The Jackal Who Travelled To The Moon

The gap between fantasy and reality.

“Enigma of Reality” by Helen Lundeberg (1955)

“Are you going?”

She thought for a moment. Her mascara shone of the sadness of separation. She thought about the cats that she had petted in the ancient ruins of a city she didn’t remember anymore — she remembered the brown storm she had peered at as they were leaving the place through a screaming road. Now when she looked at her hands, she could see the golden fur from their lice-ridden coat. The ceiling was already dripping. The more Ravi remembered her, the faster the drops would fall down. That’s how it rains: the ground reminisces about the clouds.

“Riya, are you going?”

Was she? She most probably was. She had packed her handbag and put the contents in it one by one, while Ravi had remained seated on the floor and leashed his unhandled heart from shrieking about the air between them. She could already hear the echo of her footsteps down the corridor. The cawing of the vultures that would nibble at the rotting flesh of their love. She looked at the chrysanthemum growing out of his head, shedding a naïve beauty about the way he sat on the floor with expectations and rosaries.

“If I stay here any longer, I’ll eat you,” she said.

“I’ve heard that I’m easily digestible,” he replied.

“I need to water the plants, Ravi. They’ll die.”

“It rained yesterday.”

“I’m talking about the ones in the west balcony. The roofed one?” She clicked her tongue when Ravi gave her a questioning look — “The one that has a swing in it? With all the hanging plants?”

Ravi raised his eyebrows and tilted his head back in understanding. An “oh,” escaped his dry lips. He nodded his head slightly and then looked at her again. “But what about me?”

“You’ll have to get up from the floor and grab yourself a jug.”

“You’ll never understand.”

“Neither will you,” she retorted. She immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying hard to ignore the cello that had started playing in the neighbouring room. She didn’t like the sound of guilt. The dust in her lungs would get unsettled from all the ragged breathing that self-reproach caused.

“I’m sorry, too,” he replied, his gaze dropping to the floor. He didn’t like the sound of loneliness. It made him think about love. And its absence.

“As much as I want to stay, I really have to go,” she tried explaining. The empty words sank into the walls which ate them up hungrily. They didn’t mean anything. The air between them almost laughed at the inanity of the words. They were the cardboard piece you would place in an ocean in a hopeless attempt to cross it. She realised this. Whom was she even convincing? Herself? Ravi definitely didn’t believe her: and with good reason, too. He just gritted his teeth and thought of the amount of gold that was buried under all the oceans. One day, he would have it all.

But she just couldn’t stay anymore. She chewed the heart that had come into her mouth. Even though she would continue thinking about him like the ocean thinks about the shore, she had to leave. The stitches on the rug mat would try to pull her back; she had to force her feet to move like a hand waving goodbye. When you jump off a cliff, the fall is inevitable: she turned towards the door like gravity.

She was surprised to find a tree growing through it. The branches were bushy, green, and entangled within themselves; they reached toward the roof as if they were trying to touch the water droplets falling from it. The trunk, thick and hefty, was half outside the door and half inside. Riya walked up to the door and tried it. She pulled at the doorknob: nothing. After a couple more half-hearted tries, she gave up; something inside her knew that the door wouldn’t open. The brown scales of the strong wood reeked of resilience; the tree had appeared out of nowhere, and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

She looked at Ravi, but he just shrugged. “It does that sometimes,” he said.

“Isn’t there anything that you can do?” Riya asked, already knowing the answer.

“Does it look like there is anything that I can do?” Ravi said, opening his arms wide in a presentation of his skeletal frame. Riya noticed that the chrysanthemum on his head had grown a little.

A bit frustrated, Riya put her handbag on the bed behind Ravi and sat down on the floor herself. She crossed her legs at first — then after realising that her ankles would hurt in that posture, she adjusted herself such that her legs were wrapped in her arms with her ankles crossed — as an afterthought, she put her hand down and shifted behind so that her back had the support of the wall. She was sitting facing Ravi, who was already scribbling onto his notepad.

“What are you writing about now?” she asked.

“The jackal who travelled to the moon,” he replied.

“Why?”

Ravi looked up at her, confused. He made an addled gesture with his hand as if asking, “What?” He looked at his notepad and then back at Riya, who was expecting some kind of an answer. Then he looked back at his notepad and with a muffled voice, said, “So that people can know about the jackal who travelled to the moon.”

“But there is no jackal that travelled to the moon,” Riya quipped, narrowing her eyes in a displeased stare.

“Exactly,” Ravi said in reply.

“So…why would you want people to know about something that didn’t happen?”

Ravi looked up from his notepad again, this time positively baffled by her question. He gave a half-exhale-half-laugh with his mouth open to display his stupefaction and told Riya something that she would think about for the rest of her life: “I want people to know about the jackal who travelled to the moon specifically because there is no jackal who travelled to the moon. When they read about the jackal who travelled to the moon they will read about something that never happened. Don’t you think that is quite amazing?”

“It would be if you were a fiction writer. But you’re…a journalist, right?” Again, she already knew the answer. He was.

“What’s the difference?” Ravi asked, unfalteringly.

Riya raised her eyebrows. His question was so dumb that she had to actually think about it more than she would think about a normal question. She placed the question in her lap and examined it. She blew at it and then slapped it to see if it yelped. It didn’t. It remained there, unashamed. Then she took a magnifying glass out of her handbag and looked at it closely. It was a vexing question, that’s for sure — in the sense that it required an answer despite its seeming silliness; for it was definitely silly, no one can deny that (fiction and journalism the same — what an idea!) — it was a question that demanded an answer like a spoilt child who had already eaten too many ladoos — all this didn’t change the fact that the question, due to its innately immature nature, had an answer that an etymologist would hesitate to condescend to answer: the two words were different, for one (fiction) dealt with a world and events that were made up, while the other (journalism) dealt with the world that we lived in and events that were actually taking place and not made up by a writer with an overactive imagination — but before Riya could bring herself to answer the question, Ravi, as if reading her mind, said, “Yeah, I know it deals with two different worlds…but this is my question to you: does it matter anymore?”

This, too, had a valid answer. But Riya didn’t want to give it. Some part of her wanted to read about the jackal that travelled to the moon.

Ravi continued scribbling. “I think,” he said suddenly, looking up at the dripping roof, pen raised as if deep in thought, “no one would believe it if I told them that a tree blocked your way and prevented you from going out of my house.”

“True,” Riya said, and then added, almost under her breath, “I’m seeing it, and I don’t believe it either.”

“Exactly!” Ravi said, jumping up with joy, notepad and pen still in hand, both raised toward the ceiling. “You see, when you prove even one impossible thing, all impossible things suddenly become possible. The sudden existence of a tree in a doorway is a vague, indirect, and conjectured proof of the jackal who travelled to the moon, wouldn’t you say?”

“I really wouldn’t,” Riya said without hesitation.

“Pah! You’re not understanding.”

“Maybe not.”

“Maybe not.”

They sat in silence, listening to the dripping of the drops and the playing of the cello. Slightly disconcerted, Riya started fidgeting with the rug mat that was covering the white tiles. She lifted the edge of the mat a bit to find a rose petal placed gently on the floor. When she lifted it a bit more, she found other rose petals. She slowly got up from her seat on the floor and uncovered the floor under the rug mat entirely — it was all full of rose petals — she dusted the rug mat and some more petals — the ones that had stayed stuck to the bottom side of the mat — fell down and joined the other rose petals on the floor.

“Where did these come from?” Riya asked Ravi, placing the rug mat, unfolded and messy, on the bed (she made sure it was far away from her handbag).

“I…I have no — no idea,” mumbled Ravi, looking intently at the petals. “But they’re so… beautiful.”

Riya looked at the petals. She almost had tears in her eyes: maybe magic was real.

The petals had a tinge of nostalgia about them: as if they had been picked out from a sepia-tinted photograph that captured a first kiss. They smelt like an anachronism, like the breath of a perfume created millennia ago. Like the wings of a wounded angel fighting for time-travel rights. They had a strange remembrance within them that had the fire of forgotten promises. Riya looked at them with awe and couldn’t help but think of when she fell in love with Ravi. Ravi, on the other hand, was just staring at the petals. He was a man in a sweet-smelling trance that reflected warped timelines.

“Ravi?” Riya said, softly.

“Yeah?” he replied, still staring at the rose petals.

“Do you love me?”

“I don’t know anymore.”

“Why?”

“Because you didn’t want to stay.”

“How does that change your love for me?”

“It doesn’t. But it changes your love for me: it changes our love.”

“But do you love me?”

“How does that matter?”

“It does. Tell me. Do you?”

“How does it matter?”

“I need to believe in magic again.”

“And you think I can help you?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll have to stay.”

“I don’t have any other choice.”

“You’ll have to stay by choice.”

“What happens if I don’t?”

“Our love becomes just another rose petal.”

“I’ll stay, won’t I?”

“You’ll have to decide.”

“Won’t I?”

“It only helps if it’s by choice.”

“But I will?”

Ravi didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. Again, she already knew the answer.

“Show me the notepad.”

Ravi handed it over to her.

Riya read the following with tears in her eyes:

1) The ceiling starts dripping water.

2) Riya falls in love with Ravi.

3) Ravi falls in love with Riya.

4) A chrysanthemum grows on Ravi’s head.

5) Riya falls out of love.

6) A cello starts playing out of thin air.

7) A tree grows in the doorway to Ravi’s house.

8) Riya falls in love with Ravi.

9) A jackal travels to the moon.

10) Time-travelling rose petals appear under the rug mat.

11) Ravi falls for Riya a bit more.

12) Riya falls for Ravi a bit more.

13) Riya stays.

13) Riya stays.

14) By choice.

14) By choice.

15) The tree in the doorway disappears.

13) Riya stays.

14) By choice.

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