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Excerpt for Mountain Mist by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Mountain Mist










Jiah Joseph


October.


The grove seemed to promise mystery. The blue mist hung over it. She stopped outside, her breath loud and ragged, her pulse racing. Do I dare? She wondered. Do I dare? Behind her, the meadow stretched out across the horizon. I dared to come this far, she thought. But do I dare? The grove loomed before her, a misty lavender shadow. She took a step forward, then another, then another. She was inside the grove. A cold breeze caressed her wavy locks. Dry twigs crackled beneath her shoes. She went inside, into the cold bosom of the grove. The end of her dupatta caught on a thorn. She turned and tried to disentangle it. Then she heard the voice.


“Come under the shade of the pale horizons …”


She looked up. Her dangling earrings jingled.


“ … On this couch of red earth

Where you and I are alone.”


The long strip of blue gauze slipped down from her arms onto the dewy grass. She straightened, hearkening after the voice. It was a man’s voice – a rich, deep-throated masculine voice. There was something magnetic about that intense tone that pulled her feet forward. She moved as one in a dream.


“Come, when night has bandaged

The last wounds of dusk …”


She saw the glow through the mist, through the branches. The voice was nearer. At the edge of the clearing, she paused. She could see the burning fire, hear the crackle of the flames, almost see the dark shadow that seemed to crouch before the fire like a predator.


“… and the woods reverberate

With the music of the blue lizard,

The owl and the cricket …”


Do I dare?


“Come to me in fear …”


A tree came swiftly up to her face and moved to one side. She realized that she was inside the clearing. She saw a long hand reach out and drop something into the fire. The flames crackled. She stood immobile. She could not see the man. The fire blocked him from her view. She could only see the long naked arm rising up, as it seemed, from the flames, clutching a sheet of paper.


“ … Fearing not the wind or the night

Or the chirpings in the shadows

Or the slithering movements beneath the rock

Or the crackling of twigs behind you

But only fearing this moment

When you and I are alone,

Cold, naked, shivering, yet warmed

By the fire within …”


The arm lowered, bringing the paper closer to the fire. Suddenly, she knew, and she screamed aloud and she was running … running across the clearing, around the fire, beyond …


Her fingers closed around his wrist, raising it, away from the heat of the crackling flames. Her knees buckled, and she was on the ground, on the red earth, her cheek resting on the bare chest of the stranger. For one instant, as long as eternity, they lay still. Then he sat up, pulling her up with him. She could not see his expression. The fire and the shadows claimed his body which blazed red and black like the body of a wild animal … or a pagan god, she thought. She saw that he was naked, yet her mind did not seem to register the fact, for she did not take her eyes off him.


“Why did you do that?” he asked.


“I couldn’t let you destroy it,” she blurted out. She wished she could see his expression. He was studying her. He asked,


“Why not?”


She did not answer. Instead she countered, “I want to hear the rest.”


“And why should I let you?” his voice was low and mocking.


“Because – because of the fire within.” She said quickly. She closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable mocking laughter. But he did not laugh. She slowly opened her eyes. He was still studying her with curiosity and wonder.


“What is your name?”


This commonplace question brought her to her senses. She was suddenly aware of her surroundings, of his presence, his proximity. She leapt away from him. But she could not leave. Her legs were frozen to the ground.


“I’m going,” she said softly, as if the sound of her voice could break the spell that bound her.


“Without hearing the rest?” he asked.


He rose. Something constricted in her throat. She knew she should turn and flee, but she gazed, rapt, at the figure bathed in the red glow as it advanced on her. Her rational mind spoke: what are you thinking of, you fool? You don’t know him. He could be anyone. He could be a highwayman. He could be a murderer. He could be a rapist. He could be a ghost.


He could be a god.


He was directly in front of her. Just a few more inches … she could almost feel his skin on hers. His breath on her lips. She closed her eyes and opened the portals to her heart. And the tempest swept in.


*****


The sunray played with her hair and lightly touched her brow. She frowned and opened her eyes. The sunlight danced in through cracks in the green canopy above. She sat up, shivering slightly. Her naked body was covered in dew. She closed her eyes. Do I dare look? Is he still there? Was he a dream? She opened her eyes and glanced at her right. She gasped. In the sunlight, his hair burned. His countenance, relaxed in rest, was young and a half-smile played on his lips. He breathed rhythmically and she watched his chest heave. She bent down to him, her lips almost touching his, and watched him sleep.


Who was he, this wild exotic god who had conquered her, possessed her? She blushed as she remembered the volcanic passion of the past night. She wished he would open his eyes once more and touch her once again with the fire of his body. She would be his slave, his priestess, his …


The word died unformed in her mind. She sat up abruptly. Who is he? What is his work? Where did he come from? He must have a name, a background, a family, perhaps a wife and children. What did she know about him? Nothing, except that the intensity of her soul’s yearning for his words matched the intensity of her body’s yearning for his body. What did she know about his personality, his habits, his likes and dislikes, his moods, his prejudices, his jokes?


She moved back slowly, her tortured eyes fixed on him. With an almost audible sob, she jerked her head away. She dressed rapidly. Without another glance at him, she turned and picked her way carefully across the clearing, her shoes avoiding the dry twigs. At the edge, she turned. She could not see him, only his hand stretched out on the grass, the long fingers extended. She thought of what a rhapsody those fingers had evoked on her body. She choked back a scream and turned and melted away among the trees.



May.


The gulmohar sighed in the wind and shook a few more red petals off its boughs. Beneath it, the red carpet of flowers shone like satin in the sun. The rocky earth blazed. The firmament radiated white fire. A few red flowers brushed against her slippers. She stood in a cool deep blue salwar-kameez like an early rain cloud. A piece of paper fluttered in her hands. She looked up at the sky and sighed.


Jithu had written to say he was coming soon. The Indian Army could spare him for a while, a very short while, for his marriage. Would she wait for him as she used to? Beneath the gulmohar tree, as always.


She crumpled the letter into a ball and crushed it in her fist. Her eyes roamed the length of the horizon, along the railway track. Her feet felt it before her eyes saw it, a faint vibration of the earth, growing into a deep rumbling, then a thundering as the engine shot past eagerly, pulling the reluctant bogies.

She was a little girl of seven, waiting under the gulmohar, her red silk skirt flying in the wind, brushing her short hair out of her eyes. She laughed with glee as the train drew near, and waved. She imagined hands waving in reply. Perhaps they did. She was too far away to see. She watched the train rocket away and something tightened within her. “One day,” she whispered to the receding form of the long metal caterpillar, “One day I will also rocket away like you.”

And then a voice would break in, laughing, carefree and challenging:


“Gita!”


She turned swiftly. He stood a few metres away, waving at her, his hair swept back, his bag slung over his shoulder. She raised her hand to return the wave, but could not force herself to move. Oh God, this can’t be happening, she thought. To face that cheerful smile and that hearty voice with this within …


He was walking slowly to her now, deliberately postponing the minute when he would be immediately in front of her. She stood watching him take long strides, watched his tall lanky figure move with the peculiar grace of a panther. His free arm swung at his side in a military march. A few more strides, and then he was at her side.


“You’re still the same,” he laughed, dropping the bag at her feet and holding out his arms, “Always watching the train! I have to yell at you to catch your attention.”


She ignored his open arms and picked up his bag.


“Come on. Ouch, what do you have in this? Rocks?”


“Here, I’ll take it.” He brushed aside her protests and took the bag. She glanced down at the ground and walked by his side. He shot her a glance that seemed to penetrate her being. After a few moments of silence, he said,


“Okay. Out with it.”


“What?”


He stopped in his tracks. She stopped as well. Her cheeks flushed, but her head was held high in defiant pride.


“What’s wrong with you?”


“Nothing, Jithu.” She said wearily and turned away. “I’m just tired. It’s so hot and the train was late … Come on.”


He stood looking after her for a while, concern in his clear brown eyes. Then he shrugged and strode after her.


*****


“Come as the late monsoon

To soak my parched lips

With the lightning fire

Of your finger tips …”


Those fingers ... working magic on her body, stirring the roots of desire buried deep within her. Torturing, carving poetry on her hot skin.


“Come as the quiver

Beneath the black earth,

Shuddering, parting

My lips with your mouth …”


Soft and sensual. Those lips moving over every part of her body, the contemptuous mouth of a monarch melting into the skin on her stomach, brushing the dust on her feet, drinking the rich wine of her spirit from the chalice of her body.


“Rise as the flood

That pounds at my heart,

Drowning my reason,

Pulling my being apart …”


So tight. Crushed together so tight it seemed it was her heart pounding beneath his ribs and his heart pounding beneath hers.


“Explode as the fountain

Burning beneath the rocks …”


And then only the lightness...


“But why did you melt away

Like the mountain mist?”


... And emptiness.


She buried her face in her palms and parted her lips in a silent scream.


“Gita,”


She looked up, startled.


Jithu stood before her, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes fixed on her. “I think you owe me the truth.”


She shook her head vehemently, her jaws clenched tight.


“Who is he?”


She closed her eyes and averted her face. God, am I so obvious?


“Gita,” he approached her and laid his hand on her shoulder awkwardly. “Tell me everything. Perhaps then it will be easier to bear.”


She opened her eyes. Her long dark lashes were moist. “Alright.”


*****


“… and I melted away … like the mountain mist.”


She turned to face Jithu. His features were composed, but she could see that his lips were pale.


“Why did you – er – melt away?”


“Because I could not bear to see him walk away from me.”


He exhaled deeply and brushed the back of his hand against his eyes. “Gita, I’m not trying to pressurize you into marrying me, but don’t you see what you’re doing? You are wasting away pursuing the shadow of a dream. You don’t know who he is. You don’t know where he is, what he is. It’s highly improbable, almost impossible, that you should meet him again. And even if you should, how do you know whether he’ll be in a position to accept you?”


She said nothing. He went on, forced into cruelty by the open wound in his heart and her silence. “He might not even remember you.”


Her head bowed. Her body drooped. He caught her arm, fearing she would fall. “Gita! Gita, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …”


She raised her eyes and gazed at him. “It’s alright, Jithu. I understand. And you’re right. I know I’m pursuing the shadow of a dream, but there’s nothing else I can do. I can never forget him. I belong to him, Jithu, body, mind and soul.”


His lips grew pale again. Then he shook his head and asked, “How long are you going to wait for him?”


“I don’t know. Until I die.”


“No!” he was beside her and his palms had raised her face. “You can be happy with me; I know I can make you happy. We were happy together once, weren’t we? You just need time to forget him. No – don’t protest. It’s not impossible. Listen, I’ll make a deal with you. My next leave is six months hence. Tomorrow, I return to the border. You have six months – to forget him. If you meet him within these six months and you can find happiness with him, then I swear I will do all that is in my power to help you. But … if, at the end of six months, you still have no news of him at all, then …”


“Jithu,” she whispered, “do you still want to marry me, after learning that I’m not___”


He silenced her with a single gesture. He raised her fingers to his lips and his eyes spoke better than words could have done. Then he lowered her hand, released her and turned away.



July.


Annie lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, her lips parted in a smile. She wore a short-sleeved beige satin nightdress. Her long bare legs shined on the dark blue eiderdown in the sunlight that filtered in through the chinks between the lacy yellow curtains that danced in the wind like thousands of butterfly wings. She half listened to Kishore Kumar crooning “ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si …” as the dancing notes swept through the room and washed over her body. She was a slim girl with angular limbs, a striking face and a short mop of hair in a boyish cut. When she parted her lips in a smile, which was very often, her slightly uneven teeth shined, giving her an impish look. Her large brown eyes and curved dark eyebrows were not covered as usual by the specs which now lay on a side table next to a large book with a tattered red cover on which the portrait of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh was visible beneath the golden lettering of the cover that proclaimed: “Gone with the Wind.”


“Annie!”


She raised herself up on one elbow and frowned at the door from behind which her mother’s voice cut in through the music:


“Aren’t you up yet? Get up immediately. You have to go for Mass.”


“Bother the Mass.” She muttered and swung herself out of bed reluctantly. For the next few minutes, her figure was a blur that dashed from the washbasin to the cupboard to the bathroom to the mirror, a towel wrapped around her, the powder flying in the air, shaking drops from her hair, pausing for a second to analyse her figure critically in the mirror, the towel went flying, then only the rustle of clothes and the pattering of her naked feet on the floor. Then the door burst open and she was flying down the staircase, her left hand gripping the banister, her right palm flat against the wall, her feet hardly touching the ground. She was at the table, the coffee swallowed, the sandwiches in her hand as she turned to run. Her mother came in from the kitchen just as she sprinted into the hall.


“Annie!” Mrs. Rosemary Zachariah cried out, scandalised, “Don’t tell me you’re going to church like that!”


Her daughter bounded out of the door, in denim pants and a white cotton shirt, waving a scarf behind her to console her mother. She sprinted up the hill and the squat white building of the church came into view. She could see the flock crowding in for the late mass. She shuddered. Ugh, what a bore! Now, if the church had been like the St. Peter’s Basilica in Fort Cochin, all sculptures and carvings and colours and stained glass, she could have enjoyed it, but even then, not for Mass. She would have liked to be alone in the church, alone with the beauty and the splendour.


The sunlight glazed the grass and the leaves danced in the breeze. She felt the cool wind brush the back of her neck. She looked up. There was a rain cloud along the south-west part of the horizon. She took off her shoes and felt the soft damp grass under her feet. She grasped the branch of a young mango tree and bent back, shaking it, letting the thousands of tiny flowers descend like green snowflakes on her neck and breasts. They stayed in her collar, in her hair, a few even settled in her breast pocket. She inhaled the fragrance of the wet earth and the mango blossoms. The fragrance of the edavappathi, the first monsoon.


When she judged that enough time had elapsed, she slipped back into her shoes and, wrapping the scarf around her neck, covering her head, walked slowly down to the church. She was just in time. The crowd began to stream out through the doors. She stood to one side and, upon seeing a girl she knew, moved forward swiftly and caught her by the arm and whispered to her,


“Hi, Susan, I was in church with you today.”


“You were?” then suddenly, her brow cleared and she laughed in understanding, “I mean, of course you were! You scamp, I’ve got a suspicion …”


“Then keep it to yourself, you Doubting Thomas, I’ve been a good girl all along. Now let me speak to Mr. Kuruvilla.”


“Go ahead; I know what you’re going to ask him. Uncle, any news of Jeevan? Christ, Annie, I should think it’s time for you to give up on him. He’s that type.”


“Which type?”


“You know what I mean. He’s different. Not my type. Not yours either. He’s a wanderer, a seeker, something of a recluse, almost an outcast.”


“He happens to be my friend.” She said coldly.


“I didn’t mean it offensively. But he will never be content to settle somewhere and live like ordinary people. He’ll always be questing after some unfeasible goal. Don’t you remember? First it was the Theatre, then it was that Aristotelian philosophical club of his, now …”


That is exactly why I love him, she thought as she walked away towards Mr. Kuruvilla. He was an elderly gentleman in an impeccable black coat and hat, carrying a walking stick. He stared at her from under broad-rimmed spectacles. She noticed his unsmiling expression.


“Good morning, uncle.”


“Good morning, young lady.”


She tried again. “Uncle, don’t you find the monsoon too tame this year?”


He answered sharply, “Don’t try to fool me with your small talk, girl. I know what you want me to say. And I do have news for you.”


“Oh really?”


His lips softened at the eagerness in her face and he conceded, “He’s coming back.”


Coming back?


“Yes.” There was a line of sadness around his mouth as he turned, she following him closely, “He’s leaving the Seminary.”


“Leaving? But – but in the last letter he wrote me, he seemed so happy there. He said he had found his place at last. Learning, reflection and peace. Those were his exact words.”


Mr. Kuruvilla shook his head. “He phoned me last night. He will be here this afternoon. He says he wasn’t made to be a priest. Maybe he’s right.”


“Don’t be too harsh with him, uncle.”


“I’m not being harsh. It’s just a bit difficult to see my son struggling like this to find his place in the world. Sometimes I wish he was more like other boys.”


“I don’t.”


“Neither do I, really. I love him for what he is. I’m just not very good at showing it. But still … a rolling stone gathers no moss. He’s all I have, and I want to see him settled down somewhere. But he seems to be determined to torment me like this.” Abruptly glancing at her, “You have been his friend for such a long time. Haven’t you felt the same thing?”


“Yes, but what use is it to complain? He’ll find his place by himself. We can only wait and hope.”


“How can you stand him?”


“I can stand him because I understand him.”


*****


Four-thirty. The tea-cups were being cleared away. Annie sat on the window sill, staring out at the sheets of rain. The wind slapped her face with the spray. The mango blossoms were washed away into the muddy streams that lined either side of the tarred street. The murky grey figures of houses and trees and swiftly passing strangers in the streets, huddled beneath umbrellas. The crashing music of the rain, the rumbling thunder, the sudden bursts of lightning that seemed to tear the sky apart. She sighed.


Six-thirty. She rose and went to the door that connected her room with the landing. She stood at the top of the stairs and listened. She could hear her father’s voice on the phone, and her mother’s footsteps in the kitchen, the slamming of cupboard doors and the clinking of vessels. She stood undecided for a second, then turned and slid back into her room, closing the door behind her. She couldn’t wait any longer.


The storm outside didn’t scare her. Something clenched within her as she looked out and saw the play of the elements. A surge of adrenaline shot through her veins and she quivered slightly in anticipation of the adventure that awaited her.


“I’m a shooting star that just can’t be stopped.” She whispered to herself.

The rain was still pouring down in torrents. She pulled on a pair of galoshes and took a wide umbrella. She slid out onto the back terrace and from there, climbed down onto the sunshade. She held her breath and dropped down onto the ground. She fell on her feet, crouching down like an animal, but her mother heard the splash her shoes made in the pool of water that was slowly rising up all round the house.


“Who’s that?” she heard her mother call from within and saw her coming towards the grille. She stayed in the shadows, pressed against the kitchen wall, barely breathing. Her mother looked out into the rain, but could make out nothing. Her figure moved away, and the noises in the kitchen continued.


Annie exhaled in relief and slipped away like a ghost.


*****


Mr. Kuruvilla’s house stood alone at one corner of the street, amid deserted plots. Annie moved through the flooded streets. The rain swept against her face, drenching her shirt. Her pants were already soaked through. A sudden gust of wind flung her umbrella inside out. She waved the umbrella in the air until it turned the right way around, but she heard a ripping sound and swore under her breath. The black cloth flapped limply at one end, around a steel wire. She hurried onwards and rung the doorbell. As she took off her specs and wiped them on an end of her damp shirt, she heard the bolts being flung back and a voice exclaim, “Annie!”


She quickly thrust her specs back on her nose and smiled. “Hi Jeevan!”


He stood looking at her in shock. She noticed that he looked gaunter than ever, and something in his eyes bothered her, for she could not tell if it was joy or suffering, but whichever it was, it had not been there before. He looked young, younger than his twenty-six years, but his eyes were steady like those of an old man. Then he stepped back for her to pass in.


“Uh – come in – my God! You’re completely soaked! What the hell are you doing out in such weather? You’ll catch your death of pneumonia!”


He made her sit down and ran off and returned with a towel. As she dried her hair, he heated a cup of coffee and placed it on the tea-poy by her side. As she sipped it, he sat down on the floor by her side.


“Father has gone out.”


“Oh.”


She looked up. He was smiling.


“What’s so amusing?”


“You’re exactly the same. You haven’t changed at all. Still my little friend.”


“Little?” she pretended to be shocked.


“No, Not little.” His eyes twinkled mischievously. “You’ve grown up indeed. How old are you now? Fourteen? Fifteen?”


“Nineteen, if you please.” She said coldly.


He bit his lips and regarded her tousled hair and the loose shirt and pants that now stuck to her skin, stressing the slightness of her figure. “You’re still the same.”


“How’s that?” she leaned forward and gazed into his eyes.


“Crazy.”


She leaned back. “The Seminary hasn’t improved your manners.”


“Hmm.”


She noticed the look in his eyes when she pronounced the word. She sat up and asked, “What made you leave it all, Jeevan?”


He did not meet her gaze for a long time. He stared at the copy of the Ravi Varma portrait of ‘Damayanti and the Swan’ that hung on the wall opposite him. Then he spoke, very slowly,


“I realized – something happened to make me realize what I had been giving up for so long.”


“What?”


“Life.”


“What do you mean?”


He sighed. “Annie, think of it. What does a priest do? He studies, prays and meditates. I don’t pray but I wanted to study and reflect. I wanted peace. I thought the Seminary might offer me that. But then I realized how much of life I was missing. What good is learning without experience? Just a lot of words. I want to experience life, the pleasure of working and the satisfaction of completing my work well; the pleasure of eating a meal knowing it came from the labour of my brain and my hands, the pleasure of expressing my love for life in every possible way.”


She kept her gaze on him. Something had changed him. He was no more the indifferent man she had known. His face was flushed and his eyes glowed.


She asked, “Jeevan, what was it that made you realize all this?”


“The greatest celebration of the joy of existence.” He looked her in the face. “The pleasure of sleeping with a woman.”


She gasped. She couldn’t help it. Her fingers tightened on the soft fur of the sofa. He did not notice it; he only saw her surprise and smiled.


“Yes, I knew you’d be shocked. But you would understand it if you saw her.”


“Who is she?”


“I don’t know.”


“What do you mean?”


He laughed. “She appeared before me one night as a ghost or a nymph of the woods. I was feeling frustrated with the way my life was going, or rather, the way it wasn’t going. I had decided to destroy every line of poetry that I’d ever written. I went into a deserted grove and lit a fire and started burning my verses. Suddenly, someone caught my wrist. It was she. She had appeared out of nowhere, a goddess of hope. She was the spirit of everything I had ever written, everything I knew I had it in me to write. She was lovely. I felt my spirit melt into hers, as my body fused into hers. She will be joined to me forever by this bond. Even now, I feel I can see her before me – her soft wavy hair, her deep eyes, her sensual lips, the line of her throat, the contours of her breasts, the ___”


The tea cup crashed on to the floor. He started as if from a reverie. She started to apologize, but he brushed it aside. He knelt to gather the broken bits and whistled in surprise. “Look at that!” showing the dial of his wristwatch, “It’s almost seven-thirty! Your parents will be searching for you. Quick, up!”


He fetched a coat and wrapped it around her. She fumbled for her umbrella and got out. He caught her by the shoulder. She froze.


“I know it’s superfluous to say this, but … everything I told you right now is confidential, okay?”


“Yes,” she replied coldly. “It’s superfluous.”


She turned and strode off into the rain.


Rip … tear … kill … she thought, the cold fury seething within her as she splashed her way through the water. To take that beautiful throat in her hands and tear it open. To pound, to slash, to tear her to bits, limb by limb. She stopped in the path and threw the umbrella aside, raising her face to the elements and parting her lips in a scream bitten off mid-way by her teeth that stuck together. The sound choked in her throat, shuddered and died as a sob. Her slight frame drooped, but only for a moment.


“It’s no use.”


She snapped around. An old mad-woman was sitting on a milestone by the roadside, holding a soggy sprig of mango blossoms. Most of the tiny green flowers had been ravaged by the wind and the rain. Only the green stem remained, with a few flowers scattered on it. The mad-woman looked up at her with eyes gleaming in the neon streetlight and said,


“It’s no use. The blossoms of the monsoon never bear fruit.”


Annie turned away, repressing a shudder. Suddenly, she remembered her umbrella. She turned back. The old woman was chuckling, clutching the umbrella and poking the water with it. Annie undid the top button of the coat, slipped the collar over her head and set off at a steady pace.



September.


“Divya, bring the maroon buds over here. Anu, see if that border is crooked. Where is the oil? It’s almost time to light the lamp. Nisha, what did you say? I can’t hear. The Judges? In a couple of minutes, let’s have it fast, girls. I say, where’s the oil? No, Ma’am, we’re almost finished. Yes, Ma’am. Only a minute, Ma’am. What’s this? Why are you bringing the mud in here? No, I said oil, not soil. Argh! Somebody please get the bottle of – finally! And now where’s the matchbox? Who the hell made these bloody wicks?”


A teacher’s face shone at the door. “Annie, is that you swearing again?”


“No, Ma’am. I mean, yes, Ma’am, I’m sorry, ma’am.”


“Aren’t you girls ready yet?”


“Almost – ah! Now we’re ready.”


Thirty girls in identical cream-and-gold Kerala saris stood around the biggest flower carpet the college had seen. They stood breathless when the three judges arrived. One middle-aged man with an executive air about him – he must be the District Collector, thought Annie. One older woman in a salwar-kameez who looked like a social worker. Then one younger woman. Annie looked sharply at her. She seemed familiar. She had long hair that swirled about her hips as she walked, her steps rhythmic, her poise perfect. The simple make-up she wore matched her wheatish complexion. She had the grace of a dancer.


“Who’s that?” Annie muttered to Susan.


“Don’t you know her? Gita Mahadevan. The famous danseuse.”


“Is she a Malayali?”


“Yes, but she has been all over India. She comes from the aristocratic Cochin royal family. But there isn’t much of the aristocrat about her. My cousin studied dance from her and she says she is quite friendly – but very businesslike. And passionately devoted to her art.”


Annie studied the lady thoughtfully. Something about her struck her, but she couldn’t think what it was. She knew she had never seen her before, but still she felt quite familiar with her.


*****


“ … and the judges’ decision: Third prize Anjana Damodaran and party, II Economics, Second Prize Swathi Menon and party, III Physics, and First Prize Annie Zachariah and party, II English.”


The thirty young ladies in their dignified Kerala saris jumped into the air as one and cheered.


Annie gravely walked up to the dais and accepted the prize from Gita Mahadevan.


“Your design was very good,” she said, “Graceful and perfectly Malayali, yet different from the usual motifs. Congratulations.”


“Thank you, Madam.” She replied, looking into the other’s eyes, and smiled. Gita returned the smile.


*****


“Do you dance?”


Annie pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows and said in an uncanny imitation of her father, “Dance? The daughter of V.K. Zachariah dance? That will be the day when the sun rises in the west.”


Gita laughed, but there was a tinge of regret in her laughter, which Annie noticed. She hastened to add,


“But I do dance whenever I feel like it. Not classical, merely for fun, as an expression of joy.”


“Dance is an excellent example of the unity of soul and body. The body expresses the soul.”


Suddenly Annie turned aside and noticed a tall, lone figure leaning against the wall and smiling at her. “Jeevan!” she cried and rushed to him. He strode up to her with his arms open. She flew into his arms, hugging him tightly. His hands, that had moved up to complete the hug, stopped mid-way. He had not imagined her body to be so soft and warm. Something of his hesitation communicated itself to her and she stepped back.


“First prize,” she said rather unnecessarily.


“Yeah – congrats.” He looked around.


“Jeevan,” she cried suddenly, remembering, “There’s someone you should meet. Ms. Gita Mahadevan, the famous danseuse. She was one of the judges. Come on, I’ll introduce you to her.”


She dragged him by the arm. As he approached, he got a shock. That elegant figure standing demurely clad in an orange silk sari, the epitome of feminine decorum – how many times had he imagined the body under the silk, how many times he had recalled the passion in those eyes, the magic that mouth had worked on his body, the gentle curves …


She looked up, and something snapped within her. She saw the cool grey eyes, the loose straight hair falling over his forehead, the cool and reserved politeness, and she thought, there, beneath that shirt, just below the second button, is that black spot.


Annie’s words cut the silence that hung between them like a cobweb. “Gita, this is my friend Jeevan Kuruvilla, of whom I spoke earlier. Jeevan, this is Gita Mahadevan.”


Namaskaram.” He folded his palms.


She brought her palms together without taking her eyes off him.

Someone called Annie and she flitted off with an excuse. Gita gazed at Jeevan. He was speaking to her, speaking politely,


“I have watched you dance, Ms. Gita.”


“You have?” she started.


“Yes, once at the Vadakkunnatha temple. I was on the staff of the Hindu at that time, and I was doing an article on the murals of the temple. I watched your dance from afar and admired it, so I remember your name. But I did not recognize you, not having seen your face well in the night.’


Did he not remember? Could he have forgotten? She wondered. Forgotten? That night? Was it so little to him? She responded in the same tone:


“I have visited Thrissur only once before, though I have passed through it many times on the way to Palghat. I know it is considered the cultural capital of Kerala. I am going to the Vadakkunnathan temple this evening.”


An unnecessary statement, she knew. But she could still hope … hope for what? That he had forgotten her? Or that he remembered her? Exactly what did she want?


“If you intend to go to the temple, I would recommend a stroll in the Thekkinkadu Maidanam as well. Especially the place where a lot of teak saplings have been planted of late to restore the old woods.”


She glanced sharply at him. Was it an invitation? But his face was courteously impassive as always. But why did he mention the woods?


“Thank you, Mr. Kuruvilla.”


“My pleasure, Ms. Gita.”


He walked away, feeling her eyes bore into the back of his skull. He wandered aimlessly around the college before he crashed headlong into Annie.


“Well?” she teased him, “What have you been doing, roaming around the campus like a hawk among pigeons?”


He answered gravely, “Hunting a swan.”


She waggled her eyebrows at him, “I’m here, aren’t I?”


“I said a swan, not a goose.”


“Argh! You’re impossible!” she declared, throwing up her arms in mock despair.


*****


The evening sunlight filtered in through the leaves of the tall saplings shooting up into the sky like green spears thrust up from the earth. A twig crackled under her feet. Her heart leapt. It was coming back to her. For almost a year, she had tried to forget it, afraid to remember it, and kept on remembering it, afraid to forget it. And now, why did it have to come back now, just two months away from Jithu’s return? She had almost reconciled herself to the thought that dreams don’t always come true.


“So you followed my advice!”


She spun around. He stood leaning against a sapling, smiling. She forced a smile. He walked up to her.


“These woods trigger off a feeling of déjà vu.” he said.


“What do you mean?” she asked, her throat constricting.


“I used to come and sit here in the evenings before I left for the Seminary, thinking of high things.”


“Oh.” She did not know whether she was relieved or disappointed.


They walked around in silence for a few minutes. Then he asked,

“You’re staying at the Elite?”


“Yes,” she answered, surprised, “How do you know?”


“The way every detective tries when all else fails.” He said gravely and looked at her. Then a smile spread over his face. “I guessed.”

She had to laugh at that, but the laughter was wiped off her lips by the sight of his smile. She didn’t want to remember. He seemed to have forgotten. Oh, how fortunate men were! And how heartless! Why couldn’t she forget it as well?


“It’s getting late. I’ll drop you at the Elite.” He offered.


“No, thank you.” She said hastily in real terror.


“Please allow me.” He insisted.


“Alright.” She conceded.


At the door, she paused and then, emboldened by his manner and sure of a refusal, she asked brightly,

“Would you care to have a cup of coffee?”


“I’d love to.”


She stood staring at him for a moment before she realized that he was not going to refuse. There was no way out. She held the door open for him. He entered. She pressed a button and when the bellboy materialised, directed him to bring two coffees. When she turned after closing the door, she saw him pick up a slim volume that was lying on the sofa. He opened it.


“You read poetry?”


“Sometimes,” she answered warily.


“Am I right in guessing him,” indicating the book, “to be your favourite poet?” he let a moment pass before adding, “Donne, I mean.”


“Oh, Donne? Yes, I like him very much.”


“I like this poem,” he announced, turning a page, “Listen to this:

When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind

But sigh’st my soul away,

When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,

My life’s blood doth decay.

It cannot be

That thou lov’st me, as thou say’st,

If in thine my life thou waste,

Thou art the best of me.


A loose sheet of paper fluttered down from between the pages to the sofa. He bent to pick it up, but she snatched it up. He closed the book and replaced it. Suddenly, the bell rang, startling them both. She moved to the door.


“Coffee,” said the bellboy, presenting a tray with two steaming cups on it.


They sat down and drank. She finished her drink, touched her lips with the piece of paper in her hand as if it were a tissue and then, crumpling it, dropped it in the waste-paper basket. His eyes followed her movements, admiring her for her skill. Christ, what a wonderful actress! She makes it seem so natural, she almost fooled me.


Refreshed by the coffee, she glanced up and smiled. His stomach did a double take. So he had remembered that smile correctly! First the eyes widening with a glow, then the glow spreading to her cheeks, finally to her lips, parting them slightly. He had to say something or he would drown in those deep eyes. His mind cast about for a topic, something that would give him the opening he desperately needed. She asked,


“You’re Annie’s dearest friend, aren’t you?”


“No, Annie is my dearest friend.” He smiled.


“It seems funny, you’re both so different.”


“Not so different. Annie may not show it, but she’s a woman of great depth and understanding, interested in many of the same things as I am – especially philosophy – and poetry.”


Now it was an open bait. She took the only other way out.

“Are you a philosopher?”


“Every poet is a philosopher.”


She took a deep breath and plunged in. “And you are a poet?”


He bowed. When he glanced up again, his eyes were veiled and dangerous. A smile flitted through them and perched on his lips, curving them into a shape that made her tremble.


‘May I presume to bore you with a poem?”


She leapt to her feet. “No!”


He stood up and approached her gently, his voice relentless,

“Do you remember the woods

And the lonely fire

And the nightingale echoing

The song of my lyre?”


She closed her eyes. “No.”


“Do you remember the stars,

Fireflies of the night,

Glittering, trying to

Snatch you from my sight?”


“No,” she murmured again. He was close to her. He bent towards her and his voice was low,


“You taught me to laugh,

You taught me to sigh,

You taught me to melt

When I see you cry.

You taught me to hold

A moonbeam in my fist …”


She screwed her eyes tightly shut and tried to bury her face in her palms, but he caught her wrists in one hand and raised her chin with the other. He leaned forward until his breath touched her lips.


“But why did you melt away

Like the mountain mist?”


A sob escaped her. In a second, she had buried her face in his chest and his lips were pressed against her hair. Her fingers clutched his shirt convulsively. He felt her tears on his cheeks. Then their lips met, and he pressed her body to his. His blood rebelled against the barrier of skin and tissue that separated it from hers. He thought his veins would explode. Slowly, he led her to the bed and she did not protest.


*****


She opened her eyes, unsure for a second whether it was a dream or not. Then she felt the sheet on her bare skin and she sighed, her lips curving in a smile. She turned to watch him sleep – and jerked up with a start.


He had gone.


There was only the sunlight playing on the crumpled coverlet and the ticking of the clock. She got up, stumbling a little, pulling the sheet around her shoulders. She saw the book of Donne’s poems on the tea-poy. She moved towards it as in a dream, the sheet trailing behind her on the floor. She picked it up listlessly, and saw a sheet of white paper fluttering between the pages. She took it out, flung the book aside and skimmed it anxiously.


“Dearest,


I love you. I have always loved you, ever since that night. I searched for you in all streets I passed by, you were always close to me – in my dreams – and in my waking hours. Now I have found you. The rest depends on you. If you have finished running away from me – and from yourself – come to me. I wait for you.


Jeevan.”


She sank down on the floor, exhausted. The letter floated to the ground. She felt light and empty. She did not want to think or make a decision now. Yet she knew that she had to. She reached for the letter once more and her eyes rested on one line. I wait for you. She sighed and raised the paper to her lips. This had to be the right decision. He was the first man who made her feel sure of happiness. He was a spiritual wanderer, always questing, seeking out new goals to achieve, new targets to aim at, new boundaries to cross. Deep within her, she felt the same wanderlust and knew it was the only kind of life for her. Life with him would be full of extremes. There would be no sorrow, only agony, and there would be no joy, only ecstasy. She got up, intending to dress when the telephone rang. She picked up the receiver.


“Madam, a call from Palghat.”


Home! A chill coursed through her spine. “Yes, please connect it immediately.”


It was her uncle. “Gita, you have to come home immediately. Your father is not well.”


“Oh no, what’s ___”


“Don’t worry, it’s not serious – now. But he wants to see you.”


“I’m coming.” She replaced the receiver and got up to dress.


*****


“Jeevan!”


Yes, coming! Wait a sec, Annie.” His voice floated in from the bathroom.

She entered his room and flopped down on his bed. “Go ahead! Have a nice long bath – once in a while!”


He laughed.


She stretched herself out on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Her arm touched something. It was his shirt, discarded on a corner of the bed. She drew it to her. She stole a glance at the bathroom door. Still locked. The sound of the shower reassured her. She spread the shirt on the bed and caressed it softly. Her palms moved over it. She bent down, her lips drew close to the cloth, and then she stopped. She inhaled. There was a faint fragrance on the shirt. Not the aroma of aftershave. It was some perfume, not a pungent one, but the light yet heady scent of sandal and musk. Her eyes flew open. She leapt away from the shirt as if it could burn her. Her agonized gaze darted to the bathroom door for help, but no help came. She stumbled up.


She remembered hearing Mr. Kuruvilla scold his son for being out all night. She had not paid much attention then, taking it for another of Jeevan’s sojourns in the open air, reflecting and meditating. Now the truth rushed into her brain, overwhelming her with its fragrance of sandal and musk. She could bear it no longer. She rushed out of doors and, leaning against a tree, doubled over and retched.


November


November in Thrissur is dry, cold and windy. The thulavarsham – the retreating monsoon – had passed and now it was the turn of the strong wind of vrischikam. The mango trees start blossoming again. This time, the blossoms will bear fruit.


One day, the postman stopped before Mr. Kuruvilla’s gate. Jeevan and Annie, who were playing Scrabble on the sit-out, looked up. Annie was at the gate in a trice to receive the letter. She looked up, her eyes dancing with a light that had been missing for a long while. He sat up, curious.


“Mr. Jeevan Kuruvilla, No. 42, Lakshmi Nagar, Thrissur 680002.” She read, leading him on.


He waited. She slit the envelope open and read. Her eyes widened. When she finished, she rushed into Jeevan’s arms and hugged him as if afraid the joy would burst out of her. Jeevan disengaged himself very gently from her, for she had not been so easy with him for a long time, and he had noticed it. He took the letter from her and skimmed it in a few seconds. In an instant, his composure was shattered and he turned to Annie and hugged her back.


“What the hell is happening?” Mr. Kuruvilla’s acid tone broke in.


Jeevan released Annie and moved back, disconcerted. Annie took the letter and waved it.


“Nothing, uncle,” she called out innocently. “At least, nothing important. Just Jeevan being appointed as the literary critic of the Hyderabad Chronicler.”


The old gentleman held her gaze. After a second, he answered in the same tone, “Well, about time too.”


He disappeared inside.


Annie turned back to Jeevan with a mischievous smile. “Shall we carry on where we left off?”


He grinned. “Shut up and take down your orders.”


“Aye, boss.”


“Go and book me two tickets for Hyderabad.’


She had got up, but at this she turned back. “Two?”


“Yes, two.”


“Jeevan, it’s been two months. Do you really think she’ll come back to you?”


“Shut up, Annie.”


“I’m sorry.” She turned away. He caught her wrist. She stopped.


“I’m sorry.” He said softly. “Forgive me.”


*****


The telephone rang. Gita took up the receiver. “Hello?”


“Gita…”


She pressed the mouthpiece to her bosom as she struggled to find her voice.


“Gita?”


“Yes …”


“I’m still waiting for you.”


“I – I’m sorry, Jeevan. You know how hard it has been for me here, with father’s illness and all.”


“I know. How is he now?”


“Much better.”


“Can he spare you?”


“What do you mean?”


“I’m going away to Hyderabad next week. I’ve got a job there as a literary critic in the Chronicler.”


“Oh – congratulations.”


“The train leaves at four-thirty in the evening, on the 26th. I’ve booked two tickets. I’ll wait for you until the train leaves. Then I shall leave with the train.”


“But …”


“But what?”


“Nothing.”


“You’ve been thinking it over for such a long time. Now you’ve got one more week to think it over.” His voice changed. “I shall wait. I love you.”


“I ___” the words choked in her throat.


“Yes?”


“Nothing.”


There was a click at the other end. She replaced the receiver. She mopped her forehead with the end of her neriyathu and prepared to tell her father the choice she had taken.


Two strong arms closed around her and she heard a familiar voice in her ear. “Really, what a reception! No one to meet me at the gulmohar. And when I come home, no one at the gate or at the front door!”


She turned. “Jithu!”


He stood regarding her critically and affectionately. “You look exactly like a traditional Malayali woman, dressed in this mundu and neriyathu, with your wet hair tied back.”


But I’m not a traditional Malayali woman, her mind protested. She started, “Jithu …”


“Hey, Jithu! Look, everyone, Jithu’s back!”


They turned. A horde of relatives swooped down upon them. Gita looked on in frustration as the chance melted away.


*****


“She won’t come,” said Annie flatly.


“She will.”


Annie sat on the bed, watching him pack. She saw a lock of his hair fall over his forehead as he bent down. He tossed it back with a swift motion of his head. She sighed. He looked up. She was gazing out of the window.


“Why do lovers never understand the person who loves them?”


“What do you mean?”


She looked at him. He was watching her curiously, his brow creased.

“I – I meant Gita.”


His brow cleared. “She does understand. And she will come.”


He locked the suitcase and went out to have a word with his father. She bent down and rested her cheeks against the suitcase.


“But why,” she whispered, “did you melt away … like the mountain mist?”


*****


Conflicting thoughts raged in Gita’s head. She clapped her palms over her ears to shut out Jithu’s loud, hearty voice in the adjoining room. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall.


- Come to me …

- You owe me the truth.

- Thou art the best of me …

- Tell me everything. Perhaps it will be easier then.

- You taught me to hold a moonbeam in my fist …

- You can be happy with me – I know I can make you happy!

- But why did you melt away like the mountain mist?

- You just need time to forget him.

- If you have finished running away from me – and from yourself – come to me. I wait for you.

- No one to wait for me by the gulmohar...


For a long while, she sat motionless. Then she wiped her tears and got up. She had made a decision. She moved to the doorway and called softly,

“Jithu.”


He looked up, startled. She had never spoken so affectionately to him before. He got up and walked to her with a smile on his face. And she returned that smile.


After he heard her out, he smiled again and said, “Now I’m happy.”


*****


The train whistled.


Annie looked at Jeevan. His eyes were fixed in the distance, at the entrance to the platform. She touched his sleeve timidly and said,


“Jeevan, the train is about to start moving.”


He said nothing.


She tried again. “Jeevan, please.”


The train whistled again. He sighed and turned. He mounted the steps and turned back. Suddenly, he turned to Annie and said, “She will come.”


She did not answer at once. There was a strained silence.


“Jeevan, I – I have something to tell you.”


“Hmm?”


It was no use. His eyes were waiting for her. He suddenly turned to Annie. “I beg your pardon, Annie. You were saying something?”


“Yes.” She closed her eyes to screw up her courage. She looked up. He was waiting patiently. “I never told you, Jeevan, but I ___”


She saw his eyes light up suddenly. She turned to follow his gaze. Christ. Not now.


Jeevan jumped down. She was moving swiftly towards him, brushing people aside. She was wearing a simple cotton churidar and absolutely no make-up, but she was the loveliest woman he had ever seen. She broke into a run and he moved forward. She stopped a single step away from him. Both of them moved forward.


“Excuse me,” Annie’s voice cut in like a steel knife through a sponge, “But I think the train has started moving. You can continue on your journey.”


“Right,” Jeevan cried, moving towards the train. He turned to Gita. “Don’t you have any luggage?”


“No.” she remembered Jithu’s words. I am really happy – happy for you.

He clambered up the steps and waved to Annie. He helped Gita up and disappeared inside. The train picked up speed.


Annie stood watching the train move.


On the steps, Gita turned and looked at Annie, holding her gaze. Without saying a word, the two women knew, and each knew that the other knew. Women don’t need words to communicate at times like this.


Then Gita disappeared inside and Annie stood watching the train rush away from her life. Soon it was only a speck in the distance, and she became aware of the noises and motions going on around her. She squared her shoulders and whispered defiantly to the receding shadow of the train,


“I’m a shooting star that just can’t be stopped!”


Then she turned and walked back home.


[The End]


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