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Litmus

By Revathi Ganeshsundaram

He did not like animals. Or so he said. In any case, the children were discouraged from harbouring dreams of ever having a pet.

He was an asthmatic. Viewed from that perspective, it made sense. “Father’s allergy will be triggered by pet fur,” they were told.

He was also a stickler for hygiene. He disapproved of children playing with animals, even the pets of friends and relatives. “Wash your hands!” he would say. “Don’t let them jump onto the bed! They must be harbouring all kinds of germs and parasites… And they’ll shed their fur all over the place!”

And so on, for years.

It was a rainy day. The family was away visiting the maternal grandmother, but he had come home for lunch as he always did. He had flexible timings and he wasn’t planning to go back this afternoon. He could work on the research paper he was writing, from home.

He had his lunch, then listened to songs on the radio until he drifted off into afternoon siesta. When he woke, the downpour had increased. It was only 4 p.m. but the overcast skies made the world look dark and gloomy.

He rose slowly, put on his slippers and listened to the sound of the rain increasing in volume. He went around the house, shutting the windows that were still open. Then it was time for his coffee.

He brewed fresh decoction and heated milk in a pan, all the while watching the rain through the kitchen window. After he mixed himself a cup of strong coffee, there was still some warm milk left. Covering the pan with a lid, he took his cup out into the living room to have it in the comfort of his favourite armchair.

The room was now quite dark. He switched on the light and as he did so, he thought he heard something on the verandah and paused to listen.

The sound was very faint, but then he coughed involuntarily, and he could now hear it again, loud and clear. It was a cat! No doubt seeking shelter from the rain in the safety of the verandah, and having heard him cough, responding to him.

“As long as you stay there!” he muttered to himself as he went to sit down. But the mournful mewing only grew louder.

He tried ignoring it for a while, but the incessant wailing soon began to get on his nerves. In addition, the creature was now moving backwards and forwards outside the verandah door, and each time it passed, would thump against it.

He could not enjoy his coffee.

“Shoo!” he called out loudly. “Go away or be quiet!” But this only made the cat more persistent in its clamour to get his attention.

He took another sip of his rapidly cooling beverage and as he did so, there was a difference in the sound of the rain as it seemed to change direction. He could see from the window that it was now pouring in a slanting fashion, at about forty-five degrees to the ground.

The verandah must be completely wet, he found himself thinking. He listened carefully but couldn’t hear anything now. Hope it’s gone away.

He needed some more coffee, a piping-hot cup this time. But when he rose to go back into the kitchen, he paused for a moment, then changed his mind and moved towards the verandah. He walked softly, making as little noise as his slippers would allow him, and pressed his ear against the door. Just the steady, monotonous sound of the rain.

Still, he could not turn away. Curiosity — or perhaps, something more — compelled him to linger a moment longer. He thought he heard something now, very faintly.

He had to know.

Very, very gently, he turned the doorknob and using his knee, carefully nudged the door open a crack.

He was greeted by a loud and pitiful yowling and at the same time caught sight of what looked like a damp black rag, which immediately unfurled itself and started pacing frantically, barely keeping an inch away from the door.

He hesitated. He could hear the rain, smell the fresh, damp earth, and feel the chill through the sliver of gap between the door and the jamb. He could also see that the entire verandah was drenched, right up to the door.

He wrestled with something within himself, then made a sudden decision. “Move aside,” he said. “I’m going to open the door now, move…!”

As he carefully pushed the door open still further, the cat’s yowling hit his ears like a blast of wind, even as the elements themselves tried to pour into the room. He stepped back a little, and emboldened by his moving away, the little bundle of fur slunk towards the door, then shot quickly past him and into the warmth.

He shut the door again.

They eyed each other warily for a moment, and when he did not make any threatening movements, his unwelcome guest started mewing pitifully again, all the while looking up at his face.

“Stop that now!” he said sternly. “I’ve let you in, haven’t I? Now sit still and leave me in peace!”

But it wouldn’t.

It stepped closer to him and before he could realise what it was doing, started rubbing its wet little body against his legs. It took a moment for him to recover from the shock, and then he gave a yell and stamped his feet to chase it away.

“Stay away from me!” he ordered crossly. “Go, go!”

He went back to his armchair and sat down, keeping a stern eye on the cat all the while. When it found that he had no intention of moving again for the time being, it jumped onto another chair nearby and settled into a snoozing position, intermittently making faint mewing sounds which gradually tapered off.

He watched it like an eagle until he felt fairly certain that it had finally dozed off. Its eyes were shut and its paws were tucked snugly beneath its little body, and its breathing was soft but sounded — as if it were wheezing…

It sounded just like him

He listened for some time, lost in thought, and when he finally looked down at his coffee cup, he was almost surprised that it was empty; he had forgotten.

Well, it was time for a refill!

But as he stood up, the feline sprang to life, jumping off the chair and running to him with loud, hungry mews. Once again, he stamped his feet and ordered it to keep away, but though it moved away from him, it continued to yowl and tried to approach him from a different direction.

Scolding, stomping, slapping his free hand on the surfaces of furniture, he managed to make his tortuous way into the kitchen and shut himself in. “I better stay in here if I want to have my coffee in peace!” he muttered to himself.

As he lit the stove to warm the milk again, the mewing and yowling continued outside the kitchen. The periodic thumping against the door too resumed. 

He switched off the stove and tried to peer through the window. The visibility was so low he could barely see the trees outside, and the rain showed no signs of abating.

He sighed.

***

He found a soft slice in the bread box. Rummaging in the cupboard turned up a shallow unused dish. He tore the bread into small pieces and put them in the dish.

Then he reached for the warm pan, and as he poured, the dish filled with the milk of human kindness.

***

Revathi Ganeshsundaram taught in a Business School in South India for several years until she recently decided to take a break to study Counseling Psychology. A self-professed introvert, she is comfortable in the company of family, books, and herself  — not necessarily in the same order. She finds the written word therapeutic and, hence, loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling a little in poetry. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

3 replies on “Litmus”

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