He woke up with a start, his heart filled with a nameless fear, almost kicking out to free himself from the clutches of whatever it had been that had been pulling him into the dark pool. Gasping for breath, he could smell her and moved closer, nuzzling her neck and the soft hair there, her smell like a balm that soothed him instantly. Instantly, almost instinctively, she reached back and pulled his hand into hers and clutched it close to her cheek like always. His hand lay there, entwined in hers, her warm breath breezing onto his skin, breathing life into him. She moved even closer to him if that was possible, their bodies a perfect fit. Slowly, a smile curved his lips and he closed his eyes, drifting off into sleep, lulled by her warmth.
The alarm went off and he woke with his nose right in the curve of her neck. Kissing her soft skin, he tried to remove his hand from hers but she only clutched him harder. He just laid there, her grayish white hair brushing his cheek. From this close, he could see the fine lines in her skin, the only evidence of her age. She shifted in her sleep, her breath escaping in a gasp from her lips and his fingers were loosened in her clasp. He slowly withdrew them from her, stiffening an instant as she shifted in her sleep and slowly rose out of bed. Walking to the bathroom, he stared at himself in the mirror. Dark eyes, still a semblance of sharpness in them, stared back at him. Eye lashes now completely silver and his chin peppered in white, his hairline now far back from his forehead, hair all pure white and scanty. Crow’s feet lined his eyes and a series of wrinkle dimples lined his cheeks from the corners of his mouth to his ears, dancing in series when he smiled.
He made his own coffee, a ritual for the past lifetime of his, and made his way past the living room and opened the door to a brilliant sunrise. Their house was the one that they had always dreamed about, on a hill, facing the sun rise and surrounded by a plantation and a farm. The best thing about it was the mornings when he could sit on his doorstep and see the sun come up over the hill. Everything about the house was still and silent, sleeping waiting for the dawn. He sat on the top step as always, legs spread and holding the coffee cup in both hands, letting the warmth seep into him. As he drank the first sip, the rush overtook him as always and he settled down into his absent minded stare as the sun peeped over the hill. Halfway through his cup, he heard her light footsteps behind him and then smelt her presence. She came around and took her position on the step just below the one that he sat on, between his legs, her head resting as always on his right knee. He leaned forward and kissed her hair and they just sat there staring at the sunrise. The town came alive below them in a while and soon after, the maid came home as their daily routine started.
The plantation work started thereafter, the head stayed at the farm in a small building some way away from their home while the farm hands came in every morning. They reviewed the progress on the crops and she spent time with their cattle, brushing them and taking care of their feed. It was immensely satisfying, the life they led. It had always been their dream to give up the big city life that they each had, their successful careers and simply come away to the back of beyond where they had only each other and the life they built for themselves. There was nothing material about the life they led, a far cry from what they once had. But there was nowhere that they would rather be now.
In a couple of hours, they made their way down, hand in hand, walking down the trail towards the town. Towards the small building that housed the other part of their dream. The building was divided into two parts, one where there was an open floor and a number of mats for sitting and another where there was a black board and study tables. The open floor was hers, where she taught boys and girls a variety of craft and art ranging from simple sketching to pottery and candle making. The class room was his, where he taught the children basic subjects like English, Science and Math. He opened the gate and they made their way into their areas and prepared for the day ahead. Shortly, they heard the gaggle of the children as they made their way to the building and then settled down to their routine. Breaking for lunch, they had the usual quick lunch where they talked about how the kids were coming along and specific problems they were facing.
Winding down in the late afternoon, they both walked down to the park. It was another daily routine of theirs to spend the evening at the park, their bench as always saved for them. They sat there as the tea vendor brought them hot cups of ginger tea, sipping and watching the sun go down. Words were not always required. Their silent understanding was born from the numerous fights and battles they had had, learning about each other from every one of them. Their life together had never been easy, the ups and downs far more than the plateaus of happiness. And every such up or down had brought them closer to each other, to a level of shared understanding that didn’t need words or gestures.
And they wound the evening walking back to their home, up the hills past the sheep and goats that were getting back to their pasture. The glow of the sunset lit up everything in an orange halo, even the dust from their feet showing orange yellow. Dinner was always simple, the routine set to music of her choice. It was always in the living room, with both of them sitting on the floor, legs tucked under or crossed, talking to each other. They had always been able to talk to each other, sometimes for hours on end, about anything at all under the sun. Post dinner, the ritual was a walk in the garden, hand in hand, listening to the crickets chirp and go silent at their arrival and start again once they passed. She stopped often to spread out a flower or to smell it, lifting a leaf or sometimes just brushing them with her fingers. He was content just to walk with her, holding her hand, smiling at her gestures and answering her questions at times. They retired to the patio where he would sit against the pillar and read while she would listen to the music, her head in his lap as they lazily talked their way into the night.
And thus their life went, not much of a variation in it unless they travelled, which they did once in a half year. They had looked forward to this life so much that they wanted to live each day of it to the fullest. Their lives together had not always been this peaceful and easy, they had not always been this understanding of each other. But the need for each other and the realization of this had come with each time that they had nearly walked away from each other or had broken apart. The bond had grown stronger and what had been two strong separate pillars had slowly broken down to become a beautiful arch whose both ends supported and strengthened each other.
But it looked like the gods weren’t happy with their peace and trouble came into paradise a few weeks later. It was just another morning when he woke up, his face buried in her hair and his nose nuzzling the back of her neck, his fingers clutched in hers, right next to her cheek. The only difference was that his fingers were cold, clammy cold, like he had dipped them in a bucket full of ice water that had stayed out in the freezing cold over night. He woke with a start and tried shaking her awake. Her heart was beating like an express train going crazy. She didn’t come awake and he dialed the town’s only doctor who came by on his scooter, rasping and groaning up the hill. An injection brought her around and the doctor got her sitting up in bed in a short while. He told them it was nothing, just a weakness induced fainting episode. She felt ravenously hungry after that, like she could eat a whole horse and they pigged out for breakfast, forgetting about it completely. But the cloud had appeared and started to move over the sun. She couldn’t walk that day and so they didn’t go down to the school or for the sunset. She recovered though in a couple of days but he could feel that she had slowed down, the springiness in her walk a little less, the smile in her face a little slow, the brightness in her eyes a little dull.
Monsoon came in a few months, the hills drenched in rain that poured in like a giant tap had opened in the sky and someone had forgotten to close it. The sheets of rain ran down like new rivers finding their way down to the sea, sometimes taking with them entire plants that had got washed loose. New rivulets and new creeks came up every day. He hated it when it was like this, dull and grey and cloudy. Like someone had forgotten to turn on the lights in the evening. The constant rain made it worse, even the furniture felt damp. Everything smelt wet or felt wet, like a kid having left it’s hand and foot prints all over the place. Everything seemed to slow down just like you found it difficult to move in a pool of water. And so it was on that particular day, it started later than normal with his coffee on the verandah disrupted by a particularly heavy shower which left him in a bad grouchy mood. She couldn’t get out of bed that day, feeling particularly like “sleeping in” as she called it. The day went by, slow and sticky. Towards afternoon, she got irritable, in a way that reminded him of their big fights years ago. He tried reasoning with her but couldn’t get through to her at all and finally just settled down to hold her close and calm her, comfort her. Suddenly, he felt her tears, hot and wet on his shirt front. Holding her face in his hands, searching for the reason for her tears, he was stopped short by her words, “Don’t leave me alone”. He kissed her quiet and they just sat there silently like that.
Night came quickly then, the rain a steady downpour that beat an unsteady rhythm that didn’t disappear but kept intruding into their togetherness, causing a discomfort that wouldn’t fade away. He held her close that night, a nameless fear that gnawed at his heart and made a hole in the pit of his stomach. He kept checking on her through the night, unable to sleep himself until the early hours of the morning when he could see the gray in the sky as light made its way across the sky. It was then that he dropped off, out of sheer exhaustion. He woke up to the sun streaming in through the window, cutting sharply like a blade through the dull darkness of the room. It fell across her face, diagonally, from one temple down her front to her hip, like a sharp blade that had sliced her and revealed an inner core of light. It was then that he noticed that her lips weren’t parted like she usually slept but were pinched shut as if by force. His eyes widened in alarm as he moved close to her, only to feel that her chest wasn’t moving at all. The blade of light caught a strand of her hair as it lifted up in a breeze and settled down over her eyes and across her nostril. He sat there for what seemed like forever, willing the strand to move with her breathing, his heart waiting with his held in breath.
The doctor came sometime later and told him that it was something about her heart that had gone weak, something to do with age. He was numb then, unfeeling like a piece of wood that had gone dead inside and didn’t show outside. He just sat there on the verandah, his back to the pillar, having forgotten everything and everybody there. The whole town came to pay their respects, all the children that they had taught came with sadness in their eyes that they didn’t quite understand. The day passed on with rituals of some sort or the other. He felt quite removed from it all, like he was standing and watching it happen to someone else. When it was finally over, she had gone and he couldn’t quite understand how. He went for days without sleeping or eating, unable to follow the routines that he was so used to but without her.
He came together like a new man three days after she had passed. Got out of bed where he had spent the night not sleeping, and showered and dressed, walked out of the door to the farm. He spent the morning talking to the farm hands and the chief about the damage that the rains had done and what repair they could do. He then went down to the school and spent the day with the children, who couldn’t quite understand why he was so normal that day after not having appeared for the past three. He finished up school as usual and walked down to the park. He sat down at a different bench that day, on the side of the pond, not facing the hills. He felt tired, like he had been on a long journey and now, at the end of it, was exhausted to the bone. But there seemed to be no one that could help him with it, he had to make this journey alone. And he realized that he couldn’t do it at all, not even for one more day.
It was there that they found him the next morning, a dove sitting on the bench next to him, the dew drops clinging to his lashes and his hair like pearls, reflecting the sun that was just coming out. His eyes were shut but there was a faint smile on his face and a sense of peace as if he had found something. His right hand clutched a red rose, from one of the bushes in the park, its thorn having pricked his hand. But the bleeding had long stopped, long before his heart had. He had gone to join her they said, for he couldn’t live without her and that was why he was smiling, because he was going to her, where his rightful place was.