I tucked myself into bed with the book under my armpit. When I was sure I was snug enough to beat a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch to comfort I opened the book and began to read. It was a small book my confidant had given to me. It had no covers, quite a battered book, like someone had used it as a rain shield on a pouring day. She told me it was an old book she’d stumbled upon in her grandparent’s house. She’d invaded the house of her old people together with her siblings to give it a scrub down, with the aim of ruthlessly evacuating any item of equivocal importance that contributed to the clutter in the house. My confidant’s grandfather was the kind that could always come up with a reason for keeping an extra thing stored up.
The living room had a jumble of things battling for space; funeral brochures were stacked at a corner, as though the old people needed a reminder of their pending end or rather, they needed a memento of the friends and enemies they had outgrown. Newspapers littered the floor like scrap paper in a nursery class. At another corner stood some empty gallons of engine oil. Teddy bears and teddy animals of different kinds occupied the sofa staring blankly with lopsided grins. The antediluvian television that had stopped working a good ten years back still stood on its broken stand with dirty cassettes and old records in view.
The house was in dire need of decongestion and the sanitary team was up to task. It took three whole days. They come out grimy, sweaty and greasy, and for my confidant, ten books richer; old books but alluring nonetheless. She had given me this particular one to read. I snuggled under the blanket this evening on a Free Frisky Friday when I could read without thinking of touching a textbook. I couldn’t even find the title of the story. A few more pages other than the cover might have fallen off. Well, a story was still a story without its title. I turned the first page and the story began.
It was the story of a man and woman. They were young and free. She was as tender as a dove and as brittle as a dried leaf. He was as bold as a brick and as dependable as the earth. They were in love. They could dive into each other’s eyes and find their way into each other’s souls, remaining there for hours untold. They had exchanged hearts. Each one’s heart beat in the other’s chest. The hearts beat in synchrony. Their hearts were more than flesh and blood, their hearts were the hands of time, and each beat a tick towards a beatific future together.
They were going to get married. They would give birth to beautiful round pink babies squalling the story of the pure love that put them together. But love is weird. It is strong enough to bind two hearts but too weak to dispel the misfortunes that cross into their lives. The World War that had been simmering in the background suddenly escalated and all men were called to die for their countries. Our man-in-love had to be conscripted to war. It was a week before the wedding. He couldn’t even say goodbye. He was whisked away to face certain death. Our lady-in-love cried day and night, inconsolable. She had been rendered a widow without a ring ever touching her finger.
But he survived the war and sent a letter ahead to announce his return. Taking permission from his superiors ahead of everyone, he set out to return home. His fiancée was so overwhelmed with longing after reading the letter that she couldn’t wait anymore. She packed her wedding dress into her bag and set forth to meet her man mid-way. Her feet grew wings and carried her along, as briskly as she could go. It is strange what ‘mid-way’ became for both of them. Midway was a large river that cut across the countryside. It was so wide it could only be traversed by boat. They got to the river at the same time but a little too late. The boatman was nowhere in sight. He had retired for the day. The man was at one bank, the woman at the opposite bank, they had gotten so close, yet so far from each other. Of course, none of them knew that the other was on the other side but they yearned to cross the river and continue their journey towards each other.
Walking leisurely in the middle of the river that evening was Death and his close friend, Love. They had come to experience the crepuscular rays of twilight and spend some time together, as they were wont to doing, away from their tiring jobs; Death, creating tears, Love creating bonds. It was a meeting of antipodes; cold and warmth. As they talked, they noticed the two people across the river. Death marveled at the folly that Love engendered in humans. Why ran to meet her lover amidst all the dangers of robbers and uncertainties of travel, while he was coming home anyway? Why did love make human beings so foolish? “This duo will just die because of love and never meet each other again,” Death said.
Love, on the other hand, was amazed about the extent that people could go for her sake. The woman was here to meet her lover that she had missed so much. She would even run ahead of time to meet him even if she was going to catch him only a second earlier. Love told Death, “Death can even be a fulfillment of love”. Death laughed hysterically. “What is the use of love and fluttering hearts if a river can keep these lovers apart?”
Love wasn’t beaten: “They don’t need to be together to love, my dear Death! Besides, love can always build a bridge and a room for these two to rest their heads this evening.” “O really,” said Death, rubbing his hands together and licking his lips. “I propose a wager. Let’s put our powers together and prolong this evening so that the day never comes and the boatman never returns. Then let’s watch and see if their love can build a bridge much less conjure a room. If it doesn’t at the end of 24 hours of the evening, I will take the man’s life along with me.”
Love weighed her options. She sure had been looking for an opportunity to show stuck-up Death in his face that he was powerless before the warmth of Love. She didn’t see any way by which a lone man will build a bridge, but Love believes all things, she accepted the wager. As the two supernatural beings shook hands, the eternal hand of time froze, and the test of love began.
It was immediately clear that the odds were against Love. The two lovers settled down on their respective banks and waited for morning. They waited long but the matutinal rays were never seen. The man washed his tired face in the water. He wondered whether his face will ever feel the kiss of the woman he loved again. The woman washed her feet in the water. She wondered whether these feet were strong enough to carry her to him. The river was too big, too separating.
The hours passed and Death grew more confident. He taunted Love and laughed aloud, showing his ugly teeth. Love remained calm, hoped, believed, trusted. “You see Love, my sister, they are sitting waiting for the boatman. I guess they’ll do that forever. Till I can take their souls.” That’s when it struck Love the mistake she had made. Of course, these two people were oblivious of the wager. They clearly didn’t know the evening had been prolonged. They were waiting because they thought the morning was coming. But the morning was only going to bring the death of one of them. Love’s heart sunk. A life of love was going to be lost because of her. She had gambled unwisely. What could she do to save the situation? Time was running out.
With only a few minutes to go, the woman at the bank began to rummage through her bag. They both watched. Love prayed, hoping for a miracle. Death breathed in deep, savouring his victory. But what they felt next, they felt in common. They both felt shock. For the woman pulled her wedding gown out of her bag. One by one, she took off her travelling clothes. Then she pulled the gown over her head and down her body. It fit beautifully. She completed it with silver shoes and a veil. She was gorgeous, shimmering in the moonlight. She said to herself, “The morning will come soon, and with it, the boatman. My man will surely be on board. I want him to meet me as the most beautiful bride ever.” Death loved with derision and cynicism. “Dressed for a dead groom…so cute.”
The man, a little bored with waiting also decided to write a letter to reaffirm his love to his fiancée. He will show it to her when he finally gets home. He began to write the deepest words from his heart to show his commitment and pledge his never-dying love to her.
Then time was up. Death swooped down upon the man. He stretched his hand onto the man’s head in his characteristic manner to pull the man’s soul away. Love looked on. She was helpless. Had she really lost the wager? Her eyes looked with tenderness at the two lovers, separated yes, but united more than ever in love…and now in death.
As the hand of Death touched the head of the man, he realized that something was wrong. The man’s soul was way out of reach. It was protected in a golden cage. And in the golden cage, the soul seemed to be stowed away in a beautiful heart, definitely feminine, pulsating warmth. The warmth scared him for Death was icy cold. It was the kind of warmth that Love carried about him. That warmth Death always envied. The warmth that attracted so many friends to Love. How could that warmth be in the heart of this man?
Death reeled around utterly confused. “Love, how did you win this wager? You…you cheated?”
“You know very well that I don’t cheat, my dear. For a moment, I didn’t even comprehend it myself. I am amazed that humans are capable of so much Love,” Love said.
“I don’t understand,” said Death, totally confused.
“It’s simple.” Love touched the shoulder of her friend. “When she wore the wedding gown, she became a bride and he became her groom”.
“But what has that got to do with building bridges?” Death queried.
“Everything. A bridegroom is not just the groom of a bride. A bridegroom is a bridge-room,” she winked, “with a little loving shift of a ‘g’. A bridegroom is a man who builds an eternal bridge to unite two hearts and provides a room for affection and love for a woman all the days of his life. He didn’t need to build a bridge, he is the bridge. Nor build a room, he is the room.”
“That’s meaningless” Death shook a fist.
“Exactly. If love was meaningful, it would have phased out of this world by now. I guess the game is over.” Love threw her head back and had the last laugh. It was a pleasant one, ringing like a choir of singing larks. The sky cracked opened to show the sun.
I closed the book and smiled. It was a good story, a little ridiculous and old-fashioned, but good all the same. I will give my confidant a beautiful review of the book and give her a hug as well. I jumped out of bed. It was morning already!
1 Corinthians 13:1-8
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 E Love is patient and F kind; love G does not envy or boast; it H is not arrogant 5 or rude. It Idoes not insist on its own way; it Jis not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.