Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018, Featured Writer, Swatilekha Roy

War In The Head

The train to the Land of Calm hadn’t stopped for three days. There was this nagging feeling of being in perpetual motion, our possibilities racing faster than the train itself. The Possibilities had left on horseback a week ago. Our elders had deemed it fit to rest our futures in their hands, as sending Possibilities as heralds was considered good omen. They would be pleading with the elders of Calm for our much needed Refuge.

My cousins and I, some kids and few elders were sitting in an almost empty compartment. There were the Grief children, the Jealousy ones and the Surprises’. We had been packed off in a hurry, either due to of lack of space in other compartments, or our elders had died and been captured.

I was brooding and looking at the drizzle pattering softly against the glass and bringing plenty of bittersweet thoughts. I missed Plenty more than ever, though all that was left of it was rubble and death. Love was sitting opposite to me, looking miserable. ‘Missing my sister’, she mouthed when I asked if she was alright. I was thinking about Mum, and my best friend Loss who hadn’t made it to the train. No one knew what had happened to the Loss family.

“Calm has always been amicable to the Land of Plenty,” a Possibility elder said. He hadn’t been sent along with his peers because of his injured leg. “They might listen.” The Grief elder said, “We can hope.”

Everyone looked at me, the only Hope child in the compartment.

We were standing in front of a huge fort. Before us, the entry to the Land of Calm was guarded by its Intuitions. These people wouldn’t talk or let us through until their own elders arrived. Our Possibilities were already inside, and our Intuitions claimed that odds might be in our favour. Our Lucks and Diplomacy were singing a different tune. “Without us, Possibilities don’t exist. We should have been sent along,” they chorused. Then, they broke into an argument between themselves, each claiming they are better. Our eldest leader, a Love elder, chided them. “Respect yourselves. Is this the image of our land you’ll show Calm?” They kept silent.

I was standing towards the front of our queue. Love had been with me since the journey. Her mother stood behind with glistening eyes. The war had killed many, her husband and younger daughter, and Mum being some of them. I was left an orphan with nothing but the emotion we stood for to hold on to. “Love will heal us, child,” Mrs. Love told me. She must have seen the hopelessness written on my face. “We can rise again.”

All conversations stopped abruptly when we saw the huge iron gates opening inwards. There stood a dozen of men in green coveralls, as opposed to our magenta robes. “Welcome to the Land of Calm,” the youngest of them said. “Intuitions! Hold the gates wide open for our guests.” Among the Calm elders, we could see a few magenta robes, like plenty of beautiful berry blossoms on a lush bush. Our Possibilities had proved themselves yet again.
Our Refuge had been granted.

“That’s so kind of them,” Love whispered.“The virtue which makes us what we are!” the youngest Kind child mused.“Don’t start boasting”, Love hissed back.
Kind looked crestfallen. “That’s so unkind of you,” she whispered.

Our Possibilities made us sit on the velvet sand, torches illuminating the starless night. My maternal cousin, the youngest Hope of our clan, sat with his head on my lap. His father had been killed recently, unlike mine who had died even before I was born. Our elders were sitting on low porches, while the Calm ones sat on boat-shaped thrones. Again, the youngest one rose and addressed us.

“Once again, we welcome the people of the Land of Plenty to stay with us”, he said softly. The air around us was still, broken only by the sea. “In their time of distress, it’s our duty to stand by them. The Land of Chaos has made a massive breach of faith with their shameful act.” Our Faith elders nodded. The leader continued, “Killing children is a sin. The fact that Chaos is doing away with the basic iota of decency is terrible. For this, they must pay.

“I request all our guests to feel comfortable”, he said, in that same monotonous tone that commands silence. “We have arranged separate quarters for them, so that they are at ease. However, it’ll be wonderful if they come forward to shake the hands of our citizens, who will return the gesture with zeal.”

“We do have some rules though”, another elder in green spoke up. “We are a small people. Nevertheless, we’re strict. We are honored to uphold the name of our land and for the same, we keep our calm. We seldom talk aloud. Only whispers and dumb shows. Unnecessary yells remain unnecessary. Angry outbursts demand detention. We request our Plenty guests to adhere the golden rule of our land ‘Be Calm’.”

“Not a surprise”, a Surprise elder whispered. “Luck and Diplomacy, get that?” A couple of hoarse whispers followed.

“It’s midnight now. I advise our guests to follow us to their chambers. We’ll meet tomorrow”, the younger one concluded. We were glad to call it a day.

The chamber was as lavish as imaginable. After the hard train sleepers, the soft bread and pillows felt like heaven. I fell into deep sleep instantly, with my cousins beside me. The magnificent hall filled with gentle snores and beautiful dreams, as the Calm Intuitions stood guard outside.

Next day, we dressed and got ready for our first day in Calm. There was a mixed feeling of excitement and anticipation. Our elders made it clear that we were to follow rules at any cost.
“We should respect our privileges.”
“We shouldn’t push our luck.”
“Mostly, we shouldn’t forget why we’re here. To have our revenge from Chaos.”
“The Calm elders are your leaders now.”

It was a breezy day outside and my cousin squealed in joy, “The sea!” True enough, the beautiful expanse of blue singing with the waves and glistening like teardrops made us gawk. A Calm elder hushed him, a bit too cruelly for a kid. “I’m very sorry”, I mouthed sheepishly to the elder. He scowled.

All our life, we had lived in the mountain. So, the sea amazed us. Moreover, there was profound silence everywhere, broken only by the sea and our unaccustomed footfalls. The Calm people were all awake. Specks of green on white sand. Some were waving to us, some were busy with daily jobs. The kids were making sand castles. “Our guests can explore as much as they want”, the oldest Calm elder said. Shyly, our guardians started helping their people in the farm and boats. Kids joined on the shore. Elders started discussing. It wasn’t very difficult to observe how badly we outnumbered the citizens of Calm. “Explains their huge resources”, a Diplomacy kid said. “Unlike us.” She was true. Plenty believed in plenty, be it our varying tastes in music or population. Naturally, our resources were dim.

The lunch was elegant, to say the least. Cured fish, tofu and jaggery unlike any I had tasted. After that, we helped with chores, trying our best to mix with them and not be noisy. When night came, we all wanted to talk of our eventful day, but the golden rule interrupted. So, we receded to excited whispers, an eternal nothing of joyful exclamations and complaints. Love came up with the latter. “I don’t like their Intuitions watching us like hawks while we sleep”, she said. “Didn’t it bother you when they took away our weapons?”

“You should have been a Suspicion like your father, Miss Love”, I said jokingly.
“Hey, I am Love in and out.” She punched me playfully. “Like my mother.”
“Aren’t they there to keep us safe?”
“More like keeping us in,” said our youngest Intuition.

I don’t know when I had fallen asleep but something woke me. A couple of kids screamed. “Duck”, Love cried and pulled me away. I turned my head just in time to feel a hot blast wheeze past my left ear. A huge ball of fire. Before I could react, it hit a woman’s robes. Startled elders started putting out the fire with handfuls of sand. The fire was spreading.
“It’ll kill us”, I cried as loudly as the smoke allowed. “RUN!”

Kids were running around, clueless and scared. Teenagers, like me, were pushing them out. I helped a woman and her son cross the burning debris and make it outside. Love, Intuition and Possibility were sprinkling pails of water on angry flames. Every corner was filled with specks of magenta, searching for family and running for life. Still no sign of green. I saw a burning pole hit a Luck elder and throw him on the ground. I was about to run for him when an arm restrained me and said, “There is no time. Run!” It was the injured Possibility elder from the train. He pushed me towards Love and Hope, who pulled me out of the tent. Even as I ran out, another blazing pole sealed the exit.

“We’ve to save him!” I yelled. “They are still inside.” Mrs. Love hugged me tightly. “It’s too late, child!”

“Our best Possibility gone”, wept another. “Can’t get worse.” Staring around, I figured that less than half of us had made it. None of our Brave citizens remained. They had laid down their lives to save the rest. Just like your father did last time. I heard the imaginary voice of Mum. I had inherited her trait of hope, rather than my father’s bravery.

Just then, a couple of green robes came walking towards us. “Here they come”, Love hissed angrily. “After basking while we poached like their seafood.”
“We made clear that we follow our golden rule at any cost. The people of Plenty haven’t been doing the same.” The young leader said, “That demands explanation.”
“What about the golden rule of Refuge, Greed?” Our Love elder asked. “Weren’t we under your protection? Why didn’t you save us?”
“Wasn’t our safety more important than your law?” Our Hope elder demanded.
“Who did that anyway?” A Possibility asked.

“People of Chaos are here.” The Calm Greed whispered. “And we need to keep our Calm.”
It was strange how we hadn’t heard the war cry over the gushing waves. Even as we stared, a flood of brown robes made their way through the gates. Cries and screams, agony and anger. Utter chaos, engulfing Calm. By now, all the Calm citizens had left their huts, hands over their ears, taken aback by all this noise.

“Surrender, Land of Plenty,” their leader screamed, as the rest hooted. “Your time is over.”
“Stop shouting,” the Calm Greed whispered.

Strangely, his voice was clear above the din. The people in brown stopped for a moment.
“I cannot tolerate hooliganism,” he continued. “We can keep calm and negotiate our terms. Anyone who doesn’t comply, allies or enemies, shall be punished.”
Negotiate? Weren’t we here to fight?

“What is going on?” The Chaos leader cried. “Weren’t we successful in our ambush?”
“Half our innocent lives are lost, Jealousy,” Love screamed, before I could stop her. “When will you stop this onslaught? Wasn’t mutual co-existence the law on which we survived? Have we done away with it?”

“Your land broke it, silly girl,” Jealousy replied. “Left us no choice.”
“We broke no law, Jealousy,” our own Jealousy elder said. “Tired of the scorching deserts, eh? Now, you want a go on our Land?”

“Don’t be stupid. We’re completely content being close to the earth,” the other spat back. “We don’t want your land. It’s you who is after my tiara!”
“STOP!” The Calm Greed’s voice boomed like cold Death.
“Tell them, Greed,” the leader in brown whispered, fearfully. “Tell them we can’t let Plenty wipe us out and rule!”
“Calm and Chaos can never co-exist,” Greed whispered.
“Something is wrong,” our Intuition said. “Do you feel it, Possibility?”
“Absolutely,” It was Chaos Possibility who replied.
“Weren’t you supposed to help us fight them, Greed?” Plenty Love asked.
“NO!” Chaos Jealousy hissed. “It’s us he’s going to help. To stop you from taking us all.”
“There’s a misunderstanding. We help none,” Calm Greed said. “We have all your weapons. Soon, we’ll have your tiaras. Calm will rule.”

A deathly silence followed, as everything fell into pieces.

“You sent Chaos to attack Plenty, didn’t you?” Our Intuition asked.
“You betrayed us all”, A Chaos leader voiced.
Greed nodded calmly.
“Oh no!” whispered Luck.
“Those among you, ready to join us, are welcome”, Calm Possibility said. “Make your minds before we change ours.”
“Please stop this, elder Possibility,” a kid whispered in front. “My mother used to tell me that there is no end to war, unless we stop before it starts. She died today.”
“You made us kill to your advantage, Calm,” a Chaos Grief declared. “That’s shameful.”
“As long as we keep Calm, we don’t care,” came the reply.
“Why do we need to rule?” came a small voice from our diminished crowd. It was the youngest Harmony child of the clan.

“Let the elders talk,” a woman from the sea of brown shouted.
“He’s right, Mama! Can’t we be free?” Her child cried.
“The war has affected all children,” Love said. “Some died, some lost loved ones. What for? Aren’t elders supposed to keep the integrity of all the emotions we stand for? Can’t we love each other and co-exist?”
“War will leave behind no emotions,” an Intuition kid said.
“Without emotions, who are we?” a kid spoke up from Chaos.
“Void”, said their leader.
“And us,” spoke up a couple of new voices. I gasped, as the Loss family made their way through the gate. My eyes searched desperately for my friend, but he wasn’t there.
“Loss?” Elder Love cried. “Where have you been since the war?”
“Waiting for this moment. Loss is difficult to accept, enemies and friends. Stop this war while you can,” one replied. “Before it overwhelms us.”
“Loss means Grief,” a Grief teenager said. “We might be proud of our virtue, but alone, we’re as deadly as calm without chaos. Like plenty without few.”
“Won’t we stop?”
“I hope we do,” I added.
“Listen to them, Papa!” We heard a whisper. To our surprise, a kid from Calm had come forward to tug at the leader’s robe.
“Are you mad?” Greed hissed.

“I miss Mum, Papa. I know how other kids feel,” he said. “Has Greed blinded you so much that you can’t see it too?” He had struck right. Slowly, Greed’s tears fell on the sand, sealing his consent. Following him, all of Calm came forward and joined him.
All three leaders threw their tiaras into the raging sea, while we cheered, “Long live Calm! Long live Chaos! Long live Plenty.”

We stood hand in hand, united by our emotions, like blossoms in a bush held together by strong woody branches.

We sit on the shore, drawing elaborate patterns on the sand. Our new magenta robes, beautifully knitted with green and brown threads braided into the hem flutter lazily. “We’re leaving tomorrow”, Love says distantly. Her expression is unreadable.

“Yeah,” I say.
“I miss home,” she says.

Instantly, I fly back to a beautiful sun kissed evening in the Land of Plenty. We are playing hop scotch and our tongues are orange from juice. We giggle and dance.
I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.

I can almost see the sun setting behind the horizon as we sit in the valley, talking of our lovely day. The strange shimmer around ourselves is the only thing that recognizes it as a daydream. Loss, with his toothy smile and Love, with charcoal black hair adorned in ghost flowers sit beside me. Her sister, a younger Love sings a melodious mountain song. Our smiles are frozen on our faces, just like the memory frozen in my mind.

“Time is cruel,” says Love, as if reading me. I nod, realizing that memories are all we have to relive.
[jaggery: a sweet dish]

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