Short Story – The Cottage


Note – This short story was first published in the fantastic Weirdo Magnet anthology ‘Silence is White’ dedicated to the works of well known French poet and author Seb Doubinsky. It was an honor for me to share space with some of the best internationally acclaimed authors, poet and artists. 

Do buy Silence is White for it contains some of the best writings of recent times.

“Unlike many from the city I am no stranger to the whims of nature, but that day’s sudden change of weather caught me unprepared. What started as a hike on a fair-weather day had suddenly been reduced to an ordeal. Winter totally changes perceptions of the land and no amount of off-season hiking could prepare me for the unexpected.

“Three unforeseen things happened that day. First, the weather suddenly turned nasty. Visibility rapidly decreased and the drop in temperature was rather sudden. Darkness shrouded the hills much earlier than usual and the crisp November air turned damp and cold. Second, I was forced to abandon my plan to return to the hotel because I twisted my ankle when my foot got caught in a thick root hidden by overgrown grass. Third, to my surprise, the cottage that I had discovered during one of my previous hikes, and where I was headed for shelter, was occupied.

“From previous visits I knew that the mist would have snaked through the network of paths crisscrossing the landscape, through the valleys and across the creeks until it curled around the cliff tops and canyons that were the mountains.”

My class had been listening with rapt attention until one of the younger students gathered around the campfire broke the silence.

“I imagine it’s great to explore somewhere that’s not over familiar, so your twisted ankle and the worsening weather must have been very frustrating.” He said.

“It was, the pain was excruciating and made it difficult for me to keep up my usual pace. I was on a steep path and I was breathless. I considered trying to find a vantage point from which to get my bearings, but realized that with the weather worsening, and with my throbbing foot, this wasn’t going to be possible. Mist and darkness together can be terrifying especially when you’re not prepared for it, but cold, wet, and with no other choice I had to go on.

“Even though I had visited the area before, my painful foot and the dense mist were disorientating, I’d strayed onto a nondescript trail that or might not take me towards the cottage. Dazed, confused and uncontrollably shivering I continued slowly through the mist, hoping that the path would eventually lead me to the cottage.

“Roosting birds in the woods had fallen silent and the sound-damping mist made the turbulent sound of the river down in the valley almost impossible to hear. It was obvious to me that, if ever I found my way to it, I would have to spend the night in the cottage no matter what, as my ankle continued to grow more painful with every step along the sloping and rock strewn trail. The forest was not very dense in this part of the hill, instead small and dense shrubs packed the landscape. The forest was not very dense on this part of the hill; instead small shrubs covered the ground.

“As I tripped over what I took to be a fallen branch, I yelled with pain but managed to get back onto my feet. Then I realized that this might be a blessing in disguise. I could use branch as a defence against snakes or other small animals I encountered. There were no big carnivores in this region, but even some small animals could inflict bad injuries. I hoped the cottage would not be too far away, as I was convinced I was heading in the right general direction, and despite the pain I tried to quicken my pace, as I was eager to reach my destination as quickly as possible.

“After walking for another ten or fifteen minutes, I finally saw the faint outline of the cottage not far ahead of me in the mist, and was glad that my choice of direction had been the right one. I remembered the area in front of the cottage with its overgrown bushes, which were now invisible. A rotten signboard dangled from a Pine tree close to the property. I recalled it used to have ‘Hunter’s Cottage’ painted on it, two more tall pine trees stood on either side of the cottage porch. Outwardly the building appeared to be in good condition, and I thought it should provide good shelter for the night. I was surprised to see the dim glow of a lantern, indicating that someone was already in the cottage, but as I listened, I heard only silence. Whoever it was, unless they owned the cottage, must have forced the lock to open the door. As I approached, I saw a hazy silhouette on the porch.”

 “I waved and called out to her, for now I was sure that the silhouette was a woman. She remained silent, and stood so still that she might have been part of the structure.

“I drew close to the porch steps, and in the light from the lantern, I could finally see a face. I was surprised to learn that the figure was a woman.

Several students who had been staring silently into the flames looked up at the mention of the woman. “I had seldom seen an unaccompanied woman on those remote forest trails, and wondered if she had a companion in the cottage. I’d heard reports that many solo women hikers had gone missing in the mountains in the last few years. Though not superstitious I usually followed the advice of a former trek companion. ‘Stay away from women while hiking. They’re bad news,’ he’d once said when we finally managed to part from a rather clingy and gabby girl during one of our hikes.”

“That’s not really true. Men have a habit of pointing fingers at women all the time. Not all women are clingy or gabby or bad news. Even men can be like that.” Shyama, one of my female students, interrupted me with her strong voice. “Of course. My friend was generalizing—just as you are now, Shyama.” The other students laughed and Shyama went quiet. Once the group had settled down again, I continued.

“I thought she was beautiful in an unconventional way. I hadn’t realized that I was staring until she snapped her fingers in front of my face. I had even forgotten about my twisted ankle for a moment or two.

“I paused to light a cigarette, and watched for a moment as the smoke from my lungs rose and mingled with the smoke from the campfire. Some of my students stood to stretch their legs, and then reseated themselves in the circle of expectant faces.

“Mountains and forests can be both challenging and intimidating; we all need to be aware of the dangers involved in confronting nature head on.

“It was bone chillingly cold and the wind was picking up, but at least the rain had stopped. By then I was desperate for the comfort of a floor and four walls. I leant the branch I’d used as a support against the wooden railings of the porch, and then, as the woman stood back and opened the cottage door, I slowly made my way up the four steps and inside. As I passed her, I noticed the glow of her skin in the lantern-light and caught a faint scent of musk rose. Passing through the doorway, I saw that the lock had been broken. Inside, I shrugged my daypack onto the floor, and feeling more tired than I could remember ever having felt before, I limped to one of the plain wooden chairs and sat down for the first time since I’d stopped for lunch.

“Though she looked physically strong, I would never have expected her, or anyone else, to deliberately stand out in that piercing cold, it was almost as if she was expecting me—or expecting someone at least. When I looked back at her, instead of following me inside, she was still standing there, peering into the night.

“She was wearing warm pants and a hooded jacket. Her feet were covered in thick socks and her gloveless hands were wrapped around a tin mug. Inside the cottage her hiking boots lay near her backpack, along with a camera, some maps and binoculars. A lightweight sleeping bag lay open on the floor.

“I looked round when I heard movement on the porch, and then I watched her as she removed the lantern from its hook, turned, walked in and closed the door behind her. What a strange woman, I thought. She was observing me closely, but her silence was making me uncomfortable.

 “I’m James Goddard,” I said. As I extended my hand, I saw a smile flicker at the corners of her mouth, but it quickly vanished.

“She nodded and placed her mug and the lantern on a small wooden counter, then pointed to a pan,

‘“There’s some soup there if you want. You can sleep in there, take the lantern,’” she said as she pointed to a door at the back of the room. I smiled at her, watched her drag a chair to the open front to keep it closed, and regretted that I wouldn’t be in her company for a while longer.  I carried my daypack and lantern into the room, and then returned for the pan of soup. Only when I was in the room, with the door closed, did I realise that she hadn’t told me her name. As I drank the cooled soup straight from the pan, it was filling but tasted of kerosene. I hadn’t seen a stove in the cottage, so I guess she must have made it at a camp site and had somehow carried it with her. “I heard her settling down for the night. So, as quietly as I could, I spread a small wrap on the cot, then sat on the edge, removed my socks and boots and used an anti inflammatory spray on my swollen ankle. A little later, my socks back on, I was stretched out on the rusted cot, trying to make myself comfortable for the night.”

“’Maybe someone advised her to stay clear of men. Bad news, you know.’” Shyama muttered loud enough for me to hear. I ignored her continued.

“During my hiking trips I’d heard a lot of weird tales around campfire, some true maybe, others folklore, but I’d never taken them seriously. Now, in the situation in which I found myself, thinking about the strange woman in the next room, those tales started to bother and amuse me at the same time.

 “Lying on the cot I surveyed the tiny room. The walls were empty except for two large hooks on one side. My bed directly faced a window, and through it I saw the skeletal forms of winter trees limned with light that contrasted starkly with the cold, darkness of the night. Their branches were spread like the hands of the dead, bare, gnarled and chilling. As I watched, the branches curled into giant talons and scratched demandingly at the window.

“What I had seen was irrational, frightening, but turning on my side to avoid looking directly at the window, I tried to convince myself that it was nothing more than a product of my tired mind. In the dark, with my eyes closed, I thought about the mysterious woman. I heard her stirring, perhaps tossing and turning as she too tried to sleep. I must have dozed for a while, not real sleep, but that state between being awake and being deeply asleep, then I was brought back to full wakefulness by a sound that’s difficult to describe, whether it was coming from the main room, or was in my room, I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t like the sound of a person moving about, that would have caused the floorboards to creak, there was none of that, just the noise of something brushing across the floor. In the cold night, I shivered even more.

“As my sleeplessness dragged on, I distracted myself from the unexpected events and strange sounds of the night. In a sense, I felt trapped by the things that had occurred, it was almost as if my reality had been manipulated to take me to that place at that time. I forced myself to think about something else, and thoughts of my new life in a new apartment, in another city, another country, came to me. I had wanted to leave my meaningless life in cold and dreary England, it was sucking the spirit out of me. My increasing dissatisfaction had led me to accept an invitation to join an educational institute here in India, your college in fact, as a visiting faculty member. I thought about the people and places that I’d come to know when I had travelled in India, and the endless possibilities that awaited me in your busy, vibrant and colourful country. The hike was a last gift to me before I started my new job.

“At some point I must have drifted into real sleep, because a loud banging noise brought me fully and unwillingly awake. I got up from the cot as quickly as my swollen ankle would allow, and did my best to hurry through to the main room. The chair I had seen the woman move to act as a door stop, was back where it had been when I sat on it, the front door itself was swaying to and fro, and occasionally, as the morning breeze gusted, it slammed noisily into its frame. Through the window, through the swaying door, the room was flooded with light as the sun climbed above the trees. There was no sign of the woman hiker, whose presence had puzzled and perturbed me through the night. I hadn’t heard her get up, pack and leave. I looked around, and apart from the mug still on the counter top and the scent of musk rose, there was no sign that she had been there at all. Where she had spread her sleeping bag on the floor, was a layer of fine dust that lifted and swirled a little in the draught from the door. The only footprints in the dust, I knew, were from my own hiking boots, and there was nothing to show that anything had softly trodden that floor, as I am still convinced I’d heard in the night.

“With a chill running up and down my spine, a feeling of dread, of not understanding, I went back to my room, dressed for a day on the trail, and packed my things. As I did this, the window flew suddenly open, filling the room with the cool, sweet, pine scented morning breeze. I looked up and saw the pine trees gently swaying. Feeling an urgent need to leave that place I lifted my daypack onto my shoulders, hurried from the cottage with a palpable sense of dread, collected the branch I had used as a support, and taking the same path by which I’d arrived, headed away as quickly as my sprained ankle would allow. Every rustling leaf, every animal sound, quickened my pulse as, with a palpable sense of dread, I moved away from the cottage. I wanted to be out of that forest as quickly as possible, and I hoped I would never have to return there.”

I stopped and glanced at the faces around me. The group had been listening to me in a breathless silence.

I stopped and glanced at the faces of my students, now lit only by the dying glow of our campfire. They had been listening to me in rapt silence.

“Oh my God, the woman was a ghost. The local tales weren’t crap after all.” One of the boys said quietly, as he huddled closer to his companions.

In the tiger reserve around us, I could hear animals moving, but there were no alarm calls announcing that a big cat was on the prowl.

“Is that what you think?” I asked rhetorically as I raked the dying embers with a stick. “Does anyone else have a theory?”

The group muttered quietly among themselves, as I smiled and wondered if even one of them would understand.

“No, not the woman. The trees.” A girl called out suddenly. Immediately the others demurred, so I let them argue for a while, until it was time to turn in for the night.

“Are you going to tell us?” Someone asked.

“Think about the story I told you, consider the evidence, then you’ll realise that only the trees could have been what was haunting that place.”

Short Fiction – The El Pino Ruins


“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked.

They were sitting on the steps of an old church overlooking the cemetery.

“No, I don’t.” He replied. “Why? Do you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do, but not like those described in books. They don’t exist. It’s just fiction.”

“Are there any other kind of ghosts than those we read about in books, Pia?”

“Of course there are. Real ghosts, they’re everywhere. Just because you don’t see them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Some people can’t see certain colours but that doesn’t mean those colours don’t exist.” She smiled. “Ghosts don’t haunt graveyards or deserted old buildings. They aren’t transparent and don’t evaporate into the mist. That’s all bullshit.”

Federico looked into her big, hazel eyes and forgot the conversation they were having. He wondered how anyone could be so beautiful that they were able to stop time at will. He remembered the day she’d breezed into his book café wearing a bright floral dress, her hair cascading in lazy spirals down her slim shoulders. She’d stopped near the vine of wild roses at the door and gazed at them for a moment before entering the shop and Federico was certain she carried the fragrance of the flowers with her. For twenty minutes she stayed in the shop, and Federico forgot what straight thinking was like. She seemed friendly and had bought a little basket of cookies and empanadas from the counter. He gave two complimentary slices of fruit cake, something he’d never done before. She thanked him for the gesture. The memory of her voice kept ringing in his ears for days afterwards. He knew she didn’t live there but he’d seen her around town sometimes, walking along the river bank where he went fishing. He’d even spotted her on Sundays among the church goers.

It was the last Sunday of the month in which she’d first visited his café and he was standing outside the church trying to spot her as the congregation emerged. He was watching the sea of people so intently that a tap on his shoulder made him jump.

“Dios mio! You scared the wits out of me.”

“Were you looking for someone?” Her gaze lingered on his face which had turned the colour of beetroot. She giggled like a little girl.

“Oh… no not really. I was just…”

“I’m Pia.” She extended her hand. For a moment Federico stood transfixed by her presence but then, somehow, he managed to speak.

“Federico, but friends call me Rico.” He shook her hand and wished he could hold it forever. Pia also seemed to enjoy the moment.

“Let’s go sit on those steps,” she said, pointing at the secluded stone steps at the side of the church.

Rico allowed himself to be led. He heard his heart beating loudly, and was sure Pia would hear it.

 

Captivated by the natural power of the sierras and the dark brooding woods they’d sat quietly on the stairs watching the sun melt on the hauntingly beautiful mountain peaks.

The loud ringing of the church bells and the musical sound of her voice then brought him out of his reverie. He realized that Pia was talking to him.

“Lo siento. I didn’t hear what you said?”

“I was saying we’re all haunted. Haunted by the things we see, feel and by those that we can’t. Do you know what ghosts are? They are our unmet desires, our fears and longings, unfinished businesses.”

“Unsaid words, deeds not done, our struggles in the intolerant world, they are the pangs of unrequited love, betrayals, unfulfilled dreams,” he added.

“Yes, and also the echoes of the ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ among other things. We arrive too late everywhere and we live with heartache. Then we die,” she said.

Rico watched one side of her face glow in the sun’s rays. “You seem to know a lot about these things, and if you are right, then we are all living dead carrying our ghosts on our backs,” he laughed.

“Yes, I do. We all do but seldom find courage to speak about them. Fear and guilt, two things that keep us from doing so,” she smiled even though he could sense a tinge of sadness and annoyance.

“I saw you at the cemetery the other day,” she turned to face him.

“Yes, I go there sometimes to visit my grandfather’s grave.”

“I don’t like these goddamn cemeteries. Fake people laying fake flowers every Sunday on coffins placed in straight lines six feet under. People make sure the dead don’t escape by placing heavy stones on the graves as if they would stop anything from escaping if it wished to.”

He saw the corner of her mouth twitch into a little smile that faded at once.

“But the dead need to be buried somewhere, Pia.” Rico said amused by the girl’s statement. He wasn’t a religious person but the discussion was stimulating and also he didn’t want to let her go… not just yet.

“Yes, in the graveyards. Those open places among the ruins.” She stood up and looked beyond the building. Her gaze stretching on the weathered cliff faces rising dramatically, red poppies, yellow mimosa and wild orchids tempered by the soothing green of ancient olive groves, an occasional splash of pale pink almond blossoms and remnants of  some old buildings that lay scattered on a distant hill. Rico also got up and put his arm around her. She didn’t object.

“Beautiful, isn’t it? I become calm in roaming among those ruins. I didn’t know you loved them too. I often visit the stream that runs beyond it. What a spectacular vintage point,” he said.

“It is surreal to be surrounded by death. I love the footpaths crisscrossing the mountains,” Pia said. Her eyes glinted with joy.

Rico lived for these moments.

“Have you been to the ruins and the old graveyard?” He asked.

“Yes, I have. It’s closer to my pueblo than yours.”

“Yes, I hear your pueblo is very picturesque. I haven’t been there.”

“No? You must come visit us sometime.” She said gathering her packages. “I live with my little brother.”

“And your parents?” Federico asked.

“Let’s not talk about them please.” She shifted uncomfortably and almost stumbled as she climbed down the old broken steps. Rico caught hold of her arm.

“I’m fine.” She said, her voice almost a whisper.

Federico walked her up to the town square from where she boarded the bus to her pueblo. It wasn’t far and usually people walked through the fields during the day. She too did but the darkness had wrapped the mountainside in her shroud early today. He insisted that she take the bus.

The streets were nearly empty. Federico went to the cafe which still had a few customers. He decided to stay there for a while. There wasn’t anyone waiting for him at home and he loved the warm cheerfulness of the place. He made himself a strong brew of coffee and relaxed on his usual chair behind the counter.

Later at home, Rico’s thoughts wandered to Pia. Why hadn’t she wished to talk about her parents? There was a certain sadness, Rico had always felt, behind her gleeful self. He hardly knew anything about her. The few hours he got with her were usually spent talking about books, travels and other things. She was a well informed, intelligent and beautiful woman, someone Rico would have thought of marrying. He wondered how it would be to live with her under the same roof every day, make love to her, do things together. The thought excited him. He decided to go visit her the next day and meet the brother too.

Early in the morning, he left his apprentice in charge of the cafe, packed a basket of cookies, cakes and rolls and set off. It was a bright day so he decided to walk. On the way he plucked some wild flowers knowing how much Pia loved them.

 

It took him more than an hour to reach Pueblo Blanco which appeared to tumble haphazardly from the hillside. Swathes of orange and lemon trees, bougainvillea and jasmine spread cheer all around the farmsteads dotted over the hillsides. The pueblo consisted of a mosaic of old houses, a square, a market with a bar named Alfredo’s, numerous fuentes and a school building which stood out like an eyesore amidst a cubist’s dream. Rico walked down the mossy trail waving at children who waved back at him. Any outsider to them was a tourist visiting the ruins. They smiled and posed for photographs but Rico had no camera so he did not get much attention.

 

After a little search in the pueblo with its whitewashed flat roofed houses, characteristic chimney pots and narrow cobbled streets he spotted the stone cottage with slanted red roof and a cobbled path leading to the front door.  It was at the end of the street and stood out among the terraced clusters of other houses.

 

The tinao was strewn with colourful potted plants overflowing from the edges making a stark contrast. He scanned the place for some activity but the house was quiet. He knocked at the door then knocked again. This time he heard heavy footsteps inside and the door swung open. The young man who stood there could have been written off as Pia’s twin. Slightly confused Rico fumbled for the right words while he peered into the dimly lit interior of house.

 

“What do you want? I don’t have the time to stand here.”

 

“I am looking for Pia. I am a friend from El Pino.”

 

The man had the similar hazel eyes to Pia and they were fixed on him. Rico saw the man’s pupils dilate.

 

Suddenly he pushed Rico back and shouted angrily, “Pia is dead, you hear me?” He was about to shut the door when a female voice interrupted him.

 

“Don’t be rude, Eduardo. He is a friend. Let him in.” Rico heaved a sigh of relief on seeing Pia pull the man aside to make way for him to enter.

 

“What a pleasant surprise, Rico. Welcome to Casa Luna. I am sorry about Eduardo. He is always upset with the world.” Her eyes sparkled as she laughed. Federico felt relieved on seeing her and entered the house.

 

“I have brought this cookie basket and flowers for you.”

 

“They’re lovely. Thank you. Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”

 

Rico nodded and settled on a sofa feeling slightly uncomfortable at the fixed gaze of Eduardo who was leaning against the fireplace and staring at him. He looked around the room; it was sparsely furnished and unkempt but certainly looked well lived in. There was a book case along one wall and a side table with a chair near the big window. The heavy curtains blocked the view and he could smell a musty smell coming from them, like wet leaves. A large portrait of two children in their pre-teens hung on one of the walls. He recognised Pia immediately and guessed that the boy must be the brother. “Yeah, that’s us,” Eduardo said in a bored voice. Rico looked at him. He certainly did not look like Pia’s “little brother”. She looked much younger than him.

 

He was about to ask Eduardo about this when Pia entered with a trolley of tea and cookies from the basket he had brought.

 

“We just had almuerzo, Rico. Wish we’d known you were coming. It gets a little boring to eat alone every day. No, Eduardo? “She smiled at him as she made the tea and handed him the cup.

 

“I don’t like strangers especially those who come unannounced.” He said in an angry voice as he walked towards the staircase. For a brief moment he stopped, turned and stared at them then began to climb the stairs which creaked from his weight.

 

“Please don’t mind him. He is unwell, I’m sorry about his behaviour.” Her face seemed to have suddenly aged, Rico thought as he looked into her vacant eyes. He hated to see her sad.

“No problema Pia. I understand. Is he your brother? I thought you said you had a little brother?” Rico asked as he sipped his tea. He noticed that Pia’s cup lay untouched.

“Yes, he’s my brother. He’s a grown up child. His mind is still that of a little boy. That’s the reason he is so flustered and unfriendly most of the time.” Her voice was a whisper as if she was afraid someone would hear. She seemed totally opposite to her useful cheerful self. He felt sorry for her. He shouldn’t have come unannounced and put her in a fix. He took Pia’s hand, pressed it in his. It was cold as ice.

 

“I understand.” He said in a reassuring tone. “Don’t feel bad. I will catch up with you some other time. Need to get back to the cafe. I just visited on a whim.”

 

She lowered her head and nodded.

 

Federico got up and they walked out to the street where they stood facing each other for what seemed like ages. There was a moment of stillness between them. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her but the thought of her brother watching from somewhere in the house kept him away. He gave her a quick kiss and left.  When he looked back she was still standing under the cool shadowed Tinao. Rico blew her a kiss, waved and walked out. The door slowly closed behind him as if gently nudged by the wind. He stood looking at the old stone house. The tiles above the windows were chipped and the iron grills looked rusted. The mid day sun threw strange shadows on the walls. Rico stared at them wondering if he saw them move with the passing wind. It all seemed so out of place.

 

He hadn’t gone far on the narrow unpaved path surrounded by hundreds of flowering pots and pillars when a man lazily drinking the local Costa wine with a vendor selling hand woven baskets and Jarapas stopped him.

 

“Hola Señor! Interested in buying the casa. I can get you a good price.” He said chewing on a blade of grass that fluttered at the side of his mouth. The basket-seller didn’t seem to be interested and busied himself rummaging inside his shop.

 

“I am not here to buy the house. The lady who stays there is a friend. She never mentioned that they are selling the place.” Rico was surprised that Pia never told her they were looking for a buyer for the house.

 

The man looked at him for a moment and laughed, “Are you coming straight from Alfredo’s? You don’t look drunk.” He said scanning Rico from head to toe.

 

“The lady of the house is your friend? Hahaha…you got to be kidding. No one lives in that house. It has been vacant for many years maybe from even before we were born. People say the owner, a doctor, was a brute. His wife ran away and left their retarded son and his elder sister in his care. He took to drinking and constantly beat the children. The girl took most of the beating in order to protect the brother and one day the idiota smashed her head on the wall and killed her. The cops took him away and he never returned. The son, a loco, was left to his own devices and some years later they found him dead in the garden…You seem unwell… Are you alright, Señor? You don’t look good. Can I get you something?”

Rico could hear the man’s voice but was struggling to understand. It was a hot day and the sun was bright. A day when tourists and those from nearby cities came to picnic in those parts. The weekly market was abuzz with activity on the other side of pueblo. Without replying Rico rushed back towards the house. He knocked. Once. Twice. And then he started banging the door. And finally his eyes fell on the lock hanging on the door. Rico almost fell back but soon recovered. He got down with a sense of disbelief not really knowing where he was headed, resisting the urge to look back. Lost in the surreal world he dragged his way to the scattered fort ruins and stood there staring at the graves, stone columns and large piles of stones. The remains of a paved floor of a circular hut seemed like a site for prayer rituals for the dead. He felt an unmistakable and unbearable presence of Pia. He sank to the wet mossy ground that smelled of spring flowers and death.

 

*

I ordered another cup of coffee as I listened to Dr. Alejandro. We were sitting inside a small cafe across the city square where the old doctor had asked me to meet him. He’d seen my advertisement in the newspaper for renting a traditional home.

 

“Federico came to me a week after the incident. He was disturbed and needed help. After a few sessions of treatment and a visit to the Casa Luna he slowly began to recover and even started going to the cafe which was run by his apprentice at that time. We met a few times but then both of us became busy with life. A few days ago Rico called me to inform that he was moving to the city and needed my help to find a tenant for the old casa where he had lived after selling off the cafe to his apprentice. Memories of Pia had drawn him to Pueblo Blanco but he’d become very ill soon after moving in and needed to be admitted to a hospital for treatment. He wants someone trustworthy to look after the house in his absence. His house would be ideal for you.”

 

He handed me a slip of paper with a name and address and a frayed business card with his phone number. He added that I could call him at anytime.

 

“Thank you Doctor. I’ll talk to you soon.”

 

“Go safe.”

 

“I will.” With that I picked up my things and left him with his thoughts.

 

It was late in the noon when I reached El Pino. I parked the car near the church and went looking for Rico’s book cafe. No one could give me directions so I decided to walk to Pueblo Blanco to meet him.

 

It was an early winter day but the sun was still warm. There weren’t many people around, just the locals going about their daily business. The mountains, the air, and the wilderness filled me with such contentment I could live here, surely for the rest of my life.

I was in no hurry and reached the pueblo as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen with the onset of evening.

 

Pueblo Blanco was a tapestry of traditional houses and a dilapidated building which looked more modern than the rest of them. A white village as the doctor had said. I looked around for Eduardo’s house but couldn’t spot it. None of the buildings had a red roof. I checked the slip to see if I had lost my way but the dusty signboard near the solitary shop confirmed that I was in the right place.

 

I walked to the shop and looked around. An old man sat slumped on a chair smoking a cigarillo.

 

“We are out of stock.” He said before I could speak.

 

“I don’t need to buy anything. I am looking for Mr. Federico who stays at Casa Luna. It is an old stone building which was owned previously by Señor Eduardo if I am right.”

 

“You are wrong. There isn’t any house by that name nor do I know of any Federico or Eduardo living in this pueblo. You have got the wrong address. The only stone buildings the pueblo has are the ruins over there.” He said, pointing towards the distant hilltop.

 

“That’s strange. My doctor friend gave me this address. He is a friend of the owner and spoke to him a few days back about renting the property.” I handed the slip of paper to the man.

 

“You’ve come to the right place, Señor but I’ve never heard of anyone called Federico or Eduardo and I’ve lived here all my life. Did you say he moved here from El Pino? Maybe you should check with the priest there. He would certainly know. That’s the last bus over there. Don’t miss it.” With that he touched his cap, nodded and went behind the colourful curtain that separated the house from the shop, but he emerged again before I could turn and leave.

 

“I remember my abuelo telling me about an old decaying cottage at the other end of the pueblo. Children called it casa embrujada but that was years ago when I was a child. It is just a pile of stones now.”

 

I muttered a few words of thanks and ran towards the bus. Maybe the man was right about asking the priest. He would certainly know. When I reached the bus I stopped and glanced around the lazy streets of the pueblo. There was no one in sight.

 

When I reached El Pino, the church bore a deserted look and the door to the priest’s home was locked. I decided not to wait and to drive back home. It was getting late and I had to return to the city that very night. While I drove down the winding road my thoughts kept going back to the old doctor, the picture perfect pueblo, the house that did not exist and Federico whom no one seemed to know even in his own town. I hadn’t even able to find the cafe.

It was late when I reached home, but I decided to call Dr. Alejandro- all I got was a busy tone.

 

I was tired so went straight to bed. The strange events of the day were spinning in my head and I wanted it to stop.

 

Next morning I got dressed and decided to call Alejandro again before leaving for work. The phone finally rang after a few tries.

 

“Hola! Alejandro Hospital, how can I help?”

 

“Hello! I am Jim Adams and I need to speak with Doctor Alejandro urgently. I got this number from him.”

 

“You need to speak to whom?”

 

“Doctor Alejandro. I met him yesterday and he told me to contact on this number.”

 

“Estás loco o qué? Doctor Alejandro died years and years ago.”

 

The line went dead.

-*-

Note – The El Pino Ruins first got published in the final edition of Le Zaporogue XVIII by various authors. The short fiction was well received by the readers so I thought of sharing it here too. Thank you for reading. Please leave your views in the comments.

 

                                                                                  ________________

Hello December – Flowers, Reviews, Conversations


The winter flowers are in full bloom. We didn’t grow many in the new house. I have just lost interest. My search for a home continues and I fill my empty hours with colors. I had forgotten this post in the draft so sharing now after updating a little. My laptop is still not working properly and that is the reason for this chaos here. Hope you’ll understand.

 

Yesterday while wandering in the city I spotted the gorgeous Pink Floss or the Mexican Silk Cotton tree with its bright showy flowers. This is the second flush The flowers are orchid like. These trees were introduced to Delhi and planted en mass in the 1950s.

I will be doing some more posts on Delhi, its trees, monuments and other things close to my heart.

Meanwhile Kashmir Lit, an online journal of Kashmiri and Diasporic Writing, published a review of my poetry book Wayfaring.

Here is an excerpt :

Tikuli Dogra emerges as a poet of transcendence. She seizes a moment, (be it in memory or imagination or in real time) describes it in broad word strokes, bringing her inherent painter to fore. This description itself becomes a meditation of sorts and culminates in a Zen-like insight/awareness that leaves the reader in a state of calm stasis.

 

You can read the review HERE 

A very special conversation took place over emails with Nigerian Poet David Ishaya Osu.  David is a young poet I admire. Extremely talented he is one of the very few interviewers I enjoyed conversing with. He is sharp, witty, sensitive and very intriguing and it was a pleasure to share some thoughts on poetry, life, food, blogging and other things with him. Do read his poems and the interview which got published in Gainsayer Magazine.

Here is an excerpt

 

Some stray questions in one (laughs): what is it you do not like about poetry? As a poet yourself, does poetry mystify you? And what is that one thing you wish people get about poetry? 

(Laughs) It may seem very odd now when I say it but over the years I have begun to dislike the ‘dreamy creamy’ stuff dished out in the name of poetry. Some years back I was writing something similar and then one day I purposely took down many of my earlier poems from my blog and elsewhere. Once you learn the nuances of the craft you know the good from the bad. I also detest the use of clichés in poems.

I like to be mystified by poetry. I like the unknown, something that holds me, makes me think beyond what is visible, beyond understanding. I think good poetry is all about taking the reader beyond the familiar. You peel a few layers and think you’re close but then there are more layers. Just like art.  Poetry should mystify so far as to draw you into it.

Most of the time we are in pursuit of mastering the art and not leaving an element of mystery in it which I think is a mistake.

 

Do read the full interview by visiting this link –

Tikuli Dogra – Poetry is life for me 

 

My short fiction about gender violence and war crimes against women is featured in ‘Muffled Moans Unleashed‘, an international anthology of poetry and fiction focused on child abuse/gender violence. The book has contributions from award-winning writers.

The book is co edited and complied by Lopa Banerjee along with Dr. Santosh Bakaya and is published by AuthorsPress, New Delhi. It’s available on Amazon so do get your copy and give me your opinion on the story. The book was released in Kolkata at the Iran Society, 22nd December, 2018 in the presence of the literati, social activists and short filmmakers of the city.
I have a few very important posts on Delhi Monuments which I will start sharing from tomorrow. I hope to cover all the pending posts before the year ends.

 

Wish you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays. 

 

The House Of Oracles | Chandini Santosh


Very few books are cathartic, even fewer leave you listless yet fulfilled in a strange way. Chandini Santosh’s The House of Oracles opened some blocks in me. Tears came effortlessly as I finished the book today. They came because a catharsis was much needed. The sky poured endlessly outside my window. I do not know how to review a book so just jotting down what flowed from my heart. This is the second book revolving around an ancestral house that has touched me so deeply. Both the books are by women writers and extremely compelling reads.

Some incidents from past can haunt you for the lifetime, emerging when least expected. Chandini has so beautifully woven that in the theme of the story. Throughout the novel the thought pulsates underneath the current happenings seeking release and atonement in some form or the other.

The heart wrenching narrative tugs at you to keep reading but I had to pause because the characters drew me in at different levels not letting go. The story is set in North Malabar region  and I urge you to do some reading about the ‘Oracles of Malabar’, an incredibly vibrant tradition that is slowly vanishing now, before proceeding to read. The House of Oracles is not just a voyage down the memory lane exploring the rich history, rituals, customs, it is also a journey within. A search for inner happiness, an effort to engage with oneself at levels one wants to push aside. Every one of us has to go through the myriads of  emotions, struggle and pave our path through the pressures and demands society as well as life inflicts on us and that is why perhaps the line between fiction and reality blurs as one reads through the pages.

Although the strong female characterization is the strength of the novel it is the portrayal of the male characters that grew on me. The vulnerability of human emotions is so deftly crafted that it is impossible to disconnect. Each character, even the short lived Vishnu, gets permanently etched in the mind.

The women on the other hand have this inner strength that surfaces quietly at times and at others more vociferously. Even in the midst of chaos that surrounds their lives there is resilience and dignity.

Chandini is a poet and painter par excellence and from the opening lines the four hundred year old house of oracles, the outhouse, the graves, the trees and the forty steps leading down begin to emerge before the reader like a painting. A painting alive with the aroma of the Parijata flowers floating down like tiny, wispy dreams or the moon dragging over the tulsi plant in the atrium, the stream swollen with rain, the daunting shadow of the seven layered stone lamp eternally etched on the walls, the grape-eyed monkey looking beseechingly from the tamarind tree, the lake simmering like a silver coin tossed into the night.. the imagery takes your breath away. One feels compelled to get under the skin of the characters and follow them around the House of Oracles and at times one almost becomes the house itself. There is no other way than to give in.

It is the phrases like, “Forgiving is a limbless genie. It has to be carried in rounded palms or the open hollows of the grieving mind” and “Everyone has to find their own key to the treasure; everyone’s treasure is different” that make you cling to the book till the last word.

Weaved intricately between family traditions, human tragedies, ancient customs is the inevitable social transformation, caste struggle, anomalies of land grab, the ways of the neo-rich and the uncomfortable transition from traditional to modern.

This intense, fast paced narrative will not let you down at any level. The cover design is based on a charcoal sketch by the author and is the portal to a world of storytelling that’s hard to come by these days.

I highly recommend Chandini’s debut novel to everyone. Go pick up your copy here – The House Of Oracles

In The Light Of Darkness – Radhika Maira Tabrez


 

After reading a book if something changes inside you for better then it is a good book. I found light from this one. Simple stories told from the heart are the best. Our lives, across the globe, are all connected with fragile threads. Sometimes these threads quiver just a little to make us aware of their existence and of the beauty of life that is unfolding despite everything. Threads that help us ‘cross over’, to move past regrets and sorrows and embrace life to the fullest.  These potent threads lead us to one another when the time is right and makes us whole again.

I went to the book launch of In The Light Of Darkness last Saturday and met Radhika for the first time. Though we had been in touch on Facebook since some time and I had read her blog occasionally I wasn’t too familiar with her writing. The book is published by  Readomania and their events are always heart warming. You must check out their other books and website too.

When I got the invite for the launch from her I had not seen the cover. The name itself was enough to convince me to look forward to the event. When she shared the cover, I was blown over. It just drew me in. A lot of emotions stirred inside and I thought what a beautiful poetry in picture it was. Later, after reading the novel, I realized how apt the cover was. It sums up the entire human saga of patient waiting of a woman, a mother, a son to being to closure all that needed to be closed. It sums up the very essence of the novel, how ‘the light of darkness’ eventually finds a crack, breaks through and brightens everything around it. It tells the importance of befriending,  understanding and embracing those ‘dark’ phases in our lives for these phases are an important gift for our overall growth and well being. I personally called them ‘rooting years’ .

The novel is exceptionally well written. One of the best I have read among emerging Indian writers. What a fantastic debut.

During the conversation Radhika told that it was Mary Oliver’s famous poem ‘Uses Of Sorrow’ from her book ‘Thirst’ that inspired her to write the story . Incidentally it is one of my favorite books and poem.

While reading, one can see how  beautifully she has captured the essence of that poem  and blended it in the narrative with such affecting simplicity. Throughout the book there is an underlying current of hope and faith. In the midst of all the struggles the character continuously find some thread to hold on to and renew their faith in life, in relationships, in themselves.

That brings me to another thing that has receded in the shadows of time. Letter writing. There is something very personal in writing a letter with hand. Words that came alive and pulsated as you run your fingers on them. Letters that evoked so many emotions in you even after years of receiving them. Letters that bridge the distance and sometimes bring things to closure, assuring a new beginning. I remembered such letters as I read Susan’s letter to her son. there is a certain clairvoyance in it. A light in the dark. I have known the power of such light and could see how beautifully it lead Matthew to the path he had known but never had strength to take.

This isn’t  book review or critique of her work. I am writing this to tell you how the book connected with me at many levels.Page after page I paused and lingered at places that took me back in time in my own life. So many things came up to the surface and eventually found closure. A feeling of Déjà vu made me so uncomfortable at times that I did not know whether to continue reading or to pause and then I realized I needed to go on, go on to find something that will provide the catharsis. If a story helps you look within it always heals.

Sometimes a line becomes so significant that it plays in the mind on a loop. This book had many such lines and I was tangled in them. I could have read the book in one go but as I said there are words that pulled at my sleeves like a kitten seeking attention. We all choose our karmic path and are responsible for our decisions especially the toughest ones. Decisions that drastically alter the whole flow of life, shaking the very bonds of love, of comradeship, of trust. We hope that those who are directly or indirectly affected by those decisions will eventually understand. This hope sustains us, gives us a reason to live.

A mother-child relationship is much more than just a natural bond. The author has dealt with the complexities of this bond so effortlessly. The book makes you wonder about the woman who is torn between being a mother and a woman. It makes you reach out to the son who is struggling to find the light of hope in the darkness that was gifted to him by life. For me, it brought back the memories of a similar decision I had to take for my son. As the story unfolded I was filled with the memories of those dark times and how that box of darkness became a gift to me and possibly for my son in a different way perhaps, but none the less a gift. Not many narratives shake your conscience  the way this one does.

When the story is too close to home it often messes with your mind. In those times I wrote to Radhika and poured my heart out and then I found why this book is so special. Radhika has this innate ability to comfort and love which instantly made me feel better. It also made me realize that time is insignificant to connect deeply with someone. Only a person with so much depth can touch lives with her words.  I know I will cherish this one for long.

The book conveys an important message. I don’t know where your reading of the book will lead you and I am not discussing anything about the plot or the characters here. I want you to find your light once you read it.

 

Go pick your copy of In The Light Of Darkness

.

 

 

 

Time To Rejoice- Six Poems And A Story In Le Zaporogue XVI


The sun is shining bright and Delhi is jubilant.

This is how I am celebrating. With HOT CRISPY JALEBEES. I have more than one reseon to rejoice.

The much acclaimed Le Zaporouge XVI, the latest edition of Seb Doubinsky’s annual of literature, art, photography and illustration has been published and for the fourth time I have my work included in the magazine along with some fantastic writers/artists. It is a great feeling to be recognised as a writer and I thank Seb Doubinsky ( a great storyteller and fantastic poet) for this honor.

This special edition of 289 pages include Jerry Wilson– Tara Lennart – Celina Osuna – Jonas Lautrop- Laurent Maindon – Anne Krautwald – Franck-Olivier Laferrère – Manu Rich – Marcia Marques Rambourg – Justin Grimbol – Carole Cohen-Wolf – Tikuli – Valérie Debieux – Philippe Tertrais – Simone Rinzler – David Royal – Virgil Petite-Vallée – James Goddard – Alicia Young – Olga Theuriet – Dominic Albanese- Benoît Jeantet – Donna-Lee Phillips – Jacques Sicard – Mark and Janice Van Aken Williams – Stéphane Prat – Jean-Philippe Dreillard – Agathe Elieva – Serge Muscat – Yan Kouton – Maya Byss – ShaneZooee – Matt Bialer – Andréas Becker

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It is a must have impressive collection and  you can get Le Zaporogue XVI ( ebook PDF) as a FREE download here : ZAPOROGUE XVI

Or  for the FIRST TIME buy it in print too ( the back editions will also be available in print soon.) : Zaporogue (Paperback) 

So proud to be a part of this.  The good trend has continued from 2014 for my writing and I am hoping for more as the year ’15 progresses.

Here is an excerpt from one of my poems –

My Mother 

“Clasping your infant body
like a broken doll and a
picture of your mother in my pocket,
I took refuge at a patchwork of shelters
that had sprouted on the smoldering land.
A few of us sat under a small covering
of rags, tarpaulin and sheet metal,
holding whatever was left of our
precious belongings, somewhere
a man sharpened the knife on a stone,
click clack, click clack,
the blade glistened in the dark.”

Do read the rest of the poem and many more poems and stories that I enjoyed reading in this edition. Do give us your feedback.

Follow the FB PAGE by clicking on this link.

To know about more of my online and print publication click HERE 

My Debut Poetry Collection turned ONE this January you can read about it HERE 

Once more Thank You Sebastian Doubinsky for giving me the opportunity to share my work.

Monday Memories 18 – You And Me – Absentia


The moment I opened the door of my home a sudden heartache hit me like a jab of an invisible knife. For a few seconds everything blurred. I held on to the door knob staring into the empty quietness that had occupied everything animate and inanimate. It was a home I cherished, my private sanctuary, a place of my own where I lived on my own but never felt lonely.  A place decorated with the imagined invisible tales of our love that warmed me and gave me company at all times but today it all seemed unfamiliar and surreal as if I did not belong there. Everything  gazed at me with mournful eyes. His brief visit had violently altered my side of the world. He had left but his absence still lingered, making itself more poignant with its presence.  I crossed the threshold stepped inside dropped the bag and the purse on the floor and began to assess the magnitude of the void which becomes more apparent as it gets filled and this one was rapidly filling up with missingness that was  flowing out from every pore of my body. Each step  more difficult than the last. The heaviness began to occupy me turning my limbs to stone. It hurt to be hurting.

The ephimiraliity and uncertainty that has hovered around me while he was here had transformed itself into sorrow and a gnawing sense of disbelief. A  tumultuous place a few days ago the house seemed like an echoing tomb today.  I felt that if I stayed there one more minute the hollowness will gather and  bury me alive in this plastered grave. It’s strange how I felt the lack of him more than his presence which has morphed into my tortured existence and everything around it.

I moved like a lost soul from room to room unsettling the quite trying in vain to fill the space he has left. Up till now I had too little time but now there was nothing but time and I felt myself being engulfed by it.

I had lost all my sides to him and in this altered reality I stood completely stripped off. Exposed. The cold creeping up my spine, filling me from foot to head even though it was a bright warm day. Numb is a feeling too, I always said and in this numbness I wasn’t aware if my heart still beat. Everything had come to a standstill inside me as if I had entered a zero sensation space. I wanted to cry but tears had dried and turned to heaps of salt. Something had malfunctioned inside me shutting down all my senses and bringing it all to an irrevocable breakdown.

A whirlpool was swirling deep within me.  Unable to contain the surge of emotions I rushed out picking my purse and closing the door in one swift action. Without looking back I ran down the stairs forgetting about the elevator and briskly walked down the street shutting myself to all the sights and sounds. I could not understand what was building up inside  – sorrow or rage  or just a feeling of loss.

I wanted to unscrew and pull out the  corkscrew of absence that had gone in so neatly. I needed to push the rising deluge deep into some unknown depth and to do that I bought myself  the biggest tub of the Haagen-Dazs’ ice cream and parked myself  on a high stool in a corner away from the huge glass windows overlooking the street. I did not want distractions and dug into it shoving it in my mouth and almost swallowing it  with no attention to taste or chill that was sending waves of cold fire down my throat. After finishing three-fourths of it  I closed the lid tucked the tub in a paper bag and walked out . The market was flooded with weekend shoppers but I just kept walking through it all hugging on to the tub hoping it  would heal the sickening ache that had taken residence inside her gut.. I didn’t hear the honking from behind till a hand pulled me to the side. The car driver hurled some angry words  at me and all I could catch was “die”. Yes sir that would be really nice. I found the lump in my throat melting and rising up. I mumbled a feeble thank you , lowered my head and shouldered my way  through the crowd of local vendors, rickshaws, sleeping dogs, blinded myself into a few shoppers, got two portions of spicy, oily hot comfort food packed, picked two king-sized candy bars, a big bag of potato chips and walked back home. The ice cream box had become warm from the mid day sun but I felt  unable to trash it.

I emptied the food on a tray , threw the candy bars on bed, stepped out of my clothes and curled up in a corner, knees to chin.  and stared at the steaming hot oil dripping food and spicy pickle. A wave of nausea hit me and pushing the tray aside I pressed my naked body on the hard cold marbled floor and wept fiercely. crumbling and disintegrating as if I was invaded and shamelessly plundered through and through. I felt ashamed of stuffing my face with a thousand calories in order to stuff my emotions and not just that I had also bought a cart load of it home. Tears flowed freely again as guilt and regret hit me like a knife. I wanted to feel the pain not tranquillize it with gallons of  food. I wondered what was hurting me more, letting go or holding on to something unreal. One side of my body had gone numb. I had never felt so exposed. Slowly I picked myself up from the floor, pulled a Tee over my  tired body dragged myself to the bathroom and stood under the shower with eyes closed. Letting the water  wash away everything not needed by my body, mind and soul. I did not bother to remove the tee which clung to me like a second skin. There were no tears, no thoughts, nothing, just a calm one feels inside the womb. Water is a healer so is the salt. It is not just for any reason our tears are salty.

I removed the Tee and gently rubbed a handful of  Epsom salt  all over my body feeling it release the old pain and melt away all the hurt with every stroke of my hand.  I let myself soak into the universal healing and then patted myself dry, got into fresh clothes. Once in the room I shoved the food in the fridge making a mental note to give it to the house help in the morning. along with the candy bars. The bag of chips went into the cabinet. I unpacked, uncovered the Buddha and pressed it against my heart before placing it on a shelf  where I could see it from anywhere in the house.

The sun was concentrated in a shaft of light in one corner of the drawing-room. I pulled the wicker chair in the pool of light and cuddled into it. I loved him and either I could stay trapped in what wasn’t or move freely into what is. The choice was mine to make.  I had decided to move on with him in my heart. It is never ‘over’ and I did not want it to be either. We were just living in two different worlds but I knew in my heart of hearts that he felt the same.  I smoothened the little silk cloth on my lap.  “Never too far away from you“, I ran my finger tip over it feeling the words pulsate with life.

The phone began to play a familiar ringtone. The heart skipped three beats then fluttered.

You and Me – Chasing The Shadow In The Dark


It was nonsensical to pretend he would leave her. It could never happen.  I was in denial.  My mind weaved grand tales to turn that denial into reality, to make some sense out of it even while knowing clearly it was fooling itself.  I stretched my mind so much that now at this point it was impossible to bring it back to its former shape. It was in a different dimension all together. I knew that he would never be able to let her go and the guilt and fear will always make him feel wrong about being with me. . and yet  I stood at the door of the colorful souvenir shop there hallucinating what could happen.

I watched as he slid beside her on the boat. Her face beaming with happiness at something he was saying. I could see them merrily taking pictures and chatting. There were a few other couples and a group of tourists I had seen earlier in the market apart from the local crowd and yet  the moon light seemed to shine just above them like a spotlight on their semblance. I could see their silhouettes slowly fading into the pearly night.  Entwined without touching, their bodies fused as one. Drunk on the lust filled air, my limbs tingling with what I thought was a want of him. A dream he would resume after fulfilling his duty towards her. I pretended it to be that. Hoping that he would turn his head at least once, give me that gaze of reassurance, a smile maybe. He did not.

He had left me as effortlessly as I had loved him. There was nothing more to wait for and that nothingness filled the increasing distance as the boat carried him away to where I did not fit. She wore his promise on her finger. I , on my heart. It was all of him that belonged to me.

My exotic little adventure was over. Torn between magic and mayhem, need and disruption I walked back to the hotel. Faced with the biggest truth of my life I  did not wish to look at the challenge that stared at my face. A challenge of letting go of someone I loved, cared about and more than that I found it exceedingly difficult to let go of the idea, the belief in him because the intensity of disappointment of knowing that he wasn’t what he pretended to be was too much of a betrayal to bear. I often mulled over what could have happened in a certain situations but did not and often a voice in my head said,  “if it should have, it would have. ‘Could have’ was a stressful waste of time.”

I pushed the deluge of emotions at the back of my mind. I needed silence to reconnect with myself , to find some way to deal with the demons within. I had realized from past experience that seeking emotional support, love , care and a shoulder to lean on to was nothing but a smoke screen. A big lie. It did not in any way help to resolve the turmoil inside. All the smoke gave were burning tear filled eyes.

I was violently confused my his real inaccessible presence. For months I had been possessed by the imagination of his. He was distant and closed away and yet my imagination made him present to my mind and senses. I had spun romantic fantasies about us, written tales of love and longing, of a constant togetherness to keep me afloat in those long hours of  constantly hungry waiting.

I kept thinking of the ways in which he resembled or differed from the man I loved, dreamed of, reached out for and every thought only exacerbated things. The illusion had hit me real and sharp. Stung, I wanted to cry but the tears did not flow. Maybe they did, inwardly, too proud to be seen. I could feel the familiar knot in my chest. My eyes were like two smouldering pools but not a single drop fell. I stared at the blur that had enveloped me. I could not bear to look at the bed which was still unmade. Each fold , each crumple reminder of him, of us, of a man who would never come back to me. I felt as if I was getting morphed into liquefied hurt. The room was buzzing with silent echoes of things lost. I grabbed the chair to steady myself and  slowly stepped out in the small balcony. The shimmering waters of the river were filled with overwhelming grief and unspeakable love. The silhouettes of long-tailed boats tied to the dock swayed gently with the night breeze, its touch light and cold like that of a departing lover.  The bamboo-hated vendors had all gone home after a busy day.  It was all so quiet on the waterway. Just like the water-colour painting that hung in my room. Dreams blurred with tears. In my case the unshed ones.

I sighed and dragged myself back to the room. Each step felt as if I was carrying a weight of a lifetime. One by one I began to throw my belongings into the open travel bag. Things I should have thrown in the trash bin instead but could not. I intended to keep what was mine. Even him. I was committed to the  memories, heartaches, laugher and joy, all moments of intimacy however short-lived they were. Committed to the tales of love, the dreams that kept me company in his long months of absence, the hope and the futility of it all. I wanted to treasure that “true love” which could never show forth. I did not want to wipe the slate clean and so I did not cry. I wanted to keep the flickering fireflies like stars in my eyes.  It was preferable than to face  the fear of letting go everything that meant a world to me. It was preferable than to step into the nightmare called future which was going to be  horribly empty without him. I knew it because I had planned  to share it with him. Even after knowing how utterly impossible it had sounded even to my imagination.

Usually one could see the fireflies at the waterfront during the nights of the waxing moon but tonight even their glow had dimmed. I had not been able to see even one. Such are some nights.

I held him tightly in my heart but had no hold over him. I loved him and I was not giving up on that I was just letting him go and even that hurt as much as hanging on.

With the daybreak I would be on my way home or let us say to the place I call home. For a home is where the heart is and my heart is a gypsy forever wandering  on paths where my dreams lead me to him. In my heart I also knew that in dreaming about being the queen of the ocean I had lost the pond too. There was never going to be a  “home”. Only stopovers.

The cell phone which had replaced  the watch for the lack of any other activity showed that the night was well into the last phase. I had been betrayed before in body as well as in mind and yet I had fallen in love again. Opened myself to another world of hurt. Knowing he would never be mine. He had a world of his own beyond those two oceans that lay between them. A family, a profession he was passionate about, a home whose comfort he was used too.  I neither belonged there not fitted.

He was a saviour who had lifted me out from the mess that I was living every day. Given me a source for dignified living. Given me kindness, care and … love. Given it to me as a fuel to my boost my confidence in myself and the life that lay ahead of me. I, on the other hand had given him myself.  Suddenly I had everything I had longed for, a friend, a confidante, a lover ( what did distance matter when the hearts were one.. so I thought)  and a man I implicitly trusted.

I had felt betrayed when I had seen them together for the first time. Maybe I should not use the word “betrayal” . It sounds utterly insensitive in our case. I felt betrayed because I had built up expectations and carved out an image of him from my imagination.  Occupational hazard of being a writer. He on the other hand had not promised anything but my freedom from the shackles that held me back to the world I needed to escape and happiness that it would bring. Nothing more.  As I said earlier there are variations of love and we ( I take the liberty and luxury of  calling “us” “we” here.  He did Love me but not in the same way I did. There was no question of any betrayal at all. Everything else , yes.

That made me think about her and the question, which one of us was less fortunate? I was seeking a bond of complete trust which could only be built on the foundation of  his breaking trust of someone else. The pangs of guilt hit me like a bolt of lightning. Love doesn’t consider all these things conscience does and my tug of war with the two popped up very timely to curb the flight of the heart. The mind was nothing but a manipulating mind controlling freak and in those moments of vulnerability , it leaves no chance to whiplash. I pushed the thought aside. There was no place for guilt and fear in Love. They came to me in glimpses and flashes but for him they acted like a fence that separated us.  Some things just happen and it is better not to dig deep.

He was faint hearted, I was a romantic and she didn’t know any better. We were all afloat like the boats on that graceful timeless river. Trusting the flow of life to take us to our final destination.

I was now at a point where I had to decide whether to wait or to forget . I decided to choose the first. I wanted to remain his best friend and not become some heartbroken stranger I was becoming. I checked myself before it was too late . I loved him with whatever there was or wasn’t. Call it a flaw in me to love an unattainable man, it is what it is. I am flawed and fractured but it is a better option than losing. It was maybe my destiny to fall in love with someone I could not have. Over and over again. With him , unlike others, I felt at home. You know the feeling, don’t you? The feeling that your search had ended and you have found your match. All about the Karmic soul-mate or the twin soul etc. It made me warm even through the coldest of hurts. It was a feeling of being a book with two volumes, one incomplete without the other. That’s what we were to me.  Strange are the ways of heart.

I watched the empty bed from the couch where I had curled up. The sadness of  which spoke to me in his absence. The faint light of daybreak made it look surreal. I felt as if he was there, lying on his back, feet overlapped, head buried in the soft pillow, asleep like a baby just like last night when I had watched him sleeping after we had made love. This time a tear quietly escaped my eye. Missingness is the worse feeling ever a human can experience. We aren’t designed  to endure it.

I stretched my limbs and rubbed them to get the blood flowing then got up and walked out to the balcony. Birdsongs of predawn veiled in mist greeted me. I could see the locals arranging their wares on the little canoes and in rows and rows of wooden shops along the edge of the river selling almost the same stuff. Most of them were closed at this hour.

The people in the houses built on planks were slowly waking up to another noisy day. A few Sampans waited for the tourists to begin their journey down the river. The whole place was a tourist trap but people came back again and again to be a part of the old world oriental charm. To escape the maddening city life they  took a plunge in another kind of madness. Soon the serene river would be plugged with boats and the place would resemble a tropical forest with exotic vibrant colours and people of all shapes and sizes. There were locals waiting at the banks to offer food to the monks. A sight that always filled me with a sense of calm. The boats selling fruits and delicious meals would soon outnumber the tourist boats.  I wanted to get away before their return. I was supposed to. The bills were already paid so all I had to do was pick up my overnight bag and disappear.

We were two hours away from the main city where he had come on the pretext of a conference a few days earlier to my city and from there we had came  to this small province for our little adventure. She had flown in only yesterday morning. They were staying in some swanky city hotel and he had gone back to pick her up and brought her in the morning as part of a tour. It had hectic but then all these secret getaways are usually time bound and messy.

I longed for a hot mug of coffee and decided to go down to the small quaint, richly decorated 24 hours coffee shop the hotel had. I needed some human warmth and company to help me cope with the long lonely day that lay ahead.

It was a gorgeous property set in a century old house and had exquisite ornate interiors done in traditional Thai style.  The sleepy lobby was draped in early morning rays that filtered through huge windows overlooking a magnificent oriental garden with fruit trees and exotic flowers. A small wat called temple of dawn stood at a strategic angle where the first rays of the rising sun flooded the statue of Buddha.  I decided to spend some time there. A section of cafe cha was open air. I decided to sit there in the midst of rose vines and from where I sat I could feel the energy of peace and calm radiating from the sun-kissed statue. Mesmerized by the aura that surrounded me I barely noticed his presence.

“Beautiful isn’t it?”

“Huh? Yes it is.” I smiled as the steward laid the breakfast and coffee on the bamboo table. I had decided to eat and leave before they came. They were staying in a boutique hotel right at the river front and I did not want to be of any embarrassment or trouble. Any way my stay here was till noon.

I thanked the elderly gentleman for remembering to bring exactly the kind of coffee I needed. He nodded and gazed at me for what seemed like a long time.

“You must go and light some incense sticks there. I will bring you some.  It is better to ask for love, compassion, joy and sympathy from Him than ordinary people.” His gaze was fixed on me. Suddenly my eyes filled and I looked away unable to stop the flood of tears welling up inside me.  I snatched a tissue from the table and hurriedly wiped the tears away.

” Kob Khun maak Ka” I said. He nodded and walked back to the main café.

With the first bite of Waffles I realized how hungry I was. The piping hot coffee almost scalded my tongue. It was the best meal since I arrived here. We had not got chance to do any site seeing r indulge in any local cuisine. It was all room service and a hurried dinner at the dining hall. Food was the last thing on our mind. The thought made me smile and the warmth of the memory of time spent together brought colour to my face.

I wasn’t feeling so low now , maybe it was the Buddha or the breakfast and coffee or just plain affection that the old man had bestowed on me. Sometimes hearts connect and there is an instant energy exchange between two strangers. Whatever it was it charged me for the day.

I licked the plate clean to the last crumb and was about to step into the garden when the old man returned.

” I think you should leave. I will burn the incense for you. Here take this.” With that he handed me a small figurine of exquisite black wood Buddha set in a silver case. He took out a fine silk cloth from his pocket  wrapped it and handed it to me.

“Something we give to our special guests.”

I kissed the gift and tucked it in my  purse.

“May he look after you and show you the light.” I took his hand and pressed it gently.

” Thank you. You made my trip memorable” I said.

“Go safe.” He said and hastily walked back inside without waiting for my response.

“Yes, I will.” I said softly and went to my room.

I hadn’t asked him why he wanted me to leave so suddenly. I just followed his words.

After a quick shower I changed into a casual denim and tee picked  my bag and took one last look at the room.

On second thoughts I kept he bag on the wooden floor and walked to the bed and  ran my fingers over the creases of the bed sheet. A fragrance I still carry on my fingertips.

I kissed the pillow and pressed its cool white surface against my cheeks. I held it for a while tightly hugged and then in a swift moment kept it back , picked the bag and walked out in the corridor closing the door behind to yet another parting.

A girl was at the reception and I said my goodbye to her, handed the key and walked out in the morning sun. The mist had lifted long ago and the place was a riot of colours and noise. Quickly I making my way through the notoriously chaotic traffic to get to the bus station when I spotted them just a few shops away. Before I could react our eyes met and instantly he looked away and turned his back. She was bargaining with the vendor about some stuff and I stood there staring as if I had taken roots through the dusty pavement. Everything else blurred.

Without realizing , as if pulled by a force, I began to walk towards them. I think he sensed it and tuned. His eyes not believing what they were seeing. I could feel the rising conflict of emotions swirling inside him. His face intense, his eyes following my every move.

She struck a final price and turned to him with the magnificent stroll in her hand and stopped mid sentence. I was near enough to overhear her. She asked him if he was alright to which he nodded and forced himself to appreciate her purchase. She looked around as if sensing something but missed me in the crowd of tourists who had emerged from the adjacent shop. I turned and walked away with the group without looking back. I put my hand inside the purse and grabbed the little Buddha in my fist and walked briskly through the crowd to catch the bus back home. “Please leave” that’s was his eyes had conveyed in those few moments.

I still don’t know what had made me do that bizarre thing in the market . Sometimes we just do certain things however unreasonable they may be. I knew this will surely come up in our conversations later. I knew that however I may try to harden my heart I would never be able to break away from him. I could not. He was too much a part of me.

“Your phone.” The woman next to me pointed at my bag.

“Oh! Thanks. I didn’t hear it ringing.” I took out the cell phone amazed that it still did what it was meant to do. I had totally forgotten about it being in the bag.

I stared at his face on the screen unable to decide if I wanted to take the call or not. Thankfully it stopped ringing. A beep indicated a text and I opened the message with trembling hands.

“Tried calling. Go safe. Will connect once I am back.” After a minute there was another beep.

“By the way that was wicked. You almost gave me a heart attack. Love always.”

For the first time I giggled at the little prank I had played.

I replied with a digital heart and kiss and placed the phone back in the bag.

At the airport I browsed at the book store, had another cup of coffee and some sandwiches and waited.

Waiting  was one thing I did well.

With nothing much to do I took out the Buddha encased in the shimmering silver case. I had not paid much attention to its beautiful ornate carving. The smooth black wood had a lovely shine to it. I ran my fingers over it and turned around the case. Something caught my attention and my heart skipped a beat when I saw my name engraved at the bottom of the case. It was then my eyes fell on the inside of the silk cloth. On its ivory surface were scribbled a few words. “Never too far away from you.”

Jason – A Short Story


Jason was first published in MICROW 8 (Luminous) Winter 2013

It was a special day for St. Luis Hospital. The conference room was filled with medical students, support group volunteers, media people, friends and well wishers of Drs. David & Jane Brown.

Jane’s eyes scanned the packed 80-seat room. Most of those present were familiar with Dr. Jane’s captivating presence and they listened to the story of her courage and pain in rapt attention trying to imagine how a child could illuminate the lives of millions. She stood at the makeshift podium under the spot light; everything else was flooded with soft darkness.

A year ago they’d lost Jason. He was two years old and terminally ill. As David listened to his wife speak about their dying child, their hopes and despair during the two years that Jason lived he recalled his child’s gradual decline and his wife’s courage.

“I knew it was just a matter of time as I leaned against the nursery door taking in the sights and smells of my baby’s room I felt a profound sense of emptiness. As I ran my fingers along those untouched things we had collected for our son I felt that I didn’t know myself.  I could hear Sara playing and blowing soap bubbles with her father in the garden. Sometimes I would find her perched on a stool near Jason’s bed talking to herself or watching her brother quietly. She seemed to understand that her time with Jason was almost over.  When Jason smiled it illuminated the entire room and brightened our lives but I needed more, I needed a sound from him before he was gone forever.”

“I went and stood near Jason’s bed and watched the light filtering through the blossoming branches of a cherry tree. As I watched his face lit up and his eyes moved as if following something.  My eyes followed his gaze and saw that a soap-bubble had floated in through the window. He was fascinated as it drifted around him glistening in the sunlight. Slowly Jason’s hand lifted towards the bubble and then he chortled. My eyes filled with tears of joy.”

Jane stopped speaking, took a book from the table and held it up.

“This is a story of the two years we spent together, ‘Jason – A Mother’s Account of Letting Go’.”

She clicked a button and a large photograph of Jason smiling, filled the screen behind her.

“This is the picture my husband David took of that one precious moment.”

David and Sara joined her on the podium. They hugged and for the next half an hour she read passages from the book, finally she said:

“I hope my book will help all those with a terminally ill child cope with their loss. David, Sara and I would like to thank everyone for their support; you offered it when we needed it most. “

There was a moment of total silence, then a ripple of applause grew louder and louder. Jane listened with tears shining in her eyes.

 

Luminous

 

(Digital Art by my son Aditya . The story was published under the theme Luminous with a 500 word limit)

You and Me – Billet-doux like crushed violets on white satin sheet


It was a brief encounter. So brief that before they could get over the clumsiness of it all, it got over leaving them yearning , longing , desperately wanting to stop the hands of clock so they could spend one more night together, one more day, one more hour of togetherness.

The reason I write in third person is because I want to look at  it from a distance. The ‘ I ‘ dissolved in those moments what have left  scent of love in my hair, in memories that nestle in the hollow of my neck, in the delicate web of my fingers and in places that blossomed and came to life only after he touched. First the mind, then the  heart, and then the body.

In waves of breathless, mindless ecstasy
he breathes in, sharp
she purrs, catlike

her body a Smörgåsbord

he savours her

each pip

crushes between

ravenously longing

tongue and teeth

and lips

pomegranate

knutschfleck the color of orgasms

sensuous syllables

in blushed hues of red

billet-doux

like crushed violets

on white satin sheet

revealed

the morning after

a phantasmal explosion of a rainbow awry

Psychedelic bodies

engulfed

consumed

colonized

The meteoric more beautiful

than the everlasting 

*

they parted

carrying

 scent of each other
the warmth of their passion

only to float

 into each others dream

a dream that flew

across a thousand miles

and two oceans in between

A dream that stupefied her. She went through it in a trance like state. All the romanticized notions that she had built up in her mind evaporate through thin air.  All that remained were the bodies – arms entangling and untangling. His voice touching places inside her as if someone moving through a house flicking light switches. Her mouth a molotov. The smell of sex charged the room, circling over them like a ghost.

Love when turned to passion is brave, furious and loud. There is no time for fantasies and honeyed mush. When passion takes over you don’t want a just a heart, you want everything –  flesh, blood, and bones. You want to occupy every thought, every breath, every pulse. You want fingerprints tattooed all over you. It is strange, this fire that ignites two human bodies. It’s a fire that consumes without burning. A fire that transcendent and purifies everything.

She felt like a lovely bonfire burning day and night on a tropical coast filled with scent of salt that gently tickles down the spine and the heat that melts the body like wax embraced by the flame. A teasing burn of silky excitement, noting like anything she had felt before. Nothing could calm this sensation but sin and for once she was ready for it.

Quickies don’t include showers nor luxurious soaks in tubs with rose petals floating in them. They include blind and furious salt laced bodies, tongues and mouths driven by thirst.

They lay there in the realm of sleep, without sleeping,  half with fear , half with wonder at what they had awakened in each other. Trembling in bitter-sweet longing, enchanted, bewitched.  Suspended in time and place. And then they kissed – his lips on hers telling all that which his stumbling words could never do.

She let him sleep. All disheveled and unwound. His head buried between her breasts. Dressed in nothing but his undress like a careless animal.  She watched his body slowly become a silhouette and longed to mold it into hers  but stopped. She loved to watch him as he lay in deep slumber. Her heart beat outside her body flushed with this new-found deep sexual pleasure. She felt anesthetized  by sensations one can’t speak of without sounding absurd. One can only sentimentalized it after it is over.

Here was the man she loved, like a  child with his appetites. She had yielded to him what he wanted, willingly. She let him ruin her with his intense love. In those intimate hours with herself she felt the fervent rush inside her which had known no outlet till now.

The wooden floor creaked under her bare feet as she carefully tip-toed to the bathroom. Turning on the light she gazed at her nude body that  quivered with magic and mayhem of the moments gone by. She smiled at the silliness of all that she had imagined and fantasized about both of them. Reality was far more fascinating than fiction. Every pore of her body sent out a message that said , “I am here. I am alive.”  The cold water from the tap sizzled on her smooth skin and electrified her entire body. She let it trickle down the hollow of her neck and flow like a rivulet between her aching breasts. Her cheeks were on fire by realization of the fact that for once in her entire life she gave in completely to her desires. Unrestrained, Unchained and she felt gloriously happy.

Tomorrow she would wander with him amid the beautiful ruins.

As she synced her breathing with his she realized something. From now on she would live two lives – one that she was living and one that she would always wonder about. A dream within a dream. A life  that lay beyond the invisible line that separated their worlds. A line she will never be able to cross. A line that told her place. She brushed the thought aside. This was their time and she did not want to lose even a moment.  The morning sun will bring the hour of separation closer but for now the shadow of her arm circled his waist  and neither the sleep or the night could separate them.

PHOTOSHOP IMAGE copyright-  tikulicious©

You can read the rest of the posts in the series here YOU AND ME