Saturday, 24 May 2008

Birthday Girl

It was late noon in the heart of the city, and the girl I was supposed to meet was early once again. She was picking her way through clumps of ragged grass, weaving in and out of shadows cast by elderly gulmohar. Khaki chappal-ed feet finding their own way. Stepping off the edge of the map. She smiled, perhaps amused by her own visual metaphors. She was another day old today, and this was her present. An hour alone with ghosts from another century. The gravestones were crumbly granite beneath her touch; the monuments expelled dusty sighs. A landscape of marble and aged wood, fit easel for any modern artist. A patch of earth where the satiated dead could rest.

In China, she said to herself in a vaguely schoolteacher-ish tone, a coffin tree is selected for each child at birth, so that when he is older and feels time closing in, he can have it cut down and made to order. A fitting way to prepare oneself.

A young mongrel followed her, tail wagging gratefully as she scratched behind its ears. Maybe it slept in one of the larger family vaults when night descended. Maybe it had learned to live with permanent, though incorporeal, tenants. Nevertheless, it seemed glad for human company.

The girl slipped off her shoes and settled down on her knees beneath a barren guava tree. Another day older, another day closer... to what? Thoughts fled smoothly from her consciousness like a flight of pigeons as the sound of silence rebounded among the trees. Slender fingers buried themselves in the rich, damp soil. Letting out roots. Tapping into the pulse of the earth. Cool arms clasped around her waist, cradling her, rocking slightly to an imperceptible rhythm. The giant breathing of a thousand strangers. A muffled heartbeat of aeons past.

A crow perched on a headstone nearby forgot to crow. The sun slipped behind opaque grey clouds, casting a brief halo in the sky as the girl smiled for the second time that day. She was a traveller, you see, a traveller and a seer, a pilgrim and an alchemist, and she inhabited worlds where empty pages could speak. Today was her birthday, and she was still very young.

That night it rained. Taut raindrops drummed gently against the window as we lay together like two stacked spoons, and she told me about her day. I listened to her voice more than her words- low, crystalline, tumbling out of her like the downpour outside. Held both her wrists close and shut my eyes. Thunder rumbled in a distant sky, but her voice, warm under my skin, distorted it into a safe degree of white noise.

Already, she was telling the story. I lay back and listened and didn't interrupt. The glow-in-the-dark bedside clock was still ticking. But now she was measuring out her own time. And I steadied myself to the flow of her breathing in the darkness beside me, and, just this once, I let her lead the way.

Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

Juan Ponce de Leon hacked his way through the last tangle of karata bushes and fell face down on the stone stairs. There were mosquito bites spattering his back, souvenirs of the journey through sweltering treacle-thick swamps and the dripping, choking everglades. He had lost his boots crossing the cloud mountains; the soles of his feet were now lacerated a rubbery yellow. His breath erupted in ragged shreds and, sure that songs of memoriam were being sung about him somewhere in another world, Juan Ponce de Leon gave whatever was left of his body to that tiny patch of wet earth and slept for a long time.

When he awoke, some time between a few hours and some days later, it took him a while to realise that his prize was waiting before him. High up on the stone steps, the pool rippled under the midday sun, encased like an inocuous crystal within the granite basin. This, then, was the fabled sacred water of which was told stories in Corinth, in the halls of Babylon; stories of the Apache and the natives of the Ivory Coast, stories whispered in secret tongues in the shadow of the Sierra Madre.

The Fountain of Youth.

Juan Ponce de Leon found himself, as in a dream, standing before the basin. He was looking into the depths of the hidden pearl of Nostradamus, walking the deserted streets of El Dorado, bending in both hands the will of the universe. Trembling fingers dipped into the water a fragment of dead hartwood, and wide eyes beheld tender green buds covering the charred surface almost instantly. Uttering a strangled cry of triumph, he stretched out both hands towards the pool.

"Stay!" said the King of the Stone Macaws and his voice was sharp as fresh chalk. "Foolish human! Knowest thou what thou does? What has passed may not return..."

He would have continued in this vein but was interrupted by a flying shower of pebbles bestowed on him by the man beside the fountain. The human glared at him and there was a mad gleam in his sunken eyes. The King of the Stone Macaws observed this warily and decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

"So be it." he said softly and, ruffling his feathers, caught the south wind blowing back to Xanadu; and our intrepid explorer then scooped out the water in his hands and drank and drank.

He waited.

The world paused to observe.

Still he waited.

He may have waited for years. Days, nights, and many seasons bore witness; his lips grew white and aged and refused to yield words. His limbs shrivelled into near nothingness, dessicated with hunger and a dull, relentless pain. And still nothing. Finally, even the lady of the moon felt pity in her cold heart and engulfed him in her blackness. Juan Ponce de Leon waited at that spot till the end of his life, which came not very many days later when a group of Seminole Indians found him there. He barely noticed them killing him, cutting incisions into his skull with arrowheads, hanging his worn, broken skin up as a sacrifice for the heathen gods.

The Seminole Indians erected a shrine at that spot and founded a new village there. They all drank of the miraculous ever flowing water which became a collective heirloom, passed down through the generations. Every babe born to the Seminole tribe from then on was weaned on the magic water which was believed to render them strong of limb and pure of heart. The Seminoles, a peaceful, wholesome people, never suspected the true value of their little shrine until they were all massacred by the European settlers and their forests and villages burnt on the colonial bonfire. The Fountain remained, a curiosity for Western eyes for many centuries. It resurfaced briefly several times throughout the pages of history, under various legends and superstitious tales, but remained mostly unrecognised.

Until sometime in the last decade. That part of what we now know as the Yew Es was bought over by a group of private entrepreneurs who soon realised the tremendous commercial possibility of an ever flowing water source in the age of nature cures and Vedic spas. After testing and experimenting and chlorinating with a vengeance, the age old miracle water was put into shiny plastic bottles, hundreds of cloned monstrosities standing in regimental rows in disinfected labs all over the country. And it was sold in the thousands and in the hundred thousands, after the conclusion of a long legal war over manufacturing rights which thoroughly satisfied all concerned. Soon it was being advertised by shiny-toothed celebrities on TV and radio as the safest and healthiest brand of drinking water, coming soon to a store near you. We drink it every day now. Criminals and taxpayers, kings and presidents, political ambassadors and entertainers, they have all tasted of the waters of perpetual youth. There they are, all still children, doomed to a stillborn cocooned existence that they themselves are unaware of. This planet of ours continues to turn on its axis, a limbo playground where you and I live and laugh and lie and kill if necessary, generally messing around and making do and having a jolly good time through it all. So will it be for as long as our descendants, in ignorance or in greed, continue to drink the secret water that promises all, and as long as children are beautiful and gay and heartless.