I am walking home from school. Up ahead, I see Percy and Conrad playing marbles; they stand to attention as I approach. Percy leans over and whispers in Conrad’s ear, and I cringe as their wicked grins contort their features. Slowly, I traverse the distance between us.
“Dinky donker, Sid’s daddy is a plonker,” Percy brays as Conrad begins dancing in pantomime.
My face flushes with quick heat. “You don’t even know what that means,” I’m shouting. I shouldn’t shout.
“I do! My mother says your father has too much of the old night-time toddy,” Percy points an accusational finger at me before redoubling his efforts, this time adding in Conrad’s dance. “Dinky donker, Sid’s daddy is a plonker.”
The blood pounds in my ears, and the skin over my knuckles becomes taut as I squeeze them into balls.
Conrad drags me off Percy. I don’t remember hitting him, or how I caused the blood to rush from his nose. Later, they will make me apologise, but I’m not sorry. Conrad pushes me away, but the heat is already deflating out of me, so I turn and walk away. Finally walking away.
I hesitate at my door; Mother hates fighting. My stomach churns as I contemplate the door handle, which I finally turn, readying myself, shoulders square as I gingerly step inside.
A heavy thwack knocks the wind from me…Jack.
I smile as I stagger, holding my dog against my breast, as he squirms with glee.
I look up. Not my Mother. My Father. He has guests. A folding card table is set up in the middle of the lounge room, surrounded by three men. Father is sitting with his back to me. The smoke curls above him from the cigarillo that I know to be between his teeth. His ears lift the way they do when his forehead creases in consternation. With Father are our neighbors, Neil and Jay.
“I’ll raise you, Scott,” Neil counters Father. They turn their cards. “Three of a kind beats two pair.” Neil begins scraping the money towards himself as my Father lets out a low whistle.
The kitchen door slams, and there stands Mother. She drops a suitcase down by her feet and gooseflesh moves down my arms. All three men stand with trepidation and face her. My Father rushes to soothe her.
“Mabel, stay? It was only one game,” he says and raises his hands pleadingly, but I can tell her mind is made up.
“We’re going to the country to stay with my sister, Nina,” she says. She picks up her suitcase and walks to the door. Mother halts and turns to me: “Sidney?”
I don’t want to go, but I know if I protest, she will make me leave Jack. I might be able to bring him if I’m quiet, so I shuffle my feet before following.
I don’t look back at Father, my throat catching.
Outside, she is handing the suitcase to the driver to load into the trunk. I climb into the back seat with Jack while she is distracted. Mother opens my door. “He’s not coming, Sidney,” she says. I bury my face into Jack’s fur; it tickles my nose. “Jack. Get out.” I feel Jack tense. He wants to obey, but doesn’t move. “Jack. Out.” He remains still. The effort to ignore her causes him to tremble. Both of us avoid eye contact with her, and the silence stretches out between us like a piece of taffy.
“Fine,” she says, slamming the door, before getting in herself.
“Kichhauchha, madam?” asks the driver, Dhavit, about our destination. “Yes,” she says.
We drive in silence, leaving Lucknow and Father behind. On the road, I watch the landscape transform from metropolis into jungle. An Indian tree of heaven calls my attention. I watch a dark branch stir, then peel off, lithely dropping to the ground.
“Panther,” I whisper.
“No, sir. Leopard. A man eater!” Dhavit exclaims.
“Last month it took the Patels’ little boy,” he says and solemnly shakes his head.
“Why haven’t the men put the beast down?” Mother asks.
“They’ve tried, there was a hunting party..”
“Dhavit, what do you mean ‘was’ a hunting party? Have they given up?”
Dhavit begins speaking in a hushed tone: “The beast is vengeful. Each of the hunters who sought it experienced strange occurrences following.” Mother’s mouth purses wryly as Dhavit hurries on.
“After the hunt, they discovered their misfortune. The Singhs’ green gram crops came down with blight; the Rastogis’ chickens contracted fowl pox, and all the Lagharis’ cattle developed laminitis.” He shakes his head gloomily.
“Dhavit, do you still have…ah ha !” She pulls from the glove compartment the pearl-handled Webley & Scott .32 revolver and holds it up triumphantly. She flips open the chamber and begins counting bullets before stowing it into her embroidered retic ule. “If that leopard comes near us, I’ll show him what for,” she says. She looks at me warmly, but Dhavit looks at her askance, as he turns down the driveway.
I make out Aunty. She’s on the porch dressed in her usual attire; a loose white nightdress, hair looped in curlers and a billiard pipe pressed between her teeth as she grins around puffs.
She ambles arthritically to my door, scooping me into a hug. “Hello Aunty,” I cough through her smoky aura. “My little kid,” she says as she ruffles my hair. “Good to see you, too, Mabel,” Aunty says as she then looks over to Mother. “Let’s go inside, I have hot gulabs in the pot.” Jack yaps happily.
Aunty glares down at him. “No street dogs in the house,” she says. “Mabel, why did you bring it?”
“You’ll have to ask Sidney.” Mother raises an eyebrow.
“Jack’s good,” I mumble.
“What’s that? Never mind, just keep him away.” She addresses Dhavit: “Will you please take care of that mutt?”
“Of course,” he smiles and gently gathers up Jack, walking off to meet his brother, who works on the field, as Aunty leads us up the stairs.
Inside, she serves me, then leaves me alone with Mother and my sweets. I scoop up a portion of the honeyed milk dumpling and begin to chew.
“Sidney, we need to talk about that eye.”
I try to swallow, but the dumpling sticks in my throat. I thought I had avoided this.
“Conrad and Percy,” I mutter.
“Conrad and Percy?”
I stall by spooning another portion of gulab jamun into my mouth. I spend a long time chewing. But, when I have finished, so, too, are my excuses. “Conrad and Percy said something about Father.”
“What did they say?”
Tears sting my eyes. Don’t cry, I admonish myself, as I ferociously mix my serving.
“What did they say?”
“They called him a … plonker.” It rushes out. I’m yelling again. I don’t mean to yell at her. I get up to run away, but she grabs my arm. Her grasp is iron and I struggle furiously.
Then she is hugging me, and I can’t hold it in any longer. My tears bubble up out of my control and spill down my face, like hot monsoon rain, saturating the shoulder of her white blouse.
I feel angry at myself for ruining her clothing, but I can’t stop crying as she holds me.
“Father doesn’t have a drinking problem.”
“Then why did you bring us here?” I ask around gasps.
“He gambles.” She pulls me away and looks me in the eye.
“He’s a good man. We’re here because …”
I look up. Her eyes are wet and refract the light like two brown garnets. “I just need to get his attention.” She touches my chin. “Maybe we can think of this stay as a holiday?”
The stay doesn’t feel like a holiday. It feels like I’ve been sentenced to internment. Forever waiting for something unknown between my parents to shift.
I miss my Father. I miss Jack; he is not allowed in the house. I see him dancing around Dhavit’s feet. At first I feel mad with envy, but then loneliness aches in my breast. I console my heartache with Aunty’s sweets. The kulfi popsicle I am eating now is trickling down my hand and wrist. In the distance, I see a plump man running towards me.
“Young Master.” He doubles over coughing. “Aunty home?” I nod. “Fetch her quick, urgent news.” I turn and run. Hopeful Mother will praise my speed. “Mother?” I say.
“Don’t interrupt,” says Mother and continues her conversation with her sister.
“A man has come with news.” I’m dancing from foot to foot. She turns and frowns at me. “Come on, then, where is this news bearer?”
As we arrive, Govinda projects his voice: “Aunties, good to see you.”
“Hello, Govinda, pray tell us your news?” asks Aunty.
“Another child has been taken. Rohan De Silva. Missing since yesterday. The farm hands spotted the leopard in the surrounding jungle right before Rohan vanished.”
“That’s it. Nina, get your gun, we’re going hunting,” she says.
Mother withdraws the revolver from her purse. Auntie’s eyes widen; slowly, she turns and disappears into the house, reemerging 10 minutes later, wearing an emerald pair of breeches, a safari shirt and a shotgun folded into her elbow. Mother stubs out her cigarette on the banister.
“Shall we go then, Mabel? Govinda, will you stay and keep an eye on Sid?” Govinda opens his mouth to protests, but Aunty rushes over the top of him: “The Rastogis can spare you given the situation.” She nods to herself. “That’s settled. Go inside, I’ve got a fresh pot of aloo gosht on the stove, help yourself, and see that Sid is fed.”
The two women turn and walk away, leaving me alone with this stranger.
“Aloo gosht! Delicious,” Govinda enthuses. “Let’s go eat?” He ushers me into the house. I swivel and watch my Mother, Aunty and three of the farm hands surround a tree stump, planning their hunt.
Govinda serves me an enormous helping of mutton and potato curry. I’m too amped to eat, imagining myself on the hunt, protecting Mother. Govinda does not seem at all concerned for her.
He eats three bowls of curry, until he needs to loosen the zipper of his trousers to accommodate his swollen gut. He sprawls across the sofa and drifts into a stertorous slumber.
Govinda’s wheezing and the heat of the jungle fills the small room to claustrophobia. I escape onto the porch. It soothes me, and my eyelids droop with the heaviness of sleep. I reach out for Father, but my arms are molasses. I jolt awake.
My head feels like it’s stuffed full of anaesthetic – soaked cotton. I need water. I reach out to the silver water bucket, when I hear the porch step groan under a great weight. I freeze. The timber creaks loudly again.
I strain to listen. The night is quiet. Unnaturally quiet. I cannot hear any cicadas, only my own breathing, as my ribs constrict and press my heart up into my ears where it is pounding, pounding, pounding. A dark shadow circles me with predatory grace. There is a row of vicious ivory, followed by a growling reverberation slicing through me.
I feel nothing.
“Sidney!” Mother shrieks, pulling me back into lucidness. I open my eyes. Before me, Jack dangles limply from the leopard’s mouth. I am gripping Jack’s paw, and the leopard has dragged me down off my seat and sent me sprawling upon the porch in a fatal game of tug of war.
Mother screams again and I let go. It makes off towards the tree line. Mother fires after it, but it bounds away unscathed, Jack swaying from its jaw.
“I want to go home,” I croak.
“We’ll leave tomorrow.” She reaches to me. “I am sorry, Sidney.” I don’t take her hand.
Homeward bound, we bounce along unsealed roads in Dhavit’s blue Vauxhall Velox. The heat of the jungle lingers, causing my shirt to cloy at me. I feel saturated by the overcast drizzle streaking the windows, and the saltwater trickling down my cheeks.
Mother is quiet. So is Dhavit, So am I. As we pull into the driveway, I make out Father. He steps forward from the porch, his Sunday suit sodden as he walks to the car. He opens the door and reaches for Mother, and they meet in a long, shuddering embrace. They’re crying, I realise, and my heart aches for my friend, Jack.
Father reaches out a large warm hand to me, and pulls me into the family embrace, where I finally dissolve into water.
About the Author
Petra Sully is an emerging Australian writer, artist and full-time dreamer. She was awarded the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre award for an emerging poet in 2019 (1st place) and 2020 (2nd place). Petra loves to curl up with her cat, Watson, and read by the fireplace. When her nose isn’t in a book, Petra works as an occupational therapist in the disability sector and has a passion and strong belief in every person’s ability to go after and achieve their dreams. Petra’s story is written from the perspective of her grandfather, who growing up in India was nearly taken by a leopard as a child.