Merciless in the cloudless sky, the noon sun beat down on the city below. The heat and humidity magnified the smells, the aromas of cumin and curry and garam masala mingled with the odor of dung, freshly deposited close by one of the market place stalls. What had earlier in the day been a sensual delight, had become an olfactory assault.
People were milling about, no particular order to their movements as they made their way through the market. Some standing, some walking, suddenly stopping, talking, hands gesturing or fingering fabrics of silk organza or khadi cotton, scarlet red, saffron yellow, tangerine orange, sapphire blue, hemmed with threads of gold that glittered in the blinding sunlight.
Frank was tall, over six feet and easily able to see over the heads of the many shoppers. He and Jeanine had been here for almost a month now and he had come to love the vantage point that his height brought him.
But at that moment, his face was strained as he anxiously looked through the crowd, searching for his wife. She was petite, but her blonde hair should be easy enough to spot among the heads of ebony hair accented by colourful headscarves.
The longer she was out of his sight, the more worried Frank became, the pit of his stomach rolled in waves of anxiety. Not knowing where to begin to look or who he might ask, Frank’s gaze kept returning to the same few places they had been to earlier: the textile vendor’s stall where Jeanine lovingly ran her hand over the hand painted silk organza fabric; the “sweets” stall where the vendor had enticed Jeanine to sample one of her saccharine sweet gulab jamun balls; the jeweler’s stall where Jeanine stood silent, staring at chains of braided gold hanging from a wooden frame, trays heaped with bangles and bracelets and earrings.
Frank had smiled, watching Jeanine’s finger trace the intricate designs on the earrings, the bracelets, inlays of cyan blue or sea green mother of pearl.
Frank’s eyes moved from one stall to another to another. The street noise was beginning to wear on him. The endless ringing of bicycle bells, two stroke engines sputtering and revving, the non-stop sing-song voices of the vendors, rising ever louder above the din.
Frank used the flat of his hand to wipe the perspiration that trickled down the side of his face. His eyes were beginning to burn as sweat found its way between his lashes. The indentation of his spine became a channel for the sweat as it ran down his back.
She had been standing behind him as he talked with the spice vendor. He had turned his back to her for only a moment, long enough to admire the granite mortar and pestle that the vendor held out to him. Mottled black and gold granite, cool to the touch but heavy in his hand.
The vendor measured out seeds into his palm, then dropped them into the mortar bowl. Lightly pressing the seed with the pestle, he showed Frank how to grind the seed into a fine powder.
Frank had lifted the bowl to his nostrils and breathed in the aroma. lingering for a moment as he gently inhaled its sensuous odor, finding it strangely soothing, calming. He’d turned to offer Jeanine the bowl, to share with her the aromatic delight that was freshly ground cuminum. But she wasn’t there. She was gone. Disappeared!
Frank looked at his watch, but he had no sense of how much time had passed. The sun still beat down, the heat and humidity of the day pressed even closer, his shirt clinging to him.
Slowly, deliberately, Frank began a three hundred and sixty degree turn; hands in fists at his side, his sandaled feet moving mere inches at a time, eyes scanning the market, taking in every stall, every vendor, every curtained doorway. Where was she?
Frank was about two hundred degrees into his full circle turn when he caught a shimmer as a ray of sun reflecting off gold. Not the gold of bangles or bracelets or chains, but the shine of golden yellow hair, the hair on the petite figure that was his wife.
Tremors of relief ran through Frank’s body, leaving his face hot and flushed, his hands clammy and cold.
Jeanine, smiling and excited hurried to him, unaware of the fear that had gripped her husband. She turned her face upwards, towards his as Frank bent his face closer to her’s. Denying the river of sweat still running down his spine, denying the anxiety that had left him literally turning around in circles, and with as much calmness in his voice as he could command, Frank asked his wife, “Where did you get to?”
Carefully, Jeanine pulled a small cloth bundle out of her bag and placing it in the palm of her hand, folded back the corners of the white cotton material, revealing three hand carved, hand painted elephants, by size clearly meant to represent a father, mother and calf. Delicate in design, swirls of colour rose from each foot, morphing into flowers, clouds and birds. Each elephant, though able to stand alone, was carved in such a way that their trunks “nested” one into the other, forming a circle, the baby elephant’s trunk nesting into the mother elephant’s trunk, which nested into the father elephant’s trunk.
A symbol of “family” that Frank knew all too well. It caught him off guard. “They’re beautiful,” he said so softly that he wasn’t sure if he had spoken the words aloud or merely thought them.
Jeanine gently ran her finger on the carving that was the baby elephant, her eyes moist, but her voice steady. “While you were talking, a young woman brushed me as she walked by. When I turned I saw her baby in a sling on her back, a little boy. “Oh Frank, his eyes were big and dark, just like Jordan’s and he looked right at me and he smiled. And then I noticed the cloth sling had elephants printed on it and before I knew it, my feet just took me.”
Frank remembered when his feet would just take him. So full of grief and anger after Jordan died, he ran every sidewalk and trail over and over and over again. Jordan had been only six months old. The medical team did everything they could, except save him. When Frank and Jeanine started attending the infant death support group, they’d learned that elephants were a symbol for families who had lost an infant or child to death.
That wasn’t why they had come to India – to hunt symbolic elephants. They’d came to relearn how to live in the world without him. Without Jordan, their son.
“Yes, but where did you get to?” Frank asked again. “I was a bit worried. I turned around and you were gone.”
“I’m so sorry, Frank. I didn’t go far. The baby started to squirm on his mother’s back and she stopped to readjust him. I suddenly realized that she might think I was following her, so I turned and found myself looking in the window of that little shop over there.”
She pointed to a shop with a curtained doorway. “The window was full of every kind of elephant decoration, jewelry, cloths, trinkets. I just stepped inside for a moment . . . and I saw these. You, me and Jordan,” she said.
“They’re beautiful,” Frank said once more.
Jeanine refolded the cloth over the three small carvings and tucked them back into her bag. She took Frank’s hand and squeezed it. The months since Jordan’s death had been the most difficult of Frank’s life, of both their lives, but seeing the softness in Jeanine’s face, he thought that maybe they’d be all right. He squeezed her hand in return.
“What about you?” she said. Did you buy anything?”
“Not yet.” Frank replied. “Do you have any room left in your bag? I saw a mortar and pestle that I really like. Come, let me show you.”
Debra P. McGill is an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada serving a congregation in Cambridge. She has two adult married daughters and three brilliant grandsons. Debra loves to cycle and enjoys challenging/adventuresome holidays, summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekked the Dolomites and cycled the Cabot Trail. She is a lover of words and is an advid reader, though this is her first time taking a writing course and is grateful for the opportunity to write a word painting. Thank you, Brian, for your gentle, affirming guidance.
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