It was well past sunset by the time Madutheen’s burial was over. Those who had been to the burial ground to scatter a fistful of earth on the dead man, as was the custom, walked straight to the shore on their way back and dipped their feet in the sea.

People returning from the burial ground always washed their feet in the sea before heading home. It was an age-old ritual observed in all seaside villages. Evil spirits fled at the touch of the briny waters of the sea, or so the fisherfolk believed. As a matter of fact, in the churches, the priest mixes some salt in the water used for blessing and cleansing rituals and mutters a prayer over the mixture before sprinkling it on the congregation. May the power of the enemy be quelled wherever the holy salt water falls, says the priest even as he anoints people with it.

Barring a few folks from Aamanthurai, those gathered in the muttram outside Chena Pina’s house were largely outsiders – men and women from the neighbouring villages. All their faces were strongly marked by grief. As dusk had already set in, the kith and kin, who had rushed to the burial ceremony from the nearby villages on hearing the news, decided to leave in the morning and so they stretched out in the muttram to spend the night there.

The loud wailing and ritual lamenting inside the house had still not abated. Since the dead man had been very sick, the family decided to bury him the very same evening, fearing what the villagers might say otherwise.

“What are we to tell Thomanthirai when he returns? How are we going to break this news to him?” Vyakulam sounded very worried.

“What did Kagu Samiyar say when he came for the burial, eh? He said he’ll take care of that, didn’t he?” Iruttiyar reminded him.

“Alas, what could Thomanthirai have done even if he had been around? Can he hold back the dying man?” Mandradiyar mused pensively. “Just think of it, poor fellow, he couldn’t cast even a fistful of earth over his annan!”

“Look at the way we fisherfolk have to eke out our living...there’s no way we can convey what’s happening in our homes and village to our men at sea,” sighed Kuttiyandi.

“This is all the effect of some black magic, no doubt. I sensed it the minute I stepped into the house,” Iruttiyar declared.

“Is that why you watched them suffer mutely, as if it was no concern of yours?” Vyakulam vented his annoyance. Irutti was reputed to be the best thollali, sorcerer, around those parts.

“Don’t blabber like a fool, Vyakulam. What do I have against the Chena Pina family? You see, when I played my udukkai yesterday, I sensed something rank and evil in the air. Something wasn’t quite all right. I would’ve alerted Thomanthirai, had he been around. Since he wasn’t here, I didn’t want to tell the womenfolk about it and frighten them. Besides, Madutheen’s condition had worsened by then – it had reached a stage that was beyond remedy, you see. Whoever did this must have hired some washerman, probably a fellow who can’t speak, to cast those evil charms at their doorstep. What’s worse, I fear that Thomanthirai himself will have a tough time getting back home. His life is not in danger, though. I don’t foresee that. But that’s because the evil charm has already had its toll – it has carried away the elder brother, you see,” Iruttiyar concluded in a grim voice.

Vyakulam and Kuttiyandi were listening to him with dropped jaws.

Even though Vyakulam and Kuttiyandi had entered the Christian faith, belief in black magic and fear of evil spirits continued to hold sway over them. As if to corroborate their fears, an odd incident or two happened from time to time, making it quite impossible for them to get over their dread of ghosts and spirits.

Sudden, calamitous deaths at sea; the mysterious death near Mottapuli not long past; and to the east, the case of Amukiyar who was found dead near the lime kiln with blood trickling from his mouth—indeed, the number of people who died of obscure reasons did seem too many to not have their origin in sorcery.

“Chena Pina died in Colombo and they were not even able to bring his body here. As for our Madutheen who just died, all this talk of jaundice is simply not true. This is the work of some evil spirit, no doubt,” Vyakulam contended.

“Going by what Iruttiyar says, will Thomanthirai return safely from Surapaarai? Nothing seems to be sure,” declared Kuttiyandi.

“They are such young fellows – our Thomanthirai, Gothra, and Bosco. Only Mary Aatha and Anthony Ayya can save them now,” sighed Mandradiyar.

Excerpted with permission from Ocean Rimmed World, RN Joe D’Cruz, translated from Tamil by G Geetha, Oxford University Press.