Monday, October 09, 2006

Number Nine Bungalow - Part 2

Number Nine Bungalow, Part 2...

But she had wanted to trap the clouds. To catch them inside the house, and keep them forever. She wanted to open the windows to let the clouds come into the rooms. And then quickly, very quickly, just when they had filled up the rooms, she would close the windows. And the clouds would have to stay in the house for her to play with, whenever she wanted.

When Ruchi explained her plan to Father, he laughed. But once he stopped laughing, he patted her head. “A good plan, a very good plan. Just like a guerrilla´s. You are learning fast.”

“So I can go on operations with you soon?” Ruchi immediately asked. That was the whole point of showing Father that clouds could be caught; that her tactics were as good as any officer´s; that she was ready to be a guerrilla like the pinja-las.

“Hmmm, soon! Let me see. I think you have to be a little taller to be a guerrilla,” Father solemnly informed her, examining her closely, holding his palm a little above her head, the height he explained was necessary to be a guerrilla. “But we should test your plan for trapping the clouds,” he told her, noting the disappointment on her face. “It is a very good plan. We won´t hold them forever, but just as a test. For a little while only. Yes?”

The only hitch of course was that their own home was too low for the clouds to reach. The only house in town high enough to lure the clouds was Number-nine bungalow. Death´s bungalow.

Father said that he would find a good time to take her up to the bungalow. Ruchi knew he was watching for a time when Death had gone walking elsewhere. Then they would sneak into the empty house and work at cloud-catching.

It was many days later that Father decided the time was right. The sky was dark and when he walked with Ruchi through the deodars, the wind blew fierce and cold, sucking away her breath and stinging her cheeks.

Hand in hand, they approached the gaping, blind windows. The glass panes were dirty and dim, but no curtains hid the empty insides. As she placed her foot on the first wooden step to the veranda, the board creaked, moaning softly under her feet. She froze immediately, holding her breath. Father smiled at her, pointing to his own feet that stepped cunningly, silently on the same boards. She nodded, shifting her weight carefully so as not to make a sound with her next step.

The front door was bolted but not locked. When Father tugged at the bolt, it squealed loudly. Ruchi´s heart gave a lurch. What if the sound had warned Death? But Father just smiled at her, and that reassured her.

Once inside, Father and Ruchi sped through the rooms, flinging the windows open. Latches protested, frames creaked, but they continued opening the windows to the winds. “Look, they are on their way down,” Father pointed out the picture window. Ruchi turned her head to see the clouds roll down from the top of the mountain. Like spreading rolls of silk, or a flood, the clouds made their way down, covering the tall pines and deodars. Steadily, almost imperceptibly, the first translucent fingers would reach to caress a tree, then slowly wrap themselves around the green heights. And moments later, the tree would be invisible, hidden in the voluminous grey blanket.
Watching the clouds make their way inexorably through the forest, down the mountains, Ruchi felt a sudden flash of terror. A cold, wet finger ran fleetingly down her spine, raising the soft hair on the back of her neck. Her stomach churned, and her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly the clouds seemed sinister, portending evil in a way they never had on the mountain-tops.

Beside her, Father laughed, throwing back his head. “We´ll catch them alright.” Ruchi had a sudden vision of the mysterious operations he went away for. The enemy approached, much like the clouds, vast and strong and sinister. And in the trees, hidden with the pinja-las, the gleaming rifles loaded and ready, her father laughed in anticipation.

That cold wet finger on her spine, Ruchi realised in a sudden flash of frighteningly adult clarity, was her fear for her father. Her stomach had churned with that terrifying intuition that all those who love a soldier must learn to bear. Death marched with her father too, and at any moment, at any place, could swoop down to claim him. She felt tears prick her eyes, even as the clouds reached the house, swirling gently against the peeling yellowed walls.

“Stay here,” Father commanded, laughter still in his voice. “I´ll go close the windows.” Ruchi could only make a soft sound, a clutching sob that ripped at her throat as Father moved away. She reached out after him but caught only a damp wisp. The clouds had already started crowding Death´s bungalow, pushing through the picture window like unruly children at recess.

Blinded by the billowing opacity, she could hear Father closing the windows, bolting each one carefully. She strained to hear his footsteps, but he walked as always on soundless feet. Time seemed to have halted, and nothing moved in the clouds that had filled the bungalow. She held out her hands before her and could only vaguely make out their outline.

Ruchi stared at the damp blindness around her and felt terror clutch at her heart. Tears poured now, running freely down her cheeks. Her hands were cold and clammy with the moisture from the clouds. She rested her head against the rosewood window frame, finding solace in its solidity, and sobbed uncontrollably.

She didn´t hear Father return. She was staring blindly before her when a figure loomed silently over her. The shoulders were massive, the head dark. It leaned out to pull one of the panels of the picture window shut. Ruchi held her breath, hoping it wouldn´t notice her. Then the figure seemed to search for something; dark, slim-fingered hands running over the rosewood. She hid in her corner, shrinking within herself in fear. Oh, if only Father would return!

As the hands moved closer, she shut her eyes, squeezing them tightly. She screamed when she felt the hand touch her shoulder. “No!”

Then suddenly, she was in Father´s arms, cradled against his chest. “What frightened you, baby? It´s alright, everything is alright,” he murmurred against her hair. His lips felt her cheeks, passing over the tears and the moisture the clouds had left. “Shhh, it´s alright.”

He carried her home just like that, holding her head nestled under his chin, her body pressed tight against his chest. She could feel his pulse throbbing in his throat against her face and pressed her cheek tight against the rhythm. He is alive, he is still alive, she exulted, breathing in his scent – musky and tangy like the forest. She knew she was echoing the words in her mind that she had heard her mother whisper each time Father came home. They were a chant, a sacred chant, like Om mani padme om. Suddenly, she knew what the words meant, why the pinja-la chanted them as they went on operations. “He is alive, he is still alive.”

And the first inklings of a plan began to form in her head, as she pressed herself closer still to Father. She would imprison Death; leave him locked in his Number-nine bungalow before Father left again on operations. She would make sure that Death would never march again with the soldiers.


to be continued...

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