A pair of Great Hornbills were kissing each other and their yellow horns knocked every time they tried to do. They were immersed in each regardless of anything around them, like any lovers. The ranger smiled at them and started back his jeep for his daily patrol. As he drove he saw them in his rear mirror, high above in the canopy.
The vegetation was dense. The road didn’t exist except in patches. But he maneuvered. He was sturdy and brazen. His thick jaw was closely shaved and when he clenched his teeth those muscles popped. As he torqued the steering, in and out, the greenery cleared to the road that went along the back end of the lake. The lake was like an endless grey film between the gorge and open sky. Ah! The open sky- he loved it. Especially for the absence of spitting macaques.
He would’ve left the lake with his usual content and two lungs full of chill air if not for the red sweater. There were two boats, three men, one with her and she was screaming, threatening, like a spirited little thing on that leaden canvas. It was just that and he could hear nothing more. But they talked. Now the male pair, on the other boat, looked quite frantic and one pulled her by her hair. Her head twisted awkwardly, saw his khaki uniform, as he got down from his jeep. She started waving at him and the man next to her did the same while managing not to lose balance.
“Heyrai! Heyi!” The ranger yelled.
The male pair turned sharply, stared at him, stared at each, rowed the engine and sound of the rudder disappeared in the misty lake. The pair rowed to the shore.
The ranger helped her get down from the boat and Veer, panting, thought what if he took her away in the jeep? Well one couldn’t trust because he is a ranger. But obviously, he didn’t and Veer told himself to not be paranoid.
Her fair, round face was shrouded with shinny mass of hair on both sides and she was of medium height. Her nose and lips were small and fine. The ranger noted that she was slightly plump and hiding it in her choice of apparels. But the man was exact opposite to her. He was stick thin, pale and oval faced with a balding head.
“Thank you so much ranger. Really thanks”, said Veer. He looked way taller when he got down from the boat.
“It’s ok. Tourists?”
“Yes sir. This is the first time we are coming here.”
“But tourists are prohibited on this part of the lake.”
“We are sorry sir. We didn’t try to infiltrate. I told her so many times. So many times, but she would never listen to me.”
“Don’t you talk now. Just shut up. Officer can you drop us somewhere nearby to our hotel?”, she said.
“Where you put in?” He asked after slightly taken aback.
“At the Melon’s.”
“Well I’m can drop you, but I got a small errand on the way at the camp – won’t take long. Will that be alright?”
“That’s perfect. Thank you once again officer.”
“But before we start don’t come to this side of the lake again. Alright?”
“Sure, we won’t.”
“Good. Hop on. Tea is good in our camp.”
The couple climbed into the back seat of the open jeep and she sat on the side of the driver. He sat facing her but they didn’t see each other.
His uniform sleeves were rolled up showing his thick, hairy forearms clutched to the steering. He adjusted the rear mirror. Their eyes met and shied away. She had seen fine lines on his forehead and furry brows…
“So, you are a ranger, aren’t you officer? You go by this way? Everyday?”
He looked at the rear mirror, “Yes for all that, mam.”
“Mam! Please don’t. Sounds like I’m a headmaster”
“Oh, how should I be calling you then?”
“The name is Sweaty”, she said and looked at the mirror, while Veer was still running his fingers on his shinny head as if it had thick hair.
“I’ll stick to “mam”. By the way I’ve heard sweat names, but., eh…”
Her laugh woke Veer up who was still running the incident. It had drawn his face longer and made him thinner than before. He was ready to give the money but she wouldn’t. Why would she do this? Did he wanted me to see whether I fought or not? Or just for the heck of it?
“I don’t know what you laughing at, that could’ve turned serious if not for the officer.” His eye brows twitched up and down like they are in a shock.
“They are just local pricks, but you couple shouldn’t have come up here. Tourists usually don’t.”
“Yeah they don’t. But you think she listens?”
“Will you stop? We both agreed”, she said.
“Do I’ve an option? I dearly hope they were not these wannabes and someone legit. That would’ve been a lesson for your crazy adventures.”
“Why, couldn’t you be the man and save me? You are one. Aren’t you?”
“Just shut up… It’s your stupidity that got us in the situation.”
“How dare you, coward! You can talk and talk, but only to me. When called for you become a pussy, you coward.”
Whatever hair Veer had stood up and his flesh went all goose. How could she do this to me in front of another man? Man! She is a monster. He signaled her to “shush up” with his eyes pointing at the ranger and bit his lips with his front teeth. To her he looked like an old squirrel.
The ranger tried to look away but their sudden high pitches, like them macaques, kept his attention. He wondered he had made a mistake and should’ve asked the duty drivers to pick them up. But he felt sorry for the man and could feel the invisible man bond, tied between every man in presence of a woman, getting screwed. He squeezed the steering and wished he could drive faster. But they weren’t leaving him.
“Now tell me officer what would you do in that situation if you are with your wife.”
“You asking me?”
“Of course, you.”
“But I think it’s not required.”
“Why, it is very much essential. We need a strong man’s perspective!”
He couldn’t control his smile,
“Well mam, thank you, but I don’t think it’ll be of much help.”
“But I insist!”
His furry brows went high, so was hers and both of them met on the rear mirror. Her eyes were the incarnation of the very real beings that were fluttering in the silent corners of his heart. He couldn’t look at them. But can’t stop either. The impulse was getting louder. All his reasons forgotten; shackles, they were rusting. The man bond? To hell with it. There was no regret in for falling for his wife. Worse it didn’t surprise him!
He carefully, casually said,
“If I’ve to put it straight, … I’ll fight to death for my women.”
“Now that’s a man!”
He saw how his bald head, searched for spot to hide like a trapped mouse and suddenly he felt guilt. He tried his best to cool things.
“Common mam, he might be having an off day. It happens. Now forget that and enjoy the trip, alright. By the way what do you do Mr.”
“None of your business. Whom are trying to fool? You played her and now bastard want to act good? You both go to hell.”
Of course, Veer thought.
She took the opportunity of silence, put to use and made a fist! In a threatening tone, “Fighter pilot by day and Daredevil by night. Would you believe?” She popped her head to the front, so close that the driver could feel her hot breath. He swallowed.
“Will you shut your filthy mouth?”, said Veer.
“Oh baby, you getting hurt? Feels! Yours, they catch me.”
“Shut up bitch!”
“Ah, common guys, please… mam I asked him. Let him speak.”
“I’m an accountant.”
“Oh great. What’s wrong in being an accountant? Ms., trust me jobs that look cool, actually suck in reality.”
“Oh that’s very generous of you officer. You see there is nothing wrong with the job. But the thing is you don’t really have to be a man to do a lot of jobs. The nature of the job doesn’t call for it. But the problem, few guys exploit it, for they are cowards and it’s their perfect hiding place.”
The ranger shook his head and his compassion a fellow man, comrade, it is real. His efforts end up creating more damage. He attempted silence only to fail for temptation. Her face, bright, eyes, eager for his words, her whole being seem to ask something from him that he always wanted to give and couldn’t say no. Can he? He continued.
“Well that’s a very distinct way of putting things in perspective. But all I can say is one shouldn’t be judging others. Especially me.”
“Stop being a gentleman, officer.”
“Yes mam. But I’ll tell you one thing. You come straight as a ram rod! That could hurt people!”
“Will it hurt, to be hurt by a lovely thing, officer?”
Their eyes met and in his hesitation, she knew his mind.
“You don’t have to answer that officer. Curse. It’s a curse, officer. Been born this way!”
“Mm, certain stuff can’t be changed.”
“You are right officer. Right isn’t, dear?” She asked her husband. And replied briskly with a smirk,
“Absolutely darling. Like how some stuff can’t be taught… like loyalty, honesty…”
She had a broad smile that crept a rage through his nerves, like a plague.
“It’s alright darling”, she said.
“Damn you alright.” He thought. She kept the smile while witnessing how it crushed him and went back to the mirror. And then they met again, this time stripped of their shyness, lingering till needed, more than accepted. The bond, he could no longer feel it. “Is he still there in the jeep?”
But Veer felt sick. First you take me down and now my wife. My wife! How can I blame you? It’s her. You are a man and if you find an opportunity you jump! Why is she even sitting next to me? Go sit on his lap.
After a little while a bust of a tiger and a deer welcomed them to the camp. A sentry saluted the officer. The ranger shook his head, silenced the engine and jumped from his seat with a thud on the ground. He came around to the back and flung open the back door.
“Officer.” She gave her hand and Veer saw it being taken gladly as she walked down the steps. It rang a bell so distant yet not so long ago in his head. In the little spots of light from the canopy, she looked angelic with her hair flurrying down her neck and it disgusted him. But would he fight him? No. He can gripe and followed them as they walked discussing something animatedly.
Suddenly another ranger came running towards him, stood and stomped his salute.
“Sir, that bull- it got worse.”
“Damn that useless vet. Where is he?”
“He left for the south station sir.”
“Bastard. Useless bastard.”
He scratched his chin for some time, walked right and left,
“Is he coming any time soon?”
“No sir. Tom..,”
“Alright. We get it done. But when that idiot comes you make sure he meets me. Clear?”
“And you guys can take tea in the canteen. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“What is it? Can I come?”, she asked.
“It’s better you don’t. Show them the canteen.”
As they sipped tea in white china cups, a gunshot was heard.
When they were back on the jeep in their same positions, it was silent and still. No activity. Not even on the mirror and it felt odd for the ranger as if he had been driving them around all his life. He wanted to say something. A call in the tall trees
“You know what that is mam?”
“Mmm. What is it?”
“A Hornbill, singing with its mate. First the male starts the tune, then the female jumps in and the calls then join in unison.”
“They choose their mate for lives.” He felt stupid for having said that.
“Oh, it’s nice.” And back she hid her face into her hair.
“Are you upset mam?”
“A little bit. Never mind it officer.” Her voice could break at any moment.
“The shot, isn’t it? For first timers, it is natural. It’ll wade away.”
“Hmm. I hope so.”
Her silence, he already missed her.
“Oh, common mam cheer up. Mr. Veer you should console her.”
“I don’t need any consolation, officer.” It was stern and vulnerable.
“I don’t see why you don’t.”
“I’ll be ok and thanks for the concern but one needs a lot of guts to kill something.”
“More guts to watch it die slowly in pain.”
“It is the right thing to do. But you got lot of guts. You are strong and brave.”
“Then why don’t you go fucking marry him?”
The jeep stopped. The voice was a sharp eruption uncorked with great emotion.
“What did you say?”, she asked.
“You heard me correctly, my dear. You want me to repeat?”
He turned back from his driver seat,
“Mr., you should mind your words…How could…,”
“Oh, shut up, officer! It disgusts me. You think I don’t see – what you thought of me? A blind man can see what you both are up to.”
“I don’t understand Mr. Veer. We were all, just having a conversation.”
“Oh, conversation it is then, you both ogling at each at the expense of me… I don’t call that a conversation officer. And you listen, if you find him the man of your dream, brave and shiny, you can go away with him. I am not stopping you.” He said and got down from the jeep.
They were in the middle of the jungle and silent, except for the hums of the jungle. Both the men wondered what she thought. Her silence confused them both. The ranger slammed the steering and walked to Veer,
“Mr. Veer come get into the jeep. It’s not safe to be here.”
“Oh, now you are worried about my safety? Thank you, officer!”
“See if I had done anything offensive, I’m sorry. Let’s get out. I’ll drop you and we are done. I’ll leave.”
“That’s what I’m saying, you don’t have to. She likes you. You like her. Then what’s the trouble? I’ll file the papers.”
“Oh, common Mr., you have mistaken us.”
“No, I’m not. Look at her. She is just sitting there! What do you think her silence says? She is ok with it.”
He paced to the jeep,
“Mam, look.” She didn’t. Her face was hidden in her wonderful locks. “Sweaty! You heard what he said. Come and put an end to this. For God’s sake look at me.” When she did look with teary eyes he almost forgot what he wanted to stay.
“What can I do, officer? I can’t lose anything; I can’t get either. This is also my curse, officer. I told you.”
“What are you saying? I don’t get you.”
“You won’t, officer. You won’t.” And she went back into her hiding place.
When he looked at Veer he sneered and turned away.
“Go to hell, both of you.” The ranger kicked the ground and walked away from the jeep. He stood under a tree with one hand folded to his chest and another rubbing his forehead. He took a deep breath and thought of what they had said, separately. Yes, she likes me. And do I? I won’t lie, I do. That is what it all matters. I don’t have to think of anything else. He himself said he will file the papers and if so I’ll be doing him a favor. Then I’ll go, say it to Mr. Veer, drive them out of here and she will be mine in sometime.
He took another breath and walked a step when a sharp, heavy grip caught the back of his neck like a wrench. He fell down. He could feel it’s body. The raw, pungent smell and the sweat smell of his own blood, it walloped him. There were some tens of knives shredding all over him, again and again. He tried to scream but his throat won’t work. It seemed like his body had his head and this thing on his neck. It wouldn’t leave him.
Both Veer and Sweaty looked his body twitch as the leopard choked his life out. Both of them looked at each other, frozen. His limbs convulsed violently on the ground and it made a horrible sound. The animal noticing the audience, dragged him into the nearby bush.
Veer got into the driver seat and sweaty jumped next to him. She grabbed his arms close to her, shut her eyes tight and wouldn’t’ leave it. He changed the gear with a struggle and the jeep sped away. When Veer saw in the rear mirror he could see the shrub shake gently.