Open 2023 Stories - Sudha Subramanian


A King, A Queen and A Wooden cot

By Sudha Subramanian


"The dearest ones inflict the greatest pain," she sighed. Those words laced with her warm breath travelled through my little pores. They lodged themselves deep inside the fibers of my baroque structure. My constitution may have hardened over the years, but the pain is fresh, and I can still feel the words.


Her little boy, who knew nothing but the cushioned life of riches and without whose presence she couldn't let an afternoon slip by, would be gone for a whole decade and a half. "How am I going to get through my mornings and afternoons without seeing his face?" she had wailed. She had crawled into the soft sheets draped over me and had shed copious tears. She had been delirious and had uttered many meaningless things. At one point, I had wondered if she had gone mad. That night, when there were no more tears to shed, when her hope became threadbare, and when she knew she would lose her son to the wild, she had said those words. Oh Yes! I have seen it all.


After many years, those very words have erupted like a volcano and are mocking me. It is these words that are pricking me like a thousand needles.


Vijayendra Acharya, the greatest artisan of his times, made me four hundred years ago. The Acharya had learned the art of furniture making from the Gods themselves. He spent a whole year - cutting, shaping, and smoothing the wood. He dressed me with floral motifs that curve and bend like rivers. These large blooms are embellished with precious stones that twinkle in the softest moonlight. When I was finally made, Acharya bent on one knee and whispered a special mantra that triggered my soul with human sensitivity. I have lulled the greatest Kings through blissful nights. I have been passed on as a family heirloom generation after generation. Today, I adorn the chambers of the most beautiful woman on the planet - Seetha, the Queen of Ayodhya.

Seetha is tall and dusky. Her soft, supple hands mask her expertise as a swordswoman. Her large brown eyes flare with acute precision on an archer's field. Her delicate hands that are decorated with gold bangles and play with flowers can take a new form when they grip the bow. Her dainty feet, which dance to the sound of the tinkling anklets, are quick and firm when they land on the hard ground. Her fishtailing and her action with the bowstring swell my heart with pride. That is Seetha - a lady with exquisite beauty and rare courage.


Rama and Seetha's love for each other is legendary. They spend hours in the cool evenings hand in hand, sitting by the Palace window. They make passionate love on beautiful full moon nights as the silk curtains dance to their torrential kisses. They are inseparable - always in each other's arms - except when Rama is away for administrative work.

Queen Seetha is a person with many talents. She trains her friends in archery. She sometimes joins Rama on State visits and helps him in foreign affairs. She is quick-witted and what many people don't know is - she is a painter with a rare ability to bring anything to life on large scrolls of parched papers. Such is her fame and social stature that I sometimes wonder if Rama is secretly jealous of her.


The thoughts sting my soul. Why else would he do this?


Yesterday: Seetha was standing by the Palace window watching the glorious sunset. The sun was an enormous orange ball - smooth and round; birds dotted the evening sky, and a colorful bird with a redhead sat near Seetha tweeting. I was also lost in that peaceful sight that I didn't see Rama tip-toe towards Seetha. Rama always liked to sneak up from behind and startle her. I hate it because Seetha's face becomes white and her lips quiver in protest. But, what follows that is beautiful that I have come to enjoy the playful act. Yesterday was no different. Rama walked into the chambers in soft steps, careful not to let Seetha hear the creak of his shoes. Rama sprang from behind and startled Seetha. Rattled by the sudden movement, Seetha dropped the fragrant jasmine garland she was making for him.


"Don't ever do that," she cried, embarrassed that she had fallen for his games yet again, "I tell you every day, but you never listen," she punched his chest pouting her lips.

It must have been Rama's plan all along because he could then take her in his arms and shower her lips with long passionate kisses. Rama caught her waist, drew her closer to him, lifted her chin, and closed the distance with his lips. I heard Seetha moan as Rama explored the nape of her neck and let his hands wander over her slender back. At that moment, I closed my eyes and left the love birds alone.


"You know, I keep thinking of you even when I am busy with work," Rama said, his eyes peering into her eyes while he rested his head on her arm and played with Seetha's curls with the other hand. I watched them as they lay on me, lost in their sweet world of love.


"Me too," said Seetha moving closer to his bare chest.


"I want to spend every waking moment of my life with you," he said, kissing her on her forehead.


"How much do you miss me?" his playful eyes teased her.


"Why would you ask?" she fluttered her eyes.


"You have never said how much you miss me," he traced her face with his finger.


"Well, the man who resides in my heart knows how I spend every minute away from him," she whispered, "You can listen to him," she said as she drew his ear close to her chest.


I watched fall asleep, unaware of what the day ahead held for them because no one knew then that these two love birds were spending one final night in each other's warm embrace before they were separated again.


They say that an evil eye doesn't escape anyone. Why would an evening like that follow up with a morning like this?


It looked like any other morning when I watched Rama and Seetha get ready for the day. They kissed before he left for work, and Seetha was getting ready to meet some women who had come seeking help. She finished her breakfast and grabbed the first saree that she could reach to wear — a green one with yellow brocade. She was late. She hated it when that happened. "Time is of essence to everyone," she often told her friends. As she adjusted her saree and checked herself in the mirror, she saw Urmila in the reflection.


"Urmi!" she exclaimed, "what brings you here so early?" she swung around to meet her sister.


Urmila seemed to have been in a hurry. Her red saree was not pinned, and she wore hardly any jewelry. Her hair was loose, and her pace was out of place. I knew in an instant that something was not right. Seetha caught that too. Her eyes narrowed. Urmila caught her breath, "Di…" she ran towards Seetha, "you haven't heard?" her eyes searched.


I didn't understand. I watched the sisters hold each other. Seetha reached out to Urmila's face. Urmila's eyes were red, and that meant something was wrong.


"Tell me, sis. What happened?" Seetha pulled her, and they both sat on a red silk sheet that draped the soft mattress.

Urmila broke down in an instant. She sniffed in between words, and her voice creaked into soft shrills. "The farmer said he is not Rama to take his wife back after she has been out of the house. So, …." Urmila went on.

I couldn't get my head around this new turn of events. So, one farmer's wife goes out of the house. Comes back. He cannot accept her. So, he comes to the court and says he wouldn't let her stay with him because he doesn't trust her. His King, Rama, may do such things but not him. So, to be fair or to please his subject, King Rama had ruled that his wife would be banished to the forest.

"So, Rama will send Seetha away to please his citizen?" I willed my pores to sound those words out, but no, I have the gift to listen, see, and feel, but I cannot speak. I tried with every fiber of myself, and for the first time in four hundred years, I wobbled under the weight of these two sisters.

"Di, I can't bear to see this happen," Urmila broke into a fresh bout of tears. Seetha sat unmoved. Her beautiful green saree slipped from her shoulders, her kohl-rimmed eyes blurred with tears, and her face was filled with sweat.


Urmila continued, "Di, don't go, Di. I cannot live without you. I have been pinching myself to see if this is a dream. Di…Di….what will you do Di….I will speak to everyone possible. I will make this go away. Di…do you hear?" she shook Seetha with all her might. Seetha sat like a rock. The only thing that came out of her was tears.


At that moment, I hoped I had some divine powers to shield Seetha from everything. Soon, others came running into the chambers. They came in turns, said many things, and left because nobody had the power to overrule what Rama, the mighty King, had said.

Seetha didn't eat. She didn't sleep. She dragged herself towards the door. I watched her as she held the latch and locked it. Her hands trembled, her lips quivered, and her breaths were quick. She threw herself into the soft sheets the next instant and cried her heart out. Alas, I couldn't wrap my arms around her and comfort her. She sobbed to sleep, and I could see the dried tears along the corners of her eyes.

Urmila knocked on the door with a plate of fruits in the evening. Seetha undid the lock but said nothing. Urmila placed the plate on the side table. I watched the thick air of silence hang in the air before she left.

Seetha didn't touch the fruits, but she spoke to me as if I were a person. She turned around, and said the words I never thought she would, "how can someone ask me to leave? Is this not my home?" she paused a bit, "should I fight this? Or should I leave?" She looked at me earnestly. Her gaze pierced through every nook and corner of my whole body. I wished I could tell her something - something that would comfort her. Finally, she looked away and dragged her feet to the window.


The sun was still up. It would be a while before it would start its descent. I was trying to read her face. There was anger, anguish, and love. Her face had an unusual tinge of red - a color no one can forget. She turned around to face me, and it seemed like she wanted to continue her talk.

"Is that all there is to me?" she seemed to invoke some kind of a response from me. It has never happened before - someone speaking to me as if I were a person. There was no way I could signal her that I was listening, but it seemed like she didn't want any because she sniffed and wiped her nose with her saree pallu.


She walked up to me and stood by the headboard. "I am a mess. I married the man I love. He is also the man who is the most valiant and virtuous. But…" she sniffed as she stared into one of those rare gems stuck onto me. She bit her lips as she began to dig the nice blue diamond, the size of her fist, with her nails. "Why didn't he hear me out?" her nails continued to dig into the diamond on the headboard.

"Why didn't someone ask the farmer's wife what she thought about her husband?" her breath was heavy, "Does it mean that her feelings don't count? Does that mean my feelings don't count?" her voice shook. "I had to prove my virtue after the war was over. I never asked my husband to prove his" she clutched the blue diamond between her fingers. I could sense the heat rise in her body. She yanked the diamond out of me in one stroke, and it tripped over the silver jug and fell on the floor with a clang. I watched in horror, for I had never seen her seethe with so much anger.

She returned to her spot to watch the sun, which was at the horizon, ready to take the dip. She stood gazing at the blurred distance. She had two choices: both unattractive, out of which she would have to make a decision. She stayed at the window for a very long time before turning around and entering her inner chamber.

I waited for a while before she emerged from her chamber. She was dressed in her austere clothes. I had hoped she would fight. My heart instantly broke into a million pieces.

When I saw the shadow of Rama enter the chamber, I sensed the heat creep through the frame. All the games of sneaking up from behind felt like they happened with other people in a different era. When Rama's feet reached the door, Seetha turned to face him. Rama's eyes were red, but he couldn't meet her eyes.

He was quiet. What could he say? Would the great King apologize for his juvenile behavior? I reeked of resentment. But, he stood next to me, hands behind his back.

"I have something to tell you," Seetha's voice clear, crisp, and even. There was not an ounce of sentiment or anger. Rama looked up to face her. He stood at a distance, but Seetha closed it by walking toward him. "I wanted to tell you once the physician confirmed it," She paused. "He came earlier this morning," her voice began to break. I watched Rama's lips because they were trembling. He knew where the conversation was going. I waited with bated breath.

"I am pregnant," she said, her eyes fixed on Rama and not moving an inch.

My heart leaped in joy.


Rama grabbed Seetha in his arms. "Is this true?" he whispered. Seetha nodded, her eyes fixed on Rama. He threw his head back and sighed.

His eyes brimmed with tears of joy. He took Seetha in his arms and hugged her tight. "I can make this right," he buried his face in her hair, "You can't go anywhere now," he sighed again with a huge chuckle, "You don't have to go," he shouted.

A huge wave of relief washed over me. Yes. Seetha would stay. A baby was coming. I could feel my pores fill up with new fresh air. A waft of cool breeze blew in, carrying the fresh scent of night queen flowers. I was ready to rejoice and was already planning to see if I could get the diamond fixed back in me again when I heard her voice.

"So, is that what it is?" I heard Seetha, and that is when I noticed that she had pushed him away and had walked away. She turned around, facing him, "you want me to stay because I am pregnant? All because I am having your child? What if someone questions if this is your child or not? Would you send the child away to the forest too? ", her voice was firm, soft and straight.

"What are you saying, Seetha?" Rama's face fell.

"I am leaving," Seetha looked into his eyes. She stood straight and strong. "I married a man who is righteous," her voice was clear without a hitch, "What you did today is not right. You never asked the farmer's wife her version of the story. Did you check if the farmer had strayed? Fidelity starts from the mind; you made a mockery of it. From where I stand, I see a husband who has lost a wife, a father who will not see his child, but a King who is trying to please his subjects," she said in a voice that sent a shiver down my insides.

Seetha gathered a small bundle from the corner of the room. She bowed to the room and marched out of the door. Rama couldn't stop her. He stood like a man who lost a war. He dragged himself towards me and sat on the edge, clutching the same silk cover Seetha had held earlier and cried.

I have witnessed many things. But, this was the most I have seen in centuries. I lost the strength and the will to continue to bed others. I didn't want any bit of myself for anyone anymore. I willed every pore within me to shake, and I shook one jolt. A sharp pain traveled within me to every crevice and every crack inside me, and that was when I noticed my leg lay in half, and Rama was on the floor. It seemed I broke down, and as I watched Rama struggle back to his feet, others said something about a bed breaking down. But, the visions began to fade, blurring into nothingness, and the voices began to quieten.


I could see nothing but feel the cool air. In one swift movement, I was lifted - slowly and quietly. There were no more stories, no more people because all that I saw was just nothingness. This felt good. Yes. I, a mere wooden cot, a piece of furniture that lay around for four centuries, have finally learned one truth - the dearest ones inflict the greatest pain.


Sudha Subramanian is an independent writer of Indian origin who lives in Dubai. She writes fiction and newspaper articles. Her works have found space in many newspapers and magazines. When Sudha is not writing, she sings to plants, hugs trees and watches the birds that visit her garden.


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