It was by chance Sushma asked Ravi about the window in his room. He asked her to hold, and in the gap that followed she heard a variety of noises filling the vacuum of the night. She listened to the curtains folding with the silence of a ripple, to the wooden legs of a bed lumbering over the moonlit path to an unknown destination. And in the end, Ravi's heavy breathing and a sigh of relief, as he whispered, "Like your bed, now mine too is by the window."
Ravi giggled, and Sushma froze midway adjusting her back comfortably on the bolster, to listen to the musical chime of the sound that puffed out of the receiver pores in precisely the same way always. "Now we can both see the same sky," she whispered, spreading herself on the bed, listening to each muscle in her body pleasantly cracking, as if in response to the twinkling stars.
For seven months she and Ravi had been talking on the phone, since the day Ravi called her as Sales Executive to promote a new product his company was launching. Despite never having seen him, Sushma felt additive affinity towards him, and within minutes she was talking with him about her most intimate of matters. Both lived in separate cities, and circumstances, distance, and stringency in Sushma's house weren't favoring their meeting, nor an exchange of photographs.
Throughout the day she looked forward to the night, when her parents and brothers, after the ceremony of loud burps, would compete in snoring behind bolted doors. She would then get a chance to steal the phone lying on the hutch top outside her room.
But while her passion for talk remained somewhat constant, relishing as she did little innocent pleasures from their light love talk, Ravi had once frustratingly labeled the exercise of talking daily as melancholic.
Today, after so many days, Sushma spotted the same childish excitement in Ravi that once used to result in her many sleepless nights. Mesmerized by his charm, she used to spend her whole time knotting strings of his words, a garland she would put around Ravi's neck on their next talk.
"Can you see the Orion?" Ravi asked softly. "Doesn't it seem like he's watching us?"
"I feel like he is blessing us," Sushma interposed. She left a light kiss on the mouthpiece that through the same cords came back a little heavy sound, touching her skin with an imaginary wetness.
"I don't think his nature allowed him to bless anybody," Ravi said. "He was an overconfident brute who boasted he could kill anybody."
"Really?" Sushma asked, raising her voice, feeling the old rush of excitement she felt as a child when her mother cleared her throat before beginning a story. The gentle flow of her words, and the expressions on her face, that somehow led to denouement, used to astonish her.
Laying alone in this dark room, letting the moonlight seeping through the guava leaves sketch her faint outline against the pink bedspread, she felt Ravi's deep knowledgeable words dissolving the block of sugar that her ignorance had turned her into. "But in the sky it looks so serene," she sighed.
"He was quite a lover," Ravi said, and though Sushma could not see, she could feel by the leisure in his voice that he was addressing her and Orion equally. "He pursued Seven Sisters."
"That's fascinating, no? And whom are you chasing, my highwayman?" she asked in a mocking tone.
"Why do you always call me that — that highwayman?"
Sushma laughed in her usual quizzical laughter. "Because the first time we talked, I imagined you as the highwayman, in the poem we read in school. I saw you touching your spurs to your gallant pony and loping away across the sunlit plain, somewhere where I was waiting for you. But first answer me," she asked impatiently.
"He followed the sisters over oceans, and I am searching for a girl inside telephone wires and graved cables." His voice drowned when the window by her side started rattling fiercely. A sudden wind swooshed the branches of the guava tree, making it look like a disgruntled dragon groaning in his sleep. She slid ahead and put the stopper into place with her toe.
"What's all the disturbance?" Ravi asked.
Sushma didn't answer but dreamily looked at the stars that seemed perennially stitched to the web of the sky. She believed stars would soothe her skin with their cold stare as years would start to wither it with their history.
But then the rain started, the leaves drooped as the thick droplets lashed sonorously on them. The fainting image of the stars and moon remained only as an aftereffect of the light that had escaped the black clouds. In spite of the outside darkness Sushma could see their varied shapes, swans and turtles floating across the sky, stealthily closing on like a Japanese air force.
"Heck!" Sushma cried at last. "It has started raining here. The wind is blowing away everything outside. Can't see any stars. Orion is gone too," she said, disappointed. And so the talk digressed from Orion and proceeded with the exchange of the chores of their daily life. Sushma informed Ravi about the letter her mother received, merrily informing the arrival of her aunt next week. Ravi laughed, already aware of the eccentric nature of this aunt, how she would make Sushma cook all the time, and will keep demanding new dishes without ever tasting any.
The rain grew louder. Droplets bounced off the sill, and pricked Sushma on her face and feet. But for some reason she felt too lethargic to get up and close the window. Every minute or two she pressed the light button of her watch that lay balanced on her belly, surfing like on a wave with her rhythmic breaking.
"What is this tick-tick noise?" Ravi asked.
"Nothing," she answered. And then as an afterthought, added, "A noise that measures love."
She looked at her clock. It was 2 o'clock, the time when her voice used to slack and almost pleadingly, she'd say goodbye. But today she hadn't shown any signs of being tired or sleepy. Was it the Orion talk? she wondered, still popping the bubbles of jubilance inside her. Or couldn't she get beyond the fact, how this small earthly rain, covering not even one whole city, so effortlessly drowned away the mighty hunter.
"C'mon," Ravi said. "Tell me what's all this clicking and ticking and no yawning."
"Told you," she answered softly. "It's the voice asking me how much my Ravi loves me. It's my clock."
"And what did you say?"
"Hmmm.....that if love is about remembering, then he doesn't love me. It's two hours after 12 and he has forgotten my birthday. He has forgotten it's the eighteenth today. Even the rain came to wish me."
Ravi breathed heavily, guiltily, but did not speak immediately. "Ram," he said at last, and made some apologizing sounds, even desperately slapped on the wall by his side. "How can I? I am too....." But Sushma wasn't listening. She placed the receiver on one side without telling Ravi, and went to the window. She listened attentively to the rivulets gurgling down the drain, and saw in the dim light the puddles of water collecting in the garden mud. All the time smiling and wondering if puddles are a band sent on this auspicious day by Orion himself.
BIO: SHIPRA SHARMA is 22 years old and lives in India with her parents. Her short stories are published in both ezines and print magazines.