Cheerful Short Story: Padma and Kanti
Well, after the revisions of Cosmonauts left my soul feeling stripped of all happiness, this morning I wrote something light for a change. It’s called Padma and Kanti, it’s 1800 words, and you can read it right now.
Padma and Kanti
The girls sat under the old baobab tree, the shade scarce under its thinning needles, the gently collapsing school fence at their backs, idly watching dust rise from the playground under the bare feet of a hundred children.
Kanti had a stick from the baobab tree, and was scratching her name in the dust. Padma plucked the leaves off another thin branch, pretending that it was a flower. Last summer she had been able to pick the white moonbeam flowers on her way to school, but this year the air was so hot and the ground so dry, Padma felt more sorry for the flowers than anything. She hadn’t picked a single one.
Kanti drew her name in the flowing Devanagari script, and brushed it out with her foot. She redrew her name in sloppy Roman characters. She kicked this out as well, and sighed and announced in an authoritative tone, “It’s never going to rain again.”
Padma let the last brittle leaf drop to the dirt. “Yes, it will.”
Kanti lifted her chin. “No, it won’t. My grandfather says it won’t, so it won’t.”
“Well he’s wrong,” said Padma, gently. “My father says it will rain, and so it will.”
Unable to stand any more of this roguishness, Kanti jumped to her feet. She surveyed the playground with a veteran’s eye. Orange dust creeping up through the grass – much more dust than grass! Running children kicking up pale orange clouds. So much dust it hung in a low fog around their knees. The air was so dry it seemed to crackle, and the sun so strong that the few small shadows seemed burned in the ground.
“Forty days without rain,” said Kanti. “It will never rain again.”
Padma was about to tell her this was nonsense when a ball from the boys’ cricket game came hurtling towards the baobab tree. Kanti hit the dirt with a shriek and the ball shot over her head and into the camphire bushes bordering the fence.
One of the boys detached himself from the game. He eyed Kanti nervously and didn’t come near. “Can you get that?”
Kanti scowled at him. “You almost took my head off! Oh, forget it. Hold on.”
She scurried into the bushes. Padma glanced at the boy, who was in the class below her. They both looked away swiftly. Kanti backed out of the bush. She scowled at the boy, but Padma caught her face before that, and it wasn’t angry at all.
“Here,” Kanti tossed the ball to the boy. It smacked soundly in his palms. “Don’t do it again.”
The boy scuttled back to the game, and his friends cheered. Padma waited for the match to resume before she said, “Well?”
Kanti grinned and grabbed her hand. “You know me too well! I found a gap in the fence, come on!”
She pulled Padma into the bushes, thin branches flicking their faces and arms. All Padma could see was Kanti’s skinny rump in front of her and the branches all around. Without warning, Kanti’s rear disappeared and Padma was blinking into the sunlight streaming through the gap in the fence.
Kanti was waiting, and pulled Padma to her feet. Both girls laughed, breathless from the thrill. Ah, they had all of lunchtime to explore! They were on a high bank which dropped into a row of shabby houses, and beyond that, a thin forest. They could see all the way to the old dry riverbank, and even beyond that, where the land lifted into low hills and the horizon was smudged dusty purple and toothed with the dark grey silhouettes of trees.
“Race you to the river!” Kanti cried, and she was off.
Padma’s heart was in her throat, ah, the sunlight on her face! Away from school, away from expectations, away from her strict father. With a giggle she skipped after Kanti, clutching her skirt to her thighs as she scrambled down the steep dirt bank and racing between the shambling houses.
It wouldn’t do to let Kanti get too far ahead of her. She knew that, but Padma knew she could probably outrace Kanti if she wanted to. As it was, she kept pace, laughing and skipping and leaping over fallen branches as they broke together into the forest, bounding through the wide spaces between trees. The grass tickled her legs and the sunlight was warm on her skin. Kanti bobbed ahead of her, laughing and shouting. “Watch out, tree! Don’t you get in my way!” and Padma’s heart thrilled to see her, such a carefree girl, always so bossy. One day she might be put in her place by a husband, but now! Now Padma couldn’t imagine a more beautiful person in all the world.
They were still a long way from the river when Kanti ran out of steam, puffing to a jog, then a walk, then a hobble. Padma slowed beside her.
“Agh!” went Kanti, flinging the sweat from her brow. “Why did we build the town so far from the river?”
Scarcely out of breath at all, Padma told her, “So when the river floods, nobody loses their house.”
Kanti eyed her. “I knew that.”
“Of course you did.” Padma smiled.
Kanti broke into a crooked grin. “Maybe we’ll see old Vritra there.”
“Oh!” Padma clapped her hands to her mouth. She spoke behind her fingers. “Oh, I hope not!”
“Nah. I’m sure he’s gone upstream.” Kanti nudged her. “Do you want to race again?”
They galloped off towards the river. Padma felt her heart thrill again, but this time it was laced with something else, something colder, like the patches of dappled shadow across the forest floor. Kanti slowed again as they approached the high orange bank of the river, and Padma hovered at her side.
“Maybe we should go back.”
It was very quiet.
Kanti glanced at Padma, wide-eyed. “Why would we? We haven’t seen the river yet.”
Padma tugged her arm. “Please. We’ll be in so much trouble if anyone realises we’re gone.”
“Nah, they won’t know.”
“But they could have seen us!”
“Hm.” Kanti tapped her chin. She reached out and took Padma’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Just one little look and we’ll go back, okay?”
Padma stayed where she was. “Promise?”
Reluctantly, she let Kanti lead her up the crumbling bank. Ah, it was so dry! And how quiet! There had been cicadas singing in the forest, but now they were free of the trees the cicadas were silent. Watching, waiting. Padma wished they would sing again.
They reached the top of the bank on hands and feet. Kanti whistled, Padma’s breath fell from her in a rush. The inside bank was smooth and round and dropped steadily to a basin half a kilometre wide. There on the basin floor was a snake. A tremendous serpent plated in bronze scales, as wide as the river and inconceivably long. It seemed to be sleeping, the eyes of its two heads closed, its tongues flicking contentedly at the breeze stirring the dust on the riverbed.
“Oh,” said Kanti, and she sounded very small. With shaking knees she and Padma retreated partway down the bank, just far enough down that they could peak at the snake if they wanted to. Padma clutched Kanti and Kanti held her in return. They didn’t dare look at each other.
“I think it’s Vritra,” said Padma, when Kanti was silent.
“Of course it is! That snake stole our water!”
But Kanti sounded more afraid than outraged. Padma gulped. She crawled back up the bank.
“What are you doing!” Kanti hissed behind her.
Padma didn’t look back. “Maybe we can ask him to move.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Kanti grabbed Padma’s ankle. “It’ll eat us!”
Both girls fell silent as the snake lifted one of its great heads. Its eyes were deep blue, like vast sapphires. Its black tongue flickered curiously towards them.
Padma stayed crouched on the top of the bank, Kanti’s head peeking up beside her. Padma closed her eyes. She had been able to pretend that the dry baobab leaves were moonbeam petals. Maybe if she just kept her eyes closed, she could pretend that Vritra was the boy from the cricket game.
The snake lifted its other head. There was an enormous groan of move earth and the ground tremored hard as Vritra slithered towards them. Two giant bronze snake heads filled the sky, the blue eyes like windows, unblinking and bright. Kanti pulled herself onto the bank beside Padma, clutching the other girl tight.
“Padma, come on, let’s run!”
“No!” Padma shot to her feet. She didn’t dare open her eyes. She could hear the snake, and smell its odour of mud and stale water. She had seen how fat it was, full of their river and their rain. That thief! She shook her fist at it and bellowed, “You give us back our water, Vritra! Give it back and get out of here!”
The snake hesitated, swaying on the spot. Kanti saw it about to strike and threw her arms around Padma and squeezed her eyes shut. Padma’s breath came in big frightened gulps.
And Vritra tossed his heads back, and laughed. His laugh boomed like cracks of thunder all up and down the river bank, and through the forest and the town and the mountains beyond. “Tell me what to do, will you!” cried one head, while the other kept laughed. “Very well, young one. Very well.”
Padma and Kanti watched, fixed to the spot, as Vritra’s two mouths snapped open, opened as tall as the sky and as low as the riverbed, and with a gurgle and roar water poured from his throats. Tidal waves smashing against the banks, orange water capped in white foam surging around their legs, but then the river found its place and it swept along the cracked bed and pushed towards the horizon.
Minutes went by like this, until at last the rush of water slowed, and then trickled, and then dripped, and Vritra closed his great mouths. His blue eyes set on the sky and he writhed into the air, a great bronze sky serpent headed for home. Below him, the wide river flowed again.
Kanti and Padma stared after him with their mouths agape. At last, Kanti nudged Padma. She waved at the serpent and cried, “Thank you! Thank you, Vritra!”
“Don’t come back!” Padma called. And then she added, “Take care!”
The great bronze Vritra disappeared behind a scrappy white cloud. At once the cloud began to swell and grow dark. The first proper cloud they had seen in days.
Kanti turned grinning to Padma, face flush and eyes shining bright. “Race you back?”
Giggling, they bounded into forest, this time Padma striking out ahead.
Rain was on the way.
Well, that’s it for the moment. I’m hoping to get back into blogging regularly, but just taking things steady at the moment. Comment below and see you soon!