Dhiraj knew the rain stopped this distance from the coast, but it still made him uneasy. It wasn't natural to be without the rain. He grunted a command to the Navigation of his seine skiff The Lion's Mane to slow down, and the throttle obediently clanked down to a low rumble, slowing the boat to a crawl.
"Come on, babies," he said, peering over dark ocean waves. "I need a good catch tonight."
The thought tightened his throat; he needed this badly now. The prospect of telling his family about another crappy haul made him grit his teeth and focus. Even in the wheelhouse he was soaked, and wiped the greasy sleeve of his raincoat across his face. Darkness turned its garish yellow into mustard. Once the boat halted he called to the floodlights, which swung portside and bathed the water in electric moonlight. As he stepped outside of the wheelhouse the North Sea's cold whip lashed his face, taking the breath from him, but he bore it, looking upon the horizon. Even under the floodlight, he couldn't see the purse seine net, but he imagined it swelling with bounty just beneath the surface. He smiled in spite of the cold; no, because of the cold. Cold brought them swarming. Just a little luck, and he'd be bringing a bumper harvest home tonight. He clenched his fists in anticipation as he traversed the deck.
The rope bobbing on the sea, almost invisible in this blinding blackness, marked his offshore empire. He hoped upon hope that tonight it wouldn't be a fallow one. He headed aft and threw his weight behind the power block lever, cranking it into life. Somewhere out of sight it wheezed and creaked, dragging the chain back inside the hull, closing the dragnet. Odd spots of rain floated in the air, reassuring him of the shoreline's presence somewhere beyond his eyeline.
It was a few minutes before the bounty began to show. Dhiraj grinned. Not everyone could see the little beauties at first, but his was a trained eye. The slightest trace of a tiny light blue shadow quivered below the water's break. Then another. Another. Soon hundreds, then thousands of the little jellyfish shadows throbbed ever so gently with the thrum and swim of the current, and he laughed, clapping his hands in a jubilant jig.
"Yes!" he cried to the jellyfish. "I'll be sending you to a very loving home tonight."
Still smiling, he called to the power block to stop winding up the dragnet, leaving the jellyfish bobbing up and down agreeably like a gigantic Christmas bauble. All his.
Back in the wheelhouse he started talking to the navigation system to head for port when he took another glimpse at the taut dragnet under lights. His smile wilted.
"Shit." A crumpled piece of plastic poked above the waterline, caught by the net. Could be a plastic bag. Murderous bloody things, he thought. He instinctively placed his hand to his side, where the sting scars riddled his ribs. Bound to be something poisonous in it with my luck. He punched the console and threw the throttle back into neutral with his hands. Nothing for it; it'd have to be dragged out by hand, in case it contained anything hazardous; any contaminant and the whole catch would be worthless, and that'd be another night wasted.
Once on deck he released the dragnet a tad, slid the stepladder along the gunwale, grabbed a pole hook and climbed over. The sea splashed around his ankles, and the blue shadows lapped at his thick black boots like pet dogs. He reached out, straining, and hooked the bag. He yanked it towards him, but its weight almost hauled him into the water instead. Bloody hell. If there was one thing worse than a plastic bag, it was a full one. God knows what was in it. Cursing anew, he hooked his elbow around the stepladder rung for greater stability and reached again. This time he gave it a firm pull with the hook, and the little finger of material started to rotate and rise to the surface: first a small, crinkly triangle, then bigger. Not a disposable plastic bag; thicker than that; a vacuum-packed bag, large, getting larger as the material bobbed to the surface, pushing the blue moon jellies out of the way, eager to break the surface. He saw something white and translucent inside, difficult to discern amongst the waves and jellies, but then it spun about quickly, catching the glare of the floodlight.
When the face emerged from the water enclosed in the plastic Dhiraj cried so loudly he shocked himself, grabbing the ladder tightly with both hands and dropping the pole in the water with a limp splash. He was shivering, and his eyes were blurred with water. He pressed his forehead to the freezing cold of The Lion's Mane's hull and closed his eyes. When he opened them, the ship was still there. He turned his head to the water and breathed slowly, trying to slow his heartbeat.
Shit. Shit shit shit.
The body was still there, serene and ghostly over the bioluminescence of the moon jellies, partially obscured by the glare of the floodlight bouncing off the plastic wrapping. His breathing had calmed now. He hadn't seen a dead body since his Aunt Kiri's funeral, but back then the sullen teenager in him had been repulsed by the rituals, the flowers, the incense, his aunt's puffy body, shiny with exuberantly applied makeup, and the whole damn need to structure something so profound as human grief. He didn't feel that way now. To his great surprise, he found himself muttering, "Supreme light, lead us from truth to untruth, from darkness to light and from death to immortality." He probably hadn't said the words since that very funeral as Aunt Kiri was consumed by the crematorium's fire. But Aunt Kiri had died of a heart attack – too much ghee and whiskey – whereas who could say what had happened to this poor wretch, wrapped up in plastic and dumped in the sea? The wrongness of it all hit him about the head like a jackhammer, over and over.
Dhiraj shook the whys and wherefores away. He couldn't think about how it had got there, or who might be responsible. That wasn't his problem. His job was to fish it out, and hope his catch wasn't too contaminated. The body had rolled onto its front, its nakedness obvious yet indistinct. He stepped down into the water, picked up the pole and reached across to the body. His hands still trembled, but he mastered his apprehension, and after a few attempts the body was within touching distance. As he pulled it close and lifted the head out of the water, his distaste lessened somewhat. A woman. Her face was calm, peaceful even. She didn't look distressed, or as though she had suffered any violence. Almost looked asleep, melting Dhiraj's fears away.
But when she opened its eyes Dhiraj screamed, lost his grip, and the sea greeted him with an icy kiss.