Hide and Seek
by Vaidehi Patil
Once a rosewood red, the music box was now fast turning grey.
I paused before opening the door to look at the tiny object, placed out of reach on the highest shelf.
Had the clockwork already gathered rust? I did not want to know. One day, I will bring it down and clear the dust, open the enamelled lid and turn the un-oiled key. That day, my original cheerful cherub would have replaced her wounded, lifeless image. I wasn't ready to hear the tickling, soft tune my grand-daughter had so loved. Not yet.
Oddly, the office felt new. Colleagues greeted me with awkward hellos while I settled back in. The chai-boy was quicker than usual to get me the cup. 'Keep it here.' I tapped a vacant spot on the white Formica. He obliged, careful not to spill the contents on the piled-up mix of tasks and objects: seed samples, thick reports that begged for stamps of approval, fertilizer catalogues to sift through, a research paper. All to help me get through that first day at work after Lori's death. I grabbed the topmost file.
An hour later, the drink sat forgotten with a disgusting dark film floating on its surface. Nothing I read from the report had made any space for itself in my numb brain.
The steady whistling of the pressure cooker, ginger-chai aroma, and rhythmic tap-tap of the knife on the wooden chop-board greeted me.
Damini, that good woman. Made my desolate four walls into a home. Through the years, I'd forgotten what it felt like, to return to kitchen smells, to the warmth of being looked after. Then five years ago, Damini turned up- a thirty-something, short woman in dire need of work. She wore a kind smile and huge glasses, and possessed rather large ears that stuck out through her oiled hair.
An Aye-Aye, Lori used to call her. Turning around from Animal Planet one Sunday, Lori had jingled Damini's glass bangles while the latter dusted the shelves and informed her she resembled the Madagascar primate.
'How was your day, ?' Aye-Aye chirped, swirling the spicy while I strained a cupful of chai. Her magnified eyes made me smile.
I paused mid-sip. An out-of-nowhere, out-of-tune song came from my balcony. Was it a child's voice? It was.
A small girl's.
Turned out, I wasn't hearing things.
'Her parents left, had to. They'll be back, once the case settles. She'll be with me for about a fortnight or so. Can't leave her at home alone. You won't mind if I get her here every day, ?' Damini tousled the small girl's hair.
The girl, Damini's niece, was a lean little thing, visibly underfed and dull-skinned. But her eyes glowed, and she flashed me a mischievous smile. She scribbled with a half-broken wax crayon on an old newspaper. The song returned to her chapped lips. For no obvious reason, she dropped the blue stick, stood up, and hugged Damini.
Then she turned only slightly and looked at me from the corner of her beetle-black eyes.
'Tell me your name.'
Damini disengaged herself and returned to the kitchen.
'Girija- how old are you?'
'Six.' She fiddled with the newspaper, looking up at me with her eyes. Six- a year younger than my gone angel. Girija suddenly lost her shyness, if it was that, and flashed me a grin.
She ran inside, into the hall, as if urging me to follow. When I joined her, she stood on her toes, staring at Lori's photograph on the glass shelf and digging inside her nose.
'Is that you?'
What a devil.
'Do I look seven?'
is never a sufficient response, unless you are five.
She went on to explain. 'I thought it could be you, when you were little.' A snotty finger zoomed near my face. 'Same brown eyes, same funny nose.'
'There's no one else here. Only you,' she said. 'Who else would this be?'
I struggled a smile.
Girija's wide-eyed gaze floated up the row of shelves. My daughter's wedding photo, three porcelain owlets, a miniature bamboo, a metal-wire bicycle-- my debris. A plastic lizard with black, gleaming eyes; a dirty, stuffed panda; a well-thumbed stack of Uno, muddy pebbles and shells, a rubber frog that stuck out a sticky tongue when pressed-- Lori debris.
Then came the ordinary rectangular object. It must have stood out.
'It's a… music box.
I elaborated blankly. 'It plays music when you wind a key and open it.'
She laughed. 'I don't believe you.'
She sat down, scrawny brown legs crossed, on my prized Irani carpet. 'A wooden box can't play music on its own. That's not possible.'
Um. I won't demonstrate. .
'Can I touch it?'
My voice trebled. 'You just can't. No one's allowed to.'
Girija looked at me, then at the box, and shrugged. Mumbling something about the strange ways of grown-ups, she stood up and pitter-pattered towards the kitchen.
The next day at work, I was less mechanical-- Got through three reports, plus an analysis of a piece of land in Vidarbha that had stopped supporting cotton.
I should have come back to work sooner. In more than seven hours, Lori's memories hadn't revisited. At least, the intensity had diminished, the pain wasn't as hurtful. I felt fine, almost optimistic, in the bus ride back.
Until I clicked open the door.
Girija stared at me from the carpet. Her eyes carried an unknown expression.
She rubbed her elbow. Tiny fingers had cleared circles of dust on the shelves- the music box was not perpendicular to the shelf's edge. Its right corner was closer. Girija hadn't been able to reach it.
My expression should have scared her. She merely smiled and scratched her head as if wondering why she sat on the carpet doing nothing.
I had no doubt. She tried to reach the topmost shelf while the Aye-Aye hovered over pots and pans in the kitchen.
A couple of shakes of the talcum powder tin did the trick.
The precocious six-year old had her eyes on my Lori's music box, and if I wasn't careful, she would touch it. Perhaps steal it. Worse, listen to it.
Wouldn't let it happen, no. I'll capture the devil's dust-prints, on the carpet-free inches of the floor near the shelves.
Through the long work day, guilty pleasure fought with my better nature. A trap waited for that girl, and what was her fault, really? Six-year-olds are curious, plus I told a child from the slums that a box created music. She could slip on the talcum and hurt herself.
When I turned the key that evening, my hands and conscience shook. The crack revealed the exact spot dusted with talcum next to the shelves. The distance and angle did not show a thing, and for some unknown quirk of the situation, I entered my own house gingerly like a thief.
Girija wasn't in the hall, nor did the concerned patch of talcum show small footprints.
But the music box stood closer to the edge.
The devil giggled from the kitchen.
Girija winked at me when I entered to grab a cupful. She and Aye-Aye were laughing at a daddy-long-legs doing an odd dance on the wet sink edge.
My cherished post-work naps had ceased to be restful after my cherub left. The receding sun behind Bangalore's concrete triggered a dark mood that did not easily go away. Often, I woke up at night, if at all sleep favoured. The first week after Lori's funeral had passed in a limbo, spent at my daughter's, comforting her. I then believed strength wouldn't leave me, because my daughter found hope in it. Shreya and her husband were, and still are, devastated- but I think they are dealing with their loss better, in their own way, bravely. They still have each other.
Willing the tears to stop, I flung my magazine on the floor and walked to the window.
The same depressing sunset.
'I'm off, ' I wouldn't have turned, usually a 'hmm' sufficed Damini, but Girija's pitter-patter made me look back.
From where I stood, the tip of a long blue mop was clearly visible, poking from under the couch next to the debris shelf.
The pink frilly frock disappearing behind the closing door strengthened my determination to catch her red-handed.
I'd begun spending entire Sundays tucked away in my room, hidden behind books that I did not read. In the beginning, foolish hope overpowered logic. The first few weekends after Lori's accident, ringing doorbells presented many a mirage.
Five times. Someone rang the bell five times in a row. My anger escalated on the way to answer while the culprit repeated the performance.
Damini never looked more like an Aye-Aye, her apologetic eyes at their widest- the devil's hand was still on the bell. I held myself back from striking her.
That was how Lori used to arrive, ringing the bell twenty times in succession; waiting to play Uno, hear stories, scribble on my walls, eat carrot and hear her beloved music box churn out that tune.
'Told you to ring it only once!' To my pleasure, Damini twisted her niece's ear. 'Sorry,. I forgot my key.'
It was fine, I murmured, that children were children. As long as this one stayed away from my grandchild's possession, all was forgiven.
Today, Girija pranced about in an oversized red tee and a long, faded blue skirt, probably handed down from an older cousin. The overflowing length did not hinder her while she played a variation of hopscotch, all alone, on the balcony tiles. Not once did she look at the shelf while I finished lunch, caught up on some news and checked my mail.
Girija was throwing the piece of broken slate and hopping away when I decided to retire inside for a read, perhaps a nap.
I was barely into the first paragraph of some politician's latest scandal when a pigtailed head peeped through the half-closed door. I looked up from my magazine.
Nothing. No one.
And then I heard the pitter-patter.
I rose quietly and peeped outside. Girija advanced towards the shelf with Damini's broom.
Not my Lori's treasure, you blighter.
The shelf towered above her. Light from the yellow bulb above shone in the porcelain owlets' eyes, cautioning me. The rubber frog's bulging eyes glistened, shouting out warnings. My angel smiled from her picture.
With both her tiny hands, Girija raised the broom high. I took a step-- she brought the broom down with full force. My heart stopped.
A roach twitched on the floor.
Girija turned around and looked at me. Did she expect praise? Those eyes were far from innocent. My gaze automatically went to the music box.
It had returned to its original, shiny red.
Damini is a simple woman. After being asked a hundred and one times, she would have admitted. The matter of the dusted, clean music box puzzled her equally, which showed she did not know her niece at all. She placed the incident in the ghosts and gods category, used to explain freak weather, excessive bad luck and such.
It was, obviously, the devil. But why would she do it? And how? Some form of cunning I was unaware of brewed in that girl's head.
Intrigue fought with suspicion. I chose to be vigilant. Being a consultant allowed a couple days off, and I needed to know Girija's motive. And so, observing her watch the box with an unfathomable expression that noon, I parked myself on the couch with a book. She glanced at me, smiled, rose and ran out to the balcony.
Hopscotch had begun. She wore the same clothes as the day before. Even from the couch, dust from the music box was visible on her red tee, in crumpled streaks of gray.
It puzzled me why I wouldn't thank her. The two days I hadn't been in the house, she could have easily taken the box, at the risk of her aunt knowing. Aye-Aye would have, of course, returned the object, possibly after giving her niece a good beating.
I could hear Girija's innocent laughter. Perhaps, she was winning against an imaginary friend. The pitter-patter was louder, a thud-thud while she hopped across the tiles. Her delicate profile framed by bangs and a pigtail was all smiles. My lame attempt to trap the girl felt immature.
Girija whooped the air happily, at the end of a giant winning leap, ponytails askew. In that moment, my envy at seeing a girl of six alive and happy vanished. A girl who wasn't Lori.
It was time for another little trap.
The wait at the neighbourhood chai-stall wasn't long- I had left home purposely late. The stall was well-located and the entire lane leading up to my block stood before me in clear view.
Eight cupfuls later and tired of being stared at by curious -smokers and tobacco chewers who frequented the place, I saw Damini walking towards the building. Girija skipped beside her, dodging puddles.
I paid the chai fellow and walked towards home. Without a sound, I opened the door and peeped in. The music box gleamed on the tea-table, placed strategically before I left the house. From the sound of it, aunt and niece were in the kitchen.
Mrs. Next Door caught me peeping through my own door and was about to open her mouth, which left me with no choice, but to enter and tip toe quickly into my bedroom.
I watched Girija from behind my door. She danced on her toes from the kitchen to the hall, whirled around like a meditative dervish-- once clock wise, thrice anti clockwise-- and then she saw the box, all shiny and not-on-the-shelf.
Her eyes once scanned the hall. Then she walked to it and gently picked it up.