He saw the woman from a distance, leaning against the parapet at the point where the wall of the fort joined the cliff and fell away in a vertical swoop to the valley far below. She didn’t look out of place among the slow flow of tourists, and if she hadn’t been standing so still and looking down over the edge he would probably not have noticed her at all.
For a moment he stood where he was, studying her, trying to decide whether he was right. Perhaps she was just another tourist, among all the others who had come up this long way from the city. But she was too still, for too long, and standing just at that point, where the wall and the cliff were one.
Slowly, casually, he walked along the parapet until he was standing near her – not too close, not close enough to touch, but near. She didn’t look at him at all, didn’t even seem to know he was there. She was younger than he’d first thought, and taller, in her flat sandals almost as tall as he was. Her hair fell over her face and screened her features from view.
He leaned against the parapet, watching her from the corner of his eye. Her blue dress – not fashionable among the usual tourist attire of jeans and Bermudas, T shirts and halter tops – fell like shimmering water over her thin shoulders, catching the sun. Her long fingers played over the rough stone of the parapet, blind things fumbling for something. Perhaps it was hope, or happiness.
“Nice view,” he said at last, because it seemed that she’d stand there forever, hunched over the parapet wall.
Slowly, she turned her head to look at him. She wasn’t beautiful. With her thin, triangular face and wide mouth, she wasn’t even pretty. But her big eyes might have been lovely, if only they’d had any expression in them but dumb misery.
“Yes,” she said without any inflection. “Nice view.”
He moved slightly closer to her, and stood looking down at the valley. Down there, he could just see the sheds where the tourist buses disgorged their occupants, who then hired donkeys or camels for the ride up to the fort. A line of donkeys made a crawling row of dots moving slowly up the trail. He pointed to them.
“Uncomfortable beasts, aren’t they?”
She glanced at them without interest. “Yes.”
“You’d think they’d be more like horses, or ponies, but they aren’t. I never got the hang of riding one. Do you like horses?”
“No, not particularly. Why, do you think all women like horses?”
He grinned. “No, but so many do. You come across all the girls and horses stories.”
She smiled slightly, a slight twitch of her lips. “There are all kinds of pop psychologists claiming it’s a sexual thing. The horse is, you know, between the girl’s legs, so it’s obviously a symbol of...” She gestured in the air. “You know.”
“Really. I hadn’t thought of it like that.” He gestured at the smudge of haze on the dun horizon. “So, did you come up from the city?”
“Yes, we...” she caught herself. “I, I mean. I’m putting up at a hotel there.”
“Ave Caesar, over on –“ she paused. “That’s not right, is it? It’s Ave Maria, of course, not Ave Caesar. Hotel Ave Maria.”
“No.” The monosyllabic word sounded as though it were cut off with a knife. She stirred restlessly, her long fingers crawling across the stone. “If you don’t mind –“
“Nothing.” She leaned down over the parapet again, her hair screening her face. “Forget it.”
He leaned over, beside her. “Steep drop, isn’t it? It’s a lovely defensive position here. No enemy could get up to this part of the fort. So they didn’t really need any cannon emplacements and firing ports here. Pity forts have gone the way of the dodo.”
“You like military architecture?”
“Of course,” he replied. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t like anything military.”
“Fair enough. It’s a great fort though. But I wonder how they managed to build it like that, right flush with the cliff edge. I couldn’t have done it, I’m telling you. I get scared of heights.”
“They probably used workers who are accustomed to that kind of thing. Like the ones who, you know, build skyscrapers and things.” The woman turned to look at him again, and tucked her hair behind one ear with an unconscious gesture. “Have you been here before?”
“No,” he lied. “First time. I read a guide book though.”
“Ah.” She fished in her shoulder bag and brought out a book. “Like this one?”
He took it from her and flipped through it. Her name was on the inside of the front cover. “Mirabelle? I had a cousin named Mirabelle. Once.”
“What happened to her?”
He shrugged and gave the book back. “She died...killed herself, as a matter of fact.”
Her wide mouth opened, closed again. “Oh,” she said at last.
“She jumped from a building,” he said. “I still wish I’d known...what she was going through. I feel guilty that I didn’t know. I’d have tried to save her.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” She touched him, then, her long fingers on his arm. “She chose her own path. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah, but...” He shook his head. “It was a while ago, but I haven’t forgotten it.”
She leaned slightly towards him, her eyes steady on his face. “All right,” she said. “I’m not going to do it. Not today, anyway.”
“You know what. That’s what you’ve been trying to stop me from doing, isn’t that so? Is that a regular thing you do, absolve your guilt by stopping women from repeating what your cousin did?”
“Perhaps. No. I don’t think so. I haven’t done this with any other woman but you.”
She peered at him doubtfully, but decided he was speaking the truth. “All right,” she nodded. “I won’t do it. Not today, at least. Some other day, yes, perhaps, but not today, and not here.” She hesitated. “Should I thank you?”
He frowned. “Do you think you should, Mirabelle? I don’t think you should.”
“All right then, I won’t thank you.” She smiled again, for the second time, and this was a wider smile than the last one, and it even touched her eyes. “I’ll go down to the city and be lonely as hell, instead of out of it for good – but I won’t thank you. I mean, why the hell should I?”
“You’ll be fine,” he said to her. “I’m sure of it.”
“Yeah, maybe, Maybe not. We’ll have to see, right?” She hesitated, and touched him again, on the cheek. “Was it true about your cousin?”
“True enough. Her name wasn’t Mirabelle, though.”
“No, I thought not. Well, I’ll be going.”
He nodded. She turned away, walked a few steps, looked back over her shoulder at him, and then turned down towards the steps leading to the lower levels of the fort. He was alone.
Sighing, he turned back to the parapet and put his hands on the wall, leaning over. At last, he thought, he could do what he’d come up here to do. All it would take would be a little boost from his arms, and then it would be all over. But, suddenly, he didn’t want to.
He stood there for what seemed like a long, long time, and then abruptly turned and hurried down the steps. If he was fast enough, he could find her again before she left the fort.
Two sad and lonely people, he thought. There was probably no point to it. Probably he was being stupid, and nothing would come of it, nothing at all.
All the same, by the time he glimpsed her shimmering blue dress in the distance, he was running.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
|Thanks to Benni Jones for the illustration|