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to their little village of Aipotu she felt that she should visit it—for what she heard from the Farm-Boy was that there were flying horses, there were inextinguishable candles, and an Old man who sat always with his legs crossed. In the morning, down by the river where boats floated across the dusty waters Lata glimpsed the red, yellow bright dome of the fair behind the huge bamboo poles. There were tall masts with small red, blue, yellow flags fluttering atop. Behind her she heard stamp of hooves, and turning behind she noticed a strange creature that sat near the banks, it looked like a man with a horse’s body. It reminded her of Father Bentick who said that these half-human-half-horse existed in the land of Snow Mountains. As she watched the man-faced horse bend down and drink the muddy water from the river she cried out: “Stranger do not drink that water,” she called out. “It is very dirty.” “I am a Centaur,” the thing gruffed unpleasantly. “You still have long ears,” she giggled, “like a horse’s ears.” Those eyes glared for a second at her, his head turned away from her and faced the river. The Centaur spoke with magnanimity: “ I am a Centaur.” There were many more things that Lata wanted to ask the Centaur, the strange thing before her but the golden shoe hoofs cut through the air like a sword, and the Centaur flew away after satisfying his thirst. Lata returned home wondering about the strange thing and she told the Farm-Boy who led her in the evening to the fair. Kerosene lamps hissed nosily. Flies buzzed. Amid the huge tent, huge flies buzzed and flapped their wings. A man sat over his hands sporting a gray white beard. It was the bees that Lata liked there-they sat on high stools, with jars of honey in front of them. With spiny legs they gulped jarfuls of honey and licked their mouths dry like a dog. Across in the corner, where the crowds were thin sat an Old hag. She was very old. Her white hair flew like a witch, and most of her teeth were missing. “Come young lady, tell your fortune here. Who weds thee, see, this crystal ball shows everything.” Lata paid the two farthings, and looked deeper into the crystal ball as the Old hag instructed. The ball glowed shiny, full of milky light like a full moon. “Do you see him?”, the Old hag asked. “No.”
“See harder, that man there will be your husband.” But Lata saw nothing. The Old hag refused to pay back two farthings. The Farm-Boy complained, grumbled, but the Old hag whistled loudly, and some of the bees assembled there, threw the far-boy out, catching him by his shirt and carried him in the air, and threw him on the ground. The Farm-Boy landed with a loud thud, wincing in pain. Lata had tears in her eyes that she hurt the Farm-Boy ;later they secretly slipped back to the fair on the second day because the news of the wondorous fair had spread far and wide, such that there were strange people from neighboring villages. Marco sold magic carpets. His shop was the center of attraction. People thronged, fought in the lines lest the fair close down. Since a magic carpet cost two pieces in gold—none of the farmers could afford it except the ride which cost a farthing. Hoping to try the ride in dark skies , to watch the stars from nearer, Lata spent the money—two farthings, one for the Farm-Boy and for her. The Farm-Boy joked that if he fought with someone from the fair; then, the bees would carry him in the skies and throw him down. He smiled and Lata felt that to save money he might do some mischief like setting fire to one of the tents. She forbade him, abjectly. When the time for her ride had come Marco closed shop, shouting at everyone to come tomorrow. A few insouciant rascals from the other village shouted at him, teased him and met the same fate like the Farm-Boy at the bee’s hands. Lata returned dejected, discussing with the Farm-Boy how mother would be angry fro they were returning late. The Farm-Boy meanwhile, exasperated at walking back home, asked an Old Centaur to drop them home, for half-a-farthing, which the Old Centaur gladly did. They landed atop the terrace of the garret when Lata’s mother appeared she saw Lata knitting a daisy flower and knew her daughter had bee back from the fair long back. Somehow the incidents took a curious turn when Lata went to the village pond to get water. There standing under a tree, the Centaur stood along with the Old Centaur. Promising him more money in the evening for a ride; but, the Old Centaur gruffed and commanded the younger Centaur to take Lata t o the River’s other side. The friendship between Lata and the Centaur grew in leaps and bounds, like the heat of summer; everyday after the fair, Lata slipped without her mother’s knowledge with the Centaur who’d take her to places —to the garden of Prosperine, to Mesoah seas where Ayela Witch brewed stew in huge pots for angels and Centaurs. Once when they were in the Mesoah sea islands( humans were prohibited) Lata brushed the coarse hair on his broad face and asked the Centaur whether he felt that, to which he replied: “ I can feel it. I’m also human.” The Assam Flower Lata liked best, but the Centaur spoke that to pluck the flowers was strictly prohibited; only when Lata insisted did he cross the swamp and bring the flower for her. For a week afterwards she kept the flower in her room—“Such a sweet scent,” her mother remarked observing casually. It happened with the nearby neighboring butcher Romope catching sight of Lata as she flew on the Centaur’s back and landed on the terrace. In the moonlight Romope rubbed his sleepy eyes; he was it was Lata. Before long his eyes wandered to the pair of gold shoes that shone brighter than stars in the moonclad night; after one week Lata and the Centaur spent more time in the garden of Prosperine. The Centaur too liked her touch. Liked the way she brushed his hair. Beside the countless flowers and chattering animals, under the stars they sat: alone and watched each other’s beauty, and the Centaur knew
that he needed to consult the Old Centaur for he was certain he was in love with the young maiden. She never disproved him. He praised her eyes, and spoke of the distant lands, the fair maidens, the wondorous sights, across the continents, in a moment a desert, and snow mountains the next—yet he swore that his eyes had never laid sight on a more beautiful maiden than Lata. “Will you come tonight?” she asked. “Because my mother will be asleep, and I have cooked you dinner. Crabs and fish, and filled with spices. I saved some in my room.” “Yes,” the Centaur smiled. “But tell me, really, I am tired of calling you a Centaur. And there are so many Centaurs. I was scared at first, lest you take offense, but, please tell me what is your name.” “Centaurs don’t have names,” he said silently. “Still,” Lata said looking disappointed. “They must call you by some name.” “Centaurs don’t have names,” he said like a parrot. “But remember my dear, I am human also. It is prohibited for us to have names; for Ayela Witch prohibits us. They call me, at least unknown to Ayela Witch as Achmet.” Together they flew across the Meosis sea, and planned to see the red domes of Moskva. Finally when it neared Midnight did Ayela realize that she should be back home; swiftly they flew back, and to the terrace. Lata lit a small kerosene lamp. She stood surprised. In the corner of the room, the butcher stood, his face lit up in a sly grin. To her utter dismay she saw her mother standing beside the door, crying. Not knowing what to do, confused, Lata ran back to the terrace. She was shocked, for three men stood as if appeared from nowhere, and in a huge net lay the Centaur. Finally it dawned on her that the butcher looked at the shoes of the Centaur. In the morning, when Lata awoke she found herself in a small room;. The narrow door was locked. There was no way out. She cried for her mother. She pleaded with her over lunch, asking the well-being of the Centaur; her mother insouciantly replied that the butcher had taken care of the Centaur for good. As the door shut, and was bolted outside Lata knew with a fading hope, that she’d never see Achmet alive again. She crossed herself, and resigned to her fate; she tried to pry open the windows with bare hands but the wooden bars held strong. Escape seemed impossible, and after the sun faded Lata sat on the bed-side tears streaming down her cheeks. It started like a low voice, a knock on the door, more like a scratching as if a cat pawed on the doorfront; but when the voice spoke Lata instantly recognized the Farm-Boy’s voice. She asked him to open the door. He replied that her mother had locked the door. When asked about Achmet he replied that he hadn’t seen or heard from him. That her mother was at the butcher’s shop, and Lata knew Achmet was imprisoned in the Butcher’s shop. Quick, she said, run to the fair and tell the Old Centaur. Tell him that Achmet is trapped for his gold shoes. The Farm-Boy nodded his head in affirmative, and Lata heard retreating footsteps. There was a huge commotion outside, but, through the window Lata glimpsed nothing for it was very dark. She supposed that either the Bees or
the Centaurs had come. To rescue their friend. But soon there were flames from the Butcher’s housed. To her utter dismay she saw the flames spread to her house, and soon the room she was imprisoned was ablaze with orange flames that licked everything to asked in their wake. She screamed loud, but the smoke burned her eyes, and she rasped to breathe. She collapsed on the floor and was unconscious until cold water was sprinkled on her face. She was surprised to be alive, and watched the Old Centaur beside hr. Lying on her back in the wet earth, Lata knew as she watched the sin in east that she’d slept unconscious through the night. Across the corner her eyes she saw ash, heaps and piles of it where her house and the butcher’s had stood before. “Is Achmet safe?” she asked concerned. “Yes,” replied the Old Centaur with magnanimity. “he is safe and well. There are other things now, more troubling, than before. Since you have addressed him as Achmet—let me tell you young maiden, that a Centaur will be hanged if he kills a human being.” With those words he flew away. A few feet away she revived the Farm-Boy, and together they searched for her mother. But only when the village council of headmen had met did she realize what had happened the previous night. The bees drunk with honey, and the Centaurs angry, that Achmet was imprisoned for his gold shoes had declared a war. They disregarded the advise of the Old Centaur. Together they flew on the village, from the afar, swiftly until the night sky was clouded, cluttered with sounds of buzzing wings and stamping hoofs. The villagers not knowing what’d happened rushed to the aid of the butcher, and started killing by throwing flaming arrows at the bees and Centaurs. Agitated, the bees and Centaurs caught the flaming arrows, and threw them back at the wooden houses, which soon caught fire. During the night almost the entire village had burned to the ground. There was only a smell left: of burned human flesh, of pigs roasted and chickens, and the village council headman called a messenger and sent him to Lord’s house, who sent Black Striped Tiger men who brandished ten foot long swords and swooped down angrily on the village of Aipotu sitting atop fire breathing dragons. The Black Striped Tiger men burned down the fair, and most of Marco’s carpets with them. They slayed Centaurs and bees alike, sparing none, for indeed a great crime had been committed against humanity. As the destruction descended to the heart of Aipotu most of the villagers were satisfied that their houses had been avenged— but, as one tiger man tried to kill a female Centaur with breasts like pumpkins she pleaded with him; and told him that it was a Centaur named Achmet who’d been responsible. From the time that he was imprisoned Achmet tried gnawing at the net but in vain. They dragged him down to the basement of the butcher shop, into the heart of darkness, where only a tiny wicker lamp shone. Across him three weary eyed, huge mustachioed men sat joking, and having warm stew. They kicked him. They smiled at his shoes. When the door opened, and the butcher came forward with his huge knife, Achmet knew that he’d lose his golden shoes. He was as strong as a horse, but no match for three men. They clubbed him with bailiffs and sticks until he fought them no more, and cut away his shoes. They left him in the darkness, alone. He wanted to cry for the shoes were a gift of Witch Ayela. And he loved his shoes much. But he was more worried about Lata, for he knew, that she might be in trouble. Achmet gnawed at the net, lying like an infant in mother’s womb; and finally one string snapped.
By the time he’d freed himself he realized the strength of the door. Even all his strength and efforts didn’t manage to break it loose. He waited. But the commotion he caused by kicking the door caused a few men to open the door that a shaft of light gleamed inside. It was the butcher. And Achmet pushed the door headalong with all his strength. Outside of the basement, finally, he kicked at the butcher with his hind legs, and the butcher sprawled against a corner with his face bleeding. Hurt but not dead. In an instant he saw that the whole hut was on fire. And there was loud banging on the door. From the window he glimpsed a few bees, and he knew his friends had come to rescue him. In the corner of the room, amidst the smoke he glimpsed the sleeping face of Lata. She lay on a straw bed. He realized that the butcher might’ave saved her. In the smoke he didn’t see her mother coming. From the corner of the eye, he glimpsed a flash of silver, as quickly turned away and let her mother fall on the floor. She carried a huge knife. What more can she want? he thought. And repented. Lata’s mother rose again and brought the knife in her hands. In a quick split second Achmet kicked her with his front legs. He carried Lata outside, in the hands of a waiting bee, and when he returned he saw her mother, bleeding from the mouth, very dead. The Black Striped Tiger men carried Achmet away after imprisoning him in chains to the Lord’s palace. When Lata heard of the trial she knew she had to be there at the Lord’s palace; for somehow, she felt responsible for the great tragedy. She pleaded with Marco who agreed to take her to the Lord’s Palace. She saw him imprisoned in chains, kneeling on his knees, while all around the huge pillars, black clothed nobles sat around the Lord, who sat on a high throne clad in a brilliant white robe. The charges were read out and Lata realized that Achmet was facing the death penalty. On the side of Achmet stood four bees, also in chains and four Centaurs. All of them were charged with trivial crimes, like setting fire, causing mischief—and the bees had their suckers cut off, while the Centaurs had their horns removed. When finally the charge of murder was heaped on Achmet, the black lawyer who represented the people informed the court that the charges were of murder, hence of the grimmest nature; and moreso Achmet being a Centaur, had no right to live after killing a human being. He also spoke that the butcher wanted his golden shoes, out of pure greed, but he said, since he was not a human he had no right to mortally wound a person. Achmet’s side was represented by the Old Centaur, who reminded the court that, Achmet, as his name suggested , was more human, as human as anyone else in the court, for he’d fallen in love. Only humans are capable of love, he reasoned. As his witness he presented Lata. Meanwhile, the Lord called for a recess and scolded the Chief of Striped Tiger men for not having brought the butcher to justice. He ordered that the butcher’s shop be taken away, that his head be shaved, and trooped all over the land for five years atop a donkey. Lata stood solemnly. She answered all the Old Centaur’s questions. “Speak without fear,” the Lord had commanded. And she did. She spoke of the moments when he brought her the Assam Flower, when they roamed the skies and the earth, when they met in the nights. However, she said, that she’d fallen unconscious, and didn’t know what exactly happened that night. The Old Centaur tried to make the Lord hear Achmet’s view, but, the Lord declined, for he was the defendant. When the people’s lawyer approached her, she trembled in fear like a leaf.
“But you’ve said that, he told you, that he was a Centaur.” “yes.” “As also, that he’s told you several time that he’s also human.” “Yes.” “But my dear Lata, please tell the court, if you please, where his legs are. See him and yours if you want to, but show me and everyone here where his legs are.” The court burst into a ripple of laughter. The Lord frowned on disobedience, and when the Lawyer asked her to step down, and closed his arguments, the Lord went to his chamber. He returned more bright, his long beard flowing like a saint. He said : “ I have no doubt that Achmet’s guilt had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That he is a Centaur, and as the power is vested in me, I pronounce him to be killed.” No sooner the judgment was pronounced , the Chief of Black Striped Tiger Men pounced with a huge sword on Achmet, and cut his human head which rolled on the marble floor. Blood splattered everywhere, and a few drops of blood splayed on Lata’s face. Tears trickled down her eyes. Then the soldiers hung his body on a scaffold atop the palace, for everyone to see. Such swift was the justice of the Lord’ court. The Old Centaur cornered Lata : “ If you’d old the Lord, how much you loved him, for all he was, you think he’d have killed Achmet.” “Yes, I know,” she said sorrowfully turning her face away. “But do you expect me to burn down other’s houses to light fire in mine?” She called to Marco, and together they sat on the Magic Carpet which flew high in the air. At the huge palace gates where they hung the Centaur’s body Marco stopped the carpet to have a last look. He watched Lata, with tears in her eyes, and then he watched her falling figure, as she fell from the Magic Carpet, and grew smaller and smaller in size, until she fell under the huge scaffold where Achmet’s body lay.
The following is a work of fiction. The characters and incidents portrayed and the names herein are fictious and any similarity to the name , character and history of any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
© 2006 T.Prabhakar. All Rights Reserved
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