Monday, May 26, 2008

A Hundred Miles To Havana

Note: This is a re-write of a story I had written years ago in college. I've tried to breathe fresh life into the text; I hope and trust you'll enjoy it.

There is fear in us, dark and velvet, enveloping our hearts and minds, whispering insanely in our dreams. Throwing us into the abyss, roaring with laughter as we slip away like tin soldiers from the hands of a dying god.
There is hate in us too, a brooding evil, animating our hands, tapping out the drumbeats to our deepest desires.
And there is love as well, oh yes, a blazing ray of light that sets fire to our souls. Making us believe, against all odds, that redemption is just a heartbeat away.
In equal measures have I felt the dank and musty trappings of fear in the distant reaches of my mind, pinned down the rabid animal that is hate threatening to take over my soul.
And yes, a million moons ago, I was touched by love.
The story starts, as very few do, on a pier.

The sun broke through the clouds as she stepped off the ferry and onto the pier. I watched silently as the gentle waves lapped at the hems of her dress, as the ferryman turned away and rowed off hurriedly.
I stood up and stretched, waved at her to come over.
"You must be the guide," she stated with an air of uncertainty, as she walked across the pier and onto the beach. I nodded shortly. I hadn’t been looking my best, and my clothes had never been something to excitedly write home about.
"What happened to this place?"
I turned around to stare anew at my abode of many, many years. The winding path that led to the village was strewn with sugar-coated candy wrappers, and my eyes caught the glint of jagged metal edges sticking out of the mud.
"I guess people get really hungry around here."
She laughed then, a delightful wave of joy, and the wind fell silent in awe as the sounds of her mirth echoed across the beach.
"I'm Anne," she said and reached out her hand in greeting.
I recoiled in horror and lurched back a few steps.
"Please don't try to touch me again."
And there was a pursing of lips, and there was a steady silence that hinted at a wellspring of anger buried deep. And she withdrew her hand, started walking down the path, staring fixedly at the distant village.

I was quite content to walk alongside her, and we trudged along the path, skillfully dodging the pieces of metal that threatened each time to blow us into bits.
She spoke finally, after a while, hesitation and annoyance uneasily coming to a truce in her voice.
"Did all of this land up here during the Great War?" she asked, as she poked at a metal piece with her foot.
"I'd be careful if I were you," I replied. "It was the First World War actually."
The butterfly of chaos had flapped its wings in a city amidst the clouds, and the thundering echoes of its passage had boomed across this island, as history and legend swept over and greedily embraced all of us. I had fought against my lord and master, commanded my own troops. I had viewed with dread the eerie calm with which was undertaken the merciless slaughter of civilians by the opposing armies. I had proudly given no quarter, nor asked for any, until desertion and attrition took their toll on our meager defences.
And, after the War ended, I had been sent here to seek salvation, if possible, an iota of mercy, if not.
"I knew your father," I said, and smiled as she gasped and stopped in her tracks. "I spoke to him many years ago, when he came to this island. He was an interesting man, a brave man." I paused, unusually unsure of myself, and took a deep breath. "He wanted to bring along his entire family, but you weren’t quite ready for the move yet."
I watched as her tears furiously ripped furrows in the layers of dust on her face, watched as she took out a dirty napkin from the folds of her dress and wiped her eyes and her nose, watched as the heaves and sobs subsided.
And then, finally - "How far are we from Havana?"
I grinned, resumed walking. "A hundred miles, give or take. We’ll stop at the village for refreshments."

The path took us through a sugar plantation tended by a plague of industrious ants, and as Anne chatted away happily about her family and her friends back in Amsterdam, morning slowly made way for late afternoon. The Sun looked a delicious shade of boiled yolk when we reached the ruins and thatched huts that comprised my village. The breeze bent to its thankless task of drying our sweat, carrying to our ears the harsh calls of ravens seemingly perched on every nearby tree.
"We should eat at Ernie's. Everybody comes to Ernie's," I said, savoring already the taste of fried mackerel and a pint of beer.
She gave me a puzzled smile. "It's Rick's, isn't it. Everybody comes to Rick's."
"Different place, honey, different time." I led the way to Ernie's inn, a sorry-looking dilapidated shack that once used to have a real roof, one that rarely leaked during the fierce storms that kept lashing our coast. Ernie's Inn, the sign swinging and creaking outside proudly proclaimed, Estd. 1961. And right below this was a singular coat of arms: a fish leaping out of the open mouth of a bull. Which made me hungrier still.

Anne took off her straw hat as we walked in through the swinging salon doors, and shook the sweat out of her long black hair. She looked up at me and grimaced.
"Ernie!" I shouted out, "There’s a guest with me!"
There was a noise from behind one of the tables in the corner, and Anne muffled a shriek as a woman dressed in black got up from her seat and stared at us.
"It's only Virginia. She’s not all there. Ignore her," said Ernie, standing behind us, armed with a batter and two mugs, scratching his white beard and leering at Anne, carefully avoiding my gaze. "So, what can I interest you in?"
My regular mackerel and beer was served up in no time at all, while Anne decided to feast herself on a green cake that I quite advised against.
It was with a relaxed sigh that I put my legs up on the table and pushed back my chair. Anne kept smiling at Ernie, who seemed happy enough to be at the receiving end of this show of emotion. Virginia sat at her own table and kept cooing and muttering to herself softly.
"You know, it's funny, the way Virginia turned up here," Ernie started off, addressing Anne as he handed me a cigar. I flicked out a pen knife, clean snapped off the cigar top, and lit it. The delicious aroma of tobacco filled the inn. All was right with the world.
"Funny how?"
I grunted and dusted some of the ash off my shirt. "She walked out of the ocean, all drenched and pale. Most people landing up on this island come via ferry, the way you did."
Anne shuddered faintly as Ernie frowned at me. Evidently, I was not supposed to interrupt. I laughed and pointed my cigar at him. "Now, this guy, when he came here, looked like an Egyptian mummy; his forehead was wrapped in bandages. I nursed him back to health."
I caught Ernie with a pleading look on his face. "That's worth a round you owe me Ernie, and you know it."
Ernie took my mug, turned around without a word and went back to the counter to fill it up.
"He's scared of losing his mind, Ernie is," I chuckled, as he pushed my mug back at me and sat down next to Anne. "So's Virginia, as far as I can tell." Virginia tilted her head and stared at us, upon hearing her name spoken aloud. The time had come to roll the dice.
"What about you, Anne? Anything that you're afraid of?"
She looked into my eyes then, did Anne, and the mists of the mind that had obscured my vision scattered away, and I saw, before she spoke, what she was afraid of.
"It's the dark. I'm afraid of the dark. I've always been."
Simple words, softly spoken. I understood, then, perhaps for the very first time, why humans alone, of all of His creatures, had been blessed with the gift of speech.
Ernie saw the look on my face. "You don’t have to go anywhere tonight. Why don’t you stay here?" he told Anne as his hand crept up to cover hers on the table.
I pushed my chair back as I got up, and smiled at Ernie, a smile cold enough to freeze the Sahara, before turning my gaze to Anne. "We should leave for Havana. Now." Ernie withdrew his hand quickly, and beads of sweat trickled down his forehead.
I walked up to the salon doors, peered at the gathering clouds of late evening. A bulbous moon peeked back at us through the bald bark of a dead tree outside the inn, before resuming its presence behind the clouds.
"The weather's perfect for a stroll in the night," I remarked to nobody in particular.
Ernie got up along with Anne, who seemed clearly reluctant to leave. "Perhaps we should -" he started.
The silence of the ravens was a thunderclap in my head as I walked out of the inn without waiting for a reply, followed shortly by Anne and, a few steps behind her, Ernie.
I thought it best to spare Ernie for now. "Go back to your inn, old man," I said, calmly, as my voice rose above the noise of the birds starting to flap their wings, ready to fly off. "Go back and seek your beloved marlin. It’s not your turn today."
The wind howled and the streetlights flickered in the gathering gloom as we watched each other, Ernie and I, a smile on my face, naked terror on his.
Ernie shrugged and walked back into the inn quietly. The inn was to remain in business for another day at least.
Anne stood by the door of the inn, silent as a tomb, watching me walk away. With a faint sense of satisfaction I heard no signs of her following me.
"Do you want to go to Havana?" I said, softly, as I came to a halt beneath a streetlight across the street, turning around and looking at her. She returned my gaze, then, gathering up her reserves of courage, still standing at the door to the inn, willing herself to make a move.
"Yes I do," she said, and we were plunged into darkness.

The darkness lasted for a year, a week, a month, a day, an hour, a minute, a second. The streetlight above my head flickered back into glorious gas-powered wonder, beating back the demons in the darkness chattering wildly at each other.
I stood in a circle of garish yellow light, surrounded by unseen voices that whistled, spoke, laughed, and cried, as the village lay wrapped in a cloak made out of the fabric of Night itself.
I glimpsed Anne’s outline across the road, her back pushed against the wall of Ernie’s inn. She was on her haunches, cowering, hiding her face.
"Can you see me Anne?" I said, and I had no doubts that she could. I raised my voice, "Don’t you want to go to Havana?"
"I'm scared," she called out, after a while.
I stood there quietly, listening to the ravens clawing and pecking away at unseen horrors.
"Do you trust me?"
She whimpered, then, at the sound of a raven choking. "Yes. Yes, I do."
"Come to me," I said, and stretched out my arms. "Come to me, and everything will be fine."
It was with unceasing wonder that I watched Anne as she lifted up her face, watched as she came to a decision, watched as she got up quietly, watched as she closed her eyes and took deep breaths, watched as she moved blindly towards my outstretched arms, ignoring the beating and flapping of leathery wings around her, ignoring the eerily human-like cries of hunger and envy that surrounded her, ignoring the million beady lifeless eyes that noted every step she took, that lusted after the blood in her veins.
She ignored them all, and she walked up to me.
And she collapsed in my arms with a faint shudder.
"Hush," I said, as I held her and stroked her hair. "Hush. It’s all right now."
It was then that she turned up her face towards me, her eyes full of tears of relief, it was then that she stood on her toes and leaned forward, it was then that I felt her soft lips on mine, it was then that I felt the force of her fierce embrace.
We stood there for a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a month, a week, a year.
We stood there for an eternity.
And as we disengaged, gently, she held my hand in hers, and she asked, "So when do we go to Havana?"
And I smiled at her, tears rolling down my cheeks.
And I said, "You're already here Anne. You’ve reached Havana."
And she vanished before my eyes, melting away into the darkness of the night, as my lips struggled to spell out what I needed to say, as I blinked a thousand times in vain to catch a last fleeting glimpse.
And I stood there and I cried, knowing too well that I would never see her again.

There is fear in us, in each of us, a cold fear that binds us to the world and mocks our greatest achievements.
The fear of the dark for Anne, the fear of turning insane for Ernie and Virginia.
The fear of Man for me.
She faced her fears, Anne did, and conquered them, painful step by painful step, the sheer urgency of years fading away as she came closer to her goal.
I have been on this island since the dawn of time. I have stayed here, and have faced my fears too, man by man, woman by woman, child by child. I have faced my fears, as waves of human flotsam and detritus beat down my island on their desperate way to Havana and to eternal life.
I have faced my fears.
The fear of Man’s touch. The fear of his speech. The fear of his laughter and his cries, and his love and his hate. The fear of his freedom.
"What is Man, that thou art so mindful of him?"
It was He who had asked me the question oh so many years ago. Lucifer, He had called me, Lord of the Morning. I was His first, His chosen.
It was He who had cast me out, thrown me down to this very island, to face my fears till the end of time itself.

There is hope in us too, in each of us. And as I walk down the hundred miles to Havana, as I get closer every day by an inch or two, I feel the grace of His gaze, the soft touch of His thoughts.
For is it not said that the meek shall inherit the Earth?
And if He bestows mercy onto all, won’t He bestow mercy onto me?
There is love in us, I know, in each of us. And I know a time will come, when enough souls have been guided on their journeys, when I have faced my fears and conquered them, that I shall be free to enter His loving embrace.
And there will be, nay, there shall be Light.


Brahma / Anonymous said...

Heady stuff. Nice change in mood, from hell to Havana. Delicate literary footwork. A second, a minute..
And some of the Greek analogies were well persian to me.
Was able to make out every second word if that helps :P

Moo said...

Beautifully worded. You've kept up the mood of the story till the very end. I think I understood about 3/4ths of it. Very frankly, you kinda lost me after the part they kiss.

As a normal third person reader, it's still a bit unclear as to what happens after that. I shall give the story a re-read, but all readers may not. That is why, thought I'd tell you what I think of after a once-over. I'm not asking for a corrigendum, perhaps if you word it differently, yes? Because towards the end, things move a bit too fast, and it's difficult for the reader to catch up. Perhaps you haven't mentioned some things that are clear to you in your mind, but have not come forth on paper.

Also, I'm not sure I quite like the use of italics for the quotes. I personally think you could either use italics, or use quotation marks, not both. Slightly becomes heavy, visually.

I'm really not sure if my comments help, or if the story was really obvious and I'M dumb, but what the heck, you asked for my opinion and here it is! :P

Hemanth said...

@mugger-much: how about a 'hi, how've u been!' eh? anyway mishra, that post is a temp..didnt have any other place to put it up..i am taking this off soon enough...

quality stuff as usual on ur post..

and yeah, hi! how've u been?

Pri said...

very nicely written...
especially loved the way u started and ended it up :)

chandni said...

not bad at all!

we like it.

Sumit said...

Awesome dude awesome....

preeti said...

What should I say? You should write more :) wake up from your hibernation!!

chandni said...

this is a blog.

and it needs to be updated!

write, already!

saswati said...

beautifully written but do avoid repitation.

Anonymous said...

good thoughts in good style .....
please remove word verification system from your comment takes time ...