(The story’s continuing…image is a picture of a ruined European fort in Mannar)
Again, the old man sighed loudly, wringing his hands and shooting the young lieutenant a weary look. Narasimha turned a corner and walked to the left, out of sight. His thin hand caught Balaram’s arm firmly as the doors opened out into the courtyard. Huge, battlemented walls rose up in all directions around the three men, and a light rain began falling. The inter-monsoonal rains were not everyone’s best friend. Balaram looked around nervously as the harbormaster groped the air.
“I can’t see that well. I’m fifty, though I may not look it,” he added and smiled warmly. “So, how well do you know that man, Ganathipathy? And must I say it’s an honor to be standing here with you? I never made it past being the captain of a few vessels during my best years. I wish I had your vigor and courage when I was young, because I regret every day at not being able to command a great squadron like you do now.”
Balaram gave him a look of pity, but at the same time was rather exasperated and embarrassed all at once.
“Like I said, how do you know that commander? I take it he is”-
“Strange?” echoed Balaram rather loudly. “He is known for his unorthodox methods on the field. Honestly, he prefers to be out on the battlefield than in a little office safe in a fortress or with a governor or the Emperor drawing up strategies. But by Krishna, his plans hardly go awry. Recently though he’s had a few disasters and near-misses as far as his career was concerned. But I’m sure you don’t want to waste your time on this? A busy man such as yourself?” His helmet came away in his hands as both he and Harihar supported the old man between them on the climb to his office.
“Oh, I adore long stories, my son!”
The office was small, but it looked comfortable enough for the old harbormaster. He caught hold of his desk as he pushed himself firmly into his seat. The silk cover of the little orange cushion felt pleasant beneath his weight.
On it were his seals, all with the carved image of a tiger, although there were one or two bulls and elephants around, and a small store of ink. His styluses were arranged in perfect harmony, beckoning his trembling hands. A flurry of tiny orange fruit flies buzzed around a small, perfectly cut mango on a little silver tray. An array of documents and a small, rather old but beautiful copy of Shakuntala.
It was accompanied by a tiny, polished brass statue of Shiva-Nataraja.
A sheathed sword was placed against the wall, supported by two iron struts. Instantly, Balaram’s eyes flew towards the huge object. The heavy metal hilt of the mighty old weapon was inlaid with ivory; he guessed that this old man must be insanely wealthy from all his years of service.
“So tell me more about your friend.”
“Oh, right, my apologies, sir. Narasimha and I have been friends back in Rameshwaram since the day we were very small. He’s from a powerful and wealthy Brahman family, and his father was a trader in silk, and a retired military instructor, may the gods bless his soul.”
“We used to train together almost every day. He, my sister and I would play together for hours on end on the beautiful beaches there. I mean, it’s truly wonderful! I presume you’ve been there? It’s like a little slice of paradise on earth. No mountains of any sort! And I can tell that he loved it there, and given the choice, he would never have lived. But there was that one time…I knew that he had to be joking when he told me. We were twelve and his father’s friend, I think his name was some Kamalan, or something, had got a new horse from foreign traders who disembarked there. It cantered along the seashore at sunset. So beautiful, it was. That horse would shine in the sunset, its skin brimming with sweat. Of course, Kamalan was kind enough to allow us to ride his favorite horse. I used to love the horse, but Narasimha absolutely enjoyed riding it as well. Sometimes he’d circle the whole island until it was sunset. I loved that he was enjoying himself, and he soon learned to train horses effectively as well. But…in the depths of my heart…I felt like that bloody creature had torn us apart!”
“He was my only friend, you see,” he explained wearily. “And for three years, that creature was in his possession. I hated its sandy skin and its great power, so I…that night…”
His eyes were brimming with tears as he spoke. His mind wandered back to a moonless night, a night when the ghosts of the mighty guardian of the ancient forests, Hanuman, and his wild Vanara troops still scurried around the tiny yet sacred island. A long-buried memory, of darkness painted with blood that was forcing itself out through the edges of his mind. Balaram’s hands came together in deep thought. His fingertips trembled as he steadied himself. Thoughts of a terrifying scream shot through his memory.
Blood seeping onto the hay-strewn floor of the stable as the animal finally succumbed to the attack. In this battle between man and beast, it was a boy who had triumphed. The stench of his own vomit poisoned the air as the divine horse lay there, twisted and bloodied, its entrails spilled out on the floor in the manner of thick snakes.
His trembling young hands flung down the rusty-bladed weapon as he cried aloud into the night.
The animal’s face still bore the same mask of abject wide-eyed horror as the boy continued to hack away at its neck despite his tears. The madness in his eyes was cast in the faded black mirrors set in the skull of the poor horse, and the boy only knew one thing for certain; he was a now a monster in his little community. His words, though, were simple and cloaked with the same shroud of darkness:
“I murdered it. In its sleep.”
He saw Harihar and the old man staring at him and felt like a bull locked in the sights of a hunting tiger. Their eyes held a mix of pity and anger towards Balaram.
After a few minutes, his cheeks and lips trembled slightly. “But there’s…more to it.” His own eyes looked wearily at the two men.
“I thought I’d be welcomed by Narasimha’s tearful face, and perhaps some verbal abuse. But most of all, I thought that I could be his shoulder to cry on. I mean, I never left any indication that it was I who’d killed the horse! But the next morning, I got nothing.”
His eyes widened in fear.
“I tried to look for the slightest trace of sorrow in him. Every minute of the day, my sister and I spent with Narasimha. We studied together, I sparred with him. His face was just as it always was! He smiled at us, spoke to us. No tears came from his eyes. The more I looked at him, the more terrified I was. Something must have weighed on his mind, but I saw nothing. It was like that horse had never even existed! It was as if he’d forgotten about the whole thing! And he even went to the stable that morning to take it to pasture. So he saw it, and…and yet, no crying, no care at all for the life of an animal he loved so much. To be honest, he’d never even cried at his grandmother’s funeral. I just thought that he was good at hiding his sorrow. But the more I think about it, it was like he has no ability to feel sorrow. It’s like Narasimha is a hollow shell, dead inside.”