Posted in Life and After, Love, Twisted Tales

Down to Cinders

The Merchant

I’ve never been so wrong footed in my life.

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.

The Maid

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.”

The Merchant

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.”

The Duchess

“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.

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Posted in Love

Ghostly

Sitting on a brick wall

in the sea of the darkest night,

I, a lonely siren,

sang to my sailor,

beckoning him to venture out

of the comfort of his home.

Mosquitoes sang chorus.

Bats flew around

joining my lonely vigil.

The neighbours whispered

of the ghost in neighbourhood,

while, my sailor slept

dreaming of another,

never knowing the one

who awaits him.

Posted in Love

Matters of Heart: Act 2

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 wish people did not speak in code. Sigh!

Posted in Life and After, Love

Broken

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…


Original photo by Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash

Digitalization by Ammpryt ART

Posted in Twisted Tales

The Real Story

photo-1518049362265-d5b2a6467637

So, I went to this royal ball the other night⁠—my first⁠—and the crown prince took a fancy on me. There were so many others I would rather dance with but he just wouldn’t leave me alone!

At midnight, trying to get him off my back, I told him I was tired and needed to sit down. But he sat down next to me. Then, he wanted to kiss me!

I thought, “Give me a break! I just met you, Creep!”

So, I made an excuse about being late for home and started walking away but he followed. So I ran full out. I even lost one of my pretty crystal shoe and had to hobble all the way to my carriage.

Next day, the stalker was standing at my door. Apparently, he had used my custom-made slipper to find the maker and, through him, me.

Then he proposed me to marry him and I thought, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to be a Queen someday…”


Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

Posted in Life and After

The Flight

Gliding above the clouds

In your arms,

I saw the break of dawn.

The pink and red

Guilding the horizon.

A herd of deer

In the forest below

Fled As we

Swooped low.

You held me close,

Your arms around

Our baby bump,

As one we touched

The ground.

I open my sleepy eyes

And find you gone,

Again,

My face wet with tears…

Posted in Life and After

The Decade

A decade that feels like forever,

Yet, is just a moment away,

When I found the anchor

That kept me from drifting

Far away from the shores of life:

You!

There has never been a day

I didn’t love you.

There hasn’t been a day

I didn’t say I love you.

Ten years… Twenty… Thirty…

Who knows?

Who cares?

When I am with you–

Loving you, holding you

With a promise of

Forever and more.

Posted in Life and After

Serenity

There is a place where I drive my trailer

Everyday

To live forever

Next to the grassy banks of a tranquil lake.

The warm Sun calls me

And the clear water winks at me

Beconing me to come out.

I dip my toes in the water.

I look at the starfish that adorns the rock

Buried by my feet

As eels and gold fishes glide by.

I see a swan swimming at a distance.

I think if you.

I close my eyes and

Wake in your arms again.

-Dedicated to W, my love, my life

Posted in Life and After

Tiny Story: The Ring

She knew nothing about the man she had just married, as was usual in her community, and her stomach was in knots.

For the last ritual, the Pandit asked the couple to put their hands in the milkpot to find a gold ring. “Whoever finds it first rules forever”, he said smiling.

They both frantically searched for the ring until the groom’s fingers found hers inside the pot. Electric hummed between them and, quietly, he slipped the ring in her hand.

Posted in Life and After

Tiny Story: Reliving the Moment

“In that magical moment, he helped me up from the stairs. When looked at me as he cradled me in his arms, I saw emotions in his eyes… Love? I was taken aback!

Sure I was flattered by the attention but I couldn’t see how things would ever work out between the two of us.

For one, he was a hulk and I petite, almost breakable. Moreover, she had taken away my twin. I don’t think a Prince would look good hobbling around in one shoe.”

Posted in Life and After

Tiny Story: Modest

“The boy at the shop across the road keeps staring at our house and smiles whenever I come to the window. Yesterday, I slapped him for that. I am not that kind of girl.”

She repeated her story for the tenth time and looked out of her window at the shop with evident pride. The boy was smiling while he stared at another house. Her face fell.