The China-Maldives friendship bridge is the largest infrastructure project in the Maldives’ history, stretching out over the rough Raalhugandu channel, where myth suggests Abu al Barakat banished the Rannamaari before converting the nation to Islam.
But what happens when modernity drives a road through 900 years of folklore…
Ahmed peered out from the portacabin into the driving rain that swept in from the angry surf of Raalhugandu. The temporary buildings on the construction site were proving no match for the extreme weather that had battered the south-eastern tip of Male for days.
The unexpected storm surge had halted work on the China-Maldives friendship bridge after one worker was swept from a boat in the channel by a freak wave. Others from the Chinese company had downed tools, reporting strange lights in the water around the giant barges tasked with linking the airport and capital islands.
Despite assurances from the meteorological department that the weather would soon pass, its intensity only increased. And though the Chinese workers waited stoically in their on-site lodgings, the gales ripping through the camp began to carry rumours of curious phenomena on the land.
Shrouded figures were seen passing through the restricted site. One man reported seeing a dog-like creature in his room, despite the island’s prohibition on canines. Others had suddenly fallen ill with fever, in numbers disturbing even for the tropics.
The foreman, under strict orders from his political superiors in Beijing, had refused the men’s pleas to evacuate. But when a raging wind ripped the roof from the sleeping quarters, he grasped gratefully at the chance to remove his men. Upon doing so he found that three were unaccounted for.
Ahmed was the Maldivian government’s representative on the site and had stayed on, albeit reluctantly. The project was already behind schedule and any further delays would cost him his job, he knew that. Playing a key role in the success of the project could set him and his family up for life. In Male’s fickle politics, this was a rare opportunity.
But behind these pragmatic considerations, a deep fear was rising. An illogical superstition at the heart of his being that he shared with all those who grew up with island folklore. His boss knew it too; after Ahmed had told him of the events in camp, he had refused point-blank to come across the city, stammering some vague and quivering excuses.
Despite their difference in status, both men were steeped in the same mythology. Raised amid the unchanging Indian Ocean, still fathomless in the face of modernity. They thought the same thoughts.
Maybe the construction had disturbed it? Wasn’t it just a story?
Bowing to instinct, Ahmed took the only action he could think of, recalling the tales of his youth as the world around him began to slip into fantasy.
The rest of the crowded city seemed an ocean away as he began to recite the Quran on the now-deserted site. Throughout the night his voice competed with the deafening roar from the ocean outside, the melodic Arabic seeming to both enrage and becalm the terrifying tempest.
Frightful hours later, the apologetic dawn offered him temporary respite. But the storm continued to froth on the horizon.
Three nights had passed like this. The thumping rain and the furious wind continued, as did Ahmed’s recitations in his fragile house of worship on the shore. But during the fourth night, his concentration was broken by a bright light outside his rattling window.
No ships were allowed through the channel, he thought, but perhaps the weather has driven someone off course.
Then, through the sheets of rain he saw it. At first far away but getting bigger. A surreal phosphorescence gliding across the water towards him. A ship of a thousand lights.
He turned away from the blinding spectre, clawed at the book and dropped to his knees. Holding the pages close to his face for fear of what his peripherals might show him.
His panicked voice grew louder. The wind and the rain grew louder. The light grew louder. It filled the room.
Suddenly the wind stopped. The pounding of the rain and the howling of the wind in his ears ceased in an instant. Hearing only his own whimpered breaths, Ahmed tried to readjust the pressure in his ears, fearing he had gone deaf.
It was over, he thought, gripping the book close to his chest.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ he sobbed.
And then he heard it. His knuckles turned white against the bound leather.
A whisper so close to him that it was almost inside his head. Cold and deep as the ocean.
‘Where is Barakat?’