Fan Fiction, Literary, Short Stories

The Thief

On the hot and dreary summer nights, as Amma slept after a hard day’s work, I would sneak out to the backyard and look at the stars. It was the only time I felt alive; as if the chains that bound me throughout the days dissolved away to let me live, truly and freely, for a few hours of solitude. Nighttime meant peace and a well-deserved break from the heat and the hardship of daily chores.

Amma would get really upset at first. “The dark brings bad luck Aanki,” she would say. Sometimes, she would scream and slap to invoke discipline. On other days, she would embrace me in tears and cry “The neighbors will call you a witch!” When none of these worked, she reluctantly dropped the issue with a warning to be discreet.

The summer nights would be full with the whispers and sighs of people tossing and turning in their sweaty beds, rejuvenating themselves for the next day. These mixed with the dull lashing of the scanty waters of Euphrates against her stony banks. Distant shrieks of jackals and other nightly creatures of the surrounding desert often disturbed the monotone. But the people disregarded them, for the great walls of Uruk negated all outside threats. The fortifications surrounded the entire city, parting only for Euphrates as she flowed peacefully along the middle of Uruk, dividing it in half.

The east wall rose a few yards away from our house. It was where our world ended. The sun was born from it every morning, yellow and bright, from where it continued its journey across the heavens, till it disappeared behind the smoke of the western metalwork factories. Most of us had never set foot beyond the confinements of the city. Only selected traders were allowed to enter and leave — it was Lord Gilgamesh’s way of protecting the secrets of Uruk from foreign spies.

But Uruk didn’t refrain from showing off its assets to the outside world. The White Temple, the highest structure known to man, stood at the center of the Anu district. It was said to have risen on its own accord from the ruins of another giant temple in order to move closer to the heavens and to Anu. This pedestal of rubble held it above the walls for the entire world to see. During the day, the temple’s white stone reflected the sun like a mirror and the blaze reached all four corners of Earth. Under the softness of the moon, it radiated a pearly aura that made the streets and buildings glow.

On one such night, in this very aura, a figure caught the corner of my eye. It was crouching behind the fence! Must be a thief, I thought.

“Who’s there?” I called out in alarm and reached for the bell. At this, the person frantically raised his arms and whispered with urgency: “Wait! It is Kishar!”

It indeed was Kishar, the blacksmith’s boy.

“What are you doing here?” I asked suspiciously. Kishar had a reputation; in the past he had been caught stealing from a merchant and was publicly flogged as a result. Amma had asked me to stay away from him, as did the parents of all others. Nowadays, he could be seen roaming the streets by himself, sometimes transferring logs for his father, sometimes playing with a string and a top. He also carried around a sword that he claimed to have made himself. At sunset, he would swing it at a hay-filled sack that he had hung from the dead willow tree by the river.

“I was just passing by,” he said. But the pace of his breath and his drenched clothes gave him away — he had been running, most probably from the guards.

I unlatched the gates and let him in after making sure no one was observing us.

“You may stay here till daybreak,” I said.

To be honest, I was a little pleased to have some company. It was not every day that I got to talk to a person shunned by society. Whatever his faults were, I knew he was harmless, for there was a sense of simplicity to his being.

Sitting down in our yard, Kishar set down a sack that he was carrying, and from it, he produced an entire loaf of bread. Then, tearing it neatly into two, he offered me half.

“How did you steal this?” I inquired as I took a bite. The bread was cold, but it was stuffed modestly with dates and had a pleasant taste.

“I know a place where you can climb the baker’s wall,” he replied without remorse.

The head priest had said: even the gravest of sins seem commonplace when repeated enough number of times — a murderer can kill without fear and a thief can steal without guilt — yet they do not realize that each consecutive crime puts a heavier burden on their souls. The sudden recollection of these words made me feel sorry for the boy. Moreover, repeating offenders were often punished severely; some had their hands chopped off and were reduced to beggars.

“Why do you steal, Kishar?” I asked.

“Father spends all our money on ale,” he muttered through a mouthful of bread.

“Why don’t you find some work at the market? I hear they need more cart-bearers.”

“They will not employ a thief. But I will be old enough to join the army this harvest season!”

“Good.” It was probably for the best. The soldiers lived fairly luxurious lives compared to the common folk; they got a share of the city’s best yields of fruit and crop and had personal servants. Perhaps the nobility of the profession could also balance out some of his present sins.

For a while, we sat in silence and munched happily. I tried not to think of the inappropriateness of the situation or what Amma would say if she found a boy in the backyard after dark. I kept a fair amount of distance between us, just in case.

Kishar was tall and broadly built, but his hollow cheeks and tattered clothes betrayed poverty. His dark hair fell loosely over his tanned face that still held the innocence of a child. As he sat in the moonlight, lost in some distant thought, he seemed nicer than most people I knew. I wondered what it felt like to be him; to spend all day by oneself, getting nothing but frowns and hostility from everyone around. How unfair it was to condemn someone to a life like that. But I decided not to burden him with my pity.

“What does Kishar mean?” I asked, trying to divert myself from sad thoughts.

Upon meeting new people, I often asked the meanings of their names. Our names hold some power over us throughout our lives and say a lot about our personalities. At least, that is the logic I use to explain my fascination with stars. Aanki is the child’s word for the universe, or more precisely, the feeling a child has when it sees the sky in all its glory for the first time. I was in love with my name and constantly searched for people with more meaningful names than mine, perhaps just to feel superior when I couldn’t find any.

“Kishar is the place where the heavens meet the earth,” he informed. His mother had christened him on her deathbed, shortly after his birth. “After all,” he had said, “that is the only place where the dead and the living coexist.”

He went on to describe memories from his childhood. I showed him how to form figures in the sky by joining different stars. We talked about a lot of things that night, the details of which skip my memory now; I was heavy with sleep and, in hindsight, it all feels like a dream. But I will forever remember the story behind his name and the soft yearning in his voice as he spoke of his dead mother.

“You’ll catch your death, sleeping outside like that!” Amma said, as she shook me awake the next day. The sun was already high and I noted, with both relief and dismay, that Kishar had disappeared.

*

I often saw Kishar around town, going about his usual ways. He dragged logs to the factory in the morning while I fetched water from the well. He practiced his swordsmanship while I washed clothes by the river. We didn’t dare to speak during daytime, but whenever no one was around, he would give me a nod to acknowledge our secret friendship. I half expected him to turn up at our house again in the middle of the night, but he didn’t.

Several months passed by and life was normal. Every morning, the others and I would climb the steps of the White Temple where the head priest would lecture us about morals and teach us how to keep count of the family provisions. We would offer our prayers at the feet of Anu and revel at the unending sight that the temple allowed us in all directions. The rest of the day would be full of dull chores, and before a drop of rest, it would be time for the stars again.

One day, as I was returning from the riverbank, news came that Ugula Gishkim had called a district meeting at sunset. Gishkim was the chief governing commander of Anu district, his main function: to spread and enforce the orders of the king. A district meeting could only mean trouble and rumors started flying around about the announcement of another war.

Uruk had been at war thrice since I was born. The city proudly claimed to have protected its civilians from the bloodshed throughout history. The great walls were impenetrable. But in reality, no amount of fortification could keep out the venom of war; it seeped through in the form of increased taxes and overwhelming demands for weapons and medicine. While soldiers butchered one another outside, the people inside died of starvation and fatigue.

The crowd had already gathered when Amma and I made our way to the marketplace. The air was tense with speculation and everyone was nervous. The previous meeting had announced laws limiting the amount of riches individual families can possess; the one before that had marked the shutdown of a silk factory, putting hundreds out of work. The good always happened silently, but the bad had to be announced and enforced.

Soon, Gishkim took his place on the pedestal and addressed the crowd with a brief message: “Lord Gilgamesh, our king and savior, is in need of a new mistress. All unmarried girls who have come of age must present themselves for this occasion at noon, tomorrow.”

There was a collective sigh of relief, but my heart puckered as if caught in a knot. The king had taken his first mistress the previous year. I was too young to participate then, but I clearly remembered the girl who had been chosen; she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, very pretty and well endowed. She had squealed in joy on the day she was picked and had sailed off in the golden chariot smiling. No one ever saw her since. Even the repeated pleas of her parents to meet her were declined at the palace gates. I had often wondered what became of her. Now at the thought of having to be a contender for the same fate, a deep and unsettling fear clouded my brain.

“I will not go,” I informed Amma upon returning home, but was only met with silence.

Later at night, as I sat in our backyard, I could not hold back the tears. There are dozens of others, I tried to remind myself; I haven’t been chosen yet. But no amount of consolations could negate the dread of the possibility of having to leave everything behind. What will happen to Amma? There’s no way she could manage on her own with her bad hip! And what fate befalls of a mistress when the king gets tired of her? What happened to the previous mistress? My head swam with several dark thoughts as I cried myself to sleep.

I woke up to find a loaf of bread lying on a piece of paper near the fence. If only he were king, I thought.

I spent the entire day convincing Amma that there must be a way out.

“I’ll tell them I’m not old enough!”
“I’ll feign illness!”
“I’ll scar my face! The king surely wouldn’t want a scarred mistress!”

But Amma didn’t relent. I could see she was fighting hard to be strong herself. She didn’t want this any more than me, yet she kept muttering about how good an opportunity this was.

“Foolish child,” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling, “think of all the riches you will have! You will live in the palace and you will never work a day in your life!”

Two royal servants were sent to prepare me for the event. I struggled while they rubbed their herbs and pastes on my skin. But they were firm and adamant and got their job done. After three grueling hours of cleaning, beautifying and dressing, I was declared ready.

Amma embraced me one last time, as I was being led away from my house, finally in tears.

“The king always gets what he wants, Aanki,” she whispered, planting a wet kiss on my forehead.

*

Gishkim lined us up by the palace boulevard. All the girls were dressed in extravagant clothes that they did not own. Most of them shifted nervously on their toes. Some looked happy, but most, like me, were full of worry.

The king would pass by in his carriage and he would choose the one that is most pleasant to his eyes. Amma stood at some distance, among a large group of onlookers, her lips moving in prayer. Everyone could’ve heard the thumping in my chest if it weren’t for the noise  of the impatient crowd.

The palace gates opened with a loud screech as soon as the bells announced midday. The royal carriage was led by two magnificent white horses and few soldiers marching behind it as escorts. It rolled by slowly with red curtains drawn over its windows. The king observed us through the thin fabric, and even though I couldn’t see him, I felt fully conscious of his gaze.

Lord Gilgamesh rarely presented himself in front of the people, in fact, I knew him only by description. People called him the golden king — for he had golden hair and was quite fond of gold and treasures. He had spent most of his life conquering and looting kingdoms to accumulate the largest treasury in the history of mankind. I imagined him now, measuring us critically, about to change one of our lives forever with a mere command.

The carriage turned around as it reached the end of the line and began retracing its path. It made three such painfully long passes while we held our breath in crippling anticipation. Finally, it came to a halt — a little distance away from me! A soldier walked up to the windows and having heard the king’s voice, signaled me to step forward.

My world came crashing down.

“The mistress has been chosen!” I heard him shout through the ringing in my ears. The crowd responded with a half-hearted applause.

The reality of my fate hit me full on for the first time. Until then, I hadn’t really believed that I would be picked. There were over fifty girls after all — what were the chances? Everything began to swim in my vision as tears filled my eyes. I considered running, but it was, of course, pointless.

In my distress, I didn’t see a figure silently emerging from the crowd and taking a stand in the middle of the street, nor did I hear the several gasps as he drew his sword. But the words that followed silenced the world and hastily pulled me out of the recesses of my mind.

“I challenge the king to a duel.”

*

Kishar tried to keep the sword steady in his trembling hands. After a brief pause, a dozen soldiers fell on him and disarmed him.

“I challenge the king!” he screamed again, through the struggle.

The carriage door opened with a soft click, and immediately all soldiers fell to their knees, their heads lowered. Even the ones restraining Kishar released him in haste and followed suit.

The person who stepped out of the carriage was huge, bigger than any man I had ever seen. His face was covered with a bushy beard and his long hair and bare chest gave him the appearance of a caveman. Could this be Gilgamesh? He was completely different from my mental image!

Another followed him, instantly clearing my doubts. The reflection from his jewelry momentarily blinded anyone who dared to look at him directly. Even his white kilt was embroidered with gold, matching the hair that hung over his bare shoulders. He was pale and slender, but the grace with which he carried himself radiated strength and command. His face held no discernible expression as he fixed his gaze on Kishar.

“Kneel,” Gilgamesh commanded.

But Kishar, stubborn as he was, raised his sword once more. Gilgamesh waited for a moment and gave a sigh of resignation.

“Bring me my sword, Enkidu.”

The wild man disappeared into the carriage once again and retrieved a crimson blade. So this was Ea, I thought, the legendary weapon that had slain a thousand kings. What chance did a blacksmith’s boy have against such an opponent with such a sword? My heart broke as I struggled not to predict the outcome.

The duel began without another word. Kishar attacked with all the ferocity he could muster. But Gilgamesh sidestepped and dodged all his blows with ease, while occasionally giving Kishar a lick of Ea’s blade, opening up gashes on his tanned skin. It was evident to all that Gilgamesh could hack Kishar into two whenever he wished, but he didn’t. Instead, he let him bleed slowly. Before long, Kishar’s feet began to buckle. His cheap sword shattered with the final blow and he fell to the floor, unconscious and drained. He hadn’t even landed a single blow.

The one-sidedness of the duel took no one by surprise. No one applauded, nor did Gilgamesh’s stony face show any sign of pleasure. There was only an unbearable silence, as the king raised his blade to deliver a final blow.

I ran forward and fell at his feet, unable to watch any longer.

“Have mercy, my Lord!” I begged. “Let him live!”

Gilgamesh lowered his sword and pulled me up. He placed a tender finger under my chin and raised my face, as a lover would. But in those pupils, mere inches away from mine, I discovered nothing but cold indifference.

“Not even the fiercest warrior of Uruk would dare to challenge me. The boy’s bravery is commendable,” he said. “But only a thief eyes that which does not belong to him.”

He drove Ea through Kishar’s defenseless chest in one swift movement. There was a twitch as the soul left the body, taking with it whatever emotions I possessed.

“Come,” he continued, gesturing me towards the carriage.

Two soldiers dragged away the corpse to clear the path. As the wheels carried me through the palace gates, I embraced my Lord as a good mistress should, carefully studying the contours of his spotless neck. Some distance away, a pack of hungry dogs fought over a loaf of abandoned bread.


Note: I’ve referred to a concise version of the original ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ for descriptions of Uruk, but the character of Gilgamesh is mostly based on his portrayal in Fate/Zero. Published on figment.

Literary, Short Stories

A Campfire Story

While fiddling with the broken radio, Rakesh was suddenly struck with a heavy dose of nostalgia. It took him a while to figure out what had happened; the radio wasn’t broken anymore and the speakers were croaking out a familiar tune. He immediately regretted bringing over the piece of junk and switched it off hastily. Who listens to the radio anymore? One should always have control over what music he is subjected to.

He looked around to find Meera sitting alone near the campfire. She was hugging her legs, her chin resting on her knees, lost in some distant thought. Sighing, he went and joined her and pushed few twigs into the dying fire.

“Where are the others?” he asked.
“The couples need their privacy,” she answered.

Rakesh knew this would happen. He was apprehensive about the trip from the beginning. It sucks to be the only single guy in a group, and he wouldn’t have come if the others had not assured him repeatedly that he won’t feel out of place. Well, there he was, feeling out of place. Meera’s boyfriend had caught the flu and bailed on the trip, leaving her stuck in the same situation.

There was a cool breeze blowing that night. It traced ripples on the surface of the dark lake and fanned their hair before disappearing silently into the woods. The stars were shining brightly and the moon extended its pearly aura over the scenery. On nights like this, people in the city would be out for leisurely strolls, old people would be sitting on their verandas and remembering wonderful things, stressed college students would experience relief and depressed people would be glad to be alive. On such nights, only good things could happen.

But Rakesh was oblivious. The tune from the radio was still playing in his head and the associated memories occupied his mind. He was torn between the desire to be alone and the need to be occupied. Inwardly, he cursed the others for being selfish; to leave him with a person who was an acquaintance at best, in a place with so few distractions. Gloomy thoughts welled up inside him repeatedly, only to be fanned away by the breeze before they became a threat.

“What are you thinking about?” Meera asked.

It must have been the timing of the question, or the atmosphere, or positions of the stars, or whatever factors that might influence a person’s mind to do something completely irrational; Rakesh decided that he would tell her. He was surprised himself, as he had been reticent all his life, and this sudden urge to open up was completely new to him. He decided to succumb to it.

“Do you believe that a relationship can be built around a love for a common thing?” he asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Well, the song that was just playing on the radio… I had a relationship based around that.”
“What song is that? Sounded like Owl City.”
“It is. On the Wing by Owl City.”
“How can you have a relationship based around a song?”
“Not based around the song, exactly. Based around a love for music rather. But it started with that song.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yeah.”

*****

“It is a perfect song to fall in love over, especially if you’re a teenager with an impressionable mind. There is a delicate playfulness in the music and the lyrics, which keeps things lighthearted. I find it very necessary to like a person without getting overwhelmed by complicated emotions, at least in the initial stages.

She and I chanced upon the song together one day, and even though we had been friends for a while, that was when we had our first real conversation. We were both clean slates and curious souls, ready to take on whatever the world had to offer, and were dissatisfied with the kind of music that our friends listened to. Together we explored all the unknown territories of music available on the internet, old bands, rare records, genres that hurt our ears, and musicians that made our hearts melt.

Mind you, we were 15 years old and our friends were all busy fawning over songs from latest Hindi flicks and Backstreet Boys and stuff like that. This fact distanced us from the rest of the world – we believed that we had better taste, and we would let no one convince us otherwise. Of course, such misguided notions evaporate with time and you realize that tastes are just meant to be categorized as similar and different, not superior and inferior. But, the music stays.”

Rakesh turned to check if Meera was listening.

“Why didn’t it work out?” she asked.
“Life gets in the way.”

Both sighed in unison. It was getting a little chilly and the fire was dying once again.

“I have this weird feeling that you and I are going to be good friends,” Meera said before returning to her tent.

Literary, Short Stories

A visit

It was a tiny apartment on the 6th floor. Rather, it was just a room with an attached bathroom; no kitchen. There wasn’t anyone to cook anyway. The rent was cheap and it suited Allen well. The place gave all the privacy a writer needed. Not many visited him and he visited no one.

On this particular night, he sat on his armchair whilst sucking heavily on cigarette after cigarette, thinking of nothing in particular. The cloud of smoke in the closed room grew denser by the minute. Thoughts flew past Allen’s head, each new one erasing all traces of the previous. These were tired thoughts which were never meant to create a lasting impact, but to touch the surface of his brain and then dissolve away into nothingness. Such was the state of dazed drowsiness which every unhappy man dreams of.

But it didn’t last. There was someone at the door; a steady, familiar tap. He decided to wait a minute or two, hoping that the tapping would cease. It didn’t. An observer inside the room would have witnessed him sigh and drag his stiff body out of the chair and to the door with utmost reluctance. And even as he undid the locks, he could smell the soft jasmine scent which seeped in through the narrow slit under the door.

“Hello.” A woman stood there with a look of slight exhaustion; her quiet eyes fixed on him. Her shoulder-length hair hung loosely, with a few stray strands sticking lightly to her sweaty forehead. Her face showed a slight flush. All from climbing up the stairs, Allen deduced. Her current attire made her fit for a party; a crimson designer dress exposing one of her pale shoulders and ending a bit too high on her slender thighs.

“You broke your promise.” Allen replied.

“Won’t you be a good host and invite me in first?”

Allen stood aside to let her in.

“Had a quarrel with your husband again, did you?” he asked after peeking down the corridor and shutting the door.

“Leave all that. Come sleep with me.” She had smoothly settled on the bed, one thigh over the other. Frankly, it was the only place in the room to settle on, the other option being the armchair filled with cigarette debris.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Emma. Are you drunk?”

The woman smiled, tiny dimples appearing on her cheeks. She got out of bed and scuttled about the room for a while; opening windows, picking up scattered pieces of clothing, and tidying up the heap of books lying on the desk. Probably it was her flashy dress or her somber beauty that made all this quite a spectacle.

“There. All a bit cheerful now.” She said so in a satisfied voice. Indeed, in few seconds the room had transformed from dim and smoky to somewhat presentable. As if putting an end to the show, she turned off the solitary lamp.

“You should get a woman,” she continued. “And quit smoking in closed rooms.”

Allen returned to his original spot on the armchair. He knew her too well to ask her to leave. Besides, he felt a little uncomfortable throwing a young woman out at such a time. Who knows what might happen. But then again, he knew she always arrived at this hour precisely for this reason. In the faint moonlight, he could see Emma’s outline settling down on the bed again as if it was her own.

His voice came out, tired and low. “Tell me about the quarrel.”

“I didn’t have a quarrel with anyone.”

“Is it your job, then? Did you get fired again? I have no money myself, you know.”

“Have I ever taken a penny of yours?”

“Then what is it that you want?”

She sighed and remained silent for a while. “Excuse me for just coming to see you. Oh well, you’re still alive. I was worried that the latest incident would bring you down and you’d jump into a river or something.”

“Of all people, you should know that I’m too lazy to do something as silly as that.”

“I guess so. You’re too lazy to even sleep with a lady.” She swayed herself teasingly. “You’d rather starve to death than do any jumping.”

For a moment Allen became all fired up and felt like giving her a bit of what she wanted. But with a burst of conscience he gulped it all down. He was a gentleman after all. To suit that image, he had kept a well maintained beard and moustache, and had learnt to put forth a show of calmness at all times. And he was not going to let himself ruin it now.

“Keeping all that aside, a married woman should not be in a bachelor’s apartment at 10’O clock at night,” he said rather gracefully with both hands under his chin.

“Oh please, Al. That line was suitable only for the first night. You’re getting too repetitive for my tastes. Now show me your last manuscript. I’d like to read it.”

Allen gestured at the writing desk. He could sense Emma’s disappointment as her gaze fell on the two stray papers lying there. She brought them over to the window and held them in the rather bright moonlight. Such a show off, Allen thought.

“It isn’t much, just a…” He was about to say something humble but was stopped by a dramatic voice. She had already started reading. Out loud.

“Winter had set in with unprecedented severity. In the brightness of the day, his tired eyes had noted the malfunctioning gate, and it was there that he was presently headed. Shuffling on through the snow-filled deserted street, he was mocked by…”

And through the soundless night her voice rang on, soft and clear, overemphasizing each and every word. She read at a slow pace dragging the meager two-page story forever making the entire thing sound terribly silly. Allen felt attracted. She was beautiful and the beams from the full moon had helped create a perfect mood amidst which the crimson dress stuck out; the only colored object in a total grey environment. By the time she finished Allen realized he hadn’t registered a word.

“Well, how did it sound?” she asked.

“You tell me. No point in being a critic to my own story.”

“There is, actually. And it sounded a bit lame to me. The characters are not properly developed and you’ve blatantly given out dialogues without describing any actions at all.”

“I know. No wonder it was rejected.”

“You haven’t been reading the Chekhov books I lent you?”

“I have read few of the stories.”

“Try to learn from them, will you? In the second part you’ll find At Home. That’s one of my favorites. I suppose you haven’t read that yet?”

Allen looked at the floor. Why was he being lectured? It was true that Emma’s literary abilities surpassed his own to some extent, but surely even hers’ wasn’t enough. He was sure he already knew whatever advice she was going to give. “No,” he grunted under his breath.

“Well let’s read it now then. Oh don’t look so disinterested now. Come, I’ll read it out to you.”

Allen indicated a drawer with a gesture of his hand. He watched on glumly as Emma opened it and dusted the thickly layered book. She looked serene as usual. He tried to make up some excuses like being tired but was met with an obstinate silence. Having made the book fit to be read, she came to Allen’s armchair and tugged at his arm. “Get up.”

Seeing her determination, he didn’t protest. She led him across the room to the bed, her soft hand holding his. Shouldn’t he be telling her how inappropriate that is? No, that too was suitable only for the first night. A feeling of comfortable drowsiness overcame him as he lay down beside her. If she wanted him to listen to the story, she surely wasn’t doing it right.

The voice rang again; clear but distant. He couldn’t concentrate past the tiny freckles on her pale neck, made paler still in the silver light. Strands of her loose hair fluttered with his every breath. He knew she felt it too, for her voice faltered; first a little and then completely as his lips made the first contact. The story was forgotten and the book tossed.

Allen woke up with the sun in his face. It was late. His half-opened eyes automatically turned towards the door. There was a note sticking to it as usual.

On it, few scratches of delicate ink declared – “Never again. I promise.”

Yeah sure. With some effort, he rolled over and went back to sleep.

Literary, Short Stories

Through Time

“This is highly unacceptable! We have been wronged and stripped of our basic rights! But hear you me, my brothers, we shall not stand down!”

The voice boomed from all around in the fairly large conference hall, but seemed to have no effect on the silent audience. No stir of approval, no rustling agitation, no turning of heads; just a stone cold silence accompanied by the icy stares of a hundred motionless eyes fixed on the lonely speaker standing on the elevated platform at the far end.

“How dare they put forward such insults?” continued the speaker in his fiercest voice, trying not to act surprised at the passivity. He was Brad Whitman, former president of the Central Union; a politician of extraordinary caliber who had the reputation of being able to bend the law at will.

Earlier that week the new president had made the declaration that any person with less than 25% flesh in his/her BMI will no longer be considered as a human being and shall be stripped of all human rights. He had given a convincing speech accompanying his declaration, stating how the new technology of body add-ons are being used more through greed of greater abilities than through need. There had been cases witnessed where babies no older than 2 years were being fitted with memory pockets and stimulators for their brain. People with metallic limbs had been ousting the normal poor in their labor. In fact, since only the rich and the mediocre could afford such add-ons, the poor have been suffering immensely. Their children stand no chance in school where the ‘modified’ lads excel in all fields, they cannot find general labor work since their human arms are weaker in comparison, whereas the higher jobs require advanced brains along with 500TB of internal brain memory pockets. But most horrifying of all, there has been a recent trend where people are deliberately getting rid of their organic arms and organs and replacing them with artificial ones, thus violating the very purpose of add-ons.

Brad Whitman knew the man had a point. The add-ons were killing mankind. But they had become a part of the human world. Just like back in the 21st century, when humans realized their industries were killing off forests. They fought for decades, pretending there was a way out when there was none. When it was slowly becoming evident that all industries were indispensable, Inor Baldwan came up with the virtual eco-balance system, and suddenly trees and pretention were no longer needed. Few wise people gathered up seeds, which later made them billionaires through tree museums.

Whitman scanned the hall through his glasses. The audience seemed attentive enough. Each one of them was a multi-billionaire and fell into the category which had just been declared inhuman. They were more than a century-and-a-half old, and almost completely artificial except for the human brains inside their metallic skulls, which too were kept alive by various machines. But all these were efficiently hidden under smooth skin, and if you look at them, you’d see handsome gentlemen of twenty-five. If they survived till the AI system is mastered, maybe they’d get their brains replaced too and gain immortality. Whitman admitted to himself that standing in front of these people was a little disturbing. He himself was just seventy years old and completely human, apart from the compulsory filters added to his sensory systems when he was born. He had no interest in what became of these men, but their money and power were needed for him to win his cause.

This made him think of the real reason behind him being a part of this protest movement. He thought of the little girl waiting for him patiently at his lonely home, so beautiful that it broke his heart just to think of her labeled inhuman. She has been the same little girl for the past forty three years now. She cannot grow, for she’s all metal, ever since that accident. The visualization of her face gave him a new strength. He was about to start with another lengthy speech, when he glanced at the clock and sighed. It was time for the men to leave, and nothing in the world could’ve kept them inside that hall.

Sure enough, they all stood up as the clock struck twelve, and headed out through the door in a single file. Just like robots, it would seem…

Literary, Short Stories

Resilience

In response to Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press.


Yet another failure. Matt Woodifield frowned at the freshly-painted canvas held in his messy palms. Something was missing. Quite amateurish, he decided.

The dingy, one-room apartment had grown dark over the past few hours of intense work. A beam of the evening sun, having invaded through a gap in the curtains, travelled across the room and illuminated a cheap imitation of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” on the opposite wall. Matt took a long look at it, like countless times before, trying to understand what made it magical. Whatever it was, it was lacking in his nameless creation. He still had ways to go.

He tossed the canvas aside in an attempt to curb his increasing distaste, and looked about, trying to find something else to occupy his mind with. The small room looked even smaller under the burden of countless artworks, all prints bought from local stores, which covered every inch of the four walls, leaving spaces only for a door and a window. Drops of water trickled down periodically from a crack on the ceiling, into a strategically placed bowl, creating a sort of oppressing background music. The sight sent all the old, melancholic thoughts rushing back into his mind.

He needed a job very badly. At least he kept telling himself so. He had all the qualifications required for a decent living; an engineering degree from a prestigious college, loads of academic awards in his name, et al… but he got deviated. Salary was no good to him now. Every working/idle minute, he would feel the burning desire to sit down with a brush and colours and paint his heart out for hours and days, till he felt like throwing up at the sight of a canvas. It was only then that he felt the full blow of his growing poverty. However, a bath would wash all that away, along with the paint, and he’d be filled with the same burning desire, only to relive the cycle again and again.

Matt considered himself no good at painting. His works looked pretty, but then again, millions of people could paint pretty pictures. He had never seeked others’ opinions, neither had he allowed many people to look at his paintings. The chosen few had not commented much; precisely the reason why they were picked. Many a time, he had considered selling them at cheap rates, just to receive the amount required for some daily bread. But sympathetic friends would always drop by at crucial times, bringing along food and money, and preventing him from taking that poisonous leap. Yes, his past days of glory had earned him several friends and fans.

He stretched himself over the pile of artpapers lying on his bed, realising that they actually make the mattress more comfortable. His eyes turned towards “The Potato Eaters” again. The beam of light had left it in darkness, having moved further along the wall. The figures were hardly visible. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize. How would he have drawn them?  He clearly saw the five dark figures dining under a dim lantern. He compared the lone human of his last painting with each of them, and felt the difference. Who was the man he had drawn? What was he standing in front of the tree for? He did not know. But how come he never had to raise these questions about the potato eaters? This was not the first time this fact had struck him. It was as if there were paragraphs of description written on each face. But he did not feel like thinking now.

Matt Woodifield felt himself drifting off and sinking into a dream. He was in the middle of a forest under a clear, starry night. The scene that confronted him resembled the one he had just painted, but with colours… the likes of which he had never seen before. Colours of all shades dripping from every branch, oozing from every leaf, onto the umbrella of the lone man. The same tall, red-haired man, whom he had created and breathed life into. Who was he? He felt a strong desire to call out and ask, but unkown forces of the dreamworld held him back.

The man suddenly stirred, and lowered his umbrella hesitantly, as if in great dilemma. The barrier being removed, the colours painted the figure and its spotless coat in rainbow. Matt moved sidewards keeping a safe radius. As the scene rotated and the man’s face came into view, Matt realised that he was ageing by years within each passing second under the colourful downpour, as if eroding away in a sweet acid, his face distorted in some kind of wild ecstasy. One of his ears had melted away. Matt watched on, helpless, jealous, and agitated, while the man gradually dissolved into a coloured puddle at the base of the tree.

Matt Woodifield, a painter, woke up and set to work on a blank canvas. He repainted his creation, this time, with colours, and named it ‘Resilience’. In the middle, there stood his mentor.

Starry, starry night,
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds and violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.
Colours changing hue,
Morning fields of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artists’ loving hand.

Literary, Short Stories

The third rail

Winter had set in with unprecedented severity. In the brightness of the day, his tired eyes had noted the malfunctioning gate, and it was there that he was presently headed. Shuffling on through the snow-filled deserted street, he was mocked by occasional bright windows containing warm and happy families.

He didn’t manage to get in unnoticed. He did not try. The lone guard at the counter had looked up from his book, gazed at the rugged and shivering figure of the tramp for a few quick seconds, and had resumed his read without granting him a word. Yes, indifference was nothing new to him. At least indifference was better than being kicked out.

He lumbered down to the underground station. It was considerably warmer compared to the world above, not ‘comfortable’, but warm enough to continue living. Having crawled onto a waiting bench, he was about to drift off, when he discovered another man by a pillar some distance away. The man was facing the tracks with his head bent down; peering at a book he was holding. Late night travellers were always an excellent opportunity. Judging from his clothes, he seemed to be quite a gentleman, too. It wouldn’t be a bad time to beg, or even to rob, in case of a refusal. The tramp made his way up to him and tugged at his sleeve.

“Sir, I have not eat nothing for days… spare some money. God will have mercy.”

The gentleman looked up in alarm, unmistakably frightened by the sudden presence of another human so late at night. On seeing the tramp, however, his face calmed with an expression of genuine pity.

“Sorry, fellow. I haven’t got a farthing. Only a ticket to the next train and this magazine. I got pickpocketed you see.”

“Sir, I need it very bad.” The tramp had clearly not believed.

“What did I just say? Don’t you see I’m stuck in this freezing station, waiting for a train that’s not due for another half-an-hour? I could’ve taken a cab if fellows like you started earning an honest living for a change.”

“How do ya buy that ticket then?”

“The man at the counter is an acquaintance.”

“Why not he give ya money for cab?”

“Look here,” the gentleman said, irritated “I am not compelled to tolerate your interrogation.”

“Sir, I reelly be needing some money.”

The gentleman let out a sigh, creating a thick cloud of smoky breath. He pointed towards the metro tracks.

“Fellow, do you know the third rail contains 750 volts?”

The tramp looked on without a word. He had no idea where the gentleman was getting at, nor did he know what ‘volts’ meant.

“Being here often gives a powerful feeling,” the gentleman went on, “we can do ourselves away with anytime. But I can’t, I have a family to look after and other commitments to fulfill. The question is: why can’t you?”

“What do ya mean?” the tramp asked, frowning.

“Why can’t you kill yourself? I bet it’s the best thing to do, a quick and easy way out from your pathetic life. All you get is pain and hunger anyway.”

“Ya must be a madman!”

“Am I? Maybe, yes. But I see plain and superior logic in my thinking. We all die in the end anyway. I wish I could do it, only I’m too entangled in life.”

“Dying is scary thing.”

“Nonsense! It takes just a second.”

“But sir, I be…”

“All you have to do is touch the third rail.”

“No way I’m touchin’!”

************

Simon walked into the living room and chucked the morning paper at David.

“Look at the article on the third page.”

“What is it?”

“Perhaps a useful reference for your lecture against alcohols.”

David read through in a hurry. Some tramp had descended onto the subway tracks and had got himself electrocuted. CCTV footage showed that he had been standing on the platform and talking to himself for a long time, before the final suicidal act. The investigators believe it is a case of momentary insanity due to dead-drunkenness. The body had been sent for post mortem anyway.

“Perfect!” said David. He tossed the paper aside and went up to fetch his coat.