“Go, daddy, go!” Marty shouted. Clinging for his ten-year-old life, he grabbed the roll cage on my jeep and swayed with the vehicle through the winding forest road, ducking showers of pine cones and gravel. The train to Ooty huffed and puffed nearby on its uphill climb; I wanted to reach Coonoor about the same time as the train. A promising musician, Marty yearned for his piano lesson with Mrs. Moura Lympony.
We passed the train above the trestle as it coiled its way around the ridge. The ash and soot it spewed left us gasping. As soon as we entered the rain-soaked streets of Coonoor we encountered a chorus of mating mongrels, ruminating cows and pushcarts selling eucalyptus chest-rubs, gargles, teas, and bug sprays. I kept my foot on the accelerator, and Marty leaned on the horn, to little avail.
“Damn,” I complained. “Yeah,” grumbled Marty, as the red lamp on the back of the train winked into the station.
I looked at Marty. He grinned in anticipation of the long drive back through gray clouds and rain-sodden mountaintops. The hills would be tinged blue with the haze of Eucalyptus and Kurinji flowers that bloomed every twelve years.
“How about we go fishing in the lake?” I teased.
“No way!” His brows crinkled, and his mischievous eyes shone through slits of silver light.
“Alright,” I said and swerved onto the blacktop. I’d have to faff around for the three hours while he was taking lessons. Maybe Cat Cora would be in a mood for a chat and I could enjoy some of her famous black sesame macaroons and Ipoh white coffee. We could sit by the bay windows and watch rain patter on the Town Square.
“We’ll have to find a way to not miss the train again,” I muttered as we drove back that evening.
“I have an idea.” I winked at my boy. I ran a successful vineyard at the family estate in Glendale. Right now, the hands were full with shoots, weed removals and paperwork for regulatory compliance.
The next Sunday, we drove out to a spot near the underpass, where the trail paralleled the train tracks inside forest shadows. The Banyan trees huddled like druids, where woods were home to treacherous beauty that attracted strangers and laid him low with malaria. On a hairpin bend, the train emerged from a tunnel in the jutting mountain spur. The driver let out a long whistle and always slowed there but not enough for Marty to hop onto one of the flatcars.
“What are these for,” Marty asked, helping me unload a stuffed bison and a long rope from the back of the jeep.
“Watch.” I tied the bison to the rope and stood it on the tracks. The rope we slung across into the woods and then squatted on the soft damp underbrush and waited for the train.
We heard the engine chugging before the train tooted, and we got down on our bellies and waited. As the train turned the bend, the driver must have seen the animal. He hooted twice more and brought the train to a craw, slow enough for the short sturdy legs of a small boy to clamber aboard. I pulled the bison back before the train arrived. The driver leaned out of his locomotive, searched the tracks and seemed satisfied they were empty of faltering bison.
“Think you can make it?” I asked my son.
“You bet,” he said, his impish eyes gleaming. ”But will it work every time–how long will you keep doing it?”
“We’ll ‘train’ the driver. Drivers don’t change on this route. So if he gets used to seeing wildlife on the tracks, he’ll slow down on his own. We’ll keep changing the place, though.”
And change we did, even the animals…. Marty picked out random chital, barking deer and sloth bear from our crowded living hall. One day he decided to shock the poor driver with a Panther! The spot was close to Glendale, and Marty never missed the train again, and I had time to tend the vineyard and make the jam and chutney.
Though I only let Marty get on when the train was near-halted–people might have considered me reckless with my son and my morals, but that was how it was for a struggling, single parent.
I’d been rather unlucky in love. I lost Marty’s mom to malaria, and Esther Abegnale, my first wife, an enchantress with black waving tresses, full-moon face, and endless side-glances, to another man. I’d caught her with him in my bed. Our bed. A young firebrand captain then, I hadn’t wasted any time with silly talk. I removed my belt and beat both of them to a pulp. Period. She had never spoken to me again. Ever.
The incident had happened in the officers’ quarters of Madras Regimental Center, and the army wasted no time in cashiering me out of service. My mamma, god bless her soul, haughty and severe though she was, parted meekly with a large chunk of the family money when Esther told her she’d done it because I could please no woman in bed. That was a lie, to judge by Cora, Marty’s mother. But then how could a mamma know. She never asked me; she only told me on her deathbed.
As we moved around in the woods, I noticed a quaint log cabin with a small, gabled-roof, made weather-tight with moss, chips, and mud inserted in its joints. Grey foliage scrabbled up its sides, and tendrils clung to the walls. One day, after Marty left, I walked to the place out of curiosity. The door was ajar, the hasp undone; a rusty numbered padlock dangled from the hasp. I looked around and went in.
The large hall had exposed, hand-hewed beams from which hung an English bronze pendent chandelier. The walls were a hodgepodge of art prints, old rugs, and photo frames. It was comfortably furnished in rustic elegance, a queen-size bed covered with crisp white linen sheets, a pine farm table, an overstuffed chair and ottoman and a futon sofa. In the cozy back porch sun room was a hand-painted bistro table with two coffee mugs–still half-filled and warm, like someone had run off in a hurry.
As I left, I noticed the photo of a boy dressed in a Scout uniform that seemed too large. It could have been Marty’s big brother. I shrugged and let myself out, leaving the door exactly as I’d found it when I’d entered.
A few days later I trudged back that way, after Marty caught the train. A commotion at the cabin drew my attention. I slid behind a tree and watched. Two cops were going to jeeps parked in a forest clearing with a tall, bare-shouldered woman, wrapped in a white linen sheet. They led a man dressed only in jeans that he was trying to zip them up. Even from this distance, and even though the woman was cloistered in an unflattering bed sheet, I could see she had a full, lissome figure. The party paused at the clearing; there seemed to be some heated discussion before the police vehicles drove off with the semi-clad woman and man.
No doubt, some rich bloke was using the cabin as a love hideout. Poor chump–I chuckled to myself and drove off. I had to be more careful next time; I didn’t want cops catching me stopping the train. I also intended to bring binoculars–just in case. I seemed to have discovered a rather voyeuristic interest in the goings-on in that smoky lodge.
I watched the same story play out again and again. It became a pattern. Each time a wisp of smoke curled from the cabin chimney, I knew the woman was inside with a man–a different man. Always the same cops pounced on them and lead them away. No doubt, the discussions that took place were blackmail negotiations. The woman and police were obviously hand-in-gloves. The men brought to the cabin were the suckers.
One day, however, was different. This time, after the lovebirds had been rounded up by cops–another set of cops–real cops–raided the party. I remembered the binoculars in my jeep and pulled them out of the dashboard. I instantly recognized the woman and one of the make-believe cops pinned against the vehicles. Bile rose to my mouth and I bent down, retching uncontrollably.
It was that scheming, lying, mind-numbing succubus with her old tricks and her old lover: the ones I’d beaten in a mad rage twelve or thirteen years ago, the ones for whom I’d been dishonorably stripped of my rank, my reputation, my standing in society, the woman who’d filched a small fortune from mother and stripped her of dignity in the winter of her life.
The old wrath crawled back like a scaly claw and dug into my chest, and I slumped down into a brocade of stippled pine needles. I sat there a long time, wrenching my shirt, and drying the tears that washed my cheeks. I was ashamed that she could still have such an hold on me.
Overhead, a red-cockaded woodpecker jabbed at a longleaf pine and spattered seeds around me in his feeding frenzy. I brushed off my pants, got back in my jeep, and drove to the Ooty Land Registry Office.
“Vanakkam, Anna!” I greeted the portly pockmarked registry clerk.
“Oh,” he gasped, balancing his steel coffee cup on a stack of moldy files. He half rose to shake my hand. I’d been keeping him supplied with some of the best bottles from our wine cellar, so he was generally quite affable to me.
“What may I do ya for today, saar – you look unyappy!”
“I yum fine,” I replied, copying his heavy South Indian accent. ”– Just the weather, damp yand blue always!”
“You don’t like it arr what–peepul pay from poggett to unjoy it.”
“Sure Anna… I need to know something.”
“What?” his brow narrowed till it crumpled above his nose bridge. His beak wiggled in anticipation. “Information cost money, even to friends.”
“ I was looking at that forest lodge down there in Acres Wild. Is it available on lease?”
“Why saar – for bizness – or pleasure?” he winked.
“Some friends are coming by from Goa. They wanna stay in the rough and fish in the Coonoor River.”
“City slackers!” I was sure he meant ‘slickers.’ “Lemme see aan…Acres Wild, you said aan…?” He rummaged through some tattered ledgers, made a great show of tapping some keys on his unplugged keyboard, fine-tuned his glasses and looked over their bridge–crestfallen.
“Aai yum saarry–it’s taken! I could give you another place– ‘Runnymede Lodge’–it’s upriver, less piss, and better fish, if you like?”
“For how long is Acres Wild taken–who has it please?”
He licked his thumb and flicked open the page again. “A Mr. and Mrs. Esther and Frank Abegnale–do you know dem?”
So they’d married. Thank god she wasn’t keeping my surname. Again a pang stabbed at the chest.
“No, but do let me know when it becomes available, will you, Anna?”
“Aai will,” the man rose, disappointed he couldn’t do business with me.
“I think you’ll like the latest flavor from Beulah Farms–‘Passion Fruit Elixir’–I’ll send across some bottles.”
His black face lit up like a cherry-blossomed shoe tip.
“And I’ll throw in a couple of jars of ‘Famous Peach Preserve’ and ‘Finger Licking Strawberry Jam.’” He rubbed his hands with glee and grinned, bending at his ample waist.
No bounty of nature was ever wasted at Beulah Farms; everything: passion fruit, rhubarb, even rosehip and stalks and now lemon rind, found its way into the brewery.
Next, I paid a visit to Inspector George Aglow Pope, S.H.O. at P.S. Ooty, Urban.
Everyone, unless an enemy, was a friend in these parts. And there was no one, who visited Ooty or Coonoor, that didn’t spend a happy and sozzled afternoon sampling the exotic range of wines, jams, and marmalades at Beulah Farms. Over four generations we had perfected elixirs created by the bounty of nature.
“Hey, Norman, our famous wine-man!” he rose and crushed my hand in his bear grip. We sailed sometimes on Sandynulla Lake, or golfed in the Gymkhana, or went game hunting in Madumalai Forests, when he could take time away from his busy schedule. Fortunately this was a peace loving, laid back district dependent on tourists for a living, and crime scenes were few and far between.
After a tea-boy had served us piping hot coffee, he smiled across his cloth covered wooden desk; “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
“I come with regard to a woman you may have in your custody.”
He twiddled his thumbs and nodded. His face was a cloudless sky.
“A Mrs. Esther Abegnale?”
“How could this woman interest you?”
“I know her from the farm–she visits now and then.”
“How did you know I have her?”
“I intended to lease the forest lodge, but the Registrar told me she had leased it with some guy names Frank.
Further inquiries revealed…it’s a small place…you know it?”
“I hope there is nothing else–nothing I should worry about?”
“No…nothing,” I shrugged.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you know why she’s here?”
“It’s a small place…like you say, but what is it you want?”
“To visit her.”
He looked at me , then thumped the brass bell on his desk and barked instructions in Tamil to a constable who’d sprung up at his elbow. “Wait outside in the garden,” he said. “The cell is no place for gentlemen. I’ll send her outside… Let me know before you leave. The IG Police are coming from Coimbatore Sunday, and I’ve gotta make a four-ball.”
“Cool.” I was glad to let myself out into the cold, bracing air. I sat on a wooden bench and waited.
Soon, a woman constable came holding a rope tied to Esther’s wrists. I was sickened by the indignity of it all. They could have used handcuffs, but she was bound like an animal.
And my god! Despite the manner in which Ether was treated, she was still beautiful!
It was thirteen years since I’d seen her bloodied face after I’d smashed it with that broad leather belt with steel buckle. I had winced and rubbed my hands on the sides of my trousers to wipe off the blood, but I couldn’t even wash it off. The damned stain just won’t go!
“Sahib said I could leave you two alone,” the constable said, handing me the rope. I stood there, mouth agape, staring at the woman. “Here.” She tied the loose end to my bench. “You have thirty minutes.”
Esther sat on the bench, bound wrists in her lap and studied me. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye. As an ex-husband I had every right to feel outraged but I’d done enough chastening for a lifetime.
“I am sorry about that,” I said, nodding at her hands.
Sorry? I was supposed to be angry. She should have been sorry.
Her lips parted to say something, then she just shook her head. Deep suffering poured from her gorgeous hazel-brown, dove eyes. This wasn’t the woman I had come to think of as haughty.
I composed myself and asked, “Can you explain what’s going on?”
“How did you know I was here? Why are you here?” she responded.
“I see you have a new profession–fat good it’s done for you.”
She turned away and shook her head. “All you want is to shame me!”
I struggled with conflicting emotions that churned inside me. “That’s what I get for picking up somebody with no background, no family name, and installing them in society and giving them respect. You couldn’t handle the good life, could you? You won’t make do with one man, or two even, eh? Who is this Frank fellow, eh, not satisfied with humping you, he pimps you out too?”
She turned her face toward me, eyes clouded with pain and tears flashing scorn. “Stop now! Stop this instant! Will you always think I’m filthy?”
“How else should I think of you? Look around you – look at you?” I raised her tied hands and thrust them in her face. She recoiled with terror–the same fear I’d seen thirteen years ago. I moved away from her. “I’m not going to hurt you–I’m done.”
She relaxed when I moved out of reach.
“Frank is my brother,” she whispered.
“What was that?” I asked, unsure of what she said.
“Esther and Frank Abegnale–we’re siblings.”
You were sleeping together. Don’t tell me not to believe my eyes!”
“There was only one bed in that cursed Officers’ Mess–if you’d cared to notice. We weren’t sleeping together, you moron–he was tired from a long journey and we were only lying together and talking when he fell asleep. After a while, so did I. Then you came charging in like a bull and began smashing us up.”
“But you… you were Esther Ava!”
“That’s my middle name–I was always the Esther Ava Abegnale.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I wailed.
“When did you ask?” she turned to me and burned me with her gaze.
It was true–I’d wasted no time ripping flesh from their bodies. And even before, how much had I known about her? I met her at the Gymkhana Ball, asked her for a dance, and got down on one knees and married her only fifteen days later. She was an orphan brought up by a long-deceased aunt at Glencairnie Estate. She had no family or friends to attended our whirlwind wedding.
“Where was this brother of yours when we married?”
“He was in prison–in and out of it mostly. So I never got around to mentioning him.”
“And what does he do now–pimp you? What a fine twosome you make!”
“You wouldn’t understand!” she looked away again.
“Why don’t you try explaining. This time, I’m listening. I didn’t know you were so far gone you would have sex for money!”
“I don’t have sex!” she stamped her feet.
“What’s with you being naked then?”
“It’s good for the photo op. Men solicit me–but it’s not for sex–it’s for company for lonely, adventurous, bored, sometimes elderly souls. I can’t help if they also happen to be rich.”
“Go on…. Give me all the lurid details!”
“I work at the front desk of the Pykara Boat Club. Rich men come there for boating and recreation. Some like me and want to take me out. I bring them here, and the rest is for them to assume. Whenever things get out of hand, which they often do, I scream, and in walk the cops. I don’t really care what follows. They brought it on themselves.”
“You don’t care about the blackmail, you mean?”
“That is a price for living dangerously, Norman. Frank simply collects it.”
“Whose idea was this; don’t you realize the trouble you’re in?”
“Frankie has taken care of me since I was a child. I do what he says.”
“Yeah? So he’s got you a first-class berth on his Titanic! How did you get caught in your scheme anyway?”
“Somebody must have ratted on us. The last guy we took for a ride was some Crime officer who approached me.”
“ Now what? Is there someone to make your bail?”
She shook her head and tears poured from her eyes and wet her lap, yet she unnerved me with her calm. She had no idea what was happening. She’d abandoned herself completely to the devices of her brother. Such faith! I wish someone had that kind of faith in me!
“Just one last thing: There was a photo of a boy in that cabin….”
She nodded. Her hands moved up to her nose and she sniveled.
“One doesn’t expect little kids to witness goings-on in an abode of sin. Who is he, anyone you know?”
“Your son,” she murmured and backed away out of my reach.
My heart heart beat out of my chest. “I don’t believe you!”
“When did you ever believe me, Norman?
Go to the cabin. The combination on the lock is 0303 if it’s not open.”
Third March–our anniversary? I wondered if it was coincidence.
“In the cupboard, you’ll find a black suitcase,” she continued. “Jacob’s birth certificate is there. He’s a miracle child. He should never have survived the lashings you gave me!”
F. Eapen Jacob, yeah, that was my grandfather all right.
“You told mamma I was impotent!”
“She’d never have let me go if she’s known the truth.”
“And the money?”
“It’s all in a safety deposit box for Jacob, and you’re named executor. I haven’t touched a penny.”
“Where is Jacob then?”
“In all these years, not a word?”
“It hurt me too much–still does.
You threw me out, Norman; don’t blame Frank for any of this. It’s all your doing, live with it!”
“Can I believe you, Esthy?”
“Could you ever believe me, Norm?”
“You kept my son from me these years! How could you be so cruel?”
She pulled her tresses away from her face. “See the scars Norman? Three reconstructive surgeries, four steel plates in my arms and legs! How can you accuse me of cruelty? I can’t show you all the damage inside!”
I’d dreamed of asking her why she’d been unfaithful to me when I’d loved her, always, with all my heart and still loved her… I’d longed to wag a finger at her and tell her how she’d broken me. I’d begged the Lord for just one meeting, but she’d vanished, like the dead. I buried my hands in my face and sobbed, something I’d been needing for a long time.
I’d had my moment, and I got up and wiped the tears from my eyes.
“Come back to me, Norman, when you are capable of believing me and hurting me less.” The lady constable walked toward her charge.
Buddy saw me enter the station and waved me to a chair opposite his desk. “About this Sunday…” he began.
“I’m in for Sunday,” I told him. “Right now, I want to bail out that woman and her brother.”
“What’s she to you?”
“She’s my wife, or rather was my wife….”
Buddy showed the discomfort of a pet poodle trying to swallow a tennis ball. “Are you serious?” he managed to ask after he stopped choking.
“You bet! There’s been a misunderstanding–nothing that a four-ball buddy can’t resolve.” I put my arms on my hips and fixed a stare at him. “We don’t want the IG to think this is not the same peaceful, law-abiding place he left before now, do we?”
“Are you sure about this? You know what that woman has been up to?”
“Careful, Pope; we’re referring to a lady–a lady from the Beulah Estate! Four generations of our people have helped the cause of this district. There’s no denying that, is there?”
“No, there isn’t. If the lady is of Beulah Estate, home to the best Rose Nectar and Peach Preserve of the world, which I can personally vouch for, then, my dear friend, Norman, we have no case!”
He came to the gate to bid goodbye as I rushed to the jeep with Esther and Frank.
“What’s your hurry?” he blurted as we stepped into the vehicle.
“I have a grown-up son I’ve never seen to catch up with. No time to loose, my friend!”
Nidhi attended American International School, Kabul, before moving to Delhi University for BA English Honors. Currently, she lives with her husband near McLeodganj (abode of the Holy Dalai Lama) in the Dhauladhar mountain ranges.
More than 40 of her short stories have appeared internationally in magazines and anthologies like Rigorous, TQR, SPR, Fantasia Divinity, Fiction on the Web, Storyteller, TWJ Magazine, Indie Authors Press, Flyleaf Journal, Liquid Imagination, Digital Fiction Publishing Co, LA Review of LA, Flame Tree Publishing, Four Ties Lit Review, The Insignia Series, Inwood Indiana Press, Bards and Sages Publishing, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Mulberry Fork Review, tNY.Press, Fabula Argentea, Aerogram, Fiction Magazines, Flash Fiction Press, The Dirty Pool, Asvamegha, etc.
Her translations of Sikh Holy Scriptures, essays on Bollywood and several novels are available in print and online.
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