Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Beautiful, older for her age, with a dash of mystery and mischief about her. She was short for her age, had dark eyes like a doe, long eyelashes, a freckled face, and slightly big ears. But it was her hair that she was immediately noticed for. They said she got that from her mother; who wasn’t a beauty exactly but those locks, craftsmen and artists would kill for. Our little girl thus, stood out wherever she went. She knew it too, for she loved the attention, and tossed her curls in the air, enjoying every bit of it. Boys her age, loved to have her glance their way, and were she to smile at them, she had their hearts in knots. But like everything of beauty, she was flawed too. Everyone loved her till the time they got to know her. And just how shocked it left them their whole life.
It happened one fine morning. The first time she learnt she was capable of doing something dreadful, willfully. Her mother was unwell that morning, and had been sick all over her clothes and bedding. Father dear, had left for town, in the hope of earning, a penny or a shilling for the handful of produce the scant rains had afforded them that year.
Our little girl loved being alone. She rather not be disturbed, because she always had things to attend to. For instance, she loved wandering all by herself in the woods behind the house. She rarely liked company and today most of all she didn’t want any. Mother was a different issue altogether. Loitering about the door, she could hardly stand her mother’s moans. It only meant one thing – come and clean me up. Picking up the wash bucket, she went inside and dropped the pail next to her mother’s bed. She rolled her mother over and grabbed for the beddings, next mother’s clothes, and kerchiefs she had puked into thoroughly, threw them all into the pail and left. Any regard for her mother’s moans she easily ignored and angrily stamped her foot when she asked her to dress her up. She got the bedsheet from the wash, that still stank, and put her over her mother. “Mama, now behave, okay? I’m going to be gone.”
There was something sinister in that innocent voice and the mother didn’t dare respond. She had learned by now to keep her peace with her. She started talking to herself, “God, have mercy! What have I done to suffer so? I need to talk to her father. One opportunity.” And even before the thought was complete, she heard the girl call out, “Mama?” The sick woman flinched. “How is she here?” She’d left and locked the door behind her. A fit of horror passed her mother’s face as she saw the look the daughter wore. The girl smiled and somehow she looked scarier than a black cat with a wounded eye. “I told you to not make noise, mama. And yet you do.” She got closer and the mother curled up the other way trying to get away from the girl. She sat on the bed next to her mother, and the poor thing screamed from the upcoming horror she was well aware of by now. She held her mother’s wrist and started to tighten her hold. Mother started shivering and trembling from the pain. “We don’t want neighbors to know we are alone, mama, remember? Did I not tell you to sleep, quietly?”
The grip getting tighter yet and the poor mother finding it hard to utter a word, when opened her mouth to say water, she could only manage, “Wat…. Wa….” The girl got closer and looked straight into her mother’s eyes. “What?” You ask me ‘what’?” I’ll tell you what. Ill make sure you make no word, mama. You need to rest. When I’m gone I don’t want you to call the neighbors over and tell them about me. Nor will you speak to Papa.” The girl lightly touched her mother’s lips with the tip of her finger and her mother’s eyes grew wide, wider, wider, and big drops of tears escaped from the corners. She was almost choking when the girl moved her fingers away. “That’s better, isn’t it, mama?” She got up to leave. Sobbing under her breath, mother shrinked some more not sure if the horror was over yet. It was only after she heard the door shut behind the girl, that she removed the coverlet baring her wrist. Black, burned and smoking, her wrist smelled as if it was just taken off the fire.
Daughter loved the woods. She always felt them whisper around her. The deodars circling around her house were as mysterious as her. And maybe that is why she loved the. They never asked questions as humans did. Once, she was so angry that in a fit of rage she set the base of the tree on fire, and yet not a word. She stood at a distance watching them burn, and the light crackling of twigs and leaves felt so relieving as if the tree was apologizing to her. She had watched it reduce to ashes, and the satisfaction was more than rewarding. Even today, after a year, when she passed that spot, she relived the joy she had experienced then.
But today was different. She didn’t know what she was angry about. All she knew was she wasn’t done with the little act of punishment. Was she angry because father had refused to take her to town? She so wanted that little adventure. She needed to get away from her ailing mother to be able to think better, clearer. The constant nursing had blown her to bits, and she needed a break. But right today, her mother had to start throwing up so she couldn’t go with papa again. Couldn’t she hold on until they had left? She couldn’t decide who she was more angry with. She had made her mother suffer a bit, but she was still suppressing a storm inside. Absentmindedly, she sauntered on.
It was four in the evening now, and she was starting to feel early pangs of hunger. She had snacked on the toast her father had managed before leaving. If she had been with him, he would have made sure she at least had supper. Now she was imagining everything she could have ate. That little place that sold hot biscuits was her favorite. Mother could never bake such tasty treats. But mother never really made anything good enough. They had to make do with whatever she put on the table, most of which was boiled carrot soup and a burnt bread. But the lady at the bakery was a good baker. She always wondered what lady bakers were called. She even asked father once. But he gave her a look that told her to finish the hot bun faster. Presently, the idea of warm biscuits made her stomach growl. She remembered the last bread that was left for her mother. Only if she had brought it with her.
The sky started to lose colours. The sudden hint of black meant clouds were anxious again. The winds sleeping for so long were awake and went through the trees looking for solace. Not being able to find peace, they screamed, and their voices could be heard from miles away. What was it about the day? It was hell-bent on ruining her fun. Nothing was all right since she had left home. Hungrier and angrier still, she collapsed under the nearby tree. ‘I’ll rest a bit before going on’, she told herself.
But the clouds were in no mood to rest just then. They rushed up with their activities and soon little droplets started to reach her through the dense foliage above. She looked up and saw that the tree was real big and at the end of its branches, it sagged from old age. They looked less sturdy and if she decided to climb it, she had to be mindful to not break her bones from falling. No. That’ll be too bad. Firstly, she was hungry, and a broken leg or arm, won’t do at all. And what about the task at hand? No. No. Careful, she reminded herself. Rain picked up speed and soon was washing up everything in its way. She began climbing up the tree. The rain-soaked bark was getting harder to get a grip on. Not once, but twice she fell. On the third fall, she kicked the tree hard. ‘Why won’t you just stay still?’ she cursed at it. Again she attempted and this time, the tree gave it to the little monster. It drooped a little so she could tug tighter at its folds. Soon, she was up on a branch and what a thick sturdy branch that was.
It extended right out from the tree trunk like a mighty arm, and tender twigs and creepers shot out from its fingers. Up here, the tree felt real warm as though it was never raining at all. The think head of the tree was bursting with masses of leaves on all sides, making it look it one big sky of its own. Upon getting comfortable, she took off her jacket tied it to one of the smaller branches, and laid down, legs dangling on both sides of the branch. Resting her head on the tree’s trunk, craving once again of those warm biscuits, she fell asleep. She was a dense sleeper, and within minutes, her eye lids were fluttering from the dream she was chasing.
In her dream, she was yet littler, yet faster, yet naughtier, yet weirder. She was holding a mirror, and looking at herself. The mirror her had jet black hair, shoulder length. She couldn’t say if that’s her, so she looked behind her convinced it was an imposter but she found a plateful of the biscuits instead. She immediately reached out to get one, but the plate disappeared, and in its place stood a squirrel licking its bushy tail. She was so hungry she thought she was going to eat that squirrel and then she tried to pursue it. But then wait, she is falling, again, and she wakes up with a jolt, the dream is over only to find she is hanging from the branch and will soon topple. Her hand stretched still in that same position she was trying to catch the squirrel, and at the end of the branch, sure enough is a tiny little squirrel.
‘Zaye?’ She looked directly at the squirrel. She watches on intently. The squirrel now with a nut in its hand, looks on too. ‘Eating me won’t help, Maya.’ The girl straightened up half-expecting the squirrel to scamper. She isn’t sure if she is still dreaming, and if she isn’t, is it possible that it’s a talking squirrel? Squirrels don’t talk she corrected herself. ‘Sure we do.’ Back came a voice. ‘But eating me won’t fill your tummy. You need a goose or a rabbit perhaps!’ The girl was listening intently. The squirrel was busy breaking the nut, when the unexpected happened. The girl pounced on it, and although the animal jumped, she caught its tail and held it up, dangling head down in the air. The nut flew from its grip, and the squirrel started to twist painfully. The end which the girl had held, started to burn, and it let out a gut-wrenching squeal. This further excited her. She began to twist and turn its tail, and within seconds, the tail was in ashes, and the charred body of the squirrel fell on the ground with a soft thud. Having thoroughly enjoyed the act, she jumped down the tree. Gingerly, she picked the squirrel. It was less than decipherable. Happy with her capture, she moved on, with happy steps echoing in the woods, with intermittent crunching of bites under the teeth, and excited lip-smacking. Few and far between, a bone or two, fell in the damp foliage underneath; their identity lost eternally.
Four hours had passed, mother was sure, that the girl was well out of reach. This was her chance. She had to try. Else she’ll die before she could tell anyone about the girl. Whatever little energy she had left, that too seemed draining at rocket-speed. She could barely move a finger. Dragging herself up, she used her good arm to get a grip of the edge of the wooden bed. It complained from the unexpected pressure and threatened to break. She looked around to see if there was the stick she used to walk with. But obvious, it wasn’t there. What did she expect? That the girl would leave it there to aid her escape. She let out a sob, understanding well the struggle that awaited her.
Between mother and the door there were thirty steps, but right now it appeared it would take her forever. She had to be careful to not leave any traces, dragging her feet, she crawled steadily, careful to make no noise lest the girl was around. Suddenly, she yelped in pain. A nail in the wooden floor had torn her feet and now there was blood everywhere. But it wasn’t her injury that scared her, it was the mess. She’ll know. God, she will so know. And then what will she do. The last time, she had left her with burns and unattended for weeks. Only because she had tried speaking to father about her. Now what is going to happen. She shivered at the thought of the scalding burns she branded her with.
It seemed to her, her breathing grew so noisy that she could hardly focus. She had to hold on. Listen if she was around. She focused and no humming meant no her. But that didn’t mean she’d not be here any minute. She had to first clear the blood on the floor, but with a bleeding foot, how far can she go? First things first. She’ll attend the cut first. She’s got to stop if from bleeding. She tore off the hem of her night gown and wound it tightly around the cut. The blood coloured the bandage red. The bleeding stopped. She picked the mop from far corner, wrung it dry, and quickly mopped up the blood on the floor. She scrubbed hard to wipe away the spots, and even though there weren’t any; for fresh wet drops don’t leave stains on wood, like a maniac she kept rubbing the spot anyway.
The girl now was deep into the forest. So deep that up above the dense intermingling of trees made it look like midnight twelve. Only some very tough sun rays got through the dense foliage and were soon lost in the mouths of the trees waiting to devour them. Every now and then, she looked up and enjoyed the sickening darkness. Utter bliss got her at times, when she hopped up the path. Picked up a twig here, ran its sharp edge through a squirming caterpillar’s tummy. This way she had crossed a good stretch of the forest and just as she started descending a slope, there it was.
Shining like silver in the pale darkness. it’s edges dancing like a maiden. The lake. Even from the distance one could see the small ripples like exotic curves on a woman’s soft, supple body. The light breeze kissed the water’s surface and in those places, it blushed pink. A duck or two swam in and out. The aura was elysian. A warm smile spread across her lips. She fastened her pace, hopped across a tiny stream, jumped down a small cliff, and landed with a thud. She plucked the fresh daisies that grew carefree alongside the banks. Then she took off her shoes like one does before entering places of worship, and went closer still where when she peered in she could see her face, only it wasn’t really her face that looked back.
A lady of unparalleled beauty stared back from the waters of the lake. She had eyes just like the girl’s, hair just like hers, an air of mystery set about her smile. Her lips were redder and when she spoke, it felt like music to the ears. “My child, where were you?” She said, with pain in her eyes. “I was stuck. But I’m here now, mother.” The girl said and touched the surface gingerly. A hand, older, wrinkly, touched it back.
(to be continued…)