Posts Tagged ‘short story’

The Souvenir

(Writing a story after a long time. I hope you’ll overlook the wordiness and the errors. Since it’s way too long, I’ll post this in three parts.)

Part 1

The late evening sun poured a golden hue over everything it touched. I slumped down on a restaurant chair facing one of the larger fountains at Piazza San Marco and looked around. That feeling of having stepped into a picture-history book had not faded even though I had arrived a month ago. Every dome and marble and brick talked to me of something I had missed, because I was born at the wrong end of history.  Julius Caesar, frescoes, Hemingway, the Vatican, Raphael, orchestras, Godfather, the Colosseum, Charlie Chaplin, Gladiator, Pizzas, Toscanini, wine  … my thoughts were tumbling one over the other as it had been for the past few days.  As though in slow motion, a hand came into my field of vision and dived into the bag of groceries I had left on the table. Grabbing an apple from the bag, it started to move away.

Startled I looked up. An old man of 60, shabbily dressed with unkempt grey hair, the owner of the hand, was dawdling off into a crowd of pedestrians and motor cyclists. I jumped up and started running after him.

“Excuse me, sir? What do you think you are doing?”

He threw back a glance but didn’t stop. I ran up and reached for his hand. Angry words were frothing up but no sound came out of my mouth. Dumbly, I looked at him as if he was just another scene from history that invited me to take a look without allowing me to participate. After what seemed like a few moments, he shook off my hand. In a low bass voice, he responded,

“Yes, miss?”

I realized immediately how ridiculous it was to raise an alarm. He had taken just one apple. Was he hungry? Mad perhaps? Too dangerous to follow him. Simultaneous voices were screaming within me. Unfortunately, no one else had noticed the peculiar man.

“Sir, you have no right to take my apple”, I said cautiously.

“Your apple? Can you prove this is yours?” he asked in perfect English before biting into it. I was taken aback.  After taking a few steps forward, he paused, turned back and added,

“Perhaps I should carry that bag for you? You seem to be struggling under its weight.”

Incredulous, I stammered, “Are you mad? Do you think I will give this to you?”

With a crooked grin, he replied, “You look like you are new here. I can be your tour guide.”

I sized him up. Although his accent was without fault, his heavy jaw line and sharp inset eyes belied his Italian ancestry.

“Is this how you get customers, sir? If that’s so, I doubt you’ll have much by the end of the day. Perhaps that’s why you stole that apple.”

He chuckled. “You cannot forget your apple. Let me make it up to you. I’ll ferry you down the canal. It’ll heal you of much.” Catching the look in my eyes, he added, “They are expensive to hire unless you are rich. I don’t think you are though. Why would you grudge one apple, if you were rich? “Anyway,” he added, “I have a friend whose ferry I can borrow if I carry passengers for him in the morning.”

I was offended but surprised at the ease with which he spoke to me, his accuser. He was a con man for sure, a smooth-talker. But his offer was tempting. I hadn’t had the time to explore the canal with my busy schedule. To have someone who knew the canal take me on a near gondola ride was a glorious opportunity. I worked myself up into a reckless mood.  There was nothing much he could take from me except the groceries. I had left my passport and belongings in the room before walking down to the market. Besides, he didn’t look like he would attack me. My instincts had never failed me before.

“You are not going to lead me into a trap, are you? I asked a little naively.

He shook his head, “I won’t harm you. I need to take the ferry down anyway. You’ll have to come back by the vaporetto if you choose or take the train back.”

We had reached the end of the Piazza San Marco Street by now and were looking out at a vein of the Canal Grande of Venice. I looked about me while trying to imagine his story. Maybe he took this canal every day to get home. Maybe he was just a hungry and frustrated tour guide. And I – the rich tourist in his eyes.

I had dreamed of the gondolas and the romance of Venice’s waterways as a young girl. A chance to enjoy it without having to pay a fortune made me feel like a princess in a Venetian fairy-tale.

“Do you have 5 Euros?” he called from the bottom of the landing steps.

I gaped at him as he balanced himself onto an old and worn ferry, which had a few sacks and provisions arranged on the far side. That was half a month’s spending money, he was asking for. If that’s what it takes to enjoy Venice, I’ll part with it, I mused.  I handed him the money after counting out the 2 Euros for a train ride back. First he had taken an apple. Now he wanted 5 Euros. Robbing me with my permission, was he?

I climbed carefully into the long, narrow traghetti ferry (he told me the name) which would carry us down to St. Lucia’s Station.  It was not quite a gondola, but a cheaper version like a canoe and badly maintained. As he pushed off with the long oars, I ventured timidly, “You could have taken a tourist for $20 or more. Why me?”

“I wasn’t planning to use the ferry for service,” he shrugged.

I did not press further and looked across the canal. It was breathtaking all around me. The sun hung low on the western horizon and the waters shimmered golden green. The famous San Marco Basilica loomed high in the east and the Campanile’s pealing bells resonated through the waters from where it stood proud and tall.

The buildings further down that fringed the murky waters were like toy houses, colourful and at once surreal. Along the streets that lined the canal walked tired tourists, wayfarers returning home with their booty, street vendors – there was so much more than my senses could take in at once.

Sometime in, as he was navigating through the dark, mossy alleyways of the canal crammed in by red brick buildings on both sides, I noted that he was keenly watching me, so I asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

“I am an artist. Street artist.” I started.  A street artist in Venice who was also a ferry man and a thief was surely a find.

“What do you make?” I asked a bit too rudely as though I didn’t believe him yet. The sun’s rays were streaming in at the end of our alley forming a light bridge that we could pass through. Venice was pure magic.

“Portraits and landscapes” he replied.

“Do you earn enough to call it a livelihood?” the question came out before I could stop myself. I was being too inquisitive as was my habit with strangers.

He seemed to think about it for a moment before saying, “It’s what makes me happy. My art.”

A man who could not provide for his family could never be happy. So I asked again, “What about your family?”

“I have no family. I married once but that was not for me.”

“Ah the artist. Quite enjoy the free fare, and women, don’t you?” I bit my lip.

He gave a strange, even hurt look at my judgmental tone.

“What are you doing in Italy?” he asked after a long and awkward pause but his tone didn’t match mine. It was rather kind.

I averted his gaze, “I’m doing a short course on literature of the Renaissance period. I came as an exchange student.”

I tried explaining when he pressed me about my interest in the subject but he probably found me unconvincing for he didn’t bother me again till we reached our stop.  The programme had just been an excuse to escape from reality for a time, although, I didn’t tell him that. I watched the narrow waterway open into a wider section of the canal. It was already getting dark but I could make out the landing station in the distance. I felt sad for some reason unknown to me.

“So will you do a portrait of me? I would love to take back a souvenir,” I smiled.

“The light’s too dim. Come back to the piazza early tomorrow, to the eastern side of Doge’s Palace. That way you can see Giuseppe Poggi’s masterpiece and even enjoy a view across the Bridge of Sighs.”  After a pause he laughed, “The place reeks of Renaissance.”

He was already pulling the ferry onto the landing place. He gave me a withered old hand to step up.

“I will be there tomorrow for the art appointment, “he called in parting.

That should be my line if this were a movie I thought as I watched him struggling to climb out with an arthritic leg that was almost immobile. I wished him goodnight and walked down to the station.

“Hope he won’t charge me a lot,” I whispered aloud to myself in amusement. Maybe he was trying to redeem the apple.

(Continue to Part 2)


The Violinist

Lenna walked limply down the side steps. She paused and looked around. There was a small space there which her mother referred to as their garden. Some orange marigolds hung their heads from a few stalks across from where she stood. There were weeds all over the place and a few wild creepers climbed over the high wall which surrounded the little space on all three sides. Lenna felt an unfamiliar suffocation as she frantically looked around. Her face was contorted in pain. She needed air! Quickly, she suppressed her emotions and walked over to the marigolds. Absent- mindedly she plucked one and stared at the bright orange. It had started to fade at the edges as though someone had smudged the colour there. She felt nauseous and she tossed the flower away. Wandering thoughts came bobbing up for air in her head. Why did life deal unfairly with her? Had she lost forever what she most loved? She had fought with all her will against this decision made by her family. Did they not believe in her purpose?

As tears came rushing she made another effort of her will to control the tears. What was the use when there was no one to listen to her pain? Submerging into a world within herself would take away a little of the pain, she thought. She sat down on a patch of grass and closed her eyes. Faces and colours appeared in a dissolve pattern before her closed eyes. She saw the waves swirling in white foam before crashing onto the shore. She saw hills that she had climbed and heard the familiar sound of her dog Ror barking. Had he come to comfort her? But she didn’t move. She kept delving deeper into her self, bringing up pictures and places and animals and people she had once found meaning in. But she shut off the one thing which mattered most to her.

Quite some time passed. The evening sunlight on her face woke her from her trance and she stood up. She glanced around, sighed and made her way back. Her frame was bent as the burden of life hung over her. A desperate prayer came to her lips. “Lord.” She stopped herself. She no longer knew how to ask. She had exhausted all means of asking, trying in every way she could possibly imagine. She walked back into the house to hear the nagging voice of her one parent, who tried to take control of the chaos which surrounded them. She stood frozen in the doorway. There was no solace anywhere. And she slung down on to the threshold.

Day after day, she came back to that patch of grass in the garden. She sat down there and thought about the life she had left behind. Every day she made an effort to forget a little part of her, so that today, her mind could re-call only a few things which surrounded her. Immediate things like finishing some homework, washing some dishes, and some change she saved for her daily bus fare, which she held in her closed fist. She heard her mother call for her. Her mother loved to talk. She was an expressive woman who had lost all her flair and finesse and had become a mess. But Lenna felt strangely unrelated to her. Not only to her, but to all who came near her, she became hostile. She wanted distance. She wanted space. She needed only herself.

As she sat in the hot sun she heard muffled steps. She turned away from the direction of her house but the sound came nearer and then suddenly stopped. Lenna heard a scraping sound and then heavy breathing. Her eyes fluttered open. There was no one around. Was she imagining? She breathed in calmly.

A high strain of a bow against the string made her gasp. What was that sound? As though from heaven, a few notes and then a string of pearly notes wafted across to her. Was she in her senses? Lenna felt numb and could not move. Maybe she was dreaming. The notes were playing havoc with her senses and she could feel her fingers move by itself. But as quickly as the music started it ended. She did not hear the rest of the sounds of the chair scraping on the grass or muffled breathing. She was lost in her own world and she awoke from sleep when the felt the dew on the grass by late evening. She hurried inside wondering what had happened.

The next day, as she sat there the same thing happened. She heard music which took her away from her world of pain. The third day, she struggled to keep enough composure to walk around and find the source of the music. It was coming from a house or two across the garden wall, she guessed. But by the time she walked out and down the road, the musical spree was over. Besides, the sound was not coming from the side of the houses facing the roads. It was coming from the courtyards. But there were so many blocks of houses huddled together and separated by alleys she did not know which one contained the heavenly music. She was too frustrated to talk to people or ask around and she headed back home.

As days passed, she immersed herself in the evening sonata, never really wanting to break the joy she felt as the music washed over her. Her heart rose with the beats and she felt her steps move into the house. She couldn’t understand nor cared as long as the music played on.

Soon she was in her room, bending down to pick up the violin case she had stashed away into the space above her cupboard. Dust had settled on the hard cover. Nevertheless, she held it like she would a precious treasure. And as she turned, her face caught the twinkle in her father’s eye in the picture she had leaned on her study table. She quickly walked out, dusted off the cover and picked up her instrument. Tuning in so that she would not disturb the player, she slowly joined into the soft melody of “Ode to Joy’.

The stranger beyond the wall paused just a second only to resume his music once again. And a duet ensued, when the notes of the song ‘Rebel Heart’ drifted into the golden sunset. As it came to a stop, the violin slid from her hand and the months of tension broke within her and Lenna burst into tears.  Everyday, she came at the appointed time to play with her unknown companion. Life started to show shades of colours again.

One day, she came out and waited for her companion to start but no music began. Impatiently she started to play, not wanting to miss the one thread which had saved her drowning spirit. No one accompanied her. All she heard was a rasping cough which irritated her. The next day and the following, Lenna waited punctually for her companion and played by herself for hours on end when she did not get a response. Her mother always watched her silently from the window, feeling her pain but never able to reach out to her.

Lenna became more and more immersed in her own evening music but deep within her she missed the solace of the stranger’s music and presence. So finally, she gained enough courage to go in search of the house. It was a melancholy neighborhood. Serious people walked about and no one seemed to care about her presence there. One man condescendingly told her to go down the street and turn to the right. This would bring her to the violinist’s house. Hesitating, but determined she walked to the house and entered the gate. It was more run down and dilapidated and an eerie silence hung about the place. She went to the door and knocked. A man dressed in an attendant’s dress opened the door for her. Upon questioning, she was led to a small bedroom. It smelled of dampness and stale food. There on the bed lay a wizened old man. He was fidgeting on the bed and threw a rough glance at her before letting his gaze wander around the room. Gingerly, she walked to his side and asked,

“Are u a violinist?”

He did not answer but kept looking around. Lenna looked at the attendant for help and he nodded. She touched his withered old hand and asked again,

“Do you play the violin everyday?”

He did not answer. Anger began to build up within her. Why did she waste her time here? As she got up to go, the attendant brought a violin case to the old man’s side.

At once, his eyes lighted up and he extended his hand. But his shaking hands could not hold the violin case. Tears sprang up in Lenna’s eyes and she turned to leave. She thought to herself, ‘I might be in the wrong house. There just might be someone else.’

Just not ready to give up, she sat back down and took the violin from the attendant’s hand. As she opened the case, she saw the most beautiful Stradivarius violin she had ever set eyes on. Carefully she picked it up and began to play the notes of her favourite song. As the music rose to a crescendo, the old man lifted a hand to hers to stop her. She put down the violin and looked at him. Tears were flowing from his eyes. He rasped rather than talk.

“I think the circle –  is complete. My daughter used –  to play like yu. I am gifting this violin to yu. Yu ers is not good enough for yu.”

Lenna was too stunned to talk. After a few moments she replied,

‘My father played like you before he died.”

She paused to control her sobs.

“His Stradivarius was crushed next to him, in the accident. He was my favourite violinist and he played like you.”

She went on and on. She did not care if the old man was listening to her but she had to tell everything she had been holding up inside her. And when she stopped finally, she saw that the old man had slept. She got up slowly so as to not disturb him and walked out. Holding the violin to her chest she sat outside in the garden for sometime and then started playing into the night. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning, the old man quietly slipped into a deep slumber never to wake again. But for Lenna life had just begun anew.

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