A low cry echoed in the bushes. She turned to her right and sprinted towards the sound, carrying a first aid kit. She hoped it would be enough, at least until she could take the wounded fawn to the house. The drops of blood led her to the exact location.

“Oh, my, poor darling! Let me help you.”

Dark chocolate eyes bore into amber eyes for an instant. The fawn whimpered and snuggled in her arms. She continued to murmur words of comfort while removing the thorns and cleaning the wound.

“It’s not that bad. You’ll be running around in no time.”

“Do you always talk to animals?”

The deep voice startled her. Squaring her shoulders, she raised an eyebrow at him. He leaned against the wide trunk of a hundred-year-old tree. Dressed in clothes that reeked of riches, he grinned as she narrowed her eyes at him. 

“Spoilt brat’s lost in the forest again?”

He laughed and stepped closer to sit on his haunches. “If that’s what you like to think.”

Before she could reply, he gave the fawn an assuring rub on her belly. Shakuntala noticed that his rough and calloused hands.

“What are you doing here?”

“Same as you are. Heard the cry. Came to see if I could do anything.” The casual shrug stretched the fabric across his broad shoulders. The rolled-up sleeves displayed strong forearms.

“Now that you see you aren’t needed…”

He chuckled. “Are you always this pricky?”

Shakuntala’s chin rose an inch higher. Despite being dressed in faded jeans and shirt, she looked fresh as a new bloom in spring. Her cheeks glowed, a delectable shade of pink and crimson. Makeup was alien to her. Not that she needed it. She was alluring and enticing, even when her eyes flashed with irritation. She was a magnet he wasn’t intending to resist.

“You’ve got a problem?”

He shook his head. “Just wondering. Anyway, see you soon.” Saluting with a wink, he walked away, leaving Shakuntala to tend to the fawn.

She was going to smack him next time. It was the sixth time in two days that they crossed paths. For someone who prided on mastering the art of evading campers, it was annoying to deal with this man.

Cradling the fawn, Shakuntala walked to her house. Living on the edge of the forest had its benefits. Waking up to the sun shining on her face and watching the stars twinkle as she fell asleep were a blessing. She chose to stay back with her aged parents when her college degree could have landed her a job in the city. 

“Shakuntala, what happened to her?”

“Got stuck in a thorn bush, papa*. Nothing major.”

“Thank goodness.”

They walked to the barn, and Shakuntala laid the fawn on a makeshift hay bed. “Stay warm, sweetie.”

She held his arm as they went into the house. His weakening body worried her.

“Papa, you and ma* need to rest. I can handle everything.”

“Tsk… Tsk… Let us do something, girl. Being idle doesn’t suit our bodies. You take care of the business; we take care of you.” Her mother replied, crushing a dried root. It was Shakuntala’s idea to grow and sell organic herbs. Their tiny land yielded enough for their business to survive. 

“I’m fine, ma.” 

“You work too much, dear. No one works as much. Look at those campers enjoying.” Her mother sighed. 

The image of a well-toned handsome man flashed in her mind. She admitted that he wasn’t as bad as she thought him to be. He chopped wood, carried pails of water from the river, and did yoga. He didn’t dirty the surroundings either. His friends were another matter.

“It’s gonna rain.” Her father murmured, bringing her thoughts to the present. She sat down to help her mother pack the items before the moisture ruined the quality.

“Do you think those boys will be okay?” Her mother wondered.

Shakuntala shrugged. 

She could never find compassion for the rich. The arrogance of her wealthy classmates grated on her nerves. Added to her prejudice was the latest development burdening them. Their house was adjacent to a commercial estate that wanted to expand. But her dislike ran deeper. The root cause was Shakuntala’s birth mother, a rich heiress, who left her in the forest and drove away.

Shakuntala was glad the woman didn’t want a child. She got to grow up in the lap of Nature with people who loved her the most. Her inquisitiveness led her to do some research about the woman. Shakuntala wasn’t surprised upon finding that she was a result of a short-lived romance with a married NRI. The only question was why the woman chose to give birth instead of aborting the child.

“Shakuntala!” Her father was worried.

“Papa?” She blinked, clearing her mind.

“Gauri hasn’t come.”

“I’ll go.”’

He hesitated before nodding. “Careful, child.”

Shakuntala stuffed some old clothes and the first aid box into a bag. Her father handed her an umbrella. 

********

By the time Shakuntala spotted the cow, the sky was filled with dark clouds. Far away, she heard a thundering roar and sighed. Gauri was under an abandoned thatched roof, heavy with a calf and panting. Spreading the old blankets on the ground, Shakuntala began to soothe Gauri, humming a song she knew the cow liked. Raindrops pattered on the dried palm leaves when Shakuntala spied someone running in her direction. 

“Hi!! Is she going to have a baby?” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped around her to rub the cow’s head.

“What’s with you?” She grumbled.

He grinned. “You, maybe.”

“Shut up.”

Placing a finger on his lips, he winked. Shakuntala noticed he appeared quite at home in the middle of nowhere with a birthing cow as a company. 

“What’s your name?”

Her question surprised him. “Dash. I mean Dushyant.” 

“Dash?” 

He grimaced. “My friends call me Dash. Dushyant is outdated.”

Shakuntala rolled her eyes. “It means destroyer of evil. Not surprising you don’t suit the name.”

He laughed, the sound deep and full of life. It made her smile. Why did he never take offense to her words or tone? 

“Maybe I’m not worthy of it. What are you called, milady?”

“Shakuntala.”

“Shaku. Nice.”

“Shakuntala. You break the name; I’ll break your nose.” Her expression assured him she was not joking.

“Ermm… okay. Shakuntala. Quite a mouthful, but musical. You live nearby?”

She nodded. “Beside Hastina Estates.”

 He stared at her. 

 “You own it, Mr. Businessman. Now you want our land as well to build a stupid resort.” She muttered. No matter how much she tried to be brave, Shakuntala knew the odds were not in their favor. Even if the law somehow sided with them, there were other means to lose.

 “You know who I am.”

 Shakuntala tilted her head to a side, studying him. His voice was neutral, not giving her any hint about how he received the information.  “Yes. I saw your car at the court. Not hard to guess.”

He nodded, unsure of what to say. “I came to survey the area for the resort.” Then he added in a low voice, “I’m sorry.”

Shakuntala raised an eyebrow. “Will you withdraw the case from the court and not pester us again?”

His shoulders fell. “This place is perfect for the resort.”

“Which you will ruin by bringing idiots like your friends who throw plastic covers and beer bottles wherever they want.”

“They are business associates and investors.”

She humped and ignored his presence as the cow’s cries got louder. The calf’s legs poked out, followed by its sticky body, and with a thud, it fell onto the blankets Shakuntala spread.

The cow stood motionless, trying to catch her breath after a painful delivery. There was no sound except for the rain and occasional thunder. Soon, the cow turned to lick her calf. 

Dushyant bent to touch the calf when Shakuntala stopped him. “Don’t. We should not disturb the mother and newborn during the first few hours. The saliva covers the calf with a protective layer to keep the bacteria and germs away.” 

“Oh, thank you for telling me.” 

She shrugged and settled on the ground, spreading another blanket. He sat on the other corner of the blanket, keeping some space between them. Shakuntala relaxed as she watched the rain create tiny puddles. 

“I’ll talk to my father.”

The words were a mere whisper. Shakuntala nodded, though she doubted his words. 

 “I’ll try my best… for you.” 

 “Why for me? Don’t you feel for the forest?” 

Tracing circles on the soft earth, he replied. “Maybe the forest too. Each time I’ve seen you around, you’ve been helping an animal, pruning a plant, or picking up the trash. There’s something about you and this land…”

 Shakuntala leaned forward, earnest. 

 “You’re connected to this land. I can’t explain it. You are a part of this place. That’s what tugs me.” His rueful smile melted her heart, almost.

“Thank you for saying that. No one ever understood what I feel for this land.” 

“Does that mean I’m forgiven?” 

Shakuntala laughed. “No.”

“I feel better knowing why you hate me as much. No one experienced this hate at first sight with me.” 

“How do you know they didn’t? Anyway, I don’t hate you. I just don’t want you near me.”

 “Why?” 

 Shakuntala said nothing. He did not insist.  

 “Aren’t you hungry?” He asked after a few minutes. 

 She nodded. “Yes. It’ll stop raining soon. I’ll go home.”

 “Can I come?” 

 Her eyes widened at his question. Could she take him to her house? “Okay.”

 “What about the cow and its baby?” 

 “They’ll be fine and come home tomorrow morning. Gauri too tired to walk.” 

 “She’s Gauri? Cool! Can I name the calf?” His eyes shone with excitement and mischief. 

 “Only if I like it.”

 “Yes, yes. Of course. Is it an erm…?” 

 “Boy. He’s a boy, Mr. Businessman.” She teased. 

 “Perfect. Then he’s Shanmuk.” Dushyant beamed at her. “I’m not as stupid as you think.”

 “Right. Let’s go.” She stood and wrapped the blanket around the new mother and calf. 

 They walked to her house in silence. The clouds gave way to the twinkling stars. The moon beamed, illuminating their path with silver rays. Dushyant felt a sense of peace envelope him. 

 “Papa, ma… Gauri gave birth to Shanmuk. How’s the fawn? Dushyant named the calf. You know him, right?” Shakuntala said to the old couple waiting for her. 

Her mother beamed, assessing the man standing in front of their humble abode. “Yes, he’s one of the campers. Your fawn is cranky. I won’t be surprised if she runs away tomorrow.”

“He also owns that land.” Shakuntala supplied. 

Her mother acknowledged it with a wave of her hand. Her father looked at Dushyant with steady eyes. “Come in.”

“Thank you, sir, ma’am.” Dushyant smiled at them. 

 They had a simple dinner of daal* and bajre ki roti*. He asked about their business and gave a few suggestions. His degree ought to help him somewhere. 

 “We can’t cater to a wider market. Our land is limited.” Shakuntala replied. He suppressed a yawn and nodded. 

“Time to sleep. Can you sleep on this?” Her father asked, gesturing towards an old bed. 

“I’m used to sleeping on the ground when camping.” He told them. An owl hooted and the crickets cried nearby. He kept tossing and turning, unable to sleep. 

“What’s it, son?”

“Nothing, sir… can you tell me something, if you don’t mind?” 

******

The next morning came too early for his liking. Talking to Shakuntala’s father made him realize why she was wary of the rich. Dushyant realized his words would mean nothing if he couldn’t prove them in his actions. He went in search of Shakuntala and found her in the barn. 

 “Where’s the fawn?” He asked from behind. 

“Left. It’s time for you as well. Goodbye.” She turned towards him with a blank expression. 

 “Don’t say that.” Taking her hands in his, he found them strong and capable- just like her. “I promise to be back.”

 She stayed silent. 

 “Trust me this once.” He implored, placed a tender kiss on her palms.

 

********

Four months later… 

 Shakuntala hugged the shawl closer and shivered in the wind. Winter was in its prime. Their business was doing well. The ideas Dushyant gave them proved to be helpful. There was no news from the man himself, and she wasn’t going to contact him. The piece of paper with his phone number and email ID lay hidden at the bottom of her table’s drawer. Shakuntala attended another hearing a week ago. She did not blame him for it. Convincing a businessman to let go of a multi-crore deal wasn’t easy. 

A sudden flash caught her eye. She raised her arm to shield her eyes from the glare of a car’s headlights. It stopped at a distance. Shakuntala stood rooted to her spot. His return didn’t have to mean anything, did it? 

 “Greetings, milady.” He bowed. 

 She gave him a small smile, crossing her arms around her midriff. “Hi.” 

 “How are Gauri and Shanmuk?” 

“Healthy and happy. Want to meet them?”

“In some time. First, I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

 Her hopes plummeted, but she nodded. 

 “So, we’ll be using Hastina Estates for organic farming. You agree to cultivate it along with yours, and the land will be yours.”

 “What? Are you crazy?”

 “Nah… Just in love with a free bird. Isn’t that what your name means?” 

 She gulped and nodded. 

 “I’m no an evil slayer, but I sure can keep you happy.” 

 “Is that so?” She teased, a radiant smile blooming on her face. 

 He took a step closer. “Yes. I’ve decided to build a bigger house for us, all of us. My family has disowned me. They are only interested in the profits I assured them. You’ve got to save me.”

 Shakuntala grinned, taking the papers he offered. “Let me think about it.” 

 “You are yet to fulfill the promise you made to me.” Her father reminded Dushyant from inside the house.

 “It’s in your daughter’s hands, sir.” Going down on one knee, he spoke in a clear voice. “Will you marry this businessman and teach him how to love?”

 She beamed. “I’m a strict teacher, Mr. Businessman. I expect loyalty for a lifetime.”

 “At your service, milady. Do you need proof?” 

 “Love needs no proof,” She whispered as his arms closed around her.

*********

Epilogue

A mud-stained toddler wrestled with a cub, his laughter echoing in the clearing. 

“Bharath! Stop troubling the poor thing.”

“We’re plawing, papaa.” Honey-colored eyes sparkled as he ran to wind the chubby arms around Dushyant’s legs. 

Ruffling the boy’s hair, Dushyant grinned and carried him home. Shakuntala would be waiting for them. They had a bumper crop that year as well. His wife was indeed magical. 

*********

Glossary:

Papa- father

Ma- Mother

Daal- Indian lentil soup

Bajre ki Roti- Flat bread made using pearl millet. 

***

Photo By: AxxLC

***

(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)

Thanks for reading.

%d bloggers like this: