[ fiction - october 07 ]
Every day, the children went to the marsh, because it was forbidden. There were four of them - a buxom teenaged girl and her two burly brothers, and a cousin who had lost both her parents in an accident the previous summer. The cousin was a small stick of a girl, with a complexion like corn, and a pair of dark, questioning eyes. You almost expected her to suck her thumb and stare like an idiot. Which she didn't, but that hardly saved her from her cousins.
Every afternoon, while the buxom girl's mother (who was the cousin's aunt from her father's side) took her afternoon siesta with two slices of chilled cucumbers over her eyes, the children slipped out of the house. They meandered unhurriedly through a hole in the compound wall, past the milkmen on their string cots and their buffaloes, to reach the marsh. Once in the marsh, they luxuriously squelched their feet in the mud, watching the inky slush ride up to their knees. One time, the cousin sank up to her chin when she lost her balance, and the other three children pulled her up by her hair. They found this whole episode very funny. The boys sat plump down in the squishy mud, turning instantly into piebald creatures with extraordinarily white eyes. The buxom girl laughed so hard her belly jiggled till it hurt. She felt sore for days after that. The cousin did not cry. She just stood there clutching the bunch of water hyacinths that she had ventured out for into the deep ends of the marsh. Her aunt loved the water hyacinths that grew so abundantly there.
"Water hyacinths fill me up with a sense of peace," the aunt had once said, as the cousin watched her get dressed for a party. Then onwards the cousin obediently filled her frock with stalks of water hyacinths and the aunt never questioned how or where she had got them.
Every day the children grew bolder and bolder, straying further and wider into the marsh, until it was no longer a wide-mouthed mumbling thing. Then, at last a day came when they wanted to go beyond it. The children pondered how to cross over to the other side, beyond the railway line where soft grass grew in two narrow carpets, like velvet green aisles, beside the tracks. The buffaloes went there everyday to graze without fear. The children edged in closer and closer, almost bumping against the buffaloes that nuzzled the grass so lovingly, cropping them short each day. Closer and closer grazed the buffaloes, almost touching the tracks with their noses. The cousin started going close to the buffaloes, sometimes offering them water hyacinths, sometimes a piece of jaggery that she had earlier hidden in her knickers. The buffaloes took her offerings, but ignored her when she tried to coax and sometimes shoo them away from the tracks. The other three watched these docile, soft eyed beasts, looking at the world thoughtfully as they chewed. And, the children half dreaded and half yearned for a train to pass.
One day a train did pass, rattling and clanging, rushing forward on its centipede gait, at the exact time when the buffaloes came to graze. The children were there to see it.
The children chased the buffaloes, shooing and prodding them as much as they dared. The buffaloes didn't understand the English words that rose from their thin voices; nobody had commanded them before in any language other than the deep Bhojpuri dialects of the milkmen and herds boys. So the children left the buffaloes and waved at the train driver, thinking he would stop the train. But he did not. And the train advanced like a metal python, clanging and rattling, as before. The children stood there, petrified at the edge of the marsh, watching the train approach the buffaloes grazing so close to the tracks; their bellies touching the air where the train's belly was sure to cut through.
At first the children willed the train to stop. Their hands flailing and heads bobbing up and down like marionettes. Then they wished fervently that it would. But it did not. The train seemed intent on its destination with a single track mind. The driver rang his warning bell; once, twice, thrice; that was all. He did not glance at the children. He did not look at the buffaloes grazing. The children could see the whites of his eyes staring at his invisible destination like a goal to be achieved at any cost. The children were that close to the approaching train, before they jumped down the slope towards the marsh.
The buffaloes fell one by one; their wide hips swinging with dancers' grace, as they were flung by the rugged waist of the train. The strip of grass was too delicate and too narrow to stall their fall. Some of them fell into the marsh, tumbling after each other and bloodying the hyacinths and the frogs below them where they landed. More buffaloes fell straight down on the highway that rushed away from the marsh and ducked under the bridge of railway lines.
The children stared as these big bellied brown beasts fell slowly with an awful, silent grace, twirling through the gray air between train track and tarmac. Their chests heaving, their hair matted with sweat and their feet rooted in the black mud that formed a seemingly indelible scab on their legs, the children stood transfixed; their eyes dry and mute. They stood like that for a long time.
The highway filled up with stalled trucks and motorists, and the wailing milkmen and herds boys. A buffalo calf rushed between the fallen beasts, mooing terribly. Stray dogs yelped at the fallen cattle as if to provoke them to stand up. Vultures wheeled far above them, while lower down in the pale sky, the kites trilled their dismay.
Finally, the children turned back. They left the carnage single file and returned the way they had arrived, averting their eyes from the empty sheds and cots of the milkmen. They walked back with the finality of knowing that the marsh was now forbidden to them forever.
Then the bigger of the two boys turned to the cousin, shoved her and spat: "You! You always bring bad luck!"