The day dawned, bright and beautiful. She got up from bed lazily and stretched her body and yawned. Her diaphanous white night gown fell around her in beautiful patterns and soft shades of dark and light. "Oh my prince, where are you?" she murmured. Her body ached to be crushed in a strong embrace. The desire was an exquisite pain. But then the world intruded upon her senses, breaking through her pain. She went to the window and pulled back the drapes. The light fell on her young face. It was a beautiful day outside. Cool breeze played with her hair while she brushed her fingers through it. From the window, she watched the slums awaken. Children of different ages played in the street. Stray dogs roamed. The hens in her backyard chicken coop made clucking sounds. The morning was filled with a companionable cacophony. I watched her as she watched the scene outside. She could not see me. She was totally unaware of my presence. In the beginning, I watched her, not knowing why. And then suddenly, the answer came to me. The Caller was going to come for her soon. I was watching her to see whether she would win or lose. Who am I? Just call me a Watcher. She left the window and went to the bathroom. She brushed her teeth. Then she removed her nightgown and looked at her naked body reflected in the mirror above the washbasin. Suddenly, there was a return of the yearning she had felt earlier. The yearning was powerful--so powerful that she stepped into the bathtub and started masturbating. My heart missed a beat, because I knew that if the Caller were to come now, she would lose. However, the Caller didn't come then. She reached orgasm, and immediately started feeling guilty. She proceeded with her bath, put on a clean, crisp dress and came out of the bathroom. In her kitchen, she prepared a small breakfast and sat down to eat it. A knock sounded at the door. It was the milkmaid. She received the warm, fresh milk, closed the door, and resumed eating. After finishing her breakfast, she poured a glass of milk. Another knock sounded and, glass in hand, she went again to open the door. This time it was the housekeeper--a girl of about eleven--whom she had hired to come daily and clean the house. She smiled, greeted the girl, and told her all that was needed to be done about the house. While she was talking, she felt the eyes of the girl falling occasionally on the glass of milk and then quickly moving away. She finished her instructions and turned away. Then once again she turned to the girl. "Here, take this." She extended the glass of milk. "No, no, lady." The girl stepped back. "Come on, take it," she smiled encouragingly. "It is for you." The girl took the glass of milk. "Drink," she ordered. The girl put the glass to her lips. She turned away. She couldn't bear the look of gratitude on the girl's face. I wished the Caller would come at this moment, but he did not. She entered the kitchen and picked up a bag of grain from the shelf. She then left the house and walked to the chicken coop. She opened the bag and scattered the grain on the coop floor. The hens immediately attacked the grain, making lively, clucking sounds. She smiled: now for the water. She picked up the pan of water, emptied it on the ground, and refilled it from the tap in the yard. She then replaced the pan in the coop. She crossed the yard and entered the room at the other end of the house. This was her clinic; here, she worked alone. The first patient to enter her clinic was an old man. He seemed to be suffering from fever. She looked for her stethoscope; couldn't find it. She handed him a thermometer, telling him to put it in his mouth. Then she looked againfor the stethoscope. She felt a tug on her gown. She turned to find the old man holding up the thermometer, saying: "Do I have to swallow it whole?" She snatched the thermometer away from him. She laughed herself silly after he left. The next patient was a young boy suffering from pneumonia. She examined the boy, and found the pneumonia to be at a very advanced stage. The chances of the boy's recovery were slim, very slim. She turned to the woman who was with the boy. "Are you the boy's mother?" "Yes." "How long has he been ill?" "Since a week and two days." "Then why didn't you bring him to the clinic sooner?" "We took him to the woman next to our place. She is a psychic and she gave him this amulet." She pointed to an amulet tied on the arm of the boy. "She said the boy would get better soon." She felt like screaming--screaming at the ignorance of the mother, screaming at the unscrupulousness of the pseudo-psychic woman, screaming just to let off her frustration. But she pented up her scream along with her frustration. The third patient was a woman she knew. She was one of those women who live for the express purpose of making other people's life difficult for them. Just a few days back, the woman had insulted her on the road, calling her degrading names. She examined the woman and found nothing wrong with her. It was a classic case of hypochondria. She smiled to herself as she gave the woman some tablets. These tablets were mild laxatives. Let the bitch suffer a little, she thought with guilty pleasure. And so the day went, a mixture of tragedy and comedy, pain and pleasure, failure and triumph. And then it was time for lunch. She closed her clinic and went back to her house. The maid had her lunch ready. She and the maid took their lunch in the kitchen itself. She then went to her room and lowered herself down on her bed, pulling her blanket over her. Cool breeze from the open window coursed through the room. Underneath the cover of the blanket, she once again started having a vague feeling of sexual desire. She realized that her sexual desire fed on her loneliness. These feelings were never so frequent and troubling while her parents were alive and while she had been living with them. Clasping a pillow between her legs, she went to sleep. With beating heart, I waited. Would the Caller come now? The buzzer on her alarm clock went off at 4.30 p.m. She got up, washed her face, combed her hair and prepared herself for the evening session of her clinic. At 5 p.m. she re-opened her clinic. The first patient to enter was a handsome and smartly dressed young man with intelligent eyes. Her heart started to beat faster. He would make an adequate Prince Charming, she thought. Who was he? She had never seen him before then. He seemed well educated. What was he doing in these slums? She listened to his symptoms, and prescribed him a medicine. Then she noticed that he was in no hurry to leave. They were both young enough to be frankly curious about each other, so, very soon, they were both talking animatedly about each other. He was an engineer, here to supervise the building of a school. "What about you? What are you doing here, running a private clinic in this way-out place?" "You have answered your own question. I am here, running a private clinic." "Why?" "Because I like this place. It is off the beaten track." "You live alone, here?" "Yes." "And your family?" "I have no one. My parents died in a car accident last year." "Oh! I am very sorry." There was silence for a while. "I still do not understand why you selected this village." "I don't want to sound idealistic, but I found that these slums had no hospital or clinic, and so I started my clinic." "What about your livelihood? I doubt that you earn very much from this clinic." "No, I don't. But I did not open my clinic for money. I have enough of it, bequeathed to me from my parents." She offered him tea from her thermos. She made one cup for herself. For a while, they just sat there, sipping tea. Then he got up to leave. "I will see you again," he said, and was gone. After he left, she looked out of her window. The dusk was falling. It was the time for the stray dogs and children to return home. The darkening streets were abuzz with sounds of life. Dimly lit doors and windows of the slum houses stood out against an inky background. The air had become quite cold. Just then she heard a sound and turned. Another patient. She once again busied herself in her duties. At 8 p.m., she closed her clinic and made her way to the house. The night had fully fallen. There was a bright moon overhead. A few clouds lazily floated in the sky. The night breeze was bitingly cold. It brought out goose pimples all over her body. She shivered. Out there, in a small open ground between slum dwellings, fires had been lit, and quite a few were gathered around the fire, gossiping. I watched her fondly as she entered her house and put on the lights. She warmed her supper and ate it with relish. Then she settled down in her bed, under the sheets, with a book in her hand. She put down the book after some time. She would sleep early today, as she had to catch a flight early next morning. She was going to Los Angeles to attend a medical conference. She had a paper to present. With a sigh of contentment, she snuggled down into the sheets. Someone knocked on her door. I hope it is not an emergency. Not now. She groaned inwardly as she got up and went to open the door. She didn't open the door immediately. After all, this was the 21st century. First, she peered through the peephole in her door. It was a girl she knew. She opened the door. "Please come quickly. My father seems to be having a heart attack." She whirled around, threw an overcoat on herself, grabbed her bag and was off with the girl. It took three hours: reaching the house, giving emergency aid, calling an ambulance, accompanying the patient to the hospital, getting him admitted to the ICU, then, waiting and comforting his daughter until the doctors at the hospital confirmed that his condition was stable. It was 2.30 AM by the time she reached her home. No time to sleep now. Her flight was leaving at 6 AM. She quickly got dressed. She had packed her luggage a couple of days ago. She gave it a few final touches and she was ready. A taxi took her to the airport and she boarded her flight. The plane took off at 6 AM sharp. A few minutes went by, and as the plane banked west, it seemed to give a sharp, intense shudder. The passengers, the pilot and the crew screamed. There was no time to do anything else. As the plane dropped down, down, down, towards the ground, she said: "God, please forgive me. And thank You for everything." And the Caller came for her. I watched her with pride as she went with the Caller, a winner.
x x xIn his cover note, Ahmed graciously invited me to edit this piece. I did--a bit--but I didn't--I wouldn't--edit the simple purity of the tale. Nor did I meddle with prose-poetic gems like: "The morning was filled with a companionable cacophony." I think this holds the germ of a much longer story. How about it, Ahmed? Readers?