(A short story by Sidharth Vardhan
First written on March 22, 2018)
He was so very careful with his steps. From very early on, he has decided one can’t be too careful as one walks to one’s destination, for one can so easily fall within a momentary carelessness on these rocky lands. And so many people had told him that they didn’t manage to reach the destination in time because they had fallen. Because, and it is a well-known fact, how people, once fallen, may not rise again for years. Too scared of the answer he might get, he didn’t ask anyone what it was like down there where they fell. But one can easily imagine how much they were suffering even now, when they had finally picked themselves up, from that look on their face. Something in the corner of their eyes sung the saddest songs he had heard. One could see scars all over their body and their complaints about pain in left side of their chest were quite well known. And he was sure he couldn’t stand that. Though he pretended to be strong, he knew deep in his heart that he was fragile and weak. And he knew he won’t be able to bear it.
It shocked him how people were too careless about this – how come they weren’t afraid of falling? So full or mirth and laughter – constantly talking about trifles as they walked. Some of them, in fact, seemed to be giving the impression that they were trying to fall. If he wasn’t too careful with his own steps to have any energy for anything else, he would have advised them to be careful. As it is, he found it a hard job to avoid falling himself. It is so easy to fall you know – one can fall by mistake or one might lose oneself to the beautiful sights on either side. The land itself is so slippery. The whole arena conspires to make you fall – and after all that is what the game is about. Isn’t it? Arena shall try to make you fall and suffer and you must stay focused and reach your destination – whatever it was and whatsoever waits for one there, as quickly as possible. Of course, one can’t run there. The test seems that of steadfastness – the more steadfast one is, the more one has a chance to win.
But is winning really worth the effort? What if he doesn’t win despite all the effort? Won’t he be a real loser then? Far worse than those others around him – who at least were careless and enjoying the sights. They didn’t too invested in results anyways. And what if winners have already been chosen? Such were doubts that haunted him of late.
And then, there is Vertigo that he has now started feeling – occasionally at first but which is getting more and more frequent. A wish to fall consciously. Such a temptation would visit him all of sudden – or no good reason and would send a shiver down his spine. It was difficult, so very difficult to control himself in those moments and consumed all his energies. And he would come out tired of all the effort.
One day, perhaps because he was already too tired, he couldn’t keep himself from giving into to temptation. He failed to make himself fall – despite making a conscious effort. Maybe, he thought, arena resists any conscious efforts at falling. After that, he never tried to avoid the temptation – gave himself up to it each time when it suggested itself in order to confirm this idea – and each time failed to bring himself to fall. Instead, he discovered, that by giving himself up to the temptation he came out relaxed and with a certain sense of internal peace. It was as if he had been carrying a load on himself and now that he had given himself up to the temptation of throwing it, he was feeling light.
And it is in one such calm moment – when he had stopped when the temptation had ended to prolong the moment of his tranquility that his gaze fell on clouds illuminated by setting sun behind the mountain on the left side of arena’s path. And it was thus that he, who had associated sunsets with sadness, discovered the beauty of twilight. And he was filled with regrets for all the sunsets he had missed. For the first time, he let himself lie down on the ground – letting go off of steadfastness which he needed to win. And went to sleep to the silent lullabies of the stars.
When he woke up to the sight of the birds singing songs that praised the rising sun, he discovered that his entire approach to life had changed overnight. He couldn’t care less for the victory now. Instead, he wanted to see the mountains, enjoy nature’s beauty, talk to the fellow travelers – even go back to the starting sight and start again making sure he hasn’t missed a single sight. Even fall if he could – only to feel the sufferings of fallen and see their land. Show everything you have to offer, oh arena! Good or bad, pains or ecstasies, all the sights and all the feelings – give them all to me. I no longer care for winning, give whatsoever much you can offer in exchange.
Over time he started getting frustrated – having come to believe that being too careful with his steps had become his second nature. And since you can’t fell consciously, there is no way he could fell at all and thus there was no way he was going to see the land of fallen. When it seemed an easy thing to do him, he had avoided it. Now that it had seemed impossible he was desperately anxious to fall. This curiosity and desperation had replaced the boredom of his previous value system.
One day, when he was attracted by sight of a river coming down from mountains on the far left side of the arena. He turned his steps towards it as even from far he could enjoy the tranquility of watching the play of colors on waters but he wanted to look at it from close and as he moved closer, he discovered that a girl was already there washing her hair in it – the curve her body formed as she sat there was in itself a pleasure but it was what she was doing which attracted his attention. Can we do that? How come it had never occurred to him to touch the water and feel it on his skin. Instinctively, he walked forward and put his hands in it. And discovered a new sense of joy – what new pleasures Arena had to offer, which he hadn’t yet discovered for himself yet!
For a second he had almost forgotten the girl but then he suddenly felt drops of water sprinkled on his back. He turned around annoyed somewhat to find her laughing, putting her hand to her mouth, her stray hair kissing her cheek as she did so. And his annoyance was gone in a moment and replaced by a strong desire to be that stray hair. Wasn’t she too like a river just coming out of the mountain of her innocence? He felt a strong desire to feel her touch too on his skin. But he was too scared to do anything.
The girl was surprised – for anyone else would have responded by throwing water back on her. He, he just stood there smiling at her like a fool.
She did it again to annoy him. And again. And again. And he just stood there laughing.
“What are you looking at?” She said still laughing, “come on, throw water at me too”
But even as she was finishing the sentence, he felt the ground beneath his feet shake and tear apart. Though he had no way of knowing, he knew by instinct that he was about to fall – the ones who had told him about their fall had told him that when one is fated to fall, one can lose ground beneath one’s feet but he had thought they were exaggerating to hide their carelessness. And for a moment the fact that he was falling scared him despite the fact that he was hoping for it for a while. For, he discovered in that moment, he didn’t want to part from that girl. And since something in his throat won’t let a word pass through it, he tried to reach out to her by hand, even as he was already falling into that ever-deepening pit – not with any meaningful intention, just a gesture of desperation.
The expression on her face too had changed – the mischievousness was gone and a concerned expression had taken its place. Desperately she grabbed his hand with both of hers and tried to pull him back only to fall down herself.
Before he realized what she was doing and could tell her not to do so, the ground and had already merged above their head forming a new dark sky above them. She was the one more scared now – and had put her head on his chest, her eyes closed and her cheeks wet with tears and her arms around him as they sunk deeper and deeper. He forgot his own fear as he tried to soothe her by running his hand through her hair.
Neither of them knew anything about when and where they had fallen asleep … or had they lost consciousness? But he woke up on a seashore, she was still clinging to him and he tried to look around to discover that this was definitely not the place he had seen before – the tracks one was supposed to be walking on were nowhere in the sight. There was a new shade in everything – sea, mountains, sky; they all seemed to be blushing. And the noises – nah, the music of the birds, beating of his own heart, of the sea waves; these sounds which he had heard all his life now seemed to be hinting at some elusive, yet beautiful truth. And he picked up his head to discovered the valley in the behind of her neck and his heart started beating even faster – as if telling him, ‘that is what it is, that is what it is’
He didn’t want to move and disturb her sleep – wished for that moment to last forever. But it didn’t. Even as he was only starting to enjoy the feel of her body against his own, she woke up and started asking where they were. And he discovered how much she was yearning for her voice too. He told her he had no idea either. Was it land of fallen? But she didn’t even know what the ‘land of fallen’ meant. He doubted he himself did, for there were no tortures here. This was far from what he had imagined the land of fallen to be. If this was land of fallen, how could people who return from here ever feel sorrow? It seemed he himself was rendered incapable of it by the very dint of being here. He had never felt this happy before – it seemed he won’t ever feel any sorrow whatsoever after this.
But she, she seemed too scared. He tried to calm her down – but no longer felt brave enough to reach out to her head like he had done before. He could only use words to comfort her which he did and, after much effort, she seemed to have gathered enough courage to agree to his suggestion of hunting around for some food or shelter.
And it was while looking for shelter that they found an old couple. The old man looking at them said with a knowing smile in his eyes: “New here?”
“Yes, What is this place?” he replied.
“This is the land of fallen, friends. Come! we will take you a place where you can find a home.”
“But, but we do not wish to stay. We must go back to …. to arena”
At this, the old man and woman laughed heartily. “Go back! They want to go back!! Have you heard anything like that?”
He felt as if he had said something childish, He wanted to protest and argue – but then it occurred to him, that all his arguments were speculative. He had only guesses about what arena and land of fallen were supposed to be about. And his guesses had proved wrong way too many times. Did these two know what the meaning of this whole thing was?
After he had laughed to his heart’s content, the old man said, “Be careful what you wish for, boy, be careful.”
The old woman seeing that the girl was scared after their laughter went closer to the girl and put her behind her back and whispered soothing words into her ear.
At old couple’s village, they were made to sit among a number of people of different age groups – all in couples, laughing and holding hands and congratulating them for one reason or other. When everyone was finally settled, another old couple took them to a side and asked them “you shall be given a place to live in and shall find fruits in plenty in gardens. Tell me – one room or two?”
The boy wished that they should stay in the same room but it seemed to bold too ask for that without her permission, he looked at her and seeing nothing suggestive in her eyes asked for two rooms.
The look of glee was gone from the face of the old couple, the woman said “You wished to go back – there is a ladder to the south of this village. It is long and hard to climb upon, people often get scarred in their efforts to climb. We know it from those who fall back from the ladder or who fall into the land of fallen after having risen for a second or third time. You may try to climb it if you like anytime, but we shall suggest that you stay here for a while, even though we know, your ‘better judgment’ shall tell you otherwise.”
The old woman was right about ‘better judgment’. Within a few moments of his being left into his room, he was desperate to climb back to the arena – to go as far away from her (the girl) as possible. Now he was angry at her for not correcting her and saying they would only need one room. He felt like doing something cruel to her – felt that he had fallen because of her and only her and wished to reproach her for the same; forgetting yet again that he himself had wished to visit this place.
And then again he felt guilty and accused himself of bringing her down with his own fall by reaching with his hand to her. She seemed like a child to him. And he felt, in a weird way, responsible for her, even apart from the responsibility that he felt was obvious – of taking her back to the arena if she so wished. But what about the sufferings the ladder gave you? How is he to save her from that? For himself, he could take those tortures once he has thrown her out of his mind. Her, who refused to be in his sight every living moment of their life.
He lied there on the floor trying to sleep – only to find himself restless. The uncertainty of the whole thing bothered him. He wanted to take a quick decision and face its consequences – good or bad. Anything. Oh! let him have her completely or not at all. Anything is better than this. In the end, he decided that he won’t be able to sleep in this room. And so he went near the sea where he had had best sleep of his life only last night. He hoped that the sleep had something to do with the place rather than her presence at his chest.
His hopes were frustrated. He found himself turning on the sand near the sea as much as he had on the floor in his room. And the lullabies sung by stars too did nothing for him. He let himself cry silently to this sight of his old friends. Tomorrow, he decided, he will ask her whether she intended to go back to the arena or stay here and, in either case, he will leave – with her or without her. He can’t stay here in peace – nothing whatsoever seemed to be at peace to him in that moment. The mild wind he was feeling, he believed, must surely be suppressing a storm in itself just as he was. And the cold sand seemed so cynical about letting him make it his bed. Eve the sea seemed to be protesting his existence – and with each tide seemed to be trying to reach out to the moon, who was surely was his heart’s desire. And the moon, with her half face, turned towards him. seemed to half smile and half cry at his beautiful, desperate and futile efforts.
After a couple of hours, he heard her voice “Hey” and shivered as he looked in direction of voice. She was there – frowning at him in annoyance. “Where were you? I waited for you in my room, you didn’t come. I came to your room, you weren’t there either. I was worried and asked around. They all laughed at me in their knowing way and one of them told me to check her. What are you doing here?”
He had never cared about what others think about him. But her being so annoyed, scared him. Had they planned to meet? She was acting as if he had failed to be reach at some rendezvous. “Why are you getting up now?” She asked in same reproachful tone,”Stay lying” she ordered and herself went down on her chest close to him, her chin resting on two hands.
He was trying to figure out what it was all about. And couldn’t utter a word for a few moments.
“I am waiting for an answer.” She said angry at his silence.
“I … I am sorry.” He said in showing his cluelessness as to what was happening.
“Look at you so scared, you are such a child” She said now smiling, “Tell me how was I to sleep without my lullaby”
“Lullaby … what lullaby?” He questioned still clueless.
She just stared back still smiling silently.
It is a torture! “I don’t know any lullabies. Ask some villagers. They might know. I don’t know any except …”
“Except … well, nothing.”
“Tell me.” She insisted.
“Tell me na”
“I said it is nothing.”
“Tell me or I won’t ever talk to you again.”
Logically speaking, that is what he should like to happen – it would be good riddance, he wanted to believe that. But the very idea made him tremble and he ended up telling her “lullabies of the stars” And now she will laugh at me!
She didn’t. She asked half musingly, “I never knew stars can speak”
“But they can sing. You have to learn to be able to listen to their silence to hear those songs but …. you must consider me a fool.”
She laughed and said “I do think you are a fool. But those are not the lullabies I was talking about in any case. You can keep your stars, I want my lullaby. Give that to me.”
“But I don’t know any.”
“You may not. But you are already singing them.”
“What are you talking about?”
She moved closer and put her head on his chest, her ear to his heart. “Here.” she said, “now I can listen to my lullaby. Don’t disturb me now, I will now go to sleep.”
So, the sufferings he had read in face of those who had returned from the land of fallen weren’t because they receive tortures here but because they suffered on their way back. But why would anyone wish to do climb back at all? He wondered, forgetting that he himself had been planning to do so only last night. Now, it seemed to him, he had figured the meaning of his existence – and it was contained in the repeated journies of his fingers from roots of her hair to their tips and that is all he wished to do till his death. He would do so in the parties the villagers had every night – while they all sang in chorus. The time they spent talking to each other after coming back home from those parties were best times of his life.
If only he had met her before, he wished to reproach her for every day he had spent when she wasn’t in his life – as if it was her fault. But now that he had her here in his arms, it still wasn’t enough. Each eye that might look at her seemed to steal her from him if only momentarily and partially. Except for when they were alone together, he would miss her. Even if they were together in presence of other people, he could miss her. Each time she talked to anyone else – man, woman or children, he would feel a pang of envy.
But all this pain was worth the sound of her laughter. He knew if he asked her to stop meeting people and if she agreed, he would lose her completely- for that would change her by imprisoning her. The very essence of her presence which he wished so hard to have for himself was in her freedom – and it is in this paradox that he must live his whole life.
At times though, his insecurities and jealousies got better of him. It seemed like her fault – though he didn’t know how. Her very existence was like an unbearable tease. And sometimes, he would feel incapable of being teased like that. And he would plead vaguely to “Please stop that”. And she would ask smilingly “Stop What?”. And he would fell silent in frustration.
On one such day he felt that he has had too much – and started arguing with her, “Why do you this? Why can’t you stop? Why must you torture me like this?”
She was still as innocent of her perceived fault “But what I have done.”
“You ARE. That is what your fault is.”
He just sat there cursing the universe. He was no longer angry now and regretted what he had said. Wasn’t she the source of his happiness? The center of his universe? He went out looking for her, asked other villagers and ended up going to their favorite spot near the sea. There he saw her from far, walking into the sea. Neither of them knew how to swim and she was already deep into water as far as her waist. He called her aloud. And she looked back and even smiled. For a moment he calmed down thinking that she would come back now. But she turned back and resumed her walk. He was now begging her to stop – weeping and asking for forgiveness.
Hearing him cry like that she turned back and told him not to cry. She will come back. And she had taken first two steps – but slipped on the third step and was carried away by a tide. He screamed helplessly for a while until he saw her dead body floating above the tide – the sea seemed to be making a beautiful gift to his mistress Moon.
No one in village reproached him for killing the girl. Next day he started making efforts to climb the ladder. His chest already heavy with grief started hurting at the very step. And scars too seemed to be forming on his body. And he fell to the ground on the third step. He tried again. And again – bruising himself each time and cursing himself at each step. He was filled with self-loathing and that seemed to be the only reason why he was doing it. And villagers didn’t seem shocked at his behaviour. He knew that one could find some loners in woods whose darlings hadn’t fallen for them or had gone away up the ladder, or had died. He too could live in woods but he wished to run away from this place – and punish himself too for his crime. There was still plenty of food but he no longer touched it, and all noises of parties, as well as the sound of his own laughter, seemed to him, an insult to her memory.
At times he hated her for dying -at others, for being the one who died.
He had successfully climbed the stairs. He knew people could see the sad songs in his own face. Songs not of suffering as he too had once believed them to be for he knew by now that anyone who had returned from land of fallen won’t exchange the time spent there for anything. Amend a few of other actions of course. But could he fall back again? He knew some people fell back again and again. But not him. Not again. He no longer wanted anything, no longer stopped to watch the sun sets. Screamed at stars in nights asking them to stop singing their lullabies. Once again he was trying to finish the journey as quickly as possible, not because he wished to win or was excited about the destination but because every moment he spent in this arena had now become a torture.
copyright – Sidharth Vardhan