The train rumbles under my feet traveled up my legs and settled into my belly like a growl of hunger. Emerald fields, coconut palms, and birds on electric poles flashed by outside the window. He slept, a wisp of greying hair trembling on his forehead, his mouth slightly open. I played eye games with the handsome stranger in a checkered shirt on the other end of the near-empty coach. A new world lay in his pupils, bright with possibilities.
Checkered Shirt made an almond with his thumb and forefinger. He held it up to his eye and blew me a kiss. It meant my eyes were beautiful and he wanted to kiss them, I imagined. I shivered in the speckled sunlight, reading whatever I wanted from his gestures. Whatever gave me joy and hope. He asked with his hand where I was going. I shrugged. He patted his heart, flinging a faraway look out the window. Aha, so he was going where his heart took him.
The train slowed. A farewell smile playing at his lips, Checkered Shirt drunk-walked down the aisle towards the door. An ache spread through me. I watched him from my window as he leaped down on a deserted platform shimmering in the heat. The whistle blew, the train shook, and nimble as a hare I followed my heart and landed on the platform beside him.
“Won’t your father be worried?” I heard his voice for the first time.
“He’s not my father, he’s my husband,” I said, knitting my fingers in his. Together we ran along the dusty path that yearned towards the horizon. The train rumbles faded away.
We stopped by a man selling tea in small clay cups. Checkered Shirt ordered two. A huge cauldron of milk simmered on an open fire; rich, creamy and buttery white. The tea-man ladled milk into my cup. It spread like a lace doily over my mahogany tea. It was as hot, sweet and frothy as forbidden love, and I scalded my lip on the very first sip. We finished our tea and crushed the cups in the dust under our feet, where they lay red and bleeding.
A teenage girl with laughing eyes sauntered towards us, a cluster of flower garlands hanging over one arm. She lassoed Checkered Shirt’s neck with one of the garlands, laughing. Checkered Shirt plucked a garland off her arm, and the girl extended her head hopefully. He braided the ring of flowers into my hair instead; his touch quick, exact, as if he had done that a thousand times.
The flower girl watched us, her eyes turning dull and sad.
We strolled along the cracked-clay path, the brambles from either side grazing my legs. Thatched roof cottages with colourful laundry flapping in yards, cast shadows on nearby ponds.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To my house.”
“But I don’t like walls,” I said.
“My house has no walls. It’s a treehouse. The rain, the dew seep through the leaves and the branches.”
“Ah, how enchanting! I’ve never seen a treehouse.”
“Look, that’s the blind flute player,” said Checkered Shirt, pointing to a man sitting on a fallen tree trunk, his long fingers dexterously grazing the tone holes. It was a tune I’d never heard before.
The flute player’s eyes were closed as if he were making melody in his dreams. We flopped on a patch of brown grass and, in the haze of that dulcet music, I dozed off. When I opened my eyes, dark monsoon clouds had conquered the sun. My head was resting on Checkered Shirt’s shoulder. I looked up; his eyes were two smoldering orbs of desire.
“My husband’s waiting for me.” I leaped up and started running towards the train station.
“He won’t take you back,” cried Checkered Shirt, his laugh cruel.
The pebbles on the road poked through the soles of my thin sandals.
“Hey, at least tell me your name before you go,” he shouted.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I am …” The wind grabbed his name and tossed it against an aubergine sky.
A lazy train chugged into the station, its plume of white smoke spiralling backward. It lurched to a stop. I clambered in just as the clouds gasped apart, and the rain came slap-slapping down like a vengeful god. I darted through the coaches till I found him. He sat at his window, a lock of silver hair trembling on his forehead.
He smiled, relief glinting in his eyes.
Ronita Sinha resides in Toronto, Canada. She is a traveler, recipe experimenter, and gardener, tilling her soul for words, images and when she cannot help it, she writes. She has been shortlisted by Sixfold Literary Magazine in their annual Fiction contests in 2021 and 2022 and published in print and online as one of the top fifteen. She was a finalist for Globe Soup's annual short story contest in July 2021 and 2022. Her work has appeared in East of the Web, The Academy of the Heart and Mind, the other side of hope, and The Literary Yard. In August 2020, she was awarded “Storyteller of the Month” by The Magic Diary. Ronita is a fiction reader for Atticus Review.