By Mrinalini Singh
“It had been a beautiful day.” He thought dispassionately. “The first day of the rains…”
The day had begun with dark overcast skies that gave way to a heavy downpour. Now, towards late evening, it had all cleared up a bit and the sun peaked tentatively from behind a slumbering gray giant, having lost most of its heat but not its light. Giving the cloud a trimming in silver, reaching down to caress the earth with wistful golden fingers.
The man stared at the playful sun through the bright flickering orange-red flames whose intensity turned his face red and made him sweat, aware yet unaware of his discomfort, finding himself untouched by the beauty of the nature. Studying it mechanically.
“Too beautiful a day to die.”
He watched the flames, imagining them eating away at her body, slowly taking away the last of her till she would be lost from him forever.
He was aware of the people milling around behind him, of someone sympathetically patting his shoulder, words of condolence passed. Of mournful faces and grieving friends. Their friends.
No, they were all her friends, all people who’d loved her. People who had been bowled over by her beauty, her intelligence and wit, her kindness, compassion, warmth… the list was endless. He’d never had any friends, he’d just had her.
Forty years of togetherness… forty years of bliss in her company. Just the two of them. Neither of them had any family, but while she was forever surrounded by friends, he was a loner by nature. She was as popular as he was unknown in the college. As beautifully attractive as he was overlooked.
And after he had her he never needed anyone. Not any more.
None of her friends had ever understood what she saw in him. He too had asked her once, insecure in her love, unsure of himself, “Why do you love me?”
He remembered she had looked at him steadily for a long time before saying simply “Because you are you.” He’d never asked her again.
Forty years they’d been married… in that entire time people had always been surprised by their pairing. More so when they found out it was a love marriage. He’d stopped being hurt by their comments a long time ago. Who cared as long as he had her?
They’d never had any children… she could not bear any. He hadn’t minded. Upset by her obvious distress, yes, but not too upset himself. Who cared?
Slowly he made his way home. Lots of people had offered to drive him but he preferred to walk. After all there was nothing to go home to… rather nobody.
It was twilight now… the last of the lights before night fell.
There were no lights on at his home. It had never been this way when she was around. Utter darkness… inside and outside.
The clouds growled threateningly as he started unlocking the door. It would rain again soon. On one level he was intensely sensitive to all that was going on around him… the dark skies, the lightening, the cold wind, the small pup who was curled up on his steps, its soft whimpers sounding loud to his oversensitive ears… poor pup. Had she been around, she would have probably taken it in and fed it. She’d loved animals as much as he hated them, his only habit that had angered her was his uncaring attitude towards them.
“How can you be so callous towards the poor animals?” She would demand furiously.
“There are so many displaced and unhappy human beings. Aren’t my energies better spent on feeling compassion for them instead of some dumb beast.” He would retort.
“Exactly because they are dumb… they can’t speak when they are hurt or in pain. And it’s not fair because we humans are the ones responsible for their well-being.” She would get very passionate about the topic. In fact the only thing they ever fought over was his unwillingness to let her adopt the street dogs. She could feed them outside the house but dare she try to bring them inside…
Had she been alive he would have probably kicked that pup off the steps and they would have ended up fighting about it, he thought sadly. He could feel the pain overwhelming him as he stumbled into the darkened house. He let it come, he owed it to her.
Through the night the thunder and rain outside seemed to be trying to keep pace with the storm inside his heart. Even the little pup’s crying seemed to be in sync with the mood.
He lay on the bed, curled up in his grief. Howling like a baby at times, crying silently at other.
Towards the morning he lay numb and quiet, worn out by his sorrow. Tears still welled from his eyes, the pain was still there… it would always be. But like the storm outside that had abated, his heart had also stilled somewhat. The pup was quiet too. Tired like him, he thought.
He remembered her last days. Lying frail in the huge hospital bed… the white sheets, the blue walls and the smell of antiseptic that even the big bouquets of fragrant flowers could not detract from.
Her fight with cancer had drained her out. Her beautiful hair had turned white, blue shadows surrounded her eyes… like a delicate china porcelain vase, cracked and all the more exquisite for its nearing doom.
She had fought, really fought for him. But that day he had known he needed to let her go. To help end her pain.
He’d stood by her side holding her hand. She’d smiled her old smile… the smile that had always lit up his life. He’d tried to smile back.
“So I was right this time too, wasn’t I?” She teased.
“Remember how when we’d just started going around, you used to fear that I’d leave you? And how once, irritated with your insecurities, I said that I’d leave you only if you asked me to leave. And that’s what you’ve come to say today, haven’t you?”
He stared at her numbly, wishing he could tell her how much he wanted her to stay… it seemed his heart would burst with pain. A scream was echoing in his head… piercing yet silent, reflected in the anguish in his eyes. But there were no words… none were needed. She understood, she was the only one who needed to understand.
He lay on the bed… reliving that pain. Reliving it and let it wash over him. It came in waves… strong rushes that seemed to be sure to drown him and then slowly abated, and he’d find himself bruised and beaten, but still alive.
Then a bittersweet smile lit his face as he remembered the last thing she’d said to him, as she was drifting away, relieved of her pain by the strong morphine injection the doctor had administered. Her voice had been soft and weak, but full of the passion that had colored her life.
“You know, I bet you something else as well.” He’d looked at her inquiringly.
“I bet you won’t change one iota even after I’m gone. You’ll still remain the social misfit who anonymously donates money to charity. Who pretends he needs no one, but will go out his way to help anyone in need. Who hates getting wet in the rain and dislikes all animals. Who pretends to be so hard, but his whole problem is that he’s too soft hearted, he cares too much… and gets hurt too quickly.
I wish you would change. I wish you wouldn’t be so afraid of loving, of letting anyone near you. I fear so much for you after I’m gone. Please try not to close your heart to people who want to help.
But I’m afraid my stubborn hardheaded loner, nothing’s gonna change you. And I can bet you that. My last bet. Are you going to take me up on it? Are you?”
He looked at her slowly drifting away. How could he tell her that there was no way he could ever imagine even spending a second of his life with anyone else, of giving away even a millionth part of his love for her to anyone else. How could there be anyone in his life after her? What life, for that matter?
She opened her eyes with an effort to stare at him. “Are you?”
He silently nodded his head and watched her close her eyes tiredly. She’d probably win this time around too.
She died soon after that.
Now, as the first of the false dawn broke in the northern sky, her presence seemed to fill the room. He imagined her standing there next to him, looking down at him lying curled up in the bed, a tender smile touching her lips. Her voice, soft and melodious, reverberated in his head… “Are you going to let me win again? Are you that weak? That scared?”
He knew he could not let her down this once. “No!”
He got off the bed with strong confident steps… opened the door to let in the mellow morning light. The rain had not stopped as he moved onto his porch. Going up to the stairs, he carefully picked up the feebly whimpering pup in his hands and carried him inside the house.
In the east the sun slowly broke through the clouds…
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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