“There is no such thing as a portrait of a virgin,” Ramesh tells us over cards, after we have fattened ourselves on a dinner of salt rice down in the hold. The night sea sluices and ripples past us at the speed of a rushing snake; in the starlight the water is dark as old blood.
The expected outcry follows this comment: Of course there are portraits of virgins! we have seen many drawn, displayed in diverse conditions, locations, and styles! why, Prabin’s virgin bride-to-be just sat for a miniature, which he has with him tucked within his breast pocket! But Ramesh only clucks at us and shakes his head, repeating that there never was a portrait done of a virgin. Begun? perhaps–but completed? never, not once.
“How can you say this thing?” asks Prabin, clutching his cards in one hand and his breast pocket self-consciously in the other. Ramesh agrees that he will explain himself under the circumstances that Prabin’s hand trumps his own, and we all hope that this time, just this one time, Prabin will unseat Ramesh the Champion so that all our curiosity might be sated, but it is not to be, and Ramesh crows wickedly while sweeping our modest pile of coins into his pouch, and we all go to our hammocks, his statement still racing through our minds.
The next morning, we make land at the home of the tortoises.
* * *
“You cannot say even that it is a tortoise,” says Ramesh. The sun slants in from the east, such that here on the eastern side of the island it seems almost that all things are sunlight: the trees and the scrub-grass and the sand and water all too brightly alight, burning white and blue in our eyes. The tortoises shine, too, their shells like domes in which inlaid gemstones twinkle back the light unequally, boasting their many facets. They are strange, shameless creatures, who first watched curiously as we rowed to shore, and who now allow us to approach them, unalarmed at the sabers we wear at our sides. Some of us touch them, press at their sturdy bodies; some of us even take it upon ourselves to clamber upon their backs, straddle and sprawl like children upon oxen. They sit impassively; they blink their wrinkled eyelids; not a one of them flees. They have never known a natural predator, our captain explained to us when the voyage first began. They will be exceedingly easy to collect, as they do not know enough to run.
“Why can we not say it is a tortoise?” asks Prabin, who stands leaning against one. “It is wrinkled like a tortoise. It moves slowly, as a tortoise does. Its carapace is rigid and round, as a tortoise’s is. In what way is this creature not a tortoise?”
(Some of us notice that Prabin’s hand again flies to touch his breast pocket, as if to check the weight of it.)
“Because, my friend,” answers Ramesh easily, “the learned men in Vienna and Paris and London have not declared them to be so. And until something is declared to be something by the learned men in Vienna and Paris and London, that something cannot be claimed to be anything at all.”
With irritation, Prabin returns, “And what were we, for all those years before we were known in Vienna and Paris and London?”
(Most of us know that Prabin comes from a proud lineage of zamindars, stretching back to the Mughal times, before the advent of the East India Company.)
“Nothing—no, nothing at all,” says Ramesh, “but only a few squabbling families, stamping our own metal with meaningless lines and swapping it for dust. How kind of the learned men of Vienna and Paris and London to tell us that we were Indians—failing this, we should hardly have known ourselves!”
(Many of us laugh at this remark, but Prabin does not join us.)
* * *
“Of course, you know the reason the tortoises have not been classified by the learned men of Vienna and Paris and London,” says Ramesh, sitting in the small rowboat, one of half a dozen similar vessels which we are using to transport the tortoises back toward the ship. We are nearly all of us rowing, our breaths coming ragged and sharp, straining under the weight of the several giant tortoises we have managed to coax onto each boat. Ramesh does not row, but sits at the bow, feet propped onto the nearest tortoise’s back, picking at the dirt underneath his nails with the dull edge of his saber. He speaks loud enough that all the rowers might hear.
(In a boat nearby, Prabin’s breaths scrape the loudest, equally audible to all the rowers, so that we might know that he rows the hardest of us all.)
“The damned things are supposed to be the tastiest beasts on the planet!” cries Ramesh with delight. “Those white-skinned men simply cannot keep from cutting them up and heating them to eat. It is said that their flesh is like the most succulent of meats, the most sacred of mutton. It is said that the fat which is boiled off of them melts on the tongue more gently and more beautifully than the clearest ghee. Even the most loyal of naturalists, the most dedicated to the task of bringing back a live specimen for study, has been unable to find a crew that can carry the silly creatures all those weeks across the ocean without picking its bones clean—and more often than otherwise, the naturalist himself is found with the fat on his mouth!” Ramesh roars with laughter. “And so they have called for us, we who do not consume the flesh of animals, a practice which they abhor utterly and which now has become our most valuable asset. The captain told me the price he has leveraged in return for even one of these monsters, alive and in London, and it is enough to purchase a small kingdom.”
Even those of us who have already heard this story enjoy hearing it again. Some of us laugh at the white men’s stupidity, their hypocrisy, their desperation. Others of us like the idea that there is a task that our kind alone can achieve. Still others enjoy the part in which Ramesh tells us of the tortoises’ taste: how tender, how molten, how sweet.
* * *
Little surprise, then, that the tortoises begin to disappear, not a week into our voyage: one at first, then two, then four-—but they are so abundant, clinking and climbing together down below that at first little notice is taken, and not until some dozen are gone does the captain call us together onto the deck and address us, chastise us for our ungodliness, complain about his unclean crew and their barbarian, flesh-eating practices. Under his orders, we purify ourselves, singing shlokas of the Ganges and blotting our faces with water and oil. It is enough to shame us, but not enough to stop the temptation, and the tortoises continue disappearing, and the captain continues calling us to order, to purify ourselves, and, increasingly, to turn informant against our fellows. None step forward, until one day Prabin approaches the captain, announces in a loud and carrying voice that he has heard the lowly Ramesh speaking lustfully of the exceptional taste of the beasts, and how else would he know to speak so sensuously of them except that he had consumed their flesh himself?
“Can it be so?” demands the captain, turning to Ramesh, and to the rest of us. We all cried out against this accusation—in our hearts. Our mouths were silent.
“What, am I supposed to have eaten twenty of the things all by myself?” asks Ramesh, laughing and pinching at his stomach. “Have I grown fat as a king? Have sense, all of you.” But Prabin, hand over his breast pocket, simply points to Ramesh, and some four of us grab him at his arms and legs, and at the captain’s instruction we lock him down below, where he is to await the captain’s judgment.
There is by this time but one tortoise remaining, wandering the cargo hold, surrounded by boxes and barrels and the scooped-out shells of its slaughtered kin, stacked like bowls in the corner, so high that the column they form nearly brushes the ceiling. Still the last tortoise has not learned to fear: that night, as we all play cards, it hovers about us like a lap dog, heedless of our sabers, taking our mercy for granted.
I sit among the men, holding my cards and desperate to ignore how the tortoise presses in against my leg. Its gentleness, its trust, its innocence—all are too much for me to bear. When my hand has done I quit the group, wander the ship in search of silence. I find Prabin on the deck, staring outward at the sea. I observe him without myself being seen, watch him gazing into the east as though he can see his home just before him, his mother and his father and his brothers and his sisters and his servants and his bride-to-be, the delicate woman from the miniature with animate arms, veiling herself and smiling her secret, welcoming smile.
A moment’s walk finds me at a locked door, the one behind which Ramesh has been stowed. When I call through, his voice—gleeful as ever—answers me.
“Of all the men, I am not surprised it is you who has come to comfort me in my difficulty,” he says easily. “You, who hail from the same village as I do. You, whom I have known since your infancy. Always so sharp, so curious.”
“Please, Ramesh, I must know,” I say. “I must understand what you meant, when you spoke of the portraits of virgins.”
He only laughs as though I have said something foolish. “Tomorrow,” he says. “After the captain has judged me. Tomorrow, I shall tell you.”
“I beseech you,” I press, my curiosity too hungry for such brutal uncertainties. “Tell me now.”
“Very well,” says Ramesh. “For your mother’s sake I will tell you—I knew her in her youth, as well, you see. If a virgin sits for a portrait, if the man who paints her dwells too long upon her features, her form, then he will seduce her, and her virginity will be lost.”
So simple an answer! I am far from satisfied. “But, I do not understand. Not all painters behave after this fashion.”
“Yes, they do. The lure of the unmarked, the unsullied, the untested—it is too great to be resisted. Is this not a painter’s duty, to fill a blank space? Even should she refuse him, or even should he never take his hand from his brush, he has seduced her in his mind, and so the woman who appears on his canvas is the woman he has possessed, not the blameless creature who sits before him.”
I am silent. Ramesh’s laughter trickles through the gap in the door.
“Still you are not satisfied? Very well, then, let me tell you something true, something that occurred not so long ago, in our own village. There was a wealthy man who thought to have his daughter painted, and who knew the truths which I have spoken to you. He planned to avoid this fate by commissioning a female artist, a court painter of some significant renown, to come to our village and to paint his daughter’s portrait. The painting took shape over several days, and each day the wealthy man checked its progress, which was pleasing to him. Until one day when he entered the room where the painting was being done he found…”
“Yes?” I ask, when Ramesh’s voice disappears. I worry I have lost the end of the story in the thickness of the door between us, the sound of the sea coming from all sides.
“Return to the other men, and you will see what the wealthy man found.”
* * *
I sit once more amongst the others, cards in hand and the tortoise again carving his unsuspecting path this way and that way beneath our feet. We play at our cards with less and less interest, watching instead the tortoise’s plodding progress. Our fistful of salt rice came and went hours ago; our stomachs begin to roil and churn and cry out against the indignities we are suffering. Some of us allow our hands to drift to the sabers at our sides, and I begin to understand what Ramesh must have been trying to say to me, but even afterward I do not fully grasp it. I will not grasp it until the following morning, after Ramesh has been stood on the gangplank while his crimes are recited. I will not grasp it even as the captain looks into each of our faces, waiting for an objection that never arrives; nor even as the Ramesh is pitched out and into the water. No, the meaning of Ramesh’s half-told tale will not fully arrive until the man himself is disappearing into the distant sea mists, while the rest of us stand, each one of us staring out as our old compatriot and friend blurs into nothingness. Heedless of the bosun’s sharp calls to work, the crack of the captain’s pistol shooting into the sky, we remain rooted to the deck as if we have sprouted from its wood. The taste of the tortoise lingers incriminatingly in all our mouths, its richness too enchanting for any tongue to resist.
Rachel Cochran is a PhD candidate studying creative writing and 19th-century studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Ohio Review, Deep South Magazine, Glassworks, Literary Orphans, and others, and have won the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner fiction award and the New Ohio Review’s nonfiction contest. She is currently working on her dissertation project, a 19th-century murder mystery novel entitled Beefeaters. Find her on Twitter at @_RachelCochran.