At the end of the nine-day Durga
Festival in Benares, the images,
from whom the goddess has
departed, are thrown into the
sacred River Ganges.

The Goddess Durga
rides through the city, spear poised
at the demon's heart.
Tumblers, dancers,

flutes and drums
bring down to the river
the life-sized idols in their glittering robes,
jewels at wrist and throat.

Boats wait, ringed
with lights, to row
the images into deep water.
From silt-washed stairs
children send paper rafts with lighted candles
bobbing and whirling down the stream.

We crowd into a heavy, black-prowed boat
with other watchers. But the boatman
nudges the craft
away from the throng, the images,
the wailing flutes,
past shadowy ghats, ashen remains of pyres,
past crumbling walls with pillared balconies
that once housed rajahs.

The Ganges widens, swift
and black. The oarsman
rows hard against the current,
and drops of sacred water splash our hands.
We wipe them, secretly, against our clothes.

A dark, lop-sided rowboat
crosses our bow,
makes for the opposite shore with muffled strokes.
Inside, drenched glistening skirts,
a bangle-circled arm, a drowned thing
lies across the thwarts.
Salvage, theft, ritual,
the oarsman hooded in darkness
gives no sign. Our fellow passengers
seem not to see.
And no one speaks.

Our boatman turns, we drift,
the river taking us,
and we, my friend and I,
fall fast asleep and have to be awakened
when it is time to pay
and go ashore.

The crowd
is denser than before, the night more frantic.
Jostled and pushed along the road
we talk uneasily
of what we were not shown
and what we were. The moon
cuts from each boat a wavering shadow,
and still the images
come to be drowned.