Runner-up of the inaugural edition of The Mozhi Prize
A short story by B. Jeyamohan
Translated from the Tamil original ‘Verum Mull’ by Amruth Varshan
In Samaria, men who don’t drink in the summer are branded lazy. The only way to survive the maddening heat and sultry dust is to swill pitchers of chilled, stomach-churning yayin. Eyes watering from the dried peppers of Abyssinia, the pungent yayin assaults the tongue with a sourness to match. The body eventually starts cooling down. Thoughts fleeing the heat finally settle down, drenched. Only then can you find the energy to work. Or think.
This small town in Samaria is called Ein Sheva — Seven Springs. A town that rose and grew around seven springs that flow by each other. The Arabs who discovered these springs named the place ‘Tabgha’ in their tongue. The town lies along the famed Camel Ridge. It was around these springs that, centuries afore, groups of camel traders put their loads down for a respite from their arid trek. Travelling to Turkey, they carried precious cargo of cinnamon and papyrus from China, or peacock feathers and sandalwood from India. The springs, bordered by rocks, ran deep enough to drown a man twice over. Coloured crimson, they looked like lone, bloodshot eyes. Descending the outcrops, the traders would sate their own thirst before tending to their camels.
In truth, the place had emerged for the sole purpose of yayin trade. Jewish merchants from far-off Judaea started travelling here to sell Arab and Chinese traders yayin. Over time, the surrounding lands built up into a village. A village of taverns. It had inns that housed rough benches thrown together by tacking on slabs of wood over stones and were roofed low with palm leaves. Behind these inns lived the innkeepers and their families. Many women, on occasion, frequented these innkeeper dwellings. And like the sour, foaming yayin, they too, were for sale.
But even today, there exists no one in these parts capable of making the yayin. It needs quality flour — ground barley is blended with water and left to ferment for over a year. Undertaken by people whose entire lives are dedicated to yayin, it’s distilled in villages far away. Its making is a tradition, handed down for generations. The people who brew it, their attire, breath, words and thoughts are as caustic as the yayin itself. Even their villages lie buried in the deepest retreats of the dust-swept desert, very much like vats.
The excavated yayin, smelling of sand, is transported in wooden barrels. Mule carts laden with the fresh blend beget a royal reception. Nomad poets would trail the procession, singing of the drink’s strength, plucking away at the strings of a kinnor. Women and children would dance. As the carts make their way into the village, they are welcomed to deafening trumpets rearing skyward.
The tarry residue at the bottom of yayin barrels doubles as medicine for laden camels driven with little rest. Its effect on the camels is almost magical. With drooping eyelids and necks turned to jelly, they collapse onto the sand. When they awaken, they do so refreshed, and feeling youthful. They can recognise the scent of yayin. The patriarch camel would signal its desire for the muck with a loud ‘prrrrr’. Timid female camels would sniff and stomp on the sand with heavy hooves, their manes shuddering.
It is indeed remarkable that such springs could exist in such desolate wastelands. Lands where the skies and the earth are little more than red dust. A hydrologist from the lands of India, east of the snow-tipped peaks, had once proclaimed that beneath the sand ran a hidden river. Seen from atop the wind-weathered sandstones some distance away, sezeban trees — an indigenous species, growing above the river — would give the appearance of a large green towel draped over the desert.
The sezeban is a short, thorny species of shrub. They nurture green leaves devoid of moisture and have branches sticking out in opposing directions. Leaves bud into green mounds with the coming of spring. With autumn, they turn into bare trunks. Sticks barren of foliage. And as autumn comes, so do the Abyssinians who call these trees, filfilee. They are never around to witness green on these trees — a fact betrayed by their name for it. ‘Barren thorn’. An interpreter had once said that that was how the word ‘filfilee’ translated to the local tongue. In Abyssinian, it’s a scathing insult, reserved for braggarts with no actual substance. In spring, this thorny shrub is anything but barren, sporting lush, green smiles. But its leaves are ridden with prickly thorns. The natives think the tree cunning. The green foliage is seductive and attracts unwary donkeys. Even the slightest lapse in judgement would leave the poor beast’s mouth mutilated. A traveller with his garb entangled in its nettles, would find it near impossible to extricate himself from its clutches without the aid of another.
Personally, I’m a summer kind of man. I’m rather partial to the sultry season in Samaria. To me, the winters there are quite uninteresting. The cold feels like filthy, wet wool wrapped around my body. Fall wind in Samaria heaves at the desert constantly, making it impossible to have a drink of yayin free of sand. The entire town would be deserted on such days. Merchants would be extremely reluctant to open the barrels that held the drink. A few barrels uncasked in want of the odd coin would go to waste, its insides reeking of fungi. But in spring, the tides turn and people flock to the marketplace. Poets at the kinnor, young merchants, and women of the night populate the benches far as the eye can see, all of them, soaked. Drunken babble and meaningless laughter sink into the sour sand. This is when the yayin is most expensive, leaving nomads like me with a dearth of drink.
The throng thins out in the summer when the earth and skies tire. The occasional traveller on camelback and the sigh of wind lost in the dunes are the only sounds echoing off the barren landscape. Looking upon the expanding skies, the open directions and the desert drinking in the sun, is wonderful to a wayfarer. There is no better view. The insignificance of it all sinks in, an inexplicable feeling that nothing holds any gravity. A feeling that fills the hearts of nomads like me with serenity. As a voice inside whispers repeated comforts, the lilting tunes of a kinnor are all my heart desires. Life would then be complete.
His white beard fluttering in the wind, dirt pooled around his closed eyes, old Thomas lay outside the tavern, kinnor on his lap. As his head drooped in stupor, his hand slid and fell upon the instrument, its twelve strings seeming to moan the words, ‘Aamaamallavo’. For a brief instant, my soul rippled as water in a well. The moan that fell on my ears — they were words of my native tongue. A language that I hadn’t heard since my childhood, lying forgotten, a shadow in the bottom of my heart. A language I hadn’t spoken a word of in thirty-two years. A language that held meaning only in my dreams. I called for another mug of the acrid yayin.
When half my tankard was gone, scatty Isaac limped to the mouth of the bar, dragging his swollen leg behind him. The rags he wore weren’t unlike the tatters that fluttered around the trees of the desert, snagged there by the wind. He carried with him at all times, an enormous bundle, accumulating clothes he found over time. He never parted with it, the hefty cargo always on his back. Hence the swollen leg. Even as he slept, the heap would rest over him.
Rebecca hurried outside, screaming, ‘Get lost, dirtbag! I don’t have the patience for your filth so early in the morning.’ Isaac did not so much as flinch. Not even when she threatened to strike him with her wooden pan. It was impossible to remove him until he got what he desired. His eyes were like yellowing pebbles mildly wet from morning dew.
Summer made Rebecca as prickly as its heat. She shot various insults at Isaac, hoping to shoo him away. Carrying a heavy pitcher of water inside, her mother advised, ‘Give that fool something and send him on his way. He’s going to frighten away the customers. Disgust them, more likely.’
‘Sure,’ Rebecca scoffed. ‘What customers? Would you please shut up? The only drinker we’ve had all morning is this easterner. He’ll sit here all day, drinking not more than a measly copper’s worth.’
Turning to me, ‘You, nomad. Finish your mug and leave now. The stench of your clothes is bad for business,’ she accused.
Giving her a silver coin, I asked her to give Thomas and Isaac a mug each. She stared at me in disbelief.
‘Yes, it’s real. Solid silver. Keep my tab open until that runs out.’
Curtly plucking the coin from my hand, she scuttled back inside. She would turn the coin over several times, inspecting it. They consider me a sorcerer here. To them, all easterners are conjurors. Flying carpets, canes that turn into snakes, tongues of flame and such tricks are expected of us. When an easterner confesses that he can’t actually fly, he invites strange looks. Or so a Chinese trader once told me, chuckling, his narrow eyes narrowing further.
My words lured Thomas inside. He was a patron of the bar now. A buyer. With an air of dignity, he placed his kinnor on a wooden pedestal and joined me on the bench. He rubbed his palms in glee and grinned at me. His black teeth flashed for a moment amidst a beard that looked like dried blades of grass. Isaac seemed unaware of what had transpired.
Rebecca gave Isaac the first mug. Taking the tankard from her with both his hands, he meekly sat down on the mud platform by the entrance. As if sipping scalding hot soup, he puckered his lips and began slurping in small gulps. From inside, ‘Did you earn this with all your tricks?’ asked Rebecca.
‘No. Fortune telling.’
‘Whose fortune did you tell?’
‘A Roman general’s.’
‘Ah. That’s what I thought. Who else would be here, in this summer, rich enough to possess silver?’
‘What did you tell him?’ asked Thomas.
‘Dark times lie ahead. Your slaves will rise in revolt. Clouds of dust will swarm your horses. Slay a few more chickens in the name of your Gods,’ I burst into laughter. ‘That’s what I advise any official.’
As the drink was brought to Thomas, he ignored it with an air of condescension befitting a lord. With an intense expression, he turned to me and said, ‘I hear that the heat will drop quite a few bodies in the towns south. Diseased Abyssinians, from their travels the last time around, have left behind some strange sicknesses.’ Even as he spoke, he carelessly lifted his mug up to his nose, sniffed at the drink, and shook his head, satisfied. ‘Boils crop up all over the body. No one survives for more than four days. Entire clans are being wiped out. All it takes is one infected member.’
Pointing at Isaac’s rag bundle, ‘Samaria is one huge trash can. Not unlike this bag,’ I said. ‘It lies in the path of many important trade routes. Diseases from all corners of the world converge here. People of all races leave behind their seed. Thoughts from around the globe condense here.’
Throwing his head back in raucous laughter, Thomas took a long, deep draught. ‘True… Nomads from countries all over meet here.’
Standing at the inner entrance, it was Rebecca’s turn to laugh. ‘I had a feeling this would backfire on you,’ she guffawed. ‘The very moment you bought him a drink.’
I looked up from my mug and at Isaac. He was still slurping on his tankard, turned towards the desert, staring off into the distance. His unmoving eyes gave him the appearance of someone deep in thought. Or someone devoid of any.
‘Now look here you eastern wanderer. I’m not a stranger in these parts as you are. This is where I was born. My ancestors have been bards for twenty generations. I have each of their names on the tip of my tongue,’ said Thomas gruffly, leaning heavily on his fisted hand on the wood.
‘But your clan is dead. What of it now?’ asked Rebecca.
‘Yes. Yes, they are dead. They succumbed to an alien sickness. Probably from his eastern countries,’ Thomas spat at me. Taking a hard swig, he emptied his mug with a shudder, clearing his throat with a guttural noise. ‘The mind of a bard from an extinct clan is scarcely more than a dustbin.’
‘Why don’t you look for other employment?’ asked Rebecca.
‘I’m a bard.’
‘So? Shouldn’t a bard work?’
‘No. Because he is a bard.’
Shaking the tankard to extract the final drop onto his tongue and extending it toward Rebecca, ‘It wouldn’t be the worst thing for you to give me some more,’ he said.
‘I’ll tell you the story of this wanderer if you do.’
‘Whose story? His? Let me guess. He came here with traders from his land and when health failed him, they left him here.’
‘You’d think. But no. I saw him as he entered Samaria with three others.’
‘You weren’t yet born. Back then, your mother was the fairest in all of Samaria. And the most expensive. Ah, some thirty years ago. Maybe longer,’ said Thomas. ‘It was a time when the most gallant of heroes was this fool, Isaac.’
‘Is this true?’
‘Aye. He used to be taller then. Stone Pillar, we used to call him. He was famed for being able to break sandstones with his bare hands. A heavy sword always hung by his belt and a whip fashioned from fishtails hung over his shoulder. His arms and shoulders, tattooed with cobras, made women all over swoon. He was a centurion in the royal army. When he walked into taverns in the evening, women and singers would surround him, celebrating his very presence.’
‘Poor thing,’ said Rebecca, glancing at Isaac.
‘I have a whole ballad that sings of Isaac and his glory. But that is for another time. This story is of this nomad.’
‘If it would shut you up, I’ll buy you another tankard,’ I negotiated.
‘I’ll give you a mug to speak,’ Rebecca countered my offer. ‘Why did he come here?’
‘Refill,’ said Thomas.
‘Argh! You…’ started Rebecca, but got up and fetched the yayin anyway. Winking at me, ‘Go on,’ she urged Thomas.
‘Thirty years ago, a powerful rumour swirled around these parts, much like sand. At the root of it all was a comet.’
‘Yes. I’ve heard my mother speak of it. She said it appeared like a giant red tadpole across the heavens.’
‘When I first saw it, I thought it was a red flag, a shirt tied to a pole by poor souls afar, unable to walk, stranded, alone in the sand. Its tail was quite long and sometimes looked like the forked tail of a swallow. At other times it appeared to be a fish’s fin. It remained there for four months. It first rose over the southwest. Over time, it gradually moved to the northeast and eventually disappeared from view.’
‘Oh. That sounds breathtaking. Can I hope to see anything like it in my lifetime?’
‘Astronomers say it’s unlikely. They had never seen anything quite like it,’ Thomas took another swig.
I stared at him intently. It has been thirty years and the Samarians still did not tire of talking about the comet. Wherever a singer told tales of it, it earned him barley porridge at the very least. The constant stories, regaled repeatedly over time, made the comet legend.
‘But some texts speak of the comet. As did seven great seers,’ Thomas continued. ‘It was a warning. A gauntlet. Like a lit arrow fired into the sky before a war. A sign that we begin now, and that there will be no going back,’ his eyes shone as he spoke.
Tucking her skirt between her legs, Rebecca sat across the narrating Thomas.
She is rather beautiful, I thought to myself. Her cheeks flushed red, excited by the tale, her eyelashes fluttering.
‘Though we have been slaves, looked down on for centuries, we Samarians are a chosen people. We discovered the true God in these stark sands. It is to us alone that God has spoken. It was our lack of unity that led to our enslavement. Today, we are shackled to the yokes of Rome. They flog us mercilessly as we lay helpless, our legs broken. Drinking our own blood to quench our thirst, we roam the desert in the unforgiving heat.’
Rebecca nodded, rapt.
‘While we pray, our dispersed clans live in parts of Egypt, Abyssinia and Rome as slaves, manacled and worked tirelessly. Flogged, starved and raped, they die hopeless and meaningless deaths. But we prayed. Eyes closed and our palms folded over our chests — as is the eastern way — our hearts thumping against their cages, we prayed. Tears fell like drops of molten lead. Our words simmered as though they came from the mouths of raging kilns. As a father watches the scowl on the face of his sleeping child, our Lord stood bent over, watching as we prayed.’ Caressing his long, white beard, Thomas smiled. ‘The comet was an answer to all that.’
‘Oh!’ Rebecca exclaimed, clutching at her heart. ‘Lord, I pray all the time too. Did you know?’
‘There isn’t one Samarian you can show me who doesn’t pray,’ Thomas told her. ‘That is why the comet was sent to us. We had been blowing on wet tinder for so many years. The firewood finally reddened and sparked; the first tongue of flame. The fire will blaze on now, a towering inferno, reaching for the heavens.’
Emptying the rest of his mug with a single swig, ‘Somewhere, the blade has been drawn,’ he said.
‘Rebecca, I’d like a refill,’ I asked.
‘Following the comet, thirty years ago, hordes of people flocked here from the east,’ Thomas went on. ‘Astronomers and learned men. It is said that the comet was visible far into their lands. Legend has it that tens of thousands of scholars set out for these lands. But only a few actually made it, crossing Arabia and Egypt. Those few were still enough to fill this small town with new eastern faces. Yellow faces, much like half-cooked pancakes. Or overcooked. Like this face here,’ he pointed at me.
I took a sip from the drink that Rebecca had brought. Sucking in the final drop, Isaac set his mug down. Placing his bundle over his lap and resting his hands on it, he sat there, staring into the distant desert.
‘I had been rather eager to catch a glimpse of the eastern aliens. It was a harsh winter. The northern winds blew in, cold as icy daggers. And just as sharp. No one ventured outside after sundown. I had a dream that night. I was walking through the desert, in the parts where my clan was buried, when my legs tripped over another pair. The legs of little John. And what’s more, he was alive! I fervently dug him out of the sand. ‘My mother is here. Close by,’ he told me. His mother Maria. I dug her up too. I dug all of them out of the sand like a man possessed. And just as well, I woke up, startled, in a cold sweat.
‘You know it yourself. Dreams of resurrection foreshadow death… I have no family to speak of. No kin. Was this omen meant specifically for me? Shivering, I made for the taverns, looking for a mug of yayin. As the night had long since begun, none of them were open. As I stood around, not knowing what to do, I caught sight of dancing lights in the distance. By their bobbing, I could tell that they were lights mounted on camels. I started in their direction.’
‘Is that where you saw him?’ Rebecca gestured at me.
‘Yes. Their group was rather large. Twenty camels in all. Thirteen laden with cargo. By the time I reached them, they had unloaded it on the sand and were erecting tents in the desert. I approached them playing my kinnor, lest they mistook me for a bandit. After all, eastern daggers always find their mark. Unsheathing a long, thin sword from his scabbard, their guard pointed it at me and asked me who I was. The metal glinted like a shimmering snake. I told him I was a kinless bard. After careful examination, they offered me their sour eastern wine, bread and dry fruits.’
Thomas ploughed on. ‘On a large carpet sprawled on the sand, I saw four men seated. It was a flying carpet. Of that, I had no doubt. The mysterious runes engraved on it made their purpose very clear to me. A shiny, blue carpet. The four men on it looked regal enough to be emperors. You wouldn’t believe it but all four of them were easterners. Each of them was of a different complexion. Of the four, this one here had the darkest skin.’
‘Him?’ Rebecca got up, astonished. ‘He was one of those emperors?’
‘Yes. You couldn’t possibly imagine what he was like back then. Like a golden scarab. He was the youngest among them. A beard black as the night and sharp as a horn. Teeth like white pebbles, large round eyes. He was able to converse with me all in Samarian.’
‘What did he talk about?’
‘He asked me what stories were told here about the comet. I told him vaguely that people were afraid. I figured, why disclose our secrets to a foreigner? Angered, he threatened to turn me into a lunatic if I didn’t speak the truth. Right then, the oldest of the four admonished him and beckoned me closer. His long beard fell on his chest like wisps of clouds. He asked me if any miracle had occurred here. Trying my hand at flattery, I told him that one indeed had happened. They had come to our home. That a bard’s hunger has been sated. But no. He wasn’t swayed. He asked me if anything extraordinary had happened recently. Lowering his voice, he asked me if there had been any royal births.
‘Up until then, I had never even thought of it that way,’ Thomas confessed. ‘I had a moment of clarity. All became clear to me. I told the old man that there had in fact been a birth. But I couldn’t reveal anything further. A lion cub had been born. They bid me to leave. I disobeyed. A little distance away, I reclined on a rock, keeping an eye on their group. But the eastern wine was too potent. You would know all too well. I dozed off. In the morning there was not a single indication of tents and camels having been there the previous night. Every trace had been erased by the wind. A golden muslin cloth discarded by the springs was the only evidence for all I just claimed. Naturally, no one believed me. It wasn’t worth even a mug of Yayin.’
‘Didn’t he leave with them?’ Rebecca asked Thomas, blinking in surprise.
‘No. But it was another eight years before I saw him again. His clothes torn, dirt plastered all over his body and his hair a spectacular mess, he sat drinking at a tavern in the Joppa Harbour. But I could recognise his eyes. Those mysterious, foreign eyes. I went up to him to make certain that it indeed was him. He had no memory of me.’
‘Didn’t you go back?’ Rebecca interjected.
‘Do you really believe the yarn he’s spinning? He would swear on his life that I am Caesar in guise if that would get him another round of booze.’
‘A bard never lies,’ retorted a solemn Thomas. Turning to Rebecca, ‘Rebecca, honey, your beauty is beyond words. Your thighs and the undying spring between them are the stuff of dreams. Would you be a darling and fetch me another mug?’
Raising her hand as if to hit him, ‘I will split your skull,’ said a smiling Rebecca. Nonetheless, she brought him half a mug of yayin. Turning to me, ‘But this, I believe of him. I’ve seen you here around seven, maybe eight times. I have a strong feeling that you’re not a simple nomad,’ she accused.
‘What other kind of nomad is there?’
‘The kind that always has a good yarn to spin,’ she giggled.
‘Or tales of treasure,’ Thomas chipped in, sipping from his mug.
‘Fine. I’ll spin a yarn for you. Do you know where I hail from?’
‘You can’t possibly imagine. Far east of here, beyond the snow-capped mountains, there lies a country. The trees from whence the seeds of human wisdom spread through the world grow there.’
‘Indus. I know. I’ve been with a merchant from there for a week.’
‘Yes. It’s a river. Larger rivers run down south. Giant fields, cities of epic scale. The houses in some of the cities are roofed with bronze. In others, even with silver. Some temples have roofs of solid gold.’
Rebecca’s jaw dropped in amazement.
‘Even larger nations and cities lie to the south. At the tip of one of these southern lands, two oceans converge. Here, the waves crash like thundering horses. One of the oceans is a light turquoise while the other is a darker shade of green. The rulers of this land have a lineage so ancient that its beginning has passed out of living memory. They are chiefs of a fishermen clan. Their ocean is where pearls are found.’
Rebecca stood up. ‘Yes, I’ve seen them. They gleam like the eyes of fish. Eastern merchants bring them here for sale.’
‘Yes. The fishermen clan accrued their wealth only after they started diving for pearls. They learnt to build wooden galleys and to trade by sea. They built a fortified city that they called ‘Alaivaai’ – Wave-Mouth. Their chief became a king. They became the unconquerable Pandiyars, and the name has lived on.’
‘Are you from the House of Pandiyar?’ asked Rebecca.
‘If it pleases you, so be it. After all, all you want is a good tale. Let’s say I am of the royal family. My name is Chezhian.’
‘Why come here? Across these mountains and deserts?’
Smiling, I replied, ‘Ask your bard friend there. He will cook up stories that will keep him supplied with yayin for years to come.’
‘Come on. Tell me,’ she insisted.
‘Okay. Presume I came here as a merchant. Having lost all my money on a beauty like your mother, I was stranded here, unable to return home. That makes for a fine story, right?’
‘Stop fooling around and answer my question. Did you see the prince cub of Judaea?’
‘Oh,’ Rebecca deflated. ‘Did the others with you see him?’
Rebecca inhaled sharply. ‘Did they not take you with them?’
‘Then how come you didn’t see him?’
‘How do I explain this to you? Those with me went up to him and kneeled in front of him.’
‘I did not see him.’
‘I did not kneel.’
‘That means you’re divine too,’ Thomas butted in. ‘My lord, bless me with sweet wine.’
‘I don’t follow,’ said Rebecca.
‘That’s a story for a different time. It would get Thomas another mug some other time,’ I winked at her.
‘You make your living with these petty mysteries, don’t you? All you easterners,’ Rebecca sighed. ‘There once came a magician who performed tricks with rope. A fairly simple trick. Yet it has helped his family thrive for a thousand years.’
‘Right you are.’
‘There is no talk of the lord these days, huh?’ Rebecca asked Thomas. ‘Back then, people talked about nothing else for a while, my mother tells me.’
‘Yes. Word reached the ears of King Herod. Terrified, he ordered the execution of all the infants born that year.’
‘I’ve heard of this. Mother says my brother was killed too.’
‘Thousands of babies were massacred. Soldiers went door-to-door, sword in hand, cutting down all the toddlers they could find. Nursing infants were ripped from their mothers’ teats and mercilessly murdered. Their eyes ran with tears as their breasts did with milk. I’ve made no less than seventy elegies of the incident.’
‘My god!’ Rebecca exclaimed.
‘They would bundle the clothes stained with blood of the massacred children and collect their payment from the master of coin. With their bloody swords and new money, they would come for drink. And women. Tossing us coins, they would command us to sing. All of what I sang was for them. Hearing my songs in a drunken stupor, they would start bawling, inconsolable.’
‘What is to come from speaking of such matters now?’ Rebecca’s mother called from inside.
‘They are poems. And what is poetry but history.’
‘Do not sing,’ she warned.
‘You just might score another mug for not singing,’ I jested.
‘Shut it, nomad filth. I’m a bard from a tribe with a history of a thousand years. Do you think we’re equals?’ Thomas roared.
‘The tribe isn’t here now.’
‘They are like grasshoppers. Lying in wait, buried in the desert sand. All they need is one night of rain. They will rise again. When our lord rides, a sword in one hand and fire in another, atop a red mount, the skies will part. And rain will pour forth from the rift heavens. Rain not of water, but of blood, red as his steed. Bathed in that rain, the dead will rise, and my kinnor will ring ceaselessly.’
‘Good yayin is like a forest fire. It catches on but gradually,’ said I.
‘Wandering scum!’ Thomas spat. ‘Run from here, out of my sight. My saviour is coming.’
‘Perhaps he was slain at the sword of Herod’s rule thirty years ago.’
Thomas froze in shock. He glared at me, unblinking. His head trembled. A sudden sound rent the air. Like a woollen quilt ripping. Thomas had started sobbing. Tears fell heavy on his beard. Brushing them away with his hand and clutching the fabric on his chest, he shuddered violently.
‘There we go. Rebecca, drag him and dump him outside,’ her mother ordered.
I walked outside. Isaac was still on the platform, unmoved. I went into a cluster of filfilee bushes to relieve myself. This was the problem with yayin. As I squatted, I heard a sound on the other side. Merchants? But they did not come here during the summer.
I stood up. A small crowd was moving down the street. All of them were swathed in long, dusty robes. A man was riding a donkey, surrounded by seven more engaged in song.
Rebecca and Thomas stepped out of the tavern to investigate the commotion. ‘He’s a carpenter’s son,’ Thomas proclaimed loudly. ‘He calls himself a preacher. He speaks like a learned man.’
I looked at him intently. I couldn’t quite gather why my heart was pumping so fast. His long hair flowed over his shoulders, his beard, like a black honeycomb. His robe was in tatters. His lower body seemed one with the beast he rode, appearing to be a part of him.
He taught the fishermen to fish, the carpenter’s son,
Yes! The carpenter’s son, the carpenter’s son.
And the fisher folk under the sun, made him a cross,
Yes! A cross. A cross, a great wooden cross!
Thomas sang raucously and danced, waving his arms wildly. Rebecca stood watching with glee.
I looked at the eyes of the rider. My fingers were trembling. He rode past me, as the group walked around him. I could see his legs draped over the donkey. Cracked heels, coated with dirt. All at once, I felt a burning desire to leap and dash towards him. I moved forward without realising it. But the sezeban was all around me, a prickly prison. A couple of thorns buried into my hand as another caught on the fabric on my torso.
Crossing the fence, the crowd kept moving. Irritated, I whisked my hand back. A tiny streak of blood ran from a gash, my palm on fire.
There was a strange, sudden squeal. Surprised, I stepped back. Behind me, Isaac came rushing blindly and leapt into the filfilee, burrowing through. Taken aback by the assault of thorns, he froze for a moment, shrieked and jumped out onto the dirt. Getting himself up, arms stretched out, he ran down the street, still screeching. His clothes had been ripped away and he was bare-naked, red, bloody streaks across his body where the thorns had torn at his skin.
I craned my neck to see a sprinting Isaac, covered in blood, like a newborn rushing from the womb. His bundle lay abandoned at the mouth of Rebecca’s pub.
About the Author:
B. Jeyamohan (b. 1962), based in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, is a pre-eminent writer in modern Tamil literature. His most significant work yet is a twenty-six part roman-fleuve called Venmurasu (The White Drum), a reimagination of the Mahabharata. Spanning more than twenty-five thousand pages, it is amongst the longest literary works in the world. Apart from other landmark novels such as Vishnupuram (1997) and Kotravai (2005), his body of work includes more than three hundred short stories, many volumes of literary criticism, biographies, travelogues, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature as well as essays on heritage and philosophy. He has received many honours, including the Akilan Memorial Prize for his first novel, and the Katha Samman, the Sanskriti Samman and the Iyal Award (Canada) in later years. He can be found at https://www.jeyamohan.in/.
About the Translator:
Amruth Varshan is a writer and game designer from Tamil Nadu, India. He has a background in engineering but his true passion lies in the meeting of literature, language, and art. Deeply fond of both English and Tamil, he’s always trying to find new ways to express his love for words.