Day blazed into brighter day, and Arundhati came to the Lantern Tree Grove, where the sharp luminosity of the noon sun overhead was proudly companioned and lit up by the presence of numerous and magnificent pendants of delicate pink drops. Lantern flowers. Each flower slanted its head towards the ground, as if addressing something that lay directly below it. It was why the people of these parts agreed that their shape resembled the papery canopy of a night-time lantern, the ones held up by the watchman as he went about making his rounds along the border of his village whilst people slept.
Unsure still of what bridge these lantern flowers served in her finding The Shaligram Ammonite, Arundhati could not escape from her delight in being surrounded by these fine specimens of Mother Nature. She was convinced that she had been born loving flowers from the moment she took her first breath, that she had the power to partition her inhalations so that half of it fed her lungs and the other was shielded from that duty so that it may be kept like a carpet of breeze reserved for carrying the scents of roses and jasmine to her nose. Of course the elders in the village, and her own Amma, on occasion, had laughed out hysterically upon hearing these strange ideas, for, they argued, how could anyone ever possibly remember if they shared a close bond with the floral world from the time of their birth? For Arundhati, these taunts never dealt her any serious blow, and she quite easily dismissed the scoffing ways of the world. As plucky as a bumblebee was to a rose, she, too, stuck to her beliefs in all weathers.
“… She was convinced that she had been born loving flowers from the moment she took her first breath…”
She crept up slowly to the long wall of leafy shrub before coming to a standstill just inches away from the tinkling audience of lantern flowers. A strange and precautionary urge came over her to be weary and to look all about her. As far as she could tell, she was alone. But it was still hard for her to shake off that unsettling impression that she had been led here, and she soon imagined – which did little to ease her discomfort – that someone was out there, nearby, watching, spying and ticking her name off from their appointment’s diary with a sliver of smugness elasticated across their face. Just to be sure, she peered back up the path from which she had trudged down from. The tea house was firmly out of view now, and turning to face below, she saw the familiar dirt track leading a raggedy course down to the neighbouring village whose edge brushed against a mighty serpent of gushing water. Except it was not one singular vein of water. A short way along the bank and the river divided into two, the larger one running its course straight and out of view as it became engulfed under the over-arching branches of giant bristly conifers, whilst the smaller one, like an arm splintering off in rebellious defiance, wound its way north towards villages that Arundhati had never ventured into. The enormity of the task ahead of her suddenly turning to leaden weight and her feet seeming to grow heavy, Arundhati distracted herself and hurriedly turned round to face the lantern flowers again.
She came in closer to examine their form and realised that they were not enslaved by the whims of the winds. They moved as they pleased. Some of the lantern flowers nodded up and down, others shook their heads, and a few, let their heads touch the one next to it, as if they were talking about a pact or enthralling themselves in the latest schoolyard gossip. A flash of a fond memory trickled into Arundhati’s mind, the time of when she and a few friends of hers had met here after school, and how they had giggled and chuckled as they rushed to share out multi-coloured threads from an old pouch so that each would have the colours they wanted to string out their friendship bracelets. Arundhati’s shoulders jiggled as she smiled to herself, reaching out with the gentlest of touch, stroking the tips of the lantern flowers, half-hoping that they would chime as her fingers tapped and drifted through them, they telling her in unison that they had all indeed watched silently that day when she and her friends had gathered her for the marvellous swapping of threads. “You flowers soak in other people’s secrets, don’t you?” she whispered to one lantern flower. “Look how plump your pretty belly is, fattened up just like the yummy pickle jars in Amma’s cabinet!” She sighed and stepped back and scoured her eyes at all of them, daring to hold onto the chance that perhaps one of the lantern flowers would relent and prise open its fleshy petal body and shed light that would show her the way to the river that she saw in her vision back at the tea house, that vein of black water shown to flow close to the location of The Shaligram Ammonite.
“… She came in closer to examine their form and realised that they were not enslaved by the whims of the winds…”
She was lost in thought when it dawned on her that she was not alone. The dried leaves on the ground behind her sent out a muffled sound, a rustling of laborious footsteps accompanied by the creaking of mechanical parts. She shot round, just catching her breath in time, to find that a street vendor was stood in front of her. He was not a particularly old man, his face was angular, blackened by the unforgiving sun, his black hair was stuck to his skin by sweat, and he wore a holed vest mucked by dirt and splotches of grease and food, while his blue and white sarong was tied above his navel in a tight bun so that his extraordinarily dark, bony legs and protruding ankles helplessly peered from below, his feet finished off with a pair of stringy flip-flops. His hands were fastened to a cart draped in green cloth and arranged neatly on it, row by row, glittered a handsome crop of antique-tinged wood apple, spiky jackfruit, pomegranates whose cracked ends reminded her of lips prepared to kiss, and yellow persimmons secreted forth by the frothy laughter of the summer sunshine. The cart was held up by four large rubbery wheels positioned on each corner. Patches of brownish-red rust had attacked the axis and spokes, presumably accounting for the screeching sound earlier.
“Oh, I am so sorry. I will move out your way, Uncle.” It was a very narrow point on the slope, and she felt terribly oafish that she was obstructing his right of way. Arundhati leaned as far back as she could against the lantern flowers, taking care not to squash any of them in the process, and then gestured the street vendor that he could now pass.
But, he did not.
A fly buzzed down and took the opportunity to forage on one of the jackfruits whose tough outer skin had somehow received a gash, exposing a glimmer of its sticky and sickly sweet interior flesh. Arundhati swore she could hear the fly siphoning the juicy blood of the fruit into its thorax and down into it abdomen. “Excuse me, Uncle, but there is a fly on your jackfruit. Look, over there, can you see it?” The man did not move, yet he had heard her, she knew that. Arundhati felt the hundred scrawling legs of cold fear shuffle up her arms and slither across the sides of her neck. She reached up for her binoculars, slowly and tactfully, all the while slanting her eyes to her right to better understand her escape route. Her feet were already trembling, obeying the desire to flee, and she prayed to herself that he had not caught her in the act of thinking through these thoughts.
Whatever it was that prompted him to snap out of his statue was anyone’s guess, for he abruptly let go of the cart handle and lazily walked round it so that he now was only a few paces in front of her. His eyes were as black and viscous as bat wings, she could not see their pupils. She shuddered. “Is anything the matter, Uncle?” A whip of anger scorched down her throat and into her stomach. She had not meant to speak to him, she was meant to have dashed for it.
A deathly silence, a staunch standoff of crackling electricity, ensued between the two of them. If only his face could break out with a recognisable expression then at least she would derive some relief that whatever it was that she faced now could be bargained with. Alas, the man’s face remained agonisingly wooden, indeed as wooden as the table of his cart. She forced her body now to loosen, the final preparation in its readiness for scrambling down the hill. She was going to run, run away from this phantom figure, this sinister man who seemed to not belong to anywhere.
But he took one step forward.
She had planned to run, instead she maintained her sight on the man and heard herself whisper with concentration, “Help me, Mr Roald Dahl…”.
The street vendor must have heard her whisper, and not only that, he knew exactly what those anomalous words meant, for he nodded decisively towards her binoculars. Quick as a flash, Arundhati tipped her head down and managed to just catch the last of the three red flashes. She gulped and when she looked back up at the man he was wearing a smile that was fantastically camouflaged. Fine flecks of crinkled skin had collected at the edge of his eyes. He was smiling with his eyes. He approved. Arundhati lifted the binoculars and expectantly brought them to rest against her own eyes.
A brief message had been sent to her. It was about the art of disguise, and as a way of example, Mr Roald Dahl was more than happy to oblige and share his own instance of rustling up a pukka disguise from his youthful days, one that prevented him from being caught red-handed by those who wanted nothing more than to see him in the principal’s office!
“… A brief message had been sent to her. It was about the art of disguise…”
The message disappeared after a short while, and Arundhati taking the binoculars away from her face, crinkled her eyebrows into a knot and searched the ground below, as if the significance of the message would miraculously appear from the undergrowth and dissolve all her confusions and take them away far from here. Slowly her voice found her again and she croaked out the best she could, “Uncle, do you happen to work for The –“
Before she could finish anymore of her sentence the man shoved his hand under the row of lighter fruits at the top of the cart and pulled out a block neatly wrapped in shiny paper with bold words lavishly penned across it. He offered it to Arundhati. Her mother had strictly forbidden her to accept goods from strangers, she had warned that it could land her in very serious trouble, the consequences fatal, even. Arundhati momentarily closed her eyes and asked for her mother’s forgiveness as she reluctantly opened her palms for the man to place the block in it. It was light and cool to the touch. It certainly was not fruit. When Arundhati drew her hand away from the man and peered at the item she was hit by more puzzlement than she could possibly take in one day!
“Wonka Chocolate Bar?! But, how will this help me find The – ”
“Wonka Chocolate Bar?! But, how will this help me find The – ”
Once again her sentences, her questions, were left mid-way, unfinished, drifting on the air. The man was retracing his steps back round the cart. He took hold of the handle, issued a subtle bow of the head, before trundling past her and then vanishing down below, the voiceless man and the screech of his mechanical accomplice both gone.
She had never heard of this brand of chocolate and had no desire to test it out on her palate, who knows what peculiar things were contained within it. She turned on her heels to face the watchful curtain of lantern flowers. “There, one more secret you are going to have to keep which I’m sure will fatten you all nicely!” She examined the bar and concluded that the neatness of its packaging and the sophistication of its printing could only mean that this came from another country, but her speculation only drilled more questions into her brain. Her ears picked up the distinct murmur and rumble of the two rivers down below. “Chocolate bars and rivers, what is the link?” A chiming rang out, sweet and high-pitched, like the twitter of a bird mixed in with the tinkle of a metal xylophone. She dismissively muttered, “Ah, so you lantern flowers do know how to make music!” The chime rang again. She raised her head and awkwardly poked at the lantern flowers, as expected they made no sound of such sort. When the chime rang again she realised that it vibrated her palm. The noise was coming from the chocolate bar!
Whether it was the right thing to do or not did not even cross her mind, and so her fingers scurried across to where the paper was joined together and proceeded to rip apart the layers, and there was so much of that to get through that she imagined that the final article buried deep inside it was most likely a fraction of the overall size of the package itself!
She could not believe her eyes when the last shred of wrapping swayed and fell like a feather down to the ground.
In her hand was a wafer-thin device. It was a phone.
It had a pretty cover depicting pinkish vines of flowers and for a second she thought she felt all the lantern flowers around her crane their necks in for a closer view.
The phone chimed again.
Arundhati licked her lips in anticipation and held her breath, before bringing the device to her ear and answering it.
It was the voice of a long-lost friend and the pink lantern flowers knew that before she did. ♥♥♥
“… It was the voice of a long-lost friend and the lantern flowers knew that before she did…”
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Hampshire | UK 2016
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre |Great Missenden | Buckinghamshire | UK 2016