Appu looked through his plastic aquarium. Finger sized fish swam in the transparent waters. Silver strips glistened at every swift manoeuvre.
Continuous days of June rains. Earth quenched her thirst. Then the streams took birth. Muddy brown water over-spilled and meandered, clearing paths for its own progress. Now was the turn of nature’s spring to take charge. Pellucid and with them came uninvited guests of a different genre. It was Appu’s favourite pastime to venture into those unchartered waters. Sometimes with Amma’s consent and mostly by evading her constant gaze.
Today again he ran down the cemented steps, forgetting in the hurry, his habit of counting the number of steps. Before mom came searching, the little fisherman had to populate his marine museum with five more of the little fish or fishes. He decided to try all mathematics while going back, two steps at a time, or to try even three by stretching his little legs to the maximum. His tiny body stooped enough to concentrate, lest his catch went missing. Magic stroke of luck and his heart leapt. There in the corner of the stream swam in attentive assembly a shoal of little fish, a young breed like him. Playfully some hid behind the submerged and dancing blades of grass; some turned around and the rest swam behind. Almost motionless he rested the polythene bag of water on the wall of wet earth. Appu had mastered arresting the school of fish. Every step as casual, but more careful, his breath unprepared to disturb the air, even the ripples found it difficult to get stirred. Silence of death prevailed, a ghost he inspired. The closer his steps, the more he forgot his surroundings. It was drizzling slightly. The little legs in one flash posed a footballer about to take a free-kick.
“ Apppuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu…”- The shrill angry call swept him off his feet. Appu slipped and fell. The cutie buttocks hiding in the small trousers were wet. A visibly frightened Appu looked behind.
“ Who told you to come out in the rain?” – Divyechi stood stern in a questioning pose. Sky-blue skirt and white blouse as uniform, School bag in one shoulder, holding an open umbrella she came closer and pinched his ear lobes. Appu’s face twitched as if his tongue tasted something vinegary.
“ Hahahaha…” he heard the giggle and looked atop the mud walls. At the edge, stood Chakkara, his naughty neighbour, with a small umbrella in her shoulders, head posed to a side and clapping her hands in joy. The girl who always poked her nose in the unwelcome had shed water once again to all his plans. His archrival, she liked him getting punished. Appu read what traversed in between. Divyechi while returning from her convent was directed by Chakkara to his mischief.
He bore the ignominy since the only chances of escaping Amma’s daily reward was to plead Divyechi.
“ Get all the rain in your head and catch a cold…” – Divyechi murmured on and on while drying a naked Appu.
“ Echi (sister), don’t tell Amma, please” – He whispered reluctantly.
“ Let me see” – She was too demanding. Appu’s lips went in a half crescent grimace behind her.
“ Please Echi, I won’t go out in rain again, promise” – Promise was added to every sentence, a newfound term after last academic year’s progress.
“ In that case, OK” – Echi agreed.
Wrapped in the pink towel, he marched ahead.
“ Why did u take bath now?” – Amma came from nowhere and questioned.
Before Appu opened his box of lies, Divyechi interfered “ He slipped in the courtyard”
What a sign of relief he had. A naughty smile decorated him. One eye briefly closed and opened, he acknowledged the lie, another of the impish learning from the third standard. Divyechi smiled at Appu’s genuine innocence.
He planned to avenge the treatment and decided to pay Chakkara in full. He thought, his blood still boiling. I’ll dig a trench, make her run the way and she will fall. Appu laughed at the smartness of his ideas. Clever boy!!! He patted himself with the comment Lathika teacher used to confer for his marks in Maths.
Stepping into the stream like a cat, his vigilant eyes were ready to battle any adversity. In a split second he splashed a sheet of silvery water. Along with it lay on the side a handful of little fish. Struggling to adjust to the new conditions, they fought for breath. Appu ran and carefully palmed one by one and dropped in the mobile aquarium. Though within a freedom curtailed boundary, lucky enough to get their breath back, they swam open eyed and confused. Appu imagined them as searching their parents and friends; still his selfish heart didn’t long to let them free. He loved their fins and the manner they took breath in and out. There were nights when he woke to see how his little fish slept, but they never did. Appu concluded this for their melancholy minus their loved ones.
When the total population reached ten, the fish found it difficult to swim in the packed contours and fortunately Appu understood it. Summer vacations came to an eventful end by June end. Set to join fourth standard in yet another big city, his heart longed not to lose his precious collect. The impossibility of Achan (Dad) allowing fish in the suitcase looming large, Appu was upset. Tears brimmed the contours of those black lashes.
“ Appu, why are you crying?” A soft tone rang like the cold breeze of the sultry summer afternoon. Chakkara came closer and sat beside him.
Hearing his woe she smiled and said – “ Don’t you worry Appu, leave them in our well, they will have more space to swim and every year when you are here you can see how big they have grown.”
“ Ohhh, wow!!” exclamations upon exclamations studded the fluffiness that Appu felt deep inside. His wide-open eyes, for the first time looked at Chakkara in admiration. Days of pent up anger melted at the breakthrough idea.
Unable to contain the excitement he ran, took the self-designed aquarium, looked through as he always used to, but now for the final time and poured the contents into the tumbler. He requested Divyechi to lower the tumbler with his fish friends into the well. Appu and Chakkara leaned hard to see the tumbler hitting the water softly. Into their new home, a freer place the tiny fish could grow better, start life afresh; rear a school of fish and ultimately a big population. Appu’s mind crossed the boundary of imaginations. He foresaw the subsequent trips, where the fish grew as big as what ‘Salim mappila’ got them everyday to fry, but he was firm never to allow his fish into the frying pan. They would be his friends, thanking his Chakkara for the new life. He couldn’t find the tiny silver streaks anymore; still he felt their happiness knocking at his heart.
The fishes have grown, so has Appu, and a happily married Chakkara. Her kids play outside the silver painted gate, with permission, and without any steps to count. The tiny fishes swim ready to flow to the paddy fields. The kids have but a novel idea. Appu Maman’s white banyan cloth as a sieve as well as to see the fish clear, ‘Kunju’ held one side of the cloth and ‘Thenu’ the other. Both moved in the shallow waters like a four-legged monster.
“ Lift it” – Kunju shouted and Thenu did. Five tiny fishes struggled and Appu reclined in the armchair remembering the bygone days. 17 years shifted like a single shuffle of cards. His fishes big and dark enough haven’t lost the silver streak. Visible to the naked eye, they shy away to their own secret crevices, cursing him or blessing Chakkara, he never can contemplate.
“ Appu-mamma…, how tiny and beautiful they look, isn’t?”
“ Beautiful catch!!!” - He nodded along in appreciation, “ who caught it?”
Kunju took the credits and Appu saw his past reflecting through the transparencies. Silver strips glistened at every swift manoeuvre….