BY SUSMITA BHATTACHARYA
Plymouth, U.K.-based Susmita Bhattacharya grew up in India, which inspires and informs most of her short stories and poetry. Copyright is held by the author.
“LET’S GO to the market before going back,” said Janet, smiling and setting her cup on the saucer with a clatter. It meant she was done and ready to leave — now. She glanced at David’s half-finished tea and a flicker of impatience passed her eyes. She sat there, rigid, and stared at his glass until he was forced to gulp down the contents. At once, the smile returned to her face and she walked out of the café into the sunshine.
David sighed and tried to shade his eyes from the fierce sunlight. The heat was making his head swim. Rivulets of sweat coursed down his back and tickled him. This holiday was bearing down hard on him. Didn’t Janet realise they were not young anymore? He followed his wife out of the café and reminded her of the evening cruise down the Nile.
“Just a quick wander, and then we’ll rest,” she said and held his hand tight.
They weaved in and out of the shops and stalls in the marketplace. The shops sold everything: from ancient papyrus scrolls to alarm clocks that belted out Elvis Presley hits. Janet came across a perfumery that sold most of the well known brands, locally made, of course. Janet sniffed and declared loudly that she only used the real stuff. David averted his eyes from the shopkeeper who looked rather insulted. Working in the perfume counter at Boots gave her a substantial discount. David swallowed a smile. She would buy her own Christmas gifts with her discount card, gift wrap them and then he would ‘gift’ them to her. No, she didn’t mind this strange system. She was very practical minded for that.
David was rather proud that his wife was not the sort who craved after shopping and presents, like her sister. Always into bargains and sales and then into debt. No, his Janet was far too intelligent for that. She spent her money on cultural and educational things, like learning the Indian head massage, or this Egyptology course she was enrolled in back in Cardiff.
“Look,” said Janet, pointing to a tiny shop under a bougainvillea thicket. “It’s an antique shop. Let’s go in and explore.” She strode in, pulling David by his coat sleeve. He sighed. He really wanted to go back to the hotel and have a cool shower.
“Let’s be quick. We need to be fresh for the evening,” he reminded her again. But she was already lost inside the cavern like shop. It was dark and cluttered. Damp and mothy, David thought and smiled. He used to say that as a child, whenever he visited his grandmother’s place. There was a tiny window at the other end of the room and the sun streamed in from there. Dust motes danced and spiralled in their spot lit space. There were the usual papyrus paintings and jewellery. There were terracotta pottery and bronze statues of Egyptian Gods and pharaohs. The walls were covered in animal skins and there was even a perfect head of a stag staring solemnly at customers from above the shopkeepers counter.
Janet gasped and walked around the shop. She studied some of the hieroglyphics on the paintings and could decipher a couple of words. Her eyes shone with excitement. She held one painting up and told David what it symbolized. The shopkeeper nodded in appreciation and David beamed with pride.
“You are very clever, madam,” said the shopkeeper, his voice a deep baritone.
Janet tittered and fluttered her eyelashes.
“You are a very lucky man, sir,” he said, then bowed and smiled at David. He caressed his hands and played with a huge ruby ring on his little finger. The stone winked at them when it caught the sunlight.
“Oh, she is a clever old thing, my wife is,” said David, taking her hand. “But she’s very modest. Won’t let you on to it, will you, love?”
The shop keeper cleared his throat politely and bowed to them again. He was a large man and he towered over them.
“Have a look around, my friends. Everything here is a hundred percent genuine.”
“Ta,” said Janet. “We’ll be here for a while.”
They wandered around, until Janet came to a glass cabinet opposite the window. She gasped as she looked inside. “Oh look, darlin’” she called out. “This is absolutely amazing.”
David came around, and he whistled softly. On the shelves sat a dozen glass-blown animals. They were small, about the length a finger, but they were exquisitely made. Each little animal seemed to be frozen in action. The artisan had captured the very essence of their being.
Janet pointed at the leopard. A golden sheen came through its translucent body. She could feel the fluidity of its movement. It was in a stalking position. The eyes mere slits, its gaze fixed upon the prey. The mouth was open just enough for a menacing smile.It licked it’s mouth with anticipation. The tension in the limbs was apparent. It was ready to spring at the animal that stood sharing the same space. A deer, long-limbed and graceful. Grazing innocently, unaware of its doomed future. A llama looked on at the scene. Its wise eyes were sad. It knew what was to become of the deer. On another shelf there were a few zebras and wildebeests. They mingled together, but one kept a wary eye towards the lion, which lay languidly on his side. He had just had a big meal. You could tell that by the look of content in his eyes. There were some exotic parakeets crowding on a glass branch, their rainbow colours glinting in the single shaft of sunlight. Their mouths were opened as if they were squawking loudly to warn the doomed deer. A pair of sarus cranes were engaged in a courtship dance, quite oblivious to their surroundings. Their necks were entwined and their eyes half-closed in ecstatic rapture.
“These are beautiful,” Janet whispered. “But what an extraordinary mix of animals. They’re not all from Egypt, well, not even from Africa.”
“Indeed, they are not,” the shopkeeper said, intervening. “These are a very special collection. They are known as the beasts of Eden.”
“Oh, why’s that?” Janet asked, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the animals.
“Well, the story goes like this. About 100 years ago, there was a woman whose husband was a sea-captain and she was very lonely. You see, he was sailing most of the time and she had no company to keep. So the husband, every time he came back from a voyage, he would present her with an exotic animal that she could keep in a cage to amuse her with. Her collection grew and her menagerie became quite famous. Many people came from far and near to see these animals. A few papyrus paintings of these creatures have survived and are in the Cairo museum. But unfortunately these animals could not survive in this hot climate and they began to die. The woman became hysterical. She could not part with her animals. So to calm her, the husband brought a famed glass blower all the way from Italy to recreate them in glass. And here you can see his masterpieces. They only need a breath of life to awaken them.”
“What a story. What a history,” whispered Janet. “But then why would the family that owned them, give them away for sale? I’d never be able to part with them if they were mine.”
“True, true,” the shopkeeper said, agreeing. “But then, you see, the lady was so possessed by her glass mementoes that she laid a curse on them before she died. She said that one must always look after them and cherish them as if they are alive, or else the family that owns them will have bad luck. But if they look after them, there will only be good fortune for the family.”
David rolled his eyes. Of course, one had to go along with the whole mumbo jumbo to keep the interest going. The shopkeeper sensed David’s scepticism and turned to face him.
“It’s true, sir. These animals were owned by seven generations. They were all extremely lucky. Except the last two. They neglected their duties and great misfortune befell them. So much that the last family is now on the streets. They sold these animals to me and that is the only bit of money they have left for themselves to survive.”
“Oh,” Janet’s eyes widened. “What special looking after do they need?”
“Well, I am told to advise the buyer that they must buy it only if they respect these animals. They have a heart inside them. They must be fed and cleaned and revered everyday. You must offer them milk and honey twice a day, and keep them in a special place in the house. Facing the East, so that the first ray of sunshine falls on them at the break of day.”
“How much does this leopard cost?” Janet asked.
“Oh madam,” the shopkeeper said, shaking his head apologetically. “They cannot be sold separately. They must be placed in this exact same order on the shelves. One cannot disturb their auras.”
“Ok, so how much?” she asked impatiently.
“One thousand US dollars.”
“Well, I never…” David said, shaking his head violently. “This is rubbish. This is a set up, Janet. Don’t get into this.”
The shopkeeper looked at his feet and kept quiet.
“Four hundred,” said Janet quietly.
“Aw, love, we cannot afford this.”
Janet brushed David’s arm away. She stared fixedly at the shopkeeper, her lips a thin line.
“Eight hundred, madam, no less. I’m sorry.”
“Four-fifty. It’ll be one burden off your shoulders.” Janet pressed on. “Also, I can look after them very well. I study Egyptology and I know how to honour the culture and traditions.”
“Where are we going to keep them?” David whispered urgently. “They need a special place.”
“Why,” she said sharply. “The nursery. We don’t have any use for that, do we?”
She always does this, thought David wearily. He shuffled on his feet and then reached for his wallet.
“Five hundred, and no more,” he said firmly to the shopkeeper and handed him his Mastercard.
“Oh, darling,” Janet hugged him and kissed his damp shirt collar.
The shopkeeper smiled. “The beasts are known to find the right master for them.”
Changes were made to their terraced house on Inverness Street. The ‘nursery’ that had waited with baited breath for its tiny occupant was quickly revamped into a sacred space. The Winnie the Pooh wallpaper was stripped off and a glass cabinet, bought from Ikea, was installed by the eastern window. Janet started buying incense sticks from the Asian shop and organic whole milk from Sainsbury’s to offer to the animals. The beasts themselves seemed quite at home and they went around their business looking fierce and exquisite to all who came to visit. Janet’s colleagues from the perfume counter dropped by to take a look. They were a big hit with the Egyptology class. They even had a session at home where Janet delivered a lecture on the history of the glass animals and the impact of Italian art in Egypt.
“Look like the beasts have found their fan following even in this day and age,” said David, joking. “Mind you, Janet, I won’t have any mummies coming in here to take a look.”
He laughed at his joke, but Janet ignored him and continued to invite her Indian head massage group and the book club members in for a viewing.
David never entered the room. Every time he passed it, he was reminded of all the money he had spent, rather wasted, on those glass animals and their upkeep. He let Janet meditate in that room for hours and clean them meticulously and feed them and hoover and change the flowers every day. It gave him the opportunity to watch TV undisturbed, and he was not complaining. She had given up watching Eastenders. It clashed with the animals’ evening meditation and offerings time, she told him. Amazing.
David soon discovered the advantages of having a pre-occupied wife. He could nip down to the pub and drinks with his mates, without her sour looks and constant badgering. They’d laugh and joke about those creatures in the pub, David often leading the way.
“You know what, guys,” he’d say, giggling into his beer mug. “Someone’s raided me fridge last night.”
“Go on, mate, it must ’ave been you,” hollered someone in the crowd.
“No,” said David, wiping the foam off his lips. “I’d gone in to pick on some of last night’s roast, and I had to say, ‘excuse me, mate, but can you shove a bit.’”
“Who was it, your missus in a face mask?” The men roared with laughter.
“No,” said David, laughing, “It was the leopard. He was stickin’ something in the freezer. He said, ‘excuse me, mate, but I’m just stuffin’ this antelope in the ice. Will want to eat him when we’re discovered in the next century again.”
“Jesus, Dave, how do you stand up to such bullshit?”
“Mike, I think life’s a bit better now,” he said. “Janet’s all occupied with her little zoo. I can come here and down a pint without her shouting down my neck.”
“No shit, man. I’d throw all those creatures out had my missus gone and done something like that.”
David didn’t reply. Mike wasn’t married to Janet. His missus was a docile wallflower. Not like his Janet, all intellectual and innovative. If she wanted to indulge in this, it was alright. As long as she didn’t involve him in it. As long as she paid for the rubbish she did from her bonus. He was sure it wouldn’t be long before she lost interest and found something else to indulge her restless mind in.