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The Magic Staff

A poignant short story about a Rohingya child by Shaheen Akhtar, translated from Bengali by Arifa Ghani Rahman

Shaheen Akhtar

Musa was born in the year when the girl child in his region was allowed to live and the sons were being killed. Dadi, his father’s mother, Bismillahjaan, had named him. There were no celebrations, no events to mark this ceremony, and not even an insignificant penny was spent on incense. However, as a tax for the arrival of a child into this world, a fat sum had to be donated to the nearby police station. That is how Dadi Bismillahjaan described the heavy term ‘birth registration’ used by people.

And Musa had landed on this side of the Naf River last night without that Dadi. He did not know at the time that his grandmother was not on the boat. She had paid for both their passages with six thousand kyat[1]. Then ensued the hullabaloo as people vied to get on the boat under cover of the darkest of nights.

A stream of salty tears ran down Musa’s cheeks as he stared down the endless river. Had his lungi been tied to his Dadi’s Thami,[2] he would never have let her float away. God forbid! Why would the old woman have floated away? She probably had not boarded the boat in the first place. She had ensured her grandson’s passage and quietly withdrawn from the back.

That was what Bismillahjaan had wanted from the very beginning. Musa was the sole heir to his family name, she used to say with every breath. If he survived in any corner of the earth, at least his bloodline would live on. And so, she had pulled her old, skeletal body across the hills and through the jungles. In all this time, she had held on to the enamel pot in which she cooked rice. Along the way, she had boiled whatever leaves she could gather and served them to Musa.

Musa had not paid attention to this at the time. His eye had been on the mountain along their path – perhaps he might see the light of God, the light which burned the mountain, but not Musa, the prophet. But none of these mountains were named Sinai. He had found a staff on the way though, and he had tied the bundle of clothes and the cooking pot to one end.

When Musa’s caravan arrived at the sandy banks of the Naf, he had relieved the stick of its burden. The sandy banks were like Karbala – with no water to drink nor food. The salty water where the river and the ocean met only made them vomit, cry, and struggle. In the meantime, when one woman gave birth, Musa, the learned student of the village religious school, was summoned to sound the azaan, the call for prayer, in the baby’s ear. Two days and two nights passed. There was no boat in sight. The Burmese army was hunting them down like the Pharaoh’s soldiers. Secretly, Musa had extended his arms once towards the river but to no avail. So, under cover of the night, he had thrown his staff into the water. This too was fruitless. The stick was swept away by the current. But at that moment, an engine boat puttered over from the other side and stopped at the bank. It was in that boat that Musa had piled in to arrive at this unknown destination last night. In the midst of this, he had lost Dadi, Bismillah.

How would Dadi traverse that long road again? Where would she go? What would she eat? Home burnt, fields burnt – their land had been destroyed by the ruling goons. If the family graveyard was still intact, she could probably find shelter in a foxhole. This must have been her plan all along. Musa’s sleep-deprived, numb, dizzy brain now recalled the rambling hints she had dropped about this. Five years ago, Bismillahjaan’s only son, Musa’s father, had been laid to rest in that graveyard. Musa had been a child of eight then. As he watched the gravedigger shovelling in the earth, he thought about the ancestors that were lying there. Baba had suffered much in life and his death had been worse. The military junta soldiers had shot him in the chest and then his throat had been slit by the monks. As he lay in his grave, Baba would tell of his travails to his dear ones who had led comparatively peaceful lives.

Musa wiped the tears from his eyes and sat on the rocks of the dam. He was closer to the water’s edge from here. Countless people stood squashed together on this side of the Naf, their eyes trained on the other bank. As darkness descended, a lantern or two lighted up on the river, and there was the occasional flicker of a flashlight. Musa drew in his breath sharply. Did the battery-operated lights belong to the military junta?

Perhaps there were still thousands of people waiting on the tarpaulin laid out on the sands he had left behind yesterday. Some would be giving birth; some would be dying – their bodies burned or maimed by bullets. There was no medicine, no proper food. For what sin were they suffering this hell on earth? Was Dadi still burning in the hell at the sandy banks?

As soon as a fleet of boats docked along the bank, Musa jumped into the water. He could not move forward as the crowd shoved through the neck-deep water from the opposite direction. He did not even have a light to shine on the faces of the swarm of people to find Dadi’s. Whatever light there was on this side came from the flash of cameras or the flashlights of the BGB[3] or the coastguards. They were using their flashlights to search through the refugees’ belongings that had been dumped on the banks – their plastic sacks, cooking utensils, urns, broken wall clocks, solar panels, and piles of quilts and pillows. At that moment, lightning in the sky heightened the tremors in Musa’s heart. What if Dadi drowned in the middle of the river in a storm? Raindrops fell on Musa’s head while he was still chest-deep in the water. In the meantime, boats docked relentlessly, as countless as the waves in the sea, compounded by the lapping of the water on the bank and the ear-splitting noise of their engines.

When it began to pour, Musa took shelter in the barn, or rather, a goat shed, of a nearby house. The shed shared a wall with the hut and was covered by the Nipa palm leaf with the other three sides open. In this tiny space stood two closely tethered goats. Musa crowded in with them. Who knew how late it was now. The homeowners must be sleeping soundly. He thought he would leave when the rain eased off but just then, the thunder clapped and he grabbed one of the goats around the neck and sat down. It was a familiar touch after so many days and the smell was exactly the same. When lightning struck a little later, he looked timidly, for the first time, at any creature from this unknown land. It did not look unfamiliar though. In fact, the eyes looked as tender as his pet goat’s. So what if Musa was a scholar in the maktab[4], at heart he was a shepherd – of a pair of golden buffalos and two goats with four or so kids. How much pain those goats must have suffered when they struggled in the fire that engulfed them!

Before the army set fire to their homes, the buffalos had been set free and Dadi had taken refuge in the forest with twelve-year-old Musa. Perhaps she had thought nothing would happen to a woman, child, and a few innocent goats. What Bismillahjaan did not know was that the tyranny of the army had heightened by the day. Even the girls were not spared. These tyrants used to rape before, but now they resorted to spilling blood. When Musa returned home two days later, all he found were ashes and destruction. They had taken shelter in Dadi’s sister’s home a little to the south that day and that is where they stayed for a full year prior to their migration.

When Musa thought of his mother, he recalled a woman sprawling on the front yard with a child in her lap. The child’s pigeon-like pink feet hung over one side of Ma’s lap. Where were his young siblings now? His mother? Musa was awoken by his own cries. He found himself lying curled up on the straw in the goat shed, the pair of goats standing next to him. Someone had wrapped his entire body with a torn quilt – just as his mother used to silently cover him up during the heavy monsoon or winter nights. Even so, Musa left the shed before the first light of dawn. He did not return to the dam. Instead, he began to wade through the muddy path in the opposite direction.

The marketplace ahead was already buzzing at this ungodly hour. City dwellers, alighting from the intercity buses, rushed to the stalls for breakfast, their bags hanging from their shoulders. Aromatic smells filled the dawn air. As hunger pangs rose in Musa’s empty stomach, he began to loiter around the stalls.

When someone came out of a stall and aimed a camera at him, Musa took shelter behind the stall. The camera was a lure – this person was actually a kidnapper, thought Musa. He hissed inwardly like a snake. When the same man, however, returned with a plate of food from inside the stall and called to him, Musa dragged his feet forward. Then he wolfed down the food. He cared nothing at all for the number of clicks the camera made or how many pictures were taken of his starved face. As he burped after polishing off the plate, Musa thought that he would be willing to allow photographs if it meant meals twice a day. He was actually waiting to find a staff that would transform magically into a snake. This was now his aim in life.

With his life’s goal determined, Musa could now afford to look around casually. The place may not have been a township but it was quite busy regardless. There were some paved stores. A schoolhouse stood nearby, some mud-splattered sleeping people crowding its veranda. In the middle stood a pile of their dirty household belongings. When someone emerged from behind a plastic sack of this rootless group, Musa was taken by surprise. Was this boy his twin or was he looking at himself in the mirror? The only difference was that the boy had a white clay mark of Thanaka[5] on his cheek. He was dressed in light blue denim shorts chopped off at the knees. With these and some other differences, the two of them stood in the shade of the stall, next to each other. Neither seemed to have the strength or the inclination to speak.

Children with Thanka on their face. Courtesy: Creative Commons

When the cameraman appeared with a local in tow, Musa quickly turned his back on them to face the wall. Why was this man so overenthusiastic? Wasn’t he satisfied with the bunch of photos he had already taken of his starving, beggarly face? But this time it was not the click of the camera, but the man’s words that drew attention. Musa realised he was taking interviews. In the beginning, the boy next to him also stood silently. Perhaps he was mute, deaf. But the next moment, he began to stammer. Musa felt goosebumps. Did everything become topsy-turvy when doomsday loomed? Was Musa glib of tongue and Harun a stammerer? Of course, he had no idea if this boy’s name was even Harun.

‘So many murders, rapes, arson – did you see these with your own eyes?’ The local translated the cameraman’s words into Rohingya.

What could be the answer to this question? And how could it be described? Did the kid next to him stammer so he did not have to answer such questions? Musa’s heart was in a turmoil. To save the boy who looked like his twin, Musa turned his face away from the wall.

Holding his Dadi’s hand, he had been escaping – Musa began to pour out his story in Rohingya. There was black smoke and fire behind, the sound of screams and bullets chasing them. Body after body lay dead along the road. Bullet-ridden. Throats slit. Then the thunder of the ocean. It seemed to be howling, wanting to divide itself into two. But the stick in his hand did not have that power.

The two men, like the Pharaoh, looked at Musa in disbelief. But the twin-like kid was happy, even though his name was not Harun, but Shah Alam.

As they walked towards the schoolhouse, Shah Alam said that they had crossed over on a raft the night before from the village of Fatongja in Maungdaw. Shah Alam’s father was missing and his older brother had been murdered. His three other siblings were with his mother.

“With Musa, you are now four,” said his mother to Shah Alam as she sat on the veranda and rolled up a plastic mat. A truck was due to arrive shortly and they would be transferred to a nearby refugee camp. Musa felt suffocated. The air was moist and heavy like a full mashk[6]. Dazed people walked around, vacant looks in their sleepless, tired eyes. No face reflected any sign of joy at the prospect of a new life. Did Musa’s face show any sign of delight? He did not want to live the life of an insect in a camp.

When the convoy of trucks arrived in the marketplace, Musa ran the other way as fast as he could. Government forces of this land chased him back. Shah Alam was standing in the truck and sucking his thumb. His mother had let out a cry as if a child of her own womb was running away. Standing in the open truck like cattle, Musa growled in anger. He was more upset with Shah Alam’s mother than with the authorities here. Musa did not want an adoptive mother or brother – he wanted a staff, one that would magically turn into a snake.

“You must not take the words of the Book literally, Musa!” Bismillahjaan came into Musa’s dreams that night. “It is foolishness to do so. Forget about me. Your entire life awaits you. Go forward on your own.”

“Where will I go, Dadi?” Sad and angry, Musa asked in a teary voice. “I want to go back – to that graveyard where you are headed to take shelter in a foxhole.”

Musa shut up when he heard someone groan in their sleep. He began to sweat profusely as he lay under the tarpaulin. His stomach had encountered some rice after many days, refugee rice – and he had not been able to digest it properly. Yet, the day before, a lot had been accomplished. The authorities had done a family headcount and provided ration cards. They had collected and brought their rations of rice, lentils, sugar, and oil to their tarp-covered shelter. Shah Alam’s mother had instantly set up house and Musa had become a part of the family. He was now spending his nights under the same tarp.

Chores were distributed in the morning. Shah Alam’s mother and siblings would stand in line at the ration shop while Musa and Shah Alam were responsible for collecting firewood from the forest and water from the pump. “Don’t fight like Habil and Qabil,[7] my dears,” Shah Alam’s mother poked her face through a hole in the tarp as they walked toward the jungle. “Be good brothers like Musa and Harun.[8]

Musa’s heart danced with joy when he heard the names Musa-Harun pronounced together. He immediately wanted to address Shah Alam’s mother as Ma, but he suppressed that desire by turning to look at Shah Alam. What a fool! He did not look like he could be good for anything other than gathering firewood. Anyhow, going into the forest did not just mean collecting firewood for the stove – it also meant that he might find the staff he had been searching for. By Allah’s infinite mercy, Shah Alam’s mother had not made him stand in line like a beggar with a bowl, waiting for handouts of food. Moreover, he did not have to remain confined to the camp.

Besides going into the forest, Musa also climbed the mounds around the camp with the others when he heard that the Burmese military had yet again set fire on the other side of the Naf. His people howled, the women wailed and beat their chests. Musa joined them: “Oh Dadi! My heart aches for you!” Sometimes, he cried in tune. “How will I live without Dadi!” When his tears dried up, there was fire in his eyes.

When he received news that a boat had sunk on the Naf, Musa rushed to see. He went close to the dam and sat on the stone slab to stare out into the river. In his hand was a branch of the gojari tree he had found in the forest. He muttered to himself as he struck the water with the branch.

What sort of justice was this? No one would remain – no father or mother, sister or brother, no home or land, no country, no earth. What was his fault? Why did he have to spend his life at a camp – like a cockroach under a tarp? And then there were other troubles. Young girls kept disappearing. As soon as their wounds healed, the young men plotted evil deeds while the police invaded at odd hours of the night. Children cried, old women lamented. Was there no way out of this hell?

“Of course, there is! There is only one route out of this place,” said a trafficker to Musa one day by the riverside. Musa could test his fortune by crossing the river like Sindabad the Sailor. There was a boat nearby and he would not even have to pay for passage.

Musa had no desire to test his fortune. He did not care either about the camp’s development like the light-skinned men who rolled in on expensive cars to find fault. He just wanted to return to his own land. For that he needed a magic staff that would turn into a snake and chase his enemies away. He wanted to see the land overrun with frogs, lice, and locusts that would put fear into the hearts of the Burmese soldiers and drive them out of Rakhine. Or blood would flow in the river instead of water, just like it did when his people were tortured by the commanding forces on his land.

The idea of blood flowing down the river appealed to the militant who waited by the mound everyday for Musa. He had no beard on his face or cap on his head and Musa had no idea where he came from or where he lived. Perhaps he hid beneath the grass like an insect or burrowed into the dark trunk of the enormous banyan tree. But no matter where he lived, the militant ignored the staff in Musa’s hand. As he stood on the mound and looked out onto the fire and smoke on the other side of the Naf, he said to Musa, “If you want blood to flow in the river, you must be trained in arms. It is not possible to do it with a mere gojari branch.”

“Who said this is merely a gojari branch?” Musa questioned. He had no use for an AK-47, grenades, or bombs. He wanted to tell him about the magic staff that would instantly turn into a snake and save his people.

The militant grew quite angry with Musa. He said, “Listen, O Musa, doomsday is near. Bullets and guns are the final answer.”

Musa felt helpless. Couldn’t he show the militant even a little bit of magic now? Like a tiny frog? Musa opened up his palm. Instead of a frog, his palm felt the brush of the breeze.

But neither of the paths suggested by the trafficker or the militant appealed to him. What would he do now? Musa wanted to howl. In anger and frustration, he flung away the branch in his hand. Instantly, it turned into a snake and disappeared into the wilderness around the mound.

(First published in Bengali in Prothom Alo on July 15, 2018)


[1] Kyat is the currency of Myanmar

[2] A sarong-like piece of clothing worn by the people of Myanmar

[3] The Border Guard Bangladesh

[4] Islamic elementary school

[5] Thanaka is made from barks of trees and used like Sandalwood paste to decorate and protect people from sunburns

[6] A traditional water carrying bag made from goat skin

[7] The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Abel and Cain

[8] The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Moses and Aaron

Shaheen Akhtar is a notable Bangladeshi short story writer and novelist. She received the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2015) for her contributions to literature and the Asian Literary Award (2020) for her novel The Search.

Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor and Head of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka. In addition, she is a freelance editor and translator.

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Stories

   A Riverine Healing         

By P.G.Thomas.             

                              

It all came back to Pappan in spurts; the rasp of his own laboured breathing, the sound of the runners’ bare feet slapping the wet mud pathway, and the choking sensation of fear welling up within him.  The flaming torches had streamed acrid smoke and sparks, and had lit their way through their flight that night.  They threw distorted shadows of the runners along the dense foliage rimming the pathway.  It had been in the late 1940s, and Pappan and his communist comrades had fled the sure retribution for their uprising in Kerala. 

Pappan wished he could suppress the memories of the shrieks of the landlord he had hamstrung that night.  It had all gone terribly wrong, and they had fled the scene as the wails of the women of the landlord’s household reverberated into the night. The wails had stubbornly clung to him throughout his life, and had lost none of their horror. 

 Pappan looked up from his reverie to the visitors who sat outside his home on a wooden bench.  They had come from the local communist party office to invite this old legend of a comrade to participate in the golden jubilee celebrations of the communist uprising.  Pappan’s reluctance had baffled his visitors.

The group leader persisted, “Comrade Pappan, we so need your presence at the golden jubilee celebrations.  You were the foundation on which this movement was built in this area.”

Pappan demurred, “All that was a very long time back.  I have not been involved for some time now.”

“Many will be disappointed by your absence.”

Pappan grunted an understanding of the matter; but said nothing more.  From the wooden stool he sat on, he glanced at his daughter who squatted on the riverside.  With a soot-blackened clay pot next to her, she was gutting and cleaning fish for the next meal.  The unwanted parts of the fish that she tossed into the flowing river were snapped up by schools of river fish.  Cawing crows circled overhead and attempted to pick up the floating offal with their beaks, only to be outdone by the fish eagles gliding in to precisely grapple it up with their talons from the river’s surface.  This frenzied feeding was a daily ritual, and the wheeling birds and their aerobatics never failed to hold Pappan’s attention.  He wished a man’s sins could as easily be discarded as his daughter did the fish offal.  His grandson played around his mother, a cat skulked nearby in the tall grass as his daughter cleaned the fish.  She looked over her shoulders at her father, with eyes that understood his dilemma. 

Over seventy years ago; in the very same hut, his mother had delivered him on a reed mat spread across the mud floor.  His inheritance had been grinding poverty and caste discrimination.  He was flung into a life of wildness and petty theft that finally drove him from home at the age of twelve.  Thereafter, he had begged, pilfered and done menial work with a bunch of similar youngsters on the streets of the nearby town.  The communist movement had found in these urchins the ideal storm troopers.  When he turned twenty, Pappan had returned to his native hamlet; his earlier rebelliousness and acrimony now nicely shaped and directed to achieving the goals of the communist party.  Pappan had come home to transform his own little world!

He had visited his parent’s hut on returning.  His father’s unease with his grown son was evident.  His mother smothered her mouth with her work gnarled hands, and her tears flowed freely down her wrinkled cheeks.  Pappan murmured, ‘Amma,’ and then squeezed into her hands some grubby notes and coins.  Nothing more was said, and Pappan after a long look at the Meenachil river flowing near the hut, had walked away.

And then subtly things began to change in the sleepy hamlet.  Polite but incessant demands for higher wages came to the ears of the landlords.  The customary deference to their betters suddenly seemed to be given with reluctance. And then it had all come boiling out at the time of the rice harvest, carefully crafted by the communist party to stun the landlords. 

A dry wind had been blowing and it had turned the rice fields a golden brown. The paddy had bent over, heavy with ripe rice ears, and there was expectancy in the air.  It was the morning of the harvest.  Mathai, the landlord, had walked the short distance to his fields along with his supervisors.  They were greeted by the sight of their workers lolling on the grassy banks of the field.  None rose in respect, nor showed any inclination to begin harvest work.  A supervisor whispered into the ear of the landlord, “There seems to be a problem!”

The demands for increased wages and a larger share of the harvested rice were made by the workers.  Mathai wasn’t sure what upset him more; the unreasonableness of the demands or the sheer effrontery of the stipulations being made at the nick of harvest time.  But he bit down on his irritation and merely said, “There are time-honoured ways of dealing with such matters.  This approach is unacceptable.”  He was met by a deadening silence from the workers.  He turned back towards his home, and the workers quietly disbursed.  No harvesting was done that day.

Two days later, Pappan was disturbed at his morning ablutions on the banks of the river with the hushed words; “Mathai has brought in outsiders and begun harvesting his rice.” Pappan and his comrades had walked into Mathai’s rice fields and its welcoming committee.  They were outnumbered and they retreated.  That night someone broke the dykes along Mathai’s fields; and the river poured in to submerge the yet to be harvested portion of the paddy.  The class war was out in the open.  Threats and posturing soon degenerated into brawls.  The communist cadres disrupted work where they could, and strike breakers began resisting and meting out punishment clandestinely.   The countryside waited with bated breath, disoriented by this strange movement that had upended long established customs.

An expedition to Mathai’s to scare and demoralise him had gone horribly wrong.  The converging of flaming torches in the night had roused the landlord’s household.  But to Pappan’s discomfiture, he met not a cowed downed Mathai, but one brimming with righteous indignation and contempt for Pappan.  Something snapped inside Pappan; and in moment he had swung his curved razor sharp sickle to hamstring the landlord.  Screams rend the air and blood squirted.  The other comrades froze, stunned by Pappan’s impulsive action.  Someone grabbed Pappan’s bloody hands, “Enough, enough! Let’s go.” And they left Mathai writhing on the ground and his household wailing into the night.

They ran, they hid and they scrambled from safe haven to safe haven until they reached the forest.  Weeks went by.  The local magistrate had issued a warrant for Pappan’s arrest.  Helped by informers, they were arrested quietly by the police as they slept in their forest dwelling.  Pappan disappeared into the labyrinth of the Central Prison; a place staffed with policemen drawn invariably from the upper castes and landowning classes.  They needed little instruction on how to deal with communist prisoners. 

Years went by, and the communists won the elections and came to power in Kerala; and with that a policy change in dealing with political prisoners would see them released from prison.  Following this, a bedraggled, sick and broken Pappan had walked into his hamlet.  He quietly made his way to his now dead parents’ dilapidated hut by the river.  He was soon joined by a woman and a girl child.  No one knew where the two had met.  They repaired the hut and Pappan began the long journey to mend his body and mind, both broken by methods of torture carefully nurtured and finessed over generations by the police fraternity. 

His wife took jobs where she could find them.  The seasons changed. The rains came and the flooded river spread its rich loam over their small patch of land.  The bananas and vegetables planted by his wife sprouted and began to grow, and Pappan began to mend too.

His wife’s people once visited and the idea to buy a boat was broached, and some money given for it.  It would give Pappan a living; for there was always work for a boat and boatman on the Meenachil River.  Somehow the idea trickled out to the other villagers, and their community spirit was tickled.  It began to be mentioned at the tea shops, at the bathing ghats on the riverbank and even under the Peepul tree in the temple compound.

“Did you hear that a canoe is to be built for Pappan?”

“Haha!  And turn a revolutionary into a boatman?”

Someone slapped his thigh and cackled, “Aiyo!! What a fate for an old communist!”

“Come on. Give a man a chance to live.” And so went the prattle in the village.  But the idea of the boat took off.  An old, discarded tin, with a cloth stretched over the top and a slit for coins in it began to do the rounds. The tin started to fill.  Someone in a fit of impertinence carried it to Mathai the landlord’s house; to buy a boat for the man who had hamstrung him years back.  They came back abashed by Mathai’s generosity.  It had been the largest donation yet received.

A slipshod committee that argued much, and agreed on little was formed, and the tin with its rattle and clinking was finally carried to Pappan’s house to his embarrassment and to the delight of his wife.  Opinions were gathered on how to proceed. 

“We need to find a mature Anjillee tree (Wild Jack) to make the canoe from,” quipped someone.  A haphazard and desultory search began.  Such a tree was soon found.  The owner was paid and the tree felled.  An elephant was hired to carry the tree trunk to Pappan’s house.  And this communal project soon became the most exciting happening in the village in years.

A slightly rowdy crowd, along with the elephant carrying the tree trunk wound its way across the countryside.  Someone brought a battered drum and the whole began to take on the look of a procession.  Women and children gathered along the way and giggled at the funny procession, and as it passed the village toddy shop, part of the procession melted away for a drink.  But they were soon replaced by some from within the toddy shop; tipsy and more suited to the occasion.

By late afternoon they reached Pappan’s house.  The mahout shouted and prodded the elephant into dropping the Anjillee tree trunk at an appropriate place to be worked on.  Pappan’s wife with folded hands thanked the jubilant crowd, and gave the elephant a parting gift of ripe bananas. 

The axe thudded, the wood chips flew and loafers congregated at the site to offer unsolicited advice to the canoe builders.  The yellow Anjillee log was hollowed out, and it began to take on the shape of a sleek canoe, and hope began to course through the veins of Pappan and his family.  The summer months dried out the canoe wood, and it was finished with layers of stinking fish oil to waterproof it.

And on an auspicious day, when the river flowed low, a crowd gathered to witness the launch of the canoe.  A collective holding of breaths accompanied the canoe, as it slid through the mud into the river.  Built with no modern measuring instruments, but only on the principles of Thatchu Sastra, the traditional craft of carpentry, the canoe wobbled into the water and then paused; to float perfectly, with no tilt whatsoever.  A cheer went up, and even Pappan’s normally stony lips quivered into a smile.  Someone slung a marigold garland on the bow of the canoe, and Pappan’s transformation from a revolutionary to a Meenachil river boatman was sanctified. 

Pappan often left with the rising sun glinting off the river surface.  He paddled swiftly to pick up his boat load.  It varied from pilgrims during temple festivals, to bags of rice, hay or mounds of freshly harvested coconut at other times.  He rarely argued about the fare; but his quiet demeanour somehow ensured a fair settlement of his dues.

He grew familiar with the changing seasons and moods of the river.  His boatman’s skills were often tested by a rapidly flowing flooded Meenachil river, where the swirling waters inundated its mud banks or its silt built up banks anew.  The colour of the foliage along the banks changed from lush green during the monsoons, to duller shades of green and yellow during the simmering summer months.  He watched the migrating birds visit and disappear; to come calling again as nature’s invisible wand directed them.  He too grew sinewy and grizzled, but a sense of purpose and belonging imbued his life.

Work done, he would paddle home in the late hours, through the buzz of night insects and the occasional splash of a fish breaking the river surface.  His riverine path was lit by moonlight or starlight, until he reached his bit of the river front. The last bit would be guided in by a lit lantern unfailingly left at the landing by his wife or at other times, by the soft singing of evening prayers by his wife and child in their hut.  

Pappan remembered, but his visitors stirred impatiently at Pappan’s inscrutable silence.  His grandchild sensing the tension in the air sidled up to Pappan and climbed into his lap.  The oldest of the visitors rose and walked deliberately to Pappan’s daughter by the river.  He earnestly appealed to her to persuade her father to come to the 50th celebration of the communist uprising.  She remained silent for a moment, and then turning to him said: “Has he not done enough for the movement?  Please let him be.  He’s old and carries a heavy burden.”

The visitor reasoned, “Yes, things were done during the uprising.  But it was for a cause, and comrade Pappan need not feel so burdened about those things.”

She sighed and said, “Would that not be for the man carrying the burden to decide?”

The crestfallen communist visitors slowly trooped out.  They paused at the gate and looked back at Pappan.  He had not stirred.  He sat there quietly with his grandchild in his lap, gazing into the dusk that slowly enveloped the river.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life.  He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.   

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Stories

         Oliver’s Soul

Paul Mirabile weaves yarn of murder and madness in Madrid of the 1970s         

                            

Madrid: Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am jotting this down while it is still fresh in my mind, hoping that the police will not jump to hasty conclusions and accuse me falsely of the killing. The murderess, after relating the incident to me, left that very evening ; that is to say, the evening I found her at home standing over the corpse of my dear friend Oliver. Since her departure, the entire affair has shaken me up, given the terrible fact that I am the only person available, and I shall add, sound of mind, to offer an explanation. Here let me give you an account of what actually took place before anything injudicious happens to me.

She was a religious fanatic, the murderess, that I am certain, and although I had these impressions of her, I could never pin-point the source of material she utilised in her indefatigable tirades apropos the necessity of man to humiliate himself before God, who, as she insisted, created man in order that he may serve Him, and suffer the cross as He did. Apparently she was well read in mediaeval Christian dogma, and especially in the works of Fray Luis de Granada, Saint Thomas of Aquinas and Abelard. She had been a student of theology and philosophy, albeit a poor one, but did have an entertaining command of the subtle teachings and techniques of Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme.

Our conversations were weighty, yet erratic. The evening of the murder, for example, she picked up a book and tossed it out of the window. We had been talking about the physical attributes of the soul, and it seemed I had upset her over something. I asked her why she loved Oliver instead of me, and without a word she promptly threw out three more, one of which one was the Bible ! I heard them sailing through the still, night air and land on the small plaza below with a soft thump. Her eyes wandered off to stare at the empty space just below the low-ceiling of her flat. A crooked smile stretched on her bloodless lips. A fly had sailed in on the waves of the interminable Madrilenian heat from the open window, buzzing annoyingly about the wrought iron chandelier. She seemed to enjoy that buzzing.

When she had snapped out of her mesmerised state, she placed her hands upon my head and drew me towards her. She kissed me full on the lips. It was the first time we had kissed in many months. In the same distracted vein, she whispered that a sickness had befriended her, and a revelation had swollen her eyes with vivid scenes of lurid pleasure. At first she laughed, or rather giggled. A short time later, she said Oliver was coming to kill her, and that we must protect ourselves from him. I sat up staring at her in disbelief. She remained calm, disclosing her love for him, but added, that alas pure love could not be a defence against external, mundane effects. Love, she felt, could be overcome and defeated when the hour arrived for his meditated act. She continued saying that his soul could not forfeit this unleashed wave of energy, for he lacked in guided spiritual strength. I listened to her, not believing that Oliver was what she said he was. She continued to whisper in fey tones, her cold, blanched lips sometimes touching mine, whilst the wretched heat and that irritating buzzing were driving me insane.

The evening passed without any other incident, although her tone and breathing touched strange chords in my heart. She was obviously ill, but I refrained from asking her if she needed anything, or if I could be of any help. No, I take that back, I am lying to you : the thought never occurred to ask her ! Instead, my thoughts reached out in search of Oliver’s face. She made some more tea, we chatted a while then I left without a kiss.

The following morning, the air was less oppressive when I visited her; perhaps I had regrets about leaving so abruptly. She wasn’t in, but on the broken tiles, slipped halfway under the door was a note. It was Oliver’s handwriting, who apparently in great haste, had scrawled something about coming over that evening at around seven. Slipping the note back in its place, I elected that it would be better if I divulged to Oliver the scope of his lover’s uncanny behaviour and affected revelations. Rescinding the idea however, I walked the streets until nightfall.

The torrid dampness of late autumn in Madrid painted a dismal picture at that empty hour. The baroqueness of the city took on a ponderous, eerie, melancholic aura. I felt plunged in some Edgar Poe intrigue, sensed the triviality of my gestures and acts. My nerves were on edge: could hours be so onerous ? I continued my dreary pacing without pangs of hunger or weariness of stride. Suddenly, I found myself at the small plaza just below my sick friend’s flat, and where, from her window, she had a full view of the statue at the centre of the square, a commemorative homage to a fallen hero whose name I no longer recall. He held a huge white cross in his clenched fists, his eyes gaping feverishly ahead of him. Checking my watch, I read two. Looking up at her window, I saw the lights flash. Her head popped out, and I asked myself if she had, for some enigmatic reason, sensed my presence. What an absurd thought! I, nevertheless, slipped behind the statue, and kept perfectly still.

Thank heavens the hour was late and no one was in the street. Otherwise, some sober or insomniac portero[1] would have certainly run to the police. I must have cut a ridiculous figure, skulking behind that wild-eyed, cross-bearing zealot. I chanced another glance at her window. She had vanished. Recalling our conversation last evening, and Oliver’s note in the morning, I debated whether it were wise to go straight up or call the police. I decided to go up. In any case, the police would have thought me drunk, and perhaps would even have thrown me in jail.

I darted across the plaza into the shadows of the adjacent building. I can assure you that I felt like a thief sneaking through those bleak, heated hours of the night. A hussy with brazen bangles clinking in sad obscurity happened to discover me in the shadows of the doorway. Throwing up her arms, she let out a shriek and ran off across the plaza, her high-heels rapping, tapping and clacking a monotonous dirge upon the crooked stones. I speedily entered the building of Oliver’s lover. Happily the portero was either asleep or decidedly drunk. The stairway lay quiet.

My imagination was racing. Would she actually kill him ? How could she have ever conjured up such an extravagant idea ? Was she turning her destructive forces against Oliver because he had so oftentimes agreed to our platonic triad as the very proof of her incapacity to love just one man … or love any man ? Or was it her untamed inner drive set against society’s cruel hypocrisy of condemning a human being’s marginal existence as it played out in the complexity of an ever-shifting triangle ? It is true, however, that within the spheres of every man’s mind, dark moments instigate arrogance and envy to chase out reason and replace it with the urge to turn to crime and passion. I made haste, almost tripping on the last carpeted step.

I was startled to find her door ajar. I hesitated before I entered, apprehending what the consequences could be if my intrusion proved untimely … In one way or another. Oliver mustn’t know I suspected foul play. As for his lover, at this point I could not care a fig. It was merely a friendly visit. At two in the morning?

I strode boldly into the nondescript sitting room, stealing a glance at her. She stood there, gaping at me in bewilderment. Then a silly grin played across those thin, ghastly lips. She pointed to the mahogany table where the bloodstained corpse of Oliver lay, a kitchen knife thrust deep within his breast. I quickly shut the door then raced back to Oliver’s still warm body. She remained standing with that same plastic grin spread over a face of grotesque scorn.

Oliver was stone dead, his heavy body losing blood fast. A huge crimson pool formed under the mahogany table. Not a word passed between us. She scrutinised me, though, with a sort of curious air. Finally I stood, took hold of her shoulders, and signalled with a nod of my head to Oliver’s corpse. She pushed me away roughly, asked me to put aside my air of feigned mystery, then turned to make some coffee. I couldn’t believe the whole scene. Oliver lay murdered in the most despicable fashion and she sails off to the kitchen to make coffee! And that same damned fly kept buzzing about above me, flustering further my already knotted thoughts. I suddenly realised that I had walked into a terrible predicament. For all I knew she could have called the police, pinning the crime on me. Had I touched the knife ? No, thank God …

I glanced down at Oliver, my last thoughts finding their way into his, into our close, confidential past. We had so much in common, so much had been shared, and … and then she entered our manly nobleness, disrupting our toilsomely constructed dialectics. Had we not planned a long voyage to the East to spend a few years studying Eastern philosophy? The murderess returned with the utmost aplomb and placed the silver tray on the mahogany table round which the odour of thick, oozing blood wavered in wisps of despair.

I observed her carefully. She didn’t seem to be waiting for the police. Yet, she held her cup of coffee so delicately, as if that were the very cup with which she would scoop up Oliver’s blood and drink with it! I shuddered at this ridiculous image, again glancing at the Oliver’s frozen-white face. It was a mask of incomprehension … of unabashed innocence ! She asked me to sit, and soon began her morbid tale :

Oliver came as expected, carrying with him his usual pile of books. I interrupted to ask her which ones but she gritted her teeth and told me to keep my mouth shut. She didn’t like his books, they were foul, blasphemous and degrading to a pleading soul. But she loved him dearly, and that was enough for her to disregard these heinous felonies. This was the very reason for his death, she panted, her breath odious, nostrils wide. She loved him so much, but his books were soiling his pure, inborn thoughts. Those books were the external elements hacking away at his candid soul, squeezing him dry of his instinctive, natural energies derived from the inner depths, a gift from the Almighty. His poor, poor soul was incapable of overcoming these assailing evil elements from without. Oliver was a coward ! He dared not face extremities in fear of direct confrontation. She understood his dilemma, pitied him, sought to salvage him. He came to her explicitly for redemption. Oliver’s soul had to be soothed, then redeemed. She read it on his face, not in his vile books. His eyes had gone wild, the world blotting out his innate goodness. Weakening from these destructive powers, she tried to save him with her tenderness and love. This he took as mockery, throwing her savagely to the floor. She fully understood now that he had been ensnared by his own constructed cage of bookish death-traps.

She asked him if he wanted to die. The cage of death imprisoned him. He couldn’t break the iron bars, preferring to grapple with his gnomic books, boding his own plunge into the pits of slime and filth. He went berserk — tearing out her books from their shelves, stamping on them like some lunatic. And while he did so, she went ever so quietly into the kitchen to retrieve the salutary knife. He stopped, and eyed her funnily; what was the need of a knife? In that instant she went up to him, holding the life-saving helve firmly in hand. Oliver put out both hands but the blade was already deep inside his chest. She sighed as his big body slumped peacefully at her feet. He had been finally liberated from ignominy. Nothing again would ever harm him …

I listened in awe, and during those minutes (hours?) of madness a cold sensation slithered up my spine: she could kill me, too! The deadly killer was not strong, but her terrible tale left me hollow, defenceless. Her eyes searched mine, studying me, reading me. Are not the eyes the windows of the soul ? She walked towards the corpse, then burst into peels of harrowing laughter. I jumped up. She wrenched the knife out of Oliver’s chest and brandished it high overhead.

Dashing to the door, I heard footsteps and great gasps of breath right behind me. They resounded eerily as they followed mine down the stairway, my gait diminishing at each footfall downward. Into the street I charged, and hied to the statue. Only once had I gained the statue, I chanced a glance behind me. There was no one …

At home I resolved to run to the police, though, I couldn’t summon the nerve to make the move, much less the strength to descend back into the streets. I was frightened of the ill-lit, lonely lanes of cobblestone. And that insufferable heat and mugginess … Perhaps she was looking for me. She did have my address, I was sure of that. Unable to sleep, I sat at the window, scanning the narrow lanes below. The night was calm, not a soul passed, not a sound to disturb the hollow darkness. A light drizzle began to fall, the tiny drops flickering like silvery tinsel under the sallow, mournful street lamps.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, mooning confusedly in my flat, and before going to the police, I resolved to make a bee-line to her place to see if anything might have happened to her after my flight. With the new day, albeit a sunless one, all my feelings of insecurity had left me, and I felt strong enough to climb those wooden stairs and knock at her door. She didn’t answered … I turned the knob. Her door had been left unlocked.

Stealthily I inched my way into the sitting room, she apparently had gone out. But that infernal fly still hovered round the chandelier as if it had been sent by some Higher Spirit to hound me, to testify and vouch to the gruesome events of the evening before. And the loathing stench of blood ? And Oliver’s corpse ? Then I espied a note on the mahogany table, set beside the silver tray and empty coffee cups. In her customary scribble, the murderess had written that she would take the night train to an unspecified destination.

I looked around in a panic. Where had she hidden the body? I shuddered at the idea that my fingerprints were smudged on almost every item of that flat. She had completely gone mad, and I … yes I … what could I do ? Her friends (for I’m sure she must have had some lady friends) would definitely visit her, and when they found her gone, would believe something was amiss and go to the police station. Mine and Oliver’s names would be noted in all her address and notebooks, and there is no doubt that she had often spoke of us to those lady friends of hers. I could very well be suspected, even accused. Oliver and I were so close, so intimate. One need not be a Sherlock Holmes to put two and two together. And what did I care if she loved Oliver more than me ? Could the police possibly think that I would have murdered him for such a silly motive ? If so, then why hadn’t I murdered her ?

I dragged my feet out of the building and back to my dismal dwellings, where I am presently finishing this deposition for the police. I expect them very shortly now, I think it has been three days since the murder. At the same time, I feel as if I’m writing out a confession, or a death warrant for her, who, perhaps with very good reason, has put much distance between the scene of the crime and myself. As to Oliver, well, his soul now must lie somewhere far beyond the uncertainty of love, hatred and zealous misfortune … Did it not comprehend that our earthly existence was but a fleeting souvenir of timeless Eternity ?


[1] porter

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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Stories

Pagol Diaries

By Indrasish Banerjee

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I never knew Maa had developed such a filial attachment with Pagol* until I found her diary the other day. Probably to dispel her loneliness, Maa had started maintaining a diary. The diary had all the usual entries recording her day-to-day activities. Some about daily humdrum activities. “Today Anita came late again…the third day in a row….” Some on past recollections trigged by something with a tinge of melancholy. “Today morning the big glass jar slipped from my hand, raced to the floor and shattered. It was an antique dear to Gogol’s father.”

What took me by a pleasant surprise were Maa’s diary entries on Pagol. In Sweden those days lot of experiments were being carried out with robots. Robots were gradually replacing humans in various jobs. People were both excited and worried about them. Robots were being seen as a solution to many human problems as well as a threat to human existence. People felt the time when robots would completely take over humans was not very far.

Like many, I used to read a lot on the latest advancements happening in the world of robotics on my phone. One day I received an advertisement alert on my phone about a robot exhibition happening in the city. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I visited the exhibition.

It was a noisy place. There were kiosks of companies from different parts of the world. Salesmen were demonstrating robots of different kinds to curious visitors and answering their questions. Most were basic robots which could perform singular tasks, and some were not for domestic use but meant for factories. They hardly looked like humans; in fact, some resembled snakes and even zombies of different shapes and sizes depending on the purpose they were made for. This disappointed many visitors, particularly children who had a very romantic notion about robots acquired from sci-fi comic books, TV serials and movies that were becoming very popular with youngsters.

It had been a few years since Baba had passed away when I finally left India, taking a job abroad. I had spent a few years in the West, in Germany, when Baba worked there. Since we returned to India, I always had a yearning to go back to the West. After working in India for some years, finally when I got a job abroad, Maa’s happiness was dampened by a trace of melancholy. I was the only son, after all. Initially I had plans to take Maa with me after I had settled down a bit, but it never came to pass.

When a Japanese kiosk drew my attention, a wave of euphoria gripped me. A boy was demonstrating a robot to some onlookers. The robot looked very close to an actual boy not much older than the demonstrator. The robot could have basic conversation with humans and perform basic tasks to assist elderly people. When one of the listeners referred to the contraption as robot, however, the boy immediately corrected him: “It’s a humanoid, sir.” I was familiar with the term, roughly meaning a combination of robot and human.

I tentatively approached the demonstrator, probably in his early twenties, and asked if I could take it to India. “We can completely dismantle it and put it in a suitcase for you, Sir.”  After some deliberation, I purchased the humanoid.

Later that month, I would travel to India and surprise Maa with it.

Gogol called from Sweden today. He will come to Calcutta next week. He said someone is going to come with him. He didn’t reveal anything about the person. I didn’t insist.

This morning Gogol arrived from Sweden. The first sight of him suggested he had lost some weight since he visited last time but when I complained he said he had actually put on weight and has to drop some. Apart from his usual paraphernalia, he had a metallic suitcase in hand. Once the initial euphoria was over, I asked him about the other person he had talked about on phone. He didn’t reply but I realised he was thinking about something and didn’t repeat the question. Gogol is a very absentminded boy especially when his mind is on something.  It could be the new company he has joined which is a little smaller than his last one, but he has more responsibilities, he said. Later in the day he had a telephonic meeting with his boss and immediately after the meeting his sat down to work – and remained with his laptop the rest of the day.

Today the whole day the suitcase lay in a corner of his room next to a book rack. My mild enquires about the content of the mysterious case, which looks a little unlike normal suitcases, failed to make me any wiser.

Last night, sleep arrived a little late and until it did the suitcase kept me worried. It felt like a trivial matter but somehow, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It is an unusual looking suitcase. A modern-day version of our old-day trunk, a little smaller and stouter of course with big knob-like pins lining its sides, giving it a tough and impregnable appearance. Is it a memsahib Gogol is hiding inside? I didn’t bring up the topic at the breakfast table. We discussed humdrum things.

This afternoon, Anita came running to the kitchen when I was frying fish Gogol likes to eat with rice and daal. Panting, Anita mumbled something unintelligibly looking at our dining table. I held her arms and then leaned to check what it was. My heart missed a beat. A boy was standing in the passage. It had a very un-humanly chiseled looks – everything was too perfect as if it had walked out of some fairy tale book. But what would have scared Anita took me by surprise, too: its lifeless eyes, its gaze fixed in one direction. It looked like a human, but it wasn’t quite. When I stepped out of the kitchen, the boy robotically moved towards me: “Good afternoon, Maa.”

 I screamed. Gogol was standing next to the door of his room wickedly smiling as if sadistically observing what was going on and congratulating himself for his prescience.

 “Is it your surprise?” I asked now a little calmer realising that if Gogol was smiling the way he was it was part of his design.

“Yes, Maa. And now onwards it’s your companion. You have to give it a name, Maa.”

“Name? What name? What is it in the first place? Is it a live human?”

“It’s a humanoid which can do several things to assist you. It will make you feel less lonely when I am not around, Maa.”

Maa named the robot Pagol rhyming with my name, Gogol.  Until Maa became used to Pagol, there was a stiff carefulness. She had dealt with high technology in the past, particularly when we were in Germany, but not without close supervision of Baba until she became quite sure she could handle it herself. Anita learnt how to operate the robot very quickly and once she became comfortable Maa learnt things from her.

There wasn’t much to learn, though. Pagol was a fully automated robot with the intelligence of a two-year-old kid which helped it learn things by seeing them and then perform them with some basic assistance. It could perform four to five household chores, like reminding Maa of her daily medicines at the time she had to have them, bringing a tray to her with anything of moderate weight placed on it and having a basic conversation.

Slowly I’m forgetting Pagol is a robot. When Gogol visited me the next time, from Sweden, he did some tinkering to Pagol to make him more responsive to our needs and idiosyncrasies – and seeing me upset with him when he took Pagol apart to work on him, Gogol said: “Maa, you have become emotionally attached with Pagol. It’s only a contraption.” But it’s not the technological aspect of Pagol which has got me used to him but the fact that he has filled up a void in my life, one that had been left behind not so much by Gogol’s father’s sudden death in a road accident in Poland because there was Gogol to be brought up and other challenges that his passing way exposed me to, to be handled; as much by Gogol’s leaving India. Of course, Gogol does his bit to minimise the loneliness by phoning frequently and there is Anita, but the bouts of loneliness return nonetheless. I have fewer of those nowadays, thanks to Pagol.

You may find it strange that someone can develop emotions around a robot — a machine. Pagol is not many things that a normal human is. He can speak in, as Gogol calls them, preprogrammed scripts but you can’t have a conversation with Pagol. Nor can Pagol do things that come so naturally to us, like making meaningful eye contact or, say, a spontaneous chuckle or laugh or smile. But then doesn’t emotion, like beauty, lie in the eyes of the beholder?

But to Anita, Pagol was always a robot. Anita used to take care of all the mechanic needs of Pagol, setting the robot up on its charging station once every three days, calling me up in Sweden whenever Pagol needed technical attention.

But that wasn’t to be for too long.

                                                              *

When Maa called me in Sweden and very affectionately described how Pagol had ‘hit’ her gently, as if it had made the robot more endearing to her if anything, it reminded me of Edda. She had expressed her misgivings when I had told her that I was going to gift Maa an assistive robot. “There are lot of ethical concerns around these robots,” she had warned me. The concept of assistive robots for elderly people was widely known by then and so were the concerns about them. The popular concerns partly owed themselves to the sci-fi films and children’s books exaggerating these but also some incidents that had been reported widely in the media. Thanks to them, people saw robots as having a sinister side to them. What if a robot hit the elderly person it was assisting! Worse still, what if its functionality was sinisterly tweaked by someone to do so? Such were the concerns.

But Edda being a studious type was not the one to be swayed by popular beliefs. When she warned me, she had the real incidents reported in the media in mind. In one of them, an assistive robot helped an elderly person from his hospital bed to the balcony by holding his arms suddenly left the old man’s arms leaving the old man to himself and the old man, who couldn’t walk steadily without assistance, lost his balance, wobbled and fell down on a table injuring himself. 

On another occasion, an assistive robot had locked a bathroom door from outside locking an old woman in….And it took a long time for human help to arrive. The elderly woman was found in a state of panic and profusely sweating.

                                                         *

But we had to finally get rid of Pagol for entirely different reasons.

For a few days Pagol seems to have developed human qualities, a will of his own. He does things without being told to do them. This started since Gogol installed a new program in him to improve his cognitive abilities. I haven’t told it to Gogol because he would get worried and doing anything from so far is difficult anyway.

But since what Pagol did the other day, I have been a little concerned. Before Anita leaves for the day, which is generally late evening, she switches off Pagol and places him on his battery stand. It means Pagol is completely dysfunctional at night. That day I had dozed off while reading a Sunil Gangapadhay novel. After sometime, I woke up and realised I had slept off without switching off the lights and taking my medicines. I got up, finished my rituals, I retired for the day.

Sleep was hard to come by. I looked at the rafters thinking desultory thoughts until gradually the sleep god relented. Suddenly I felt the presence of another person in the room. When I looked up, I was startled. Two bright eyes were looking at me. For a moment I was paralyzed by fear, then I recognised the eyes — they were Pagol’s. I turned on the lights. I was right: Pagol was standing facing me. “Maa, you have not taken your medicines today,” he said.

But how did Pagol know this? During the day, when it is time for my medicines, he brings them to me on a tray. But at night, I take my medicines myself. And in any case Anita had put him to sleep for the night.

“What are doing here, Pagol? Didn’t Anita Di put you to sleep for night?” Pagol can respond to such simple questions nowadays, but he remained quiet, looking at me. Trying to move him to a corner of the room would be futile — Pagol was too heavy for that. The sudden surprise had dispelled my sleep. But, after sometime, I dozed off.

Next morning another surprise awaited me. When I got up, I didn’t see Pagol in the room. I rushed to the place where Anita keeps Pagol before leaving for the day — he was there exactly how Anita left him the previous day.

Today Pagol dropped a glass jar from his hand. He had taken the glass jar in his hand of his own volition; no one asked him to do it. When the glass slipped from his hand to the floor, Anita and I rushed to the kitchen. We were surprised. Not so much by the shattered jar as much by the expression of guilt on Pagol’s face. Anita shouted at Pagol: “Who asked you to play with that jar?” Later Anita saw Pagol standing in the balcony, looking at the lane below as if thinking something.

I knew very little about all this until I received a call from Anita one day. “Dada, lately Pagol has started acting strangely. It does things you don’t expect a robot to do.” She told me about the glass jar incident and what Maa had told her about finding Pagol standing in the middle of the room in the middle of night.

I was worried but I didn’t know what to do. I searched the net and found some short stories on robots developing human agencies. Finally, I mailed the Japanese company I had purchased Pagol from. After a few days, I received a response from a Japanese person by the name of Akinari, a robot engineer as per his mail signature.

Akinari said he had received similar complaints from customers before and had asked them to keep the robots under observation for some time to find out if there was any error of judgment on their part. He said he remembered almost everyone responding and confirming his doubt: that the complaints were the figment of imagination of the elderly persons receiving assistance from the robots.

I replied:

‘The robot assists my mother, and she is the person it spends most of its time with apart from Anita who takes care of my mother. It’s Anita who told me about the robot’s exploits. She wasn’t privy to some of them. She heard them from my mother, so I reluctantly ascribe some of the activities to my mother’s figment of imagination or error of judgement but Anita herself was witness to the other things the robot did.’

I want to mainly check with you if the robot can harm its benefactor.

Akinari wrote back:

‘I discussed it with other experts. Ordinarily we would have dismissed it as we have never heard anything like this before. But since you seem to be sure that your people back home have closely observed the robot for some time and are quite sure it is displaying behavior it is not programmed to, we would like to commission a special study of the robot in our lab.’

A week later a Japanese man visited our Calcutta house. Assisted by Anita, he dismantled the robot and took it with him.

The final entry on Pagol in Maa’s diary read:

It’s been six months since Pagol went missing one morning. He has not returned since. Anita assures me he will. The silly girl doesn’t seem to understand I know what they did to Pagol.

*

I never heard about Pagol again. I wrote to Akinari a few years after he sent a person to collect Pagol from our Calcutta home. But I didn’t get any reply from him. Did they completely dismantle him, and then dump his remains in a yard located somewhere in a third world country to add to the mounting pile of discarded gadgets abandoned because their utility to humankind had expired? I read on the net the other day that discarded robots are being recycled, also being used as fertilizer in some parts of the world. So, has Pagol ended up nourishing the food on the plate of someone?

I had expected Maa to react to Pagol’s sudden disappearance with the delirium of a mother who has suddenly lost her child. I had asked Anita to keep a tab on Maa in the days, weeks and months that followed Pagol’s sudden disappearance. But Maa never said anything about Pagol again. She continued with her life as if nothing had happened. Did she internalise the grief not expressing it lest it was trivialised by others? Or did she finally make peace with the fact that Pagol was a machine, after all.

After so many years I can only guess.

*Pagol in Bengali means mad or crazy.

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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Fakir Khizmil & the Missing Princess

A Balochi folktale translated by Fazal Baloch

Balochistan. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Once there ruled a king over a certain land. In the outskirts of the land there lived a rich man. A few days later the rich man died leaving a huge sum of wealth and property behind. His widow made it to the palace and told the king: “My husband passed away a few days back leaving enormous wealth behind. I have no one to look after me except for my son. I fear I’ll be robbed off my property. I urge you to give me a place near your palace where I could live in peace and without fear”.

The king asked his men to find out if the woman was telling the truth. They reported back  that whatever the woman had told him was true. Her husband left her with enormously wealthy. The king, then, summoned her and asked her to live with them in the palace. He also told the woman that he would marry his daughter with her son when they were old enough. The woman was quite happy hearing this.

Time passed by.

The boy grew young and so did the king’s daughter. One day the woman went to the king and told him that she wanted to the marriage to take place. The king said that he had no objection whatsoever, but he asked her for a few days to make preparations. A few days later they were finally married. Along with jewels and fineries, the king also gifted a golden bowl to his daughter.

The groom took the bride to his house. One day, when the womenfolk were going to fetch water at a river near their home, the king’s daughter also expressed her desire to accompany them. They tried to convince her that as she was a princess, she should let them have the opportunity to serve her. But she was adamant and accompanied them. They filled their pots, washed their faces and started on their way back home. Midway through, the princess remembered that she had unmindfully left her golden bowl at the river. She excused herself and hurried back to the river.

When she reached the riverbank, she met four thirsty horsemen who stopped by to ask for a drink of water. She filled the golden bowl and offered it to the horsemen. He was struck by her beauty. Since she was alone, they rode beside her.

Meanwhile, the womenfolk waited for long, but the princess did not return. When they went to the river, there was no trace of her there. They told her mother-in-law about what befell her daughter-in-law. Initially she waited for her to turn up, but she did not return. She went out to search of her but could not find any clue. Later in the evening when her son came back, she started wailing and told her about the incident. Her son immediately went out looking for his wife but he too could not find any trace of her. As he went along the road, he noticed some strands of a woman’s hair and drag marks on the road. He followed the marks till he reached a town.

A few children were playing there. He asked one of the children whose son he was. The boy replied, “Fakir Khizmil”. 

“Where do you live?” he asked them.

“There.” They pointed towards a nearby house.

“Ask your father, a horseman has said, he would be your guest tonight.”

After covering some more distance, he was overwhelmed by thirst. He saw a woman was filling her jar at a nearby stream. He approached her and asked her for a bowl of water. Initially, the woman berated him but then she offered her water. He sat there to rest for a while. Then he coaxed/lured the woman into a conversation. Amongst other things, the woman revealed to him that their king had brought a beautiful maiden with a golden bowl from a distant land. The man felt relieved to have finally found news of his wife. He took leave of the woman and rode back to fakir’s.

The fakir’s meal used to be sent from the king’s palace. At night the young horseman noticed that someone had sealed her ring in the middle of the plate. He looked closely at it. It was his wife’s ring. Next day, he noticed the seal again on the plate. He secretly sent a message to his wife with the maidservant who delivered the food asking her to be ready so that he could rescue her and take her back that evening.

Meanwhile the fakir asked him about the purpose of his journey. He told him how the king took his wife away and how he had uncovered her traces. The fakir asked him:

“Is she ready to come with you?”

“Of course, she is. But I am wondering how to manage the escape as the king has a huge contingent of army and the swiftest horses in the land.”

“Don’t worry. Just ask her to take a goatskin bag full of water, a stone from the right corner of the house and a matchbox. The rest I will explain to you later.”

The next day, the maidservant told the young man that his wife was ready, and she had asked him to wait for her in the garden. When stars arrayed themselves across the night sky, she would come to him. The young man conveyed to her what the fakir had told him to do.

The fakir further advised him thus: “When you notice the king’s army approaching you, throw the stone at them. When you see them again drawing nearer, spill the water. Again, when you notice them drawing close to you, just light a matchstick and throw it towards them.”

Later in the evening he saddled his horse and made preparations for his departure. When stars had covered almost the whole sky, he secretly rode to the garden and waited for his wife. A later, she arrived carrying the goatskin bag, the stone and a matchbox. They mounted the horse and rode off.

At dawn, the king noticed the maiden was not in her bed. He knew she had fled. He commanded his men to find her and bring her back to the palace. He said: “Whosoever will bring her alive or her head, I will give that person half of my wealth”.

Numerous soldiers went in different directions looking for the woman.

Meanwhile, the young man and his wife noticed a group of horsemen were approaching them. The young man threw the stone towards them. It turned into a huge mountain standing between them and the king’s men. After covering some distance, again he saw another group of horsemen drawing close to them. He untied the mouth of the waterskin and spilled the water on the ground. The spilt water turned into a huge sea. Some of the horsemen drowned in the sea and the others turned back.

When they had drawn close to their land, the young man noticed some dust spiralling into the air. A few horsemen emerged out of the dust. By then, their horse had almost collapsed and it was barely moving forward.

The woman said: “Hurry up! We are almost surrounded.”

“Don’t worry,” said the young man. In that very moment he lit a matchstick and flung it towards the horsemen. A huge fire erupted around. The horsemen turned back and took to their heels.

Finally, the couple reached home and lived happily ever after.

(This tale is taken from Geedi Kessa-2(Folktales: Vol 2) compiled and retold by Mahmood Mari in Balochi and published by the Balochi Academy Quetta in 1969. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights for this. )

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies.

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Stories

The Wallet

By Atreyo Chowdhury

Courtesy: Creative Commons

It was a Sunday. Sudha woke up later than usual. She glanced at the wall clock and hid under her blanket again. She stayed there, motionless, a drag of weariness over her. The doorbell rang, and she sat up.

Champa arrived every morning to sweep and mop the apartment, wash the utensils, and help Sudha make breakfast. There was no need to prepare lunch on the weekdays as Sudha left for work, but on a Sunday, Champa had to spend an extra hour making preparations for lunch.

As Sudha chopped onions on the kitchen counter, Champa spoke: “My mother-in-law watches me like a hawk. It’s as if I’m a devil who’d possess her son and manipulate him to my wishes. She thinks I’m scheming to throw her out of the house. Once she takes the cot, she keeps her ears cocked as I make my bed on the floor. There’s nothing but a curtain that divides the room in half, and she’s wary of me drawing the curtains close, always making excuses. Arré, then why did she wed her son to me? She could have kept him to herself… Didi, you tell me, am I being too demanding?”

The doorbell rang. “Uff, who is it now?” Champa dropped her broom and rushed.

Sudha could overhear their conversation.

“I hope you aren’t selling anything,” Champa said. “Didi will be furious if it’s a salesman so early in the morning that too on a Sunday.”

“Can I speak to… um, Arun Banerjee’s wife?”

“Why? Tell me what you want. Didi is busy.”

“Who is it, Champa?” Sudha craned her neck from the kitchen and intervened.

“He isn’t saying….”

Sudha placed the knife on the chopping board and proceeded to the drawing-room. “Let me speak to him. You go and dice a couple of potatoes.”

The man at the door had a lean physique with an elongated face, a sharp nose and dull eyes. He glanced at Sudha, and then his head wilted like a flower, his chin almost touching his chest.

“Yes, can I help you?”

The man stayed as he was, frozen, staring at his feet.

Sudha frowned. She was about to say something when the man reached for his pocket and took out a wallet. He didn’t have to utter a word since Sudha had recognised it.

“Where did you…?”

The man didn’t answer.

Sudha stood with the wallet in her hand. The weight of memory descended upon her, and her knees trembled.

The police had not found Arun’s wallet on him. Before their arrival, a crowd had hailed a cab to send him to a hospital. The traffic volunteer, who had accompanied him, had found his phone, but not his wallet. Later, the police tracked Sudha to inform her of his death.

Presently, Sudha stood staring at the wallet, tracing her fingers around its edges. She wished to open it but thought it might seem rude. The man was still there, gazing at his feet. He didn’t appear to be well-off. He was wearing a pair of rubber slippers, light grey trousers and a chequered half-sleeve shirt. His clothes were faded due to overuse, and his skin was dark, almost burnt. It looked as if he spent a lot of time in the sun.

“Please, come in,” Sudha said.

The man looked up now. There were dark circles around his eyes, and he had a week-old stubble. His hair was short and generously oiled. “No, thank you,” he said. “I should get going.”

“Please. I would like to know more.”

“More?”

Sudha nodded. “Please.”

The man entered the apartment and looked around. Sudha asked him to take a seat, and he settled on the edge of the sofa uncomfortably.

“Would you like some tea?”

“What? No… it’s alright.”

“A glass of water, perhaps? It’s hot today.”

The man nodded, and Sudha went to the kitchen and asked Champa to fetch a couple of shondésh[1] from the refrigerator. She returned to sit across him, placing the glass of water and the plate of shondésh on the centre table. The man downed the water in a go.

“Where did you find the wallet?”

The man hesitated. “Um, at Gariahat Crossing… I was returning from work… and, and it was lying on the pavement.”

“When was it?” Sudha asked, now opening the wallet to take a look. There were a few currency notes, and the wallet felt heavy because of the coins it had in its pocket. The credit and debit cards were there, as were the receipts and tickets. She closed it and placed it on her lap.

The man was looking at his toes, which curled-uncurled. Sudha repeated herself, and he gulped and trembled and rose to leap at her feet. “I’m sorry,” he said, weeping. “I didn’t steal anything. It’s all there. I didn’t touch a thing….”

Sudha was taken aback; she didn’t know how to react. Champa stood by the kitchen door, bewildered. Sudha placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “It’s alright… I’m not accusing you. Please, calm down… I just wanted to thank you, nothing more, nothing less….”

The man looked up, still crying. He was on his knees now, hands folded, begging for forgiveness. “I was there when the car hit your husband. I rushed to the spot like others. As they carried him to the cab, I was there to help. Then his wallet fell out of his pocket, and I stole it. I don’t know why. Trust me, I’m no thief. I work for a reputed insurance company. I have committed a grave sin. Please, forgive me….”    

Sudha didn’t know when tears had welled up in her eyes. They were now flowing freely down her cheeks. She composed herself. “I understand. You don’t need to explain. We all make mistakes, but you dared to make it right. I forgive you.”

After the man had gone, Sudha remained on the couch. Champa left too. She asked if there was anything she could do and even offered to return and cook lunch. However, Sudha told her not to trouble herself. “I will manage,” she said.

Presently she opened the wallet and laid its contents on the centre table. Cash—a couple of five-hundred-rupee notes, three hundred-rupee notes, and some loose change—a total of one thousand three hundred and eighty-six rupees. There were four cards; a credit, two debit, and the fourth was a rewards card of an apparel chain.

Sudha recalled the last time they had gone shopping. It was a month before his death. She had noticed that he was barely present, always looking at his phone, replying to messages, smiling to himself. She had caught him in glances browsing through the dresses. He lifted his head only when she asked for his opinion. “It’s good,” he replied, without even a look. They went to the food court at the mall afterwards, but he hardly paid any attention to the food either as he was busy scrolling through his phone.

Sudha sighed; she placed the card down and looked at his driver’s license. On the fateful day, their car was at the service station. Perhaps, if it was there, he would have lived, she ruminated.

In the wallet, she found an envelope, folded to fit. Inside it was a gold charm bracelet with a pearl and a few hearts hanging off the chain. She recollected the last time he had bought her a gift. He had presented her with a wristwatch on her birthday last February. Her eyes brimmed up, and she buried her face in her hands.  

She had no idea what he was doing at Gariahat. Initially, she thought that he was meeting a client. But then his colleague mentioned that Arun had taken the afternoon off — left the office early. Perhaps, he was visiting a friend or a relative. Sudha tried to make sense, understanding very well that no one she knew lived in that neighbourhood.

Presently, she scrambled through the receipts in his wallet. He had the habit of keeping them, no matter how irrelevant they were. An ATM withdrawal slip… A receipt for petrol… for lunch at a restaurant in Park Street… Ice-cream, the same afternoon, at an ice-cream parlour nearby… a couple of parking tickets… and, there it was…the receipt for the bracelet. She glanced at the address of the jewellery store. It was on the same street he was hit by the car.

According to the receipt, he had collected the bracelet three days before his accident and had paid the due amount by his debit card. It also mentioned that he had made an advance payment a week prior.

If he had the bracelet three days before his accident, why didn’t he give it to me? Sudha asked herself. Was he waiting for an appropriate moment? My birthday was, and is, months away. Our anniversary was near, but still weeks away… They did gift each other on these occasions, but it was merely a ritual. Did they feel the same tug of emotions each time they were close? When was the last time they held hands? Sudha couldn’t remember. When was the last time they kissed? Sudha sighed.

She didn’t want to think anymore. She didn’t want to think any less of him. She wished to remember him for the moments they had cherished together, not for the moments they had faltered.

She looked out of the window. The sky was clear without a trace of any clouds. She got up and kept the wallet in her wardrobe amongst the other things that reminded her of him. She changed into something appropriate, brushed her hair, and headed out. She wandered for a while and then hopped onto a bus heading towards Gariahat.

Upon reaching there, she located the jewellery store with ease. It was on the main street, past the Gariahat Market. The person at the shop looked at the receipt and the bracelet. It was a piece of jewellery they had custom-made, and a woman had come with Arun to order it. Arun had paid the due and collected it a week later. Did they have an address? No. But the woman had provided a second phone number, and someone recalled that Arun had referred to the woman as Naina.

Standing on the busy pavement, Sudha hesitated. She then took out her phone and dialled the number. The phone rang for a while, and just when she thought of disconnecting the line, a woman answered. “Hello?”

“Is this Naina?”

“Yes, who is it?”


[1] Bengali sweet made out of cottage cheese

Atreyo Chowdhury was trained to be a mechanical engineer and has a postgraduate degree from IIT Guwahati. Besides writing, he shares an equal passion for music and travelling. He can be found at https://atreyochowdhury.wordpress.com/

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Categories
Stories

Flowers on the Doorstep

By Shivani Shrivastav

It was the third time in as many days that she found a small bunch of flowers on her door sill. They were wildflowers — small and pretty. Suhani had no idea who left them there daily. That day as she picked up the bunch, she decided that she would get up early the next day to see who was left the flowers there, that too, so early in the day.

Coming back inside, she placed the flowers into an empty vase. Suhani tightened her shawl around her shoulders. Life had made her unused to such additional niceties. After moving to the mountains, she distanced herself from things associated with her past – flowers, music, reading her favourite poetry and painting. Her past, where she and Sahil had been professors together at the Delhi University. Gradually, as they realised they had feelings for each other, they started living together. They had spent five years with each other in the apartment they shared. It was a beautiful period in her life. It was as if life itself had taken on colours that had been hidden to her till then.  They would cook together, watch Iranian films, read and discuss books by Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, listen to instrumental and world music, go out for long walks and spend hours just enjoying each other’s company.

Back then, she had believed that the most important event of her life had already occurred at thirty-two years of age — her meeting with Sahil. Little did she know that life had a few surprises for her yet…

When his parents came to know about their live-in relationship, they were shocked and angry. After many shouted calls and two fiery visits, they forced him to move back home. A few weeks later, she got the news from the professors’ grapevine that he was getting married to someone whom his parents had chosen, from their caste and their social background. It was as if someone had punched her with all their power — she felt numb all over. She couldn’t take her classes after she had heard the news in the professors’ room. Not a few sly glances directed her way told her that people were aware of their relationship.

Feeling suffocated, and as if a million glances were piercing her heart, she took leave and came home. After staying in a limbo for three days, during which she had received a number of calls from the college, she finally tendered her resignation, handed back the keys to the rented flat, and taking only what she could carry with her, she came to Almora.

Left behind were the precious paintings she and Sahil had started collecting together, their vinyl collection and her lovely rugs and throws, some bought, some crocheted by her in those beautiful winter evenings when they would sit together with a glass of wine each, listening to some beautiful rendition or the other from their record collection. Also left behind were some dreams that had been born within the four walls of their shared existence, and which had died an abrupt death on Sahil’s departure. What she could not leave behind were the million memories she lived through each day.

She was moving like a robot through her hall when a piercing birdcall brought her to the present. She set an alarm for the next day before she forgot. Then she got busy making her simple breakfast and preparing for college. She had been very lucky to find a job at the university at Almora, that too at such a short notice.

Why she had chosen Almora she couldn’t really explain, just that she felt a kinship with the place, having read all of Shivani Ji’s novels. Also, her Nani had belonged to Almora. Although her ancestral house had long since been sold, but still she remembered a carefree childhood spent here every summer. Her childhood memories were full of green hills, kafal[1] and tasty pahadi[2] foods and long walks with Nanaji[3] over the hills. She somehow felt at home here, especially since her parents were no longer living, and she was an only child, like her mother before her. Adrift in the wide world, this familiar city had seemed like a haven, even though she had spent all her school, college and then later, working life, in Delhi. But in the moments when her world had been rocked to the core, Delhi had seemed so cold, like a familiar stranger who you met every day but could not share your joys or sorrows with. Also, she had so many shared memories there with Sahil, the plays they had gone to, the numerous music concerts and recitals, outings to Tibet House, the walks at Qutub and so on. The endless memories chased her wherever she went in Delhi; she felt choked by them. To escape from them, she chose a place that held only happy memories for her – where she had been safe and peaceful, with her entire family around her. But today, she was all alone.

Even being in the midst of the nature she loved so much did not take away her loneliness. The cottage was on top of the hill, looking down on all sides upon tall pine trees, where the chatter of monkeys and bird calls surrounded her day and night. The cottage boasted of a beautiful garden, but she felt that she was not contributing anything to its beauty.

She talked to her colleagues, to some neighbours lower down the hill, but mostly kept to herself. She didn’t feel like a whole person yet, for it still felt that her heart had been ripped away, leaving behind a gaping hole. How then could she interact normally with others, others who had loved ones, who had lives that were filled with family, relatives, love, social events and so much? She, who had nothing to share with anyone. And so, she kept inside her shell — teaching, coming home, cooking, sleeping and then the same routine the next day and the day after. Only when she was teaching did she feel totally in the present, for those few precious moments. The rest of the day was besieged by memories.

Choosing a pale lilac saree, she dressed up quickly, tying up her hair without looking into the mirror. Finishing up by wrapping a dark purple yak wool shawl around her shoulders, she took her books and bag. Locking the door, she quickly descended the slope and went up the road to the university. She wanted this day over quickly, so she could get to tomorrow. After a long time, she had something to look forward to.

She taught all her classes, spoke a little to her colleagues and came back in the afternoon. Changing her clothes, she made herself some tea and went to sit out on the porch, where she had kept a rocking chair that came with the house. From there, she had a view down the hill. She thought,“This is where I could sit tomorrow. But no, whoever it is, might not come if I am visible. I’ll keep a lookout from the kitchen window.” She prepared an early dinner. Another hour and a half was taken up preparing for next days’ lectures. then she eats and sleeps. She decided to get up early the next day with the help of the alarm clock.

As soon as the alarm started ringing the next day, she was up in anticipation. Quickly putting her feet into her warm slippers and wrapping her shawl over her sweater, she went into the kitchen.  Setting tea on the boil, she eagerly looked out of the window, the curtain of which was slightly open. In a short while, she saw a little girl with curly hair come up with a small bunch of white flowers. Placing them near the door, she was about to turn and go back when Suhani opened the door and asked her, “Stop! What’s your name?”

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The little girl, who at first appeared scared, gained confidence on seeing her and said with a smile, “Sona”. “Why do you bring flowers every day, Sona? That too, all by yourself, so early in the morning?”

“I live just down the hill,” she indicated towards an orphanage that was a little below Suhani’s house, “and I have asked the nuns if I can come here. The nuns take a morning walk and I come part of the way with them.”

Feeling sad on hearing that the pretty little girl lived in an orphanage, she asked, “And why do you bring me flowers?”

“I see you going and coming every day. I like you. I don’t know why I feel like giving you the flowers, I just do,” Sona replied with a beautiful, dimpled smile.

“Would you like to come in for milk and cookies?”

“No”, she said, “Sister Patience would be waiting for me. I need to go!”  

“Okay, at least take some cookies!” saying this Suhani rushed in to find a box of chocolate cookies that she had randomly bought, perhaps for this little girl. Grabbing the small box delightedly, she came out, but there was no one outside. “How could she have disappeared so quickly?” thought Suhani, taken aback, but there truly was no one there. Not around the house and not even down the path.

 However, gradually this became a morning ritual. Everyday Suhani somehow woke up right before Sona came with her flowers. Sona liked to sit in a particular part of the porch and every day she sat in the same place. She sat there looking out at the flowers that were around the cottage. She answered all the questions Suhani put to her but still seemed to be keeping something back. Usually, she appeared full of cheerful and chattered. Suhani felt some of the ice around her heart melt. The presence of this small being so full of love and sunshine brought her immense peace and comfort. Why, she could not say.

One day she was free a little before time from the college as it was15th August, the Independence Day of the country. After a morning programme, flag hoisting and distribution of sweets, everyone was free to go. Suhani thought of visiting the orphanage. She saw it on her way back home and decided to finally find out more about Sona and went in.

As she approached the office room, she saw a nun sitting inside. She looked in and asked for Sister Patience. “I am she. Please come and have a seat,” she said with a smile. Suhani is anxious about Sona. She asked, “I want to ask about Sona and her parents, if you could tell me please.”

Sister Patience seems a bit taken aback. “How do you know about her?”

Suhani is surprised. “She comes to give me flowers at my house every day. She likes to sit out on the porch looking at the flowers that are all around the cottage. We talk quite a lot.”

Sister Patience takes a deep breath, looks at Suhani and says, “Did you notice anything special about the little girl?” Finding the question strange Suhani says, “Only that she never eats or drinks anything if I offer it. A child of that age is usually quite taken with chocolates, biscuits and sweets.”

Sister Patience seems sad. She takes a deep breath and says, “Sona and her parents were in an accident. It is their house that you have rented. They were in an accident and…”

“And…?”Suhani asks impatiently.

“And everyone died. Sona was very attached to the only home she had known. Maybe she feels safe there. We see her playing in the playground, in the park sometimes. She’s harmless. May God give peace to her soul.”

Suhani did not realise when she had come out of the building and was on the way back. She felt as if her insides are frozen. After that day, she never met Sona again, however early she got up. The flowers are still on her doorstep every day though, without fail.

One thought stayed with her as a result of this experience – that a person can hold onto a person, a place or even things, even when they are no longer there. This just ties us to the past. We could enjoy our memories, even love them, but that doesn’t mean that we keep carrying the weight of the memories that do not allow us to move forward. And life is all about movement.

Suhani held onto the life that was in her memories; Sona was held behind by her attachment to her house. The most poignant thought was – Sona had been a child, but she was a grown up. Sahil had moved on long back, the moment he left her, it was only she that still held on to her memories, living a ghost of a life.

For many days, she thought about this. She came to the conclusion that now she would delve within, and not look outside for peace, love and solace. With this thought, after many days, she finally fell into a deep sleep towards dawn. When she got up the next day, she felt refreshed and relaxed. She could not recall when she had felt this much at ease. Tightening her shawl around her shoulders, she went straight outside to look for the flowers. For the first time in so many days, there were no flowers. And after that, she never did find any flowers on her doorstep.


[1] Fruit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myrica_esculenta

[2] Belonging to the hills

[3] Maternal grandfather

 Shivani Shrivastav is a a UK CGI Chartered Secretary and a Governance Professional/CS. She loves meditation, photography, writing, French and creating.

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Stories

Intersleep

By Nileena Sunil

The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom, 
She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli  
She gives advice to all lands...  
She measures off the heavens,  
She places the measuring-cords on the earth.

Naina read those lines which she had written on the first page of her journal. They were lines from a hymn written by the ancient Sumerian priestess, En Hedu’anna, written in two-thousand three hundred BCE. Every time she read those lines, she felt a sense of awe, as well as of sadness. How grand, how inspiring those lines were, those lines written millennia ago, during the dawn of civilisation? She sighed. Once, she too had wanted to be like En Hedu’anna, an astronomer, or at least a poet. But that was not her destiny. She was stuck in her corporate job, one that seduced her with the prospects of a financially stable existence, and refused to let her escape from its web. She idly turned the pages of the journal with the intention of starting a new entry. Perhaps that would help her fall asleep.

She was not sure why she kept waking up in the middle of the night. It was not the first time, in fact she had been facing such interruptions for a while. She would go to bed at eleven, only to wake at around two, and she would then be unable to fall asleep again till around four. She had tried to force herself to sleep a few times, but she was unable to do so. I might as well embrace it and turn this into my new routine. She thought of the article she had read the other day about how medieval Europeans slept in two phases. They would go to bed in the evening, wake up s a little after midnight and wait for around an hour for their second sleep. In the interlude, they would pray or do chores or work or study. The article actually suggested the practice might not even be unique to medieval Europeans, rather it could be something found all over the world, for centuries, millenia even. If it was so common, then how harmful could it be? Only, she had nothing to do in the interlude. The idea of doing office work at that hour nauseated her, nor did she think she wanted to read or watch anything at that time. She thought she could write in her journal, but as she held the pen, she found out that no words flowed from it at that time.

Sighing, she decided to go to the terrace, to get some fresh air.

Naina looked at the stars. She had always thought there was something magical about them. She used her fingers to trace the tiny pinpricks of light, wishing she could identify constellations. There was a time when she knew how to, but she had forgotten. Orion was the only one whose location she could remember. The Hunter. There was a time she wanted to be an astronomer, but she eventually realised it wasn’t very realistic a dream for her. En Hedu’anna’s verse came back to her mind.

She measures off the heavens

Her mind turned to another female astronomer, from the pages of history. Maria Cunitz, from seventeenth Silesia, who authored a book that refined the works of Johannes Kepler. She imagined being an astronomer in those times, getting to look at a night sky sans light pollution, trying to calculate and make deductions without a calculator or the internet. Wasn’t it strange that it was that way for most of human history, yet such a life was unimaginable for those in the present? Naina’s mind went back to the Silesian astronomer and the life she had led. It must not have been easy to be a woman of science in those times.

Naina then thought again, of sleeping habits in the past. Biphasic sleep must have been the norm in Maria Cunitz’s time. Did she look at the stars between her sleep cycles as well? She hoped she did. It would be nice to have something like this in common with her, Naina thought as she descended the stairs.

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Nileena Sunil is a student and a writer from India. She has previously written short stories for The Collapsar Directive and Flash Fiction Addiction, anthologies by Zombie Pirate Publishing.

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

Categories
Stories

Mausoleum

By Hridi

Twenty-one months later, Rai[1] arrives in Paris. It is spring and she is here on a pilgrimage of memory. It is not her first time in this city, she has visited it before through the eyes of another: a city bathed in the mellow yellow of an exceptional limestone, chestnut trees abloom beside the Seine, a river green as malachite, the white sleek pleasure boats and the chuffing barges passing under the grave arches of thirty-seven bridges, each distinct from the last, a differently shaped shadow rippling below, connecting over and again the opposites of what divides the city, a people who know the art of touch all too well. Yes, the sights, the smells, all familiar. The spring air smells of her beloved; an enormous peace descends upon her.

Ever since she stepped on the train from the suburbs where she has taken her rooms, she finds herself scanning every face in the metropolitan crowd, every face looking elsewhere, somewhere, lost outside the present of their almost mechanical movements, perhaps like her, seeking another face. Strangely, this feels like home, like the city she left behind many months ago, ostensibly to travel. For all it takes from its inhabitants, a great city gifts them an anonymity that is sacred to the human heart. Therein remains its primary seduction for diversity. Your face becomes a mask of itself. You live, unapologetic, learning to make room for yourself where none exists. Every great city has this air of elsewhere, she concludes. I can already see Rai could live here; it is reminiscent of where she grew up. Yet, today, more than ever before, she is homesick, for the soil, the faces, the lives she tore herself away from.

You wonder how I glance into her heart with such ease. Let me lead you to the answer.

She has your address, half-a name, a few photos. What does it matter? One cannot create what one did not destroy first. She is obeying the laws of physics you joked about nineteen months ago, the laws that would inevitably bring you nearer and nearer. Here she is, touching you almost, a ghost walking beside her, pointing out every other piece of beauty in this city which does not lack of them. You stood here once, your feet touched this pavement, oh god, you stood here! This is where you clicked the photograph you sent her saying, “Remember me.” But she isn’t speaking to you, not yet.

Insecure, naïve, scared, stuck she had been, but mostly scared…terrified… of losing you, the last thread of sanity in a world collapsing around her, screaming into her ears with a deathly consistency, inevitability. You had been her escape, god, how she had escaped… Looking back, she thinks… no, there is no looking back. I almost lost my mind when you left, she would like to say, but… almost, that word… I was living with monsters tearing each other apart. To you, I showed only what I hid from others, and hid from you all that offal the monsters would leave behind at the end of each meal. They knew how to devour a girl of nineteen. The result is her face, at twenty-one, that of an old woman.

But that is an advantage, especially in big cities.

when you left even the stones were buried:

the defenceless would have no weapons.[2]

Her poet knows she remembers every place you promised to show her. It is the city of forgotten promises. She has read every book you ever recommended, watched every movie you spoke of, revisited two languages for you, painted you, cursed you, pleaded with you, desired you, hated you, shattered the boundaries of her known world for you; for the rest of her life, she will celebrate the nineteenth of July as the birthday of her heart; and yet, you are only a ghost who she cannot talk to. But she will, now that she has reached your city. Tomorrow she will talk to you. Tonight, she will write for the first time in twenty-one months. Through the dim lights of the small window of the suburban apartment, you will see her typing away. She will write again.

The painting earlier this morning made her think of God. This is not unusual, merely the first impact of a Monet painting on one who has only seen photographs all her life. Remember the poems she would translate for you? She reads them sometimes now, searching for mistakes. Her innocence makes me laugh, her capacity for love is adorable. It is what she will write about.

Why did you introduce all those new words in her mind? That was a mistake. Didn’t you know words are a writer’s biggest fear? Well, you can see the result for yourself, aren’t you happy? That she forgot how to write, that she mixes up alphabets of three different scripts every time she picks up the pen, trying to find a language that will make you answer. But you tricksters play on…

This city is a mausoleum of your memory. This is the first line she writes. The rest of the night is spent weeping between fits of sleep. You watch on, right outside the window. I watch you watch.

It is still very dark when Rai finds herself irretrievably awake. A faint fragrance of some spring blossom is wafting in through the half-open window. It is light by the time she reaches the small station; the air is crisp as the ticket in her hand, the cold from the river making her button up her coat. Today she will walk beside the Seine.

Many have said that the soul of Paris flows in the green waters of the Seine. Obviously, those fools know nothing about souls. Souls do not flow away, they haunt.

The yellow aura of the buildings is enhanced in the pale morning light, the river dappled in the golden, the empty promenade inviting. Later in the day the tourists and hawkers will crowd this part of the city, but it is yet hers, all hers. A few joggers and some sleepless ones as her claim the early hours.

She starts walking from the tower towards Musée d’Orsay along the river. You walk behind her, slightly unsure. On this morning you realise this city entwined itself in her personal history long before you arrived. It wounds your pride, shakes your confidence in her fidelity. The artworks hanging in that building yonder have been the pursuit of her fascination for almost a decade now. You knew it, if fact, that is where you met, in a shared longing of elsewhere, of nostalgia for a world you were never a part of.

In senior school math, they taught that for an equation to have real solutions, one must apply constraints. But within the parentheses of those limits exist an infinity of choice. Remembrance is a choice. Her math tutor from school, the old man with the twinkling eyes, would insist mathematics is the purest form of poetry. How long has it been since she remembered him? What is the pollen in this air that brings back the past so lovingly?

The path Rai traces, to a viewer like me, appears most comical. But I’ve been around here long enough to know lunacy is the mother of imagination, it afflicts the seekers more often than you would think. Sometimes she walks beside the river, sometimes climb the stairs to cross a bridge that fancies her, then strolls again along the other bank, as if her wandering steps cannot have enough of the novelty of a river joined with such frequency, such care. In her culture, the poets have sung for centuries of the two banks of a river as lovers separated in togetherness, together in separation. This far from home, the metaphor revisits her.

My memory is again in the way of your history2. A city with a history of over two millennia, glorious in this spring, what does it care of your unrequited love, foolish girl? Yet she would repeat under her breath these lines from her favourite poet. He spoke of war, of a heritage blown to bits overnight, over years, preserved in the memory of its refugees; how interchangeable is it with the torn love she carries with such grace? Foolish as she is, I think I am getting quite fond of her stubbornness.

And you! I almost forgot your apparition there, caught in watching her too. What are you sulking about? Quick, she is walking towards the Pont des Arts. Wicked rogue, won’t you play her once on the love lock bridge of clichés? She is standing at the centre now, spread before her the split halves of tremendous urban life, speeding fast in the midday heat; on either side, decades of forgotten promises caught in iron, rusted, locked away. She bends to inspect the locks. Even as you rush ahead to play your game, you turn back and shout at me, “You are wrong, it is a cliché only if you win in love.” Through the strong breeze on the bridge, I try to make myself heard: “So much for your words, go close enough if you dare and she will speak to you.” I think you heard me. The plan works. On one of these locks, Rai discovers her own name, a single name, a word, perhaps echoed in rust from decades of a solitary namesake on the same bridge, but that staunch heart knows what it wants to believe. Who will save her? You are close enough to touch her now, and she senses you. When you have spied on people’s secret lives for as long as I have, you tend to expect melodrama. But Rai, travelled across twenty-one months of quiet longing, is not surprised. You have appeared before her on fretful nights, sweat-stained afternoons, rainy mornings, in songs, in tears, in sudden joy, in sunshine, in broken shadows of grief, in the citadel she has built for you, how can she not expect you? She is narrating a story now, the story of what her name, written on that lock, means.

It was the one of the first fables of love ever fabricated in her part of the world. Centuries old. The story of a woman who falls in love to the music of a cowboy she has never laid her eyes on. Their illicit love-making becomes the whisper of the land. With the passing years, the musician in the boy slowly succumbs to the warrior in the man, who eventually gets crowned in a country far away. Rai is left waiting; music is not so easily forgotten. Like all classics, this too is of unrequited love.

The lazy warmth of the afternoon has brought out many on the promenade. Sunning away, relaxing with beers, some sitting alone, some in picnics; in the little island of Île de la Cité, a band of young jazz enthusiasts blow into their trumpets; the flowers compliment the myriad soft colours on all dresses: the Seine is the frame of happiness. I watch the two of you stroll, a happy couple, woman and ghost, breathing in the Spring you promised her not so long ago. Grief is the kindest of opiates, it dissolves in its own fantasia. Tonight, with all the walking, she will need some wine. The cheap wine of this tired evening will put her to sleep. You do not have to sing lullabies, but pray, lie down beside her. Let her hold in her palm the ghost of your erect manhood, rest her head against the illusion of your chest. In you, she desires sleep so in her sleep she may desire you, consummate a mirage. Do not stay outside.

It is night yet when she leaves. “The Frog & British Library” glows in its ironic neon, the streetlights halo in the clear blue hour. The Pont de Tolbiac stoops groggily over the ultramarine blue of the water pregnant with shimmering reflections: the illumined buildings, the barges anchored at the edge, the symmetrical reflections from the arch of the next bridge, perhaps (she fancies), the last of the stars too. The beauty of this night stings her eyes with an almost physical pain. She is thinking of you, of what remains of what you were.

I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.2

Her poet is speaking again. Yes, she is here to ask for your forgiveness. She has left everything behind, for nothing ahead, in this long, long solitary journey only to ask for your forgiveness. Forgiveness for naïveté, for insensitivity, for distance, for loving with more sincerity than a heart bears without protest. The little crystal she wears around her neck on a string, she believes it has a beauty she does not deserve, like you, who loved her more for the magnanimous reflection in your kindness than her own small artless self. Your absence fills the air above the deep blue Seine like a forgotten god of this city that is yours. The semi-circle of these lanterns shiver beneath her like a pantheon of answers. Hope costs nothing, you told her once, and that is how she dared. To cross an ocean for you. The boatmen of this world speak of riches on the opposite bank, her voyage was merely to free the emptiness of her claustrophobic heart, restless, restless, oh, ever so restless. Perhaps, and I speak only as the outsider who inhabits you both, you should forgive her now.

Years ago, on summer nights, her grandmother would tell her the story of the boy who dived into the bottomless pond in the middle of the desert to salvage the pink pearl. The next morning, the villagers found a banyan tree at the centre of the pond, its roots vanishing into the fathomless. Legend says every full moon night, the heart of the boy cries for the pearl, and in the morning, a new column is added to the mass of hanging roots, a stream of condensed tears feeding the pond. Thus grew the desert city of Ehsaan around an oasis of endless fertility.

The blue is beginning to fade, a turquoise haze envelopes the bridge, the barge, the lamps, her; from the horizon, a faint blush rises, spreading softly over the sky. It is still night, the crescent moon still in bloom, but the last scattered stars are evasive now.

If only somehow you could have been mine,

what would not have been possible in the world?2

Suddenly, the streetlights go off. In this instant, dawn has arrived. The sky transits less hastily. The city of her beloved is waking up. A bus awaits to take her where she came from, through fields of uniformly shaven colour- yellow, green, brown, waves of symmetry upon a calm earth. A piece of this calm resides in her now, the river has doused the fire scourging her insides. Something has healed.

She will return. I, the Seine, rushing past a million lives, over a hundred thousand springs heartbreakingly beautiful, have promised to save the pink pearl in my bosom until then.


[1] Another name of Radha, the beloved of the divine cowherd Krishna

[2] Excerpted from “Farewell” by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

Hridi is an Indian writer currently based in Belgium. Her works have previously appeared in AainanagarContemporary Literary Review IndiaModern Literature, The Piker Press and Across the Margin, among others.

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

Categories
Stories

Ants

By Paul Mirabile

My flat is very small and unhealthy: a roach-infested kitchen and bath, a stuffy dining room and bedroom. And I must admit that I made no particular effort to remedy this unhealthiness. Because there is no heating system, in the winters I board up the tiny windows that are found above my bedroom and those in the dining room. This may appear primitive, but I do live on the fifth floor where cold winds blast frosty air through flimsy boards. It goes without saying that I freeze during the winter. With the arrival of spring, though, I remove the boards and replace them with wax curtains so as to keep the insects out. They build their nests on top of the roof. In the kitchen there is a skylight, square and tiny, the brittle glass of which I had the misfortune of breaking some time ago. I haven’t either the skill or the pecuniary means to repair it. This broken skylight had been constantly on my mind because of those huge nests atop the roof. I indeed could have mustered up the money, but … you know how people get when their existence is reduced to tiny cubicles and thoughts ?

Not long ago I left town for a short stay near the sea. The weather had been exceedingly hot, and my flat was like an oven. The square below was filled with sultry, polluted air, with noisy gypsies hawking and haggling. My pleasant little holiday terminated horribly as soon as I stepped into my flat : the kitchen, stifling, was crawling thick with black ants ! I was beside myself. There were streams of them forming enormous black, billowing pools on the unclean white-tiled walls. I puked on them for I have detested these ever since I had buried live ants as a child, relishing the sensation of their tomb in the midst of hard-packed humus, suffused with dampness and pervaded by silence. I often wondered whether this sentiment was mine or theirs ?

The mere sight, now, of one or two made me break into a cold sweat; and here, before me scampered millions, fat and juicy. I ran to the bath grabbing a mop and bucket. Pouring alcohol into the soapy water, I set to work crushing them on the white-tiled floor, knocking them off the white-tiled walls and ceiling. The toil seemed endless, yet, as time went by, the mass slaughter gave me a sort of perverted delight ; an abnormal sensation of power, divine and unholy at the same time. Toppling the darting beasts from the walls, I sent them hurtling to a watery death. The strong smelling alcohol caused them to shrivel up into tiny black balls. I finished off many by simply crushing them between my fingers or under my bloody heels. Two hours later there were none left on the wall to tell their disheartening tale …

Exhausted, I owed their hideous trespassing to the broken skylight, and vowed to replace it in the morning. And still I hadn’t unpacked … That would be left for the morning ; for now, I needed a good, sound sleep. Yet the heat that evening was unbearable. I threw myself onto the bed, trying to forget the images and those disgusting ants. No use, I couldn’t drive them out of my strung-up mind. The sheets were soaked in perspiration. I tossed them off, wiping the sweat from my face and arms with them. The bedroom stank of sweat so I got up and staggered into the kitchen to splash some water on my body. When I switched on the light a terrible sight made me fall back into the kitchen table : the walls heaved and throbbed with myriads of black and red ants which were making their way through the skylight. Many of them were huge. They swarmed round my feet, naked and exposed to their scrabbling, biting and scratching. Involuntarily I let out a scream and ran back to fetch my trusty mop. I would have to begin the whole gory operation again …

Returning to the amok beasts, I took up the mop, smashing the filthy creatures against the walls and floor, picking them out of the fissures and cracks, wrenching them out of corner and nook. It seemed as if I were fighting for my life ! Alas the battling brutes out-numbered me ; little by little my strength wanned as the colonies gained the cracks throughout the kitchen walls, filling them until the plaster broke and crumbled down. They dived into my hair, swiftly seeking the orbits of my eyes. Falling to my knees … I awoke …

It had been an evil nightmare ! Were the black beasts coming back to torment me after so many years of burials and extermination ? The wall-clock chimed three ; My mind raced and body ached. And the darkness of my chamber offered no consolation, nor the oppressiveness of the heat. I dared not walk into the kitchen although my throat, parched and swollen, yearned for a glass of cool water. The nightmare had turned the beads of sweat into icy droplets : would this bed-chamber be my tomb ? And yet … yet, the temptation gnawed at me. Yes, enter the kitchen, see whether it had all been a nasty nightmare, or reality, or something in between. Yes, my little coffin in which I had passed much of my existence. I laughed aloud, then louder. Speedy thoughts formed icicles in and round my soul. For I did believe in the soul : wasn’t that the very reason I had buried those ants alive ? 

However, the clammy heat kept me riveted to the bed. Laying back, I suddenly detected slight noises coming from the door which led into the narrow, yellowed peeling wall-papered hallway. I listened … and listened with greater intensity, steadily growing conscious that something was alive in the room. Frozen to the bed, I listened even more attentively, carefully, so as not to disturb this pulsating thing.

Finally, plucking up courage, I flung myself out of bed and darted to the door. I noted a foul smell reeking from the hallway ; the scent of the dead ? Flicking on the light a jolt threw me back in horror : millions … no billions of ants were smothering two half-dead mice, dragging the screeching rodents across the threshold of my room. And there inside it, I had nothing to kill them with ! The screeching of the half-gnawed mice drove me mad ; strange, too, were the indescribable crunching sounds that elicited from the open-mouthed rodents. I soon realised that this was no nightmare. However, I couldn’t be sure whether the mice were dead or still fighting off the floods of ants with the last flickers of their unfortunate lives.

I grabbed a chair and squashed them at my feet, attempting to clear a path to the kitchen. The mop was my only salvation, since that of the mice could no longer be redeemed. But what would the kitchen look like ? I was trapped. Nonetheless, I put on my shoes that were still stained with the blood of the black beasts, and made a bee-line towards the sacred door. Those ant nests must have been immense ; the walls, floor and ceiling had been blackened by them, caked, dense and throbbing …

The door loomed in sight, albeit it swelled in a tidal wave movement of heaving, pulsating ants : clinging, swirling, skirling, raging … They fell upon me like wrathful wasps whose nests had been discovered and disrupted.

They fell upon me I say, hordes of them racing up my naked legs. Yet, I couldn’t budge; I tried to inch forward but my feet wouldn’t move. They were attacking my face and hair now as I crawled closer and closer to the oscillating door. I started to scream for help; yet, who would have come to my succour ? Thoughts of the half-eaten mice suddenly flooded my mind ; they were probably dead by now, buried beneath a layer of ants, like the ants I had buried, beneath layers of dun soil ! I imagined an ant-hill at a time when pirates would bury their sad prisoners up to their necks in them, waiting until the disturbed red killers chewed through the eyes of their screaming interlopers. I reached for the door-knob ; something held me back, an evil, insalubrious odour that stealthily began to suffocate me. My breath became shorter and shorter, and when I managed to gasp for breath a billow of soft, mushy, black flooded into my open mouth … I sat up screaming in bed …

Like a lunatic I paced back and forth in that death chamber. All I asked for was to sleep. But the ants … I placed my ear to the moist floor boards … there was no sound. Cautiously I moved through the narrow hallway, my fingers touching ever so tenaciously the viscous, soiled paper, probing each and every crevice and crack. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to switch on the light, thus there I remained in the dark, a man afraid to exit from his own shelter. Would they bury me alive in this earthy niche ? Into the kitchen I ventured still in absolute darkness. I stooped down to touch the floor : nothing, absolutely nothing. I laughed a rather hysterical laugh. The floor was somewhat wet from my mopping. I did indeed mop then ! I slipped and slid about, so happy about this nothing … this absolutely nothing. So thrilled about this … that …

Suddenly the phone rang. At this hour of the night ? I sat up listening … listening … it suddenly stopped, as abruptly as that ! Then there was a knock at the door … I sat up listening … listening … It too stopped, as abruptly as that ! As I lay back, the flat echoed with various breathing sounds : they would come and go, like the ringing and the knocking. The phone rang … no one. A knock drilled … no one. Gradually an inky blackness crept over my still, stiffened body until the rim of a faint light allowed me to peer into the hallway where billions of soldier ants were busy bearing the burden of their dead …

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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