by Rekha Valliappan
“Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore…” ― Edgar Allan Poe
* * *
It was early summer when Moira weary and dusty from several hours of extensive convoluted journeying had arrived at last on the final leg of her sweeping tour at what was to be her home of the next few days – ‘Chembaratti Villa Resort’ – House of Red Hibiscus.
Dusk was swiftly descending.
A frosted white lake, red cacti, an orange island and red hibiscus.
Her designing sequence for grad school’s painting portfolio was far from satisfactory. She felt strangely dissatisfied.
Missing from the sampling of sketches and watercolors were twisted trees. It disturbed her immeasurably when plans went askew.
She surveyed the picturesque lodging houses with red-rimmed eyes. Scenic structures of dark timber-beamed rustic cottages dotted the backwaters that led to the pearly grey lake, undulating in mystical movement.
There was no turning back. She was out of time. A lost listless soul crossing Patinir’s River Styx with boatman Charon.
Flashes of burnt sienna coagulated like fallen autumn leaves behind prickly eyes as she staggered inside, two banged up large suitcases in tow.
Three large ants inched their red bodies speedily upwards in single file for a juicy bite off her available anatomy.
Welcome to India! Wearily she dusted them off crinkled blue jeans watching them scamper purposefully to join hundreds of others swirling in fractal symmetry.
Red. Red. Red. Her series of current work. The red trail.
Now all she was seeing was red soda pop fizzing up the nostrils.
The genial lodge-keeper Mr. Joy appeared, greeting her warmly, settling her in. Visitors from New York were not uncommon. He had a honing instinct for the earnings they yielded. He rubbed his hands gleefully, hospitality unabashedly visible in rumbling laughter rising from deep within a portly girth making up for what language could not. That very first evening he served up his famous house culinary specialties with hyperbolic exaggeration. Bowls of fish moilee curry cooked in succulent coconut milk and fried karimeen fish the local delicacy made their way with dramatic flair onto the table. She had not expected a feast. She was over-budget. All she wanted was to sleep. Her mind crashed in a wave of numbness.
Crazy tour crazily coordinated by an equally crazy travel agent of ‘The Penny Pincher’s Globe-Trotter’ super-lowest luxury package deal as advertised.
Bouncing at high altitudes in mini-vans through the arid Uyuni salt flats cresting the Andes. After miles of ridiculous trekking for the rare opuntia red cacti in flower. Then the long-boats through rain-soaked Madre de Dios River’s steamy rainforests teeming with birds and insects in loud cacophony of bursting song. Finally a profusion of red passion flowers. At long last jolting in bath-tub sized tuk-tuks for the orange islands off Pattaya awash in vanda orchid hybrid blooms in shades of peach and apricot of every hue. Not the way her two-week brazen blitzkrieg was meant to unfold. Roaming the brush like a cantankerous wild wallaby.
Moira flopped onto clean sheets eyes wide shut willing herself to sleep. The room smelt fresh, a faint perfume of mogra jasmeen wafting gently inside.
‘What boro are you from bro? Puh-leez take a seat,’ had gone this travel luminary from Queens through the fogged-up confined spaces of a windowless cubicle he called ‘office’. Posters to exotic destinations in Jamaica and Switzerland and Dubai pasted in elaborate graffiti on all the walls.
The Dickensian chimney-stack was eyeing her expertly, billowing smoke from over-worked twin flues off his creased countenance. He was not sure she made a good customer.
The room held just the one steel chair.
‘Never mind. Now this is what I require please. Five destinations. Got that?’
‘Naw, I didn’t think we were neighbors…’
‘Bolivia – Peru – Thailand – Maldives – Kerala.’
‘(Chuckling loudly) And I’m to geddyu in and out of these spots in?….how many weeks didya say?’
‘Not weeks….aren’t you listening?….14 days….days…2 weeks…can you count?…’
He had guffawed so noisily, it had brought in the Hebrew voices on their way to the Synagogue to attend services. Wondering if they could help.
’14 days?!….geddouttayere….Ma’am I respekfully suggest you kinda kick butt somewhere else…’ he was shaking his wooly head like a befuddled jack-o-lantern about to split.
‘And you came highly recommended…should have known better…’
At the end of a structured negotiation, during which the over-strung travel lothario had harangued and Moira had deliberated from viewpoint of low funds and the Hebrew voices who had popped in had had to divest yarmulkes to turn impromptu travel-referees, they had compromised. No stopover in Maldives.
No twisted trees.
But it would allow her the extra days in Kerala.
The speed with which sleep overtook, hit like nepenthe, the weariness-banishing hemlock, whirling her into oblivion.
Next morning, considerably refreshed she briskly roamed the gardens end to end through orchards of frangipani, sunflowers, balsams and chrysanthemums.
No red hibiscus in sight. Weird! And disappointing! This was an unanticipated set-back. Not to be outmaneuvered, a sanguine and hopeful Moira with palette, sketchbook and paints in hand headed to the waiting canoe, called a water-taxi. It would ferry her each day to the village. This was an unexpected bonus.
She sketched the betelnut-chewing boatman, as they meandered down the narrow canal beneath overarching trees towards the pontoon jetty.
There was much to sketch she discovered, traipsing through the village. Each day produced something new. It was enchanting. Quaint storefronts, spice markets, rice padi fields, houseboats, shops with garish exteriors, music blaring.
An occasional motorbike would roar. Past the cows loitering in the shade of the giant banyan tree. And to top it off, there was tea. To her delight Moira found she could drink tea by the steaming potfuls. Forget Starbucks coffee. Her daily mantra. Easy to be lured into this rural countryside. Easy to be lulled into procrastination of her project.
But she had still not seen any.
The first stirrings of an uneasy restlessness fluttered fleetingly.
She decided to venture further on foot. Out of the village. Buses did not ply the route. It was the only way to reach the lush vegetation.
Through what appeared to be a narrow dried mud path that twisted some distance out of view behind the trees she plunged. There had to be red hibiscus along the wayside. Such a common plant. The eternal flower of Goddess Kali the tantric deity of cosmic power. It was the day she met him.
She stumbled as she walked, lost in thought, the red uneven earth ridged hard in broken fissures. It badly needed rains. Moira was in awe of the coastal monsoons in this part of the world. But she would be long gone before the torrential rains arrived. Not a soul was in sight. Not a single passer-by. All was still, the sultry air oppressive under dappled skies. Except for some passing goats which bleated feebly, she felt quite alone.
She must have been walking for a mile at least when she came upon three forks in the path stretching crookedly in lopsided directions. Moira felt somewhat helpless, brushing wet tendrils of long dark hair off her slender expressive face as the mercury of the noonday heat soared mercilessly.
In the minute or two that it took her to decide, a tall young man appeared as if from nowhere gliding silently forward. His stride was slow and measured as if he were in no hurry. He was neatly dressed in startling white which contrasted starkly with his dusky skin and wavy dark hair in a handsome sort of way. She was startled. But his lack of haste as he approached, quiet demeanor and friendly air put her soon at ease and helped her relax. She looked around surprised. Where had he sprung from? Perhaps he lived close by. Introductions followed and soon the pair like old friends chatted amiably. Propelled of her own volition, she followed as they proceeded towards his house nearby, which he promised was a visual treat of rare scenic beauty for any visiting artist. Along the way the young man regaled her with fascinating stories and local history of the old fort, temple festivals, fishing villages, remnants of Dutch arrival.
Before she knew it they were at the picturesque waterfront. Sheltered in the neat clearing stood this solitary tiny brick house. Its whitewashed columns and exteriors contrasted starkly with the small red-tiled porch, which held two cane armchairs and a small table. The canopy of fruit trees beyond completed the pretty picture.
What arrested her attention was the unusual garden. A single gnarled old plant, its tall twisted stems, bent and leafless, reached angularly skywards, like giant preying mantis. At the very top hung a full blood moon in bloom.
A single red hibiscus.
A flower so red, so bright, its gold stamen trembled from breathing the golden energy of the sun. The size of the fragile petals was as nothing she had seen before. Mesmerized she stared with bated breath, locking in her heart the magic of the moment. Perfect thought Moira aloud. This would do nicely to complete her art thesis. So the young man gently obliged, a small smile of satisfaction illuminating his face. He brought her a wooden stool from within the house and helped set up her easel. Once immersed in her task, he rarely disturbed. All conversation ended. He had that self- effacing characteristic of cotton wool quietness which bestowed on him a dignity and quality that eliminated time and space. She felt near and far. This enhanced her comfort as she forgot the hours rolling by.
He took his seat in the armchair on the porch and broodingly observed her in companionable silence as she painted.
And so a routine developed in the days ahead.
So enamored did Moira become that they arranged to meet the next day and the next as well at the very same spot that she had first encountered him. Their mutual camaraderie and admiration was mystifying even to herself, immersed and absorbed in each other as they were, all else forgotten. Each day that Moira awoke made her yearn with a strange, desperate longing for more of their daily assignation.
Then came the dreaded last day when her ‘holiday’ was at an end. Both had avoided discussing it.
It was the day Moira had planned to single-mindedly devote to the red hibiscus alone. But their conversation had turned a trifle strange that day. More argumentative. Baiting. Annoying. He had never interfered with her painting before.
He preferred green leaves for a background. She insisted that the palette be all red in the manner of Matisse’s ‘The Red Room’.
He suggested the ruby shade was not right. His hibiscus was blood red. She thought not. He argued the color looked flat. Red was difficult to transpose on canvas. She felt a mounting irritation.
He persisted the scale was all wrong. Not in Fibonacci sequence.
Yes, really. He was the reincarnation of Giacomo. Couldn’t she tell?
A Florentine? You? Never heard of him. She felt defeated.
No? All art historians know of da Vinci’s famous apprentice.
She threw down her brushes. Furious. He was being impossible. Mostly his sometimes-banter was appealing.
So when he surprised her with a distraction to break the monotony, she was nonplussed.
He desired they plant together a half-grown mango tree in his tiny garden. It would be their tree, to mark their futile art-argument.
Moira could not fathom if the invitation was in jest. But she was beyond caring, if only to get back to her painting. To complete the red hibiscus.
That was the day she ventured into his home for the very first time. She felt intrusive. She had often wondered why he had hesitated to invite her in. But had politely refrained from asking. Small dark rooms met her gaze from the inside. Sparse furniture, bamboo-curtains, some clay utensils. The smell of burning incense pervaded strongly, an over-powering flower bouquet. When they reached his front bedroom which faced east, she knew instinctively where she would want their half-grown mango tree to be. Looking out this window . Besides the red hibiscus. Their memory together.
It took them the better part of an afternoon to plant that tree.
* * *
So where did you go today inquired Mr. Joy jovially that last evening at dinner. He had drummed up a rollercoaster spread of Malabar duck roast with chicken pepper fry. I found this cute little house. Perfect to paint. And the backwaters, so soothing and calm. And this nice young man kept company.
What nice young man? There are none here. He broke into loud jocular laughter. Oh, but this one is. Knows art history too. A teacher at the local high school. Local high school? Nice line. But there are no schools near here my dear. Anywayz, I could not have coped without his help. I really am so happy. Thank you for my stay. I will be back sooner than you think. I owe him a lot too. But he has refused any money.
I should hope not. Made off with your painting did he? Rest assured you will not catch him.
Oh no! No. He is awfully sweet. Really! Hope I did not offend when I offered. All he wanted was nothing more than for me to paint his lovely house. He swore that would be payment enough.
Indeed! Now he sounds a real rascal. Oh yes. I sketched him too against the coconut palms. And in his tiny garden with the small mango tree which I helped plant. And the pretty flower. Flowers my dear. This is land of flowers. We got them all. They grow everywhere, marigolds, mogras, roses, lotus, carnation. What flower you want? You choose. But I found what I want. A single red hibiscus. Such an exquisite perfect bloom. Shining red. Radiating large. Each petal perfectly arranged. I believe I caught all the angles. Mr. Joy was looking pale. Red hibiscus, did you say? How queer! May I see the paintings he suddenly asked hoarsely.
Moira led him to her room, her palettes in full view.
Whatever it was Mr. Joy saw turned him whiter.
What is it? cried Moira in alarm.
Where did you find this house? Oh, why did you go there?
What is it? What is it?
But Mr. Joy had rushed out of the room, a low gurgling cry echoing behind him. When he returned he was armed with a kitchen knife, slashing demonically at the canvases.
‘Achamma’s story’ he kept repeating, frothing at the mouth. ‘Bah, you young people, what you know about love?!’
Moira did her best, beseeching, imploring, pleading, following him in anguish. The front parlor adjoining the guest dining room looked empty. Mr. Joy ruddy from exertion had settled hidden from view into his favorite armchair by the window. He was gulping masala tea. Drowning his trepidation in an over-sized platter of fruit dessert. What love? Moira spoke in whispers not to alarm the kindly lodge-keeper, into another knife-wielding session. Picking half-heartedly at a pineapple. She was distraught. Tragic. Very tragic! he declared.
Tale of unrequited love?
They all disappear. Female persons. Now you will disappear. My family members…. Moira shuddered at what was to unfold. A superstitious dread of what the narration would portend.
Haltingly he began. A deathly tale of impassioned love and tragic family custom. Of a beautiful young maiden at the local temple. In her arms an offering of red hibiscus. Of a young schoolteacher in a little house by the backwaters. Of passions inflamed with this bewitching maiden with the large dark eyes and the flowing hair. Of family-arranged betrothal and lovers torn asunder by cruel betrayal. Of madness and a broken heart. Of a young man’s grief so savage the entire house and gardens were consumed in red flames. It was said the backwaters burnt red that day. Even the surrounding trees were aflame. Reduced to ashes. All perished.
Except one red flower.
The next day, it was said in the re-telling, villagers found the body of the young maiden trapped beneath the water hyacinths floating on the backwaters. She had drowned. It is said some people see that single red hibiscus bloom sometimes. It is said when that occurs the maiden is roaming in search of her espoused mate. It is said the young schoolteacher gets his bride when the red hibiscus appears.
It has happened before. My grand-mother vanished one day. Then my wife. Some years ago.
The house itself is no longer standing. No one goes there.
Moira’s stomach heaved. Eyes shone with unshed tears. A cold shiver went up her spine.
Mr. Joy grew silent, lost in deep thought, his long tale concluded. He looked exhausted. Animated in protest, she revived warmly her fresh memory of a personable young man, urging Mr. Joy to accompany her to meet him. It would assuage his grief.
But Mr. Joy looked so appalled at the suggestion, eyes rolling, she was quickly crestfallen and desisted pursuing further.
She attempted a different approach, this time suggesting that she bring her young man right there to the ‘House of Red Hibiscus’ instead.
Poor Mr. Joy he had heard enough. His countenance took on such an apoplectic purple hue, she thought he would faint.
He broke into bitter and sarcastic reprimand, unlike himself.
Haven’t you done enough? You evil woman. Awakened the red. Brought it here. With your painted flower!
That was when she realized how far gone he actually was in his own local legend.
And she ran to her room weeping quietly.
But when she awoke he was gone. Gone! And the house, and the bedroom in the eastern corner, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus, and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together. All gone!
Moira sat up with a jerk. Her eyes were wet. Had she been crying all night? She was sweating profusely. What had occurred? She felt unwell. The events of the previous evening came flooding back. Mr. Joy’s distress. Pain. His ludicrous tall tale. Her paintings lay in ruins.
They had parted amicably on a promise and a prayer. He had seemed somewhat distracted and subdued. Unlike his usual self. As if both were face to face with something that neither of them could quite comprehend. She had seen it in his eyes. The tumult.
If only Mr. Joy had not filled her head with his mumbo-jumbo.
Moira hurried with her packing. The taxicab to take her to the airport had arrived. There was no sign of the lodge-keeper as she departed. She felt acutely unhappy. The cab sped past the village, honking loudly. Her impulse beyond control, she asked the cab-driver to stop.
In a bound she was out, racing feverishly down the familiar mud path that led out of the village.
She had to see him.
One last time. She had to feel his stoic calmness enveloping her.
All around was the familial silence, broken only by twittering sparrows. She came to the confusing fork in the road spreading oddly in three directions, where he always waited. She had never gotten around to asking him where the other paths led.
No one appeared.
She had been walking awhile. But now she felt unsure that this was the right path because now no house appeared either.
The surroundings looked the very same. Tall coconut trees, two bent double out of shape.
How often had she passed those. Tamarind trees and laburnums in bloom.
She retraced her steps back to the fork. This time she took the other path. She would keep walking. She would keep searching all three paths if it took her all day.
She would find him.
Her anxiety was building to breaking point.
A burning pain stabbed her sides. She ran stumbling wildly. How far or how long she ran she could not tell. Where she was running she could not tell. Her breath was coming in gasps.
Then she stopped. Catching her sides in agony. Eyes widening in horror.
Not twenty yards from where she stood, were the blackened ruins of what may have once been a house. It looked familiar. Some traces of its timber and teak were discernible. Still intact. Most of it had rotted away. A blackened half tree trunk belched ooze like a river of sludge in the eastern quarter.
By the front, stood a gnarled old plant. Twisted with age and leafless. At the very top a single red hibiscus, large and spreading, in fading bloom.
Gliding silently forward, in long measured strides, from behind the darkened rubble, appeared —–