by Raji Singh
Who would ever think? A broken furnace boiler leading to my first real kiss.
Oh, there’d been plenty on the cheek – by mother, all the aunties, by my imaginary muses, Rrrose Heather, Mama Lucy, and yech phew! Marr-gaa-ret. Often came tickly pecks from Captain Polly. From Turt, slurpy beak-snout nuzzles. I’d feel butterfly wing flutters when I walked through the Woods.
But none of them was anything like what was to come – and on a day so appropriate, Valentine’s Day!
* * *
No matter, that it is the coldest day in all of Cincinnati history, I stay warm because I burn with ecstasy as I run home from Mrs. Florsheim’s fourth grade classroom.
Before I can herald the ice-shattering good news – “NO SCHOOL, MOTHER; FOR AT LEAST A-WEEK-AND-A-HALF! UNTIL THE NEW BOILER ARRIVES” – Mother greets me, even more excited than I, from upstairs. “The principal called, Raji. This means we will be able to accompany your fa on his trip. So hurry. Come pack.”
Within an hour, we are on the plane to New York, to connect to a Lindia flight.
“You’ll get to see Reena,” Mother whispers so she won’t disturb other passengers; or maybe she wants to share a private moment. Perhaps she doesn’t want to embarrass me in public. “Valentine Day is big in Lindia as in America, Raji. I knew you might not have time to get Reena a card.” She hands me a red envelope. “You can give Reena your heart.”
I mostly turn red. But inside my smile fills me completely. ‘Reena!’ I haven’t seen her since last summer.
I sleep most all the way over the ocean. I dream of Reena, working alongside as volunteers helping feed the poor, and then later playing together – jacks, cards, exploring the Lindian Woods. When I drowsily awaken, I look out the window. ‘Reena!’ Her semi-cupid smile and sweet chocolate hair sway gently in dreamy cloud drifts.
Our plane lands in Lindia City. Fa goes to consult on a free clinic he and other doctors are establishing. Mother and I visit smooth-face aunties and gray-bearded uncles.
After so many cheeky kisses, both bristly and soft, Mother brings out a costume the aunties have made for me. The scents of their exotic perfumes, absorbed by the yellow silk cloth as they sewed it, lingers as I put it on. A scarlet-teethed beetle nut chewing uncle whiskers my face with black paint and marks my bare arms with orange blotches. I am to be a young tiger, alongside dozens of other similar young human cats, at a benefit for the clinic. Another of my uncles, Uncle Balu, a real life Tigerman, will be the entertainer.
~ ~ editor note: The art of the Tigermen is ancient, its Lindian origins unknown. The performer in tiger costume and regalia dances lithely as the big cat, and sings-growls hauntingly of its plight. Tigerman troubadours traveled cities and villages entertaining as circus, movie, and tv do today. In the 21st century, Tigerwomen have joined in this resurging cultural phenomenon. You can see a demonstration and learn more of it in Raji Singh’s novel Tales of the Fiction House. ~ ~
The curtain falls on our performance. The tiger kids gather around Uncle Balu, adulation, as if he were a rock star. I feel a paw on my shoulder. I turn. ‘Reena!’ She’s a face painted young tigress in golden slacks. She was a dancer too. I just hadn’t seen her in the masquerading tiger troupe. Uncle Balu motions with his claw.
‘Go with Reena, Raji. We’ll see each other often while she’s in school.’
Reena and I walk into the bright sunlight, paw in claw. I had thought when we first saw each other we would screech and howl like wild cats, and pounce into the Lindian Woods. Instead, we walk slowly and our words, especially mine, come like timid purrs and near-silent meows.
“Purr! Its been so long since I’ve seen you, Raji.”
Reena takes a paper lace heart from her small purse. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Meow!” I reach into my pocket. Oh no! I left the card on my suitcase when I changed for the show. If only there was some tiger-magic that could make it bound through the window and fly to me. Before I attempt to stammer, “I…I have a card for you too Reena,” I hear a voice saying,
“Aark! Ark! I know what you’re thinking. I’m on it.” It’s Captain Polly. She’s in a tree, camouflaged by colorful leaves. I should have expected her to be spending a tropical few weeks here, while it’s 20 below in Cincinnati. Inconspicuously, she swoops away.
Reena looks around. “Did you hear someone calling for someone named, Mark?”
“Meow!” A cat that swallowed the canary, I. “I don’t think I heard anything, Reena.”
We walk through the woods, our purrs, our meows slowly becoming human words.
“Will you be coming to Lindia this summer?”
“Definitely, and for the whole summer. We’ll work alongside each other, again.”
Behind the golden face paint, Reena’s smile becomes sun-bright. I’m emboldened. I twist my neck so our faces are inches apart. Reena closes her eyes. I wet my lips and I ready to…
A trumpeting blare coming from the close-by river startles us. We pull away from each other.
Of course, I should know by now. Where Captain Polly is, nearby, probably too will be Turt.
‘Darn it! I suddenly realize. Turt’s blast was intentional – my shell fellow’s good-natured ploy of scaring, enabling me to take Reena into my protective embrace.
I hear,“Aark! Aark!” once again.
Reena once again hears Mark, and walks around the woods looking for someone by that name.
Captain Polly carries the red envelope in one talon. Swift as a falcon she swoops down, lights on my shoulder, and slips it down the back of my shirt. She whispers so Reena cannot hear. “Take her on a romantic cruise.”
“Upon Turt, silly boy.”
I know my facial expression asks, “Where?”
“Turt knows,” Captain Polly says, and flies, disappearing among tree leaves before Reena returns.
I open my mouth, no words, not even a timid meow or purr, come forth.
“Raji. Are you okay?”
Suddenly Captain Polly’s voice becomes deep, and it’s as if she’s talking for me as Cyrano de Bergerac talked for the stupefied Christian to Roxanne. “Mi Lady, your card.” I remove it from my shirt. With jittery fingers, I take it from the envelope and give it to her.
“Oh Raji. It is beautiful.”
“Take my hand. Come sailing with me,” Polly-Cyrano requests.
We walk to the river and board Turt’s carriage of a shell. We sit close to one another and hold hands tight. As an excuse, we say, “So neither of us might topple into the water.” Turt sets sail, always looking straight ahead to allow us to be alone. Neither of us talks as we drift; free of all school and playground worries. Our winged Cyrano keeps her big beak out of our privacy by flying parallel to us, an unseen chaperone hidden in the woodland.
The warm breeze pushes through the round curls of Reena’s hair. I feel I’m drowning deliciously in the jasmine perfume of her shampoo. I put my head to hers. She doesn’t pull away. I know we both are feeling the pulse of each other’s temples beating as one. Even when a curious alligator swims up to investigate the goings-on on his or her river, and Turt opens his razor-sharp beak-snout to ‘HISS’ him or her away, we do not separate. Are we oblivious, or are we blissfully in lo…No, I’m sure I’m too young for that.
After 20 minutes, Turt ports riverside. Gently I hold Reena’s hand and we disembark.
Captain Polly-Cyrano de Bird-gerac re-emerges from her quiet. “Come Mi-lady. Walk with me.” Turt motions with his beak-snout the path we should take. Slowly he trails us.
I’m dying to speak for myself. Just when I start to, Captain Polly shows herself and squawks, “Aark! Beware, Raji, Reena, Turt. Behind you.”
When danger arises, Turt can step sideways on his fin-claws fast as a spinning top. The entirety of his sharp-edged shell frame becomes a deadly cudgel if need be. As Reena and I turn, Turt is already facing a 600 pound tiger that has leaped from the Lindian Woods, and is within one bound of us. The beast’s scream-roar vibrates the trees in the Lindian Woods. The Lindian River, and those of fin, within it tremble.
Reena pulls my arm. “Let’s run, Raji.”
“Aark! Stay where you are,” squawks Captain Polly. “He’s just jealous, Reena, Raji. You both make prettier tigers than he will ever be. Turt and I will cure him of his raging jealousy.”
Captain Polly flies, talons bared toward the top of the tiger’s head. She gouges, again, again, grounding him mid-pounce as he leaps toward us. That’s when Turt rams the tiger’s stomach with his shell. Turt’s automobile-equal weight winds the beast, and he flops lamely to the twiggy floor.
Turt clamps his fin-claw atop the breathless tiger to imprison him. He winks and motions with his beak-snout proudly raised high, as if to say, ‘You three proceed. I’ll have no trouble making sure he doesn’t follow. I loyally await your return.’
“Follow me,” beckons Captain Polly.
In a few minutes, we arrive at something so majestic, so overpowering, so like I’ve never before seen, that my eyes water. A lump forms in my throat and I am speechless. Towering above us is two Lindian Fan Trees. By their height, and the sturdiness of their entwined roots that grow together as bastion legs just above the ground, I know they’re well over 100 years old. Their lean trunks grow at a slight angle upward, and then veer inward 15 feet in the air, merge, as two mouths meeting, before continuing their separate paths skyward.
“The…the…” Reena can hardly speak either. “I’ve heard stories of it. But I never really thought it existed. It is so grand.”
“Aark! The Kissing Tree,” squawks Captain Polly. “Kiss her you, fool.”
I take Reena in my arms and our mouths meet.
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. They are completely different stories. My novel is available at Amazon, (Kindle and Trade Paperback) and Barnes and Noble.)
©2014 Raji Singh