A short story from the book Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas
My aunt Delilah was afraid of men. She had only arrived in Canada at the start of the summer, but it seemed longer than that. My sister and I each had our own rooms before Delilah came to live with us—Ally had to move in and share my room so Delilah could take hers. Ally’s dolls and stuffed animals seemed out of place under my hockey posters and Grade 6 honour-roll plaque. We had to get bunk beds so everything could fit; I took the top bunk at first, but Ally was too scared the bed would break and she’d be crushed, so we switched.
At night, Ally and I could hear Delilah snoring through the drywall. But snoring was better than her staying awake the whole night, as she had when she first arrived. At two in the morning one night she woke up everyone in the house, shouting, “Clara! There’s a man outside! Hurry, bring a stick.” Everyone stumbled downstairs, half-asleep. Mom and Dad crept into the kitchen to look out into the backyard, but they saw nothing. Delilah pointed at her own reflection in the glass sliding doors. “There! Right there.” Mom told Ally and me they don’t have glass doors like that in Goa, and sent us back to bed. The next night Delilah thought there was a man inside our house. She said she had heard a noise coming from the laundry room. Our dryer was old, and the sound probably came from the vent, but Delilah thought a man was hiding in the dryer. She pressed the start button and ran. “If he’s in there, let him spin.”
Eventually, Delilah adjusted to our schedule. Mom helped her get a job at the pharmacy near our house. She was late for her second shift and told the pharmacist that his clock was wrong.
Mom tried to reason with her when she got back. “How can your employer’s clock be wrong? That’s the time you have to go by.”
“The kids must have fiddled with my watch, then. It’s always correct.”
“I have my own watch,” said Ally, and held up her arm. “A Bugs Bunny one.”
“These kids have too much. Do you remember what we had back home? Spoiled rotten.”
Delilah’s Indian accent was much stronger than my parents’, and this sounded like rut-tin. Ally and I thought Delilah was from another planet—we tried to avoid her after she called us that. We hoped she wouldn’t get the time off work to come on vacation with us, but we were out of luck.
“Does Delilah have to come with us?” I asked Mom.
“Auntie Delilah. And of course she does.” Delilah was the only aunt we called by her first name—I’m not sure why. She was only one year younger than my mom, who was thirty-three then, I think.
“But she’ll ruin our vacation,” said Ally.
Every year we rented a cottage in Sauble Beach for the August long weekend. We packed everything into the car and always left later in the morning than we’d originally planned. We laid our comforters on the seats so that only the seat-belt clasps stuck out, put pillows behind our backs and our feet on top of coolers and suitcases packed tight with clothes. Dad drove, saying the name of every town we entered along the way—“Fergus…Arthur…Mount Forest…Durham…Dornoch”— while Mom looked at the map and passed around a Tupperware container of cut fruit. Delilah sat between Ally and me, taking up part of both our seats, and talked for most of the ride.
“I was bending down to stock the shelf, and both my knees cracked.” Delilah started laughing; she always laughed before completing her stories. “And a customer said, ‘Sounds like you need some WD-40.’” She tilted her head back and laughed again: a loud, knee-slapping howl. “So I asked the pharmacist if he had any WD-40 for my bones. He went searching the whole store. Until he finally asked me where I heard of it.” Delilah wiped away a few tears before she continued, “That’s when he told me WD-40 was mechanical oil!”
Mom laughed along with her, while Ally and I rolled our eyes and looked out the windows.
Dad slowed down the car and pointed at a big sign on the roadside. “Look, my friend Cassius owns that place. He’s meeting us at the beach later today.”
The sign read, Fisherman’s Paradise—40 km West of Sauble Beach, with a giant fish leaping in the air. The fish was hooked on a line, yet still looked happy.
Jenny Wren was a small cottage tucked in among the trees on a quiet street not far from the beach. On either side were similar- sized cottages, one named Lucky Strike and the other In Debt Forever. The air smelled of pine needles and people said hello to one another walking down the street. Inside Jenny Wren, the furniture was made from logs, and you could hear chipmunks running on the roof. The two rooms were separated by wooden walls that didn’t go all the way to the A-shaped ceiling: when Ally and I were younger we used to throw rolled-up socks and underwear over the walls. My parents took one bedroom and Ally and I shared the other, though the bunk beds didn’t seem so special now that we had them at home. Delilah took the pullout in the living room. We unloaded the car as quickly as we could and headed to the beach. Dad stayed behind to nap, but said he’d join us soon.
Our usual spot in the sand dunes had been sectioned off with orange mesh fencing. There was a sign posted with a picture of a grey-and-white bird under the words PIPING PLOVER, Endangered Species Nesting Grounds. Someone had used a marker to add an “M” to the sign so it read PIMPING PLOVER instead.
“I’ve seen that bird before on my walks in the morning,” said my mom. “He’s a tiny fellow. Runs along the water’s edge.”
“I want to see it,” Delilah said.
“Tomorrow morning, we’ll go.”
We continued down the beach and found a spot in the sand closer to the water. The sun looked lonely in the sky without clouds, though its rays warmed my skin nicely.
“Like the beaches in Goa, no?” Mom asked.
“Except no coconut trees,” Delilah said.
Ally and I dropped our towels and bags and ran to the lake.
We tested the temperature with our toes. It was cool at first, but we waded in. We always paused before the water reached our privates, jumping the gentle waves, afraid to take the next step. Eventually one of us splashed the other and we both went under. We swam out past the first couple of sandbars. Dad was the one to call us in if we went too far; with him still at the cottage, we stayed close to the shore. We swam for a short while, but got out as soon as Delilah came in.
“Mom, why’s Delilah going in the water in her T-shirt and shorts?” Ally asked.
Mom was digging a hole for the beach umbrella. She looked up and said, “We’ll have to get a bathing suit for her tomorrow. In India, people just swim in whatever they’re wearing.”
We watched Delilah sit in the shallow water where only young kids played.
She came running back soon after, dripping water. “The water’s cold. Very cold.”
“It’s fine once you get in,” Ally said.
“Lousy. What’s the point of a beach if the water’s so cold? And no salt. Vagator Beach back home is much better. Now I have to go to the toilet, it was so cold.”
“The washrooms are way down there.” I pointed to a small building at the end of the beach. I’d never heard someone say they have to go to the toilet; it sounded rude. Ally and I just peed in the lake, blaming each other for the warm spots.
“Aye sahiba,” Delilah said before she turned to go.
I could hear her talking to herself as she speed-walked down the beach. Her voice trailed off, but I kept watching her. Delilah had been saying that things were better in India ever since she arrived. I had only been to India once when I was very young but didn’t really want to go back—it sounded crowded and dirty.
“Why did Delilah come here, Mom?” I asked.
Mom stuck the umbrella in the hole she had dug. “Well,” she said, filling the hole in with sand and patting it down, “if one of you were in a nice place, with lots of opportunity, wouldn’t you want your family to be there, too?”
“It takes courage to come from so far away, to a place that’s so different from the one you’re accustomed to.”
“Is she going to stay with us forever?” Ally asked.
“That’s up to her.”
My dad, wearing swimming trunks, a golf shirt, and a blue Montreal Expos hat, eventually joined us on the beach after his nap.
“I went walking, but I didn’t see Cassius,” he said, and sat down on a corner of the mat in the sun.
“Where did you tell him to meet you?” Mom asked. She and Delilah were sitting in the shade of the umbrella.
I was lying on my towel, letting the sun dry me after swimming again. Ally had made friends with a girl her age and they were drawing pictures in the sand near the water.
“You didn’t tell him where to meet you? The beach is miles long,” said Mom.
“What does he look like?” Delilah asked.
“He’s as tall as me. From Madras but doing well for himself here. He works for the government, has a house in Mississauga and cottages he rents in Wiarton.”
“Is he friendly with anyone?” Mom asked.
“Bachelor. I will introduce you, Delilah.”
“Oh, no, no,” Delilah said, shaking her head.
“Why not? You need to hurry, there’s not much time left to start a family.”
“Felix!” Mom snapped. “This isn’t her last chance. Just introduce them and see if they get along. That is, if you ever find this Cassius.” She and Delilah started laughing.
They were interrupted by a shout: “Felix!”
A man walked up wearing a Molson T-shirt and holding his sandals in one hand.
“Cassius! You found us. How ya doing?” Dad stood up and shook his hand.
“Good. Good. I recognized your hat.”
“Come, meet the family. This is my wife, Clara.” “How do you do.” They shook hands.
“My son, Aiden.”
I sat up from my towel. Cassius looked me in the eye when he shook my hand with a tight grip. He had a nose like a parrot’s beak—well, maybe not as long, but still pretty big.
“And this is my lovely sister-in-law, Delilah.”
“Nice to meet you,” they both said at the same time.
An awkward silence followed.
“Aiden, go fetch your sister to meet Cassius,” Mom said.
I looked back to see Cassius sitting down on the mat beside Delilah. He said something to her I couldn’t hear, and she tilted her head back and laughed, loud and clear, her voice ringing across the beach.
Back at the cottage, after dinner, Dad waited until Mom had gone to the corner store to ask Delilah what she’d thought of his friend.
“He seems nice,” was all Delilah would say.
Cassius had left our cottage just a little while earlier—he thanked my mom and Delilah for dinner and apologized for having to run. “I have to take the guests out fishing tomorrow morning.” He also invited us all to his place in Wiarton. “Come tomorrow. I insist.”
Mom returned carrying a small bundle of wood and a plastic bag. “Here are the marshmallows,” she said to Ally and me. “Look what I found as well, Delilah.” Mom pulled a coconut from the plastic bag. “The coconut you wanted on the beach.”
Delilah’s eyes lit up.
“Why don’t you show the kids how to break it while Felix and I clean up? There’s a hammer in the drawer.”
Delilah came onto the deck carrying the coconut, a hammer, a coffee mug, and a butter knife. She placed the knife and mug on the railing, then shook the coconut next to her ear. “This is a good one.” She let us shake it next to our ears to hear the liquid sloshing inside. “There was one riddle we used to tell back home: ‘What has three eyes but cannot see?’”
Ally and I didn’t answer, so Delilah continued, “It’s round like the earth, a desert on the outside, an ocean on the inside.” She shook the coconut again.
“A coconut?” Ally guessed.
“You got it.” Delilah held the coconut in the palm of one hand like a five-pin bowling ball and rapped the centre of the shell with the hammer. Each time she hit the coconut she gave it a quarter turn in her hand, forming a line around the centre. After several knocks, liquid started to trickle out of the bottom. She quickly placed the coconut on the mug, wedged the knife into the crack, and let the water drip down inside.
“Back home, the boys climb so high, up to the top of the coconut trees. Your uncle Quinton will show you, if you go. He’ll take you all around Goa on his scooter. Quinton used to climb the trees, too, but he stayed up there for such long times. That was another riddle we used to tell.” Delilah let out another loud laugh. “What goes up and never comes down?”
“Quinton?” Ally guessed.
“That’s what we’d say when he climbed a coconut tree, but it’s not the real answer.”
“Is the real answer a balloon?” Ally tried.
“No,” said Delilah.
“It’s smoke,” I said.
“No. Think about it, and I will tell you tomorrow if you can’t get it.”
We each had a sip of the sweet water from the mug, then Delilah gave the coconut one more knock and it split in half. She used the butter knife to pry the white flesh from the inside of the shell and gave us small pieces.
“Eat. You kids are too skinny. Your mommy and I were the same way when we were your age. Skinny but strong. And so young everyone else thought we were. You kids are the same.” We nodded as we chewed. Cassius seemed to have put her in a good mood.
We saved two sips and a few pieces for Mom and Dad, and carried the coconut shell and the bag of wood to the firepit. In the fading light, Ally and I gathered dead sticks and birchbark from the fallen trees behind the cottage. We made a teepee of sticks and inside placed the birchbark and the newspaper Dad had brought from home. Delilah lit a match to start the fire, using a large stick she found to adjust the logs. Soon we were all gathered around the crackling flames, sitting underneath a night sky crowded with stars. Delilah tossed the two halves of the coconut shell into the fire, and after a few minutes they roared to life: flames flared from the eyes of the coconut shell, like the eyes of the Devil.
With sticky marshmallow hands and heavy eyelids, we all went to bed. That night Delilah’s snoring didn’t stop me from falling asleep. I dreamt of climbing the tall coconut trees in India and riding my uncle’s scooter.
I was awoken by Delilah’s voice. It took me a while to realize she was talking in her sleep. I couldn’t really make out what she was saying—most of it was in another language, but she kept repeating one name in an almost fearful voice: “Xavier, Xavier…”
“Did you see the Pimping Plover?” I asked Delilah and my mom the next morning after their walk. They had both hurried inside because it had started to rain.
“No. There were too many people out looking for him,” said Delilah.
“I used to see that bird almost every morning walk here. He’d blend in with the sand and small shells, but you could usually spot him,” said Mom. “Nobody cared before, but now that he’s endangered everyone wants to see him. And only when he’s gone will they really appreciate him.”
Ally came out of the bathroom and looked out the window. “It’s raining?”
“Yep. Doesn’t look like we’ll be going to the beach today,” Mom said.
“What will we do all day then?” Ally asked.
“Do you have cards?” asked Delilah. “Come, we’ll play a game.”
We folded Delilah’s bed back into a couch and pulled up a table and chairs. Delilah showed us how to play Devil, which turned out to be the same as Old Maid. Delilah lost the first three games in a row.
“Do you remember how Quinton used to cheat?” Delilah asked Mom. “He’d throw the Devil out with the pairs, and we’d be picking cards from each other. Picking, picking, picking, and no one had the Devil.”
Dad was fiddling with the radio reception to pick up the Jays game, when we broke for lunch: pizza and samosas.
Delilah then showed us how to play Money, which was like Monopoly but with cards.
“Do you remember, Delilah, how Nunna always used to cheat at Money?” asked Mom.
“You couldn’t go to the toilet, even,” said Delilah. “If ever you left, Nunna would wait until you were gone, then say to the others, ‘Okay, we all take one hundred, then.’”
The day passed like this: card games and comfort food and memories. The rain kept coming and didn’t stop until around four. Mom and Dad went to pick up a bottle of wine for Cassius while we got ready to go. Delilah put on a blue sari and makeup.
“What goes up and never comes down, Delilah?” Ally asked. “You figured it out?”
“No, I want you to tell us.”
Delilah paused for effect, then said, “Your age.”
“Ah! Should have guessed,” I said.
Delilah put her makeup away and asked, “How do I look?” “Bea-utiful,” said Ally. “Are you going to marry Cassius?” “We just met!” But then she shrugged. “Let’s see what happens.”
“If he catches you a fish today, I think you should,” Ally said. Delilah laughed hard but had to stop herself before she ruined her makeup.
“Who knows? Maybe I will catch a fish for him,” said Delilah.
“One old neighbour of ours, Xavier, he taught me to fish when I was young.”
I recognized the name from last night but didn’t want to let Delilah know I had heard her.
“Fantastic fisherman,” she continued. “He only needed a stick, a line, and a small piece of mango skin to catch fish. He showed me how, too. I used to sneak away to his house. But don’t tell Mommy. She thought I was getting tuitions for mathematics.”
I wanted to ask if Xavier was still in Goa, but Delilah kept talking.
“I’ll show you when we get there. Ally, go fetch that stick I used for the fire. I don’t have mango, but I’ll use an orange skin instead.”
Cassius brought a beer for my dad and shandies for my mom and Delilah, then asked Ally and me what we wanted to drink. “Beers as well?” He ruffled my hair and pinched Ally’s cheeks.
We were all seated on Cassius’s deck facing the lake, with some smaller cottages clustered around. Nestled between two trees was a Fisherman’s Paradise sign similar to the one we saw on the highway.
Cassius barbecued hamburgers and corn on the cob, served on Styrofoam plates instead of real ones. After we finished eating, he said, “Shall we move down to the dock?”
We walked across a short beach that had stones instead of sand. Delilah stopped at the car to grab her stick and orange.
“What are those for?” Cassius asked as she walked out onto the dock.
“Fishing,” she replied, stepping out of her sandals.
“You aren’t going to catch anything with that.”
“Who said? I just need some line. I’ll show you.”
“There’s line in that green tackle box right there, but you’re better off using one of my rods.”
Delilah found a spool of blue fishing line and tied it to her stick just below a knot in the wood; the end was still charred black from the night before. She tied a weight and a hook to the line, then bit off a small piece of orange peel and attached it to the hook. She threw the line in the water, staring at the brief ripples it made.
I was curious to see if Delilah’s way of fishing that she’d learned from Xavier actually worked. Mom, Dad, Ally, and I sat in lawn chairs on the dock and watched. The mosquitoes had just begun to come out.
“Well, if you’re fishing, I might as well join you.” Cassius grabbed an expensive-looking rod from the rowboat tied to the dock. From a coffee can full of soil he found a fat worm, took out a red Swiss Army knife from his pocket, and sliced the worm in two.
“How many tools does that knife have?” my dad asked.
“Fifteen. Screwdriver, file, saw…you name it. My father gave me this knife,” Cassius said.
I wanted to see all the tools fold out, but Cassius put the knife back into his pocket. He tossed one half of the squirming worm back into the coffee can and poked a hook through the other half. With a quick flick of his wrist, he cast his line out much farther than Delilah’s.
Cassius got a few nibbles right away but didn’t catch anything. He and Delilah both threw their lines out again. And then many more times after that. It was like they were fishing for gold.
“You sure you don’t want some real bait?” Cassius asked. “I’m fine,” Delilah replied.
A moment later Cassius said, “Your weight is too heavy. Nothing’s going to bite that deep.”
“Just wait, Baba,” Delilah said.
My mom and dad exchanged a look. Cassius and Delilah sounded like an old married couple.
Ally and I were going to head back to the beach to skip stones, but Cassius’s line went tight and the rod bent down. “Oh yeah!” he shouted, reeling in the fish like an expert. Cassius pulled the fish out of the water and said, “Rainbow trout. A beauty.” The fish was frantic, flopping back and forth on the dock. Cassius grabbed hold of it tightly and it stopped flailing.
It was a medium-sized fish, but a good-looking one, with a spotted back and pink stripes down its sides. Cassius took a pair of pliers from the tackle box, removed the hook from the fish’s mouth, and held it up with both hands to show everyone. The fish gasped for breath, drowning in the air; the way it opened and closed its mouth, it looked like it was trying to say something. Cassius let Ally and me touch the trout’s skin, which was surprisingly smooth—both soft and firm at the same time.
Mom didn’t touch it, but said, “It’s a very nice fish.”
Delilah stayed at the end of the dock rolling in her line. Cassius asked my dad to open the cooler before he slid his catch in and snapped the lid shut. “Tell ya what, Felix, why don’t you take this one home with you?”
“Yeah?” my dad said.
“Sure. Have him for lunch tomorrow. A little butter, fry him up, and you’re golden.”
“Thanks, Cassius,” Dad said.
“No problem. You know how to clean it, right?”
“I’m sure the wife does,” Dad said. He smiled at Mom with playful eyes.
“No thank you.” Mom gave him a light whack on the shoulder.
“That’s one job I could never stomach.”
“How about you, Delilah? You clean fish, right?” Cassius asked.
“Only ones I catch myself.” Delilah threw her line back out. “Well, I’m good for the day,” Cassius said, but when he saw Delilah was still trying, he cast his line out again.
As the pair continued their back-and-forth teasing, the light turned dim, and I wondered when the competition would end. I wanted Delilah to catch something, even a small fish. She looked so out of place standing there in a sari, fishing barefoot off the dock.
And then her line wiggled. She pulled up slowly. Gave it a little tug.
“Probably a boot,” Cassius teased, but Delilah kept her concentration.
A second later her line ran sharply to the right, knocking her off-balance. “Arrey!” Delilah shouted. She regained her footing and turned the stick sideways with a hand on each end, like she was water-skiing behind a fast boat.
We cheered her on, not wanting the fish to get away. To reel it in, she rolled the stick in her hands. I was worried it might break, but she had clearly done this many times. The line became shorter and shorter, until she yanked the fish out of the water like a stubborn weed from the ground. The smile on her face when she pulled it out was pure joy.
It was the biggest, ugliest fish I had ever seen. Dark grey, the fish had a flat head, small eyes, and whiskers on its face like a dirty old man.
Delilah still held the stick with both hands. The fish didn’t fight at all once out of the water—it stayed so still that it spun slowly as the line untwisted.
“You should throw that thing back,” Cassius said. “Throw it back? Why?” Delilah asked.
“It’s a catfish.”
“So? We’ll fry this one as well.”
“You don’t want to eat that. If you had caught a salmon or trout, I’d say keep it. But a catfish?”
“You’re just jealous it’s bigger than your fish.”
“Trust me, you don’t want that thing.” Cassius took out his Swiss Army knife. He grabbed the line with one hand and put the knife against it with the other. Making a loop, he forced the knife sideways and the line cut. The catfish fell, bounced off the edge of the dock, and plunked back into the water.
“Idiot,” said Delilah and, before any of us knew what was happening, she pushed Cassius off the dock.
He hit the water with a splash a hundred times larger than the catfish’s. Delilah threw her fishing stick in after him, too, and it bobbed near his head when he came up. Cassius’s eyes were wide. He pulled himself up onto the dock, clothes dripping water. He stood there for a moment, then said, “My knife!” and jumped back into the lake.
All of us except Delilah moved to the edge of the dock to help search for the knife. But the light was too dim and the water too deep and murky to see anything.
“Cassius, I’m sorry,” Dad said.
“Delilah, what were you thinking?” Mom asked.
Delilah had already put her sandals back on and was sitting in a chair at the base of the dock with her orange. She peeled the rest, throwing the skin in the water, and ate it one slice at a time.
Cassius climbed out of the water and trudged back along the dock, wetting the wood as he walked. He continued past the beach and back into his cottage without saying a word.
Mom turned to Delilah with angry eyes. But a bang sounded across the lake and a lone firecracker exploded high above. A string of explosions followed—like big spiders, the yellows, reds, and blues reflected on the rippling water.
The display continued long enough for Cassius to rejoin us in dry clothes.
Then it was over. I kept expecting another firecracker, and when it didn’t come, the lake looked so dark. Somewhere in there was Delilah’s fish.
Dad decided we should get going and turned to Cassius. In a low voice, but not so low that we couldn’t hear, he said, “Thanks for having us. And sorry again about Delilah.”
“Yes, and I hope you find your knife,” Mom added.
As we were getting in our car, Cassius ran up with the fish he’d caught in a grocery bag. He placed the bag between my feet in the back seat of the car, ruffled my hair, and said, “Take care of this one.”
I didn’t smile back at him before he shut the door. And Delilah just sat there, staring out the windshield, saying nothing.
The street lamps were far apart on the country road—as we drove between them, it felt like only the car’s headlights were defending us from the darkness all around.
“You shouldn’t have pushed him in,” Mom said.
“He cut my line,” Delilah said.
“Regardless, you don’t go to someone’s place and push them in the lake.”
“Cassius isn’t likely to invite us there again,” Dad added, looking in the rear-view mirror. “You had a shot.”
“I wouldn’t want to marry that gunda,” said Delilah.
The plastic bag at my feet rustled and went still. The whole ride home I kept picturing the fish flopping on the dock, trying to swim and breathe out of water.
The next morning, Delilah cleaned and cut the fish for lunch. She did it so quickly and easily that I thought she enjoyed it at first. But once the fillets were cooked and we sat down to eat, she refused to taste even one bite. She just sat there as she had in the back of the car, staring into the distance, not saying a word.
Shortly after Ally and I started the new school year, Delilah flew back to Mumbai.
“I thought it would be the winter that would give her trouble,” Mom said. “But she didn’t even get to see the snow.” Ally moved back into her old room again, taking the top bunk with her and making my bed a normal one. At night, it felt strange to not hear Delilah’s snoring in the next room. Ally and I tried playing the games Delilah had taught us, but it wasn’t the same without her stories and riddles.
“Will Delilah ever come back?” I asked Mom.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “Maybe you can go visit her when you’re older.”
“I will, one day,” I said. “I’ll climb the coconut trees in Goa and ride all around on Uncle Quinton’s scooter. Is Xavier still there, too?”
“Xavier?” Mom’s face turned sour almost immediately. “I haven’t heard that name in years. Did Delilah tell you about Xavier?”
I remembered then that Delilah had said not to mention Xavier to Mom, but I didn’t think she would get in trouble after all these years for skipping her tuitions to go fishing. I nodded to my mom.
“She should not have told you.” She clicked her tongue once and shook her head back and forth. “But you shouldn’t worry, he’s not there anymore to hurt children. They chased that Devil out of our village long back.”
I felt like something I’d eaten had gone rotten, but only after it was inside me. I tried my best to bury that feeling, as deep down as I could, but from time to time it showed its ugly head. And yet I still kept hoping that, one day, I would have the courage to go to a place so different, and so far away.