“Let’s go to the market before going back,” smiled Janet, setting her cup on the saucer with a clatter. It meant she was done and ready to leave – now. She glanced at David’s half-finished tea and a flicker of impatience passed her eyes. She sat there, rigid, and stared at his glass until he was forced to gulp down the contents. At once, the smile returned to her face and she walked out of the café into the sunshine.
[private]David sighed and tried to shade his eyes from the fierce sunlight. The heat was making his head swim. Rivulets of sweat coursed down his back and tickled him. This holiday was bearing down hard on him. Didn’t Janet realise they were not young anymore? He followed his wife out of the café and reminded her of the evening cruise down the Nile.
“Just a quick wander, and then we’ll rest”, she promised him and held his hand tight.
They weaved in and out of the shops and stalls in the marketplace. The shops sold everything: from ancient papyrus scrolls to alarm clocks that belted out Elvis Presley hits. Janet came across a perfumery that sold most of the well known brands, locally made, of course. Janet sniffed and declared loudly that she only used the real stuff. David averted his eyes from the shopkeeper who looked rather insulted. Working in the perfume counter at Boots gave her a substantial discount. David swallowed a smile. She would buy her own Christmas gifts with her discount card, gift wrap them and then he would ‘gift’ them to her. No, she didn’t mind this strange system. She was very practical minded for that.
David was rather proud that his wife was not the sort who craved after shopping and presents, like her sister. Always into bargains and sales and then into debt. No, his Janet was far too intelligent for that. She spent her money on cultural and educational things, like learning the Indian head massage, or this Egyptology course she was enrolled in back in Cardiff.
“Look,” said Janet, pointing to a tiny shop under a bougainvillea thicket. “It’s an antique shop. Let’s go in and explore.” She strode in, pulling David by his coat sleeve. He sighed. He really wanted to go back to the hotel and have a cool shower.
“Let’s be quick. We need to be fresh for the evening,” he reminded her again. But she was already lost inside the cavern like shop. It was dark and cluttered. Damp and mothy, David thought and smiled. He used to say that as a child, whenever he visited his grandmother’s place. There was a tiny window at the other end of the room and the sun streamed in from there. Dust motes danced and spiraled in their spot lit space. There were the usual papyrus paintings and jewelry. There were terracotta pottery and bronze statues of Egyptian Gods and pharaohs. The walls were covered in animal skins and there was even a perfect head of a stag.
Janet gasped and walked around the shop. She studied some of the hieroglyphics on the paintings and could decipher a couple of words. Her eyes shone with excitement. She held one painting up and told David what it symbolised. The shopkeeper nodded in appreciation and David beamed with pride.
“You are very clever, madam,” said the shopkeeper, his voice a deep baritone.
Janet tittered and fluttered her eyelashes.
“You are a very lucky man, sir,” he bowed and smiled at David. He caressed his hands and played with a huge ruby ring on his little finger. The stone winked at them when it caught the sunlight.
“Oh, she is a clever old thing, my wife is,” said David, taking her hand. “But she’s very modest. Won’t let you on to it, will you, love?”
The shop keeper cleared his throat politely and bowed to them again. He was a large man and he towered over them.
“Have a look around, my friends. Everything here is a hundred percent genuine.”
“Ta,” said Janet. “We’ll be here for a while.”
They wandered around, until Janet came to a glass cabinet opposite the window. She gasped as she looked inside. “Oh look, darlin’” she called out. This is absolutely amazing.”
David came around, and he too stepped back in amazement. On the shelves sat a dozenglass blown animals. They were small, about the length a finger, but they were exquisitely made. Each little animal seemed to be frozen in action. The artisan had captured the very essence of their being.
Janet pointed at the leopard. A golden sheen came through its translucent body. She could feel the fluidity of its movement. It was in a stalking position. The eyes mere slits, its gaze fixed upon the prey. The mouth was open just enough for a low growl. The tension in the limbs was apparent. It was ready to spring at the animal that stood sharing the same space. A deer. Long limbed and graceful. Innocently grazing, unaware of its doomed future. A llama looked on at the scene. Its wise eyes were sad. It knew what was to become of the deer.On another shelf there were a few zebras and wildebeests. They mingled together, but one kept a wary eye towards the lion, which lay languidly on his side. He had just had a big meal. You could tell that by the look of content in his eyes. There were some exotic parakeets, and a pair of sarus cranes engaged in a courtship dance. Their necks were entwined and their eyes half-closed in ecstatic rapture.
“These are beautiful,” Janet whispered. “But what an extraordinary mix of animals. They’re not all from Egypt, well, not even from Africa.”
“Indeed, they are not,” the shopkeeper intervened. “These are a very special collection. They are known as the beasts of Eden.”
“Oh, why’s that?” Janet asked, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the animals.
“Well, the story goes like this. About a hundred years ago, there was a woman whose husband was a sea-captain and she was very lonely. You see, he was sailing most of the time and she had no company to keep. So the husband, every time he came back from a voyage, he would present her with an exotic animal that she could keep in a cage to amuse herself with. Her collection grew and her menagerie became quite famous. But unfortunately these animals could not survive in this hot climate and they began to die. The woman became hysterical. She could not part with her animals. So to calm her, the husband brought a famed glass blower all the way from Italy to recreate them in glass. And here you can see his masterpieces. They only need a breath of life to awaken them.”
“What a story. What a history,” whispered Janet. “But then why would the family that owned them, give them away for sale? I’d never be able to part with them if they were mine.”
“True, true,” the shopkeeper agreed. “But then, you see, the lady was so possessed by her glass mementoes that she laid a curse on them before she died. She said that one must always look after them and cherish them as if they are alive, or else the family that owns them will have bad luck. But if they look after them, there will only be good fortune for the family.”
David rolled his eyes. Of course, one had to go along with the whole mumbo jumbo to keep the interest going. The shopkeeper sensed David’s scepticism and turned to face him.
“It’s true, sir. These animals were owned by 7 generations. They were all extremely lucky. Except the last two. They neglected their duties and great misfortune befell them. So much that the last family is now on the streets. They sold these animals to me and that is the only bit of money they have left for themselves to survive.”
“Oh,” Janet’s eyes widened. “What special looking after do they need?”
“Well, I am told to advise the buyer that they must buy it only if they respect these animals. They have a heart inside them. They must be fed and cleaned and revered everyday. You must offer them milk and honey twice a day, and keep them in a special place in the house. Facing the East, so that the first ray of sunshine falls on them at the break of day.”
“How much does this leopard cost?” Janet asked.
“Oh madam,” the shopkeeper shook his head apologetically. “They cannot be sold separately. They must be placed in this exact same order on the shelves. One cannot disturb their auras.”
“Ok, so how much?” she asked impatiently.
“One thousand US dollars.”
“Well, I never…” David started, shaking his head violently. “This is rubbish, this is a set up, Janet. Don’t get into this.”
The shopkeeper looked at his feet and kept quiet.
“Four hundred,” said Janet quietly.
“Jeez. Love, we cannot afford this.”
Janet brushed David’s arm away. She stared fixedly at the shopkeeper, her lips a thin line.
“Eight hundred, madam, no more. I’m sorry.”
“Four-fifty. It’ll be one burden off your shoulders.” Janet pressed on. “Also, I can look after them very well. I study Egyptology and I know how to honour the culture and traditions.”
“Where are we going to keep them?” David whispered urgently. “They need a special place.”
“Why,” she said sharply. “The nursery. We don’t have any use for that, do we?”
She always does this, thought David wearily. He shuffled on his feet and then reached for his wallet.
“Five hundred, and no more,” he said firmly to the shopkeeper and handed him his Mastercard.
“Oh, darling,” Janet hugged him and kissed his damp shirt collar.
The shopkeeper smiled. “The beasts are known to find the right master for them.”
Changes had to be made to their terraced house on Inverness Street. The ‘nursery’ that had waited with baited breath for its tiny occupant was quickly revamped into a sacred space. The Winnie the Pooh wallpaper was stripped off and a glass showcase bought from Ikea was installed by the eastern window. Janet started buying incense sticks from the Asian shop and organic whole milk from Sainsbury’s to offer to the animals. The beasts themselves seemed quite at home and they went around their business looking fierce and exquisite to all who came to visit. They were a big hit with the Egyptology class. They even had a session at home where Janet delivered a lecture on the history of the glass animals and the impact of Italian art in Egypt.
David never entered the room. Every time he passed it, he was reminded of all the money he had spent, wasted, on the animals and their upkeep. He let Janet meditate in that room for hours and clean them meticulously and feed them and hoover and change the flowers every day. It gave him the opportunity to watch TV undisturbed, and he was not complaining. She had given up watching Eastenders. It clashed with their evening tea, she told him. Amazing.
Then one day Janet was pregnant. At last, by God’s grace, wept David in sheer delight. Or maybe even relief. She hugged him and whispered that it was by the grace of the magical beasts of Eden that it happened, for sure.
David looked at her and laughed. “C’mon love, give me some credit. It wasn’t the leopard, for sure.”
Janet rebuked him, telling him not to make fun of the beasts. They were here for a reason. She believed in them and it paid off. Her prayers had been answered.
“You have to accept them into your life, David. They have blessed you with this baby. David, after seven futile years, a result finally. Can you not believe in it?”
David remained silent. It was better not to upset her now. But he would have to stop this nonsense from getting into her head. She would have to concentrate on his baby rather than all the mumbo jumbo she was involved in.
The pregnancy wore on. But at forty, it was difficult to get by each day without feeling her age. It became more and more difficult for Janet to carry on with the daily routine. Morning sickness and then an aversion to any strong smells prevented her from lighting the incense sticks again. What a mercy, thought David, not knowing that Janet knelt for hours, begging for mercy from the beasts for this neglect. Then her blood pressure shot up and she had to be hospitalised.
The doctors advised her to stay in hospital for further observation. Janet was distraught. The beasts could not go hungry. No, it was vital for them to be looked after, for the safety of the baby. She pleaded with David to return home and feed them for her sake. For the baby’s sake. For God’s sake, go.
Reluctantly, David left her side. He wandered absently around the home. Now I have to feed some glass menagerie, he muttered. He could just lie. He peered into the beasts’ chamber. The streetlights flooded into the room and the beasts glowed. The ruby-red eyes of the leopard glared straight at him, its mouth open in a snarl. David hesitated by the door. Ridiculous, he thought. They’re bloody inanimate, expensive glass objects that got here wrapped up in my underwear. Why should I care about them? But he couldn’t get away from the door. The eyes were on him. Hungry eyes.
Maybe just this once. For Janet’s sake. He shuffled towards the kitchen, the crystal bowls in his hands. He shoved each bowl of milk in front of the animals and scowled. Those creatures looked so life-like he felt a chill go down his back. They looked ready to pounce on their meal.
David shrugged and took the leopard in his hands. He studied the glass animal, turning it around, and felt the smooth cold body with his fingers. Damned good craftsman, he thought. Who can say it is a hundred years old? I don’t believe one word that shopkeeper said. We were suckered, all right. Just then, his mobile rang. David jumped and the animal fell from his grasp. It tinkled onto the floor and broke into two. David cursed and answered the phoneIt was the hospital. Janet was in a bad way. They feared she was going to have a miscarriage.
“I’ll be there”, he shouted into the phone and jumped up. Was he responsible? He had destroyed the leopard. Did it take its revenge in this way? He stopped. It was true then. These creatures did have a power. Look how quick it was to react. David knew how he could save the baby. Or even Janet. It was the only way.
He pounded up the stairs towards the beasts’ chamber and gathered the pieces from the floor. The leopard seemed to jeer at him. The other animals looked at him piteously. He was doomed, they seemed to say.
No, no, David shouted at them. I can fix it. I can. Please, oh God, please, don’t do this to us. We will look after you forever. His hands trembled as he searched for glue. He laid the broken leopard on the table and knelt before it in reverence.
I didn’t believe in your power, he whispered. Janet was right. I believe now, I believe in you. He worked deftly, sticking the pieces together. It’s all my fault. Why didn’t I listen to Janet?
The phone rang again. It was the nurse attending Janet. Where was he? They needed him there. They would have to do an emergency operation on her.
“I need to be at home,” he screamed into the phone. “That way I can save her. What? NO, no, I need to be home. You understand? They have the power to kill her. I have to save her from the beasts. I have to save her from the beasts…
Eventually Janet came home. They couldn’t save the baby. She had taken the news quietly and resignedly. It was never to be, she reasoned. She cleared away the beasts’ chamber. Dumped all the animals in a cardboard box and sold the showcase for five pounds. There’s no need to all this junk, she said. In the house, or in the mind. We’ll just live like normal people, David. Like a normal childless couple, that’s who we are.
David nodded and took away the cardboard box. He took it to his office, where he placed each animal lovingly on a table in his cabin. The leopard looked as good as new. Look, it was smiling at him. David winked at it. They had a different relationship now. They were good friends. They had saved Janet from certain death. And the baby? Well, maybe it was good for the baby too. Maybe they had saved her from something as well, who knows. Maybe it wasn’t her time to arrive yet.
He filled their crystal bowls with milk and lit the incense. For Janet’s sake, thank you, he whispered. Thank you. Thank you.[/private]
Susmita Bhattacharya was born in India and travelled around the world on ships before settling with her family in Cardiff. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University. She has published several short stories, and recently her stories have been accepted by Wasafari and Blue Tatoo for publication later this year.