Jhamura felt the first pangs of hunger soon as he woke up in the corner of the universe where he lived with his consort, Nivaka.
“So, it is time again..” Though spoken in a whisper, Nivaka, who lied beside him already awake, heard him quite well.
“Time for what, my dear?” she said. She tried to wet her dry lips with her tongue the tip of which was spilt in two. But the tongue itself was quite dry, rendering her effort fruitless.
Before Jhamura could reply, she guessed what he meant. “You mean, the time to eat?” she said. “Yes, in fact, I began to feel it yesterday. I didn’t want to tell you since you didn’t express anything yourself.”
Hearing her words, Jhamura patted her on the back of her head, gently running a palm down the tube-like protrusion which went down from the base of her neck- something that was considered as a sex symbol by the members of the species- the longer the protrusion, the sexier it was.
And in Nivaka’s case, it was longer than average.
“Why did you not tell me?” Jhamura said. “Why this need for unwarranted modesty? You know the times have changed and the constituents of the universe have altered. We could modify our behavior ourselves. Even the women of the human world, down there on the wretched Earth are no more this modest- at least, in a large part of that world!”, having said this, Jhamura laughed. Nivaka joined him.
Humans were a species that always elicited laughter in them. For from their vantage point, light years away from the earth, they looked at the self-importance with which the humans held themselves like how the humans themselves saw the pranks of other humans who appear on comedic television shows- nothing more than entertainment meant to tickle your funny bones.
And it was doubly funny given how it was the humans upon whom Jhamura and Nivaka fed. To be more precise, on their time.
“Yes, I guess I needn’t be so modest anyway,” said Nivaka. “After all, how long have we been together, and what things haven’t we enjoyed together in that time?”
How long have we been together?
Jhamura knew that the question was merely rhetorical. It’s been eons, that’s the only thing he knew. Memory was a fragile thing and the mechanism of the species’ brain was efficient when it came to weeding out those memories that weren’t crucial to their continued existence.
Their purpose was to feed when it was time, survive, procreate, feed, so on and so forth.
And that was a bit of information which was deeply embedded in the fabric of their memory. One can say that’s the ‘assured permanent’ in their memory. Everything else was ephemeral. Trying to hold on to them may be as futile as trying to take hold of a draft of wind.
Nivaka moved closer to Jhamura and buried her face in his chest. Jhamura licked on the scalp of her head, smothering her head with crimson saliva- an expression of affection.
“We should find a human to hunt some time from,” murmured Jhamura before licking her again.
Laxmi Vasudev found her neck stiff when she woke up.
Nothing surprising given how she slept sitting down, with her forehead resting on the side of her daughter’s bed. Sharda was still asleep. The first thing Laxmi noticed was the slow rise and fall of the girl’s chest. The doctor, when he came yesterday after she called him, telling him how Sharda looked sicker than usual, had asked her to call any relatives or friends she may need to.
Which was another way of saying that the time was nigh.
Laxmi couldn’t say anything to that. No words formed in her mind that could be considered enough of a response to something like that. A single drop of tear sprouted from her eye. The doctor, after patting her on the shoulder, telling her she should call him if she needed him, left without another word.
Laxmi thought that Sharda may not survive the day.
A cancer patient, the girl has suffered for so long, her pained screams piercing the still air in the house multiple times in the past several months.
Laxmi tried to do something that as a mother she couldn’t do naturally- to be happy for the child, happy that the suffering was finally coming to an end.
Laxmi’s parents had come down a few weeks ago. The home nurse she has appointed was also at the bedside. But come night, Laxmi dismissed them all, saying she would spend the night in the room, right beside her daughter’s bed. Sharda kept drifting in and out of a drug induced sleep. The drugs succeeded in keeping her pain at bay- but it also made her mind non-luminous, making it all but impossible for her to recognize the woman who sat in the chair as her mother.
This, despite Laxmi kept calling her such things as “My darling!” and “My sweet child!” repeatedly, like she has called her on many occasions, before the disease took claim of her.
“I am right here, darling!” Laxmi had said when the night deepened and the stray dogs- of which there were many in the neighbourhood, began to howl and make a ruckus. “I will stay awake right beside you, all night through..you fear not, darling, you aren’t alone.”
Despite the words, at some point during the wee hours of the morning, Laxmi did fall asleep. And when she came awake, the first sensation that accosted her was guilt- I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if my girl breathed her last when she was alone, while I was asleep!, she thought.
Indeed, she was determined to spend as much of the remaining time that Sharda had, with the girl, calling her sweet names and planting kisses on her cheeks and forehead- her face so pale, her stare so weak.
She sighed in relief upon seeing the girl’s chest rising and falling to the rhythm of her breathing.
Looking up, she judged from the pale blue light through the window that it was still early morning. She went and opened the window, letting in the crisp air of the dawn. Birds chirped from the trees around the house- Laxmi especially noticed the sound of the mynah bird- her favourite birdsound. She tried to recall the last time she heard the birdcry. But her memory failed her.
The house was some distance from the road and the sound of the occasional vehicle came across as a muffled rumble. What was in the forefront was the sound of nature- something that put a smile on Laxmi’s face.
Returning to her daughter’s bedside, she said, “It’s a beautiful day…” But Sharda didn’t give any sign of having heard the words. She still lied asleep. The faint sound of her breathing practically the only sign that she was alive.
Laxmi considered the sound the same way as she regarded the not too distant cry of the mynah bird- as completely natural.
“May I ask why you chose her?”
Jhamura hadn’t noticed Nivaka coming to his side until she spoke.
His eyes were on the woman on the portal. The portal was the device with which he triangulated on the human from whom he would hunt time.
The more technically accurate term would be ‘steal’ and not hunt, but Jhamura the beast was not given to such technicalities. Blinking his eyelash-free red eyes, he said, “How do you mean? She is perfect. It’s quite possible that the girl-his daughter would die this day. And the woman wishes to spend as much of the coming hours with her. Meaning, the time is extremely valuable to her. And you know how valuable time is way more tastier than regular time!”
Seeing how Nivada still looked unconvinced, he thought that she might have forgotten the principle of “more valuable the time, the tastier the food.”
He continued, “We could hunt from someone regular- like an employee on his way to work. For him too the hours would be valuable- after all, time is money down there on the Earth. But you know that still wouldn’t be like this- for this woman, there’s no chance to make up for the time she would lose this day. Unlike the employee who may be able to put in extra hours to make up for the time lost!”
Nivada nodded slightly, still looking at the mother’s face in the portal. But it was her other gesture- one of running her hand over the slightly projecting curve of her belly which made Jhamura realise that she hasn’t forgotten the principle of more valuable the time, the tastier- and more sumptuous it is. The reason she looked somewhat apprehensive was different.
Understanding this, Jhamura moved towards her side and gently pressed a hand on her belly. “Now that you are two – you would need to eat better.”
This time, when Nivada nodded, she looked at his face. There was wisdom in his words, she understood.
Jhamura wiped the portal clean with a swipe of his hand, clearing the woman’s image with a single gesture.
“We feed but once every human month. And as much as I think the humans are funny, they are the only species in the entire universe that value time- possibly because of the extremely short days they have down there, or maybe because they couldn’t get out of the bound of time, which is to them like a net which the more they struggle entangle them the more. Whatever the reasons, they provide the most sumptuous time for us! And you cannot expect someone who value time more than a mother who wish to spend the few remaining precious hours of her child’s life with her.”
Nivaka kept nodding at Jhamura’s words, though it occurred to her that there might be someone who values time more- a mother who rushes to a dying child’s side with medicine that could save the latter’s life.
The earth being the earth, there’s a good chance that Jhamura could triangulate on someone like that right this instance- all sort of sufferings are inflicted on the people of that planet which was known to her people also as ‘hell’. Not that there were many of her kind left, just the odd couples here and there, at different points in the universe, feeding on time and biding their time for the end of their lives to come- an end that’s many eons away.
Nivaka didn’t tell Jhamura about the possibility that they might get even more sumptuous time from someone else. Along with Jhamuara, she has had the opportunity-thanks to the portal to watch and learn how the humans function in their world. And of all the peculiarities of that species, what struck her the most was this thing called emotions which impelled them to act in odd ways.
She sometimes wondered how different a being she would be if she had emotions like them. In the immensity of life that was practically eternal compared to those of humans, she got a lot of down time to reflect on such things.
The home nurse came to the door and called, “Madam” in a voice barely loud enough for Laxmi to hear, afraid that a louder sound might disturb Sharda’s sleep.
Laxmi looked over her shoulder. “Should I get the medicine ready, madam?” The nurse was referring to the dose of medicine that needs to be given to Sharda every morning.
Laxmi nodded. “Just get the tablets and leave them on the table there. I would give it to her.”
The nurse nodded and proceeded to the table at the room’s corner. From the drawer, she brought out the tablets which she laid out on the table. Laxmi nodded at her once again following which he quietly walked out of the room.
When Laxmi looked at Sharda again, the latter had her eyes half-open, which was as much animation that could be expected of her at this point. Laxmi smiled. “Hey, my darling. There you are…you woke at the right time. It’s time for your medicine. But before that, shall I bring you some fresh mango juice?” Until she said it, Laxmi wasn’t aware that she was going to ask the question.
Sharda used to love mango juice-freshly made, especially if it was made from the mangoes in the tree in their compound. The summer season was here and the mangoes were plucked off the tree just the other day.
Ever since the disease got her under a shroud of pain and tiredness, Sharda hasn’t drunk the juice, forced to forsake many things delicious about life for the perennial swirl of pain in which she nhad to exist.
I just want to give my darling her favourite one last time- even if it be just a few drops that she tastes, thought Laxmi.
Taking Sharda’s silence for assent, she called out to the nurse to bring some juice.
She was turning to look at her daughter again when everything blanked out.
The whole world was suddenly plunged in a darkness so absolute that she couldn’t have imagined it unless it was right in front of her, above her, below her and indeed all around her. The darkness was so complete that she lost all sense of her own self, like all that existed was this silent dark.
But the veil was lifted from her senses almost as soon as it fell. Not more than a couple of seconds must have passed between the dark veil falling and lifting, of this she was sure. But when the world came back to focus, she could see by the change in the quality of light that more than just a few seconds had passed.
A glance at the digital wall clock proved her true.
What surprised her more was just how much time has passed, for the clock showed the time as 5 PM.
For a few seconds, her brain refused to believe the data that the clock presented. She walked up to the window, looked outside. There, over the tip of the trees in the distance she could see the sun on the last leg of its downward journey. The sound of vehicles on the road was more frequent as well- a common enough phenomenon at times of day when the traffic was higher-like in the evenings when people started going home from work.
With a gasp, she hurried back to her daughter’s bedside.
Even before she reached the bed, she could tell that her child was no more. She couldn’t yet see whether there was a rise and fall of the chest under the sheet. But something in the stillness of her face told her the bad news even before she pressed her hand on the girl’s chest. Like the darkness which covered her senses before, this stillness too was something that she couldn’t have imagined had she never seen it.
Andshe had seen it before, once- on her husband’s face when his dead body was brought home from the hospital. It was a road accident that took his life. Sharda was not yet born then.
She had hoped that that would be the pinnacle of tragedy in her life. And with the birth of a beautiful child, the stain of sadness even began to get washed off from her heart- at least to an extent. But only to have it tarnish her woeful heart again, when the girl was diagnosed with cancer.
And when the doctors told her that she was in an advanced stage of the disease and there was nothing they could do for her-except perhaps make her remaining months as peaceful and pain-free as possible, it was all she could do to keep functioning.
Her office- she worked as an office assistant at a small recycling unit not far from home- was supportive in her time of need, allowing her to take time off as much as she needed, assuring her that there would be work waiting for her when she returned. And she did take time off, spending as many moments as possible with her child.
But in these final hours of her life, she was not there for her. She was absconding. Where had she gone to, she didn’t know.
Touching Sharda’s face hesitantly, as though touching someone to whom she had done great harm, and about which she now felt guilty, Laxmi wailed. The sound brought her parents-who were elsewhere in the house, and the home nurse running to the room.
The time that he ‘hunted’ from Laxmi- Jhamura shared with Nivaka. They both agreed that it’s one of the best feasts they have had in recent times. Usually, when they ate, Jhamura would have three fourth the share of the food but this time he gave her half- mentioning the baby growing inside her.
Nivaka accepted the extra portion with gratitude.
The food put them both in the mood for sex- that was an immediate effect that food has on their species.
They made love six times in the hours immediately after the feast, their love-making punctuated with wild thrusts and loud moans, at the end of which they both fell into a languid sleep.
Nikata watched curiously the woman in the portal. She was not exactly an expert when it came to judging human looks. Whether the woman was beautiful or not was as much a moot point for her as the question of whether a character in a soap would die in the next episode or not- because, unlike humans she or her kind didn’t watch soaps.
As far as her kind was concerned, all humans- despite of the colour of the skin or the time they spent at the gym(if at all), looked the same. But she imagined the woman on the portal to be beautiful. She, in fact, felt that the sad expression on her face made her somewhat more beautiful.
Of course, that was mere imagination, nothing more…or was it?
Quietly, Nikata wondered if her own motherhood was altering her in ways she had never imagined before.
“Why are you watching the woman?”
Nikata was startled by the voice of Jhamura, though the latter spoke in a gentle, even humorous tone- as though there was something amusing about this whole enterprise of Nikata watching the woman.
“I didn’t see you coming,” said Nikata, and then thought how lame a thing to say that was- as though she admitted to doing something guilty.
“I was looking for you—for a place that has just you and me, it could be hard to find you in here sometimes. I was looking all over for you!” The short black tentacles on Jhamura’s head waved around- the equivalent of a human smile.
“Why were you looking for me?” Nikata said flirtatiously, guessing at the reason.
Just one day has passed since they fed. For the next few days at least, their appetite for sex would be high.
“Why don’t you guess?” said Jhamura.
“I already did!” Nikata’s reply came instantly, and Jhamura swept her off her feet, carried her in his arms in a trot towards one of the inner-chambers where the floor was specially softened for the purpose of love-making.
And as he began to grind against her, the thoughts of the mother on earth began to melt away from her mind. As did any guilty feelings that might have persisted.
Why would I feel guilty? thought Nivaka as she listened to the grunts of Jhamura above her. The universe is based on the principle of predator and prey, as Jhamura has said the other day. It’s not because someone is inherently bad and another inherently good that some are predators and others prey. It’s just that, as Jhamura said, that’s the way the universe has ordained things.
The universe has meant them- Jhamura and Nivaka to be dependent on the human species for time.
And the woman who lost her child was just a casualty in an order of things that has existed for ages and would continue to exist for ages.
It’s not my lot to be guilty!
“What was it you said, my dear?” said Jhamura.
Not until Jhamura spoke did she realize that she has said her thought out loud.
“Nothing…nothing, my darling..” She hugged him close in a tighter clasp, melting under the affection of his kisses, simultaneously feeling the rather curious sensation of guilt melt away.
But she had a feeling that it might come back- she thought it was the result of her continuing evolution as a mother. New feelings and sensations are part of that evolution, she understood.
And whether these sensations were good or bad, she would accept them without complaint.
For there was nothing to do in life than feed and procreate. The universe is a simple place to be in.