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…
The continuous singing is too annoying…with the singing come the birds who put so much pressure in the chorus that I am now covered with bird-shit.
I should have known that she was bad news the day she walked in all wide-eyed. I should have slammed the door on her face, or may be, when she was sampling from each of the seven bowls on the table, I should have shook a chair or two to drive her out.
I let her try all the beds and later my seven owners actually talked about upgrading the security as if I wasn’t able to defend myself against a child. Well, I was not ineffective, just plain selfish–when I saw this girl in servant clothes, I found hope. I thought that, finally, we might have someone who knows dusting and other cleanup that I sorely needed.
The dwarfs weren’t really thinking when they created the roof that high. Once cobwebs started showing in the rafters, they couldn’t reach them. Now, huge cobwebs hung like an year-round Christmas decorations. The metal frame of the door to ceiling windows had gathered enough dirt to grow plants in. It was rather difficult to tell apart the cows by their colour since they were too high to wash regularly and any hen who flew to the roof was a lost cause.
Well I was right about that part. Once the seven hired her, she did spruce up the place, no doubt. But her habit of singing in a high trill is getting on my nerves. As if birds are not enough, the rabbits, squirrels, porcupines and deer are also here from dawn till dusk, leaving only to eat. Also, the rats and insects are now joining ranks and I am gradually becoming a wildlife sanctuary. Throw in a tiger or too and we could open a circus.
Worse still, she has the habit of inviting random vendors inside the home, regardless of the wares. Never misses a good gossip, that girl! She buys all type of stuff that she may or may not use. It is rather annoying, if you ask me, being treated as a storehouse for useless stuff–smelly candles, too colourful clothes, leather shoes that shrink with first drop of water…
Also, twice in the past years, she has ended up almost dying because of this obnoxious habit–once when a vendor woman sold her laces and tied them too tight around her waist cutting off her breath, and yet again when an old hag combed her hair with a poisonous comb. A reasonable person would have seen sense by now.
But in spite of all that, she is talking to this apple vendor. I don’t like the woman–she looks fake, worse, the way she eyes Snowdrop, she could be a maniac. If she was inside, I would have thrown her out, or may be thrown something on her head.
But the dwarves had been clear to not allow anyone in. So, the two of them are sharing an apple through the window! If you ask me, it looks rather scandalous. Snowdrop often shares ‘stuff’ with other handsome male vendors. But sharing a bitten apple with a woman?
Moreover, she doesn’t seem like she ever cleaned her teeth. She could have Pyorrhea…
Damn! I knew it! Now, Snowdrop’s fainted–must be the woman’s bad breath…
Humans don’t tread quietly–at least those who aren’t hunting make enough sound to raise a hibernating bear…
The other day, I saw someone run through the woods and decided to inquire if a good meal was in order. Alas, she was too thin. There was no meat to be had, only skin on bones. Not sure why humans do it to animals. Starving themselves is okay, I guess, but what’s the point of entering my territory if I couldn’t enjoy it too? I would call it downright mean!
I would have sampled a bit of her anyway but she was too scared, and all that adrenalin kills the taste. So, I waited until she settled but she was too excited! These tourists…they enter forests on a dare and, then, they jump at every sound, as if we were going to eat them…well, I do, but that’s beside the point. She was jumpy all evening and all night. Honestly, I do prefer a quiet meal so I waited. She shrieked at every dangling limb of tree and every pair of eyes. For instance, I always found rabbits rather harmless but who knew she could make a maneater out of them…
I had a hard time sleeping with all that shrieking and was a little late when I woke up. I decided to have a snack before I go gargle, but she was gone already. Damn those little people for building their stupid cottage in the forest. I can’t get within 250-meter radius of the place. You see, once, I wanted to experiment whether a hint of mushrooms affects the taste. So I tried to sample the Dopey one but one of the other six brought an axe and I had to make a hasty exit. Ever since, they put enchantments around that place so if I try to get close to the place, the axe finds me and chases me out of the perimeter.
Everybody else is welcome, it seems. I never saw that girl run out with the axe behind her. I waited outside for what felt like an eternity. (Well, did you ever try waiting for food delivery at breakfast?) When I lost all patience for the panicky, skinny piece of meat, I left to get breakfast.
When I returned for her, I was afraid they’ll eat her before I do but they had kept her as a pet or something. (These dwarfs have a weird taste, I tell you!) So, now I pace outside the enchanted periphery waiting for her to step out while she sings to birds and rabbits as they finish her chores. How unfair!
Being the Queen’s favourite has its perks and the food at my home is an ode to the fact that I owe her everything I have. For years, I have hunted animals and humans alike.
This child has seen only seven seasons, that too while living in rags and mopping the castle floor. She is a princess who has been lower than a servant. Today, when I brought her to the forest, she was overjoyed. She’s singing to the birds as she plucks wildflowers for a garland. My daughter does the same.
Today, she says, is the best day of her life. I know better. Not sure what wrong she has done and why the queen is against her. But I am just a soldier, a tool to kill all those who displease the crown. The queen desires the little girl dead and her wish is my command. Yet, my hand shakes today as I clutch the hilt of my sword.
No way can I kill her but I cannot take her back and risk the queen’s wrath.
I pull out my sword with shaking hands and call her to look at me. She looks at me with scared doe-eyes and pleading silently. My sword lowers on its own, as if I’ve lost all my strength.
I yell, “Your mother wants you dead. Run away before I kill you!”
In my heart, I plead, “Run away before I give up and return you to the castle, to the step-mother who’d kill you anyway. Run away before I stop being a monster and become a traitor to the crown.”
I watch as she runs deep in the forest; glad I didn’t have to kill her; afraid she’d die alone. I hunt a boar and take his heart to the monster in the castle as a proof of Snowdrop’s death, hoping she won’t find out the truth before I move my family to another town.
Expensive china lay splayed on the floor, broken in tiny pieces. I shiver. It could have been me. Being made of glass, it isn’t a good idea for me to tell the truth. People don’t like truth, especially middle-age women with identity crisis. Unfortunately, like all mirrors, it’s in my nature to reflect the facts, no matter the mental state of my owner. For example, right now, you have something green stuck in between your teeth–Spinach sandwich?
What’s worse, I have been magicked with the ability to see beyond the obvious. If he could get hold of me, Einstein would have used my knowledge to prove his concept of time being the fourth dimension of space (Yes, I can see through all the four dimesions of space. How else would I know about Einstein who will be born 1423 years later?). However, my current mistress for the past twenty-two years uses it for one question alone–any guesses?
Mirror mirror on the wall,
Who’s the fairest of them all?
Initially, I was excited to serve a woman of unsurpassable beauty. But after answering the same question for the nth time, it got old. So, I started creating short poetry about it, a different one everyday–
Too many out there are pretty, but never saw such a beauty…
None surpass, ohh my lass!
(If you think, this is bad poetry, try writing on the same subject for twenty-two years. Well, you get the drift.)
Even that began to grate on my nerves after a few years.
When she tricked the king into marry her after the passing of his first wife, I had hoped that she would get better things to do, what with being newly wed and a queen. But it seems that being a queen requires constant vigilance on the competition. So, the question became a daily query, almost like standing guard to keep stray dogs out. If you ask me, this whole idea of fairness is rather blown out of proportion to serve the herbs and cosmetics industry, but since she is so big on it, resigning to fate, I began giving a three word answer repeatedly, “You, my lady.” That seemed to satisfy her though.
Today, her step-daughter, Snowdrop, became seven years old. Yes, it is Snowdrop and not Snow White, as some famous storytellers with moving pictures would have you believe.
Snowdrop is named so because she is rather fair looking with skin white as snow, rosy cheeks, red lips and black hair. I think the queen is rather jealous because Snowdrop looks like the first queen. So, it was her birthday and I was deep in thought about how 7-year-olds would ask different questions from 37-year-olds when the queen asked the question again. I’m not sure where the rebellion came from but I dropped the bomb.
“With hair black as raven’s feather,
and skin white as snowfall,
Snowdrop is the fairest of all.”
That’s when the bombarding began. My mistress became the fabled bull in the china shop. As things flew around in the room and several hit the wall right next to me, the dread and excitement surged into me, rendering me immobile (Not that I can go anywhere anyway.). I wondered if I’ll survive today. A distant vision came up–meeting a certain Larry Page at his dorm’s wall, becoming the earth-shattering (or was it ground-breaking?) magic behind some Go-ogle, answering millions of questions each day as millions of faces peer intently at me…I sighed at the sight.
One flying suacer of the bonechina variety can put me out of commission and take away that beautiful future from me. I’d really like to say that I’d keep my trap shut from now on so that I’d have a better chance to stay ‘alive’ for the next sixteen centuries and reach that future. But I know myself. Now that I’m finally seeing some action, I can’t go back to the You-my-lady mode again.
Anyway, you’d think that after finding out that the next generation is ready to take over, she’d ask new questions–What is the best anti-wrinkle cream? How to remove dark shadows from beneath the eyes? What’s the best hair colour? Instead, I am answering the same question thrice a day as she mixes and applies different potions to her face to remove signs of aging…
It was as if all my life I had been walking towards that door. Should I let this stupid instinct override my practical brain? Or should I just turn back and keep wondering for the rest of my existence? Because whatever happens, I’ll never be able to forget it.
Usually, I am not like this. I am a straight-headed guy who puts his brain ahead of his heart. That’s the only way I survived after being dumped at an orphanage as soon as I was born. Without parents to wipe my tears and siblings to trust, I had no one to love or care for me. They say you don’t miss what you never had. I disagree.
All my life, I have worked hard to stand up on my feet. And once I could afford it with my own humble means, I have travelled across the country, stopping in places I liked, taking up odd jobs to pay for the stay. Though, not sure why, every time I felt as if something was amiss though I knew not what it was that was missing. And now that I stand in front of this door, my heart knows this is it.
But my brain warns me it is just wishful thinking. I hesitate. Honestly, this is the first time I have stepped here. I just reached the capital city of the state via bus a few hours ago. I was looking at the map for places to stay and see when I saw the name of a small village in the periphery of the city. The name caught my fancy. So, I took the next bus to visit it.
It’s a place of a fairytale—rolling green hills dotted with grazing sheep and cows, a lake with brightly coloured fishes and waterbirds, and small farmhouses. As soon as I got down at the bus stand, the fresh air hit me with full force—my breath hitched. It was surreal. The place was familiar as if I have spent all my life here and I was just returning home. Maybe, I saw it in a movie or one of the calendars in the orphanage’s office, or maybe, in my dreams when I was hoping and praying for a home. A prayer that was never answered…
Wind with a faint whiff of woodsmoke and homecooked meal pulled me on a well-beaten path. It looked familiar, like a childhood memory—there…but not really. The fields on both sides were almost ready for harvest. People worked in them as their children ran wild in muddy shoes and clothes that had seen better days. I never had that childhood but could almost picture myself in their place.
A farmhouse stands at the end of the path. The simple building is made of stone and its garden is a riot of colours. The simple door is framed with flowers…
I’m spellbound. I stand outside for an endless moment, wondering if I should knock. Deep down, I know, I must knock that door and find out who lives here, and whether I am finally ‘home’. My practical brain shouts at me to leave while I am still sane. It reminds me that I can’t find ‘home’ by knocking on random doors but my soul is tethered to this place, atleast, until I get my answer. The truth may hurt me but it will, atleast, let me leave so that I don’t spend the rest of eternity standing at a stranger’s door. So, I knock.
The door opens. An old man with kind eyes and a wide smile greets me, “Hello there, son! How can I help you?”
I hesitate, “Hi! I’m a tourist. I was just looking around and I couldn’t help coming here. You have a beautiful garden!”
His smile grows even larger until his eyes are barely visible. “Ah! My wife would be delighted to hear that. Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea with us?”
Not waiting for my reply, he ushers me inside the simple, cozy home where an old woman with smiling eyes greets us. Probably it is the newness of it all, but their simplicity breaks through my initial reservations. As I sit sipping tea after tea with them, we talk about our lives, as if we have done it everyday—as I had dreamt of doing with my family for all these years, if I ever find them. We smile at our simple pleasures, laugh at our pain. They talk about their children and I imagine how it must have been to be raised by such wonderful people…I tell them about my own humble beginnings, laughing at the memories of bad food and caretakers who didn’t care.
They don’t offer fake sympathy. They laugh with me and offer more muffins, though they wipe their eyes secretely when they think I’m not looking.
I change the topic and talk about my traveling adventures. They talk about seasons and crops; their children who are in the city with their families, not interested in the ‘backward’ lifestyle of the village; complain about having too many rooms and no one to live in; worry about having too much estate but no one to manage in the future as they get older.
Though they don’t say it, I can sense their deep loneliness and the feeling of being discarded by their own family, and I can hear it echoing my own longing to belong…somewhere…to someone…
Sooner than I’d like, the day comes to a close. All I’ve done all day is wolf down the tea and muffins fresh from the oven, and meals twice my average meal-size, and talk to the strangers who make me feel wanted. No sight-seeing. But it feels enough, as if all my life I have travelled only to reach them. I wish I had found a connection—some relation with them, however distant—so that I had an excuse to return. Alas, no such luck. The thought of leaving makes me ache all over.
It is close to the time of the last bus to leave. Finally, I force myself to utter the words that have been weighing on my heart, “I think, I should leave now. It’s getting late.”
After an uncomfortable silence for a second, he counters, “But you never saw the place. You can’t leave until you are done sight seeing,” She joins him, “Tell you what? You stay with us for as long as you like it here. We have spare rooms. And I am baking cake tomorrow, so I’d love to have someone to share it with.”
My heart swells until it is ready to burst open but I try to tamp it down, “But I can’t impose on you. You just met me. You barely know anything about me.”
“Son, we know enough to trust you. Would you like to stay a few more days and provide company to a couple of old codgers?” His words and smile are mocking but his eyes are solemn.
Hesitating, she adds to what he said, “I know you come from the city and are used to the luxuries it offers, but maybe, you’ll like the sights and the slow pace of life here? A lot of city people are moving to villages now a days, you know. Maybe, give it a chance before you go back to live your city life?” The offers is casual but her eyes say differenly.
From the corner of my eyes, I watch him cross his fingers, and I know what I had to do. “I would love to stay longer. But be warned, I might never want to leave. Some day, you might have to throw me out forcefully,” I say jokingly while my heart thumps as if I have run a marathon, “But I have two conditions—one, you will let me work on your farm, so I can pay the rent. Two, hopefully, you’ll let me have those muffins everyday.”
He laughs out loud and claps my back while she hugs me happily.
It was a beautiful night-the moon was red and full–that made you wish you had someone to share it with. I was returning home after the day at the restaurant serving clients and bussing tables. The shops were all closed and, somehow, it made the moon shine even more brilliantly.
I was tired. My limbs wanted to go to sleep right there on the pavement, but I reminded myself that it was temporary. It was paying for my degree and once I complete it in five months, I will be able to get a decent job that I actually enjoy. I was looking forward to that day. I had practiced my interview speech a thousand times already.
I turned into a short dark alley that I crossed twice a day ever since I took up this job last year, and stiffened immediately. Something was off. I couldn’t see or hear anything, but that was the point. It was too quiet as if someone had put a blanket on the entire alley blocking the outside noises. Also, there was a funny smell, the one you get when crossing a butcher’s shop…blood?
I wasn’t the superstitious kind but I trusted my instinct. So, I decided to backtrack. As I cautiously took steps backwards, I heard a human moan, a growl, a snapping of bones, and then, silence. I gasped. Three set of eyes gleamed green in the dark, looking straight at me. Canine eyes, set far higher than an average dog, or even a wolf.
I felt frozen for a second. And then, I turned back and ran with all I had in me. The streetlights were the only illumination on the path. I dare not look behind me for the fear of slowing down or falling, but I knew I was being chased. Their footfall wasn’t audible and they weren’t barking, unlike the neighbourhood strays. For a second, I wondered if I wasn’t just hallucinating but I didn’t stop to check.
In fact, I ran harder. I wasn’t sure where to go though. The shops were closed and my own restaurant was locked. So, I ran to the underground railway station, hoping that it would be crowded and these ‘things’ will stop chasing or pick a new target. Else, I would catch any train I could. I would return home later in the morning.
The stairs leading down to the platform were deserted. I could hear a train approaching the platform. I thanked my lucky stars and covered the last stretch with a burst of energy I never knew I had.
When I reached the platform, it was empty of people. I heard a group coming down the stairs slowly–click of heals and boots…I was so relieved to hear fellow human beings that I nearly cried. I turned to look and found two men and a woman pulling out their shades to cover their eyes. Canine. The woman had something red around her mouth. Leisurely, she licked clean with an unnaturally long tongue and smiled at me.
Furtively, I glanced behind me willing the train to stop or, at least, slow down.
The rocking movement of the boat is making me sick. It’s stuffy with the thirty of us inside the small cabin on the warm day. Our hands are tied to stop us from escaping, as if we could attempt anything like that after going without food for three days. I am not sure why this is happening.
Everything was so normal three days back. I was watching my father chopping wood outside our teepee when my mother had called me in for some chores. Suddenly, the whole place rang with booming sounds. We got down on our knees, terrified. An eerie silence ensued, soon followed by horror-filled wails and sound of urgent footsteps and struggle.
Worried for my father, I ran outside, in spite of my mother’s frantic calls. My father was lying on the earth. It was difficult to recognise him with a gaping hole on his cheek. Grandfather had a wound on his chest the oozed blood. I tried to staunch the blood flow, but his eyes rolled. Of course, I didn’t cry–true warriors don’t cry…may be a little, but father had once said that, since I was six, I was allowed.
People in foreign dress were holding weapons, asking women and children to line-up. I thought they were going to kill us too. But they tied our hands together behind us and made us march for two days. Elusa, my best friend, couldn’t walk as fast as they wanted because her one leg wasn’t quite right. They shot her in the head. Of course, I didn’t cry–true warriors don’t cry. But I was six…
On the second night, they brought us to this dark room that smelled of urine. We weren’t allowed to make a sound. Anybody who spoke was whipped until they bled. It was hot with around a hundred of us in there. I wanted to ask for food, or at least water, but mother shushed me. She said it will bring whiplashes. My feet were full of blisters. My sandals had broken on the way and I dare not ask for another pair.
Now thirty of us are cramped inside this boat…I am thirsty, hungry, tired and a little sick. Worse still, I understand nothing of what ‘they’ say, except that it isn’t anything good. They haven’t told us where they are taking us…or may be they have, we just can’t understand them.
I whisper, “Mother, I’m going to be sick. Should I ask them if they can let me out, so I can throw up?”
“Honey! I don’t think they’d care if you throw up on yourself. We are just chattel for them.”
Scared, I blurt out, “Will they kill us too?”
But Mother is thoughtful, “I don’t think so. They could have killed us at the village, if they wanted. May be, they will sell us…”
“So, where are they taking us?”
“Not sure, but feels like it is terribly far away.”
I finally ask the question that has been killing me for all these days, “If they sell us, will I still be allowed live with you, Mother?”
Her lips tremble but she’s silent, looking at me with eyes full of pain. Of course, I don’t cry–true warriors never cry. But, then, I’m just six…
Author’s note: Before slavery was abolished in the USA, native Americans who were prisoners of war were sold as slaves. Once slavery was abolished in USA, these prisoners were shipped to Mexico, where slavery was still legal, in stuffy, small boats. Children as young as six years and women were sold as chattel to whoever made the highest bid. They, then, lived and died on the whim of their owners, without any rights and treatment fit for animals.
After an agonizing search in my desk drawer that lasted forever (who knew a 15 x 12 inch drawer could hold so many things), I finally found it–my pen!
It looked weird…too plain. Not quite what I remembered. In my memory, it was rather shiny, elegant, all pretty curves and easy on the eye, or at least, a lot better than its current reality. Perhaps, my mind had been polishing its memory like lost love, romanticizing it until I forget the reality.
It seemed, a lot of other facts escaped my memory too. For example, why did I store it with the rest of the crap I own. I agree the drawer is supposed to have working things, but mostly, mine is the museum of fossils–long-dead things that I couldn’t throw away for reasons better left to imagination.
Did it still work?
I held it in my hand gingerly. It felt awkward, like I had lost a limb without knowing that it had gone missing, and now that I’ve found it after an eternity, I don’t know how to reattach it to the rest of me.
I held it between my fingers and moved it around, ill at ease. My fingers didn’t respond happily, the way they should have. After all, it is something they had held for half their life. They ached from the effort of mock-scribbling in the air.
Did it still work? I tried scribbling on my palm. All it did was scratch the sensitive skin.
Was the refill dry? But then another lost fact sprung to my mind–these ballpoint pens were always hopeless on the skin. I looked around for a scrap of paper–a difficult task, considering I hadn’t written in eons. Why would I? In a perfect world, everything I needed to write could be typed on the Notes app of my phone and laptop.
Only, this world wasn’t perfect anymore.
Finally, a piece of paper bag presented itself. I scribbled on the back side and it worked. Great! Now, all that remained was to dig out a notebook to teach my daughter how to write…