An Eternal Flame
An Eternal Flame10 mins 534 10 mins 534
‘I wonder what it feels like to look up at the stars and feel real,
Like I used to before
I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.’
From the window, Leala could make out the faint outline of the Mango tree, on whose topmost branches she had loved to have solitary picnics. On the windowsill, a pine rested on its side, an essence of familiarity.
The clatter of vessels below from the kitchen had woken her, as it always did. A glance at her watch-it was barely sometime after sunrise. She sat up, shielding her eyes from the sunlight entering through the wide window.
She stood up, couldn't resist twirling a bit and began her dance exercises; her most consistent ritual.
Her mother poked her head in Leala's room, in the midst of preparing the restaurant that she ran with Leala's dad, for the day. She smiled at Leala, almost excitedly. She loved the morning preparations, and then headed down to serve tea to the sleepy waitresses and waiters about to begin their day. Leala's father was probably coordinating the kitchens and sneaking glances at the newspaper.
Leala felt much more awake now, and with that wakefulness came a need for fresh air. She followed a set of stairs to the back door.
Gliding outside, she commenced walking instinctively, unknowingly, along the road that led to the coast. She took leaps, twirled and danced through the air after every few steps; the road was empty. It was too early for the sleepy town that never seemed to want to wake itself from its deep slumbers.
As she strolled, she wondered, once again, why she loved to dance. It was, she thought, an ode from her to the world. Even when she wasn't moving, her breaths played out dances too. From head to toe her cells pulsed with energy and excitement and emotions bloomed. She danced to find stillness from those movements but sometimes, also to erase unrest. Her heart agreed, it seemed, for it did not contradict her.
She remembered, with a start, her dance teacher, Evik, from years ago. She could still recall the smile that came onto his face when he danced, as if in those brief moments of demonstration, he saw a pure peace.
A shout cut across her moment of recollection and Leala saw a woman, most probably a tourist, she could discern from her backpack and dress, wildly gesturing to her. She asked Leala, "Could you direct me to the restaurant near here, The Cypress Tree? I was supposed to meet someone there an hour ago."
Wow. She couldn't fathom someone not being familiar with the place she felt she had known since forever.
Leala directed the tourist to her parents’ restaurant. How could someone survive in a foreign land, with nothing to guide them but a map?
Dashes of cinnamon, spices and enthusiasm filled the cramped air as Leala walked along the narrow marketplace, lined with food and craft stalls. Coconut trees occasionally obstructed the trade. She scrupulously observed, trying to pick up a local recipe to take back to the menu. Sometimes, her parents blended methods and ingredients to uncover new recipes which had, partly, earned the restaurant its reputation.
Leala walked on, on the lookout for new culinary art and reached the last few stalls. There was nothing to take back today.
Strains of music hindered her form going home and further investigation revealed that a local band strummed beats off an open space. No stage hindered them; people danced around them and they encouraged the crowd’s enthusiasm. This was fairly common in her town, at specific times of the year. It was events like these that had urged Leala to realise her love for dance.
Once Leala pushed through the crowd to fully comprehend the music, the rhythm came into her. She heard laughter ensue from somewhere far away and someone gently brushed past her. She hummed along a little and began to dance. She moved into a little corner of her own where the melody stole into her and the movements came, spontaneously.
After a while, to her delight, Leala discovered that she could glean the crowd's excitement and they hers. The camaraderie flowed-this was why she loved dance. Her friendliest companion, though, was a tall, slender girl who danced with as much heart as Leala. But before long, it started to drizzle and she began the journey home.
As Leala walked in the slight rain, twilight set in and her fingers tingled. She felt the vestigial pleasure of the evening, the feeling she was left with when the movements flowed through her, as natural as breathing.
Her shoes tapped against the rough roads. There was a constant ache in her legs to rob them of quiet, solitary motion. They longed to charge through the air, dispelling and shedding all of her restlessness. The rain rose its pace a little and she shivered, but not because of the chill.
Leala came home. Mounting the steps to her room, she pictured everyone still at work, cooking up meals for hungry people and popping some food into their mouths too. She wished she was still young, happily exploring her dance and talking to her parents for long hours, back when there was only one kitchen and the restaurant wasn’t so busy.
The pine waited on the windowsill. An owl hooted and rippled through the air. Shadows layered the roads and the clouds sang. Even when the rain stopped the glow of the music still arose from her mind.
Leala twirled and stretched, trying to dispel her excitement for the upcoming ritual. She seated herself on the window seat and looked outside, into the same sky she looked onto every day. The rhythmic lights of an aeroplane lingered and the clouds coalesced into a fractured ocean of pearly white. The moon flashed through, the light splaying forth.
Then, Leala closed her eyes to meditate and drift through nothingness.
‘When I see them,
They seem confined to the room.
When I close my eyes and feel,
Leala awoke, the next day, to cold drops of rain falling on her face. She sat up with a jolt and closed the window. She sat in bed for some time then went out, into some other quiet.
Chaos might reign
But in my depths,
That part of town was quiet. Not a sigh could be heard while the clouds blew away into the horizon. She stood on the beach, watching the waves. In her mind, they grew larger until they devoured themselves into a single, gigantic force of energy, snaking its way to the moon and then beginning to fall. She flinched, bade the thought farewell and resumed staring at the disappearing ships. She took a deep, calming breath. Dance auditions for the Monsoon Fest, a show with a few neighbouring cities, were beginning and it felt like her biggest, most important test. Her mind was a hurricane and her stomach a storm as she envisioned herself on the stage. Efforts to compel her heart to stop racing were futile so she practiced and the nerves gave way to exaltation. She might have practiced too much but she didn’t feel exhausted. If anything, she had started to anticipate even more and despised the wait till the evening.
Her parents were working and nonexistent so Leala went to the marketplace to walk around; something about its urgency and noise always brought peace. She looked for a bright, neon coloured stall, property of her friend Azgar, a culinary entrepreneur who had been subject to her father’s mentoring. He was currently saving up to get a degree in cooking.
She spotted him snoring, pulled up a stool and drummed her fingers. When he awoke and asked Leala, blearily, “What are you doing here?” she stared off into distance. He found her silence disturbing; he knitted his forehead and then realised, “The auditions, hmm? Well, I’ll be the wise guy and give you some advice-you’ll be fine if you eat some of my food.”
“Besides," he said, passing her a sandwich on which she munched half-heartedly,” You don’t need to worry. You’re mom says you’re a natural.”
At that, Leala stood up and started to pace.
It had started to rain again. Most of the vendors packed up and left, including Azgar. She was sad to see her only distraction leave but Leala didn’t want to return to her room on top of the restaurant and she still had a few hours to pass so she sought protection from the rain by ducking into a small cafe. Inside, it was warm but crowded with people whose plans had gone awry. At first glance there seemed to be no room for her but as she ventured in, she could jostle her way to a seat opposite to a girl who was scribbling onto sheets of paper. Leala sat down and the girl looked up. They recognised each other and the girl broke into a wide smile and greeted her. “Say, aren’t you the girl who danced so well the other night? I’m Rida.” She shook Leala’s hand in a firm, businesslike way. Leala managed a weak smile, still trying to take her mind off the audition.
“You were much more cheerful then,” Rida observed. Leala nodded.” I have an audition for the Monsoon Fest today,” was all she could manage. Rida raised her eyebrows and nodded approvingly. After a pause, she asked Leala,” If you were an artist, would you be willing to join a theatre company, with...” She thought for a while and said,” With a mash of everything artistic?”
Leala considered this and told her,” It doesn’t sound very enticing when you put it that way.”
Rida laughed and said,” Well, in artistic words, a symphony of all artistic creations. What do you say?”
“Sure”, Leala said. Rida returned to her sheets of paper. Leala leaned her head against the wall and after her wait, left in jitters. She dove into the depths of her mind to find her heaven and turned her soul outside to face the world.
‘Frantic be the tides,
Frantic be the clouds
Rushing through air
Searching for home’
The following day
Left, left, right...repeat and reverse...the directions whirled around her, her body lost in thought. Her feet rose and fell; her eyes followed her hands, unwavering in their focus. Their fierceness would have been startling, but it was dark.
Quite suddenly, she stopped. Slowly, carefully, she turned in a circle as if savouring the ability to move. Thundering clouds argued in the distance, occasionally rumbling into silence. The wind blew noisier than usual. She stood in the sand, her feet almost sinking, poised as if to dance. Something didn’t feel quite right...this beach and this town was all she’d ever known wasn’t it?
It all felt wrong. She had walked to the front with a smile adorning her face, confident, just like she had pictured. She had begun her dance with her body perfectly aligning with her mind until...she had stopped, forgotten. A scream almost escaped her throat but-
Calm; a breath then two more, a stride then two more. A chance, but none left.
Leala walked, trying to forget the contents of the day before. She went to the market-the stalls were abundant, much more than usual. There must have been a fair.
Surprisingly, she spotted Rida, with her own stall and walked towards her. As she neared she read the handmade sign above the stall-‘The Eternal Flame, a travelling theatre company. Below it a description-A symphony of all artistic creations. Despite of herself, Leala grinned and walked up to Rida who asked, quite seriously,” How did it go?”
Leala’s smile disappeared and Rida found the answer in her messy hair, dishevelled clothes and shrunken figure.
“Well, you get a second chance here,” Rida gestured to the sign above.
Leala backed away and read it once more. Earlier, at the beach, she had realised she knew no other place than this town, her home, where she had journeyed this far, to a dancer. Maybe now her soul was ready to begin its journey. Maybe this unrest was a tug from the rest of the world. Unrest to drag her from her cocoon.
She turned around to face the marketplace. She could afford to miss it for a while. She knew that she would have more than a map to guide her. She wouldn’t see the same sky anymore, even if she was in the same place.
So, she turned around and told Rida in a slow, determined voice,” I’m in.”
‘Leaves of fire burn in my heart
For the world calls me
Out of quiet beaches
Into wild hives.’