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The Cry of The Kingfisher

Mayola, dosage Succorina and Donna emerge from their trouble-ridden pasts to carve out new lives in The Cry of The Kingfisher, a novel by Belinda Viegas, a practicing psychiatrist based in Goa. 

In this excerpt, Succorina and her sister Rosie set off to steal some mangoes from the neighbour’s tree, little knowing that a brutal fate awaits them.

“I’ve just seen the first green mangoes and they’re already pretty big.” Rosie came running in excitedly.

“I know. I saw them already a few days ago,” said Antonette.

“Come on! Let’s go and knock some down!” Rosie smacked her lips loudly and rolled her eyes comically. “I can’t wait to taste them.”

“You know very well they’re not ours and that would be stealing. Bhatkar Bab wouldn’t be too happy.”

“He’s got so many trees full of mangoes. What’s he going to do with so many?”

“Sell them.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we just took two.” Rosie looked uncertainly at her sisters and then suddenly made up her mind. “He won’t even know. I’m going to get a few,” she said determinedly. “Who’s coming with me?”

Maria hesitated for a moment, before replying with equal determination. “Not me. Antonette and I have to go to Margao.”

“Succorina, you come with me.”

Succorina looked doubtfully at her sister. The thought of fresh young mangoes was very, very tempting, but…

“No one will know,” said Rosie, “The tree is out in the fields and people hardly ever go that way. Come on. Let’s go.”

Maria shrugged and walked away with Antonette. “Do what you think best,” she called.

The temptation proved too hard to resist and against her better judgement, Succorina gave in. The two girls ran light footed to the big mango tree, laden with the tear shaped fruit. Rosie quickly selected a few stones, which she threw with a practised accuracy. Three fat mangoes fell to the ground, where they lay, battered, the pale yellow flesh showing through the ruptured green skins.

Picking up their plunder, the two miscreants raced home to cut the fruit into long strips. As they sprinkled them with salt and chilli powder, their mouths hurt with the sudden spurt of digestive juices. Then they sat down to enjoy their booty. The mangoes tasted better than they ever remembered and until lunchtime they remained happily unaware that their crime had been witnessed.

They heard their father shouting while he was still a long way off and the sound struck terror into all of them. He was drunk, that much was clear, but what could have upset him so much? As he neared the house, they could make out the words.

“Thieves and criminals! My own flesh and blood!”

His own flesh and blood guilelessly wondered what he was raving about. The two guilty ones had already forgotten their morning’s adventure.

“The shame of a father when he hears from others that his daughters have been stealing!”

His daughters stared at each other in innocent perplexity.

“Stealing mangoes! Anyone would think we starve them at home!”

The blood draining from Rosie’s and Succorina’s faces swelled their hearts, which started pounding agitatedly. Mai, Maria and Antonette looked on in fearful compassion.

“I’ll teach them a lesson they’ll never forget! Before they bring bigger shame on the family! Come here, you two!”

The terrified culprits slowly walked over to him. “Bring me some rope!” he shouted to the others. Maria ran into the house and fetched the rope. He dragged them to the guava tree, where the red ants had built their citadel among the roots and he began to tie them to the tree.

Rosie started to scream. Ear-splitting, piercing scream after scream, like a pig being tied for the slaughter. Succorina bit her lip and remained silent. Furious at the sudden breach in their fortifications, the ants, undaunted by their inferior size, swarmed fearlessly to the attack. Rosie’s screams became even louder — pain and fear replacing the hysteria in her voice. As the numerous tiny red-hot pincers pierced her skin, Succorina stood stoic ? her face betraying no emotion at all.

“Don’t you have anything better to do, than roam the countryside, getting into trouble?” asked the avenger of the family’s honour, his eyes blazing anger and disdain. “You girls will soon be of marriageable age and where will I find the dowries for four of you! I think it would be a good idea if you started going to work instead. Yes, if you want to get married, you had better start working and save up the money. Don’t depend upon me.”

“But where would we find work now?” Indignation had made Maria bold. “It will be another four months before work in the paddy fields begins again.”

“They say Estafania has returned from Bombay and has plans to build a new house. There will be enough work there for many months.”

The two victims were banging their feet against the ground and the tree trunk, frantically trying to shake off the ants crawling up their legs, but their attempts only made the ants even more furious and fiercer. For every ant that fell, there were several more to take its place. The pain increased and their inability to do anything about it was unbearable.

Anger and hatred coursed through Succorina when she looked at her father’s drunken face. She would not give him the pleasure of seeing her cry out. She concentrated on her anger instead and unbidden, an image came up before her mind’s eye. Her father was bound to the tree and two shadowy figures in black were whipping him. The satisfaction the fantasy produced filled her with guilty pangs, but it also gave her a feeling of being in control and diminished the horror of the actual situation.

Rosie’s screaming died down to a sobbing whimpering. Her eyeballs rolled upwards, filling her mother with alarm.

“Do you want to kill them?” she shouted at her husband, her usual timidity overcome by the outrage she now felt.

Pai watched his suffering daughters for a few minutes more.

“Let them loose,” he growled, “and see that y’all find work soon.” As he turned and left, they heard him muttering, “She should have been a boy. She stood there without making a sound.”

‘The Cry of The Kingfisher’ by Belinda Viegas, published by Goa 1556, 221 pages, paperback, Rs 195.