I am not supposed to be here. Beach and sea are advised against when it’s dark, and even more so lately because there have been warnings of sharks around the island. Fins are harder to see when the blackness of the sky seeps into the water, when even the warm light of the stars is obscured by cloud. The sea, though, is gentle around my ankles. There’s nothing here, it seems to say. Just water. Come on in.
So I do. I wade out a few metres, to where the shifting sand drops away and the water tickles my bare waist. This skin beyond forearms and calves is allowed at the beach; the sand a permeable boundary between land and sea, body and clothes, the ashram behind and the world beyond. Yoga students, always modestly covered in the ashram grounds, lie here in bikinis and read the Bhagavad Gita. Swamis roll up their robes to paddle. There is playfulness, sometimes – a water fight, a volleyball game – and there is serenity too. When the air and water are calm, a shimmering aquamarine stretches all the way to the horizon.
Now there is only the soft splash of wave on sand somewhere behind me. In front of me, the water parts for my body. Come on in. My breast stroke, in this insulating darkness and in the absence of watching eyes, feels smooth and strong. I barely create a ripple. The sea’s stillness sinks through my skin, through my body, through my mind, and I tread water for a moment, listening. Stillness, I realise, has a sound beyond silence.
Mindful of sharks, I turn and begin to swim parallel to the shore. Slowly, and not too far out; with a couple of good kicks my feet would touch sand again. It’s soft here, not gritty like the sand I’m used to at home. It runs through fingers like powder. I could spend hours playing with it, covering myself with it, watching it dance with the tides. Further back from the sea it becomes scrubbier, and bushy plants burst from it in the protective shade of the palm trees. I don’t know what they are. I always mean to ask someone, or to look them up online, but I always forget. The internet here is another porous membrane, a thin veil that lies between the ashram and the outside, sometimes on and sometimes off, a compromise dependant on festivals and rainstorms and hurricanes and meditation times. Better, often, to forget it even exists.
The palm tree fronds rustle in even the slightest breeze, but tonight there is nothing. All I can hear is the lapping of water against my skin, and a rhythmic breath that might be mine or might be the sea’s.
Yesterday, I received a new name. A new name for this new path, this spiritual path, this different me that gets up at five every morning to meditate and practice yoga and study philosophy. It’s an honour, this new name, a sign of the traditional lineage whose teacher’s names disappear back over centuries, and I shed my old name easily. Too easily, perhaps, like a tree shaking off its leaves overnight in an autumn storm. (I don’t know why or how it had become so constrictive, a weight that seemed to hang from every limb, a mask made to cover my entire body with a painted face that looked nothing like mine. An old family heirloom that I feel slightly guilty for not wanting.) But this new name hasn’t quite settled yet. The responsibility of it makes me nervous. It slips around on my skin, buffeted now by the water and the stretch of my breast stroke. Each syllable is slowly swept by my hands, away from my chest and back towards my body; each breath in is an uttering of it, deconstructed, as if that might help to absorb it, to make it my own. Ruk-mi-ni. Ruk-mi-ni. Rukmini. Rukmini. I say it so often that the word becomes distorted, bloated and strange like a thing that has been in the water too long. Ruk-mi-ni. All day people have been calling me by this name. All day I’ve been answering them, consciously remembering that they are talking to me, now. This is my name.
On impulse, forgetting all about sharks, I flip my legs towards the sky and dive. The water holds me, closes over me like a womb. In each drop of water that surrounds me I can hear the sound of rain, the sound of a river flowing across mountains, the sound of a waterfall the sound of a lake at sunrise. Plunging down, arms outstretched for the sandbank I know is close by, I shed skin and bone and flesh and become pure water, clear as melted ice and warm as a bath. My eyes are closed. I don’t have goggles; I’m trusting to the memory of daylight swims to know where I am and what might be down here. But I’m certain that if I opened them now I would not see solid darkness, but a thousand shades of light and shadow. Down here in this world that is not the world, with my breath slowly running out, I wonder what is held in a name if not a body. What am I if I have dissolved, what am I if not my name? In a final rush of upward bubbles, an answer comes: the sea, a horizon of possibility.
I surface, sucking in the night air as if it were my first breath. The ocean is on my lips. My tongue tastes salt, the echo of sunlight, the endlessness of water. Pushing my hair out of my eyes, I can see the lights of the resort hotel over in the next bay; I’ve swum nearly all the way to the promontory, the rocky tip of the island laid bare. Morning meditation sometimes takes place here. After a silent walk through the sunrise, we sit at this edge and face east, the last of the night behind us and the new day ahead. A few more strokes from here will bring my feet to where they can touch the bottom and then I can wade rather than swim, my body emerging, sea dripping from my skin into the warm night air.
My legs stumble, adapting to walking through the last of the rippling waves, and catching myself I remember the sharks. It’s so dark I’ll never know if I saw one in the distance or not. They are shy creatures unless provoked. But I’m not ready to go back just yet, to walk the length of the beach, to slip through the gap in the palm trees that forms the entrance to the ashram, to crawl back into my tent and try to sleep. Instead, I let my feet find their way to the first rock, a softly rounded lump in the sand. It’s my favourite because of its out-of-placeness among the powdered sugar sand, its simple act of being where it doesn’t seem to belong. Without thinking, I find myself saying my name with each step, whispering it aloud for the whole night to hear. Ruk-mi-ni. Rukmini. Each part of it has been smoothed by the sea so that now it rolls, twisting pleasantly around my tongue, still strange but no longer awkward. Rukmini.
I sit with my back against the rock, facing east, and watch as the first strands of violet begin to thread their way across the sky.
Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor. Her work has been recently published / is forthcoming in Gone Lawn, Lunate, Wild Roof Journal, and Past Ten, and she is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform. When not travelling, she lives on the edge of a wood in northern England and complains incessantly about the weather. You can follow her travels and writing journeys on Instagram.