There must have been about ten or twenty of Them. Circling above the house like the beginnings of a tornado. Their smooth, steady flight was stark against the clamour from inside. Voices clashed against running footsteps, something clanged in the kitchen, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. One man sat huddled in the corner, unable to move. And in the midst of it all was a wail, a cry that every few minutes rose from within and floated slowly outward. But They remained indifferent, a set of black wings and sharp beaks stark against the sun that was just beginning to dip downwards. They soared round and round, while inside the small bungalow chaos reigned. One of Them ruffled its feathers.
How did it happen.
It was his liver, it seems.
They never really take care of those.
He knew it was coming. Smelt it on him for days.
Didn’t he tell anyone.
Didn’t have the words for it.
A heavyset man walked out on to the bungalow’s terrace. His mass of gray hair and thick moustache fluttered in the slight wind. He stood by the edge and fumbled for a smoke. As he struggled to light it, a priest hurried towards the main entrance. He was welcomed by a woman in a white saree. She bowed her tear-stained face and touched his feet. He blessed her with a touch of his hand.
‘It’s chaos,’ she said. ‘Nobody knows what to do.’
‘He has left behind a vacuum. Great men always do,’ said the priest with a nod.
They went inside, leaving the front door wide open.
The man on the terrace watched the exchange. He shook his head. A few moments later the metal door on the terrace creaked open and a younger man strode out. He had similar broad shoulders and a thick head of hair.He ran a hand through it, but abruptly turned around when he spotted his uncle, who called out before he reached the door.
‘Wait! I was just going downstairs.’
‘There’s no need,’ came the curt response.
‘I know you could use the space, beta. We’re all going through a lot—’
‘No thanks to you.’
He paused. ‘Watch your mouth, boy.’ Though his voice wasn’t as harsh as it could be.
The other looked up sharply.
‘I saw you. Every night with your ‘one more drink bhai, just one more.’’
‘There was no way I could’ve known.’
‘But what was the need? To make him more like you? Or just to prove he wasn’t perfect? You can’t let go, even today, can you?’ He gestured to the cigarette still hanging by his uncle’s fingers.
‘He was a busy man…I just wanted to be with him.’
‘To be him. Well, now you can.’ The young man’s eyes were accusing, but weighed down by something deeper.
The older man sighed and leaned against the terrace wall as his nephew walked away, slamming the door shut.
Didn’t they used to be pretty close?.
Oh yes. They used to have – what do they call it – piggyback rides.
Funny thing what time can do.
Time’s got nothing to do with it.
It’s just people.
Soon, the man left and the terrace was empty. There was no sound except for the piercing wails which escaped the house every few minutes. The cries seemed to be so full of some profound emotion, so incalculable by another soul that when it reached out to the skies it even struck Them silent.
A small boy ran out onto the terrace and began bouncing a ball. He tried to bounce it off the wall but kept missing and having to run after it. The sound of footsteps and low voices drew him to the edge. Barely tall enough, he peeked over the low wall. A couple was leaving the house across the street. They were clad in white and looked as if they’d dressed in a hurry. He caught snatches of conversation: ‘…how to cope…great man…maybe we can…’ He frowned on hearing his grandfather’s name.
The boy’s mother banged the door open and cried out. Her hair was picture perfect, but her face was creased and her blouse was stained with sweat.
‘What are you doing here?! Come on, come down.’
‘Too many people,’ he whined.
‘I know, bachcha, but I have a lot to do and there’s no one to keep an eye on you here.’
‘But I want to play. Where’s Dadu? Jenny Aunty said he’s gone away.’
She used the end of her sari to mop her brow and cursed under her breath, not for the first time that day. Then bent down towards her son and pulled his cheek lightly.
‘She’s right. I was going to tell you later, but yes, Dadu has gone away.’
‘He won’t come to play?’
‘No, darling. You know he really liked playing with you, no?’
‘He’s with the stars now. But he’ll always love you.’
He was silent for a few seconds and then said, ‘Will you play with me later?’
‘Of course. Now, come on.’ She nudged him through the door and they were gone.
The heavyset man appeared again, this time a tall woman trailed behind him. She seemed to be in the middle of trying to say five different sentences at once.
‘…throwing orders around, as if he’s in charge now. Don’t look at me like that, they both act like they’re above everybody else, forget that we are their elders, not the other way round. I’ve never gotten enough respect in this house, and your brother was another one. Kept you under his thumb despite everything he owes you—’
‘Owed,’ he corrected.
‘Don’t be naive. ’
He sighed and lit another cigarette.
She took a step closer, her features softening in earnestness. ‘You’re just as much of a man as he was. Show them, show your nephew, what you’re made of.’
‘He already blames me for this—’
‘He’ll get over it. He’ll realise that you can guide him equally well.’
‘You helped your brother get all this,’ she gestured around them. ‘And yet it was his name on the door. Now, it can finally be yours. Don’t shake your head at me, you know we need it.’ She prickled with impatience. ‘We have a wedding coming up next year.’
‘I know, I know. I’ll do it, you know I will. I just need a moment.’
Seemingly satisfied she turned around and walked out the door saying, ‘Come down soon, pandit ji must be ready by now.’
Half a cigarette later, a woman in travelling clothes and shoes walked out.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just needed some air.’
He waved it away. ‘It’s too crowded, na?’
‘Definitely.’ She laughed. ‘Papa didn’t even like half of those people.’
‘Nor they him.’ He was surprised to find himself being honest.
Bhai’s been saying a lot of things,’ she said, slowly. ‘Don’t take it to heart.’ When he didn’t respond, she said, ‘Can I have one?’
He raised his eyebrows but passed her a cigarette and lighter. ‘Haven’t had a chance to rest?’
She shook her head. ‘Didn’t sleep throughout the flight.’
‘Of course. How’s the job?’
‘Better than being married off isn’t it.’
‘When do you return?’
He nodded, he understood not wanting to be here.
A small slender woman stepped out on one of the balconies. Her hair was graying at the temples and she had lines around her mouth. Her phone rang. She told the person on the line that she was okay, just had to see it for herself and yes, she’d be leaving soon.
Is this the wife?
Oh, no. She’s not the wife.
On the other side of the house someone opened the door to a smaller balcony and helped a man in a simple kurta on to a chair. He rubbed his chest and his eyes roved wildly in every direction. He was still grasping at the truth, unable to swallow it completely.
‘Sit here for a while. You’ll feel better,’ he was told.
Why do they always think problems can be solved with fresh air?
Because they usually begin within walls.
He’s the servant, isn’t he?
The second most important person in the house.
This man hasn’t lived a life of his own.
The woman held the railing, leaned out, almost as if she wanted to escape.
Eyes pressed shut, she let a slow breath out of her mouth.
He served the old man since he was a teenager. Followed his every rule, his every order.
Her face creased into wrinkles as she struggled against an unseen force.
Nobody left to lead him anymore.
She faltered and finally a sob broke out of her.
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
He’ll have to start living his own.
Her knees buckled.
Must be terrifying.
The sun was grazing the horizon when they finally left the house. The whole family, friends, neighbours and priest walking alongside the lost soul who had been covered with a white sheet. The priest chanted, everyone else held each other’s hands, as they walked towards the crematorium. The wail was now let loose to open skies. Its source was the old woman, small and bent, but at the very front of the procession. She was held by her son and daughter on either side, without whom she’d have collapsed in the street. Her cries punctured the air, startling all surroundings into harsh reality. A cascade of emotion released in an explosion of sound.
Oh. Said the oldest of Them. Interesting. It’s not grief.
What is it then?
13 thoughts on “Relief by Rati Pednekar”
The way the information comes across drop by drop, through snippets, is wonderfully done. You get the picture soon and the background information and even character development. This is very fine, so well prepared.
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Thank you, Leila! I appreciate your thoughts!
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Very nice indeed! I loved the little details and wasn’t sure where it was heading but that final word nailed it. Excellent!
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Thank you, Steven! I was hoping for that reaction!
Thank you for this story. I think it must be one of the best stories I’ve read on here, so beautifully observed and poignant. A real treasure. 😀 😀
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Thank you so much Fran, truly appreciate it!
I think this story is absolutely lovely! One of the best I’ve read in a long time. Beautifully observed and poignant. Thank you! 😀
An excellent example of the power of showing instead of telling. And with the added bonus of talking vultures. Well done.
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Thank you so much, David!
Vividly descriptive scenes and memorable characters, like the servant who was set “free.” and the slender woman’s reaction. The child didn’t have either grief or relief, he lived in the moment only. Life goes on, there’s a wedding coming up next year. The mystery of the man who died is the theme, and we discover the bigger picture as the scenes pass by.
Thank you! It’s lovely to hear that the themes are coming across 🙂
Beautifully descriptive writing, excellent dialogue, and a great ending. The opening two sentences were particularly chilling as well – in a good way (my personal slight phobia of birds coming in there too!)
Thank you, that means a lot!