And She Who Read It Had Lost Her Sight is a modern fairy tale quest. One woman searches for happiness and stumbles upon love in the process. It is an ambitious and unusual project, which tackles issues of race, sexuality and armed conflict in today’s society through integrating fairy tales. Yet And She Who Read It Had Lost Her Sight is an easy read which takes its readers on a journey around some of the world’s most interesting but not necessarily best-known places.
Amina is an unsatisfied recently divorced, spoilt young woman looking for new meaning in her life. An intriguing dream makes her realise that she needs to search for a particular shell, which she believes will make her happy. She follows this slightly crazy notion around the world, travelling to Indonesia, Palestine, Sweden and Western Australia in her quest to find a meaning to her ordinary life. Jimilooroo is a young Indigenous man working at the Barr Smith library at the University of Adelaide who finds Amina intriguing and therefore decides to help her.
The quest for the shell is a quest for all those things in life that we cannot quite define. And She Who Read It Had Lost Her Sight is an unusual love story between two very different people who both carry heavy emotional baggage and come to find solace in each other.
‘I will tell you a story’ the old woman says without taking her eyes off the fire. Amina edges closer, watching the woman’s hands as she rearranges the embers with a stick. The morning is still chilly silver. The water a reflection of the soul.
‘Once upon a time there was a young fisherman named Tahel in this very village, who was so good at bringing home fish, people began suspecting he had divine assistance. Every day when the men came home, their wives made grand sacrifices to please the gods. All so that they themselves would one day be the ones in the gods’ favour. But Tahel, who had no wife, just laughed.
‘”My secret is not with the gods”, he said as he carried his baskets ashore, brimming with fish.
‘The other fishermen shook their heads and returned to their own business. Amongst them was a young man whose name is now forgotten. Let’s call him Suri, as it means destruction, and that is what he brought.’
The old woman moves her eyes away from the fire to gaze into the distant hills, heavy with morning mist. The heat hides like a bashful child. Amina waits impatiently while the woman fills the sooty kettle with water from the pump.
The old woman looks surprised to hear Amina’s voice. Her dark eyes play like the flickering flames.
‘Before I can tell you the rest of the story you have to make a promise.’
‘You have to give your word never to retell it.’
Amina hesitates only for a second. ‘Of course. I promise.’
She thinks she will just write it down as a memento of this place.
‘If you wonder why, it is simply because the story belongs here.’
In one of the huts a baby starts crying and is soon soothed by its mother’s calm voice.
‘Anyway, Suri and Tahel had once been good friends but their friendship had turned sour when Suri began feeling jealous about Tahel’s luck.
‘”He is hiding something”, Suri said to the other fishermen. “It has nothing to do with the gods. I will find his secret.”
‘But the older fishermen were wise. They had lived with the ocean all their lives and knew that it was not advisable to lose respect for the gods. Many people had died over the years, sucked down by great swells, and they had no desire to be the next ones to leave grieving widows and children behind.
‘”Leave him be”, they said. “As long as your own nets yield, there is no place for resentment.”
‘But Suri was young and inexperienced and had many mouths to feed. He had already made up his mind that he would find out what Tahel was hiding. So one morning he left earlier than usual. He sailed his boat around the cliffs (the woman points to the protruding mountain in the distance) and hid it in a cave so the other fishermen would think he was already pulling in his nets. From a bit of bamboo he made a snorkel, allowing him to breathe under water. He jumped into the shallows next to Tahel’s boat.
‘Then he waited.
‘Eventually, Tahel arrived, singing, as was his usual way. Suri had tied a rope around his waist and attached it to the stern but Tahel was too busy setting course to notice the extra weight. The boat was light and caught the thin breeze without much swell so Suri managed to keep his bamboo straw above water.
‘Before long, Suri felt the boat slowing down. Tahel anchored and started pulling his nets in. Suri raised his head above water and peered over the side of the boat. To his great surprise, Tahel’s nets were not at all full of fish. On the contrary, the fish were scarce and small, much like the ones he would find in his own nets every morning. Suri stayed with the boat, hoping to find Tahel’s secret but nothing unusual occurred. When all the nets had been pulled in and emptied, Tahel set course for the shore, or so it seemed. As Suri was under water, breathing through his snorkel, he had no way of seeing in which direction the boat was heading.
‘Suri waited. The warm water caressed his body. Tahel sang, for he had a beautiful voice.
‘Suddenly, the water turned dark and the boat slowed down. But Tahel kept singing; a song Suri had never heard before. They were in a cave with brackish water. The air smelled of seaweed and death. Yet Tahel was singing.
‘From the far end of the cave there was a glow, as if from candles, but without flickering. As they approached, Suri realised that the light was coming from a giant shell. It resembled a great white whale beached on a ledge at the back of the cave. Tahel pulled the bow up on the sand while Suri hid in the placid water, watching as Tahel walked over to the shining shell. The song swelled from his lips. To Suri’s astonishment, the shell opened as a fish’s mouth and Tahel stepped in to be swallowed whole when the shell closed as quickly as it had opened.
‘Suri waited and waited. He was getting scared. Just as he was about to swim away from the boat, the shell reopened and Tahel emerged singing. He carried a cane basket brimming with fish. When Suri saw this he realised that the shell must be magical. All the way back to the shore, as he was towed along by Tahel’s overflowing boat, Suri thought about how he could possibly get into the shell and get his fair share of fish.
‘The next day Suri hid again but this time, as he was pulled along, he paid close attention to where they were heading. Tahel went to the same cave, sang the same song and came back with a basket brimming with fish. And so it continued for another couple of days.
‘On the fifth day, Tahel stayed at home as it was the day of rest. Every fifth day the villagers assembled on the beach to thank the gods and celebrate their good fortune.’
The old woman grows quiet. The sun is slowly creeping over the mountain, rays insistently licking the tops of the ancient trees next to them. Only smouldering ashes are left of the fire.
‘When I was a child,’ she says after a while, ‘we still celebrated our good fortune every fifth day.’
Amina waits in silence as the woman pours her another cup of aromatic sweet tea. The stillness is broken by a speedboat swirling around the cliff. They watch it zigzag its way out to sea. The old woman sighs.
‘On the fifth day, Suri did not celebrate his good fortune. Neither did he thank the gods. Instead, he set sail towards Tahel’s hidden cave. When he arrived, everything looked the same. The giant shell radiated a soft yellow light. He started singing as he walked along the sandbank towards it. All around him the walls were crying, dripping into the water, accompanying his song. Suri waited for several minutes but nothing happened. He was just about to acknowledge that it had all been a terrible mistake when the shell slowly opened.
‘What he saw as the shell shut soundlessly behind him made his eyes tremble and his temples pulsate. White velvet walls decorated with intricate patterns of pearls and gems. Suri forgot to sing. The shell stretched much further than he could ever have imagined. Along its walls stood baskets like the ones Tahel had appeared with. They were all empty. Inside the shell the glow was stronger and it seemed to come from the back somewhere. Then a note echoed through the shell:
‘”Why are you no longer singing?”
‘Suri jumped and looked around in desperation to locate the mysterious voice. He felt it must have been a woman speaking, for so sweet and alluring a sound had never before reached his ears.
‘”In here. Come.”
‘He stumbled towards the back of the shell without seeing anything but the glow. As he came closer he realised that it radiated from her, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She sat on a boulder, gesturing for him to step closer.
‘”What do you want?”
‘”Your beauty is known all over the country. I wanted to see it for myself.”
‘Her laugh was a waterfall of pearls showering down on him.
‘Suri gave a deep bow. The glowing woman reached for his hand. To his surprise, the
boulder was soft and accommodating. He sat down and made himself comfortable. Suri was stunned by her strong embrace but when he realised what she wanted from him he gave her all. Her glow grew and fell, projecting his shadow on the walls.’
The old woman shakes her head. It is getting hot already. A few soon-to-turn-pink
tourists are lying on the beach below. Amina tries to imagine what this place could have looked like before they found their way here.
‘Then what?’ Amina coaxes.
‘You know, the usual. The princess got pregnant and had an abortion, Suri left his wife, his kids became smugglers to support their single mother. The community fell apart…’
Amina fumbled with the angry alarm on her bedside table as the woman faded to white. By the time she sat down on the toilet she had forgotten all but the old woman’s dark voice and the glowing shell.
That shell was still hidden somewhere and Amina had a niggling feeling it was calling out to her. If only she could find it…