A boy sleeps in a plane. He is flying west, to meet his father.
His eyes shut, he leans toward the window, dark hair falling over his face. If his eyes were open, they would startle you with their timeless, silvery-grey depth. If his hair was swept back from his face, his features would compound your bemusement with a slide of ice down your spine as you took in their distinctive mix of the lupine and the batrachian. A strange face, a striking face. Almost handsome, like a young Nick Cave. Only much younger.
He has never seen his father before.
A traveller from far away, his father wooed and won his mother over the course of a whirlwind summer romance in a seaside town down the coast from Goa, a retreat for pleasure-seekers who crave sun, sand and exotic stimulants without the accompaniment of crowds and touts. Once the traveller realised that his lover was pregnant, he consented to be wed and attempted to settle down to a life of domesticity. The young couple ran a shack restaurant in the town where they had met. Their evenings and nights were spent watching over others who disported themselves in much the same way as they themselves had in their first summer together, and their days were filled with the joys and pains of raising a child together. It seemed that the young traveller had completely absorbed himself in his new life, but his wife secretly counted the days they spent together, sensing that he would leave sooner or later.
In the boy’s fourth year, the traveller took to wandering by himself on moonlit nights, gazing at the sea. One night, his wife followed him secretly and saw him walk all the way to the water’s edge. There, a vast, indistinct form loomed up from the waters to commune with him, silently. A few weeks later, the traveller was gone. All he left his young wife and child were a stone amulet bearing the likeness of a face with wolf-frog features, very like his own, and a bag of gold coins depicting deities that were bizarre and strange, even in this land of ancient gods. The coins were worth more than their weight in gold, literally – the boy’s mother sold one to an antique dealer every few years and the resulting profits allowed her to support herself and her son in comfort. The boy was sent to a good school. He was happy, healthy and clever and lacked for nothing, save a father.
Then, in his tenth year, his mother received a letter from the father’s family. They wanted to see this child of their blood, to show him his other homeland and give him the choice of staying with them if he wanted. They knew that the boy’s father had left his wife and child rather abruptly, but they hoped that she would see her way to respecting this request. In truth, the boy’s mother felt no rancour towards her absent mate. She had known him too well to really believe he would stay, much though she had hoped he would. Indeed, she was grateful for the gift that had given her the financial independence to raise her son as she wished, despite the stigma of being a single mother – but she was beginning to worry about her son.
In school, he was almost precocious in his artistic abilities and his instinct for poetry. He was a natural actor and a gifted musician. However, he seemed possessed of a deeply unscientific temperament despite an instinctive understanding of what little chemistry was taught in middle school. He had a wild enthusiasm for geometry which expressed itself in a predilection to draw figures that ran contrary to the sound, Euclidean principles his teachers tried to instill in him. He evinced no interest in history and geography – sometimes he could be heard scoffing at his lessons in these subjects, claiming they were ridiculously superficial. He had a sense of vast time and hidden lands that refused to be subjected to any sane course of instruction in universally acknowledged and verifiable facts. Despite his intense physical participation in theatre, he had no interest whatsoever in sports. All too often he could be found stealing into the art room to model strange chimeric figures in clay, into the music room to pick out tritone-laden melodies with unpredictable syncopations, to the library to pore over volumes of sonnets or, equally often, to any secluded spot to simply sink into his own thoughts and fancies.
Perhaps a father would set the boy right. But what father? Thinking back to the traveller’s wayward, charming, tender ways, his weird spells and his poetic reveries, she doubted that he could ever have been the one to set his son on a more normal track. However, the boy might find a place where he fitted in, a family to which he truly belonged, if he responded to the invitation. She called her son to her. He came running in from the garden, covered in dirt and leaves. He had created a sort of shrine in the garden, complete with an idol made from mud, sticks and rags, which he garlanded with wreaths of leaves and flowers.
‘What is it, Ma?’
‘I’ve just received a letter from your father’s family, Vyvyan.’
‘From my father?’ The boy reached for the amulet left behind by his father. He had claimed it from his mother a year back with an air of authority far beyond his years. He had worn it around his neck, tied on a simple black rope, ever since. He had decided that the face on the amulet was a likeness of his father, of whom he had very nebulous memories, and he would sometimes speak to it when he thought he would not be overheard.
‘Well, from his family. They say he is busy with family business and cannot write just now. They want you to go and meet them. Would you like that?’
‘To go to my father’s home? Yes, I would!’ the boy replied immediately. And so it was decided. That summer, when his school broke up for vacations, Vyvyan would fly west.
When he returned home from his father’s familial homestead, somewhere in the Pacific North-West, he was a changed boy. He no longer wore his father’s amulet around his neck, although he did keep it with him in a small leather pouch at all times. He was rarely – if ever – dreamy, dramatic or the slightest bit fey. In fact, he had become solemn, serious and quiet. He refused to answer when his mother asked him how his holiday had been, merely remarking that he was looking forward to resuming his studies at school; a statement so uncharacteristic that his mother realised a great change had truly come over her son.
Mr. Braganza was one of those middle-aged bachelors who have made a life out of their careers and can never be thought of except in their professional capacity, in this case as a maths teacher. Not one of those deft, new maths teachers who use coloured charts and ingenious toys to make their subject come alive, but a traditional, stodgy, fire-breathing, assignment-giving, red-pen wielding maths teacher of the nightmare variety. He was dullness personified in his heavy, much-darned brown or grey suits, his thick-framed glasses, his short-cropped and neatly combed hair, his timbre-less, droning voice and his slow, shuffling walk. The only time he showed any sign of life was when a student made a mistake and he had to administer a scolding and assign a punishment. He was free with the cane – until a new head of department cautioned him that ‘the parents won’t stand for it anymore’. Now he confined himself to hurling obscure imprecations at his students and making them stand in the corner of the class, run twenty rounds around the football field and do extra homework. None of his students liked him, but the ones who were willing to do all the work he gave them and learn according to his favoured method – which was by fear and rote and repetition – did well in their exams, and that made a difference to how parents and principals assessed him. ‘Dull, but sound.’ ‘Old-fashioned, but effective.’ ‘Strict, but thorough.’
Dead, but dreaming.
Worthy though he was considered to be, few of Mr Braganza’s colleagues spared any time for him socially. He tended to wander off to a corner and stand staring fixedly into space at get-togethers, or, when forced into interaction, would reply with such inane generalities that the conversation soon perished from lack of nourishment. Over the years, he had earned a reputation as a good addition to any maths department, someone who could handle the long, dreary watches of middle school while lacking the empathy and sheer stamina to teach primary school – or the mental agility and basic semblance of humanity required to be successful with high school students. He would never make head of department or play any role in the school hierarchy other than subject teacher, but he seemed to lack the ambition to do anything else. This, together with his ability to grind out results by brute force, made him a good choice for a certain kind of ambitious, lazy and insecure principal or department head to hire, so he had never wanted for work.
Eventually, he had accepted an appointment at a boarding school in the hills, a lesser cousin to the famous colonial-era institutions that boasted prime ministers, captains of industry and Nobel Laureates among their alumni, but still: a sound school with a solid heritage and a student body derived from the children of landowners, middling industrialists and managers at equally solid and mediocre firms. His duties here were dull and dreary, his students rapidly cowed into drab submission by his stolid demeanour and stern apportioning of extra work to malefactors. His quarters, in an obscure corner of the campus, were drab but functional and, by a happy chance, isolated from the hostels and the other teachers’ accommodations. He could spend entire days without entering into a single human interaction except the delivery of his never-varying schoolroom lessons. His isolation was almost complete, and his routine so fixed that it never presented the slightest hint of the unexpected or unconventional: the two things he feared the most.
Then the Diplomat’s twins came along, and everyone’s routines were upended and no one’s solitude was sacrosanct. Diplomat from where? No one seemed sure, but the man was suave and radiated a wolfish charm and strength. He was tall, well-muscled and exquisitely turned out in expensive fabrics. He seemed to have all the right connections, was stationed in New Delhi at short notice on a most vital deputation, and he needed to have the twins near him but not underfoot. He could have selected a more august institution, but this one had the advantage of being the nearest to the capital.
The boys had all the charm of their father, but there was something more fawn-like, yet also indefinably reptilian about them, in place of their father’s vulpine swagger. They were fey and frolicsome, good at art, music, even geometry, but uninterested in history, scornful of physics. They were forever stealing out into the school grounds and finding secluded places to construct strange altars out of twigs, branches, leaves, flowers and vines. Mr. Braganza loathed them – the first sign of any powerful emotion he had shown in decades – but they seemed to favour him above all their other teachers, pushing themselves to do well for him and forever leaving strange, colourful offerings of paintings, sculptures, garlands and bouquets at his quarters. These tributes were not appreciated by their recipient; in fact, he went so far as to crumple, tear, smash and destroy every single one of them. He could often be seen strolling the grounds alone at nights, muttering to himself and clutching something in a worn leather pouch.
He was wrestling with his memories. Memories of the sun rising above those twin peaks, like the wings of some crouched raptor. That strange valley within, with statues that wept and sang, and people like none he had met before or since. Their strange laughter, their uncanny, tuneful voices, their wayward, widdershins tricks of thought…it should all have been like a homecoming for the boy he had been.
But little Vyvyan had been overwhelmed. It was too much, it was all the things he had been seeing in his dreams and waking trances, all arrayed before him in a dazzling profusion. He had had to subsist on whatever magic and strangeness a little boy could conjure up. Now, the cornucopia was held out to him, and he balked at its plenitude.
But the most disturbing encounter was with his father. Metamorphosis, after all, was the business of Vyvyan’s specific family among the clans in that storied valley. His uncle Angelus had taken him to a place in the woods where he could meet his father. It was a bright, moonlit night, and nightbirds could be seen winging their way through the woods, some recognisably owls – others psychopomps, with their birdlike bodies and pale, human faces. Creatures occasionally ran past, and Vyvyan was hard-pressed to identify hunter or prey; he had impressions of hoofed feet and horned brows, of flowing, gleaming hair and thick, matted fur, of clawed paws and long-fingered hands brushing past.
‘Is it much further?’ he asked, his voice small and querulous, terribly human and vulnerable in this mystical place.
‘Just a little bit, Vyvyan,’ said Angelus, his voice a honeyed growl, low and deep in his throat. Vyvyan envied the rooted solidity of that voice and wondered if he would someday grow to have one similar. Then, they stepped into a clearing and all wondering was banished by sheer shock. In the centre of the clearing, moonlight catching tangles of his silvery fur, picking out silver highlights in his eyes, was a creature that was somehow a wolf – a large, looming thing of many worlds – and his father, all at once. Vyvyan’s eyes hurt as he tried to focus on this shimmering chimera. He had often dreamed that his father was some powerful, arcane potentate, but this went beyond his imaginings. He was of their blood – but he was also a boy from a small town, raised amongst followers of faiths that admit knowledge of fewer worlds than were present in this moonlit clearing.
The thing had seen him. It uttered a vocalisation that was at once a roar, a strange ululating keening, and an articulate, human greeting. A single word: ‘Son’.
Vyvyan turned and fled. He ran through that eldritch wood, strange birds wheeling above, strange creatures crouching in strange undergrowth; he ran past stones that seemed ready to spring into life and statues that seemed like petrified people; he ran back to the house of his aunt and uncle.
It was a place that preserved some semblance of normality with its slouching porch, its cozy, cluttered front parlour with the old transistor radio on the mantelpiece. He ran into that parlour, stretched himself across the couch with its embroidered cushions, pressed his face into the soft, feathery grasp of one of those very domestic cushions and wept. He would not stop weeping until, many hours later, his uncle and aunt had agreed to put him on the next flight to India.
That night, the boys had outdone themselves; Mr. Braganza’s quarters were decked in copious streamers of some strange vine with long, curling leaves. Twigs and feathers were inserted in the vines to form abstruse patterns that both caught and repelled the eye. The little flowerbed had been dug up and a towering, twisted creature of mud and twigs and rocks reared in its place. Looking at the damage, he felt very old and tired. He took off his spectacles and wiped them. Standing there in the pale moonlight, he suddenly looked much younger than he had in decades, and even strangely beautiful. The moon caught a silvery-grey glint in his eyes and he looked like an older, partly withered but still recognisable version of his vexing students – or a stunted version of their father. He decided to clear the mess in the morning, and retired to his bedchamber where he was soon fast asleep, impossibly weary and mysteriously bereft.
You have come to a crossroads, Mr. Vyvyan Braganza.
‘Who’s that? Who’s speaking?’
It is no one, Vyvyan. I am no one. I am only the voice that whispers to you out of the darkness at the crossroads.
‘Cedric? Cyril? If it’s you, boys, I swear your father’s diplomatic immunity won’t help you this time – ‘
It is neither Cedric nor Cyril. It is neither a boy nor their father. LISTEN, Vyvyan. Be still and listen.
That is better. You have come to a crossroads, Mr. Vyvyan Braganza. You have come to a parting of ways, a joining of paths. You have come here for the second time in your lifetime. It is a privilege not vouchsafed to many. But your father wills it so…
Yes. He still waits for you. He has a place for you by his side, he has a need for you and you – you, Vyvyan have a need for him, if you ever wish to make more of yourself than this dry husk of what used to be a human being… a human being and something else as well.
‘I won’t do it. I won’t go back.’
You may say so, but some choices have already been taken from you. Look outside the window, Vyvyan.
The frightened man obeyed the voice. Outside, the groomed lawns and winding walkways of the school grounds had vanished, replaced by a mystical, unsettling woodland vista. There was only one place in the world that felt like this. Only one place where those strange things flew overhead, where those other strange things fleeted underfoot. Crying now, the man tried to bolt his window, but a wind slammed it open.
This can only end in one of two ways, Vyvyan. You can lose your mind or you can lose your father. But you can no longer live the life you have lived.
‘Why not? I was content, I harmed no one…’
Those are both lies, Vyvyan. You were deeply unhappy and you were harming yourself, destroying the wolfroghead magic that you carried, and not just in the form of an amulet within an old leather pouch. You were destroying yourself.
He was beyond words now. There was only the swirling confusion within and the terrible choice outside. There was only Vyvyan, and his father. Suspended in space and time for this immemorial moment, waiting for a sign, any sign.
A man who calls himself Viv, or Vyv, came to live in this town some years back. He is a very old man, tall and gaunt but glowing with some uncanny vitality that has nothing to do with modern medicine. He has captivating features, a little lean and handsome, a little thick and froggy. He has a shock of wild, white hair and the most amazing eyes, like grey clouds with their own silver linings. He is said to have lived in this town as a little boy, uncountable years in the past. He has taken over an old abandoned restaurant and turned it into a haven for travellers who are particularly strange, even for Goa. He laughs often and wears an amulet that seems to bear his own likeness. Sometimes, late in the nights when his customers are asleep or deep in their cups, he can be seen wandering along the beach, talking. Beside him can sometimes be seen a thing of more worlds than are spoken of in our mundane faiths. A thing that is part wolf, part man, and part something else altogether. Sometimes they raise voices in shared song.
Vyvyan is always at home now, wherever he goes.
Jayaprakash Satyamurthy lives in Bangalore with his wife, more books than he will be able to read in this lifetime, and an ever-growing horde of cats and dogs. He plays the bass guitar for a doom metal band called Djinn And Miskatonic and that’s about it. His blog is: http://aaahfooey.blogspot.com
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Story illustration by Dominic Black.