Author’s note: This is a painting-promt story based on my four-year-old daughter’s painting ‘Stork in Dress’. Please don’t look for logic. There is none.
Long ago, a stork was in love with a princess or, to be more accurate, in love with the long, flowing dresses she wore. He wished he could have one for himself. He spent long fruitless hours standing alone in the pond in front of her window in the palace grounds, looking grumpily at the princess.
One evening, when the drowsy sun dipped its feet in the carmine horizon and an orange moon rose in the star-studded sky rubbing its eyes, he saw something that looked like a large insect near the pond. Contemplating eating it, he stalked closer. The ‘thing’ magicked the beautiful rose bushes to look like cactus with flowers–he realised it wasn’t an insect but a sprite. Sprites are eternal mischief-makers with magic. A plan formed in his mind.
Taking her by surprise, he caught the sprite in his beak by one arm. The sprite cried out in pain, “It hurts! Let me go.” With his mouth still closed to keep a grip on the fae, he muffled out, “Promise to give me anything I ask for?” Writhing, she cried, “I promise!” He let her go and sat her on a rock.
The sprite was angry but fae can’t lie–she had promised and would have to give him anything he asks for. But, there is always a loophole, so, she asked, “What would you like me to do?” The stork said, “I want a dress just like the one the princess is wearing today–the one with rainbow colours.” The sprite thought for a moment and smiled, “So shall it be, then. I will weave you a dress out of light.”
The stork was excited beyond words. The sprite quickly called upon her powers. The lake waters shined like crystals, splitting the light of the setting sun and the rising moon into thousands of colourful ribbons. The sprite quickly wove the ribbons of light in to a dress even more breathtaking as that of the princess. The bodice shined on its own and sparkled against the palace’s crystal windows drawing gazes of the residents.
At the sprite’s nudging, the stork greedily put it on, but his wings would not fit in.
“Oh! The dress looks rather weird on your thin waist and legs, and your wings cannot enter it’s sides. Would you like a human body to go with it too?”
“Oh! Of course!”
So, the sprite mumbled as the stork looked at his reflection in the pond, admiring his gradually changing body: human legs, stomach, chest, hands, neck, hair…
…and the sprite vanished. He still had the stork’s face!
He was irritated in extreme. Now he will have to catch the sprite again to complete the change. In all this excitement, he missed the fact that he stood in the palace grounds smack in front of the princess’ window as half a human in a dress that shined like a beacon. The palace servants had seen him changing his body without spotting the tiny sprite. Now all of them ran towards him, brandishing swords and pitchforks, shouting, “Monster! Monster!”
He attempted to fly away but his wings were gone. He tried to swim away in the pond but his dress, now wet, pulled him down, nearly drowning him. He came out of the pond somehow hoping to run away, but too many men surrounded him. No one asked him questions.
He never saw when his life-blood seeped into the rainbow dress he had wrested out of an irate sprite.
When I was brought home, everybody had rushed out to fawn over me. Ever since, it was all the way downhill for me. For years, I was the most abused creature in existence–people walked all over me. They threw things at me without faintest sign of remorse. In fact, one rainy day, when water seeped in from the windows, I was left to shiver in cold. Nobody thought of mopping me up until the next morning!
Now that I am old and frayed at the edges, they’ve left me out for the garbage truck to pick up. Life is so unfair!
How much time would it take to build a coffin by hand?
He wasn’t fond of the job but, atleast, he will have one when he dies…soon, considering it was one of the last trees on Earth. So far, he had recharged his Oxygen cylinder using the tree that lived in his yard for the past 57 years but storm uprooted it last night. He wasn’t rich enough to afford buying Oxygen…
Even if the coffin is ready on time, who will lay him in it? Everyone he knew was already dead. Should he lower it in a grave and hop in while waiting for his cylinder to empty?
In our last edition, we had revealed the heinous government policy of shooting flying fishes for target practice in a blatant infringement of Right to Life. The public uproar that ensued forced the government to change its policies, enforcing the use of mechanised manaquinns for practice instead. In this issue, yet again, we are raising concerns against mindless shooting by government officials for a completely different reason.
The concern stems from a recent report by Dr Hammerhead, a famous Ecologist claiming that the quality of water around the Atlantis Triangle has deteriorated greatly in the past couple of centuries. It now contains dangerous levels of Iron, Aluminum and Asbestos. Earlier last year, his team was contacted by the head of Coral Tribes Council (CTC) about the discolouration of their ancestral sites across Atlantis. Upon furthur research, it was found that that ancient Coral colonies that form the top spires of Atlantis Castle since the beginning of times are the most affected. A detailed study clarified the reason being the concerning levels of Asbestos, Iron and Aluminium in water.
The report has come right after last month’s environmental report on the changing ecology of Atlantis Triangle, claiming a twenty-fold rise in microbial infestation in the area in the past couple of centuries and swelling number of poaching and illegal hunting activities by rogue Sharks, raising the risk of biological imbalance.
While these reports may seem disconnected, they are linked closely together to mindless shooting and the Atlantis Ship-wreak yards.
Some of you might be aware that Atlantis Triangle has three large Ship-wreak yards, each situated on its three corners. They were created to dispose off the human ships shot down by King Poseidon to ‘safeguard his territory from illegal infiltration’. Now, these yards have grown large enough to look like iron islands peeking out of the sea because of the numerous ships and flying planes collected over the centuries. The spaces between ships provide ideal hiding spaces for poaching Sharks. Their woodwork and the stuff-humans-wear they carried has rotted for years causing microbial infestation in the surrounding areas leading to breathing problems and various skin and gills infections. The Iron, Asbestos and Aluminium from these ships are now part of Altlantis water causing the said Coral discolouration.
The research team has suspicions that the same could also be the cause of tail-scales decay in the senior citizens, the expanding numbers of eye-problems in Cyclops population and early aging signs in otherwise immortal sea-nymphs. According to Dr Hammerhead, it would require a detailed study of entire population of Atlantis to understand the exact effects and funding worth several million sea-oysters.
When we contacted King Poseidon for his comment, his first reply was that of causal dismissal. In his own words, “I have read the reports and am arranging some strong waves to be sent to wash away the minerals from the area.”
When we asked if he finally plans to stop shooting ships and flying planes, he said, “I will continue to do what it takes to keep my territory safe. I can’t secure all oceans due to the amount of vigilance required but I will not let those pests infect my capital.” He also commented on human intelligence, saying, “They just don’t stay out. Even after losing so many ships and planes, they haven’t learnt enough to mark out our territory as hostile and give it a wide berth. Instead, they send ships that can deep-dive to search for their lost ships. Such Assfish!”
When we commented that humans can’t see the city hidden below water and have no way of marking the territory on waves, the King blamed us for supporting the ‘enemy’ and threatened to use his trident on us. While leaving, one of the guards escorting us threatened to turn us into fried fish if we did not cooperate.
Meanwhile, CTC has called out King Poseidon’s bluff saying that he is just missing old times when wars with Zeus came often; that he is itching to use his trident on someone or something. They are protesting against the mindless shooting and resulting ecological problems by building colonies in the middle of palace gates, blocking the main pathway.
We urge you to support them in their cause by joining the mass protest at the Whale Bone park this Dies Solis being arranged by the FishMatters organisation. Let us pledge our support to our fellow citizens and save our environment and cultural landmarks from desecration.
The sun hangs at the horizon leaving a trail of blood in the sky. The hot summer evening is thick with anticipation as the Sadhu casts a circle of protection in front of the Peepal tree. Unintelligible murmurs of incantations fill the silence as the old couple quietly watches the proceeding with apprehension. The goat they had raised as their own child is tied to the tree, bleating, pleading for its life. It is inconsolable, as though it already knows the impending doom.
The old woman sniffs and the man suppresses a groan. They have no choice. Their youngest daughter is now 20 and past the age of marriage. They have tried finding a groom but she’s a Manglalik. According to her star chart, anyone who marries her would die an early death. Of course, they don’t believe in any of it but other people do. They are desperate and ready to marry her off to anyone, even a widower with children, so that she would have someone to take care of her once they died. But no luck so far. Their sons, her brothers, had assured them that they would take care of her but it is hard to trust.
A couple of days back, this Sadhu appeared at their doorstep, asking for alms. At first, they were afraid to look at him–dressed in a black loin cloth, with ashes from shamshan (cemetry) on his forehead and a necklace of human bones. As soon as he saw their daughter, he had proposed a solution–a ceremonial marriage of their daughter with the Peepal tree and the sacrifice of a black goat to ward off the bad luck. Their daughter had cried for hours, declining to let her favourite goat die but it is the only black goat they have.
The Sadhu has chosen the old Peepal tree in the forest for the ceremony. As he started drawing the red circle, they had requested him to consider another Peepal tree with a better reputation but failed to convince him. In the day light, it looks harmless enough but the receding light leaves shivers down their spine. The stories of the evil spirits ring in their ears as they look at their daughter sitting in front of the yajna fire inside the circle. Prepared as a bride in a set of red blouse and Banarasi sari, and all her gold jwellery, she looks a picture of loveliness. Yet, there is no joy on her face, only resignation to the inevitable. Her palms still held wet henna that her mother had hastily applied last minute and never got the time to dry.
As the sun threatens to drown over the horizon, they step towards the circle of protection. But the Sadhu waves them out. “The circle protects only one person apart from me. Your daughter is part of ceremony, so she must stay. The rest of you must return to the village right away before night falls and spirits awake.”
The girls eyes widen with fear, “Amma, don’t leave me alone!”
“Of course, we won’t, dear. Baba ji, you never said that we have to leave…”
“And what will you do here? Protect her from the evil spirits?” Suddenly, comprehension dawns over his face, “Oh! You don’t trust me around her…the man who spent the past 25 years rejecting all his body needs–sleep, food, clothing…everything…in pursuit of God’s way…You dare blame me of wanting to befoul your daughter.” There was an edge of menace in his voice that brings them down on their knees.
“Please, Baba ji, don’t be angry. You must understand the predicament of parents of an unmarried daughter. If we leave her behind, tongues willl wag.”
“In that case, you can take her back. But the ceremony has already started. If she leaves midway, I cannot guarantee her safety. The spirits of the Peepal will haunt her forever…” The Sadhu lowers his voice lightly to hide the rising temper, “If you stay outside circle, the spirits will possess you. If you step inside, I will not have enough power to protect any of you and it will endanger your daughter as well.”
The last beams of sunlight fall on the bride’s face streaked with tears. She seems petrified with fear. Thay can’t stay and she can’t leave the circle. The Sadhu commands with all the force he can summon, “I am not here to waste my time. If you want me to help her, you leave now. Else, you can take her and damn her to a life with demons. I don’t care either way…”
The silence that ensues enrages him further. He gets up to leave but they hang to his feet, begging, “Please forgive us, Baba ji. We are leaving. We will return in a couple of hours…”
“Do not return before dawn until the spirits are asleep again or I do not guarantee your safety.”
They hang their heads and leave immediately, promising to return for the crying girl with the first light.
The night is spent pacing around the house waiting for the day to break. When the anticipation overshadows fear, they return with their sons long before the birds wake. The forest is still dark and the yajna’s fire is visible from a distance, cackling with power. The Peepal tree is a monster with open jaws daring them to come closer. A limp, thin, ravaged girl with torn red clothes hangs from a low branch, her Banarasi sari tied around her neck. The Sadhu lies outside the circle of protection with the ceremonial knife stuck in his throat.
The goat bleats in mourning.
Soon after, the village talks in hushed voices about the spirits of Peepal tree who have now acquired a taste for young female flesh. As for the torn red cloth in the fist of the dead Sadhu and henna on the hilt of knife–such things better be left unspoken…
Last Saturday, at the party, I was sure the duchess was flirting with me to secure her third husband. Her first marriage had left her a rich widow and the second made her a widowed duchess. Now, with no sons, it seemed natural to look for a third husband to take care of all the accumulated estate…someone like me with tremendous wealth but no title. I had spent the golden years of my life building myself from a nobody to a prosperous businessman and the next few enjoying the success and money. I had been with numerous women but none of them really left an impression, except their lip colour on my shirts and their hands down my money pouch. At 41, I’m running out of choices. It’s high time for me to find a wife too, so I lead her on. I knew I’d never love her but she had class.
But as she invited me home for lunch, she moved the topic to her daughters who, according to her, were both the finest specimens of the fairer sex–beautiful, charming, intelligent, well-read and well-versed in arts. She mentioned looking for grooms for them and ‘hoped I would find them agreeable’.
Something did not add up. If they were even half as good as their mother, they would have a long line of suitors of their age. Why would she want them to marry me who is double their age? For my money?
Curious, I accepted the invitation.
Today, as my carriage drives into their estate, I see a long-running crack in the magnificent garden statue; unkept flower beds; a water fountain that has long dried out; and the wooden floor under the porch creaks…the beginning of the end.
So, money it is…
I knock and a rather pretty girl in her best house-help uniform answers the door. Ella, as she introduces herself, bids me to enter. Her eyes downcast, she informs me, “The Duchess and her daughters are out for an ‘urgent chore’. She has requested you to wait for them. They’ll be back later this afternoon.”
It doesn’t make sense, unless they have found someone richer. Or may be, the announcement of the King’s ball to find a bride for the Crown Prince has averted their gaze to greener pastures.
I should just leave. But Ella is clearly apologetic. Her eyes are pleading me to understand that she isn’t responsible for all this. She is embarrassed at her employers’ indiscretion. I had been there too many times. In my early jobs, when I was a nobody, my employers put me upfront to deal with angry customers. If I leave now, she would think of me as arrogant. For some unfathomable reason, I don’t want her to think I’m arrogant. So, I step inside to wait for the hostess who wouldn’t return for a couple of hours.
It’s all too weird. My stepmother has kept me up all night to finish my endless chores before he’s due. She ordered me to get presentable to wait upon this guest while they all dealt with this ‘urgent chore’, whatever it is. Why even one of them couldn’t stay back is totally beyond me.
Why are they avoiding him? Doesn’t he have enough money to their liking? His two-horse-drawn carriage is certainly worth four times our own. He looks regal, right from his formal suit, diamond cufflinks to his silk tie. His brown wavy hair has a slight sprinkling of greys.
Maybe, they think he’s too old to consider…Well, they are wrong. He’s quite handsome and fit, unlike their noble suitors whose age you could guess from the size of their girth. When he introduced himself, his smile made me gasp. He smells like the Arabian perfume that father used to love.
Right now, I feel for him. Once I gave him mother’s message, he looks downright embarrassed for being so easily dismissed. He was clearly expecting to meet my step-sisters. May be, it is better he doesn’t. Marrying them would lead to lifelong shame-facing. I serve him tea and try to be good company.
We talk about books that my sisters have placed strategically in the drawing-room to be able to brag in front of the suitors that they have read them. I tell him of my favourite place in the world, my father’s library. He’s curious, so I take him on a tour. He looks around the library in awe, touching book spines like they were made of flower petals. His fingers are hardened with old marks of callouses. I wonder if he’s had a past like mine. We talk about more books. He laughs. It’s a nice, open laughter without pretence; one that I can get used to. I offer him my favourite book to pass the time while waiting.
Back in the drawing room, he points at the piano, curious who plays it. Too lost in his voice and too busy trying to not stare at him, I blurt out the truth, “It was mine before father passed away…” I clasp my mouth at the admission.
“Yours? Are you the daughter of the late Duke?”
I nod quietly, glancing at my clothes–clean but far below the status of my family, knowing how far-fetched the story seems. Will he mention it to mother? She will burn me at the stake…or in the oven…
But his eyes hold no judgement, only understanding, “So, after your father died, she took over the estate and turned you into housemaid?”
I nod again.
“Is there anything I could do to remedy your situation? I could request an audience with the king. He is just. He would ensure you are provided your share in the property.”
My eyes well up at the unexpected sympathy, “Thank you for the offer. I, too, could have applied to the king. But I’d rather stay home and sweep the floor than drag my family through dirt.”
Ever since I saw her, it has been difficult to look elsewhere. My eyes had been drawn to her face. But now, I see her in a different light.
Is she for real? She cares for a family that reduced her to a maid. Her little hands in the lap are full of calluses from the daily hard labour. I can see the blue marks peaking out of her shirt sleeve where she had been hit with a cane over and over. And she doesn’t want to change that for her family’s honour?
I cross the distance between us to where she stands. She looks so vulnerable as she looks at me with surprised gaze. I take her hands in mine, as gently as I can, “You know, Ella, I always thought that women like you had ceased to exist.”
Her hands fit in mind perfectly and her face is a picture of subdued beauty that comes from forgiveness and love. Suddenly, I know I will not be able to forget this face or walk out of this place leaving her behind. It is clear what I have to do.
“I came here seeking a bride. I think I’ve found one–if, of course, you’ll have me. Will you?”
She’s surprised and hesitant, “I’m afraid, it won’t be appropriate, considering I am just a maid. I won’t have my father’s name or property to bring along.”
“I don’t care about the title and I have enough money to last several lifetimes. All I care about is whether you like me? Would you like to spend your life with a man like me who doesn’t have a family title, but who fell in love with you the moment he saw you?”
She blushed a deep red and nodded sheepishly, “I think, I did too.”
“Of course, you have my blessings, my dears. I’ll arrange the two of you to get married this Sunday. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be much of a fanfare because the time is short…”
I don’t think they cared for the size of celebration any way.
When we had returned, Ella was in his arms, as I had expected. She’s captivating even when covered in cinders from the oven. Being dressed decently and left alone for two hours was more than enough to bring a marriage proposal. As for Ella, she couldn’t wait to be shot of us. She would have married a horse, had it proposed her, just to get away from us.
So, now that all has gone according to my plan, she will be married a week before the Royal Ball. Thank goodness for that too! Of course, we will need to hire household help, so it wil be a little inconvenient, but with her out of the way, my beautiful daughters are sure to win the Prince’s heart.
I drag my feet to the bus shelter. The night was nearly over and I had nothing to show for it. I push the gnawing hunger down until…
There was a time when men would throng this area after the late-night movie in the hall close by, eager to get behind the bushes with anyone who showed the slightest piece of skin. It was a life of plenty then. But not anymore.
The virus had changed it all. Movie halls are closed. Men are wary of strangers. The mask makes it difficult to bare my supple lips, the biggest draw in otherwise petite frame, but without a mask, they would be even more vary. No one is ready to risk the disease for the sake of pleasure. I really can’t hang a board in my neck declaring that I am vaccinated…
Not that I am vaccinated anyway.
A pang of hunger pushes me to quicken my pace towards the bus shelter. There is always someone there, returning from a late-night job or a soiree…
I turn the corner and look expectantly. A lonely figure is huddled on the bench waiting for the next bus that wouldn’t be here for a bit–a woman! I sigh, but I have to try. I step forward from the shadows, flash cleavage towards her and make a ‘follow me’ sign towards the shadows. She visibly cringes and averts her gaze.
I sigh again.
I hate the bus shelter’s light, but I’m hungry and desperate. So, I make a mad dash, hold the girl’s face in my hands and dig my teeth in her neck…
The News Reader’s impersonal drawl filled the air while the king ground his Sodium pincers in anger, “As unprecedented hatred rises in the air between citizens of different colonies, people can be seen rallying the streets with hydro-guns.
They are drowsing each other with Hydrogen Dioxide, melting countless people into puddles of nothingness. The monarchy seems to be clueless on how to stop the massacre. As the tension builds, they are now facing a very real possibility of war, which, so far, was considered a thing of fairytales from planet Urth…”
The king, of course, knew what needed to be done. But that move would be akin to admitting a grave mistake…not graceful at all. After all, it was only last year that their planet celebrated its victory in space research. Tremendous amount of money was invested to arrange a group of scientists travel to this solar system with nine planets, so they could bring live samples. The samples from the blue planet, Urth, were exceptionally alive with chatter. One of the specimens, some Trum, had offered to discuss openly about their society and political system. And, foolishly, he had consented.
Maybe it wouldn’t have caused so much damage if he hadn’t allowed public speeches. But he had thought it was rather ‘entertaining’ to see a specimen address the general public as he tried to copy their accent.
He started with the great things he had done in his own country. How he had started war with others who did not agree.Gradually, he started offering his opinion on everything…how it does not do well to allow races to mix, to share resources…how the current government wasn’t taking enough measures to support it own people… how people should rise to save their birthright from usurpers…
And people listened, transfixed.
Initially, people came in with requests about removing certain people from their colonies and, then, to remove certain colonies from the planet. He, too, agreed because it made sense to him then…until it didn’t. And then, all hell broke loose…
Not sure how hydro-guns came to be. They never had water, except for the samples collected from the blue planet. But now, it seems that they are building them in hundreds. The hydrogen dioxide reacts with sodium of their bodies and melts it. Nobody in their living memory remembered them fighting, but now…
If the madness didn’t stop, he will be facing a war soon, adding further water to their miseries.
Sighing, he did what was needed. He instructed a team of soldiers to load Trum on the waiting spaceship and dump him back to Urth.
My earlier post, The Taboo, sparked a lot of conversation and it reminded me of a real incident from my college days.
I was travelling by car with a bunch of family friends to a marriage. We were all between 20-25 years of age, celebrating the momentary freedom from parental supervision. (In India, you are under parental supervision as long as your parents are alive.)
On the way, we saw a scooter at a distance. A girl in her late teens was travelling with an old person, probably her father. One of my friends said, “Hey! Guess what? I can touch her hair while sitting,” and he began extending his hand to touch her.
I shouted at him to stop. He was rather surprised and said he won’t hurt her, just touch her hair. But I held my ground–Just the act will hurt her; that girls are afraid of travelling because boys take such liberties.
He was shocked. He had no idea.
I asked him how he would feel if someone did that to his younger sister. He growled, nobody would dare touch his sister. I reminded him that she probably dealt with this on a daily basis and never told him because of the fear of retaliation or the fear of being grounded for life.
Day 1: Walking up that winding mountain road in the moonlit night, I look up again. There stands the temple, partially hidden behind the mound of grey rocky slope, looking ancient, bleak and sad. I shouldn’t be able to see it at all from this angle, but somehow I can. I don’t question the vision though. The place has a lonely aura as if no one has visited it in the longest time. But still someone certainly had recently because it has no dust, no cobwebs.
Don’t ask me how I know that–I haven’t reached there yet.
I walk slowly, for the road is full of colourful shops lit by yellow light, like old days. Colourful stone jewellery hangs from the low ceilings and is laid down on the table display…nothing of real value but too pretty to ignore. I’d stop every now and then to hold them in my fingers, maybe try them out in front of the mirror. But my heart wasn’t in it. Then, the urge to reach that temple would grip me and I’d begin walking again, only to stop at the next shop…
Day 2: There are stairs winding between shops, going up and down and up again. I am bone-tired and a little lost. I want to take rest but the temple is pulling my heartstrings, and the compulsion to keep looking for the path keeps me weaving through the crowded marketplace built on the stairs. I look up at the temple at an angle where it should not be visible. But there it is, still too far, still the lonely mysterious place partially hidden behind the grey rocky slope. How I wish to see it up close…
Day 3: I walk that mountain road again, making my way slowly through the shops. I reach a crowded temple, vibrant with pink walls and huge deities that fill the entire room making it a tight fit. It isn’t where I want to go but the crowd of temple visitors jostles me until I fall in line.
The urge to seek something else builds within, making me restless with the crowd’s antics. I push against a houseful of humans until I finally find a way out. I am now on an upward unused grey path that leads to an open gate flanked by high walls. Once I reach the top of the grey rocky mound, I look down. There it is, the temple I seek…
The temple looks mysterious in the moonlight. It is as lonely as ever. I am drawn towards it like a moth to flames. I know, I’m not supposed to go alone in a place where no one else ventures. But my feet take a life of their own. I walk inside.
The darkness is not oppressive. It is releasing.
I stroll around between the many pillars, relishing the serenity. I reach a pair of sliding doors that look like an elevator. I inch closer. There is no visible button but the lift opens for me. There is one more woman there, looking lost in peace. Not sure where she came from. But I step inside anyway as if I know what I’m doing. The door closes behind me. There are no buttons but the lift moves downwards, which does not surprise me.
The lift stops after a long time, or maybe a few seconds. Time does not make sense anymore. The door opens and both of us walk out in a long lobby. The ceiling is too high and invisible to me. There is light on both ends of the long room, but that is to be expected. The place is crowded too but there is no jostling. I look back, the lift door is closed. I know it would not open for me anymore, not that I want it to.
People walk around peacefully at a casual pace, there faces grey and devoid of all emotions except eternal peace. I am here to join them. I begin walking at a casual pace, knowing I have an eternity to explore.
The last thing I hear is the final beep of my heart monitor. I know, now, I’m free.
Honestly, it’s a decent job. I could easily bus tables at the seaside restaurant. It wasn’t as if I had anywhere to go or anything to do. All I did all day was sit on a rock and sing. There were no more sailors to lure and drown anymore.
In the earlier days, mermaids earned a lot more. Mom boasts about drowning an average of a sailor per month. She’d then collect the souls in her neck-shell and sell them to Poseidon for bags of sea oysters with pearl-guarantee. It paid for every comfort in life and a decent retirement.
You see, Poseidon uses human souls to create sea monst…ahem…’exotic beings’ on demand. Initially, he created these beings from the scratch. But it was a long and difficult process, taking several years in tracking a suitable sea-nymph, courting her, waiting for the ‘product’ to grow up and, later, making the mother agree to hand it overn. It also gave him a bad name among the big-wigs at Mount Olympus.
So, he simplified the process by keeping a set of pre-defined ‘baby products’ ready for sale and programming them to life whenever a wannabe parent came seeking. However, the program had its own faults–sometimes there wasn’t enough voilence for ‘character building’ of the species and the ‘products’ weren’t intense enough to challenge/kill men at sea. There were talks at Olympus about Poseidon losing his touch and moving the sea-life contract to Goddess of land-life, Diana.
That’s when inspiration struck. Poseidon began sorting through captured human souls. Once he found the one with enough violence, he inserted it in pre-defined bodies and, then, customised them as per the demand. The product became a booming success and mermaids were the richest soul vendors in the entire ocean.
But now, the job opportunities are dying out.
The new ships are sturdier and have better compass. By sheer luck, if they ever get lost, the radio and GPS ensure that human find them before we can. The competition for sailors is rather tough and we are lucky if we find one per year. It hardly enough to put food on the table.
Hence, my only choice was either to go savage and hunt fishes like the old tribes did or get another job that pays enough.
This seaside restaurant already employs several mermaids and pays in river-oysters with cultured pearls. The scrumptious seafood to all its employees is an added benefit. Plus, a number of hot men throng that place, so there’s a potential to date and drown a few, at least.
You can’t fault us new-age mermaids wanting to work there.
I had never hunted in this area before but I had been dying to get a tiger’s head for my collection for years now. One of my friends found this forest on an environmental website. It boasted of a uniquely high tiger per kilometer ratio as compared to the rest of the world, and with good reasons too. Tigers are revered here, so, local poachers don’t touch them. There’s no law against hunting the endangered species in this country though. I guess, the government assumed that the religious fear was enough a motivator.
Anyway, I got a quick tourist Visa, gathered my hunting gear and flew here. In a country where tigers are revered, I couldn’t directly ask people where I could find a tiger to kill. So, I went around the long route. After the first day of sight seeing with a local tourist guide, I tipped him heavily. Then, I said something like, “I just wish it was a little more exciting than that!” I talked about my hunting trips. He immediately promised to find someone to help me, which he did within the hour.
The ‘help’ was a small shrewd man who offered his services based on a hefty fee per day. We started small with hunting foxes, then, gazelle and wild boars. I tipped him generously after each day’s game, increasing the amount with the size of the game, nudging him to find something even more exciting. He gradually warmed up to me suggesting bigger cats–Serval, Cheetah, Leopard… I told him, “But I’ve done them all in. The only big cats I’d be interested in now would either be a Lion or a Tiger. Of course, I knew the area did not have any lions.
He hesitated. A long pregnant pause that had me wondering if I had gone a little too fast. Should I have waited a few more days? Should I have hunted the Leopard or Cheetah first? But that would have killed several days of my trip, reducing the days I had left for Tigers.
After what felt like an eternity, he admitted reluctantly, “There’s a place in the forest where tigers throng. That is the only place where you are sure to find then. Mind you, we never hunt them. There is a curse in that place. Anybody who goes hunting there ends up as either dead or raving mad.”
Old wives tales, of course! “I’m not afraid.”
He looked at me with the resignation of a parent who knew his child was beyond hope. “Okay! But this time, I won’t stay with you for the hunt. I have a family to provide for, so, I can’t afford to be cursed.”
It took immense effort to stop me from rolling my eyes. “Sure, but you can show me where it is, right?”
He nodded quietly, “Yes, but it will cost a lot more–I’m risking a curse and a possible death. I’ll take the money in advance today, so that I can hand it over to my family, just in case, I don’t return.”
I knew he was exaggerating to hike up the amount. He wasn’t even going to be on the hunt. But I hadn’t travelled across the world to save pennies. If the website was to be believed, the number of tigers in the area guaranteed a trophy.
The next morning, he came back with supplies for three days, a goat, two labourers and tools to create a hunting platform. When handed over one of my heavier guns, the labourer started backing out, muttering in native language. I looked at the ‘help’ to translate but he had horror written all over his face. “At no cost should you fire your gun until we’ve returned. Firing the gun draws the tigers in.”
I could not help rolling my eyes this time. Thankfully, they didn’t see me. “Come on, the boom of gunfire scares animals away…”
“It might in other places, but it’s different here. You’ll see soon enough.”
We travelled as far as we could in an old jeep. Then, we walked on a well-beaten trail. Apparently, a lot of people walked through that part of the forest without any weapons. So much for risking life!
We left the trail and entered deeper into the forest. After an hour, we stopped near a tall and sturdy tree with high and strong branches that gave me enough cover without obscuring my view. The ‘help’ ensured, it was impossible for a tiger to climb. I knew the last precaution was unnecessary but he insisted, “You will be thanking us three days from now.”
The labourers began building the hunting platform. The ‘help’ tied the goat in open view and arranged its fodder while I smoked a cigarette relishing in the tiger calls. The website was right. Too many tigers live in this area. Not sure how though. Tigers are rather territorial. Usually, there is no more than one in several kilometres. But in this place, it sounds as if there is a huge ‘pride’ living in close vicinity, only, Tigers don’t live in prides. The biggest group would be a mother with two cubs.
By noon, the platform was mounted and the ‘help’ said, “Are you sure you want to do it, Sir?”
Mentally, I laughed at the superstition. Overtly, I just nodded.
“Alright,” he pointed towards north where trees seem to thin. “There is the temple of Kyarr over there. The only survivors from a hunting trip in this area were found hiding there–completely mad, mind you, but alive. So, if the situation gets out of hand, try to make a dash for it. I’ll return in three days and collect whatever is left of you.”
With those parting words, they left.
I settled in the platform on the tree, hid behind the leaves with gun in position and waited. It wasn’t long when the goat started bleating. A tiger walked in. I guess, it wasn’t hungry because it wasn’t stealthy. It sniffed, the goat bleated and the tiger looked straight at the place I sat. Somehow, it knew I was there. I had a clear shot but the intensity of its stare made my hands shake. I fired but missed.
That’s when all hell broke lose.
All of a sudden, 17 tigers rushed out of the bushes around me, roaring and tearing at the tree. The tree was rather sturdy and impossible for an animal to climb but, in my bones, I knew it can’t last against so many tigers. I fired several rounds but, weirdly enough, hit none. Soon, I was out of bullets.
I wondered whether the guide had reached home safely. I wondered when he will return. I had travelled across the world to be here, but now I couldn’t wait to return to my family. I clung to a branch fiercely and prayed to see my wife and daughter one more time.
After an eternity of scratching away the tree bark, they began returning to the shadows of the forest but one of them remained stationed beneath the tree. I had a suspicion, he’s waiting for me to get drowsy and fall down. After a couple of hours, as the rush of adrenalin subsided, I started getting drowsy. Crazy as it sounds, another tiger had come in and relieved the first one from ‘duty’, which means they were working as a team. I could see that three days from now, one of them would still be here. Which means, my help would never arrive.
Dusk arrived and the last rays of light fell on a shining piece of metal–the pinnacle of the ancient temple. The wise words returned to me–“If the situation gets out of hand…” Well, the situation was certainly out of hand. I couldn’t stay the night here. May be, the temple could offer a better shelter. I could hide in the inner sanctum and close the doors. Other people have survived, haven’t they? There was no point waiting to die here. I would rather do something.
I couldn’t carry my baggage. It would slow me down. My guns were all useless without the bullets and my knife would never reach the tigers before they reach me. So, I used them to create a diversion. I dropped my bag down first, threw my gun as far as it would go in the opposite direction, and then my knife ahead of it. The tiger took the bait and ran towards them. I jumped down and dashed towards the temple. I ran like my life depended on it. I didn’t hear any tigers behind me but I didn’t stop to find out.
I reached the temple in one mad dash. It had no boundary so entering was rather easy. I ran inside the prayer hall and turned to close the doors. There were none.
“Don’t worry. They won’t hurt you here. You aren’t carrying weapons,” a pleasant female voice made me turn around. She was sitting on the empty stone throne on the pedestal. “Priestess,” I thought.
“I had shot several rounds at them a few hours back.”
“But you can’t anymore.” There was no question in her voice. She smiled dazzling me. “Please make yourself comfortable until your friends return for you. If you are hungry, you can have these fruits,” she pointed towards a basket at her feet. With those words, she left the room.
I hid there for three days until help arrived. The first night, I ate like crazy but slept fretfully. All the while, I heard them roar close by occasionally, just outside the periphery of the temple. Not sure what was keeping them out though–the temple had no doors to close. It wasn’t fear that kept me up. It was the woman–I kept thinking about her smile, her face, her grace, her voice…
The next day stretched before me with nothing to do. My smartphone battery was dead. I tried missing my wife and daughter, but I couldn’t. All I thought was ‘her’. I craved for her with the intensity of a man dying of thirst in the desert. But however I tried, I could not recall the colour of her clothes. I had been so taken in by her face.
At dusk, she returned with a fruit basket. I think, her clothes could have were made of tiger skin…I can’t be sure. All I could remember was her face and dazzling smile. She asked me if I was well. I wanted to say that I was dying to see her again. But all I could manage was a nod. She left the basket in the same place and left with the dazzling smile. I wanted to stop her and ask her name. I wanted to ask her how she knew my language and about my friends; where she lived and why she returned only at dusk and only to deliver the basket; why she never said a prayer in the temple; where was the deity anyway.
But the words stayed lodged firmly in my throat. All I could manage was to look like a dumb thunderstruck tree.
The night was spent pretty much the same way. The tiger roars kept waking me up. When I slept, I dreamt of her. I had difficulty remembering my wife’s name. Heck, I couldn’t have remembered my own name, had I not brought my ID with me. The morning was spent waiting for the dusk to arrive so that I could see her again. I gathered wildflowers that grew within the temple boundaries. A tiger was manning the place. It gave me hope that my ‘friends’ wouldn’t be able to come and I wouldn’t have to go away. I could stay here forever, seeing her everyday. I held the flowers lovingly in my arms until she came, afraid to put them down lest they get dirty.
When she came, I all but jumped up. She placed the basket in the same place and looked at me. I meekly held out the flowers. She accepted them quietly with a smile that almost made me swoon. She turned to leave. I couldn’t hold back anymore. I might have to leave tomorrow. How could I go without knowing her name? Or rather, how could I go at all?
“Please don’t go,” I begged her.
“Do you need anything else from me?” her voice was teasing.
“I…I don’t even know you name,” I blushed to the roots of my hair like a school boy.
“I thought you’ll never ask. People call me Kyarr,” she replied.
“Oh! I thought Kyarr was the deity here.” She kept smiling.
“I…My friends are due to return tomorrow. I was wondering… thinking that…I…Would you…” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. What if she says no? What if she considers it an insult? I know nothing about her. She could be married. She looks young but people marry early in this part of the world. Heck, even I’m married! What was I even thinking?
She waited for a few seconds. Then, probably realised I wasn’t going to finish. So, she simply said, “I know your friends come tomorrow morning. I guess it is the last time we meet.” She was still smiling.
“Would you like to come with me?” I blurted out, then lost all the courage and looked at my feet.
“I can’t. I’m needed here. But thank you for asking.”
It hurt to see that there was no pain in her eyes. She was smiling as always while my own heart was ripping up in pieces. “Will you at least stay the night? I just want to look at you until I leave,” I knew I was transgressing some social boundary but I couldn’t remember it…
“I can but you might not like how I look after dark. That’s why I haven’t been staying here for the past two nights.”
I could hear the warning in her voice but I was past caring now. If it was the last time I was looking at her, I didn’t care if a few hair came out her bun. Come to think of it, I can’t remember how she wore her hair–Was it a bun? Pig tails? Or did she leave them loose over her shoulders?
She’d still be the only one I love. “I insist.”
Agreeing, she sat on the stone throne on the pedestal. Then she gave me that smile that melted my knees…
and turned to stone…a magnificent stone Tigress.
My helpers returned the next day and told me the goat was still very much alive. I told them about Kyarr but they didn’t believe me. They said Kyarr, the stone Tigress, has always been there on the pedestal. She was the temple deity.
They said the curse that was turning me mad.
I would like to believe them and forget all about her, but how can I? My dreams are full of tiger calls and my every waking moment is spent thinking about her. Somehow, her being a tigress makes no difference to me. She’s still the one I love. Often I see her walk away from me. I call her. I beg her to stop but she just gives me a smile that would make me follow her anywhere. And then, she keeps walking until I can walk no more. Once I fall, I crawl behind her until I faint. When I wake up, I find her gone. My bleeding feet and knees don’t hurt. My heart bleeds knowing I’ll never see her again. I tried booking a flight to return but my wife…I can’t recall her name now…she won’t let me go. I think she’s jealous. Can you please make her understand, Doctor? You do believe me, don’t you?
The Doctor looks up at me with eyes filled with pity. His voice belies his words. “Sure I do.” He stops the recorder and makes some notes in his pad. “Let’s discuss your dreams in more detail tomorrow.” He signals a male nurse to escort me to my padded cell from where I couldn’t escape and walk until my feet hurt and crawl until my knees bleed…