Gods in heaven determined the fate of humans.
So, the gods decided that I be ugly. And when they inflicted punishment they went for the harshest, and made my bride odious too.
“We’ll never have children,” I told her on our wedding night.
She looked meekly at my face, no questions on hers. Her large eyes welled up as she held my hand. Her skin felt coarse against my calloused palm. Her head sunk towards her bosom.
I didn’t have to explain to her the reason for my decision. She’d lived in the same world as I did, taking the scorn, flinching. Who’d want their children to suffer the same way they did?
With a finger under her chin, I raised her face and kissed her lips. A whiff of her breath, laced with the aroma of cardamom, felt warm against my nose.
We made love.
Inside, she was different.
Her fingernails, digging deep into my back, told me she felt me differently inside her too.
Moonlight danced with us, casting black shadows over our dark skin, as crickets played a melodious tune.
Kids in the street yelled. Pebbles showered on my head. Women, coming from my opposite direction, veered away. Men wrinkled their noses while walking briskly past me.
I pulled the hood of my jacket lower on my eyebrow and tucked its sides in a fist below my nose. I ran into an alley. Nobody followed me.
I stopped in front of a baker’s shop. A derisive sneer appeared on his face as the man gazed at me. By the time he reached for a stick by his side, I produced a crisp five hundred-rupee bill and extended it towards him.
“Bread,” I said, raising my left arm to shield my head.
The man nodded, dropped the stick. Picking up a large loaf, he placed it on the glazing surface of the counter.
“For the whole money…” I lowered my arm as the furrows on his forehead disappeared and his face relaxed in a hesitant smile.
He stuffed several loaves in a carry bag. “Here, these are the best you’d get in this town.”
I accepted the bag. “Can you get things delivered at my house?” I asked, expecting a negative answer, because I may appear poor to him. “I can pay, you know…”
“Where are you from?” He sized me up. “And where do you live?”
“I’m from the mainland. I came to this island after my marriage.” My fingers tightened around the cloth of my hood. “Back in my homeland, they’re beautiful. Handsome males, lovely females and cute children… But, me and my wife… we’re ugly.”
“You don’t look like you’ve got a lot of money.” Creases reappeared on his broad forehead.
“I didn’t inherit my parent’s physical features, but they left me a fairly good share of property. Vast agricultural land…” I said. “It’s pretty costly back there. But the people hated us. So I sold the property and left home. Isn’t any better here either, I suppose”
“Okay, I’ll get things delivered to you.” He ran a hand along the smooth skin of his cheek. “But of course, at an extra cost. You know, cost of fuel and all…”
“Fine, no problem…” I fished out a two thousand-rupee bill from my wallet, along with a list of provisions. “I live down the next block. On the foothills, it’s an isolated house.”
“I’ll find out,” he said, accepting the money. “My charges will be reasonable.”
‘Thanks.” I nodded and started to leave.
“Just a moment…”
I turned around.
“Would you like to move to a better place,” he asked in soft voice, a more intimate tone, “somewhere people won’t scorn at your ugliness?”
“Will there ever be a place like that, where humans don’t scorn ugliness?”
A broad grin lighted up his face as he said, “There’s always, if you don’t turn away from the ugliness in others.”
I gazed at him.
“There’s another island nearby. It’s known as the Lepers’ Colony.”
I thought for a moment. “Nothing can be worse than what we’d gone through,” I said. “Will you get us there?”
“Sure.” He smiled. “And again, the charges are reasonable.”
“Thanks.” I left, inhaling the aroma of freshly baked cakes wafting in the air.
“They’d be here soon for the execution, Partha,” Sarat, the leader of the lepers in the colony, said. “Let the baby sleep for a while. Then we’d feed him his last meal.” He rocked the crib.
A chilly breeze blew, bringing with it the smell of dead fish drying on the shore. The river flowed, sounding as if it carried a suppressed sob within its current.
“You mean they’d kill the baby too?” I asked, gazing up at the rising sun scattering its streaks in the eastern sky, a disc shedding orange blood.
He nodded. “See the brand on its head. It’s the mark of death. And if he escapes, which is unlikely, it will remain as the stigma of his sin.” Sarat rocked the cradle again by tugging at the rope he held between the stumps of his fingers. A fly squatted on a gaping hole in his backhand.
“You know, he’s born of a brother and sister,” he said. “Their morals don’t tolerate incest.”
“It’s not the child’s fault, why should he die?”
“Because, they think he’s the product of an evil, a blemish to their culture.”
I picked up a swat lying by my side, to drive away the fly in his wound.
“Don’t bother.” Sarat held up his other hand. “I don’t feel any sensation there. So it doesn’t matter. Besides, the fly got to eat too.”
“Why don’t you protest?” I asked, looking at the baby’s calm face. He didn’t know the fate that awaited him. His face, with the hint of a smile, looked so beautiful; a blessing I could never hope to have.
“What’s the use? You think we can stand up against their soldiers?” He shook his head. “Besides, there is no point. He’ll die here anyways after his parents are gone.”
I looked into his eyes. Passive, their bleakness reflected his resignation, seasoned by the miseries in life.
It had only been a month since my wife and I had moved to this Island. Ever since, I had seen only death and distress everywhere. But they never cried, they never complained.
“I want this child,” I said.
“Are you crazy?” He took a deep breath. “They’ll kill you if you so much as told them your intention.”
Suddenly, we heard the noises of horse hooves thumping the earth. Sarat’s frail body jerked as if a shudder ran through his flesh.
I ran to our hut by the river, and picked up the bag containing money, slung it across my shoulders. I held my wife’s hand and, together, we came back to where Sarat sat. The sounds of hooves drew closer.
“What are you doing?” He asked.
“We’re taking him.” I picked up the baby from the cradle, pushing aside Sarat who tried to stop me. “C’mon.” I dragged my wife along and ran toward the river.
Behind us, the soldiers panted like greyhounds. The horses whined. Hooves crushed pebbles on the shore.
Together, we dove into the river.
I remember having been twisted and tossed; I remember having been downed and drowned; and I remember having been choked, struggling for breath.
I remember holding on.
Above all, I remember holding on.
As I have held on to my life, despite never receiving acceptance. It seems like I’ve found a new thread on which to invest my whole binding to this earth.
It appears that I haven’t even cared for the ties that hitherto mattered most to me; I haven’t even cared for my wife.
As I clench at the soil, haul myself from the sea to the land, the waves wash over me and steal the granules of sand through my fingers. I grab at the emptiness inside my fist until my nails puncture my palm and the salt water stings the flesh.
My other arm tightly hugs the baby. My wife is not with me. I don’t remember what happened to her, I don’t remember where or how I’ve lost her.
I don’t know how I can severe the only bond that held me together so far; trade it for someone not mine; someone born of a sin, a product of evil.
The baby cries.
I stare into the vast ocean from whose belly I emerged with the baby in my hand. The baby must be hungry. I cast my eyes towards the land, an expansive stretch of sand with a hint of green on the far end.
With the baby in my arms I tread the wet beach. He keeps wailing, his cries growing more insistent.
It opens its rosy mouth, moves its tongue. More shrill cries ensue. It grabs my breast and pokes at my nipple, clutching at the matted hair on my chest.
“Oh, God…” I slump to the ground.
“Can’t you see my wretchedness?” I lay the baby on the sand. “Doesn’t my ugly face scare you?”
The baby keeps crying, and prods my nipple again. The etched brown brand on its forehead lay pronounced against its pale skin.
I sit down next to the baby, and pick him up. Then, holding him against my chest, I draw out a knife from my bag and drill a hole in my breast. As blood gushes out, I push his face to the crimson stream.
Behind us, the sea roars.
He stops crying and sucks at my breast.
The waves stop lashing the shore. The baby kicks his feet in my lap, as he sucks harder.
Moon appears illuminating the dark beach. I watch in amazement as the brand on the baby’s forehead begins to dim and then completely fades.
I run a hand along his skin, feeling its smoothness. Surprised, I look at my palm. The calluses have disappeared.
I feel the skin of my face stretch and peel.
I run towards the moon-bathed sea. The water becomes calm. I look at my reflection.
A handsome face stares back at me.
Image – Pixabay.com