On the Ferry

Ibrahim Waheed “Kalaavehi”

They said that the Bearded One was hopelessly insane. He spoke to no human but babbled incoherently to himself. Back and forth he went over the water, like a pendulum marking the passage of time. When the sea looked like an ominous, oily mirror, he was there, whispering to no one. When it boiled and foamed like a demented witch’s cauldron, he sat there, muttering to himself. No one dared ask the Bearded One what, or even why.

Mohamed’s mother knew of the Bearded One. She had heard vaguely hideous things about the weird one that rode the ferry. Like all good and concerned mothers, she urged her son not to ever approach the miscreant. Her son obeyed.

So, in all of God’s peace, one day followed another into the waste basket of time. Mohamed the dutiful son continued to obey his mother. He attended on-the-job training as an accountant at a small firm in Male’. And day after similar day, Mohamed took the ferry to his place of work in Male. The Bearded One rode the ferry with him, and with all that took the ferry at all times. On the way, he always talked in respectful tones to persons unseen.

And one night, the Bearded One spoke to Mohamed.

“So you want to be an accountant, Mohamed?” He heard the question before he realized who had asked it.

“Yes!” It had been a hard day at work. It was a stormy night. The sea writhed in the grips of an angry sea. The Bearded one had caught Mohamed off guard. The answer just slipped out.

A slow, cold fear wrapped itself round Mohamed’s heart. How had the Bearded One known his name? How had he known that Mohamed wanted to be an accountant? Mohamed heard his mother’s warning echoing in his memory. Other questions merged with the echo. Was mental illness contagious? What would happen if he spoke to the Bearded One?

“Hungry?” The Bearded One calmly persisted.

“Yes…….., but…”

“Ah! You are afraid of the Bearded One that speaks to one and yet no one and everyone unseen? No matter! I can understand that, Mohamed. You are a nice young man with a good heart. You are an obedient son. You have respectable aspirations. I respect you.”

“Thank you, sir…” Mohamed faltered.

“Perhaps you might care to have some of this warm roshi bread I have with me. A very friend just gave it to me. I know you must be very hungry.”

The smell of the freshly baked roshi reached down Mohamed’s throat. It wrenched at his hungry guts.

The Bearded One’s voice was full of comfort and reassurance, “Don’t worry. It is not poisoned. Here! Take half of this roshi. I will eat the other half.”

Mohamed was used to ignoring hunger. He was not of old Male’ nobility. He did not belong to the cadres of the nouveau riche. But those questions kept coming back. Was mental illness contagious? Why did the Bearded One ride the ferry? Who paid for the tickets?

But the smell of the unleavened bread was so tempting. Hunger clawed at his soul. It was almost a hunger of the spirit. Perhaps it was more than constant malnutrition. It felt like his soul was calling out in hunger against continuing years of bad economy, near-slavery, never-ending malnutrition and forever-trapped aspirations.

Should he accept the roshi bread? Did a mysterious drug lurk in there? Would it compel him to ride Almighty Allah’s open seas forever like the Bearded One did? What would his mother say? Would the other passengers notice?

Mohamed looked around him. A dozen or so passengers were on board. No one gave him even a passing glance. They were more concerned with the rough sea boiling all around them. One person who had noticed him was now more occupied with looking at a very important but invisible object on the horizon.

It would be so easy to accept some of that bread, sate his hunger, acquire a new friend, and even make the final crossing easier. The only problem was his mother. She could easily hear about it from his fellow passengers. But then, it would be easy to deny it all. Just like it would be so easy for a well-fed rich man to deny the plain unleavened bread.

The Bearded One might have almost read his mind, “You are right, you know. It would be so difficult for any of those resort-owning millionaires to touch a piece of this humble roshi. For those poor fools, any form of simple bread is for the dirty poor. And they would say the poor remain poor because they are not clever enough to use their wits to get rich. As for you, you are noble but hungry. You are smart but without seed money to start your own business. You try to be honest and God fearing….. You are almost my own son. So, take this roshi and sate your hunger tonight. This is what I give you tonight. I give it to you with my blessings. ”

In the dark of a long, stormy night, as a raging sea foamed around them, Mohamed reached out and accepted the half moon of roshi bread.

It tasted heavenly.

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