In every Life there is a Sea

This story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by an old Norse myth.

In every life there is a sea, if not without, then within, roaring serenely and pulling quiet into chaos, until there is a pause, and you can hear sea urchins singing like porcupines, and then when you are far out in the darkness, you will come to believe that the truth is in the sting, yet the poison…the poison is in the almost invisible threads straying after slow-moving ships with too beautiful eyes…

In the distance, the little islands outside Brandywine Bay are shining emeralds strung on an invisible garland against a soft blue horizon, irresistibly glamorous in its overlapping of white sails and wedding-caked sea fairies, whooping deliciously against red – and black painted prows, adorning exotic names like “Estrella Del Mare” and “Blackbeard’s Pipedream”. Little blue-black dolphins skip across the surface, their metallic fins gleam glossily as they pierce through the paler surface, shining like octavian stars bobbing in the summer sun. The air is thick and hot, laced with salt and flowers and fermenting mangoes, stealing across from the islands and bridging the gap between coasts.

“You are going too fast,” says Cohen, “slow down, you are scaring the fish away!” I am tempted to go even faster, I can’t stand the sight of fish wriggling and kicking and fighting for their lives with a huge hook in their mouth. But I slow down, just to please Cohen. I do a lot just to please Cohen. He is two years older than me and gorgeous, too gorgeous to be stuck in a small dinghy with me on a hot summer day. But our mothers have been friends forever, so he is just that, stuck with me, the girl with muddy gypsy eyes and the lanky body of an overgrown ten year old boy. “There, I’ve got one!” A tiny fish gleam silver and green just below the surface, Cohen reels it in a bit too fast and it slips the hook and skits away into the deep. “Damn fish!” complains Cohen, but I release a deep content sigh. “What’s with you?” Cohen glares at me, “you’re acting weird. Don’t you want me to catch any fish?” I lower my eyes and bite my lip nervously, “sure,” I stammer, but I can’t quite look into those marvelous blue eyes of his. I just sit there, staring at my brown sandals, acting like a typical girl. Cohen snorts and throws the hook back into the sea. “Lucky for you this bloody pond is full of fish,” he says and laughs, thinking perhaps I didn’t get the double meaning, but I did. I silently curse myself for being in love with such a jerk. That is the truth though, me, awkward nerdy Lucy is in love with the Norse god that is Cohen Leery. I have a whole drawer full of poetry to prove it. Oh, yeah, you heard me right: poetry. Another proof of my hopeless nerdiness.

Something is pulling on the line again, and Cohen tightens his grip on the fishing rod and starts reeling in the line. He is sweating in the midday heat, and all I can do is stare. “A little help, please,” he hands the rod over to me, and I obediently hold on to it while he battles the line. It is something big, something heavy. Oh no! Shit. But suddenly the line goes slack and still. “Damn it!” swears Cohen, “that was a big one!” He lights a cigarette and lets go of the line, I jump as the rod almost slips out of my hand when the hook at the end of the line again plunges into the deep blue. Cohen laughs. He studies me behind clouds of smoke as I struggle to get the right grip on the fishing rod. I haven’t held a fishing rod since I was a little girl, but even then I couldn’t look at the death sentenced fish. It was my father who had to pull the victims out of the ocean and hit them on the head with a rock. I always stayed in the background. “Do you want me to show you?” he asks and flares a smug grin. I shake my head and position my hands on the rod. But the line has gone slack again, and I can catch my breath.

Cohen smokes while we both gaze into the liquid blue. The sea is a cool shade of turquoise, the sun has started its descent, and glazed skinny threads ripple across the surface. Rays of light tunnel towards a cluster of corals, barely visible behind the tell-tale scattered shadow of our dinghy, a handful of bright apricot and pink tentacles swirl meditatively in the light, a seductive dance to lure its prey into a beautiful, but deadly trap. Cohen finishes his cigarette in one last long drag and plucks the fishing rod out of my hand. “It seems you are bad luck,” he says and gives me a pat on the back. His hand is warm against my soft skin, and it leaves a burning mark inflaming my entire body. I quickly look down, not wanting him to see the redness voyaging across my face.

We are drifting further from the shore as the wind is shifting and increasing its pace. But Cohen still wants me to take us even further out. “Use the oars,” he demands, “the motor will only scare away the fish.” I dip the oars into the surface and turn the boat out towards the deep. I know I am not supposed to go this far out, there are sharks, tiger sharks and even great whites. The inflatable dinghy seems pathetic as it steadily makes its way to the ocean, away from the bay. The corals disappear from sight, and under us; there is only inky black silence. “Wait,” Cohen reaches for the line, it makes small dips against his hand, “I think I’ve got something.” I lift the oars and let the dinghy bob quietly on the small waves. It really is a fish this time, a tiny white and red one with beady silver eyes. Cohen laughs and holds it up against my face. I cringe. The tiny fish is gaping, the oxygen slowly choking it, and it wriggles its tail desperately, as though it could get back into the sea by pretending it is already there. “Please,” I whisper, “can you at least give it a merciful death?” Cohen looks at me and chuckles, “I didn’t know you were such a softy, Lu.” I shrug and lift my head to look at him. But apparently my discomfort has no effect on him. “Nope, this little guy is perfect bait if I am to catch us a proper dinner.” He throws the hook back into the sea with the tiny fish still on. I can’t take my eyes off it as it plunges, with the hook still in its mouth, as fast as it can into the sea, desperate to get as far away from us as possible. I feel like crying.

Cohen lights another cigarette, but keeps his left hand on the fishing rod. He squints his eyes as he pulls the nicotine into his lungs. I look away. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Cohen drops the cigarette and grabs the rod with both hands; something is pulling the line, something big. I can see his biceps and arm veins bulging as the pliant fishing rod bends so much that it almost curls in on itself. Cohen is struggling, fighting whatever is down there with all his strength. He breaks into a sweat, but the fish only pulls harder. I start to panic. “Cohen, “I beg, “let it go, it’s too big.” “No way in hell!” Cohen’s voice has an edge to it. I can see that his black pupils are dilated, and he has a wild look in his eyes. He laughs and swears as he fights the giant fish. Cohen is strong, stronger than I had imagined, all the muscles in his body are tensing and popping out, and I can’t stop staring at him. But this is a dangerous game. And when it comes to crossing the sea, the sea always wins, all islanders know that. But Cohen is not ready to let this one go. “Cohen, please,” I touch his arm, he is only wearing a t-shirt and I have to put my hand on his hot sweaty naked skin. Cohen shrugs it off. I look into the deep, trying to follow the line as far down as I can, and there, in that black infinite pool I see an even blacker shadow rising up towards us. I scream. But Cohen doesn’t even register my scream. He is fixed on the battle, like a warrior fighting his own destiny. He is starting to scare me.

“Cohen! Cohen!” I scream into his ear, but he doesn’t even flinch. I try to wrestle the rod out of his grip, but it is useless, he doesn’t even stir. I stare back into the water, the shadow is bigger than our boat, it surrounds us on all sides, and that is when I know, it must be a great white, there is nothing else as big as this in these waters. And just as the revelation hits me I can clearly see a fin, and aren’t those white things teeth? “Cohen!” I plead “It’s a shark! It will tear us to bits! Cohen we’re gonna die! Let go! Please!” But Cohen doesn’t hear me. I have no idea where his strength is coming from, the shark must be more than fifteen feet long, how can any human battle something like that? Then suddenly it is over, or I think it is over. The fishing rod stretches out again and for a second it looks like the tension on the line is gone, but I am wrong, so wrong. The dinghy starts moving, so fast that I fall over. Cohen stands at the bow holding on to the rod pulling us further and further to sea.

I can no longer tell where the shadow underneath us starts and where it is ending, it all seems like one big black blur pulling us away from home, from everything that is safe. I start screaming again, but there is no sound coming out of my mouth, I have lost my voice. Cohen is laughing now. “Is that all you’ve got you old bastard!” he shouts into the sea. Behind me, the islands are disappearing, and I realize that if I don’t do anything now we will both be dragged so far away from the shore there will be no turning back, we will die, either by the teeth of this shark or we will drown. I need to cut the line, but how? I don’t have a knife or anything sharp. Oh, yes, but I do! I’ve got my teeth. I hurl myself at Cohen, gnawing the salty, almost invisible line through my teeth. I am desperate, so desperate I almost forget to breathe. Spit and tears trail across my chin, all salty. There is too much salt! Cohen tries to fight me, but even he cannot fight two opponents at the same time; his hands are locked around the fishing rod. Then finally I hear a sharp snap and the boat jolts to a stop, we are free. The black shadow disappears instantly and Cohen blinks as if coming out of a trance. His hands are bleeding. He sits down, panting. I don’t say anything. I can’t, I can’t even look at him. He stares at his bleeding hands then out into the sea. The tide is still pulling us outwards so I quickly start the outboard motor and turn the dinghy back towards land. I speed up as much as I can, forgetting about the dangerous reefs and the underwater rocks. I just stare through my tears at the growing islands, willing the boat to go faster, faster. When we finally reach shore Cohen says nothing, he just sits there. I tether the dinghy to our pier, not bothering about pulling up the outboard, and run, away from Cohen, up to the house, crying harder and harder. Some of the tears fall into my mouth and I am surprised by the absence of salt. I leave Cohen there. I really leave him.

The wind has settled for the night. And quiet seems to slip in with the darkness, only the melancholy sound of tree frogs makes up the soundtrack of the night. Cohen has pulled the dinghy up on the beach and tied it to a swaying palm tree, or maybe it wasn’t Cohen at all. There is a glassy jellyfish stranded on the beach, it is covered in a pattern of red eyes. I want to toss it back into the sea, but it has a train of poisonous threads, all entangled, around its body. “I’m sorry,” I say, even though I know it can’t understand me. The flamboyant tree shakes its head at me. With the silver-streaked onyx sea to my left and the garland of haint blue island houses to my right, I walk through lanes, scattered with magenta bougainvillea, towards home. In the corner of my eye I can see a tall darkly handsome boy standing by one of the many cliffs on the island, staring forlornly towards the blue-black horizon, his bloody hands are open, reaching out, as to a lover lost and drowned at sea.

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The Island of Seals

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The island of Inish Mor lies in a pool of brilliant blue ocean, a few miles from the mainland and the Galway Bay. To the left of where the little ferry docks, a small country road bordered with tall stones twines and twirls up towards a pink farmhouse and a white hotel with a picket fence. If you follow that road you will eventually find the remains of an old monastery and a burial ground looking towards the sea. After that there is nothing more than green fields and rock. But if you instead make a left turn and head towards the horizon where the sun sets, you will find the lagoon. My lagoon. And a house, a white washed house with a red door and a grassy roof. Carts and horses will pass you by, perhaps a small van, but nothing else. You can circle the island on foot in perhaps an hour if you walk briskly. I did once. And I never tire of listening to the sea, roaring, gushing, singing. Sometimes I believe it is all for me. The wind sings too. But it is for the rocks. Those eroded passages between cliffs, tall and steep, love that song so much they bend and shape to its every demand. The old folk call it the mermaid song . There is a lighthouse too, not far from the bay. And a beach with yellow sand, and it was in that sand I wrote: “I’ll be back. “But I was just a little girl.

The Island of Insih Mor was an ideal retreat for me. Isolated as it is, it is safe, but exciting, offering solitude, but not loneliness. I had always wanted to go back. And now, I craved it, to lick my smarting wounds and renew my vows to myself and my craft. But I found myself in a position of doubt, hesitant, unsure. Then one day after aimlessly browsing the World Wide Web for images of exotic locations and retreats, my eyes caught an image of her, my island lover, she shone in all her photoshopped glory, enticing me, calling me. I clicked the image and found myself stranded on a website of a band. A musical band offering drumming classes on the island. I had never felt interested in drumming, but this was an opportunity, maybe even a sign. I clicked on the email address given on the site and a new window opened. I typed the mail quickly and hit send. Ten minutes later the reply came. It was a man. He announced that there were no new classes starting at the moment, but that he could give me private lessons if I wanted. I hesiated. This was exactly the kind of situations the media warned you about. The Internet was a scary place full of predators. But I ignored the warnings, and replied the mail, making further inquiries. The man, whose name was Angus, lived on the island from spring to autumn, giving drumming lessons to groups of tourists, the rest of the year was spent touring Europe with his band.
The next few days, or rather nights as he seemed to be quite the nocturnal kind, Angus and I mailed back and forth. He was sweet and courteous, and I found myself drawn to him. The first mails were all about drumming and practical details, but after a while we ventured into discussions about music, creativity and eventually discovered our mutual interest in folklore and mythology. I started looking forward to his mails with a surprised enthusiasm. I had already booked the tickets. My flight was in just two weeks and I was bursting with excitement. Not just to see my beloved Inish Mor again, but to finally meet the mysterious Angus. A couple of days before my departure was due Angus surprised me with an invitation to stay in his cottage for the duration of my drumming class. Of course, he added, I was to sleep in his guest room. Again I hesitated. I had never even met the man! He was a total stranger! But he didn’t feel like a stranger. Ignoring all common sense and media warnings I accepted the invitation with a racing heart. I hit send. It was done. I was going to stay with him. With Angus! Was I in love? How could I be? I had never even seen Angus; I didn’t know how he looked like! What if he was an old balding man? I shrugged. My thoughts had taken me too far; I was after all just going to learn how to drum.

The day arrived eventually. I was going to Inish Mor. It was a gray rainy day. October days often are in this desolate part of the world. I carried nothing but a backpack and an umbrella. But I had to leave the umbrella with the security at the airport. It was too sharp, too pointed, too metallic, it could be used as a weapon. The flight was long and tedious with two stopovers. I didn’t eat much, but had a fair share of expensive red wine to steady my nerves. Or maybe it was just because it was free. Dublin was as grey and rainy as where I had come from. But the friendly smiling people made up for it. The bus driver greeted me cheerfully and turned up the volume of his radio tuned in to a folk music channel. I recognized the familiar sound of the flute and the violin. The music was skipping and keening in intervals, as if it was not sure whether it was a lament or a drinking song. I caught my foot bobbing silently along to the beat of the haunting music. “So you’re going to Galway, are you?” asked the friendly bus driver. I nodded, then added: “Yes, but I am travelling on to Insih Mor from there.” The bus driver looked up at me with a mischievous look in his eyes. “Ooooo, the island of the seals, is it? Well, you know what the legends say. Better be careful, you’re a pretty young thing.” He chuckled. I wanted to ask him exactly what the legend said, and why it was called the island of seals, but just then a new passenger boarded the bus. It was middle aged man with a bald head and a round red face wet from the rain. It looked as though he knew the bus driver for they commenced an animated discussion with peals of laughter and grunts of disagreement or perhaps disgust in something. The language they spoke was the old Irish, the Celtic language, so I sat back reluctantly and gave up my attempt to get the bus driver’s attention. I fished my iPhone out of my backpack and popped the small pink head phones into my ears, and to the sound of Enya’s soothing voice I fell asleep.

I woke up to the sound of the exhausted engine exhaling noisily. I looked out of the window and discovered to my surprise that I was looking at a rather familiar sight. It was the Galway Market! I got up quickly and climbed down the steps onto the sidewalk. The bus driver was busy helping a woman with a pram disembark the bus. I hurried away, half running through the busy shopping street of the little town; afraid I was going to miss my next bus and the ferry to Inish Mor. I stopped at a little Spar kiosk to buy a sandwich and some crisps.

The next bus ride was a short one. The landscape outside the window was that of Galway bay and the majestic Atlantic Ocean hurling itself with full force unto the rocky coves and little sandy piers. As the bus left the urban coastal landscape behind forests rose to block the view of the bay. Tall evergreens reaching for a graying sky gave way to grassy knolls and little rivers heading for unknown destinations. Small scattered cottages in pale colors bore witness to human habitat, but without the need to tame the outlawed wilderness. Soon the sea came back into view and I spotted the little ferry waiting for the bus. All the passengers were headed for the same destination and the ferry filled up fast. There was a drizzle outside and the seats inside the shelter of the ferry’s belly were soon occupied. I didn’t mind, I wanted to, I needed to sit outside feeling the rain and wind beating my face into submission. There was nothing to see but the sea. White peaked waves, like wild cantering horses, broke against the side of the boat, making it rock uncontrollably. I rocked with it and smiled. Gulls alerted me to the expanding dot on the horizon. Inish Mor. My Inish Mor. I was back.

There was no one waiting for me as I disembarked the ferry. I scanned the dock, but everyone seemed to know what they were doing or where they were going. Then I remembered, I had given Angus the arrival time of my flight, but not the ferry. I hadn’t known. But Angus had given me direction to his cottage, and I decided to see if I could find my way on foot. The early October day was descending into the soft amber glow of afternoon, the rain had stopped and the roads were drying in the dying sun’s surprise visit. The sea was keeping an evening tryst with the little beloved island, and she seemed to be whispering lovers’ secrets to him coaxing his mighty manhood into calm surrender. I felt like a ghost revisiting an old childhood world. These roads were made of a girl’s homespun dreams. I had walked them before, and today those dreams had given me a map to the familiar geography of a rediscovered home. The sea, whose murmur was never out of my ears, was my companion as I climbed the sloping hills heading for a cottage and a man I was not yet sure were real.

The cottage was easily spotted, situated on top of a green grassy hill, individualized by the oddity of its small shape and red inviting door. There was a gate marking the beginning of a path leading up to the cottage. I hoped it was not locked. But just as I was about to find out I heard a noise. Or a cry of sorts, I turned around to see who or what had made the sound and found my eyes staring into the eyes of the sea. But this was not the wild unkempt sea, this was a tamer friendlier version of the same entity. It was a lagoon. A silvery body trapped inside a rocky embrace, holding it fast, forcing it to stay still, and on the rocks seals were lazing about. I had never seen seals like that before. They were big and almost black glistening with salty sunbathed droplets. One of the seals made the cry again. He had lifted his head and was looking straight at me. I did not remember ever seeing seals on the island before. But then it occurred to me that I had never before been here this time of year. It had been early November that time, when I wrote my promise in the sand. Maybe the seals went elsewhere for the harsh winter season. I stood for a while admiring the beautiful creatures basking in the sun, now resting low on the horizon. I smiled at their magnificence. But it was time to face the music; it was time to meet Angus. I turned around and tried the handle of the gate. It opened with a high pitched moan. My legs shook as I slowly climbed the hill. I approached the red door and knocked. Nothing. I knocked again. Again there was no response. Maybe he was outside. I walked around the eaves towards the back of the cottage, but there was no one there either. The light was fading fast now and I needed to find somewhere to spend the night. Should I head back and look for the hotel? Perhaps that was best. But something in me was reluctant, hesitating, holding me back…Maybe Angus would be back soon from wherever he was. He knew I was coming today, just not exactly when. If I didn’t show up he would be disappointed. Maybe I could at least check whether or not the door was locked. I had heard that many people living in the countryside never locked their doors. I made up my mind quickly and went back around to the front of the house. I tried the handle. It yielded and the door opened.

The inside of the cottage was dark in the dimming light. The windows were small and few, too small to let in the light. But there were candles and matches on the table. I struck a match and lit one of the candles. The cottage was small and primitive. The floor was nothing but earth tucked densely together, and there was a hearth, a wooden chair and a table. That was it. There was driftwood piled up together in readiness of a fire, and I lit another match and touched the flame to the dry wood, it flared up immediately, helped by a scattering of torn and crumpled newspapers. He was expecting me after all! The glow from the hearth gave the cottage a cozy and welcoming homeliness. I smiled and put my backpack on the floor. I soon found the two bedrooms. Both had iron beds made ready with clean sheets and thick blankets. Another sign that he was after all aware of my arrival. I found a bottle of red wine on a cardboard box fashioned into a little table and a covered plate of food. It smelled delicious! I opened the wine poured a glass and dug into the food. I was hungry after the long journey.

The sea stirred up again outside at the coming of twilight and the continuous roars and wild howls of the tide mixed with the gusts of the autumnal winds flying about the eaves made me feel as though I had gone back in time. To a simpler life, blessed or cursed by the moods of the mighty Mother Nature. I closed my eyes dreamily. The shadows created by the candle flickered before me and penetrated even the curtains of my eyelids, and I sighed in contentment.

After finishing half the bottle of wine I started to feel drowsy. Stars had climbed up on the bluish black sky and the wind had increased; wailing now, like a ghost looking for a way back home. I shivered. Where was Angus? Why had he not come home? Worried as I was I could stay up no longer. I climbed under the covers of the soft blankets and was immediately lulled to sleep by the keening wind songs. I don’t know how long I had slept when I suddenly sprung out of the bed wide awake. Someone or something had touched me! I had felt a caress, a hand or something that had felt like a hand, had slipped up my leg and caressed my bare thigh! I tore the blanket aside and shook it. I hurried to light a candle, but there was no one there. I lit up every darkened corner, ventured into the other bedroom and looked into the bed. But there was no one there. Perhaps it had been a mouse. It was quite likely that there were mice in a cottage like this. I looked under the beds, examined the sheets, but found nothing. But the thought of a mouse, however disconcerting it was to think of a mouse sharing my bed, eased me a little. A mouse wasn’t dangerous after all. And it was probably gone now. I went back to bed and tucked the blankets around me. I closed my eyes, but couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay awake listening to the sea outside the window. The tide was beating against the rocky lagoon; the rhythm was that of a pulse, steady and musical, almost like…..like the beat of a drum. My thoughts went back to Angus. Where was he? Why hadn’t he come? I closed my eyes tight trying to think of something else. Then suddenly I felt it again! The hand caressing my thigh, only this time it continued higher towards my stomach. I bolted out of bed, stifling a scream. The candle was still burning on the night stand and I flickered it around frantically. “Who is there?” I cried out. There was no answer. My heart was beating fast now; fear had finally taken me over. But I couldn’t see anyone. “Show yourself!” I tried to sound angry, demanding, self-assured, but I could hear the fear in my own voice. Again, the only answer I got was that of the sea. It sounded menacing now, threatening. Tears sprung to me eyes. All of a sudden I felt alone, foolish and frightened. Someone, or something was out there, or perhaps even inside the cottage, something that meant to…what? Harm me? Or…or…have its way with me? I shivered again and felt the hairs in the back of my neck stand. One thing was certain; I would not go back to that bed.

I lit the fire in the hearth and sat as close to it as I could, seeking shelter in its comforting light. Dawn came at last. It was slow and reluctant, took its time, but it came. I got my things together, beat the fire until it died and blew out the candles. I was not planning to stay here any longer than I had to. I didn’t care about Angus anymore; he was probably not even real.

Even the island had lost its charm. I just wanted to go home. I slammed the red door shot behind me and left the hill with a brisk walk. When I closed the gate, my eyes fell once more on the peaceful lagoon that had charmed me so utterly yesterday. But it was empty. The seals had gone. Maybe the night storm had encouraged them to look for warmer pasture. Maybe it was their time of year to leave. I wasn’t sure, but I frankly didn’t care anymore.

The little ferry was waiting for me at the dock. The morning was not a popular time to leave the island and very few people joined me on the overcrossing. I decided to sit outside again. I needed the fresh air. My nerves were still unsettled and the coldness of the wind soothed me. I kept my eyes on the horizon keenly awaiting the dark shadow of the mainland to be silhouetted against the endless blue. And it was then I saw it; the small black curve of a head bobbing in the waves. A seal. One solitary seal swimming gracefully ahead of the boat, occasionally turning around and staring with black liquid eyes directly into mine.

I was inspired to publish this story by this post:

https://toffeefee.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/seals-and-more/

Please check it out to see beautiful pictures of adorable seals!

The Moon-Faced Swami of Shakespeare Street

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This is a story in set in post-colonial Calcutta, India, about an Englishman who abandons his country to become a hermit in the Indian Himalayas, and then returns to the daughter, and lover he left in Calcutta 20 years before.

Even in the cluttered urbanity of a densely populated city you will still be run over by wild things if you sit still long enough. There are intruders, imposters carrying wilderness on their backs. Like big grey-whiskered monkeys they will make faces at you and pull at your coat, thinking you are harmless to them. In the evenings they will beg for your attention, they will stare at you with sorrowful eyes and croon and keen their misery, and in the morning they will stamp their feet, unspeakably wise in their persistent begging. But what will you do? Will you bow your head at them, and run alone into the night? Will you share in their fire, coming alive with curiosity, or will you swing off with rabbity ears, going with the shadows and low suspicious calls?

I lived under a white floor on Shakespeare Street, not far from the South Park Street Cemetery and St. Thomas Church. Mrs. Banerjee, the Landlady, was an old croon, but her daughter Rimpa and I had become good friends. Rimpa was fascinated by me, an English unmarried woman living alone in a foreign country! The idea held for her both fear and admiration. I travelled to India on a cargo ship two years before to join the Mother Theresa mission, but grew weary with the depressing work after falling ill with dysentery over and over again. I don’t know why I didn’t go home, perhaps because I had forgotten what home was or felt like. I loved walking around in the old city feeling its rich history and the many battles that had been fought here, I loved visiting the ghats to see the people gathering there to perform their sacred activities and conduct mundane business meetings after a cleanse in the muddy water. The ghats were also the mooring base for hundreds of fishing boats with colorful huts and dirty sails. I never bought any fish though; I never liked that salty taste of the sea.

I had never met Rimpa’s father, he was a business man who lived somewhere in Delhi. I had my suspicions that Rimpa had never met him herself despite her twenty something years. How the two of them managed, I could never tell, perhaps it was my insignificant rent that paid for their meals. I could have lived ten lifetimes in Calcutta on an English monthly salary. Shakespeare Street was a quiet street compared to the neighboring Park Street, it was a street dedicated to the English families who had stayed behind after India’s separation from the English crown, and to the rich Anglo-Indians who now ran their offices. Rimpa, with her fair complexion and European eyes could have been one of them, but Mrs. Banerjee insisted that Mr. Banerjee was a Rajasthani high-born Hindu. Rimpa had an apt for the English language and never tired of talking to me. Sometimes I suspected I was her only source of entertainment, all cooped up in her mother’s quiet house as she was. When Rimpa asked her mother where babies come from, the answer was that they sprung out of Lord Vishnu’s navel. Mrs. Banerjee knew all there was to know about the gods, but had received very little formal education. She cooked, cleaned and prayed, that was her life. Rimpa was different, she wanted to learn, and she had an open curiosity that she poured out on me. “Didi, where does the water come from?” she asked me one day we were sitting under a Banyan tree in the courtyard, watching muddy channels of rain pouring from the leaves of the enormous tree. Mrs. Banerjee had just lit the incense sticks for the evening puja and the soft sweet fragrance wafted down from an open window.
The rain lasted for a week, and then the sun came out and dried up the foul-smelling holes in the cracked asphalt filled with filth and brown water. “Ohm, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” crooned Mrs. Banerjee from the open window, “Peace be with my moon-faced lover.”

On the first day of Sharad, as the expanse of paddy stalks bent with rich harvest and blue peacock feathers fell from the rooftops, the bookbinder’s wife, Mirza, died. “It is a good time to die,” said Mrs. Banerjee and gathered her best fruits to join in the funeral rites. People hurried into the street to pay their respect to the late woman. “Leave none behind!” A voiced called out. And then the wailing started. Rimpa and I sat on the floor in the kitchen sipping cardamom tea and laughing. “Is there really such a thing as a good day to die?” chuckled Rimpa.
But Mirza’s death was just an event in a series of what Mrs. Banerjee called bad omens. There was a sigh in the air that autumn. The cows stopped lactating, the flower beds dried up too quickly, water, stored for drinking, was declared contaminated by the municipality, a band of street dogs attacked a little girl and left her lame. And the city dwellers, one by one, crept out of their houses to pray before the mighty Kali, which only resulted in an increase of taxes imposed by the chief minister. The city was in an uproar. The pandits said: “It is a punishment. You have all lost your piety and made money your new god!” People rushed to the temples declaring their devotion with gifts of flowers, sweetmeats and incense. “It is not enough,” declared the priests, “you need to appease the wrath of Kali by raising a new temple in her honor.” Before the month was ended a new temple was raised. Then an earth quake struck the city, a mighty shrug from the Himalayas sent shivers down the spine of the entire country. Little makeshift huts collapsed in submission to the mountain god’s decree of anger, even sturdier brick houses bent in silent obedience. Business meetings at the ghat stopped and were replaced by intricate cleansing rituals involving a thorough mouth-rinse in the holy water. Contaminated water was gargled and spat out into the overcrowded river, followed by an outbreak of sickness and more despair. But it was the arrival of Rimpa’s father that stirred up the mightiest quake.

I had my suspicions of course, but seeing the white sahib walking along the red loopholed railway-line that hot afternoon, clad in dazzling white rags, made the hairs stand in the back of my neck. A swarm of hungry mosquitoes clung to the top of his head and his gray-spangled hair was matted and damp with sweat. “I shall hate him,” said Rimpa, full of spite and shock, and locked the door to her sleeping quarters. Mr. H.M Ford had once been a respectable English gentleman, a trader and businessman with such a wealth that even the prime minister of India would have envied him. But that was until he left his home turf and fell into the arms of Bharat. He swooned with desire, not for a woman, oh no, that would have been the making of the young reckless Mr. Ford, but it was the temperamental Maa Ganges who had lured and teased him out of his English shell. Such things can happen to a young inexperienced youth, they all knew it, but to an Englishman! How could he have heard the lustrous call of their life-giving goddess? The hermit, Mr. H.M Ford, now to be referred to as Sri Gora Shankar looked over the face of his old lover and saw that it had changed. In place of a young maiden was an old sour-faced hag wrinkled and weary with life’s many disappointments. He shrugged and opened the door to his house.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” said Sri Gora Shankar with a smile. “You were a beauty in your youth.” Mrs. Banerjee turned her back on him and cursed him. “I think we’ll go to the temple together.” Sri Gora Shankar put his hand on her brown fleshy shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

Once the secret of Rimpa’s mysterious father was out, people stopped visiting the tall white house on Shakespeare Street. I hardly ever heard the stomping of heavy feet against my ceiling. It was always quiet. Too quiet. Rimpa became a teenager again, throwing tantrums and shouting at her mother. I tried many times to talk to her, but she had come to see me as a foreigner, as her father’s accomplice. She was at war with the white race, at war with herself, and was no longer proud of her delicate fair complexion. The heart-breaking delay in the revelation of her father’s identity brought on an angry reckless fever, and put the fear of god into the neighbors. Or perhaps it was the fear of the white god-like man they refused to prostrate in front of. Sri Gora Shankar watched over his daughter with sorrow-filled eyes. Days were long and hot and the violent and awful rage of Kalika seemed to have no end. “All is well,” he finally told me one day. The fever had broken; the goddess had finally shown some mercy.
“He is a very holy man,” said Sondeep Goswami to me one day. “She has had so little.” He tilted his head and looked up at the kitchen window. Incense wafted the air and a white clad man was blowing a conch. “There is always time, but he could have given her a half-day warning.” Sondeep Goswami was not the only one to give his approval of the fair-faced swami, but they all still refused to give him the same reverence as they gave their darker skinned countrymen who had been touched by the river goddess. The swami himself just shrugged and smiled.
The weather had started cooling down when she finally came to see me. Rimpa wanted me to tell her about England. “Is it as far away as Darjeeling?” she asked. “It is hundred times further,” I replied. “That is alright, I am still young,” she smiled and looked out towards the setting sun with dazed dreamy eyes. Rimpa came to me often that winter.

Stacks of sugarcane covered the fields and seem to sweeten even the moody goddess. Dew fell thick on grassy river banks, and blue lotuses opened their cold hearts wide in appreciation of the chill sobering winds. The midnight queen rode her white camel over the pale sky and snow was reported to fall in the colonial hill stations. People were shivering in their thin cotton garments designed to let the mild breezes of summer caress hot sweaty skin. Bare-chested swamis pilgrimed to Gamukh to pray at the icy roots of the holy Ganges. But our own white-faced swami stayed. He had reluctantly shaved his long unkempt beard at his daughter’s request, and now, bare-faced and clean, everyone could see the resemblance between the two. Even Rimpa’s mother had softened a bit towards her old lover.
“Mohan Ghosh has taken his nephews and gone to the coal mines to look for work,” said Mrs. Banerjee matter-of-factly one cold morning when we are all sitting on the balcony waiting for the sun to rise and bless us with his warmth. “Maybe you should go too. Rimpa needs new clothes, and she doesn’t even have gold bangles for her dowry. You want her to wed don’t you?” Sri Gora Shankar looked fondly at his daughter and shrugged. “She will do what she wants.” Mrs. Banerjee examined the soft-eyed man sternly and changed her tactics. “What will she do when we are no more? Who will take care of her? Do you really want her to be all alone in the world? This country is not safe for unmarried women.” She could see in his eyes that she had succeeded.

The next morning Sri Gora Shankar shed his pious colorless garments and stepped into a pair of loose, somewhat oversized, black pressed pants. But he did not board the train to join the exemplified initiator; he crossed the street and headed for Park Street and the English Overseas Bank. By the end of the month Sri Gora Shankar was gone. In his place stood a tall lean Englishman with a clean shaven face and trimmed greying hair. Mr. H.M Ford, employee of the E.O.B, brought his first salary to his daughter with a proud smile that did not quite reach his eyes. Rimpa hugged him tightly, forgetting the old custom that duty-bound her to prostrate in front of the holy man. He hugged her back and his shoulders relaxed under his daughter’s warm touch. Soon everyone talked of the Banerjees’ good fortune. Room after empty room was furnished, and Rimpa acquired a dowry that had the young, and the not so young, suitors lining up at her door. But Mrs. Banerjee thought none of them were good enough for her rich, fair daughter. Rimpa was just as glad. She had other plans.

She told me on a Sunday afternoon while her parents were busy with guests. “I am going to England, Didi!” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise, but smiled quickly to hide my astonishment. “When are you leaving?” I asked. “Well, I don’t know, but papa has told me he will take me.” “Do you not want to marry, then?” Rimpa looked obstinately towards the ceiling. She frowned her forehead and tightened her jaw, like a proper Englishwoman. “I am not going to marry any of these dark round-faced lackeys! I am going to marry an English gentleman!” I was somewhat taken aback by her outburst, she seemed so full of spite for these people who, up till now, had been her family and friends.
I overheard them one day in a middle of a heated discussion. Rimpa, with a voice heavy with frustration and bitterness, was imploring, then threatening her father to take her with him to England. “You will leave me here in this godforsaken city and look for a proper mem-sahib to give you a white English daughter!” Mr. Ford sighed in resignation. He had grown tired of his daughter’s bantering and her mother’s endless demands. Rimpa cried her father into submission, but weeks went by and there was still no specific plan to leave for the longed for land of proper English gentlemen. Mrs. Banerjee was weary of her daughter too, she had become disrespectful and too audacious after her father’s arrival, and Mrs. Banerjee feared that it was the English in her that had finally come out and made her undesirable as a proper Indian bride.

“I don’t pretend to understand, Banerjee Madam” I told her one day as she was lamenting her sorrows to me one late afternoon. She had never come to me before, so I thought she must be desperate. “That is why I come here,” she said and sighed, “because you will never understand.” “Well, perhaps everything will be okay in the end, “I said and put my hand on hers. She stiffened a little, but welcomed the gesture.
Close to the verandah stood an old rocking chair made of polished wood from an unfortunate mango tree, and it was in the smooth seat of this chair Mr. H.M Ford left his pale blue oversized shirt and black freshly pressed pant, neatly folded. His dark brown patent leather shoes stood ownerless on the ground under the chair. It was a windy morning in April and the chair rocked gently in the much welcomed draft. He had taken nothing with him, except for the white rags he came in; even his razor and soap were left behind next to the new marble basin. It was such a hot day most of the inhabitants of Shakespeare Street stayed inside under their dust-laden ceiling fans, only the cows, who could not access such luxuries, prevented the Street from looking like a ghost town, relieved to find some shade beneath the trees they chewed lazily at some invisible grain or strand of grass with half-closed brown eyes. A hot fragrant wind from the sea had caused a few trees to bloom in vivid pink and orange, but most of the vegetation was completely parched by the summer heat. When the troubled call of the white conch lamented its longing for the sea, the reluctant devotees of the goddess, who was the namesake of their beloved city, opened the door to their houses to welcome their homesick deity with withering summer flowers and white grains of uncooked rice. Long before the last wail of the primitive instrument ceased the whole neighborhood had heard the warning. There was already talk of a drought, and a newlywed girl had collapsed from heat stroke near the cemetery, and the city dwellers shook their heads in fearful anticipation as they all observed the pile of clean clothes left on the rocking chair outside the Banerjee home.

“I knew he would leave eventually,” said Mrs. Mitra, “I knew, but the goddess gives no warning. She takes back her own whenever she pleases.” “Well, at least the girl has a dowry now, and a name, Ford was it?” interjected Mrs. Bhaduri. From across the city came the whistling of a train, backed by the rumble of thunder. “God help us,” said Mrs. Mitra, “Our Kalika is awake.”
Before the thunder reached the city I left. I had booked the ticket months ago, the thought of another Bengali summer had finally made me give in. I was going back to good old England. Neither Rimpa nor her mother came to say goodbye. I left the last month’s rent on the table next to my bed; the bills were neatly folded in a brown paper envelope. Before I left, I caught myself whispering a prayer, there was nothing else to do, the goddess takes no account of time, only the river marks the passing of the seasons, and she takes what she pleases, and even though she sometimes returns what she takes, you will never know in which form it will be given back to you. You can either fight until you grow weary or give in to her, and let the wilderness take you.

The Five Gifts of the Goddess

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This is a romantic short story set in West Bengal, India, about a girl, destined to dance for the goddess, who does the one thing she is forbidden from doing: falling in love.

Have you ever heard the call of the Conch Blower, wailing deep and throaty from the eastern shore of infinity? It is heard by those who are called upon by the gods. It is a call to return to where the sun rises, where the sky stretches far into eternity, and the bells chime, not to awaken deities, not from blue painted minarets, but from old stars reborn from dead and gone generations who loved and lived under their light. You will dance then, in those gardens of Vrindavan, in communion with Akasha, unhampered by any restrictions of time or place. And when you do, the same old miracle takes place, the moment you set foot in these gardens, you are home.

The dance was part of my life from my earliest consciousness. I learned to know it and love it in every mood, as an expression of yearning, passion and submission, sometimes as a long gleaming sand shore, sometimes as a glorious smother of white foam, or a sunset drinking its beauty from a red horizon dotted with white sails. I seemed to be born from a be-winged creature able to lift its dancing feet into a rapturous ecstasy filling my soul with nameless exhilaration. I left the world and the cares of the world so far behind that they seemed like a forgotten dream. Even when I gradually grew into the understanding that beyond the gardens of Vrindavan was merely another garden just like it, it still held a mystery and fascination for me. I longed to dance on the furthest peak beyond the reach of the red and gray sunrise. But it was not to be.
The house of Prajapati, near the enclosure of the Bay of Bengal is a tall house, taller than that of the neighboring houses. It speaks of my father’s wealth. A lotus springs out of the black gates, the richness of the ambered pink stands out against the coiled iron rods. The Lotus is my father’s pride; he is named after the great Ishvara after all. Jatayu, the milk man, says the eggshell white paint covering the brick walls of the house reminds him of Lord Vishnu lying lifeless on the waters of a milky ocean, ready to give birth to the gods. But Jatayu is born to a poor family and has no schooling beyond that which his father has taught him. Jatayu’s father says I will be the greatest dancer in all of West Bengal.

I was given to the goddess at an early age, as soon as I showed aptitude for the dance. But because I was so young I was allowed to stay home with my mother and siblings. I am well beyond my teenage years now, but my father refuses to let me go and live in the temple. He is too fond of me, he always was. I go every day though, for darshan. I bring flowers and other offerings to the goddess and she lets me sit at her feet rapt in thoughts of Vrindavan. I take very little food and I only wear white, I am not of this world. I belong to the goddess.
Vamana’s cousin told me, one morning, that his uncle wanted to see me. I thought no more of it, I am often asked to perform the sacred dance at rituals or festivals, and Vamana’s uncle, Naradiya, is a very important man in our community. His wealth has raised many a temple, not only in our neighborhood, but also in Calcutta, our great capital, where Naradiya spent his boyhood flying kites in a never ending warfare above the flat laundry dotted roofs of the city of dreams. I asked my father’s permission and that of my Guru, my teacher, and they both gave it, along with their blessings. The festival of the goddess was coming up, it is the holiest time of year for us who live in West Bengal, and all families were busy preparing the offerings to the goddess. Naradiya Uncle had called me to come on the third day of the festival, the day we call Chandraghanta.
A pandit, a Hindu priest, was called to Naradiya Uncle’s house at the day of the Puja to see that everything was done decently and in order. My father and I went together, and on the way my father told me how proud he was of me, which was rare, my father is not a very expressive man. The diyas, the little lamps made of clay and earthenware, were all lit in front of the house when we arrived. I could hear music, the soft beat of the table and quivering long-tuned song of the sitar. I recognized the “Mayamalavagowla Tala”, the “Before Dawn Raga”, pouring into the dim graying sky. It was still dark, but the Goddess always liked the pre-dawn best, the blessings given as the sun rises is considered to be the most auspicious and bountiful ones. My father and I removed our footwear and found our way upstairs where the ritual had already begun. We sat together cross-legged on a sleeping matt in the back waiting our turn to be greeted and welcomed. After the ritual was over tea and sweet coconut biscuits were served to the guest. I refused, as I wanted to keep my body pure for the dance. “I see that you did not get any tea, should I fetch you some?” I looked up. A dark black-eyed boy, or perhaps more of a young man, stood before me, bowing his head to meet my eyes. For a moment our eyes met and my heart gave a jolt. His eyes, eyes that seemed to pierce into my very soul, had the exquisite depth and bluish blackness of the night sky, they seemed devoid of color, except for a strand of golden flecks around his irises taking on the form of tiny stars reflecting the dim dawn light of the room. I caught myself staring and quickly cast my eyes down to the floor. “She is fasting, son,” replied my father, “she will take nothing until evening.” The boy nodded his head and disappeared. My heart was racing, and I did not understand what had happened to me. My life was that of a dancer, and nothing, except the goddess herself, was supposed to make me feel like this.

As afternoon approached, I prepared myself. I draped the red and white sari of the goddess artistically around my slim body and dotted my forehead with the red vermillion, marking the spot of the Ajna, the spiritual eye through which the soul communes with its maker. I tied the well-worn silver bells around my anklets and bowed my head in reverence before the clay representation of the goddess, and with my palms clasped together in greeting and respect I entered the makeshift stage. Age-old traditions of preservation of the holy principles and that of natural harmony and creativity pulsated through my body, and I had to force it to stay still until the Natrani, the Queen of the Dance, sounded out from the musical duo. My feet and hands acted on their own accord. Years of training had given me the freedom to give myself over to the devotion of the dance, rather than focus on the steps. I surrendered my body to the divine relationship between man and eternity, a relationship not of opposition, but of mutual dependence. Life begins when eternity enters into creation, into man and forms the soul. This secret connection, this link between the obvious and the mystery is a symbiotic relationship in which the partnering of life and divinity exists. I shaped my hands into that of the Lotus, the symbol of the cradle of the soul, I showed with further hand movements how it rose out of the black water, and gave birth to the light, to order, and gave form to the formless. I stamped my feet to give life to the bells, to the sound of the first sound that broke the great silence and made the strings on which rested the potential of creation quiver and vibrate so that the great movement could begin.

My audience was held in complete rapture, caught up in the sensuality of the dance, lost in the grace of the movements and the story they told, spiritual truths they had been told since they were children, but could not quite comprehend. When I finished, by stamping my heel musically on the floor, the audience broke out into a roar of appreciation and awe. I bowed my head and again clasped my palms together and left the stage with the same graceful steps as I had shown in the dance.
“That was beautiful. You are a very gifted dancer.” The black-eyed boy who had offered to fetch me tea stood before me. His eyes were filled with wonder and admiration. I looked down, hoping my father would see me and come to my rescue, but he was talking animatedly with Naradiya Uncle in the other corner of the room. “Please, may I ask your name?” “Mine is Gopal,” he added hurriedly. I had no choice, but to answer, refusing to speak would be both rude and disrespectful. I lifted my head an inch higher and looked at him. “I am Savitri.” He smiled. “Savitri. What a beautiful name. It suits you. You dance like the goddess herself.” I couldn’t help but smile at such praise. Then suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Savitri, it is time to leave,” my father said, and I nodded. “But, what about the tea?” interrupted Gopal. “She must be hungry if she’s not had anything to eat the whole day.” “She will eat at home,” said my father brusquely. I followed him outside and into the darkness of the night. I thought I would never see my black-eyed boy again, but I was wrong.

“Savitri Didi! Savitri Didi! Older sister! There is someone to see you! It’s a boy!” My younger sister, Devaki, looked at me, I could see mischief, but also fear in her eyes, she knew I had been given to the Goddess and could not take a husband. It was only because of the sentiments of my father I didn’t already live in a temple with the other devotees. “Where is father?” I asked spontaneously, I knew he would never allow me to talk to a boy. “He’s out.” Devaki’s eyes glimmered with teasing excitement. It had been two days since I had met Gopal. Could it be him? How had he found me? I walked on unsteady feet out into the courtyard and the entrance hall, and there he was. My black-eyed boy. His skin looked even darker now in broad daylight. But there was something about it that made it glow, even without an external source of light. “Hello, Savitri.” He used the informal greeting, used only between family and close friends. “Hello,” I stammered and looked down, unable to meet those starry pools of night piercing into my soul. “May I take you for a walk?” To my astonishment, I nodded my head. He was courteous and kind, making well-mannered small talk as we strolled around the dried up rice paddies with the scorching autumn sun burning our necks and exposed arms. I found myself drawn to him, to his kindness, his audacity in seeking me out, and to his obvious masculinity. I knew I shouldn’t have these feelings. But there was no denial. I did.

After several such walks, always clandestine, sheltered by groves of evergreen Aaksha trees, I found myself, against all sense of duty, sacred and familiar, falling in love. “Savitri,” said Gopal solemnly one late afternoon while my family was sound asleep after a heavy midday meal, “I have loved you since the moment I first saw you. I need to be with you, Savitri, for the rest of my life. I can’t bear to live it without you. I know you have been chosen by the Goddess, but I can’t help it, I have fallen for you, irrevocably and unabashedly. I know I have no right to, but I want to ask you to marry me. To become my wife, so that we can be together always.” I sighed heavily. I had prepared myself for this. I had come to know Gopal, and his intentions were always honorable. He had never touched me, not even my hands, only the one place in which his touch could not be removed or grow faint: my heart. “Gopal, I don’t know…I can’t deny that I have come to love you too,” his eyes lit up like the starriest sky I had even seen at the sound of those words coming from my mouth, “but Gopal, my duty lies with the Goddess. I will not do anything against her will. I just can’t. The bond I have with her…it cannot be broken. It is woven by the thread that binds the sun to the earth, the moon to the sea, it is…a rhythm…please try to understand.” Gopal’s eyes had gone dark, the lights had gone out. His face was marked with disappointment. He didn’t say anything. His head was lowered to the ground. “I will ask the Goddess for guidance,” I told him, “She will know what to do.” I could see a glimmer of hope in his eyes, but his body language still showed his utter disappointment.

The next morning I rose early and climbed the hundred and one steps up the hill to the temple of the supreme Goddess. I prostrated before her feet and gave her an offering of sandalwood incense and freshly picked jasmine flowers. Then I sat down cross-legged before her soft smiling face and clasped my palms together in prayer. “Dear Goddess, “ I whispered, “ I have met a man, a man I wish to marry, and he wants to marry me too, but the promise I have given you forbids it. I have given myself to you wholeheartedly, my love, my heart was born to hold only you, but now it is not so anymore. Beloved Goddess, I will keep this vow and honor it if that is your wish. I will forget about Gopal, let him go, he will find a new mate.” My eyes welled up at the thought of Gopal with another woman and tears started falling like little salty rivulets down my face and onto the cool mud floor. I opened my eyes to dry them, and saw to my utter astonishment that a small pale pink flower had emerged on the floor on the spot where my tears had fallen. I picked up the flower and examined it. It was a rose. My eyes flew to the alter of offerings before the Goddess, there were several such pale pink roses placed there, a soft wind blew in through a small window in the wall and another rose took flight and landed in my lap. I closed my eyes again and a sudden inspiration came to me. “Dear Goddess, if it is so that you will grant me permission to marry this man I have fallen in love with I want you to give me a sign,” I paused and looked at the roses and an idea sprung to my mind. I closed my eyes again and cupped one of the roses in my hand. “Goddess, if you are willing to let me marry this man, please present me with a rose each day for five days, but on the fifth day the rose should be presented in the form of a ring. If you give me these five gifts, then I will take it as a sign that it is your wish that I marry Gopal.”

“Savitri Didi! Savitri Didi! Look what mother brought us from the market!” Devaki stood in the door of my sleeping quarters cupping something in her little brown hands. I went over to see what it was she was holding and gasped! “Look, Savitri Didi, red roses! And look how big and full they are. Let’s braid them into our hair. It will look so beautiful!” Devaki examined me suspiciously, “Didi, why aren’t you happy?” I pulled myself together and smiled at her, “Of course I am little sister. I am very happy. Come; let me make the braid for you.”
The next day, while my aunty and I were watching over our maids doing the laundry in the lake, a beautiful yellow rose was caught in one of my dancing saris, it had floated on a lily pad from the Shiva temple, probably an offering to the austere god of meditation, and had, by what the maid called coincidence ended up entwined in my sari, I knew better though. I accepted the rose from her outstretched hands and did what Devaki would have done, fastened in my long black braid. On the third day our milk man, Jatayu, picked up a soft purple rose from the field outside our garden and offered it to the first lady who happened to pass him by: me. On the fourth day, my Guru; Saraswati Madam, brought a whole basket of white roses for all her students as a token of our bond as student and teacher. But it was the fifth day that offered the greatest surprise of all. It was early, not even dawn, and I was still sleeping after a late night the day before, helping my mother plan the meals and the necessary purchases for the coming week, when Devaki jumped excitedly onto my bed. “Didi! Didi! Dadi, grandmother, has come to visit!” I opened my eyes in surprise. Dadi was old and rarely traveled anymore, my uncle, my mother’s brother’s house where she lived, was far away, and the badly flooded roads were hard to travel on, especially this time of year so close after the ending of the Monsoon. I rose quickly and followed Devaki into the sitting room. “Dadi, it’s really you!” I embraced the old frail woman and kissed her soft cheeks affectionately. Dadi smiled and cupped my face with her wrinkled hands. “Granddaughter, how you have grown, and that face of yours keeps getting more and more beautiful every time I come.” I smiled at her sweet compliment, shared only between grandmothers and granddaughters. “Here, I brought you something.” Dadi put a small parcel in my hands. I undid the brown paper wrappings and found a small velvet box inside. “Go ahead,” encouraged my smiling grandmother, “open it!” My fingers lifted the lid carefully and my eyes widened in surprise. It was a small silver ring set with a perfect ruby in the middle. The ruby was exquisite, and when I examined it closer I could see that the stone had shapes resembling petals unfolding themselves unto the silver stem of the ring. Petals! I stiffened, could it really be…? I looked at the stone closer, the petals were indeed flower petals, and when I held the ring up in front of me from a distance I discovered, gasping for breath, that together the petals made the shape of perfect rose, a red rose! It was the sign I asked for, the fifth gift of the goddess, finally granting me permission to marry my beloved Gopal. Dadi was delighted at my reaction, thinking it was the gift itself, the silver of the ring and the exquisite ruby that had caused such a stunned reaction in me. I hugged her tightly and expressed my gratitude by prostrating before her feet.
There was no longer any doubt left, it was the Goddess’ will, the signs were clear and could not be mistaken. I was, with the blessing of the supreme Goddess, to wed my beloved black-eyed boy. With a throbbing heart I sent one of the maids with a message for Gopal. He was to meet me in the Goddess temple on the hill the next morning.

I woke before dawn, full of excitement I dressed in my best sari, combed out my black silken hair and put the silver ring on my finger. I already knew it was to be my wedding ring. I saw him before he arrived. I stood on the furthest peak of the hill surrounded by the temple garden, waves of dimming shadows rolled over a sky ripe with the new birth of yet another day filled with life, it inspired in me feelings too deep even for comprehension or tears, and there was the sun, as red and fresh as the ruby on my finger set in the silvery ripples of a trembling sky, for a moment it filled me with such awe inspired passion that I felt my very soul stirring. But nothing touched me as deeply as the sight of my black-eyes boy, his muscles straining as he climbed the steep steps. In my childhood I never worried or speculated on what might be hidden in the secrets between man and woman, but today this mysterious union represented to me a very realm of enchantment, a garden of such delight it seemed to me to hold the only life-affirming music in the vastness of silence. I never thought I could pierce into this great mystery, but that I would forever wander on the outer frame of it, but here, panting hard to climb the peak to reach me, was my passport to the land of lost sunsets. My black-eyed boy, come to wed me. And I lifted my hands and shaped them into the form of a lotus, while my silver belled feet stamped to the beat of the rising sun.

Have you ever heard the call of the Conch Blower, wailing deep and throaty from the eastern shore of infinity? It is heard by those who are called upon by the gods. It is a call to return to where the sun rises, where the sky stretches far into eternity, and the bells chime, not to awaken deities, not from blue painted minarets, but from old stars reborn from dead and gone generations who lived and loved under their light. We will dance then, in those gardens of Vrindavan, in communion with Akasha, unhampered by any restrictions of time or place. And when we do, the same old miracle takes place, the moment we set foot in these gardens; we know that we have come home.

River Song

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This story takes place in India, the country I presently reside in. It is pure fiction, but is inspired by the cultural traditions I have encountered, and different the people I have met here in this diverse, complex and culturally rich country.

Behind the prayers and sacrifices there is a deity, a collector of souls, lurking in the river that flows from the Milky Way in the sky, down to the earth and the forests where it hides in wait of travelers. You can’t see it, but if you squeeze along by the banks during the Monsoon season, when the river spills over into the forest, you will hear the voices, sweet and treacherous, drawing you into the pit. You can’t help it then, you must answer. Even if you are just a little fellow, playing with peacock feathers and jarred fireflies.

Occasionally a postcard arrives from him. The postcards show rose-studded beach huts and blooming fig-trees, sometimes blue cornflowers by lavishly decorated marble fountains, or wooded hills bathed in amber and gold. I catch a glimpse then, of the child he was, a little thing waving from an open window, and I hear him laugh, making mischief deep in the thickness of our unkempt garden. “May I come to?” I asked him years ago when he left. “No, Janoo, they will like it better if you stay.”

“I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” said Ayan one cloudy afternoon in late August, while we were fishing for crab in the canal next to our houses. “So, tell me about it,” I urged him. “It is difficult to see, even in daydreams, I don’t think you can.” “Can you show me then?” I asked hopefully. Ayan shook his head, “it is too dangerous for you, you are just a girl, and you haven’t got the gift.” “What gift, Ayan?” The sun had dipped low on the horizon and the shadows were growing fast. The green turf we were sitting on was turning black. “I don’t know,” sighed Ayan. “Have you ever felt like just leaving, Janoo?” I shook my head. “Then you don’t have it. The gift.” “Let’s go home,” Ayan said abruptly and got up and brushed off his white grimy short-pant. “But it isn’t even dark yet, Ayan.” But Ayan had already started walking briskly towards our twin houses. I ran after him like I always did. “Promise me you will never leave me!” I called out. But there was no reply. Ayan had disappeared into the gray misty dusk.

“Remember beti,” said my mother that night as she put the soft cotton blankets around my little body, “nothing is forever.” Then she kissed me and left me in the dark.

Our houses, Ayan’s and mine, stood holding each other in a tight embrace, just beyond the government post office at the crossing between Mukherjee Street and Shankarpur. You could hardly see where one house ended and the other began. Both houses had white chipped paint with green moss growing in the cracks. Gray and blue pigeons lived under the eaves, flapping their wings constantly and diving in intervals to the flat muddy ground to feed. Ayan had been born three months before me, but I had always refused to call him by the respectful Dada, big brother. He was my friend, and none of us wanted to be restricted by family customs in our friendship. “You are still young, “said Mrs. Arora, Ayan’s mother, “I will allow it for now, little Janoo.”

Later that August, Ayan went to the river in the forest again. I wanted to come, but he had already left when I came looking for him. I was not allowed to go into the woods, there were snakes and tigers hiding behind wet overgrown grass, said my papa. But I went anyway. The jungle was full of noises, I listened for feet stepping on dead leaves, but I could only hear the wail of the peacocks and the eerie cry of restless foxes. I must have been stalking through the hot humid forest for an hour when I suddenly heard a voice behind a grove of tall coconut trees. “Ayan, is that you?” I called out hesitantly and quite afraid. No reply came. Perhaps it was the river deity trying to trap me, I thought to myself. But I still followed the voice further into the jungle. “Ayan!” I called out again, and then I saw him, standing very still next to the river, singing. It was his voice I had heard behind the coconut trees. The sequence of melodic sounds, produced by the little boy standing by the banks of the river, composed sentiments and moods I had, in my youthfulness, not yet experienced, but somehow still recognized and remembered.

“Did you hear the river?” he asked me later when he became aware of my presence. I shook my head. “I heard only you Ayan, but that was enough for me. You sing beautifully.” Ayan smiled and shrugged. “It is because of her,” he said, “the river goddess.” I felt a pang of jealousy at that, but soon checked myself and discarded the feeling. It was dangerous to be jealous of a god.

“I don’t want to be laughed at,” said Ayan when I asked him why he had not told anyone that he could sing. “It hurts.” Ayan was the Aroras’ only child, he was expected to pursue a formal education and become something respectable like a doctor or an engineer. He was not expected to sing. Even at eleven I could understand that. Boys carried the financial responsibility of their entire family, present and future, on their shoulders, and were told so from birth. “Nobody knows me,” said Ayan with rivers of sadness in his dark brown eyes, “ even parents can really hurt you, in your soul, even if they do love you, people forget that,” he continued and kicked a lost pebble on the bare road in front of his feet. The pebble flew back into the soft green wayside bed. “Don’t do that,” I said sternly, “it might hit something. There are so many chrysalises this time of year!” Ayan kicked his foot stubbornly again, but this time there was nothing to meet its harsh impact, only empty gray road.

We grew up, like all children have to do eventually, and by tenth standard, Mrs. Arora’s suspicions were confirmed; she had given birth to a prodigy. Ayan received the best marks of his whole batch in his final exams. “My son will grow up to be a very fine doctor,” informed Mrs. Arora anyone who cared to listen, and even those who didn’t. Ayan had become a handsome young man, and already then, at only fifteen years old, the proposals had started pouring in. Mrs. Arora was beaming with pride. “Goodness! No!” she cried when someone asked her if she was planning to send her son abroad for his further education. “I will never give my beta to foreigners!” she stated sternly, “he is to marry a good Indian girl and stay here with us. We are so proud of our little man!”

“How did it go for you, Janoo?” asked Ayan me as we were having tea together at a little roadside stall on our way home from school. “Okay,” I replied nonchalantly, “I got 71% marks, but that is enough, nothing is expected of me. I am just to marry, preferably someone richer than my father, and then go and live with his family and be the housewife there. Ma says boys don’t like too smart girls, it makes them feel smaller somehow.” Ayan sighed. “Janoo, you shouldn’t listen to all that cultural rubbish, you should be free to make your own choices, to live the life you want,” he looked at me with concern and compassion, then his eyes went to the white clouds above and grew dreamy, spotting something up there I could not see.” Have you never heard your soul whisper to you in your sleep, Janoo, showing you places, real places, waiting for you to explore?” “Ayan, you are a boy, but even you are not free to make your own choices, perhaps even less so than I am.” He nodded and the light that had been there in his eyes when he mentioned his dream went out.

“But you can at least see the girl, beta! Her father has offered us a big dowry, a car and one lakh rupees!” Mrs. Arora couldn’t hide her excitement as she beamed proudly at the young man who was her heart’s joy. “But Ma, I’m only eighteen! How can I marry, I am still in college?” “Ayan dear, it will just be an engagement, to finalize everything; you won’t actually marry and live together until after you get a job. She is so pretty, the girl, sweet and respectful and so fair!” “I don’t care about those things, Ma, I don’t know her, how can I fall in love with a girl I have never seen!” “ Love is not important now, beta, it will come later, if you like her looks you will fall in love soon, that is how it is for everyone.”

“She doesn’t understand, Janoo, no one does. No one.” I had never seen Ayan so frustrated before. But there was a resignation in his voice too, like he had given up. I felt sorry for this enormously gifted young man who was too duty-bound by culture and family to be allowed to follow the voice he interpreted as his real creator, the mother of his soul: the river goddess. “Ayan, what will you do?” Ayan looked around at the dimming landscape, the twinkling diyas of his home, the narrow paths of the familiar garden stripped bare by the heat, and the old fields that had once kept him company as he was allowed to be whisked away into regions of wonderful childhood adventures, free from duties and obligations threatening to take him away from himself. “I will leave,” he said then, but there was no trace of sadness in his voice. “I will leave it all behind and go to her whom I have loved my whole life.” “May I come to?” I asked him, even if I already knew the answer. “No, Janoo, they will like it better if you stay.” Ayan started walking briskly towards the darkening horizon. I ran after him like I always did. “Promise me you will never forget me!” I called out. But there was no reply. Ayan had disappeared into the gray misty dusk.

I didn’t hear from him in years, none of us did. People called it a scandal, but I knew better. Then one day, three years later in a café in Park Street, I saw him. It was just after my marriage had been fixed, my mother and I were shopping for my wedding sari, but she had left me with a coffee and a cake while she looked for bangles. “Hello Janoo,” he said, as though no time had passed at all. He told me that he had saved up enough money to go to London; there he would try his luck as a singer in renowned venues I had never heard about. I wished him luck and we parted. Five years later the postcards started coming. From London, Paris, New York, Sidney, he traveled the world as a much sought after singer. The postcards were signed: From your friend, River Song.

I see them occasionally, his parents; they have aged with sorrow and loneliness. I feel sorry for them, I see how they suffer, but then I remember a boy, who suffered for eighteen years until he was finally free to listen to the song of the river. I am a married woman now, I love my husband and find my own purpose in the day-to-day chores, they leave me free to laugh and talk and dream as I please. But sometimes I miss him, my Ayan, and then I go to the river, and sometimes, if I squeeze along by the banks during the Monsoon season, when the river spills over into the forest, I hear the voice, but it is my Ayan’s voice I hear, sweet and clear and child-like, and I hope he is happy, with the companion that is as much a part of him as his own flesh and blood: the River Song.

Let there be no limits to the sky

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I got the idea for this story one day in Hajii Lane looking at a caged bird staring at the sky…

Those tall lean San Francisco houses look like rows of multicolored piano keys left unplayed, except for by an occasional shower or a gust of wind. The balconies are French with curled iron and picked tops. If somebody ever used them they would be able to hold hands from one end to the other. But this neighborhood is past its best. The only living things you see here are birds bickering on rooftops. I should know, I’m one myself. I live on second floor of a big white and olive back-to-back house. You may assume I’m a nuisance, you’re wrong, I’m just an outsider. That’s the odd thing about Julius Lawrence Street, it never became what it intended to be: cheap lodgings and noisy pubs. Instead it offers privacy and silence, solitary rooms and cold nights. It suits me. I rest my mind on flights of fancy. I can’t stay in those cages with iron bars. I enjoy my seclusion, and I only work on evenings. The others leave me in peace.

But then someone moved into the flat above me. At first I thought it was a ghost, but we met on the chimney landing one day, and I learned that his name was Harris. He told me that he was bred in captivity, which was odd because he was rather common looking. The others were curious about Harris of course, but he was like me: no audible comings and goings. He asked me a couple of times to borrow my bathroom, apparently his water was jammed or something. But mostly we met on the landing. He came back when I left. He never really spoke to me, just registered my presence with a nod of the head. On rainy days when I didn’t go to work, I heard him unlocking his door. Then there was a thump and raised voices. No one else seemed to care. But I had come here for the vacuum of silence, for the vacancy, the emptiness. At first I decided to talk to Harris about it, but then I thought better of it.

That morning was sweltering. It was summer, and the sun boiled the concrete from dawn to dusk. My flat was unusually stuffy, and I was relieved when I heard Harris leaving his flat, heading for the stairs. I waited until he was gone before I followed him. The wind was cool and refreshing, and I could move easily despite the caging heat.
Bare streets fuming with sultry cries tried to leap at me, but I was too fast. That’s the thing about piano keys, they provide excellent patches of shadows. I could almost hear the dark tone of the black shorter keys quivering melodically. Then Harris disappeared behind an abandoned flower shop and I quickened my pace. I rounded the corner and was taken aback by what I saw.

There he was, like a common thief broken into a house filled with withered roses and beheaded garden gnomes. He was standing on a carpet of black metallic dust, but he wasn’t alone. A crowd of about ten to fifteen cats stood about him tinkering with something laid on gray tables. You can imagine my shock, cats! Those selfish, lazy loners crowding my backyard! Harris was holding an iron rod that looked like something from his balcony. I leaned in for a better look. The buggers were making banners with slogans such as: ” Death to the feather-clippers” and ” Let there be no limits to the sky.” In a terracotta pot by the blackened window I could see several discarded collars, some with name tags and magnets on them. A steel bowl of water stood close by. Harris had a determined look in his eyes as he stood in the gloomed yellow sunlight thumping his iron rod rhythmically on the blinking floor.

I stepped out of my hiding place and moved back unto the deserted street. Unlit lamp posts and disengaged traffic lights were leaning conspicuously in on me. The tall San Fransisco houses seemed uncomfortable, abandoned without being remote. I felt diminished by them. My eyes fell on the rooftops, they were crowded, but not friendly. Like cakes frosted with flies. I let my eyes travel higher, and there it was. The sky. The blue was so inviting. It had no currency, no gossip. The sun cast silvery shadows on the clouds. The thin layer of city dust was carefully wiped away by yesterday’s rain. I recognized the night hiding in the future. It shed crumbled stars between my overweight stiff wings. I tried to recall exactly how Harris had done it, spreading them like fans. I felt as if I would release, open, startlingly fast, perhaps better than I had ever done before. The rising of me looked exactly like a flutter, and I kicked off and flew, into that faraway blue that had no limits.

The Night Watchers

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What is really luck? Perhaps it is all a good game of dice…

It’s Sunday on Port Quay. It is five in the morning and the crashing waves on the bay is the only sound audible to passers by, even though there aren’t any. Just a few minutes ago snow was falling softly against the dusty purple sky. But it is enough, enough to stir up a cackle. Night watchers have learned to use what they can to play a game of dice. There aren’t many left nowadays, but tonight they have all come here, to Port Quay.

They only have a couple of hours. That is the rule, a couple of hours between dawn and sunrise. Even if it snows. The Night Watchers hate snow. Their coats are too thin and torn to sustain the wet cold. And very few of them carry hats. They sleep on rooftops and chimneys, places warm enough to not need a hat. They only come out of their darkened doorways when nobody else is about.

There is a old Mr. Petwick now, he used to love Christmas, but that was before. He is smiling under the soft light of the street lamps, tossing a pair of dice up in the air and catching them with his left hand. Pretty Mrs. Winkle, in a black velvet dress, sneaks up behind him. She puts her thin arms around his waist, and he jumps and the pair of dice falls to the ground. “What are you doing you old hag!” he shouts and spins around to face his attacker. Mrs. Winkle’s face tightens and she glares at him angrily. “See what you made me do!! ” Old Mr. Petwick points to the ground, and Mrs. Winkle utters an alarming cry. She bends down and studies the dice, “oh thank heavens, double six!” she sighs in relief and picks up the pair of dice, and hands them over to old Mr. Petwick. “You old fool!” he spits the accusation at her and stamps away from the bridge they have been standing on. “Don’t worry, dear,” says Miss Margaret, “he is just a wee nervous, you frightened him, you see.” Mrs. Winkle blinks away angry tears and smiles at her friend. “Yes, it was silly of me, really.” Miss Maragret tries to tuck her shawl even closer around her shoulders, but the shawl is old with big holes in it. “Come on ladies!” Mr. Lang is waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. “It is time!”

Here comes the Night watchers and the wet pavements and black concrete walls begin to shine with a winter sun still a long way from awakening. You can only go so far with matches. Miss Margaret in her red stiletto pumps steps gingerly over a pile of yellow snow with a shovel pierced inside, Mr. Lang reaches for her hand, but she declines. There are fisher boats, and white yachts docked in the bay, slipping on black and white waves. Seagulls muck about with greasy white paper and riff-raff bags. The yellow street lamps pulse orange and silver on the noisy sea remaking the hour-old snow and doubling the absent stars. The light is coming on faster now, scattering shadows across the melted snow. This is when the game always begins.

They are seated on cold steel benches with little holes in them. Nobody makes anything out of wood anymore, and almost everything has less of itself, like with holes. A little air to fill the homeless blanks. A penny saved, a penny gained. “Shall we begin?” asks Mr. Petwick. Mr. Lang, a middle aged gentleman with a twenty year old tweed suit and grey spangles in his air nods enthusiastically. He loves the game. Ever since he lost his fortune on the stock exchange market, he has loved games. Mrs. Winkle ungloves her hand and offers it up in the made-up circle of blue-cold hands. “Let me play first,” she says. “Well, what is your wager?” asks Mr. Lang. “A writer’s dream.” she replies. “I challenge that!” Mr. Petwick is eager now. He doesn’t like writers. Mr. Lang raises his eyebrows, “well, what is your wager?” ” A pot of gold and a lifetime of youth.” “Good one!” says Miss Maragaret and laughs. The wager is set, and Mrs. Winkle rolls the dice. A 3 and a 5. Not bad. But still beatable. She shrugs. Now it’s Mr. Petwick’s turn. He puts a little more force in his release and the pair of dice shoot and fall on to the wet ground. They all bend down to see the outcome. A 4 and a 6! “Haha! Too bad!” Mr. Petwick is triumphant. He was never competitive before, but now…

It is Miss Maragret’s turn to challenge Mr. Petwick. Her wager is small. “A house by the sea and a puppy.” Mr. Petwick laughs . ” A puppy! Miss Margaret, this is no child’s game!” Miss Margaret shrugs. She had always wanted a puppy when she was small. It was a big deal then. ” True love!” exclaims Mr. Petwick, and stares at the crowd as though he is awaiting their admiration. Miss Margaret rolls the dice. Two 1’s. A little girl stirs wearily in her bed. It is almost sunrise. Mr. Petwick laughs. He bounces the dice down the concrete. A 5 and a 6. “That wasn’t even fun!” he looks pityingly at Miss Margaret. She has a resigned look in her pretty dirty face. “Well, mate, it comes down to the two of us.” Mr. Petwick slaps his hand on Mr. Lang’s back. Mr. Lang nods. “So, what’s your wager?” Mr. Lang smiles. “Happiness.” Mrs. Winkle sucks in her breath and reaches for Miss Margaret’s hand. “How did you…?” her voice is shaking. Mr. Lang doesn’t answer. Even Mr. Petwick has gone pale. Only Mr. Lang keeps smiling, as though…as though…it really just was a game of dice… “Well, go on, Mr. Petwick, let’s give it a go.” Mr. Petwick collects the dice in his hand, and tosses them. Two 5s! He smiles. But Mr. Lang does not seem bothered. He retrieves the dice cheerfully. “Good one, Mr. Petwick my old friend, let us see if I can beat you!” He rolls the dice. They all hold their breath. The sun blinks, and an alarm clock goes off. The world is stirring. Suddenly the street lamps wear off. The Night Watchers stare at the missing false light nervously. A cloud runs across the pink sky. A bird sighs melancholy.

Two 6’s. The sun has reached the horizon. The winner picks up the dice. The other Night Watchers are quiet, too stunned to speak. They search for the shadows and cross the bridge. Miss Marageret slips on the icy ground, Mr. Lang steadies her. Snow falls down on them and they huddle under Mrs. Winkle’s navy blue umbrella, hurrying back into the alleys, the empty garages, the dark corners where no one bothers to look. The only trace of them is a mark in the snow, two little hollows, a game of dice. But soon the sun and stamping feet will erase even that.