Snow Owl – A short story

We met when we were twenty-five. Well, he was. I was turning twenty-six in a few days. I wasn’t telling anybody, because birthdays I didn’t care for much. Mushy, gooey. Anyway, he was lost, I could tell. Not lost his way type lost, just a lost soul. The type who appears confident, suave, and in control but really does not know where he is going. Tall and lean, cropped linen pants over lithe legs. Dark hair over angular face. Strong chin. Black thin-wire glasses.

Good-looking fella, the kind you can take home to momma.

“Looking for something?” I ask. He looks up. Takes a step back in surprise. Yeah, I can have that effect on people. With my legs.

“Are the shorts too short?” I ask. All saucy. I like doing that. Men… they’re so predictable.

Ah, no, I’m no man-hater. Quite the opposite.

He looks confused; they all do. And then smiles. Which is unusual. They usually grow cocky or nervous.

He isn’t usual. He thinks he is, but he isn’t.

He says, “No, the hair.” Pauses. “Too blue.”

“You don’t like blue? Or you don’t like blue on hair.”

“I don’t like it on you.”

A flirt. The world seems to have too many of them.

I come closer. He looks geeky, the studious, serious types. I may have misjudged him.

“Take a seat. What will you have?” I ask.

He seems surprised. Yes, that happens often too.

“You work here?”

 

“Yep, belongs to me. It’s a slow day. Damn rains.”

 

July in Goa. Rain digs pockets of water in the sand. The sea, in its majesty, rises and ebbs in its glory and fury. Trees sway and shacks grow weary with the onslaught of rain on their heads. Tourists are few and business is slow.

But it is my favourite time. Since that year. Every year. That day. Every year.

“Some cappuccino.”

“And to eat?” I shift my feet. His eyes wander to my legs. They are fine, yes. Not my legs (which are too) but his eyes. Furious and mild. Like the sea at my doorstep. Rolling up in anger, retreating docile.

“What do you have?” he asks from behind the menu. Two cursory flaps of paper with arbitrary stuff. We make anything anyone asks for.

“Brownies that melt in your mouth. I can make them. Make your knees go weak.”

Why do I flirt? It’s fun. It is power and it is harmless. I learnt when I was a kid the effect I had on men. (Modesty is not my virtue, so take me to jail.) I grew to be very tall, good genes from my German mother, and had a glib tongue, passed on by my Bengali father. Both are alive and well—lovely people—in Mumbai, and I visit them occasionally. By that I mean once every year. Mostly, they visit.

He is considering me. He is thrifty with words.

“Okay,” he says. Looks down at his mobile. Dismisses me.

Gosh. He dismisses me. That is new. Anyway, there is a brownie to bake.

Twenty minutes later I get his cappuccino and cake.

“Service in Goa…” he complains. I grin.

“At least you are getting some. Look at the rains.”

We turn to watch the rain outside. Long, neat, parallel sheets of water. One. Two. Three. Four. Many, many more. I run on the beach some days. Or dance over the sea that seeps onto the shore. The sand is grainy and wet. Sticks to my feet. My body sinks in. I am alone. Alone and happy.

Best time of the year.

“From Mumbai?” I am sitting on the chair opposite. He does not seem to mind. I knew he wouldn’t. They never do.

He nods. Sips the coffee. Eats a piece of the brownie. Moves his finger on the coaster.

“Snow Owl.”

I look at him. “Beautiful creatures. Odd like me.”

But that was not the reason I called my shack Snow Owl. Two events happened simultaneously a year back when I thought to come to Goa. A friend offered to lease a shack in Palolem, and I read about thousands of snow-white owls, two feet tall with five-foot wingspans, flying away in droves from their arctic home in winter. Flying many, many miles, to feed in the farmlands in Idaho, to roost on the rooftops at Montana. A strange migratory event, experts called it, the most significant wildlife event in decades.

Like my meeting him. I knew it even then, I was going to meet him again. And again.

A miracle of nature.

“Beautiful, yes.” He is sipping his coffee.

I blush. Damn. That is unusual.

“Where are your friends?” No one comes to Goa alone.

“Out and about. Showing some girls around.”

“You are nursing a broken heart.”

He does not seem surprised that I guessed. It must be recent.

“What do you do?” I ask, leaning on my hand. He’s not hitting on me. That makes me want to try.

“Consultant. I advise companies.”

“I trained to be a doctor. Surgeon.” I want him to know that. Strange. Usually, I don’t care. My legs walk and my eyes talk.

He looks at me with new respect. And some scorn. “Really?” I feel a tad insulted.

“I own this place, you know.”

“Why did you leave it?”

“The white coat and the blue hair. Nah, did not blend.” We laugh together. The rain comes down harder.

His mobile rings. He takes out his wallet and pays. Two hundred. “Keep the change.”

I watch him leave, song on his lips.

He comes again the next day. The sky is clear and the sea is mild.

“Cappuccino or me?” I smirk.

“Want to take a walk?”

I look around the café. It is a small place, twelve seats in all. I have a dozen rooms at the back for rent. All in bright maroon and yellow. I have Joel to help me at the counter, eager young boy. Well mannered and hard working. I signal for him to take over. A few patrons turn to look as I wipe my hands and tie up my hair.

“You like being like this?” he asks. “Or are you pretending because it is in vogue?”

“To be a rebel?” Yes, that’s what he means. “That’s my normal. YOU think it is being a rebel.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

It’s funny. I know exactly what he means. It is like I can read his mind.

Kindred spirits.

“I am afraid,” he says. “Afraid to stand out. It reeks of loneliness.”

“Nothing else suits me. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

When I’d told my parents that I was giving up being a doctor and was opening up a café instead, they had freaked, I kid you not. Freaked like all hell had broken, the Mumbai roads were flooded (which wasn’t so unusual, but in south of the city it was), and filthy waters had seeped into the sparkling marble of our home. This is not what normal Indian kids do, my father entreated. What about the years you spent studying, my mother cried. My sweet father brought his friends over to teach me some sense, and my mother stopped eating. But what could they do? They had me for a daughter and, worst of all, they loved me. That had to be unconditional, eh?

Things we do for love. And things we don’t.

“Why are you a consultant? It is skullduggery, I hear.”

“It is, occasionally. And I never really think about why I’m doing it. It’s a popular career choice. Pays well. Everybody in college was doing it.” He scratches his head. It’s cute. “I think of breaking away sometimes. I’ve thought of coming to Goa and starting something…” He turns to me and grins. “Maybe I should.”

“Maybe you should.” I smile. “Join me.”

He laughs and shrugs. A kite whose keel was held.

I clasp his hand. He stands still.

“What…” He mutters nervously.

“You wanna sleep with me?”

He refuses to meet my eye. He watches his slippers, blue with a yellow bug, the brown sand and his unkempt chipped nails.

“What… no…” He stammers. I let go of his hand.

“You are that kind.” No, I wasn’t scoffing. Sex is a need. If you don’t want it, you don’t want it. And this one was a traditional Indian boy, his need buried under layers of convention.

“It’s not like… You’re very pretty…”

I bend and kiss him lightly on the cheek. On his leathery, stubbly cheeks. I touch the edge of his lip. He tastes sweet. Not salty. The salt is on my feet.

His mobile rings.

“Got to go.” He looks at me and I see it in his eye. Desire. Control. Confusion.

Lost child.

“Come back.”

He tips an imaginary hat. “Nice to meet you…”

“Melda.”

Since that day I am Melda for him. But that is not my name.

And I do not know his.

***

He comes again next year.

“I got married,” he says this time.

“Good for you.” I wipe the table clean. I changed them all to bamboo. White-painted bamboo. To go with the name of the shack.

“Where is she?” I ask.

“Asleep.” He shrugs. “It is afternoon and she hates the rain.”

“How have you been?” I ask, looking at him closely. He does seem happy. His eyes are brighter, his hair thicker around the ears and his face warm. Curving with a grin that comes often.

“Pretty good.”

“You love her?”

“I think so. She is a friend.” He sits and beckons me to sit with him. “You look well. Did your legs grow longer?”

I laugh.

“It has been a good year. I got a boyfriend.”

“That chap I saw outside?”

“Yep. Alan. Visiting banker.”

“Why did you…” We say it together and laugh. I say, “you first,” he says, “you first,” and we laugh again.

“Why did you start this place?” he asks.

“To meet people. To be in Goa. To be wild.”

“Does it do well?”

“Better than you imagine.” I ask my question. “Why did you come this year again?”

“I visit every year.”

“Yeah, Goa is like that.”

I thought of him often, but not too much. Like a meteor you marveled at and remembered every now and then. Too much would make it lose its splendor, eh?

I colored my hair red in the meantime and took in Alan. He is here for four months. Then he’ll leave. Suits me fine.

“What do you do when the season is slow?”

“Write, paint, make love,” I drawl. He blushes. “You’re married now,” I tease him. “Still shy?”

“Yeah, okay, but…” He refuses to meet my eye. I decide to toy with him some more.

“How’s she, your wife?”

“Come on…” He looks away, embarrassed.

“Alan, he is fine, obsessed with himself of course, they all are, but I taught him some tricks I like.”

He refuses to take the bait. I laugh.

“Still a consultant?”

“Yes, now a slightly better-paid one. Changed jobs. Lots of travel.”

I nod, disinterested. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it either.

“This is a world apart,” he says. I know what he means.

Like a meteor. Sudden and delightful. Not something to dwell on, just remember from time to time.

“You wanna sleep with me?” I ask playfully, tweaking his elbow.

He winces and draws away. “I’m married.”

I rise and say over my shoulder, “Cappuccino and brownie?”

“Make it gooey.” He smiles. “And make it fast.”

We sit talking for hours, of this and that. Of nothing at all.

“Come back,” I say when he leaves.

He tips his imaginary hat and waves goodbye, arms surging, legs skipping.

The sky is dark now. Cloudy. Heavy.

***

I think of him often.

I meet a lot of people ─ flirts, goons, and gentlemen ─ but there’s no one quite like him. He’s a struggling child, a subverted lover, a swimmer with no hope of catching sight of shore. An uncommon stillness in a chaotic world. My world. I think I like him because he lets me bring my lights to his Christmas. He looks at me like I am magic. I am his impossible dream and he is mine.

And a dream is so much nicer without names. And an end.

Sweet, sweet, yearning.

***

He comes again next year.

“You’ve put on weight,” I remark in disdain.

“You haven’t colored you hair.” He seems surprised. His sharp chin is showing the beginnings of a flap below.

“I had a baby,” I say and smile. He looks at me, eyes wide.

“When did you get married?”

“Ah, my married virgin, did not anyone tell you how one makes babies?” I shake a spoon at his dismayed face. “It is Alan’s baby. But he left.” I am glad he’s gone, that controlling, belching, smelly man. He left me Keiran, chubby little sweet baby. Delight of my life.

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy. He is with his nanny. You have any kids yet?”

“We’re trying.” He shrugs. “I’m here on a business trip.”

“Your firm doesn’t seem to mind the rain so much.”

It is a particularly decadent monsoon. The trees sway like they are being beaten, and the shacks tremble like discarded feathers. It’s glorious.

“I was asked to decide the place.”

“Big man,” I say happily. “Perfect timing.”

Pencha, my father called me on days he was angry. When I would break his rules, defy him, or argue back. Incorrigible, stubborn owl. They were not happy to hear of Keiran. They did not talk to me for over four months. But love is, well, unconditional, inexplicable, forgiving, and accepting.

And weird. Random. Vague. There are no definitions for some kinds, I guess. No piece of paper to celebrate it, but it’s there.

Some kinds of meteoric love. Go, puke.

“Can I meet him?”

I make him cuddle Keiran. That’s a nice sight, his hairy, now rounded arms snuggling my tiny, portly baby. Rubbing his nose. Gurgling with him, tousling his hair. Keiran reaches for his mouth with his fat fingers. I watch with some pride, and plenty of joy.

“Looks like you,” he says and hands me back my boy. I give him to Joel.

“Humph. Rubbish.” Keiran is a white baby. He looks like Alan. “Maybe the next one will.” I say, nonchalant.

“You should get married,” he scolds. “This is not good.”

“Yes, daddy,” I simper. He scowls.

“You happy?” I ask.

“Yes.” He hesitates. “She wants a baby. We have been trying…”

I bend over and hug him. I don’t know why. He seems a little sad. I smell the musty wet rain in his hair. The stillness in his frame. He doesn’t hug me back, but takes it in.

We sit and talk for hours as the rain unleashes its fury around us.

When he leaves, I say, come back, like every time.

I know he will.

***

He comes again next year.

“We’re expecting.” He seems so happy; I place the plate of Bebinca and vanilla ice cream on the table of a surprised customer and run to him.

“You came!”

“Why wouldn’t I?” He seems surprised, like I asked him his name. “It’s that time, isn’t it?”

There are no rains this monsoon. Farmers are dying, homes have no water, and parliamentary sessions are debating ways to overcome this calamity. Goa is humid. Hot and sweaty. There are more tourists than usual, but it’s not happy. I miss the clamor of the rains. I miss the rains.

I thought he would not come.

“Good for you both,” I say.

“Blond streaks.” He smirks. “Too staid for you.”

“It is a dry monsoon.” I shrug and point to the tall man at the counter tallying bills. “José, my husband.”

“Goan?” He crinkles his brow trying to see.

“Spanish, silly.” I tweak his elbow. He doesn’t draw away. I let go, worried José might see.

“Where do you meet them?” He frowns. “Is he a good man?”

“Tourists.” I shrug. “Good while they last.”

“I guess congratulations are due.” He looks at me. “I didn’t think you would get married.” He pauses. “Ever.”

An owl you can expect every year. A meteor is unforeseen.

Maybe he is the owl and I am the meteor.

“Well, I love him.”

“How do you know?” he asks quietly.

“How did you know?” I ask back.

Strangely, we are fighting. We are not lovers, but we are fighting.

“I wanna sleep with you,” he says so childishly, I laugh.

“I am married.”

“You asked me. I was married.”

“You still are.”

We stare at each other. Our lips twitch in amusement. Together. At the same time.

Kindred spirits.

Why then? Why that moment? I ask myself this often. We waited for so long. We waited without knowing we were waiting. We were each other’s dream, but we were afraid to make it tangible somehow. To give it an end. A conclusion from which there is no going back, which could mean the end of everything that is mystery and longing and the beginning of what we had been avoiding all along.

But together we think that day, this could stay a dream. A dream within a dream.

We leave to take a walk outside. I tell José he is an old friend.

The sky is dark today before its time. There are clouds I can see and some moisture on the ground. I smell the rain, which is yet to come.

“All right,” I say.

He knows. “When?”

“Now.”

I lead him behind a huge rock I sometimes sit on. And think. And paint. And watch. The big threatening sea, sometimes kind, sometimes wild. But beyond my reach. I want to dance over it. But it will not let me. So I just watch.

The rock is dark brown and glossy. Shaped like a frog waiting to jump. Surrounded by trees that are swinging with the wind.

We shed our clothes. It is so dark, I can scarcely see. But when I touch him and he touches me, it feels like we are one. We come close and kiss. He runs his hand over my back, then my side and over my hair. I lie down and he lies with me. His skin feels like my skin, his breath on my face, like my own breath.

It feels like the most natural thing to do. Again, I wonder why we waited so long.

Lying as one, when we are done, he whispers into my ear, “Do you think…”

I shush him. “No,” I say.

Songs and stories have been written of love like this. Why spoil it?

“Come back,” I say and run my lip over his leathery chin. My hair tumbles like a waterfall over his face. He blinks.

I feel the first drops of water on my back, little round drops that grow and sting and hurt me, but I am glad.

These are the first rains in Goa this season. Maybe I made them.

“Of course,” he says and kisses me back. No longer shy.

We lie there till the rain submerges us. The sand beneath his back, my hair bathed in rain and soil, my back washed clean.

***

He comes again next year.

And every year after that.

Like a snow owl.

 

 

(Previously published in Fem and eFiction)

FollowFollow on FacebookEmail this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterFollow on LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *