It had been hours since I had been cycling around. Occasionally I recognized a particular tree or a rock that I was sure I had seen before but when I followed its path, I came right back to where I started. Finally, I stopped to look up at the sun as it peeked out of the thicket above me. It was still glistening, but it had lost the power of its zenith. I realized the day would end soon and my knees wobbled at the thought. But I continued to cycle.
It’s been three days since I last saw another breathing, living thing. That’s not true, I remind myself, I am surrounded by plants and bushes and trees that are alive and thriving. If this place has taught me anything it’s that trees have their own secret lives. I have been observing them closely, tracking their movements. I have learnt that they twinkle in the mornings, and flutter during the day, yawn under the afternoon sun and shiver before the evening. At night I lie under a big banyan tree and trace the long-knotted roots as they are silhouetted against the gray night sky. My thighs feel sore from another full day of cycling, and I say good night just to hear the sound of my voice, for I have no other reason to speak.
We were a group of eleven cacophonous cousins. We descended to this bustling town for our annual trip to our grandparents. This year too we made our way to the city zoo, a sprawling forested area of 50 acres, smack in the middle of everything else. It was the place for many a childhood wonders. Where I saw my first green-eyed black panther and where I craned my neck to see the giraffes as they ate the leaves out of the tallest tree I had ever seen. It wasn’t like the other zoos, there were no big black cages that separated us from the animals. Instead, each animal got its own little island that was separated by a big moat that went up to ten feet. On their little island, the animals were free. Free to roam and sleep and eat. But that’s all they were free to do. Maybe that was the problem.
A few years ago, my mother’s younger brother, Sharan uncle, who accompanied us on our yearly trips, told me a story. It was another hot sunny day, and we were eating our ice-creams while standing before the tiger enclosure.
He asked me “Do you know why Whisker is so sad all the time?” Whisker was what I had named the in-house tiger. Sharan uncle was the only other person who called him that. Whisker did look sadder and weaker every year we came. Right then, he looked like his body was a balloon that had been deflated.
“Many years ago, his tigress went missing.”
“Do you mean she jumped out of the moat?” I had been secretly entertaining that possibility, even though my sister thought I was stupid for thinking that.
“That’s the thing—nobody knows. One night, the night keepers heard loud tortured howlings from here. When they came to investigate, they saw that only Whisker was left. You can imagine the panic that created. The whole zoo was put on lockdown for months, they searched every nook and cranny, every little cavern, looking for her. For a while there were even talks for shutting down the zoo forever because the risk was too great. But then after six months of complete lockdown, one day they opened the zoo. Just like that. No one spoke of the missing tiger again and no one to this day ever discovered where she went.”
We continued to silently lick our ice-creams, quick and methodical, before the sun got to it.
“Do you know why I am telling you this story?”
He never told me why.
This was the first year where no adult accompanied us to the zoo. The oldest amongst was seventeen and so we were allowed to go out, adultless. Everyone except me was in high spirits. They tended to pick on me less when there were adults around. But there was one benefit. Whenever Sharan uncle accompanied us, he’d always ride in the back, making sure that everyone, especially me, was going the same way. Lest I go missing like the tigress.
But the truth is, I wasn’t trying to get lost. My cousins had the habit of riding their cycles really fast and only stopping for the big-ticket animals. They’d all congregate before the bears and the giraffes and the big cats, but I liked to see them all. There were over six types of deer and that’s not including the gazelles, there were birds and then there were water birds, there was an entire pathway just dedicated to snakes. And so, I stopped and observed, except with no one to hurry me. When I looked up and saw that I didn’t see any of the distinctive orange cycles. I pedaled down the most obvious route but then I saw a beautiful white butterfly with a deep blue border on its wings and turned my cycle onto a grassy pathway, chasing and cycling, until I looked around and realized that I was here and all alone. That was days ago.
It’s been two weeks since I followed a butterfly and entered this world. I still cycle all the time, but I am not looking to find my way back. I know why the trees and rocks all look familiar. It’s because we are in the same place but in a different dimension, one without my cousins and the little island zoos. Last night Sharan uncle came to me and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I was mostly okay, but I missed him a lot. He asked me if I knew why I was here. Now I know I am not alone. I will find her. I will cycle through this forest until I do.