As days passed and the sun continued to rise and set behind the frozen sky, the fat lady shrank and shrank.
This worried the villagers no end. They had made peace with a possible return to the dark ages, as it were. Even a world without rain. Or other worldly possessions now out of their reach. The Mayor was certain there was enough wood, water, and seeds to keep them going for a few generations, if not more. But all that planning and calculation would be meaningless if Mrs. Godse were to come falling down, or go flying out, which may be the case in the end, wouldn’t it?
The villagers sat debating under the peepal tree in the middle of the village. Some cried, others implored, still others called for the Mayor to come up with a fix. “Why, dear people,” said Mr. Kumar, “calm down. We can’t just throw a tin patch or a rubber seal over the hole! It is not a roof or a cycle tire, now is it? Who knows what would happen if we tampered with this delicate situation.” He cast a wary glance across to where Mrs. Godse’s shrinking figure hung in the sky.
The moon was full tonight, shining like a diffused, other-worldly orb behind her, casting a strange silvery blue light across her face and the village greens and turning the rest into silhouettes.
“But we must do something,” implored the villagers in unison.
“We cannot just wait and watch and hope that everything will be fine?” said someone at the back.
“If no one thing can replace Mrs. Godse up there,” said Uncle Goswami, the grocery owner, standing up, “then a person of equal size should and must.” He looked at the Mayor and at his potbelly which his coat buttons tried in vain to conceal. With all the delicacies getting returned by the fat lady upstairs, without so much as a sniff or a second glance, it seemed the Mayor was getting more than his share when it came to three square meals.
Mr. Kumar, in turn, sucked in his belly and stood chest puffed out, holding his breath.
The grocer frowned. “Well?” he said, safe in the knowledge that he was one of the thinnest people in the village, if not the thinnest.
The gathering looked around from side to side, as if appraising each other for the right fit. Those more well rounded than others tried to shrivel up while those more lean sighed with relief. The very thought of fusing with that sky sent shivers down many a spine in the crowd. Why, even the animals and birds kept their distance from it. Despite the barbwire fence the Mayor had his people put up all around, to keep creatures from crashing into it — unintentionally, of course.
“Well,” said the Mayor, finally, clearing his throat. “That’s a thought. What do you say fellow villagers? Are you willing to make the biggest sacrifice of your life for the survival of this village?”
Many gulped hard in the audience and averted their gaze, instead choosing to study the loose earth at their feet.
“Why don’t you nominate yourself?” said an old man, who was slightly obese himself. Nothing a good dose of fat, creamy dishes couldn’t fix.
“Yes, right,” said the others. “It’s time you make more than just words.”
“Let’s put it to vote,” said the grocer with thinly veiled relish. “Who all for the Mayor as a replacement for the fat lady in the sky?”
All hands went up and the Mayor nearly fainted.
“Now, now,” he implored, looking from one face to another, “dear friends …” But his protests were lost in the sea of shouts and chants. The people were ready to sacrifice him. Even his assistant had joined the cause. But for one in a corner, rubbing a finger, who knew what had to be done to save herself and the rest of them.
She climbed up the scaffold, one final time. Sweat beading on top of her upper lip as she tried to keep her nerve.
It was just the other day, in the kitchen, when she’d seen her son slip out through the backdoor, wink at the fat lady, and duck into the backwoods.
She had wiped her hands on the dish towel and followed her son out through the woods to the meadow, where the village cattle grazed no more. Certain that he was up to no good. And she was partly right. The frozen sky met the ground right before them. And the boy had his palms on it, the glassy, crystallized surface, fingers spread apart. Was it cool, warm, she couldn’t tell. But he seemed to enjoy the feel. He was smiling to himself. Which was such a harmless thing on its own. But on her son, it could mean many things, and one of them was trouble. He was about to stick his face on it and blow like a fish when she decided to step out of the woods and stop him.
The cracking of twigs alerted him and he grabbed his satchel off the ground, ducked under the fence, and dashed back into the woods, away from the dome.
She lingered, though. And found herself walking up to the fence. To get a closer look, that’s all, she told herself. But soon she was climbing over the fence, her dupatta catching on the top line and tearing off. She winced at the tear, but kept going and then was by the frozen sky, touching it.
It was cool, yet warm. Like a living thing. But not. And she rested her forehead on it, fingering a tiny spot. Wondering why it was. Next thing she knew, she was plucking a hairpin out of her bun, straightening it out, and carving a hole. Just to see how far it went. A sheepish glance cast around and upwards made certain that no one was watching as she began to excavate.
A hole so tiny couldn’t possibly leach them of air, she told herself. Maybe it won’t happen again. What happened with Mrs. Godse. Maybe it’s all fixed up on its own and they are just being too cautious. She couldn’t wait to peep through it and spy on the world outside. Not that the outside world interested her much. Much of the same — green, brown, blue. But suddenly, she wanted to see it. Make sure it was still there. That people were still out there. Of course, she was being silly, she reproached herself. They had to be. That recorded message, playing on a loop … not recorded by a ghost, was it? But the moment the pin broke through, and got sucked out, and air slowly started to seep out again, she looked around in panic to stick something in — no, not her finger, too big. A fistful of dirt. No. That doesn’t work. What about …
She spied a beetle scuttling in the grass, to it the frozen sky light years away, and grabbed it with a pinched nose and stuck it in the hole. In all the pushing, the trying to fit it in the hole completely, she squashed it, staining her prodding finger with a stinky milky liquid the smell of which wouldn’t go away for days. God. She was worse than her son.
She tried to wipe away the liquid with a blade of grass, not daring to touch the sky, the dome, whatever it was, again when what she saw froze her to the ground. And now she was prepared to do one thing that she had never in a million years thought she’d have to do. Or was capable of.
But then, she hadn’t imagined the sky would freeze over their heads either.
Mrs. Vashisht climbed the last few rungs of the scaffold and saw Mrs. Godse finally asleep. She shook her gently by a dangling hand and gave her some water to drink from a bottle in her carry bag. Mrs. Godse’s parched lips soaked up the water like dry earth. Some of it she gulped down, while some dribbled down Mrs. Vashisht’s arm. She’d have to wash that later, she made a mental note.
Before she left, Mrs. Vashisht turned the radio on to the local channel playing instrumental music for a change.
“Sweet dreams,” she said to Mrs. Godse, patting her hand as she wiped away a stray tear. “May god bless your soul and keep you in his grace.”
Mrs. Godse mumbled something sleepily, a thank you, perhaps, or I saw you, she wasn’t certain, and flapped her arms. Probably dreaming of flying, like a bird, or trying to tell her that she was finally free.
Mrs. Vashisht would never know. But the village and her family would still be there tomorrow. And no one would know of the sacrifice she had made to save them all. But for the frozen beetle and the fabric caught on the fence that shone equably under the eerie moonlight. Like two witnesses to her deed.
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