I was supposed to have grown up a long time back. But somehow my brain had frozen at 12 in the same way as my height. I was still unable to understand the cryptic language used by wannabe lovers.
It was a hot and humid day and I was getting my scooter from the parking lot at the Law College. A couple of guys approached me smiling benignly like they were serving me a Happy Meal at McDonald’s.
One of them introduced himself, “Hi. I’m…” (I don’t remember the name.)
“Hi. How can I help you?” I was absolutely sure that my scooter was blocking the path to his Bullet and he was waiting for me to move it and lecture me on the merits of good parking manners.
“I want to become friends with you.”
I waited for the joke to be over. Who was he anyway? I’d never seen him before. He was a Greek god with pink glowing skin, chiselled features and towering height, probably a basketball player. I was slightly jealous–being a Marwari dull-brown and 5’2″, I felt like a muddy blotch on the landscape in front of him. He probably worked for a reality show where they made practical jokes on people. I waited for someone with a camera to jump out from behind the scooters and shout, “Gotcha!”
I couldn’t fathom a reason why anybody would want to approach anybody like that to be a friend. All my friends were made generically by sitting in the same class, throwing chalks at the same teacher…
Who made friends by approaching someone in the parking lot?
“Thanks, but I already have too many friends and I can’t find enough time for them.” I started my scooter and left.
On the way home, I racked my brain for some information on this guy. Nothing.
The next day, I was again in the parking lot and saw him looking expectantly at me. I didn’t understand that look. It isn’t a look I give to anyone I want to be friends with. Honestly, this whole seeking-a-person-to-be-a-friend baffled me. I didn’t like being baffled. It wasn’t my natural mode. I was usually a know-all, what with my love for books. I asked my travelling companion if he was a senior. She told me he was our classmate in the boy’s section. Our classes sat together often on days when there were less students.
Seriously? He could have simply spoken with us during classes. I shrugged and started the scooter. “Boys can be so stupid,” I decided.
Next day, I found a phone number on a slip stuck in my scooter’s handle. I decided to keep it in case I have to report the weirdo in future. As I turned my scooter out of the parking, he was looking at me extremely happy that I had accepted his number.
I’m afraid, he might have spent the next few days waiting for the phone call, wondering why it never came.
I was in grade 10–fifteen-years old and a book nerd. I was denser than my brother’s ten-pound dumbbells when it came to the matters of heart. It was easier to do ten wrist crunches in a second than to make me understand the cryptic language of would-be lovers. I knew more about Maneaters of Kamaun, thanks to late Jim Corbett, than teenage boys and what went inside their ever-busy brains.
Having studied at co-education schools, I had quite a few male friends. But when it came to heart-to-heart, they steered clear of me. Though, it could have something to do with my ‘incident’ with the class bully where I knocked some sense in his brain, literally. Or, it could also be the light ‘mustache’ I had grown over the adolescent years. Whatever the reason, the boys in my previous schools avoided any chances of a one-on-one with me.
When I moved to Aligarh, the boys in the new school, however, were quite ill-informed. They knew of my love for old songs and painting. Also, I looked less like a lioness now that I had cleaned the facial hair. It was a welcome change to have friends who weren’t scared of me.
After my first month in the school, I was moved to section D, which was a teacher’s nightmare in the best of days. There was a gang who never took classes and were always found roaming the corridors. The most ‘influencial’ boy of the class, let’s call him A, was their ring leader. The teachers were afraid to report them. Others caused enough noise to raise the dead. Nobody listened to the teachers. Our class teacher was also the school vice-president and never available to know what was happening.
Somehow, I never got to see that roucous part of our class. Initially, I was too busy with catching up on the work done before I joined the school mid-session. Later, I began noticing that during empty hours (when the teachers were missing), my class sang–all of a sudden, A had developed a love for singing. He was good at it too. Often, he would sit on the bench behind mine and begin singing. Meanwhile, nobody dared to speak or may be they were too enthralled. He attended classes everyday now, which was a first. Thanks to his newly well-behaved presence and active participation in studies, our class was too well-behaved to believe.
Soon, the bench behind me became the hub for all wannabe singers. We often played Antakshari whenever there was time (a game of replying to each other in songs). In the hindsight, I have a sneeky suspicion that some of them were trying to impress me. I can’t be sure, of course, nobody ever proposed me.
Except one day after school, when I was dragging my bicycle towards the clear road that had enough space to ride it, A caught up with me.
Okay, before I get into the detail, let me clarify one thing–In small-town India, dating is not a thing. Arranged marriages are preferred and going out with boys is looked down upon. At least, that was the case at that time. So, you didn’t ask a girl out just like that.
You talked about the weather…and family…and things she liked to do in her free time…and about her friends (to gaudge if there was a potential competitor)…and how there’s nothing much to do in small towns… If the girl hesitated, and you still had brains left, you scooted. If she answered all your questions in a pleasant tone, you asked about her plans on the day when you wished to take her out and wait for her reaction with abated breath. If her day is free, you talked about your plans and if she’d like to join.
A followed all the required protocols. While we were stuck in the traffic jam caused by the several hundred bicycles and thousands of young adults pouring out of their daily prison, he talked about the weather, my family, my non-existent social life and my interests and the lack of things to do in a small town. (a pretty dull conversation, if you ask me). Then, politely, I asked about his interests.
A grabbed the opportunity with both hands and plunged, “I love watching movie. Infact there is this latest movie (he named a Salman Khan’s latest movie) that I’m planning to watch but I’m not sure.”
I was human enough to get curious, “Why not?”
“I don’t have company.”
That was my cue to say, “Really! I’d love to watch it too.” But as mentioned in the first para, I was dense enough to not understand the cryptic conversation and missed the cue. Instead, I got more curious. How could the other guys not watch a Salman Khan movie. He was the God of Indian adolescent tribes. His posters were up on every male wall I knew, “Why wouldn’t you have company?
I guess, A wasn’t ready for that. I had been pleasant enough so far and hadn’t winced even once during the entire conversation. So, in an ideal world, I was supposed to ask him the time and show up for the show. Instead, I am asking a probing question. So he got derailed, “Ahhh…because the timings clash with namaz…” (He was a Muslim and so were his friends.)
Again that was my cue to say, “Oh! No problem, I’ll join instead.” But I missed the cue again and chimed in, “Really? Then, I think you should go for namaz instead as well. A movie isn’t worth it.”
A nodded his head, forced a smile on his face and bowed out of the competition, dragging his bicycle in the opposite direction. He looked rather disheartened, if you ask me. But I could be wrong, afterall, I was too dense to understand the matters of heart.
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…
Not sure which one she took. There are too many doors out here. Ever since the day we found this little nook in this village a couple of years back, she had been burning with curiosity. We come here often to collect the occasional teeth under the pillow, but not as often as she would like to. With people having fewer children, there are fewer teeth to collect.
Okay, just in case you are confused, we are tooth faeries. She is a four-and-a-quarter-inch Fighter and I am a five-inches Spellman. We are a team and collect teeth together.
To pry out the tooth from under the pillow, I cast the spells to prop up the child, move the pillow, place the coin, grab the tooth, and then, place the pillow and child back in place. (Not sure why they don’t just keep the tooth on the side-table. It would be so convenient for us.) So, while I am using all my concentration for the spells, she stands guard, looking out for any pet animals, keeping them at bay.
Cats are specially nasty–stealthy, vicious and quick. Once, when my partner was out sick (a serious case of bird flu–her wings kept twitching like humming bird’s and her voice sounded like a crow’s), a cat sneaked up on me. I found myself inside the cat’s stomach and it’s not a pretty sight. I had to tickle its intestine so that it would spit me out. Later, I had to shower for almost an hour to take off the muck from my hair. So, you get the drift… So, all tooth fairies work in pairs to avoid such ‘situations’.
Between her and me, we have 57 villages to cover. You would think that we would be dying of overwork. But children are getting so rare now that there aren’t enough teeth to go around. In fact, most of the tooth fairies are forced to take up smithery or animal-guard roles for smaller beings, like rats (desperate times!). Most of the teeth forges are now going out of commission too.
For any newbees out there, teeth forges are where new human teeth are forged on order. Every end of the day, we submit the acquired teeth at the teeth forge. The teethsmith takes the measurements and DNA print, and forges new teeth to replace the old ones. The old teeth are recycled, of course. A delivery elf, then, submits the new teeth to the Great Guy on the seventh cloud to be dispersed as needed. But all that is beyond our job role.
Anyway, we are best friends, even though, it is rather difficult. She has rather an adventurous spirit and has a knack of getting into dangerous situations–like the day she decided to adopt a lost pup. He’s a Great Dane who loves catching anything that flies too close. It took us a couple of weeks and several trips to its stomach before it learnt not to catch faeries.
Her boyfriend, another fighter fairy with thick biceps and six-pack abs, does not approve either of the Dane or Me. He thinks I’m hitting on her. Initially, I told him “Mate, I gave up on the day we became partners 93 years back.” In reality, I had made a move on her and she gave me a black eye. And hence, I’ve stuck to being friends ever since. But I keep that piece of information to myself. No need to humiliate myself when he doesn’t believe me either way. Well, his loss! Every now and then, he tells her to dump me and she gives him black eyes instead.
She’s the reason why being a tooth fairy seems worth it because we have an excuse to stick together all day. I think the Great Guy knows about it too and hence, he hasn’t changed our pairing in all these 93 years–a rare occurance in our field. That’s why, I let her drag me to look at these doors every time we’re in the village. Then, she sits here and contemplates about which one leads to where. I’m curious too, but not crazy enough to try. With magic, you could never be sure.
How are we sure it is magic? Well, they are all different sizes, some too small for grown up humans. They are well-worn as if used daily. Some of them have claw marks all over while one looks slightly burnt. Also, who would place so many doors on the same wall, unless they all lead to different places. Hence, they obviously magical–deductive reasoning, you see…
So, last night, we came to this village to collect the last tooth for the next five years. The next kid in line is just one year old, so it will be some time before he loses his teeth. All day long, she had been alternating between being lost, being excited and being jumpy. Every time I asked, she behaved too innocently.
So, of course, I told her, “I won’t let you enter those magical doors. We have no idea where they lead and whether they let you return.” She replied, “What doors?”
So, obviously, I never let her out of my sight all day. When we finally reached this house, there was a storm outside. We entered the house through a crack in the window. I went forward to go through the motions of retrieving that tooth, leaving her to stand guard at the window sill. A cat jumped on me. For half-an-hour, I hide inside a closet worried out of my head about this girl until I realised the truth. There was no way the cat could outwit her. She left before the cat came in…
…Which means she entered one of the doors.
So, now I stand in front of all these doors, trying to guess which one she took and come up blank. Her spell-phone is not reachable. I have called out her name several times but, I’m afraid, she can’t hear me. I call her guy to check if he knows anything about this. Hopefully, she discussed the door she liked the most…But he’s as dumb as ever, “You let that vile cat eat her!” As if a cat could ever catch her. She could tie its hands and legs and roast it on a spit before it could blink. She was my guard for that very reason–she’s a fighter!
When I tell him about the magical doors, he comes up blank. She never talked to him about them. “You are trying to frame her for breaking the magical rules!”
Seriously! I understand he disblieves me, but does he even know her? She never follwed rules. “I’m going after her. Do you want to join me? Together we can cover more doors.”
Suddenly, his voice changes, guarded, “We aren’t sure she took the doors at all. And if she did, which one she took. You said that there are too many doors, right? What if she isn’t in the door either of us take? We’ll never find her that way. I guess, we should report her to the authorities. They will send a search party. Meanwhile, we should wait for her to return.”
“Come on! Authoritie will wait 24 hours. That could be too late.”
“It’s probably already too late. She could already be…” He could not complete his sentence though. Because he got too busy with his cellphone that started trying to shove up his ass. He will stay busy until another spellman creates a counter-spell for my hex.
But now, he can’t help me. So, I have to take a wild guess at the door she took. In my mind, I picture her fighting fantastic creatures, living her dreams. I want to be by her side when she does that. Most of all, I just want to be with her. I can’t stand the thought of never seeing her smile again. I have only one chance to guess the right door. There is no guarantee that once I am in, it will let me out ever. If I choose the wrong one, I may be stuck forever without her.
The thought sacres me. So, since I don’t know which one she took, I will have to go the other way round. The doors she’ll never take–She hates red, purple and yellow colours. She finds them too girly. She’ll never take the green one. It is too small, and if she wants to break rules, she’ll do something grand. This leaves the two blue doors. I push the door of the bigger one with all my magical might. A small crevice opens and and she falls back out.
Before I can understand anything, she pulls me in a bear hug! “Thank Goodness, you are alright! I had been waiting for you for the past half hour. What took you so long?”
“Well, you didn’ exactly leave a forwarding address. Did you?” I’m too relieved to care that I’m shouting at her.
Ideally, this is when she kicks me but she just smiles and says, “I knew you’d know where to find me.”
I don’t want to be placated. But how could I not be? She’s fine and back, speaking of which, “Why didn’t you just let me in? Why did you come back? Now I have to open the damn door again.”
“Naah! They’re closed for me, forever. I punched the doorman,” she shrugs. My brows pull up to my hairline, so she blushes (first time ever!) and adds, “Well! I heard you call my name and I answered but I guess you couldn’t hear me. I was worried that you’ll get too worried and take the wrong door. So, I asked the doorman on the inner side to reopen the door so I can call you in. He declined.
I decided it wasn’t worth it without you. So, I let myself out.”
The moment I saw him riding on his stead through my village, I fell in love. He was all I ever wanted–tall, handsome and regal, and a just King. I was sure he would love me too. I’m the most beautiful woman the world had ever seen. He had just lost his wife during childbirth. I could see his pain in the lines of his forehead. I wanted to smooth them out so he would be happy again.
That night, I cooked the love potion with all my heart and sent it to him in the food offering the next day. Being the King, he was obliged to accept it, which he did and after the first morsel, he sent me the marriage proposal. I was over the moon, riding the clouds, flying on the wind as I walked down the aisle and up to him where he stood holding a tiny girl in his arms, Snowdrop.
My steps faltered. She’d always be between us, reminding him of his past, never truly letting him move on. But his warm smile fell on me like sunshine. My breath was stuck in my throat. I took our marriage vows in that moment of insanity. Three days later, he woke up changed. The effect of the love potion had vaned. He was remorseful for having forgotten his first wife so soon. He wouldn’t allow me close. He drowned himself in alcohal while I waited in our bedchamber night after night for him to return. I tried creating the potion again, but failed miserably because even I could see, he’d never love me. His heart was too full of one woman to have room for another. A dead woman had bested me.
For years, I played governess to Snowdrop while he spent his days avoiding us. She reminded him of his first love. I reminded him of the failure to remember her. Everywhere I went, I heard whispers that the dead queen couldn’t hold a candle in front of me. That I was the most beautiful woman ever, yet even in her death, she has dwarfed me, forever, in love…
For years, I roamed the unending passages of this castle hiding from the pain of constant rejection, the whispering staff, the lusting courtiers and my own burning desire. He wouldn’t love me and I couldn’t love another. I was always on fire, and it consumed me until I wasn’t.
For years, I tried everything to lure him to me–sympathy, seduction, magic. I kept Snowdrop as far from him as possible, in the servant’s quarters hoping that, without the reminder, he would forget his past. But I received not a single drop of his affection, nor a child, heir to the throne and no future.
Once the king dies, which seems soon enough considering his failing health, the heir to the throne shall be the next male kin, Snowdop’s husband. I have tried to hide her in rags but she grows each day like a carnivorous flower, her alluring beauty trapping the affection of all those around her. Even at seven, the mirror calls her ‘the fairest of all’. Soon enough, princes from kingdoms around the world would line up for her hand. And with that would go my kingdom and my claim to beauty.
I have dealt with being the second-best all my life, but can I live with being a nobody?
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.