Sunday Scribblings--Seven circles (the inner life of pets)
Apologies for the length of this little fictional sorta-fairytale...and the randomness. This whole weekend was bloggus interruptus.
The British regiment sat stiffly in the holy man’s temple, listening to him with varying degrees of politeness. Their uniformed rigidness clashed with the vibrant silks and vivid colors around them—reds deep as passion, as blood; yellows stolen from the heart of flowers. The gods stared, frozen little smiles on their lips—the eternal bleeding into the everyday, the way it always does in India.
"The soul has many lifetimes to complete its task." He explained in his clipped English. "And the soul can do its work, as an animal, an insect, even a plant. Atman--soul--is one."
"Well, yes..." the Colonial said, attempting to look thoughtful. "Ye-es, good story, that. Almost gives a chap hope, eh, Simon?" He gave Simon, his lieutenant, a stiff poke in the ribs, clearly mocking the old pundit, who sat serene, staring at both officers with eyes the color of milky tea.
John Wallingford stared down at the swirl of his masala chai, mortified and vaguely depressed by the talk. He was a nobody, a young man who had joined the regiment bound for India in the hopes that India would claim him, give his soul some heft and splendor. But, no, it appeared he would remain as anonymous amidst these exotic people as he had been on the foggy streets of London. Perhaps more so.
He looked up, right into the pundit’s startling eyes—endless green like new grass in a face like aged leather. Staring and staring with inexhaustible interest...why? Why would the pundit pick him out of this group? Surely there was nothing remarkable about him at all, especially in this illustratious company. He didn’t matter at all.
A soft cough interrupted his gloomy thoughts. One of the pundit’s daughters stole into the room, bearing a tray with additional biscuits and refreshments from the kitchen. Her long black hair hung like a rope down her back, ending at the place where her blue sari swirled loose around her knees. The men continued their talk, their movements, accepting her goods as though she were invisible, furniture. But John could not look away. The young girl moved like a dancer, swayed graceful like a lotus in a breeze. He wanted his gaze to put walls around him, surprising himself. He was amazed the other men were not silent before her, falling to their knees at her beauty, which was as yet not quite beauty. Perhaps they were correct. He only knew he was grateful for their inattention. It meant he could appreciate her all for himself.
All this time, her eyes had remained cast down, modestly, but as she passed John, she allowed herself to look up and hold his gaze. John grew tense with electricity, feeling every hair on his arm strain towards her. She had her father’s great green eyes, slanted and cat-like. They laughed warmly at him for a moment, then she was gone.
No one else noticed. No one, perhaps, except the old pundit, who smiled inwardly, well pleased.
A few weeks later, a plague of fever struck the regiment, felling the men one by one. John succumbed, fought the disease valiantly, but soon grew weak and knew that his end was near. Anonymous life, ignoble death.
The air felt close around him...drenched in water...pani as the locals would say. The heat throbbed tight around his temples and stretched around his eyes, swollen with fever and delirium. It wouldn’t be long now...soldiers always knew. His eyes rolled back into his skull, taking him back to foggy cool London streets, the clopping rhythm of horse drawn carriages, the low laugh of young women. Sweet relief, even as a reminder of everything he was about to lose
"I only hope the Promised Land awaits." he muttered, as the doctor turned away. His eyes closed for the last time...
And opened. John shook his head as if to clear it, shocked at his sudden great sense of well being. He stretched, marveling for the first time at his flexible limbs, his sinewy strength. How had he never noticed this agility before, this balletic grace?
He arched his back and rolled in the grass.
Rolled in the grass?
He ambled quickly, but on all fours, towards a small puddle of dank water. It was muddy and dark, but showed him all he needed to see.
A small cat, gray and striped, with a streak of white at the temples.
Unbidden, he remembered the pundit’s words again, about the soul needing many lifetimes for its labors. Unbidden, he remembered their eyes, that family. Feline eyes.
John lay down and pondered this unexpected reversal in fortune. He had not mattered as a man, so he had returned as an animal. A fear ate at him...would he not matter as a cat, and be forced to return as vermin? Ambition flared in his furry breast.
He would find a way to make a difference in this life, to take this gift and use it , somehow.
Over the following weeks and months, John prowled the streets of Bombay, close to the ground, weaving himself through the narrow choked streets of the city. He learned to follow the wedding processions as they blared their triumphant music, knowing that the dancers and revelers would inevitably be careless with their food, dropping it and giving him a princely meal. He slid invisible into the fish stalls by the beach, watching the children’s nimble fingers as they eased the fish open, cleaning it in one swoop, fish guts falling ruby red to the floor for him to pounce on.
Most of all, he explored the city, from the glittering white palaces of the elite, with the servants that salaamed as they left the room, to the hovels where families would sit crushed with hunger, incense swirling around their cracked skin as they begged their gods for better days. He absorbed the language, the rhythms of the city that thudded with the hooves of cows, the tinkle of the rickshaws, the sing song of the merchants and the sway of the women balancing water jugs on their heads, as graceful as a waltz.
But why? Why had John come back...to this? He couldn’t fathom what his soul’s purpose was, after all. He felt pulled inexorably, to give in fully to his cat nature, to release those human memories, memories of the man John he would never be again. But something inside him clung fiercely to that other self, clung fiercely to his memories and his humanity even as he wore the skin and the life of an ordinary street cat, lost and invisible amidst the great pulsating heart of Bombay by the Arabian Sea.
One day, he was feeling especially dispirited. He had been shooed from every step, the chai wallah had tossed a bucket of hot water at him (he had a very narrow escape from that one), and the street urchins chased him until he was half dead from exhaustion. He snuck into a local temple, feeling low indeed.
And then he saw her, hunched low before an idol of Ganesh. Praying and whispering and weeping.
"Bless me, Lord Ganesh. Make me love him, my future husband, as I take the seven steps with him. Make me love him, and bind him to me for seven lifetimes."
John stole closer, until his whiskers tickled the soles of her bare feet.
She smiled and pulled the cat into her lap, "Is this a gift, Lord?" she asked, laughing her way out of tears. "Is this the sign of my new beginning?"
John could say nothing; only stare at her with eyes that seemed almost human, affectionate. He burrowed his head into the folds of her sari, and purred loudly.
"It appears you have chosen me, little pet. You are the only creature ever to do so...and so decisive! I’ll take you home with me. We’ll be friends, you and I."
And thus it happened that John the cat went to live in the pundit’s house.
The house was a whirl of activity and merriment in preparation for Sia’s wedding (for that was the young maiden’s name). Young men in loose fitting kurtas came bearing bolts of fabric for the dresses and saris, fanning them out on the beds and furniture until it seemed a rainbow was trapped in those four walls. Every window was alight with small candles called diyas, welcoming good fortune and celebration. The maids whispered laughing in the hallways, and sidled in the kitchen to partake of the endless feast of naan, chicken, dals, mutton biryani...all manner of delicacies.
In fact, in all of the hubbub, Sia herself was quite forgotten, as the aunties bustled about making arrangements, haggling with vendors, and drinking endless cups of the strong, sweet chai.
Only her father watched her, especially when she came home with the cat. Pets were not common to that area, and there had never been any in the household. Yet, Sia was insistent, telling her father that Lord Ganesh himself had blessed their union. She was very forceful, which was unlike her, and John was humbled by her keenness. He tried to look suitably harmless, adorable, like a kitten, in spite of his ragged appearance. He would do anything to stay here; he knew a singleness of purpose that had never blessed him as a human. He needed to be near her, nothing else would do.
John cocked his head at the old man, who seemed almost to recognize him from that long ago lunch. But after a searing look, the old man shrugged and walked away, but not without a backwards glance as his daughter walked off hugging her new pet.
In the weeks that followed, John and Sia spent hours together everyday as she confessed her marriage fears to him.
"I want to feel important to him, dear cat. I want to be important to SOMEBODY. After years of being invisible, all I want is to come first. To be seen. To be loved. I would give anything, I would be the best wife in the world, but I must have THAT."
John would strain to tell her, to assure her that he would gladly give his life for her. But of course, he was only a cat, and so all he could do was lay his furry head on her lap and lick her palm.
"I know it’s foolishness...silly romance. Where have I gotten such notions? It’s odd, little pet, to think of how much I tell you. I never knew I had so much to say!" And she would bury her nose into his neck, and he would know perfect happiness.
While Sia slept, John would watch over her, memorizing her features, nuzzling her with his head when he dared. Such a love he had never known as a human—only as a cat had he discovered such an adoration. He longed only to make her happy, in any way.
The day of the wedding arrived, and John snuck out of the house, unseen by anyone except the observant pundit and two maids who had never liked him.
"Such devotion!" One of them commented to the others as they rinsed the basmati rice for the upcoming celebration. "If only I could find a man who would treat me like that!"
"If I didn’t know better, I would say he’s wasting away from grief." Said the other one. "He’s lost a great deal of fur...I spend enough time chasing hairballs! Once Sia Behan leaves for her new house, he won’t be long for this world, I’ll bet."
The riotous wedding procession danced closer to the house, as the groom sat astride his horse, a crown upon his head, strings of flowers draped in front of his face like a veil. His relatives danced to the baraat band, throwing coins to the crowds of young urchins who ran alongside.
John felt very much in the way at the temple, stepped on left and right, shooed off by the cooks and the maids and the elegant waiters. He hid himself behind the curtains of marigolds, and felt as out of place as he had so long ago as an English soldier.
He could sense that his cat body was failing him. No longer could he bound to Sia’s side in one joyous leap. His limbs were arthritic, the patches where his fur had grown thin were growing larger. But all of that only increased his urgency to be near her, while he still could.
She finally emerged, draped in a sari the color of red joy, head bowed from the weight of her gold and diamond jewelry. John paused, tail quivering. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. For one day, at least, Sia had gotten her wish. She was being seen, admired by all, especially the shy young man who was to be her groom.
Her pundit father led the ceremony, his voice and hands shaking as he chanted the sacred words, lit the sacred fire.
"And now the bride and groom will start their new lives together by making the seven circles around the fire...seven promises to each other, seven lives to be shared."
John knew what he needed to do. Using up what little strength he had, he leapt onto the stage and hid himself in Sia’s voluminous dress. He began to take the seven steps with her, even as she walked hand in hand with her new husband.
Sia could feel him there, whiskers brushing against the tender skin of her ankle, and she knew. Perhaps she always had. She slowed her steps so that he could keep up with her and remain unseen.
The pundit bowed his head, satisfied.
While everyone celebrated at the marriage feast, John Wallingford, John the Cat, melted away to a warm corner of the garden. As his eyes grew milky with death, he realized that his dream had come true. His soul had found fulfillment in this life—in knowing Sia, in listening to her, in loving her. India had claimed him as her own, after all...brought him home to his love. And he knew without a doubt that he would see her again, in the next life.
He had made sure of it.
The veil that separated life from life was growing translucent, and John closed his eyes, felt the passing of his feline body. But the Gods were kind, and allowed him one human expression. He purred the Hindi word for love, pyaar, spoke to his Sia as he had longed to, even though she could not hear him. Their love had been before, their love would be again.
Soul is one.
For more furry scribblings, go here.
Labels: sunday scribblings