destination.
He did, though, and once he was standing before the block and the man with the axe everything happened so quickly he couldn't take it all in.
"This one," one of Lal's guards said, slapping his right arm.
Horrified, Lal realised they meant to cut his good arm off. He opened his mouth to protest but only a choked sob emerged. The guards shoved him down over the block, pressing his face against the hot stone. Wet as well. Red. Sticky.
One of the guards knelt on his back, crushing the air out of his body. The other guard pulled Lal's right arm out, away from his body, holding it against the block at the wrist. Lal's fingers fluttered over the edge of the block. Lal twisted his head, trying to see his hand. The guard banged Lal's cheek against the stone. He gasped in pain. Closed his eyes and clenched his hand into a fist. Opened his eyes again. Saw a wooden tray on the ground. Five dismembered hands inside it.
The crowd hushed in expectant glee. Lal fainted.
* * *
The silver coin's owner, Shinko, had put it away from the rest of his money in the left hand side of his apron pocket. The last time he'd had a silver coin had been three years ago. Shinko remembered holding it up to the light that streamed through the slats in the market's roof. His first cousin and hated fish-trader rival Sharma had gawked from his own stall at it.
Shinko had put that coin in his apron's left hand pocket as well, but three years ago his apron didn't have a hole in it.
Shinko's wife had been at him for ages to buy a new work apron. This one stunk so badly of dried fish scales and fish blood and rot that she wouldn't go near it. But Shinko wasn't rich. He was only a fish-market trader. A new apron seemed like an unnecessary and foolish extravagance. After all, in his line of work, it would hardly smell new for long.
So he never bought a new apron and the silver coin fell through the hole in the corner of the pocket and rolled into the blood-crusted trench that all the fish scales and entrails were swept into throughout the day.
Attracted by the coin's glint among the muck in the trench, a seagull swooped down and snatched it up in its beak.
The bird flew away from the market towards the beach. Perhaps thinking that the coin was a shellfish, wanting to crack it open, the seagull dropped it onto the rocks where the waves broke and crashed above the reef.
The coin slid down a rock and plopped into the sea. An octopus lying near the bottom of the reef mistook the coin's drifting plunge downwards for an oyster and swallowed it.
Around the same time, Lal slipped on a fallen fish in the market and bumped into Shinko. He put his right hand out to stop himself from falling. The hand landed on Shinko's apron. The left side.
* * *
Lal woke up on a stone cot. His hand was burning. He groaned and lifted his arm to look at the hand. He'd thought they were going to cut it off, but he could still feel it. A ragged poultice on the end of his shortened arm stared at him accusingly. It smelled of mint herbs and pepper and honey. And burnt chicken.
A mumbling, tired voice said, "You can go."
Lal's hand was there. He couldn't see it, but he wriggled his thumb and felt it touch the pads of the other fingers. He tried to click his fingers, to continue to deny what he could see, but although he felt his finger slipping from his thumb to the heel of his hand, he heard nothing. It hurt, though, and burned like flames in the night.
"My hand," he said.
"You can go," the tired voice said, closer to him.
"It's still there," Lal said.
"That's surprising," the voice said, sounding louder, closer now. "Especially since I threw all the hands on the fire before you woke up."
Lal looked away from his hand. The speaker was a big, grim man with red bags under his eyes. "You can go," he repeated. "Do you have a home?"
Lal nodded. "On the beach."
"Go there, then. Keep the poultice on for two days. And keep it dry. If you can afford it, buy another one. If you can't, bathe the stump in the sea as often as possible."
Lal blinked tears from his eyes. "Why can I still feel it?"
"You can't," the big man said. "Go home. Mind your balance."
Lal sat up. The movement made the white stone walls and the big man swirl around his head. He sat still, waiting for the dizziness to subside. His throat felt dry. How could he want a drink when they'd cut his hand off? He swallowed saliva and lurched to his feet. His body leaned left and he had to fight to shift his weight to a more central stance.
He was still in the punishment courtyard, but in an area sheltered from the crowd by high screens. There were nine other cots. Only two of them had people lying on them. Neither of them had their right hands. One had had his nose slit. Lal wondered where the man who was having his second hand cut off had gone.
The big man pointed to the arch of a tunnel between two cots. "You go that way."
Lal nodded. His stump itched, like it was crawling with insects. He lifted his left hand to scratch at it, but the big man grabbed it between both of his meaty palms.
"Whatever you do, don't scratch it. If you do, you'll rip the skin open. If dirt gets into one of the rips, the stump will turn green and start to smell. If you don't die, you'll have to have the whole arm cut off."
Lal shuddered and let his hand slide sweatily out of the big man's palms. "Do you tell everyone that?"
"Only the ones like you, who don't call me, me wife or my mother whores."
"Thank you," Lal said.
The big man smiled. "Anytime."
The walk to the centre of the courtyard had been hard, but the walk home was worse. Struggling anyway to come to terms with the way his right side felt lighter now, Lal wondered for the first time how his wife would react when he arrived home. That thought led him to worry him about all his friends and fellow fishermen. They might spurn him now, and declare him outcast from the fishing community. After all, he'd been found guilty of theft, and only he knew he was innocent. Who would trust him now?
* * *
Rinka, Lal's wife, stared at his stump with her mouth open in a perfect circle of shock and horror. The stump ached and throbbed and burnt under her gaze.
After a moment, she collapsed on the wooden floor of their hut in a flood of tears. Her jowls wobbled and her wailing shook the walls of the hut and woke the babies, who started wailing in sympathy for their mother. Before he knew it, Lal started crying. He clutched Rinka's broad back as much as he could and felt her shuddering body reverberating all the way to his stump.
Exhausted and in pain, but pleased that she'd taken it so well, he fell asleep.
* * *
Shinko told his wife about Lal as they lay in bed together that night. He didn't mention that in the afternoon he'd discovered the hole in his apron pocket.
He almost felt guilty, because he knew the coin had probably fallen through the hole, but whether or not Lal had actually taken the coin, it was still Lal's fault that Shinko didn't have it. After all, if Lal had stolen it, it would have been returned to Shinko by now.
Reassured by his logic, his guilt assuaged, Shinko fell asleep.
* * *
Lal woke up the next morning to the itching and throbbing of his stump. Remembering the grim-faced man's advice he tried not scratch at the poultice, but at times the prickly sensation grew so ferocious he couldn't help himself. He didn't try to work his fingernails under the poultice, but just ran them over it so his stump felt the motion more as a gentle rubbing than anything else.
Unaware of his discomfort, Rinka lay on her side. Her broad rump quivered as she snored. It was still dark out, but Lal knew he wasn't going to go fishing today. He didn't want to get water on the poultice. Apart from that, he was scared of seeing all the other fishermen, scared that they would ignore him. Anyway, he didn't know if he'd be able to hold his fishing rod with his left hand. He needed to practise first.
Determined to overcome this nightmare, he stood up. He would have loved to wallow in his pain and anger at the injustice of it all, but when all was said and done, his hand would still be gone and he would still have to feed his family.
Reaching over Rinka's vast form, he picked up his fishing rod. Hefting it, standing silently over his wife, it felt fine, but he'd often carried it with his left hand. He'd just never fished with it. He stepped over the sleeping babies to the door and slipped out of the hut.
The dark had thinned, become washed and grey. The beach looked tired, the waves having pounded at it all night. The white sand seemed dull and soulless. Lal stopped outside his hut and studied his rod. He'd made it himself, when his father's old rod had snapped. Lal was a simple man - he knew because Rinka told him often enough - but he knew how to make a good rod. Fishing ran in his blood. He'd made this rod out of fresh-cut yew. A year later it still retained its spring and suppleness. The line was a good one as well, coated with beeswax and strong. Lal's father had shown him the secret of making lines so thin they looked like glass.
It was a good rod, but wielding it now, Lal realised that he'd made it for his right hand. He pretended to cast a line. His left arm drooped with the effort of holding the rod out as straight and still as he would have to when he began fishing again. He felt confident that he would be able to hold onto his stilt with his right arm curled around the brace. Whether his left arm could be able to hold the rod for as long as it would need to was another matter.
He let his arm drop until the end of the rod rested on the sand. None of the other fishermen were out yet, but they would be soon. This was the monsoon season, when the fish schooled and swarmed round the fishing stilts twice a day, after sunrise and sunset.
Lal's father had once told him it was because the water around the stilts reflected the colours in the sky, attracting the fish. Lal had never argued with his father, but he'd secretly doubted his words on that occasion. If it was to do with the colours, why did the fish only react in that way during the monsoon season? The sunsets and sunrises were just as pretty in the dry season.
He shook his head to dismiss the thought and went back inside before any other fishermen came out and saw him.
* * *
Two days later, in a cool early morning sea breeze, Lal's wife peeled his poultice off. A rotten, burnt flesh smell drifted into the cool air. Rinka gagged and recoiled from the sight of his bare stump's blackened, bubbled skin.
Ignoring the decayed stench, Lal stared down at it. The skin stung in the salt air. "Do you think it will stay like this?"
Rinka didn't answer. The full horror of her predicament, married to a cripple with twin boys to feed (not to mention herself), had evidently struck her because she collapsed in a heap of blubber and tears on the cold sand.
Lal felt sorry for her, but he couldn't afford to dwell on her self-pity anymore than his own. They'd had to rely on Rinka's cousin bringing them any fish he'd not been able to sell at the market for the past two days. He fumbled an old cloth round the stump and walked towards the water, although not with his rod. For now, he just wanted to check on his stilt to make sure it was still in position.
* * *
Like his father, and his father's father, and the one before that and even the one before that, Lal was a stilt fisherman. As status went, it meant he was one up the ladder from shore fishermen, but a long way below the arrogant bastards who rowed around in boats all day.
Lal's father's father had always been contemptuous of that type of fishing. He'd died when Lal was, but Lal still remembered him spitting into the sea one time when a rowing boat swept by. "T'aint work sitting all day," he'd growled, then rubbed the back of his grizzled old hand across his white beard.
If Lal had a boat, he wouldn't be able to row it anymore. Smiling to himself at that lucky escape, he stared out to sea, feeling his spirits rising and rising just like they always did when he walked towards the water's edge. As he'd known it would be, the tide was out, so he had to walk a long way before he reached the gentle, licking slop of the water. The sun still had a while to go before it rose, so no one else was up yet.
The scores of wooden stilts standing out of the water above the reef were empty. They were all designed the same: one long, thick stem hammered into the seabed but still sticking out of the water balanced by a cross-brace near the top. At low tide, like now, they stood taller than a man, but the sea drowned them every high tide so only the tops of a few could be seen. Because the tide was at its lowest ebb, Lal could see the foothold close to the bottom of the stilts. Like the braces near the top, they were just short lengths of wood nailed across the stem to give the fishermen a perch for their feet.
Even as his eyes rested on his own stilt, Lal pulled the cloth from his stump. Sea spray in the air assaulted the skin, stinging and burning, but he ignored the pain and focused on his stilt. It had been in his family for four generations now. In time, Lal would bequeath it to the eldest of the twins, if he and Rinka could ever work out which one had come out first. It didn't look any different from all the other stilts, but to Lal's eye it had a look, feel and character all of its own.
He stepped into the water until the waves washed over his bare feet. He took three more steps until it swirled around his calves and kept his eyes on the stilt. When he'd been tiny, his father had taken him out to it and let him hold the rod. He always remembered it, sitting on his father's shoulders with his feet perched on the cross-brace and his father holding the underside of the rod in a way he thought Lal wouldn't be able to see. It was Lal's earliest memory. Smiling, he plunged his stump into the sea.
The shocking pain made him scream so loudly that dozing seagulls that had been bobbing on the water shrieked and flapped into the air. Lal kept his eyes fixed on his stilt and his stump under the water for a count of ten before he lifted it out.
The pain burnt in the air, intense and fizzling over his skin. Lal felt sick, but he stood still and waited for the pain to ease. After several deep breaths he staggered further into the sea with his stump raised above his head. The seabed sloped down so that half way towards the reef, Lal was wading through chest high water. A few yards beyond that, it evened out, and after ten more steps it started slanting up. Two hundred yards from the shore, Lal reached his stilt with the water only up to his knees.
His stump was still stinging, but Lal slapped the stilt with his left hand, making sure it was still lodged in firmly. The stilt didn't move. Lal curled his fingers round it and pulled himself up until his feet rested on the footholds. He mimed tying the sack where he stashed his fish around the knot in the wood near his head and curled the crook of his right arm around the stilt. Leaning forward, he extended his left arm in an imaginary cast.
The motion, and holding the position, felt awkward. With his body weight shifted to the left side, if his right arm slipped he didn't have a hand to grab the stilt with anymore. He would fall into the water and scare the fish.
He pulled his arm up, pretending to slide his rod through his left hand until he could detach an imaginary fish from the hook at the end of the line. Again, he could do it, but it was much more difficult than it had used to be, and pretending to put the fish into the sack behind and above his head was even harder. His left arm had to stretch up too high at a difficult angle. Lal nodded, glad that he'd done this. Until he was more used to working with one hand, he would have to tie the sack round his waist.
He could do it, though. Heartened by the thought, Lal climbed off his stool into the water again. It might take a while until he could catch as many fish as he used to be able to, but he could do it. He smiled, pleased with himself, and wondered if he should go home to get his rod, to try to fish properly. Just the effort of holding onto the stilt with his arm had reawakened the deep, painful throbbing in his stump that underlined the sharp stinging and burning of the skin.
He took a couple of steps away from the reef, thinking how well he'd done today, wondering if his father would have been proud of him, and plunged his stump into the sea again.
The stinging burst into his brain, but another sensation forced the pain away.
His stump had touched something in the water.
Lal's left hand flashed down, snatching at the object before it could thrash the water into a foam and escape. His fingers slid over a tentacle. An octopus, then. Worth good money at the market if he could kill it. Two tentacles curled, squeezing, round his forearm and several more thrashed at the water.
For a moment, Lal had a terrifying vision of himself with no hands, having lost the left to this octopus. He loosened his grip. The octopus slipped out of his grasp and released a cloud of black ink. One of its tentacles smacked against Lal's stump. Lal gasped and staggered back a step. Still bent over, he aimed a clumsy punch through the water at the octopus. It was his left hand, though, and the water diluted any strength it contained. The octopus slipped further away. He caught a glimpse of it as it glided into clear water. Its body was perhaps half the size of a man's, its tentacles thick and long. He could earn a week's worth of fishing money for this monster.
Lal splashed through the water after it and dived down, grabbing its body between his hand and his right forearm. He lifted it out of the water but a tentacle smashed into his face. It hurt, but the pain in his stump was far worse. Lal threw the octopus onto a rock, intending to stamp on it, but it slithered back into the water.
Lal had stunned it, though, because it didn't swim away as quickly as before. A tentacle swayed, then wrapped itself around his lower right forearm. It squeezed, crushing the flesh against the bone. Lal screamed as the pain hit his stump, but he still raised the shortened arm up. The octopus clung on until it was half out of the water, then started to release its grip.
Lal swept his arm round in an arc. The octopus skimmed over the surface of the water and smacked with a wet thud against the rock. Lal stood still as the grip on his arm loosened, then kicked the octopus's mouth with the sole of his foot, pulping it against the rock. The impact's vibrations jarred through his foot, up his leg and body, down his arm and reverberated through his stump. In his moment of victory he ignored the pain, picked the octopus up by two tentacles and splatted it against the rock.
The octopus slipped into the water again, but this time it didn't move, just floated to the top and Lal knew he'd won. He took a deep breath and lifted the octopus by its tentacles so it dangled upside down out of the water.
He stood still for a while waiting for the worst of the pain in his stump to subside. Finally, he started to trudge back to shore with his prize.
Osha, another stilt fisherman, walked onto the sand as the top arc of the sun glinted over the horizon. "Did you catch that Lal?" he called.
Lal stepped out of the water and nodded, grinning triumphantly.
"With only one hand?"
Osha's mouth dropped open. "That'll get you some drinks, telling that story."
Already pleased with himself Lal's heart surged with joy. After this, with Osha as his witness, being outcast by his fellow fishermen was the last thing he needed to worry about.
Osha grinned back at him and slapped him on the back. "Good for you Lal!"
Lal nodded again. He thought about going home, but he wanted to sell the octopus while it was still fresh. So he went to the market.
* * *
Shinko's heart sank when Lal walked up to his still empty stall. He squinted at the crippled fisherman, wondering what to say. Lal swung the octopus out from behind his back and plopped it on Shinko's stall. Lal was the first fisherman to arrive at the market. All the others would only now be out on their stilts.
Shinko's hands dipped into the pockets of his apron. The forefinger of his left hand poked at the hole in the corner as he gazed at the octopus.
"You owe me a silver coin, Lal."
"You owe me a hand," Lal said.
Shinko nodded at the octopus. "Give me that for free and we'll call it quits."
Lal shrugged and started to pick the octopus up. "Never mind. I'll take it to Sharma instead."
Shinko's poise deserted him at the thought of his cousin winning such a prize. Chopped up this octopus would earn a lot of money today. "No!"
"A hundred urpas," Lal said.
"What?" Shinko shrieked. "First you rob my silver coin, then you try to rob me for a quarter as much again. Are you mad?"
Lal just picked his octopus up. Shinko glared at him. This wasn't the way to bargain. "Do you want my wife as well?" he asked as Lal turned away with the octopus in his hand. "Lal, be fair. You haven't even skinned or cleaned it properly."
Lal started walking towards the other end of the market, where Sharma had just arrived.
"Alright!" Shinko cried. Defeated, his shoulders sagged. "A hundred."
Lal turned. "Done."
Shinko counted out a hundred small copper coins from his apron onto his stall. Lal grinned and made a pouch for the money in the front of his shirt. He scooped all the coins into the pouch and walked away without a word.
Shinko shook his head as he watched the fisherman go, but in truth he was pleased for Lal. He still didn't feel guilty about the false accusation, but the hundred urpas would help crippled fisherman. And if Shinko managed to sell every piece of the octopus once he'd cut it up, he'd earn four times that amount.
Smiling now, he looked down at the huge octopus on his stall and wondered how Lal had managed to kill it with only one hand.
After a moment, he reached for his cleaver.
Anthony Addis is a 31 year old teacher in Brighton, England, just returned from a two year teaching contract in Egypt. He spent the summer in Sri Lanka, where he got the idea to write this story when watching some real life stilt fishermen at work
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