Friday, February 22, 2013

Song of creation

Here is another short story from my collection, "Discovering America," available on

Song of Creation
Imagine this!
It is hot, very hot, in Calcutta.
The air is thick and polluted.  It grasps at one's throat.
The old taxi lurches forward, threading its way through the maze of people, cyclists, rickshaws, and cars.  They move in random patterns, as if oblivious to each other's existence.
The American occupant of the taxi is sweating.  He leans forward to avoid the hot sun slanting through the back window.  His left hand is placed on the back of the front seat to steady himself.  The old Sikh driver with a white wispy beard and a white turban stares ahead.
She sits to the right of the American, her red, worn saree looped behind her head for shade.  She is as beautiful as the goddess Parvati in her blessed incarnation, when she tempted the Lord Krishna.  The color matches her lips and she wears a matching bindi.  The bodice reveals her full bosom and slender waist.  She is very young, yet she has about her an air of tawdry refinement.  She is sitting back in the seat and is turned towards him.  When she speaks there is a note of urgency in her voice, a plaintive, pleading tone. She whispers into his ear, and what she says belies her appearance.
"You must take me with you. There are many things we could do, I am very experienced in the ways of love. I need the money, my family is poor. We need the money to buy food. My brothers and sisters are hungry. You must take me, I will make you happy."
The American stares ahead, his thoughts torn between his raw senses and the choice that faces him.  Where did she come from, a gift from heaven, a test? As they drive across a bridge he steels himself. The stench from the shacks made of wood and rags that line the sides of the bridge rises into his nostrils, a mixture of human excrement and mouldy sacking.  He retches, but struggles to control himself. It will soon pass he tells himself. He brings out his handkerchief and wipes his forehead of the sweat that is dripping from him. Outside the peasants dash between the traffic, hands outstretched, risking death for a few piastres.
As they descend from the bridge the stench recedes, and the taxi picks up speed. The driver honks his horn and swerves wildly. The American is distracted from his thoughts, how will he answer her? How will he resolve the conflict between his lust and his principles, between his desires and abstract concepts of duty and honor.
"Where did you come from? Who sent you? Did someone pay you?  How much do you want? I warn you not to make a scene?"
"I am here freely," she responds, "my desire is to make you happy, please take me with you. It is destined that we must be together."
As the taxi swerves to avoid a rickshaw, he sees in the distance a huge yellow truck.  Strangely it is being pushed by a horde of men, who are swarming about it.  They are pushing it into the road ahead, directly across the taxi's path.  On top of the juggernaut a crew of men are directing and cajoling the men below into superhuman efforts.  As the taxi gets closer the American sees that the sixteen wheeler is piled high with garbage.  Then in quick succession he realizes that the taxi is not slowing, and that the driver is going to try to avoid the truck.
"No!" he shouts as the driver swerves to the left as the huge truck looms before them. It gathers speed as it passes the crown of the road, and the men scatter as the taxi screeches towards it.  The American sees as if in slow motion the front of the taxi hitting the truck.  He closes his eyes as his head is jerked forward and hits the back of the seat.  When he opens his eyes he sees that the front of the taxi is trapped under the body of the truck. He turns to see that the girl is alright, and she sits composed beside him as if nothing unusual had happened.
He turns to his left to see a mass of dark faces staring in. A thin young man struggles to reach him through the open window.  In horror the American sees that he has no hands, one arm is cut off above the hand and the other below the elbow.  The cripple is mouthing something but the din makes it impossible to hear.  The American recoils in terror as the stumps are thrust at him, and in his mind the awful question forms, "how could I give him money if he has no hands?"
Suddenly the American feels his right hand grabbed and he is pulled out of the other door of the taxi. The young woman is dragging him along with her. He looks back and sees the taxi driver, his white turban standing out above the crowd, gesticulating to the men on top of the truck, while they, knee deep in stinking garbage, shout down imprecations upon him. When the American looks ahead again he sees that she is leading him down a slope towards a small dingy cafe. Small dark bodies dart across their path, while she resolutely pulls him away from the turbulent scene.
He stumbles, and dust rises into his face.  They must traverse a small bridge across a ditch to reach the cafe.  Looking down he realizes that it is an open sewer.  Once again he starts to retch, but soon they are over it and entering the yellow plastered building.  A few patrons lounging around stare in amazement at this pale apparition.  She says a few words to a man, and drags the American on into the interior.  The cooler air hits him, he wants to stop, to sit down at one of the tables, but her momentum cannot be resisted, she pulls him further through a curtained doorway and into a small room.  Without pause he twists and falls down onto the bed.
He is aware that a bottle of cool liquid is being proffered, and he drinks deeply from it.  It is refreshing but he feels that his thirst can never be slaked.  Half consciously he is aware that she is near him.  He reaches out and traces the silhouette of her body.  He senses her, but he does not see her, he communicates with her, but their lips do not move.
"Why are we here?"
"Is it not natural for a man to lust and a woman to desire?"
"But, you look so young and pure?"
"All is not as it seems."
"How can I do this, it is wrong?"
"How can a man always know the right path?"
As they thus communicate she unravels her saree, and opens her bodice, revealing her roseate breasts.  Ecstatically he grasps her to him.  Her head is haloed in moving sunbeams leaping through the holes in the flapping rag curtain on the high window.  He is transported, he is enfused with otherworldliness, and slowly he sinks into oblivion.
He awakes with a start.  It is musty in the small darkened room.  "How long have I been here?  Oh God, this is so sordid!"  He jumps up, and pulls on his clothes.  She lies prone before him, her beauty unadorned.  "I must pay her," he fumbles with his wallet.  It is still there.  He takes out some notes, in the dark he cannot see the denominations, and scatters them towards her.  She awakes, and, he thinks, she smiles, as she raises her hands and grasps the floating papers as they catch the last rays of the dying sun.
He must get away.  In panic he turns and runs from the place.  As he does she speaks to him, but he cannot understand her words, only the tone speaks of gratitude.  He races through the cafe, but does not remember crossing the bridge and ascending the slope.  He sees before him the Sikh driver standing next to the taxi.  The driver springs to life when he sees the American, he opens the back door, and salutes formally as he enters.
Then suddenly they are driving away, into the gathering night.  The cool air rushes against his flushed face.  An unlikely chariot, the taxi plunges forward, breaching the ripple he has created in the smooth surface of his existence.
(Copyright  © Jack Cohen)


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