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by Saswati Chatterjee

1177 words
Listen to this story, read by the author

I heard him come, horse and hooves all, smelling of the war and blood, and knew he was home.

I was sitting by the unoon, fire warming my feet, and he was trotting in across the old broken road, barren fields on either side. The drought had been hard and the plague had taken the better part of the village, leaving little and fewer to tend to the crops.

The last of them had left long ago after burning their dead; the smell was still fresh in my nostrils. They had left in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun still crept over the hills, quietly so I wouldn’t hear them go. I heard them, anyhow. The flicking of the animals’ tails against the onslaught of flies, the hushed whispers as families and belongings alike were piled atop the bullock cart, the final complaining screech and creak of the wheels as they departed.

And I was alone.

• • •

He came with the stench of the white men preceding him. I smelled it on the wind first and waited with morbid curiosity — had the sahibs finally found my little village nestled in the valley? I was sure news of the plague would have kept them away.

But a week or so later, the winds cleared and I smelled him at last, as clear as the day he had first left home, barely a boy. Now he seemed more a man, taller, wearier, as he rode his horse down the low sweeping paths leading him home.

To say I was delighted would be an understatement. My unoon had never burned brighter, merrily lighting up my kitchen in gold and red as I cooked: moong dal and puffy luchis, tender mutton from the goats left to wander the remnants of the mustard fields. As I heard his horse approach, I called out in delight, “You’ve come!”

There was silence and his voice returned from the outside, as warm as ever, “I’m home, Dida. Is there anything to eat? I’m starving.”

“What a question! Of course there is, my grandson has come home and he thinks he will not be fed. Sit, sit and I will bring you all that I have been preparing.”

I heard the sound of footsteps at my doorway and then his horse neighed from outside. My grandson stopped and I called out to him, “There is fresh grass on the other side — take it there. Leave it to graze! Horses must also eat.”

My grandson laughed — how dear his laugh was — and I heard him take his animal away. I set about preparing; on the floor, I laid bowls of steaming dal, just on the right side of savory, along with bite-sized chunks of potatoes swimming in gravy, crispy begunis, aloo posto, fragrant and soft, straight out of the kitchen, and a generous helping of mouth-watering mutton. Rice was heaped on his plate along with several freshly made luchis. As I was grinding the flour, I heard him come back inside and he let out a sigh as he caught sight of the food. I heard a clatter as he dropped his belongings and sat down on the floor to gorge.

“Are you happy?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “My poor sweet boy, is this enough? If you’re hungry, don’t hold yourself back. Tell me what you want to eat.”

“Dida, this is wonderful.” I didn’t see him, but I could hear him grinning from ear to ear. “You know what would make this perfect? If there was a mango — you have no idea how much I’ve thought about having one. I thought about having one all the way here, Dida! A whole mango, all to myself.”

“But of course!” I was giddy with delight. The mango tree in my backyard — my great secret — had sprouted perfect yellow and plump mangoes just a day or so ago. “You will have all the mangoes you want!”

From my kitchen, I stretched my arm for his mango. My arm stretched past him, past my front door, all the way to my mango tree. I heard the horse shriek with alarm — wretched creature, I had forgotten it was there — as I plucked the fruit.

There was a dead silence outside my kitchen. I could no longer hear my grandson chewing.

I brought the fruit back inside and deposited it on his plate. I then pulled my hand back to my kitchen and returned to grinding the flour.

After a moment, there was a soft and hesitant voice from outside, “...Dida?”

“Yes, darling?”

“Where is everyone?”

“Oh, there was a sickness. Many people died. Those who didn’t, left.” The flour was fine below my long, callused fingers as I set to making a fresh batch of luchis. “They said many people in the cities have died. I thought you would know.”

“I didn’t.” A moment of silence. “Ma… and Baba?”

“Even them.” If I rolled the luchis a bit harder than usual and threw them into the oil a little more aggressively, nobody was here to see it.

“And it’s just you here, Dida?”

“Yes, darling.”

I could see him then, in my mind’s eye — as young as the day I had lost him. He had always been a quiet child. A battle had been the wrong place to send him.

I finished making the luchis and picked them up, the oil burning through my skin but barely hurting me. I extended my arm and watched as it stretched through my kitchen entrance to reach him and put the luchis on his plate.

In the silence that followed, he began to sob.

Without seeing him, without looking at him, my hand touched his face and felt the tears on it. Sitting in my kitchen, I stroked his face until I found the single bullet hole, and covered it tenderly with my thumb.

“Hush now,” I said from my kitchen, vast and majestic. I pulled my feet out from under my unoon and finally stood, the room crowding me and forcing me to hunch. I made my way to the front room and with my other arm, gathered up my poor lost boy, home at last, as he wept openly in my arms.

Carrying him, I ducked through my doorway and listened to the wild anxiety of my grandson’s horse. With a snapping sound, the animal broke free and I watched it hurl itself through our mustard fields. Soon, it was a tiny spot in the distant horizon and then gone all together.

My grandson clung to me and I held him as only I knew how to. I held him as I had yearned to hold him when he lay in the mud all those years ago, in a war that was not his. I stood in the dying sunlight and told him all the stories I had kept for him as I waited, in my hut, in an abandoned village, in a long-dead side of a valley.

The nightjars were calling and dusk was descending.

Saswati Chatterjee currently resides in New Delhi, India. A lifelong fan of horror, video games, and dragons, she’s also got a bit of a soft corner for the occasional artificial intelligence. She can usually be found at her Twitter @RunaChat93, yelling bad opinions about TV shows. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction and is also set to appear in Weird Horror Magazine by Undertow Publications.

Issue 33

August 2021

3LBE 33

Front & Back cover art by Rew X