The Bribe

It wasn’t easy for him to go to work that day. In fact it wasn’t easy for him to go to work on most days but today that feeling was significantly more pronounced. Even so, he was happier and much more content.

But how long can I work here now, he thought. Everything has changed and thus shouldn’t this?

At the main gate, the security guard glanced over his badge and handed him the log book. He made his entry and then, just for a few moments, lingered outside the guard’s room, expecting the question he wished to answer. But then he remembered that the guard wouldn’t ask because he didn’t know. Disappointed, he smiled to himself and walked away.

I had been very discreet. It seems like such an unnecessary precaution now. I want everyone to know.

Minutes after he had reached his desk and set down his cap, one of the other officers approached him.

“How is the stomach?” the officer asked and handed him the keys.

He was a little taken aback by the strange way in which the question had been put and was about to reply when he remembered that the officer too didn’t know.

“Not too well apparently,” the officer continued on noticing his look. “Anyway, the Warden would like to see you right away. You shouldn’t have come in today either.”

He grabbed his cap once again, set it firmly on his head and walked towards the Warden’s office while the officer left for home. The imposing steel door to the office was, as always, slightly ajar. He gave the customary knock and was answered by a very expectant voice.

“Please do come in.”

On seeing him enter, the Warden rose from his chair in apprehension and gave him the inquiring look he so desired.

“It was protracted but safe,” he answered. “They are well.”

The Warden’s face cleared and they both partook in a quick and awkward embrace.

“This is so much easier away from work,” said the Warden.

“The uniform is a hindrance,” he smiled. “We are used to being stern while wearing them.”
The Warden laughed and returned to his seat.

“Anyway, I am delighted for you.”

He nodded and smiled. Some of the happiness that he had felt last night returned and, once again, he wished he could be at home instead of here.

There is such contrast. They represent such different things.

“So what is it?” asked the Warden while he rummaged through the little cupboard on the right side of his desk. “I know that isn’t the best way of putting that question.”

“It is a girl,” he laughed.

It took him a little while but the Warden finally managed to find the bottle of scotch and placed it on his desk along with two plastic cups.

“That’s great. I know you wanted a girl.”

“I had no such preference,” he said and held his cup.

“Nonsense. We all have preferences.”

He lifted his cup and was about to take a sip when he noticed that the warden had stopped and hence so did he.

“There should be some sort of a toast,” said the Warden. “The occasion warrants it. But I can somehow never say the right thing. I always make it a little too silly.”

“Better you than me sir.”

“Alright then,” accepted the Warden and gave a slightly cringed look before saying, “To family?”

“To family.”

They both emptied their cups and put it down. The Warden refilled them immediately.

“That was a little too silly wasn’t it?”

“Just a bit,” he replied and they both laughed.

“This is really good,” he said.

“Isn’t it? I had been looking for an excuse to open this bottle for a while now. You gave me a pretty good one today.”

“Why do you have this bottle in your office?”

“I received it here. Just never took it home.”

“Received it here? From whom?”

“Some prisoner’s relative. I don’t recall the name.”

He stopped drinking and looked at the Warden with surprise.

“And you accepted it?”

“Of course I did.”

“This relative didn’t ask for any favours?”

“Not yet.”

“But you know they will,” he said. “This is akin to a bribe.”

“It isn’t a bribe if I don’t do what they ask me to,” the Warden smiled. “Then it is just a gift. And it is rude to not accept gifts. Especially one that is so smooth.”

They both finished their drinks. He was about to throw away his glass when the Warden stopped him and asked him to place it on the desk beside his. He refilled both.

“Maybe we shouldn’t.”

“I believe otherwise.”

“Steadily then,” he said as he raised the glass and the Warden nodded.

“When I became a father eleven years ago,” said the Warden but then stopped and smiled to himself. “It is strange that when I think of my son, I think of him as a small boy who is only eleven years old. But when I think of the fact that I have been a father for eleven years now, it seems like such a long time.”

“That’s true,” he replied, not sure of what else to say. “It does seem that way.”

“Anyway, so when I had my son, I promised myself that I wouldn’t work here for too long.”

“I have had similar thoughts,” he replied, remembering his deliberations from the morning.

“I expected that. I guess it is natural. You are afraid of the questions.”

“Did you have to answer them?”

“There is no way out of that,” the Warden smiled at the hopeful nature of that question. “Sooner or later, all children are interested in what their parents do.”

“Well I do have a few more years.”

“True. But you’ll be surprised how quickly that day comes.”

“Are you trying to help?” he asked with a hint of irony in his voice.

“I am only asking you to be prepared and to think before you make any decision. I am trying not to lose you.”

There was a knock on the door and the Warden immediately lifted the bottle of his desk and placed it near his feet. One of the guards came in with the morning attendance roll. He was a little surprised to see his immediate superior sitting with the Warden.

“I thought you weren’t going to come in today sir,” he said as he laid the file on the Warden’s desk. “How is the stomach?”

“It is much better,” he smiled and looked at the Warden who turned a little red.

“Is the count right?” the Warden asked the guard.

“Yes sir.”

“Good.”

The guard left and the bottle resumed its place.

“I knew you wouldn’t want them to know,” the Warden explained.

“I didn’t. I do now.”

“Of course you do. You may tell them. In your own time.”

Then they both, for the next few moments, focused on their drinks as they tried to recall the subject they had been talking about. The Warden was the first to remember.

“We don’t really work at that bad a place,” began the Warden.

“Yes but it will always be associated in that manner.”

“It may be but the truth is the exact opposite. You and I know that. We do a good thing.”

“But that’s logic,” he argued. “Children can’t be answered with logic. It is too complicated”

“So is a fairy tale or Santa Claus or religion. But we tell them those things and they accept it. Children will accept or believe anything as long as it is packaged in the right manner – With glossy red paper and a ribbon on top. Try the truth that way.”

“Did you tell your child the truth?”

The Warden smiled and refilled. “No. But then, during my time, the Warden didn’t drink.”

“I better lock the door.”

He got up and, with a measured pace, walked towards the door and bolted it. The Warden watched him walk back slowly and take a seat.

“You are overreacting.”

“I don’t mind telling the truth,” he said, ignoring the comment. “But then the questions will follow.”

“Yes they will,” the Warden nodded. “The same questions that are always asked sooner or later. Just that in our particular case, they are always sooner.”

He leaned back on the chair, closed his eyes and put his hands out in front as if he were holding a box.

“Good people. Bad people. Punishment,” he said softly and moved his hands up and down each time for each little phrase. “I could tell her about that.”

“Exactly. Remember – for her you are the hero here. You are the one who keeps them locked and, as a result, keep her safe.”

“You are being a little too silly again,” he said and they laughed.

“Even so, try and imagine what our guests here tell their kids. Your situation is much better.”

“Yes what do they tell?” he said suddenly and sat up. The Warden took the opportunity to pour another drink.

“I guess they lie.”

“Isn’t that convenient.”

“Don’t be that smug,” the Warden said. “We too lie in our own ways.”

Now they were both leaning back with their eyes closed and with their glasses in their hands from which they continued to drink – the quantity decreasing with each successive sip. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door and the same guard as before tried to turn the handle but was surprised to find that it was bolted.

“Sir?” the guard shouted. “It is time for the one hour exercise period in the yard.”

They both woke up and looked at each other with weary eyes.

“I am afraid he has fallen ill again,” the Warden replied and they both suppressed their laughter. “And so have I. You take over.”

They drained their glasses and this time the Warden didn’t feel the need to refill.

“What were we talking about?” asked the Warden as they both leaned back once again.

“I became a father yesterday,” he replied.

“Ah yes,” the Warden smiled. “Congratulations.”

The Conversation

Wisps of dust fell on the boy and he woke with a start. His fingers immediately clasped tightly around the gun that lay by his side. His other hand rose above his head and stopped directly in front of us eyes in order to prevent the sand from blinding him. The wooden bridge beneath which he hid trembled under the slow but continuous march of men. Fear and hatred simultaneously clawed at him, rendering him motionless for a few seconds.

They are finally here, he thought, and took deep breaths in order to calm himself.

He gathered his resolve and crept silently from beneath the bridge, the hand wielding the gun stretched out in front. The first thing that caught his eye was the uniform and his grip loosened. These men were not the enemy. These were the men of his country.

The soldiers walked silently and in rows of three. Many of them held stretchers on which lay the wounded. Their guns hung loosely from their shoulders, the nozzles pointing in the same direction in which the soldiers’ heads drooped. Their leader walked tiredly in front and didn’t utter a single word.

The boy watched them leave and couldn’t decide as to whether he was relieved or disappointed. None of them took notice of him. None of them took notice of anything. He was about to retreat back to his hiding place when he heard a loud cry of anguish from the far side of the bridge. Two soldiers had broken away from the group and were leaning over a stretcher. One of them was removing the dressing wrapped around the knee of the wounded soldier. It was only when the boy moved closer to them did he notice that the rest of the soldier’s leg was missing.

The man who was tending to the wounded soldier put some of his water in a bowl and soaked the dressing in it. As he did so, his gaze fell on the boy who by now was standing only a few meters away from them. He would have ignored his presence had he not noticed the gun in the boy’s hand. He stared at him for a few moments and then beckoned him over.

The boy hesitated at first but then relented. He strode forward until he was within touching distance of the medic. The wounded soldier continued to let out a few gasps of pain intermittently. The boy found the sound unbearable and fought the urge to run away.

The medic motioned towards the gun and the boy shook his head.

“I will give it back,” he said, trying to reassure the boy. As the boy continued to shake his head, the medic took out his own gun and offered it to him. “I just want to look at your gun closely.”

The boy finally acquiesced but not before taking the medic’s gun in lieu of his own. He held on to it tightly as the medic ran his fingers upon his gun and examined the barrel. He then gave it back to the boy.
“That is an army gun,” he said and resumed washing the dressing once more, which by now had turned the water completely red. The medic emptied the contents of the bowl, filled it with clean water and put the dressing back in. “How did you get it?”

“It is my father’s.”

“Is he alive?”

“He died many years ago.”

The medic focused his attention back to his patient and started to carefully cover the wound created by the severing of the leg. The soldier howled once again and looked towards the boy who, in spite of his reluctance, couldn’t help but stare at him.

“How old are you?” asked the wounded soldier suddenly and took the boy by surprise. His voice was coarse and his face turned red from the effort of having asked the question. The boy mumbled something but was afraid of speaking with him.

“Answer him please,” whispered the medic. “Talk. It will help him.”

The boy nodded. “I am eleven.”

“What are you doing here boy?” asked the soldier, straining his neck upwards in order to look at him. “Don’t you know that the war is lost? The enemy is on its way.”

“I am waiting for them.”

“Why?”

“To kill them.”

The soldier’s strength relented and his head fell back. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily while the medic continued with his work. He tried to lift his head again but failed. Instinctively, the boy crouched near him and slid his right palm beneath the soldier’s head. Their eyes met properly for the first time.

“Who did you lose in the war?” the soldier asked.

“My brothers.”

“More than one?”

“Two.”

“You have no family?”

“No one but me now.”

By now the medic was finished. He was about to call one of the other soldiers to lift the stretcher when the wounded soldier grabbed his hand and shook his head.

“A few more minutes,” he requested and turned towards the boy again.

“How many do you hope to kill?”

“I have four bullets. I hope I can kill four.”

“Two for each brother?”

“They were brave and strong.”

The soldier managed a smile.

“What after that? What after you kill them?”

“They will kill me,” he replied steadily and with glassy eyes. “But at least I would have avenged my brothers.”

“Who will avenge you?”

The boy didn’t answer. The medic, having waiting long enough, decided that it was time to leave. The boy stepped backwards as they lifted the stretcher and began to move.

“Go back home boy,” the wounded soldier spoke as they carried him away. “It is all a waste. There is no end to this. Death does not avenge death.”

The boy stood there and stared at the gun in his hand for a little while after they had all gone. He looked back at the arched bridge and the little place beneath it where he had been hiding. The words of the soldier and the images of his brothers clashed in his mind. Reason fought against emotion; intelligence against instinct; the cerebral versus the visceral.

He walked back towards the bridge, slid underneath and positioned himself once again.

Four bullets, he thought. Four men.

The sun was at its highest point but the bridge hid him well. Even so, he could feel the heat and it made him drowsy. But he fought the urge to sleep and waited.

Uncharted Waters

In an obscure corner of a prominent house, precariously kept near the edge of an ornate wooden display cabinet, lay the small glass bowl. It had a nice healthy curvature at the bottom and was filled with little green plants that stood erect on a bed of small white stones. The water inside the bowl hadn’t been cleaned for over a week now and had hence acquired a rather murky appearance. One could even say that the nature of the water well represented the mood of the bowl’s two occupants. Well, at least one occupant in particular.

“This doesn’t look good,” said the young fish.

“I admit it has turned a little yellow,” replied the old fish.

“I wasn’t talking about the water.”

The young fish pressed against the edge of the bowl and, with wide unblinking eyes, peered through the glass towards the main door diagonally across the room. There was no movement. It then turned towards the old fish and shook its tail with impatience and anxiety.

“He seemed too excited today.”

“He is a young boy,” the old fish explained. “They are very alike young fish like yourself. Overzealous and impulsive.”

“I am afraid.”

“I know you are.”

“Then don’t be so calm. It doesn’t help me.”

“I doubt if anything could help you right now.”

The door bell rang and their heads instinctively fixed themselves in that direction. Their little mouths opened and closed with monotonous regularity as they waited for the maid to approach. She did and opened the door. It was the mother. They both let out an inaudible sigh. Tiny bubbles escaped their mouths and broke at the surface. The mother didn’t concern them. They were waiting for the son and the father.

“You are wrong,” began the young fish. “If they come without it, I will be alright again.”

“But that won’t happen.”

“So then you are sure,” cried the young fish. “Please don’t be so certain.”

“You have noticed the signs, haven’t you?”

“The neglect…?”

“That and more,” said the old fish and slowly swam towards the young fish and then floated nearby.

“The fireplace towards our right,” it pointed with its fin.

“Yes?”

“The mantelpiece has been swept clear of all the little display trinkets. The lady took them all away yesterday and cleaned the top thoroughly.”

“So that’s the new place?”

“I suppose.”

“For the new bowl….”

The old fish shook its head. “There is a lot of room on that mantelpiece. It could be an aquarium.”

“We cannot compete with an aquarium!” cried the young fish in dismay.

“No we cannot.”

“Then we are surely doomed. How can you be so calm?”

“I am not calm,” replied the old fish. “I am bitter. And resigned.”

The young fish quailed and its head drooped.

“So what will happen?”

“I am afraid you are still too young for this,” sighed the old fish. “My parents readied me for this moment when I was quite young. I might as well ready you. Do you know about The Swirl?”

“The Swirl?”

“Yes. The Swirl is where the humans put the unwanted fish.”

“Tell me more about it,” the young fish asked in earnest.

“It was never deemed wise to talk about The Swirl,” it continued. “It was considered a bad omen. But I must for you need to know and be ready.”

At this point the old fish stopped and tried to recall all the little figments of knowledge it had, over the years, acquired about The Swirl. The young fish flapped its fins with impatience.

“The Swirl is a deep bowl of water with a dark and cavernous recess at one end. But not ordinary water. The water in The Swirl is alive.”

“Alive?” asked the young fish with fear and incredulity.

“Yes. Alive and aware. From what I have heard, at first it appears calm and silent from the outside, but once a fish breaks its surface, it devours it.”

“How could water devour one of us?”

“It does. It gushes from all sides and pushes the fish into that dark recess from where there is no return.”

The door bell rang once more and interrupted their conversation. This time, instead of the maid, it was the mother who unlocked it. Two strange men, holding a large rectangular object that was shielded from view by a grey cloth, entered, followed by the son and the father. The son hugged his mother and pointed excitedly at the object that the two men carried over to the mantelpiece, placed on top and removed the cloth covering it. It was an aquarium.

The two fish observed the entire scene in silence. They looked at each other and then at the aquarium and nodded in acknowledgment of their perceived destiny.

“What happens in that dark recess?” asked the young fish.

“I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

They, not knowing what to do or say, continued to gaze at the humans nearby. The two men left while the family of three moved closer to the aquarium and spent some time looking at the various new fish that swam in it. In a little while, the mother and the father walked away and only the boy was left.

“The boy likes us,” began the young fish.

“Young boys like new things. We are not new anymore.”

“What do we do now?”

“We wouldn’t have to wait too long.”

That very instant, the young boy came bounding towards them and lifted the bowl. The young fish, alarmed at the prospect of their impending doom, lost its reserve and began to swim frantically from side to side. The old fish simply closed its eyes and swam near the bottom.

Some moments later, they could feel the bowl tip over. They fell through the air, surrounded by that murky water, gasping for breath until they plunged into water once again. The young fish was quivering while the old fish was still. Their eyes were closed. They were waiting for The Swirl.

“Hello.”

The young fish opened its eyes and saw four to five other fish floating by. The water around them was still. It wasn’t alive. It wasn’t aware.

“We are in the aquarium,” it exclaimed and startled the other fish. The young fish didn’t pay them much heed and started looking for its older companion. It soon spotted the old fish. But it was still and sinking towards the bottom.

“This isn’t The Swirl,” the young fish swam near it and tried to explain. “There is no dark recess.”

But the old fish wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t open its eyes. It simply kept descending at a constant and slow pace until it reached the bottom. A few other fish approached them.

“I think it has died,” one of them said.

The boy too had noticed the descent and quickly ran away. He returned with his father who gave the old fish one quick look before lifting it from inside using a cup. The young fish watched in dismay as he held the old fish from its tail and examined it. The father, with his one hand holding the cup and the other across his son’s shoulder, led them inside as the boy began to cry.

“Where will they take it?” asked one of the other fish.

“The Swirl,” answered the young fish.

On hearing the proclamation, some of the fish looked at each other with unknowing glances while the others shuddered and shook their heads in disapproval.

Staying Afloat

Two roads diverged just a few miles away from his house. The one on the left was adorned by slim and tall trees on either side, the tarmac shining brightly under the morning sun. If he would have continued along this road, he would have arrived at his school in under an hour. Instead, he turned to his right and walked along the gravel path that lead into the woods.

Here the trees grew thicker and taller as he moved deeper inside until they loomed directly over him and blocked out the sunlight. Even so, his steps never faltered as he walked along the familiar path. A few minutes later, he emerged through a clearing in the woods and halted as the pond came into sight. His friend Scott was there already.

“You are late,” he shouted.

He didn’t reply. He strode towards the tree at the edge of the pond and threw his bag down near Scott’s. His friend approached him slowly and stood near him.

“They fought again?”

“Every morning.”

They both looked towards the water and gazed at its stillness. The reflection was murky and distorted. It reminded him of some of his mother’s paintings that hung on their walls. She hadn’t painted in over five years. She now worked as a teller at the local bank.

“David?” ventured Scott cautiously. “Shall we begin?”

David gave him a distracted look and nodded. “Of course.”

They walked away from the pond and in the direction of a thick hedge that grew at the entrance to the woods. There, at the base of a particular section of the hedge, covered under a layer of sand, brown leaves and twigs, lay the half-made wooden raft. They lifted it slowly, making sure that the logs remained intact, and carried it towards the tree under which their bags lay. They put it down again and set to work.

“Another day or two and we should be done with us,” remarked Scott.

“Hand me some more rope. This end has loosened a bit.”

At present their raft was a collection of three logs held together horizontally by pieces of rope and reinforced with two logs that were attached at the base.
“How many more logs do you think we would need?” asked Scott.

“Maybe two.Maybe even three.”

“Wouldn’t the base need another log then?”

“It might. You are right. It should.”

They worked silently for a long while, continuously arranging and rearranging the logs, trying different knots with the ropes until they seemed satisfied with the strength and stability of the raft. As they worked, the sun slowly rose higher from towards their left and began to burn the back of their necks and made them thirsty.

David went to get some water from his bag and Scott did the same. As he took out his bottle, he noticed the lunch box that his mother had packed for him in the morning before leaving for work. He suddenly felt hungry and grabbed the lunch as well.

“You don’t want to eat?” he questioned Scott as he noticed that his friend only had the bottle in his hand and was sitting idly by their raft.

“No. I am not hungry.”

“Your mother wasn’t at home in the morning?”

“She stayed out all night. She was tired by the time she came back. It was one of her regular nights.”

David sat down beside him, took a swig of water out of his bottle, and opened his lunch box.

“Here,” he said and held it out to Scott. “Take a sandwich. I cannot finish the whole thing anyway.”

Scott hesitated at first but then gave in. He took a small bite and willed himself to not gobble down the sandwich too quickly. He kept looking towards David and ate accordingly.

“These are really good,” he remarked once in between.

“That is why I got a little late today,” replied David. “My mother was making these and fighting at the same time.”

“Your father is still at home?”

“Hasn’t left in over a month now.”

A strong gust of wind suddenly blew across the pond and carried with it many fallen leaves that rustled and flew right over their heads. Their hands instinctively grabbed the raft and they checked whether any of the knots had loosened. Reassured, they went back to eating their sandwiches.

“Do you think it will float and hold us well?” asked Scott gesturing towards the pond.

“We are working hard enough.”

“I sometimes wish we had a boat. A proper boat.”

“I do too,” smiled David and looked at him. “A proper boat with oars that we could sit comfortably in and row.”

“The pond is not big enough for a boat though,” said Scott and sat up straight. “It’s not even deep enough I think.”

“The river then!” exclaimed David. “The river flowing past the edge of the town. We could have taken it out onto that river and sailed across the coast.”

“It would have been grand. And why just the coast? We could have sailed further and perhaps even explored more towns.”

“Yes…yes..we could have. I wish we had that boat. Maybe we can one day. Once school is done, we could work with the fishermen. Lots of young boys do that. I am sure they would let us row a boat.”

“That would be perfect! We would forever be on water and we would be away.”

By now it was rather hot and the sweat dripped off their foreheads like water. But they suddenly seemed not to feel the heat and sat there with their bottles in their hands, the food in their half-filled stomachs, and they talked about the boat they wished they had but didn’t. It pleased them much and they forgot about everything else for those few wonderful minutes.

“Shall we get back to work then,” said David enthusiastically and brushed the crumbs of his chest before getting up.

“Oh yes! Let’s try and finish this today if we can. Let’s work harder.”

“Okay. We finish today and we row tomorrow.”

“Even if it is just this pond….”

“It’s the pond today. We will make it to the river.”