by Smriti Mukherjee
(Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)
Arpita was walking down the beach aimlessly when her eyes caught the glint of something green half hidden in the sand. Her curiosity was piqued and she pushed aside the sand and found an emerald green bottle which had been washed ashore by the tide. She saw a letter inside and pulled out the tight cork. The paper was worn out and broke into pieces as she held it out. It smelled musky and damp and had a mahogany tinge. A funny array of letters had been scribbled on it, which had almost faded out.
“What language is it?” she wondered as she pondered over the mysterious alphabets. At first she thought it was a game of treasure hunt that someone had tried playing in there and considered leaving the letter there in the beach. The Historian in her took the better of her logic and she decided to carry it home.
She walked across the beach with the soft wet sand kissing her feet and the cool salty breeze caressing her. Her silk black tresses were neatly tied into a chignon. Her deep-set chocolate brown eyes looked searchingly at the bottle. Her house was just a few kilometres away and she often came here since her childhood days to watch the Sun draw its curtains upon the day. Today her face glittered with joy as she felt she had caught hold of some ancient language which she could work on. All her weariness seemed to vanish.
The ride to her home was very short and she felt the World growing numb. She glanced across the car and smiled at the bottle riding along, with the letter in it. She felt a strange attraction towards it. She worked as a leading researcher in the Regional Historical Society and had spent years deciphering the inscriptions from the ancient Indian civilizations. She had never seen any writing like this before and wondered if it was from a foreign land.
She finally pulled over in front of a magnificent building. It was milky white with huge pillars in the front. Curved fleet of stairs resembling a crescent snaked up to the storey above. They had been laid with white marble accentuated by red motifs. The windows and doors were gigantic and contrasted the white of the building with a stark black hue. In the front was a small garden with a passel of blossoms. The grass was neatly chopped and looked like a green velvet covering. The front door was carved out of rosewood with intricate detailing.
As she unlocked the door and stepped in, the aura of loneliness and dread closed in upon her. Unlike the exterior, the house was sparsely furnished. Hitherto she had forgotten about the danger that was lurking about the colonial marvel. Her father had inherited this building from his ancestors. Theirs was a happy family until her father decided to go to Britain for a job where he would have been paid handsomely. There were no airplanes then and he had zeroed in on a ship journey. He had to borrow a lump sum from moneylenders to pay for the journey which never came about.
“What is it mummy?” she had asked seeing her mother
“Your father is dead Arpita. His ship capsized in a storm”.
Arpita was still in primary school, but it did not take a minute to sink in.
Years rolled by and their difficulties broadened. They were constantly troubled by moneylenders to return the money her father had borrowed. The latter threatened her mother of selling their mortgaged home. Slowly they had to sell all their jewelleries and antique furniture to pay the interests. At twenty-six, the burden of running the family had already fallen upon her shoulders.
She strode across the room and settled in front of her desktop and began browsing for some clues which could help her decode the writing. Hours of surfing the internet and referring books seemed futile and she began giving up. It was then that a peculiar idea struck her.
“Why not I try reading this through a mirror and see if it makes any sense” she murmured bringing out a hand held mirror.
“Oh my God” she gasped. She could swear she read it. It was plain English written in mirrored script. It was written in reverse like a mirror image of a text. She could make out the fading text.Dear Arpita, 21 Aug ‘96
I have hidden all our family jewelleries and money in the garden right below the rose bushes. I know you are too young to comprehend this, but please tell your mother to dig them out. I am stranded on an island off Lakshadweep with no human inhabitants and I don’t know if I ever will be able to come back. I hope this letter reaches you.
She felt a bead of sweat slowly drip down her neck and sacrifice itself to the cotton confines of her already damp top. It was indeed her father’s letter. In her childhood, she and her father had played such games of writing messages to each other in mirror images. He had told her that even Leonardo da Vinci wrote messages in this fashion.
She ran out into the moon lit night, retrieving a shovel from the garage. She began digging the place her father had pointed. After a couple of hours she pulled out a large wooden box. She opened it. Like the letter had promised, it was full of gold and gems. Beneath sparkling metal and stone, she found stacks of denominations.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. All the pain and sorrow she had pent up this long flowed out. Her father’s hidden wealth would now save her ancestral home, the home she had grown up in....the home which was her father’s cherished possession. The white architectural marvel gleamed. It looked suddenly happy, sensing its owner’s return. There were still hopes that her father was alive.
She carried the box inside and ran to her ailing mother who was already in her bed. Her mother softly sobbed as she heard her daughter narrate the incidents.
“Take me to him Arpita” her mother said with tears in her eyes.
Arpita knew her next step. The first thing next morning would be to pay back the moneylenders and get back the property papers. Then she would leave with a rescue team to search for her father. ***