A short story by Iniya A
There is absolute order.
There are garlands everywhere woven to be perfectly identical down to the number of yellow and orange marigolds in each. There are little tables bordered with the exact same shade of gold, symmetrically placed across both ends of the temple. On them, sweets are stacked into high pyramids with the same dimensions, each one rolled to the same radius or cut the same thickness. The people are masks of perfection too, all dazzling skirts and shirts- a new one for every occasion, murmuring politely barely above the trumpet that plays cheerily yet elegantly in the background to the beat of drums. I wonder what it must be like to be among them. Free of worry sure, but also heavy with guilt, not that it affects their selfish souls. Just on cue, I feel a sharp tug on my ear and I’m pulled back behind the curtain I was not-so-discreetly peeking out through.
There is utter chaos.
“Ow ma!” I say, rubbing my ear as I follow her back through the dim corridor and into the servant’s quarters. She doesn’t grace me with a response. She hands me a needle and dumps a basket of flowers at my feet. I know the drill. I knot my dress into a temporary bag, and dump a handful of flowers into it so that I can move around as I work.
One yellow, one orange, one yellow, one orange.
I move around the room sized working space where everything from the cooking to the decor happens. I slink around, slipping under the haphazardly rolling carts of steaming hot food and dodging the frustrated people. Which is everyone. To the right, two cooks are yelling at each other because one put some 5 extra grains of salt in the soup, nearly knocking it down in the process. Oblivious of this commotion and everything else, another young cook chops away, unsure whether she is crying over the onions or exhaustion. Over by the sink, there are more tears, as the young couple washing the dishes fight over who broke a ceramic plate. On my left, an older couple sit buried in gold cloth, one fringing the tables while the father struggles to keep her children from playing with the cloth. At the far end, an open doorway leads to a smaller enclosure, where a boy my age grooms the peacocks for display- yes live ones- trying not to get bitten. Everywhere I turn, there are limping feet scurrying around, coarse voices screaming orders, tired eyes trying to stay awake just to put out the polished not a thread out of place perfection that earns us practically nothing. We line their tables with silk for decoration, but we don’t get simple cotton for clothes. We cook mouth watering feasts and sweets, but all we get is a loaf everyday for the whole family. We dip bunch after bunch of flowers in sparkling warm water, but the water that runs out our taps drips down mixed with mud.
Why don’t we just steal? Trust me, it’s not for lack of trying. Somehow, they always know.
Then why don’t we complain? Because the king is not only part of- but the initiator- of this servant-served divide. In order to keep a small part of his kingdom and himself obscenely happy, the rest toil away every second of the day.
I look down at my finished garland, and bite off the thread, knotting it evenly on both sides before handing it to my mother. She musters up the energy to smile and puts it aside before turning back to sweat over the boiling pot in front of her. I look at her for a long second before I kiss her on her damp cheek and walk outside to see my father. Or that’s what I tell her.
I turn into the mud road, and duck into my hut. The silence hangs heavily in the musty air, but the muted sounds of the celebrations peek through its cracks. I roll up the thin mat I sleep one, and extract the small bundle under it that contains a pathetic collection of all the things I own. A dried string of jasmine to remind me of my mother, my father’s patchwork leather bottle, my only other pair of clothes and a rock the size of a coconut to make myself feel like I own a heavy bundle of possessions. It’s stupid, and it weighs me down, but I’d rather take more weight on my back than my heart.
I walk out without a glance back at the hut I’ve lived in all my life, and I take a right, and slip through the palace gates, quietly nodding at the half-asleep guard who barely acknowledges me. I swing the bag on to my shoulder and meander through the large empty castle lawns. The stars just twinkle peacefully above me and nothing about this moment makes me feel like I’m… a servant, or the cook’s and mahout’s daughter. I just feel like… me.
It’s times like this that I think look like the roughly illustrated pages of the tattered story book. I found it on the floor under a table when I was cleaning up once. Probably fell off a guest’s bag and got kicked about. And I usually don’t steal anything. I can resist the steaming hot food and the tall stacks of sweets and the sparkling glasses of clean water. But I just had to have that book. No one found out. I ran away to this very same place, sat down on the grass and read. And by read, I mean flipped through the pictures because we’re not taught to read.
When I finished, I was confused. Not because I didn’t understand the words, the pictures spoke a thousand words themselves. But because the story had two kingdoms- the light and the dark. Ours and theirs. The gruesome tales about the other kingdom across the border didn’t fascinate me. The sugarcoated, everything is sunshine and butterflies stories of our kingdom, that fascinated me. Because that could not be more far from the truth. All of us, servants or not, grew up with threats of monsters from the “dark side”. Even as a child I found it stupid. Now, I find it even more so, because what could be worse than a kingdom that celebrates everyday as it works one half of its people to black-out exhaustion?
All I want is a life that isn’t this. And I’m going to go get it.
I walk into the stone archway of the stables, feet squelching on dung.
I may be a nobody. But I’m the heroic nobody. The -passionate to save my people- nobody. The-
I look up and halt in my tracks.
Right now though, I’m the covered-in-dung, face to trunk with a 10 foot elephant in the dead of the night nobody. I stand in the middle of the dark stable, heart pounding wildly, and frozen ankle deep in something that is probably a day’s old elephant dung, and I wait. The lights from the ever jolly celebration outside fall in through the stone archway, glinting off the elephant’s ash grey skin. I hold out my hands in front of me slowly, and the elephant leans down as it always does, and pushes gently against my hand. I lean forward resting my head on Chickoo’s trunk, before breathing out a sigh of relief.
The other elephants and sloppy guards are blissfully unaware as I slip a saddle on Chickoo and boost myself up using the stable gates. I lean over to the side and I grab a sugarcane stalk to feed Chickoo later. I struggle to push off the huge golden ornament on his forehead, wincing as it falls to the ground with a thud. I can feel Chickoo’s relieved sigh under me, so it was worth it. Miraculously the guards don’t wake up. I lean sideways a little squinting at the decorative designs smeared around his eye. I’ll just have to wash it down later at the lake. Sorry Chickoo. I wrap my tattered cloak tighter around me and squeeze my legs together against the saddle, and Chickoo understands, quietly walking out of the stable. I look if my father saw me right now, he’d tell me I’m going to be killed, if he doesn’t kill me first. “This isn’t safe, don’t go near the elephants I spend working with the whole day”. “I can, because I’m older and I’m a man. Girls can’t be mahouts.” Well, joke’s on him, because I don’t want to be a mahout. I just want to be a friend. And Chickoo, as threatening as he looks, is a big softie. And even though we practically grew up together when I used to sneak out at night to see him, it would be understandable if he didn’t want to come with me because this is a huge deal. I lie down face front on the saddle, and prop my hands on his back.
When we reach the gate I panic not having thought this out properly, but he just gently creaks the gate open. The sleeping guard doesn’t stir. Huh. Smart. No doubt they will miss their largest festival elephant tomorrow, but for such a large animal wandering about, nobody looks twice. I guide Chickoo through the back streets and out of the city. The swaying rhythm under me and the day’s exhaustion slowly rock me to sleep. Before my eyes shut I look up one last time to where we’re going. To where the murky blue sky dips down to meet the land. To where no-one’s ever been and returned to tell the tale.
To the other side.
The other side
I wake up to pitch black darkness everywhere. I don’t know how long I was asleep, but judging from the dark, it’s been a whole day. I feel under me for the side of the saddle, and break off a part to feed Chickoo. I hold it over, near his eye and he lifts his trunk and takes it from me. I have nothing to light. I really should have thought this through. But somehow, the dark doesn’t scare me. I get an inexplicable sense of comfort. As I chew the sugarcane, I close my eyes pointlessly and try to see through my other senses. The wind rustles above me and I hear something rustling above. They sound like the trees in the castle orchard, but a lot more. This must be a forest. Chickoo finishes his food and continues walking, crunching fallen leaves under him. The rustling of the trees grows softer, and we walk out into a clearing.
I know because I can see the sky above, with more stars than anybody back there has ever seen.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I catch a sudden flash of light near the ground. Chickoo sees it too. He moves slightly towards it, shaking up the now taller grass. And then all of a sudden, it is magic.
A thousand stars seem to have fallen down and grown wings. The tiny spots of light fly around me in perfect chaos, and I think, this is perfection. Those garlanded halls, and shiny sweets and steaming food and loud music will never ever match up to this. This is perfection.
My mother would love this. My mother who wakes up every day to find even a single wild jasmine for herself, my mother who could find beauty even in that suffocating place. She would breathe and drink this in like elixir.
The king who gets high on grand displays would faint if he knew this place existed.
And suddenly I know.
That he knows.
And that is why no one else knows. For someone who does nothing but party all the time, he is pretty smart, I’ll have to give him that. He knows this place exists. But he doesn’t want to lose it. So he targeted people’s weakest spot. Fear. Creating gruesome stories about it that children grew up with. So that is people, and his servants will stay. And serve him forever. Because they have nowhere else to go.
And I know that this is where the wood, and the metal, and the wheat and the fruits all come from. Probably on the very same elephant I’m sitting on. I look down at Chickoo. No wonder he knew the way. He walks further, and I begin to hear human sounds. A few minutes later, a large circling of tents around a glowing fire, comes into view. It’s so… serene. It’s everything that was missing from my life.
However, the sounds that emerge from inside the tent are not.
I walk into the tent and I spot people running around, and it transports me back to the backroom chaos. But there’s something about this atmosphere that tells me it isn’t usually like this. Something’s triggered this. And as I read the giant scroll hung on the wall announcing the king want’s a war, I realise that the something is probably me.
And the entire room falls quiet, turning towards the man in the centre I immediately make out to be king. Next to him a tiny looking woman, all elbows and cheekbones, sharpens her swords with a quiet deadliness.
I stand just outside the large tent close enough so I can hear, but with enough space so that Chickoo can fit. The king is dressed in all black, with charcoal smeared across his cheeks just under his glinting eyes, but he still looks kinder than mine. Age has not made him fragile, only hardened his features, and added more intellect in those eyes to compromise for his limp.
“Listen up my fellow dark people. Do not panic. We knew this was coming. We;ve managed to keep our peace and live as one with nature and the night, but those who are greedy always seek more. And now the king comes seeking our beauty as merely a temporary entertainment, before he destroys it for something else. But this is our home. And we fight for it!”
The crowd that was slowly beginning to become encouraged now lets out a cheer. They may have trained soldiers and warriors but we have the years of wisdom and survival that we have learnt from living in the forest. So I invite you all to join me, my queen and our general to save our land!”
I watch in morbid fascination as inexperienced but brave people start stepping up one by one, women and men, young and old. There are two horses and even an elephant- but it definitely looks less impressive than Chickoo, who barely glances at the other before dismissing the threat and continues chewing at the piece of sugarcane. People cheer as each person steps up and I find myself being drawn into their energy.
“Yeah!” I scream. And suddenly no one else is screaming. The king eyes my obviously different attire for a long long time until I’m certain he’s mentally sorting through a list of ways to kill me. Judging by the practised way the queen sharpens her sword I’m sure that wouldn’t be too hard. I’m so sorry Chickoo. I want you to know I love you. Just when I’m about to just die of the suspense and make it easier for them, the King speaks up.
“Well General, I think we found our final piece. The missing elephant.”
I watch in a daze as everyone cheers and Chickoo for some reason foolishly walks to the centre. Everyone moves to make space for him.
What. Just. Happened.
I slide down awkwardly from Chickoo, I turn to the general beside me and I blubber.
“Captain General sir, with all due respect, I’m a small girl on an elephant who does not know how to fight. And by that I mean I’m worse than everybody here who are not that good themselves.”
The queen interrupts me.
“You, elephant kid from the other side. Yes we already knew you were from the other side, stop looking like we’re going to kill you. We know why you’re here. And we know you want to stay. Unlike that idiot of a king you have, we know you don’t want to destroy this, you only want to just live with your family here. And you’re welcome here. You believe in this. In the cause you heard of five minutes ago. So I’m asking you. Fight with us. We’ll tell you what to do. It’s more strategy than strength anyway.”
I nod my head.
“Yeah that’s it. I’m out of inspirational lines. See you at the battlefield tomorrow. Try not to fall off.”
I just nod again. She turns to walk away, and reaches the door before turning back one last time.
“One more thing. There’s a lake nearby. You might want to wash off those cute decorations on your elephant.”
I slap my head in embarrassment.
We go to war at the crack of dawn. It’s the traditional way my father has told me about. There are alternating patches of mud from both the side, the dark among the light to symbolise even ground. I watch almost the whole day from the same place, on Chickoo, who is doing way better than me. It’s an unspoken rule that everyone guards the king. The queen looks wild and she is ready to be everywhere killing soldiers left and right. Many are going to sacrifice their lives today for their families and their home. But they don’t look afraid. Neither do I. I place my hand on Chickoo as I stare out into the field.
The first soldier moves.
The sun is setting, casting deep red streaks across the sky.
The king is cornered.
He is gravely injured and cannot move more than a step at a time. The queen is frantic from halfway across the field torn between being this close to attacking their king, or protecting ours. They haven’t told me to move yet, but no one else can do anything. I’m the only one close enough to help him. I have to do something. And then I remember it. The only war strategy I know from overhearing it from the mahouts’ gossip.
If I switch with the king, it leaves me open to all the incoming attacks, but puts him in a safer place.
So I do it without a second thought.
Chickoo almost runs towards him and we take his place. He sputters a refusal that is drowned out by his coughs. He collapses to the ground barely alive. I feel an irresistible pull to go check on him but if I move back all this would have been for nothing. I stay.
I realise at that moment that this has created a permanent switch in my thinking too. I take a deep breath and stare out into the side that was one this side, but now is the other side. Because the side I’m fighting for, is my this side.
The queen gives me a relieved look from across the field and makes a manoeuvre that puts her right in the path to kill the king. But the king doesn’t notice. He is too dumbfounded by the sight of us, at least at the sight of his most majestic 10 feet elephant on the opposite side. He narrows his eyes at us and time slows down as the soldier in front of me moves dangerously close. I shut my eyes and scream for Chickoo waiting for his pain that will hurt me deeper than my own.
The stab doesn’t come. Instead, I open my eyes to a smile playing on the queen’s lips as she makes her last and final move. One that ends this war for good. One that is going to give me and so many a new and better home.
She moves slowly and deliberately, drawing out her sword and pressing it to the opponent king’s throat. They drop their swords in surrender.
There is a sword drop silence and her voice rings out throughout the bloody battlefield.