I wrote this story a few months back for a writing contest but didn’t submit it 🙂 I wanted it on my website, so here’s my last short story for the year 2017 🙂
‘Pratha slumped in front of the easel and stared at her un-finished painting, the brush long forgotten at her feet. She could hear her heart beat in the silence of her studio. Om had converted the spare room into her oasis, a safe place for the tortured artist in her to come out and play without any fear. He seldom intruded into her private sanctuary, seeking her permission before walking in, even though she assured him time and again of his unconditional welcome into her world. She was happiest here, with paint stained smock and smudged fingers and the occasional streak of colors in her hair thanks to distracted fingers tucking errant strands of hair behind the ear. The anchor shaped birthmark at the base of her thumb peeked out from beneath a thin layer of paint.
The woman in the painting looked shocked, her big brown eyes dilated with naked fear as she looked back at Pratha. The twin flames in her eyes looking almost real, their glow emanated heat and Pratha’s hand jerked back involuntarily. Her heart raced and the dull thudding, throbbing in her ears reached a new crescendo.
She found herself standing in front of a burning house, hand to gaping mouth. The anchor shaped birthmark on her thumb, almost as if it were glowing in the fire. The flames were licking the sky, bathing it in a golden hue. A woman shrieked from inside the burning structure, “Help me. Help…”
The agonized screams died down even as Pratha stood motionless, her feet refusing to move, her vocal chords reined in by an invisible hand around her throat.
Blessed relief in the form of rain came a bit too late. The ashes of the house, now burnt to a cinder, flew about in the onslaught of the raindrops. The trickle of water running down the hill from the house turned into a river and Pratha found herself washed away by its force.
Raja, a little boy of about nine or ten, swam furiously. His aching arms hit the water hard with every stroke, his little legs desperately kicking at the water. He had to get home as soon as possible. With four sisters to care for, Raja considered himself almost a grown up. And, now, his stepmother was nine months pregnant, with the baby due any day. Raja had heard his parents fighting almost every night for the past few months. His father wanted a baby boy, a son. The midwife had assured him that this time his wife would deliver a boy, and that she spoke from experience. Raja knew it was just her desire to please his angry father that prompted the midwife to lie to him. It was evening when he reached home, and the house was silent.
“Maa where are you? I’m home. Where is everybody?”
A perplexed Raja ran inside the thatched hut he called home. His mother was crying and his four sisters were huddled around her. His father was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where has he gone?’
His mother faintly replied, ‘He has gone to bury our stillborn daughter.’ Raja could feel an icy hand clutching his heart and squeezing tightly, the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Sensing danger, Raja ran towards the burial ground to stop his father.
There, he found a shallow grave covered with moist mud, his father nowhere to be found. Raja clawed at the tiny grave and threw the mud aside. He spied a tiny hand jutting out of the grave, the birthmark, shaped like an anchor was clearly visible on her tiny thumb. An identical mark was on Raja’s hand too. Raja let out a scream of rage, and turned back towards his home. Seeing his father seated outside the hut, smoking a hookah, Raja felt himself go cold.
“Was my little sister alive when you buried her?” he screamed at his father. “Tell me! I want to know the truth.”
His father looked at Raja, puzzled by his outburst, “So what if she was, I already have four daughters. I want another son. Getting these four married off itself will break my back. I did the sensible thing. She didn’t feel anything, being only an hour old.”
Raja lunged at his father, grabbing his neck but he was no match for his father’s brute strength. A blow to his head knocked Raja out.
Pratha gasped as if she was choking, struggling to breathe. A few grains of soil fell out of her mouth when she coughed. Where did this soil come from? I haven’t been to the beach in ages.
As she searched her memory to try and come up with an explanation for the sand in her mouth, her phone rang.
The voice on the other end of the phone call belonged to Om, her husband.
“I will be a little late in coming home tonight. I have a meeting with the partners in my firm.”
“Okay, but wake me up when you come home. I have a lot to tell you.”
Pratha kept the phone on the table and reached for the forgotten paint brush lying on the floor.
Why did I paint the embers in the woman’s eyes? wondered Pratha. It made her look scary and unreal, like some kind of ghost. ‘Let me paint over the orange in her eyes with white paint’, mumbled a dazed Pratha, even as she applied fresh white paint to the tip of her brush.
The more strokes of white paint she applied to the orange, the brighter it appeared until, finally, the crimson in the eyes of the woman in the painting became so pronounced that it looked fiery.
Pratha was at a loss to understand this bizarre happening. An arts major who had been painting since college, this kind of mixing of colors had never happened in any of her paintings before.
She propped herself up on the stool next to the easel and stared thoughtfully at her painting. She must have dozed off sometime during her vigil because she jolted awake when the clock struck 12.
Her dreams had been oddly bizarre. Her body felt warm as though the glow of the fire had warmed her up. Her clothes were damp, and she occasionally spat out black soil when she coughed or sneezed. She was weary to the bone. Her confused thoughts were a muddle, and she found herself thinking strange thoughts.
Om tiptoed in, mindful of his certainly sleeping wife. However, he was in for a surprise. A disheveled and distraught Pratha was pacing the room, muttering gibberish. The vacant look in her eyes scared Om. He tried to intercept her, but she shrugged off his hold and slipped out of his grip. She stared at him like a woman possessed and Om was taken aback.
“Pratha, what’s up? Are you okay? Why don’t you stop moving around and tell me what happened to get you so worked up?”
“I don’t know. Am I dreaming or is this real? I just saw myself in three different lives. Am I living in three parallel universes? How can I explain myself to you when I am equally confused?”
Om, as usual, tried to be the voice of reason and attempted to pacify Pratha. She was beginning to spiral and Om knew there would be no stopping her then.
“Stop it, Pratha. You are making me nervous! What is this about?”
“I don’t care! About anything! Don’t you see what’s happening to me?! I am not crazy! My visions are as real as you and me.”
Om dialed his family doctor’s number and explained Pratha’s condition to him best as he could. The kindly doctor came over, and personally administered calming medicines to his distraught patient before advising Om of the repercussions of such an experience. He displayed grave concern for Pratha’s state of mind advising they go to a psychiatrist as soon as possible, and even recommended a few names. At the door, he told Om he would call back the following morning to check on her, but that the medicines should have had the desired effect of calming her down.
I watched Om cover Pratha with a blanket before walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water. She looked so peaceful asleep, rid of all her demons and blissfully unaware of their existence – for a while at least.
I slipped into my room and closed the door softly, not wanting to wake my distraught mother and further trouble my already disturbed father. As I put out my hand to switch off the light, my eyes rested on the anchor shaped birthmark at the base of my thumb. I was sucked into the story of the burning house, raging river and the burial ground with the baby’s hand jutting out, calling for help.
By Sulekha Rawat
I wish you all a very happy and prosperous New Year!