Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Match

It was the peak of summer. The heat was oppressive, as if you were swallowing hot water with every breath. The sun threw its bright, hot rays down to the earth mercilessly. There wasn't a single whisper of breeze to bring relief from the scorching heat.

The forest was dry and a tense silence was in the air. The trees stood straight and rigid. Not a single leaf fluttered. Not a single blade of grass stirred. Not a single creature dared to leave its home. The only creature that had the courage to defy the unrelenting weather was the eagle soaring in the sky. He was the king of the forest.

At the edge of the forest stood a house. It was quaint and neat, with white paint on the walls and a small bed of flowers decorating the porch. It was a symbol of civilisation.

_____________________________________________________________________

Two boys scuttled to the backyard of the house, glancing over their shoulders with a mixture of fear and excitement. The house wasn't their home; they never had one. They were street urchins.

The older one was clutching a box of matches, their newest play thing. They had stolen it from a grocery store.

Together they squatted in the dirt, and began to strike one match after another. The flash of light and the wisps of smoke increased their excitement. They felt like wizards, playing with the dangerous, the mysterious; producing fire with the snap of the finger. They giggled, oblivious to their surroundings, and how the forest seemed to be leaning towards them, edging closer........
_____________________________________________________________________


Old Dan was the only living creature in the house. He sat on an old stuffed armchair. His arms were folded across his chest, his eyes half closed, lost in his memories.

The inside of the house was as simple and neat as the outside. The walls were white and bare, save for a few faded photographs and his display of badges. He was a soldier once, who earned his fair share of badges and scars. He hid them both as well as he could, but Sophie found them. The scars she had wept over, the badges she framed and hung them over the mantelpiece. He had argued with her over that. After all, what's the point of rewarding a man for surviving?

“It's ridiculous,” he had added with a growl, “glorifying the worst and most inhumane acts in the world…that's what those badges are.”

“Then let them be a reminder to you about that.”

“Besides,” she had added as she turned around to face him with a smile. “A woman wants to show off her man.”

He didn't reply, but had let her decorate the wall with the badges.

He gave a quiet sigh. Sophie died three years ago. Ever since then, he had never been the same. The painful, hollow ache inside him had never lessened. Sometimes he'd catch himself standing in the kitchen, the bedroom, anywhere; just remembering the little, normal things in that part of the house. Sometimes, he thought he could actually see her. And then the vision would fall apart and fade away, reminding him of the emptiness in his soul.

Even his physical self had been affected. He could no longer march briskly; instead he shuffled with weary feet. His usual morning trek through the forest was reduced to just trudging up and down the stairs to grease the old joints.

He knew he was going soon. Sophie told him as he held her hand and watched her breathe her last. That he will soon have eternal summers with her. He wanted to go with her then. But she asked him to wait. “Patience rewards twice. Once, while waiting; and once again when waiting is no longer needed.”

He felt like a man waiting for the train to arrive. Now, despite the pain in his heart, he was content to sit and wait, lost in memories.

Sounds of giggling floated in. He pricked his ears. Those were not from his memories. Opening his eyes, he heaved himself off the armchair and headed out to the backyard.
_____________________________________________________________________

“Let me have a turn, Ben. It's my turn!” The younger boy whined.

The older one complied. The younger boy grabbed the matchbox, took out a match, and struck it. He gave a whoop as the flame leapt up and slowly climbed down to the end of the stick. They watch, entranced by the magic.

“Hey!”

A gruff, old voice jolted the boys out from their trance. They gave a yelp, threw down the match into the pile of burnt matches, and ran for their lives without a backward glance.
____________________________________________________________________

Old Dan leaned against the door, his eyes following the ragged boys who were running like the wind. He chided himself. He knew what Sophie would have done. She would have taken the boys in, given them a bath and her famous, double chocolate-chip and nut cookies.

Him? He would just say “hey!”. He shook his head. He took a step forward. What were they doing out there? He felt like investigating, but the heat made him turn back to the house instead.

Inside, he surveyed his surroundings. The books on the shelves, the tablecloth at the perfect angle, the exact placing of the table lamp. He never had been a neat freak himself, but something compelled him to keep everything in the exact way Sophie had wanted. It was as if Sophie's presence would be there if it was so. Even now, if he allowed himself, he would be able to hear her humming and smell her cookies baking.

His eyes focused on an old tattered box on a shelf. The box was old and worn, and the things were unimportant to any other person. But it was almost everything in his life. A carefully folded old wedding dress, a photo album, Sophie's diaries and their love letters. It was all Dan's life with Sophie. It was the only thing he would take with him if he needed to run.

If he wanted to run.

He knew that it was during this time of the year that a forest fire was most likely; when his house will be most at risk. He could tell from the dryness in the air, the stillness of the wood. He knew his house wouldn't be able to stand the heat. He knew he would die if he stayed in a burning house.

He sat down slowly. He didn’t know if he wanted to live.
____________________________________________________________________

The flame seemed to have died when the match fell into the pile. The forest heaved a sigh of relief. Then the flame burst forth again. It burned, and the pile of matches lit up. A sudden breeze swept by. The gentle fire danced in the breeze and caught onto the dry grass on the forest floor. The dance began to grow wild, and tongues of flame leapt to the dance, embracing the branches of a tree.

The gentle fire became a reckless rage. The sleeping dragon awoke. It ran wild with a vengeance, licking the dry trees, setting them alight. Its growl turned into a fearsome roar. Its hunger could not be satisfied; the more it ate, the stronger and the hungrier it grew. It charged and devoured everything it saw.

The house suddenly drew the attention of this beast, and it charged at it. The white paint of the house turned black, succumbing to the intense heat. The flower bed disappeared into the flames. Smoke poured out from the dragon's nostrils; thick and black and foul. It rose slowly to the air.
The eagle circled in the sky; it looked down to see his kingdom destroyed.
____________________________________________________________________

Old Dan smelt the smoke, and then felt the intense heat. Even before he could think, his army-trained instincts drove him to immediate action.

He jumped up, ignoring the painful stab in his knee. The smell of smoke made him cough and retch. He grabbed the box without thinking and rushed out of the front door.

He hadn’t taken more than ten paces when a fresh breeze filled his lungs and he heard a voice that made his heart stop.

“Dear, tea-time!”

Sophie!
_______________________________________________________________________

“Ben! Ben! Do you see that smoke?”

The older boy was stooping and panting hard from his escape when he heard his younger friend gasp out that line.

He whirled around, and his heart turned cold when he saw the thick, black smoke.

“Wasn't that where we came from just now?” panted his friend.

Ben had no answer.

After an infinity of silence, by some unspoken agreement, they ran away from the smoke.

The box of matches laid on the road, forgotten.
____________________________________________________________________

The local fire station did not receive the call they had been waiting for the whole summer. Instead, they saw the smoke first.

Immediately the organized chaos began. The sliding down the poles, the tense silence as the men pulled on their uniforms, the wailing of the sirens. That was what they had been training for, and now they hoped they weren't too late.

One of the younger fire-fighters thought aloud. “Isn't Old Dan’s house up there in the forest?”
_____________________________________________________________________

Old Dan spun around, his heart paused, his throat constricted. He stared at the burning house with tears in his eyes, searching for the source of that voice.

“Dan? Tea-time! I've made your favourite cookies!”

He took a step towards the house, and another. The box slipped from his numb fingers. He was sweating, and it wasn't because of the heat. His body screamed out a warning, but his heart told him to go on. He took another two steps.

Sophie?

Was this really it? Was this the time he had been waiting for? He paused, and shook his head to clear it. Was this yet another hallucination, a figment of his imagination? Was it just a thread of his memories? He needed to know.

“Dan! I'm not going to tell you again!” The voice held a hint of impatience, but it was full of love and longing.

A smile broke forth from his tense features. He squared his shoulders, and marched back into the burning house.

The acrid smell of smoke turned into the tempting aroma of freshly-baked cookies, the heat was only the warmth of Sophie's arms around him, her body close to his.

The beginning of their eternal summer had begun.

Wrote it for commonwealth last year. I'm not quite sure what to think of it.

1 comment:

  1. That is a fantastic piece of work. Compel to read again and again. .. and desire for more. what is the name of the book? Please complete it .. you can be the next best author.

    ReplyDelete