The story I’m about to tell you took place in New Halcyon. Let me then first tell you a little about New Halcyon.
New Halcyon is a sovereign city-state in the North Pacific ocean. An island nation, she lies at a latitude of 35.10 degrees north and is 1,014 miles west of Los Angeles.
A prosperous developed country, New Halcyon is a democratic presidential republic, with a population of 10.281 million people and a per capita income of $56,468.
New Halcyon is a true universal nation—her citizens trace their origins to almost every part of the globe: North America, Central and South America, Europe and Russia, Australasia, Africa and many parts of Asia…name it. The official and widely spoken language is English.
New Halcyon can be clearly divided into two sections. The flat southern segment, called ‘The Rectangle’, is roughly 41 miles west-east and about 29 miles north-south. It’s also where the population of the city-state is based.
The northern segment of New Halcyon flickers out like a tongue from the top (north) of The Rectangle. It is about 18 miles west-east and 124 miles south-north—and is appropriately known as the ‘Long Tongue’. The western part of this segment has the ‘Western Wall’, a thickly forested mountain range (highlands and valleys), that runs 119 miles south-north and 12 to 13 miles west-east. The Western Wall rises abruptly on the south where it touches The Rectangle, and gradually tapers down on reaching its northern end.
A protected forest, the unsullied Western Wall is a thriving haven for some of the world’s finest species of plants, birds and animals. It is also believed that this sanctuary is heavily loaded with mineral deposits and fossil fuels…although any sort of exploration in that direction is strictly banned. The Western Wall is widely acclaimed as an epitome of the natural world.
The flat east side of the Long Tongue is called the ‘Greenhouse District’, and it is here that the agriculture of New Halcyon happens, in copious greenhouses spread out over the district.
At the northern-most tip of the Long Tongue lies the nation’s only airport, the New Halcyon International Airport. Connecting The Rectangle to the airport is the country’s sole expressway. This expressway basically splits the Long Tongue, running as it does between the Western Wall and the Greenhouse District.
This then is a brief overview of New Halcyon. However, this description is alright as far as it goes. For, this story could’ve happened anywhere on the planet...anyplace where humans dwell. Because, in truth, this is the story of all humanity...
Sunday, November 7, 1999, 2-12 am...
SHE had a haunted look in her eyes—of a woman about to lose her all. And yet, there was a weird resolve to her—of a woman on the most critical mission of her life.
It was an unusually cold winter night the woman stepped out into, from an aged six-story apartment building in north-central New Halcyon. In her hands, she held a rectangular cardboard box, partly open at the top, which she hugged ardently to her chest. Standing there on the sidewalk, she looked around her for a while. But she couldn’t see a soul—not human, not animal. She couldn’t see them—the two pairs of eyes staring at her, intently observing her every move—because they were crackerjack professionals.
The woman was covered from head to toe in dark grays, as if in burqa. Only her eyes showed—two windy-blue slits. She glanced around again, and now resolute, she turned left and began moving down the sidewalk.
Soon she reached a road crossing and with a swift look on either side, she swept past and onto a new pavement, bordering another chain of closely huddled old buildings. There was no hesitation to her and she kept pressing fluently, as if completely focused on her mission.
After two more road crossings, she finally stopped outside a nondescript building. She looked up the seven-story structure for a second, then peered into the poorly lit entrance. Step by cautious step she moved in, her senses on high alert. The ancient edifice had no escalator and she began mounting the first flight of steps.
Half the stairway light bulbs had conked off, the menthe-green wall paint peeled like dry onion skin, and a mild stench of rotting garbage wafted around. But the woman seemed oblivious to such considerations. Like she was oblivious of the two pairs of eyes that had inconspicuously followed her.
She passed the first floor, then the second. She paused at the landing of the third, catching her breath. She glanced down at the cardboard box in her arms and, as if instinctively, clasped it even closer to her bosom.
Soon she was on her way up again and now did not break until she had reached the landing of the top floor—the seventh story. She had come to her journey’s end. She stood outside an apartment door and stared at the rusty nameplate. It said, ‘Ceecee Sandford’. She kept gazing at it, as if transfixed, momentarily going as still as the night, still utterly unaware of the two pairs of eyes latched on to her like a couple of ghosts.
When at last she snapped out of it, she looked into the cardboard box again. And she kept looking. And a profound fondness welled up in those blue eyes, as if contained in that box were all the precious possessions of her life, things that mattered to her the most. And then the woman disintegrated. Her strength seemed to drain out of her in a gush and she frantically put out her left hand to the wall for support, even as she desperately clung on to the box with the right.
But only for a second. With what seemed like a colossal effort of will, she re-gathered.
She drew in an extended breath and gazed into the box one final time. This time she betrayed no emotions—the eyes had turned into lifeless marbles. Slowly she went down on her haunches and she lowered the box to the black floor. She remained hovering over it for a few moments, before rising back to her feet. And then with a sharp involuntary sob, she reached out and rang the door bell four times, then turned around and was gone in a flash.
The journey back was the opposite of the first part. Gone was the sprite in her step—her movements were manifestly labored. In fact, she seemed a different person altogether, a woman who had aged an era in a very short time. The scarf that had veiled her mug had come off and her face was the mask of death. Her body seemed suddenly bereft of soul—of a woman who had lost her all.
Someway she struggled up to her home, a studio apartment on the top floor of a structure no better than the one she had just visited. Entering the house, she kicked the door shut after her, then threw herself face down on her little bed. And she began to convulse, from head to foot. But weirdly, she shed no tears...nor did a single cry escape her.
Sunday, March 5, 2006, 9-16 am...
Stanley Knott had woken this morning with a terrible presentiment of evil and misfortune—that somehow this was going to be a catastrophic day in his life.
As a result, as he now stood beside the 1966 Mercury, outside the front porch of the big house in Butcher Garden—the Butcher family residence—dressed in an elegant white chauffeur’s attire, he realized he was sweating. He nervously glanced at his watch and noticed his hand was quite unsteady.
It was a bright spring morning and the quietness of the sprawling garden added to Knott’s edginess. To him, it was the stillness of a graveyard. The exquisite fragrance that floated up his nostrils from a zillion flowers all around him was like caustic fumes—it burned his very skull.
But it wasn’t just the presentiment. What killed him completely was the close proximity to the Butchers. He had been employed only a month ago and although he was not supposed to work for the family directly (that was the privilege of the tried and the tested), a sudden illness to Joseph Scoff, the regular chauffeur and the family favorite, had orbited him into this assignment. Knott snorted unpleasantly. Any of the dozen other senior chauffeurs could’ve replaced Scoff, but it has to be my blithering misfortune to be chosen for the gallows. This family just doesn’t have any class! Too blithering bad for me. It was a temporary position of course, but one that had Knott’s nerves in a terrible tangle. For, like everyone else in New Halcyon, Stanley Knott was only too aware of the Butcher family—the first family of the city-state...nay, its virtual royalty, with a reputation that ran the length and breadth of the island nation.
He wasn’t to know then that it was no chance that had brought him to this assignment today…that there was a deep design to it all.
Knott’s assignment today was to wheel the family—well, half of it—to the airport, at the northern tip of the island, from where they were to fly to San Francisco in one of their private jets.
He ran his hands over the black body of the big Mercury. It was a prehistoric car, so rickety if you pushed the doors from the inside with any strength, they would fly open. Knott wondered why the world’s richest family would want to still own an old bag like this, far less travel in it. But then he remembered what he’d been told: this was senior Mr. Butcher’s first ever car and held serious sentimental value. He liked to journey in it whenever possible, especially on long drives like these. That had also answered another question he’d wondered about: why can’t the Butchers simply fly to the airport in one of their choppers and save much time...why the blithering road? The road is for mortals.
Knott glared at his quivering hands. He knew he had to do something before he fell completely apart. Something drastic. And there was only one thing to do. He had been hesitant to employ it, but he saw no other way now. His breath on hold, he looked around him furtively, a glint of cunning coming to his eyes. Then quietly he made his way away from the car and hid himself behind a Christmas tree some fifty feet away. After another sneaky glance around, he dipped his right hand into his trouser pocket.
Five minutes later, he was back beside the Mercury, having calmed down a tad. And then he began to appreciate the beauty around him. Butcher Garden was a veritable Shangri-La. A Rose Paradise. A great fan of flora since his nappy days, Knott knew more than a thing or two about them. Adjoining the front porch steps on his right was a bed of ‘Fragrant Cloud’, a bright-red, thick-petal rose whose high scent made you want to shut your eyes and swim in it. On the other side of the porch steps was a bed of ‘Elina’, a delightful yellow-and-cream flower that rested your brain. Knott found himself move away from the car once again, so he could see the front garden properly, and his lips automatically stretched into a smile.
Even at a distance he recognized them all. He spotted the ‘Pot-o-Gold’, a dazzling yellow rose, and he tasted its wonderful perfume on his tongue. There was the amber-orange ‘Sunset Celebration’ and again he could imagine its fruity smell. And there was ‘Scentimental’, a burgundy red-swirled-with-creamy-white rose, with a sweet spice odor. And a bed of ‘Livin Easy’, a scrumptious apricot-orange rose. And another bed of ‘St. Patrick’, a gold-shaded-green with a mild smell. It was as if Knott’s mind had suddenly been fitted with high-powered multi-sense binoculars that brought the pictures and the smells right up to him. He saw and smelled the ‘Yves Piaget’, with its bountiful mauve-pink petals and strong perfume. As he did the blushing creamy-white ‘Snow Waltz’... Oh, just beds and beds of roses speckling the entire estate. It was a sensory overload and Knott felt he would pass out in exquisite agony.
Linking the beds was the lawn, a fertile carpet of rich green. Coconut palms, banished to the periphery, picket-fenced the property. Here and there were Christmas trees, of varying heights. In the center of the front garden was a miniature replica of the Dancing Dubai Fountain. It wasn’t yet operational this day.
Knott wished he could’ve been a gardener instead of a driver. He could work amongst the flora for limitless hours and not be bored or fatigued. If it hadn’t been for his daughters, he could even work for free. Such a wonderful garden had to have a gardener, nay a legion of them, to nurture it, Knott thought. But he couldn’t see any of them right now. Oh, how he would love to meet one, just to talk to the lucky bloke, to sit under a palm and discuss the roses, and suddenly he was jealous.
He was snapped out of his fond longings by a movement at the porch and he stiffened to full attention, then raced back to his position by the car. But it was only the house servant, with luggage in both hands. Knott quickly walked to the Mercury’s rear and opened the boot lid. Another male servant followed and they quickly arranged the baggage in the massive trunk. That done, Knott went back and stood rigidly by the front passenger-side door. The Butchers would be emerging now and Knott stopped breathing. Easy now, fellow!
The first to emerge was a little girl in a light blue, flower-patterned frock. She would be Philippa and she would be five years old, Knott told himself. (He had been to Joseph Scoff’s pad earlier this morning and had been briefed in depth by the veteran chauffeur.) Then he watched her freeze when she saw him. Her sky-blue eyes narrowed and a blend of suspicion and hostility crept into them.
“Who’re you?” she shot from over the porch steps.
Knott smiled and took a step forward. “I’m Stanley Knott, young Miss, and I’m your driver,” he said, almost fulsomely.
“Uh?” The little girl’s face twisted in confusion. “No, you’re not! My driver is Uncle Joey. You’re not Uncle Joey.” The hostility widened.
And then two elegantly dressed women, one young, one middle-aged, appeared and Knott was back to attention. He stepped hurriedly back and tentatively opened the rear door of the Mercury. He guessed the younger woman would be Frennie Butcher, Philippa’s mother, and the older would be Frennie’s ma-in-law, Paula. From what he’d been told, the younger woman was in her early thirties and the older in her mid-fifties, but they looked so much younger than their quoted ages. The blithering advantages of being insanely rich, Knott thought dryly. They could have anything in the world—the best of foods, prime comforts, all the attention and pampering, and no worries whatsoever. While the men invented schemes to get richer, and richer still, all that the women had to do was luxuriate in their good fortune. Knott felt a sudden surge of resentment as he watched the women slide into the vehicle.
He thought back on his own family. Three daughters and a fourth child on the way. All living in a twelve feet by twelve hovel in the only low income housing area of the city-state. He had been out of work for eight months and it was only a desperate plea for succor that had landed him this job. And Stanley Knott felt ashamed—if it hadn’t been for the Butchers, he and his family would be struggling on food stamps today. To feel any bitterness toward them was most ungrateful—nay, it was pure blasphemy.
“Come on, Philippa, get in!” the younger woman shouted as her daughter refused to follow them, but instead kept hovering around the porch steps.
“Where’s Uncle Joey, no?” Philippa demanded of her mother.
“He took ill,” the mother answered brusquely.
“Then I’m not coming. I want only Uncle Joey.”
“Now, you! Don’t you be that way!” thundered her mother.
“Don’t you want to meet your Wolfy-Dad?” the older woman cut in.
Those words were magic. The little girl quickly descended the steps and bounded over to the Mercury.
“Good girl, now step in so driver-uncle can shut the door,” Paula Butcher beckoned.
“No, I’m sitting in the front with Daddy,” Philippa said stubbornly.
“Have your way!” Frennie snapped.
Knott now gently shut the door. He waited for the men to emerge. There would be two of them, he’d been told. The older one would be Eric Butcher, the patriarch of the family, the Supreme Boss, a man in his early sixties. The younger one would be Sage Butcher, in his mid-thirties, Eric and Paula’s eldest son, Frennie’s husband and Philippa’s father. Stan Knott smiled to himself—this man he knew all too well.
This would be one half of the family. The other half was already in San Francisco, and to distract his mind from the rising-again tempest within him, Knott did a mental check. There was Eric Butcher’s younger brother, Grant, fifty-nine, and who doesn’t know him! He was the much loved and respected Head-of-State of the island nation. President Butcher’s wife, Estelle, was the same age as him. They had two children, the oldest, a son, Art, in his early thirties. Art’s wife would be...and here Knott racked his brain for a second before he got the name. Yeah, Rochelle! Ha! And after seven years of marriage, the couple had no children, and there was endless hushed chitchat in town. It’s the woman! the word had circulated. She’s the infertile one! Poor Art Butcher. President Grant’s younger progeny, a daughter, and her name Knott remembered quickly. Olivia. She had studied medicine, married a surgeon from San Francisco, and it was to her house the entire Butcher clan was headed. Joseph Scoff had said it was to do with some house-warming. Olivia being the only female progeny of the Butcher brothers was much loved.
But not the most loved. That tag was easily saved for the family’s most famous member, Wolf Butcher. Eric and Paula’s youngest, the twenty-eight year old was Hollywood’s hottest moviestar, and it had made him New Halcyon’s favorite son.
Wow, what a blithering family! Knott thought. The President of the nation—the most important and powerful man in the country; Hollywood’s biggest superstar—one of the most powerful man in showbiz; and the world’s top Capitalist—the most potent and influential moneybag anywhere. All three in one family! Which other family in the whole wide world is more powerful, more privileged, more fortunate? He couldn’t think of any. Not even close! They are so blithering blessed, it is obscene!
A sudden movement at the porch snapped him out of his reflections. It was Eric Butcher. He was a big strapping man, around six feet four (that made him an inch taller than his famous son, Knott thought) and two-hundred-fifty at least (that makes him at least seventy pounds heavier). He headed Butcher Organization, the largest business house in the world. Knott felt himself shrink at the sight of Eric Butcher. The patriarch had a face of granite and eyes that could kill with a glance. Knott gulped rapidly as the big man descended the porch steps and he fervently prayed Eric Butcher wouldn’t sit in the front beside him. That would be just too much.
Almost shaking, Knott bowed awkwardly. He tried to wish the big businessman, but found his tongue jammed against his palate. Eric Butcher indicated the back seat and Knott hastily opened the door, feeling great relief sweep through him. He began to respire again.
And then followed Sage Butcher, and Stan Knott’s heart gladdened. Here was his Angel—the man Knott had gone to on hands and knees petitioning for work. The man who had given him, a complete stranger, a new lease on life.
(Ordinarily, a person like Knott wouldn’t come within five miles of anyone from the Butcher family. But Art Butcher was in public life, taking care of Grant’s political office, so he regularly came in touch with voters from the lowest strata of society.)
Sage Butcher was an inch or so over six feet and lean at around one-hundred-seventy, but his most attractive feature was his face. Yes, very good-looking (it ran in the family), but there was a quality to it that elevated it to something much more. Here is the face of a saint. He, Stanley Knott, would be indebted to him as long as he lived.
Knott’s bow was much more pronounced this time and wholly authentic. “Good morning, sir,” he gushed as Sage Butcher approached the front passenger seat.
“Hello, Stan, how are you doing this morning?” Sage Butcher smiled.
“Very good, sir, thank you so much,” he replied, almost shyly, but thrilled that the great man had recognized him and remembered his name.
Sage Butcher had barely settled in the front seat, his arms wound lightly around his daughter sitting on his lap, when Philippa suddenly leapt up and stood on Sage’s thighs. She spun around and faced those in the back seat.
“Why couldn’t Wolfy-Dad come with us, no?” she groaned.
“How many times do I have to tell you Wolf is working in Los Angeles?” Frennie scolded.
“But he could work later, no!”
“Well, he couldn’t!” Frennie snapped.
“When will I see Wolfy-Dad now?”
“In a few hours.”
“But how many hours, no?”
“Not too many, okay?” Eric Butcher broke in.
“But how many, no?!”
“Oh, come on now, Philippa!” Frennie barked. “Keep quiet, will you!”
As Philippa began to sulk, grandma quickly cut in. “In about three hours, alright?”
“But why so many, no?” The little girl’s voice had turned distinctly moanful.
“Philippa!” Frennie shouted.
Philippa pouted. “I want to be with Wolfy-Dad. Now!”
“That’s not possible!” Frennie hissed, leaning threateningly toward her.
That made it even worse and Philippa began to cry.
Gracious Lord! Sage thought. What was with his wife this morning? He opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. No point adding to the cacophony.
“Let me handle this, Frennie,” Eric said in an undertone. And Sage could imagine his sweet wife shaking her head in a mix of exasperation and frustration.
“It won’t at all be long before you meet your Wolfy-Dad,” Eric was saying consolingly.
But the wail continued. “But why couldn’t he come with us, no…?!”
“You ask him when you meet him, alright?” Grandma said.
“I know you people don’t really like Wolfy-Dad, so you don’t allow him to come with us. You are all so jealous of him.”
That truly shocked Sage, as he knew it had shocked everyone in the back seat. His head snapped up and he glared at his daughter. Where had this suddenly come from? Then he saw the triumphant little smirk (which she was desperately trying to conceal) on her face and he understood. Manipulation! Gracious Lord, at this age! What was the world coming to—children barely out of their cradles were losing their innocence. His daughter’s face told she knew she had scored. Sage didn’t dare glance at his wife.
His father was the first to break the silence that had followed.
“You know that’s not true, Philippa,” Eric said, his voice sober. “We love your Wolfy-Dad, all of us, and we love him a great deal, more than you can imagine. So what you said is grossly unfair and you should never think along those lines again.”
“You apologize immediately, Philippa! This very instant!” Frennie bellowed. The menace in her voice made Sage spin his head around and stare at his wife. But his wife glared right back at him. And then Sage heard a low whimper.
“Sooorrryyy..!” It was Philippa.
The matter resolved, the sudden tenseness that had gripped the Mercury’s air dissipated.
For a while, there was quiet.
My father is right, Sage thought. Indeed, if we Butchers have a favorite it is Wolf. Not only was he the youngest (aside of Philippa), he had made the family proud by going on to become Hollywood’s most loved actor. By itself that wasn’t anything much, for the Butcher family was tremendously successful in itself. What the Butchers valued most was the way Wolf had kept his priorities firmly in focus. For my brother, his family has always come first, in every way. There wasn’t a family occasion he had ever missed, however trivial, however busy he may have otherwise been. Wherever he may be on the planet, there wasn’t a day he wouldn’t call home and inquire after everyone.
And yet, while Wolf genuinely cared for every member of the family, there is one person who has always been extra-special to him. That person was Philippa. Wolf loved and adored the little girl so much it was frightening. A small break from work and he would rush over to New Halcyon to be with her. If he couldn’t come, it was the phone. Ten calls in a day was normal business.
And in turn, Philippa needed Wolfy-Dad like she needed her breath. When Wolf was home, he was her inseparable companion. Sage and Frennie had often observed their daughter when on occasion she slept in Wolf’s room. The stillness on her face was something to see. While in her own room, or when she slept with her parents now and then, there wasn’t a night when Philippa wouldn’t get up mumbling in her sleep, perhaps troubled by some dream. But with Wolf, she always slept like a baby—literally so—a dreamless slumber. It is as if she feels completely safe and protected with him, like she never feels with anyone else, not even us. Sage sighed. It is scary to think what would happen to her, and conversely to Wolf, if God forbid something were to happen to the other.
And it was this profound bond that the two so naturally had (The first ever father-daughter match made in Heaven, Sage told himself) that had finally convinced him and Frennie, especially Frennie, to give Philippa legally away to Wolf—as soon as they had their second child. All in the Butcher family knew about this decision, sans Philippa. They had deliberately kept it from her, for fear that once she knew she wouldn’t want to wait a second and would vehemently demand she be made ‘Wolfy-Dad’s’ legal daughter right away, and would not let the family have a moment’s peace until that happened.
It was his daughter’s voice again that brought Sage back to the current.
“I want to talk to Wolfy-Dad,” she was saying, that moanfulness in her voice still very much in place.
“You know he is far away, so don’t be silly,” Frennie shot.
“But Daddy has celly, no!”
“His cellphone doesn’t work here!”
“How do you know?”
“Because it doesn’t!”
“Daddy, give me celly, let me see.”
Sage smiled, shaking his head mentally. Gracious Lord! There was no point bickering here. She would have her way in the end, Frennie’s short fuse notwithstanding. If they kept refusing, she’d ensure no one found any calm all trip.
He pulled out his handset from his shirt pocket, then pushed a button and listened. Wolf Butcher picked it up on the third ring. Big brother and little brother talked briefly, before a shrieking five year old girl, now settled back on her father’s lap, yanked the phone from him.
“Be brief!” Frennie thundered.
“Why didn’t you come with us, Wolfy-Dad?!” Philippa began to wail. Sage shut his eyes, wishing he’d brought his I-Pod. How did I ever forget it?!
Oh, yes, he should’ve guessed the reason for his wife’s crabbiness this morning. They called it ‘Morning Sickness’. And it is a result of a certain biological change that happens to a woman’s body, Sage was thinking grandly.
They hadn’t told anyone yet; the plan was to announce it dramatically at Olivia’s, where the full family would be gathered.
They had found out only a couple of days ago and it had made Sage the happiest man on the planet. Frennie had been so ecstatic, she had run off to announce it to the world, and it had taken all of Sage’s persuasive powers to rein her in.
“Think of the thrill of declaring the news when all the Butchers are present,” he had said. “Moreover, can there be a more appropriate occasion than Olivia’s house-warming?”
Somehow he had prevailed. Just about. Privately, Sage had wanted to announce the news when Wolf was present. He ached to see his little brother’s face explode when finally Philippa becoming his legally became a concrete reality…when his long wait, the never-ending expectancy, was at last over. Of course, Philippa had always been his daughter, right from her very birth, yet Sage knew how much this trivial formality of getting it all on paper meant to Wolf. Sage exhaled. Boy, is it going to be some moment to see my brother’s face bloom like a million suns in the sky when he is now told! Yes, there would be a little sadness for Sage and his wife, but only the slightest, because after all, it is all going to remain in the family. Moreover…we are going to have many, many more children hereafter. So…all was good. Indeed, everything is just great…magical!
Sage felt an overwhelming urge to turn around, reach out and touch his wife’s belly. Oh, you wonderful, wonderful belle!
But in that very instant an image plunged down before him. It was an image of a woman. A little woman, a common, everyday woman, but a beautiful woman...with a beautiful smile. But it was a beauty that transcended the corporeal and set her apart from the countless other beautiful women of the world, because it had an indefinable quality to it. An unexplainable quality that had gladdened his heart and made him feel good simply being in her company.
And then Sage felt a huge wave...a veritable tsunami...of guilt bludgeon him, knocking him cold. It was a guilt so intense, it brought on a terrible fit. He felt his heart constrict fiercely and he couldn’t breathe anymore. His limbs began thrashing out as he hysterically gasped for air. And then his body began quaking violently. He could feel his bowels squeeze severely, then they relaxed and he began to lose complete control of them. Saliva began streaming down his mouth and he started to throw up in mounds. Then blood began rushing up madly to his head and engulfed his brain.
He was on the verge of passing out, when with a despairing lunge he somehow managed to haul in all his powers of will. Someway, he succeeded in casting out the image of the woman, desperately banishing it from his consciousness, together with the unbearable guilt that had almost killed him.
It was only some moments later that Sage realized that he hadn’t budged at all while the fit had lasted, but had remained absolutely still...that in reality his limbs hadn’t thrashed in any way, nor had his body quaked, nor had he lost control of his bowels or vomited. Nothing had happened outwardly, beside that he had quietly sweated profusely. He knew that he hadn’t had a physical seizure at all—it was a fit of his soul. It had, however, left him completely exhausted. He now also recognized that no one else had seemed to notice what he’d been through and was he oh, so thankful for that.
Gracious Lord, I cannot live like this! Help me please, Jesus! Sage pleaded silently, as he hurriedly wiped away the sweat before anyone noticed. For, this wasn’t the first time he’d had this fit. It had first started when Frennie had become pregnant with Philippa. And throughout her pregnancy, Sage had been stricken by these seizures. And now it had begun all over again with Frennie’s second conception. Please stop this, Gracious Lord, oh please, or else just kill me! I cannot take it anymore...it is just too painful!
He wasn’t to know then that his prayer would shortly be answered.
A minute later, he had miraculously managed to fully restore himself. Like after every fit before, the instinct of self-preservation had triumphed, his defenses now completely blocking out the image of the woman from his psyche, albeit for the time being. And then he again registered the voices around him.
“Will you finish now, please? PLEASE!” It was his wife. She leaned forward and yanked the handset out of their daughter’s hand. Sage heard her talk briefly to Wolf, then she handed back the phone to Sage, even as Philippa let out a howl of protest.
“Be quiet...this very instant!” Frennie shouted. “If you don’t shut up, I’m getting the driver to turn the car around and we’re not going anywhere!”
That did it. For a short while, Philippa remained despondent (bad Momma), but soon the elation overflowed.
“Wolfy-Dad said he will meet me at the airport. Only few hours more now,” she said to her grandma, ignoring her mother.
“Good,” grandma said. “What else did he say?”
“Oh, he said so much. He said he will take me to see a movie shoot, and then to Disneyland and zoo. And he said that I was his sweet Butterfly and that he loves me very much...just too, too much.”
“That’s great. Are you happy now?”
Philippa’s little head bobbed up and down earnestly. “Yah. Very, very happy.”
And Sage could almost hear his wife exhale in a long stream of alleviation and say something to the effect: now please keep your mouth shut for the rest of the trip, little girl! But mercifully, she said nothing this time.
“Sir, can we please break for a minute. I need to go...very urgent.” It was the chauffeur, Knott.
Out in the open?! But then who can defy the call of Nature? “Yes, of course,” Sage said. By his reckoning they were halfway to the airport.
As the driver pulled to the side of the road, Sage thought: Perhaps we should have taken the chopper instead. But his father, like often, had insisted they travel by road in their washed-up antique.
Five minutes transpired. Then seven.
What is this guy doing? Sage wondered. Seven minutes for a pee? He remembered the day Knott had come to him begging for work. It had been a rather unorthodox petition. The fellow had brought along pictures of his family. Three sweet little daughters and a pleasing wife, with hope in their eyes and poverty on their person. It had been a desperate plea, from a desperate man. Knott had been truthful: he had been sacked from his last position of employment for drunken driving. Indeed, he had confessed to being a problem drinker. But that had been six months in the past. He had since cleaned up his act and ‘Butcher sir’ could have that ascertained anyway he deemed fit. Regularly, a person like Knott wouldn’t at all be eligible, but the man’s bare honesty, coupled with a thought for his family, had obliged Sage to give him a fresh start. Everyone deserves a second chance in life…especially those not as blessed as us.
Ten minutes had passed now since the fellow had gone off and Sage could hold back no more. He sat Philippa next to him and began to open the door. And then the guy reappeared.
Sage exhaled and pulled back. Well, never mind. He suddenly noticed that something had changed in the man since last time. Something in his gait, something in his entire deportment. That he kept his head carefully lowered, as if he didn’t want his face to be seen, was one of it. Sage’s antenna buzzed warningly. He almost moved over to the driver’s seat himself, but before he could, Knott opened his side of the door and Sage let it lie. It was a matter of a short time now; he didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings unnecessarily. Nevertheless, Sage leaned a little toward him, as if to adjust his position, but he couldn’t smell any alcohol on Knott.
“Make it quick now!” Eric said sharply from behind, as the vehicle rolled back onto the expressway.
That somehow seemed to trigger Knott, and things happened very swiftly thereafter. Knott’s foot pressed hard on the gas and the Mercury squirted forward.
“Hey, you, easy!” Eric shouted.
Something is wrong here...very, very wrong! Sage thought.
“Okay, pull over, you!” Eric bellowed.
But the man was beyond control. Instead of braking, his leg smashed down on the accelerator still harder; instead of keeping to his side of the road, he swerved crazily to the other side, leaping over the median strip. The women in the rear began to scream.
Sage lunged sideward, making a wild grab for the steering wheel. Knott turned his head and stared with stupid, terror-stricken eyes at his boss. He gave a frightened yip and let go of the wheel. Eric Butcher reached over the front seat and gave Knott an almighty shove, ramming the chauffeur solidly against the driver-side door, even as he dove for the wheel himself. The ancient door gave a startled grunt and flung open, hurtling Knott out of the vehicle like a pathetic rag doll.
Father and son were frenziedly trying to regain control of the vehicle. But it was too late. The Mercury traversed the expressway like a feral meteor and went tearing into a large Banyan tree.
Sage’s last thought was no thought at all. His mind was just too fuzzed to comprehend anything. His skull was saturated with monster shrieks from every direction and all he could manage was to make a despairing grab for his little daughter. But he couldn’t find her. Then a blinding flash of lightening socked his brain, like a hundred silver spears, and Sage Butcher blacked out.
That same year...Wednesday, April 12...
The playground of St. Teresa Children’s Home, an orphanage, was flourishing this warm evening. It was closing in on six pm and the sun would not call it quits for an hour still.
Sister Toynette Severin Bracko, age fifty-two, sat with her deputy, Sister Clara, twenty-seven, on red modular chairs under a shade tree and watched the kids play.
There were no divisions here—the boys and the girls played as one. There were five separate groups this evening, spread out over the large ground, and the one nearest to the Sisters were playing a strange mix of football and tag. One girl, especially, kept catching Sister Toynette’s attention. Her name was Robin and she was six and a half years old. She was smaller than all others she played with, but what engrossed Sister Toynette was her boundless energy and athleticism. She chased the ball relentlessly, beating boys twice her size to its possession.
The ball was kicked by a biggish boy this time. It soared in the air, then curled and descended, and disappeared into a largish brush near the compound wall. While all the kids chased it, they stopped short on the fringe of the six feet high thicket, even the boys, suddenly too scared to venture in. But Sister Toynette saw Robin dash in without any hesitation. For a moment she disappeared, then re-emerged, ball in hand, a triumphant look in her blue eyes, and a lot of dirt on her clothes. Sister Toynette beckoned her.
“Be careful,” she said, after she had dusted the girl with her hands.
Brave girl, the Sister thought, thinking also that the brush along the compound wall had grown too big and badly needed attention. But the gardener, an aging fellow called Alan Gower, had gone down with a serious bout of typhoid and recovery was taking just too long. Sister Blessing, head of the Children’s Home, had insisted that she would wait for Gower, an old hand who’d been with the Home from the very beginning.
As Sister Toynette watched Robin, she thought what sort of a mother would abandon a child so pretty and vibrant. She was easily the best kid in the Home and not just for her physical abilities. She unfailingly placed first in her class every time.
The ball went into the bush once again and inevitably Robin it was who went in to retrieve. She is a natural leader, Sister Toynette told herself, watching the girl rematerialize in a jiffy, ball in hand. She watched her kick the ball, which went flying toward the heavens with surprising power. Sister Toynette and Sister Clara exchanged smiles.
“What sort of a mother would forsake such a child?” Sister Clara said, echoing Sister Toynette’s own thoughts.
“Not a very good one at all, be sure.”
“A pathetic one, if you ask me.”
The ball went into the brush for the third time and unfailingly Robin pursued it. And then a sharp scream tore out of the thicket. Sister Toynette’s heart gave a leap of alarm and she was on her feet in an instant. The boys and girls had flocked around the bush, but no one dared to go in.
“Back! Back!” Sister Toynette shouted, brushing them aside. Her heart was racing as she blindly cut through the bush. In a small clearing within was Robin. She was kneeling on the ground, clutching her right wrist and weeping softly, and Sister Toynette saw drops of blood. Oh, the girl has cut herself a bit, Sister Toynette thought, exhaling relief.
“You’re alright, girl, you’re alright. It’s just a little scratch...don’t cry now, you’re such a brave girl,” she said, going down on her haunches beside Robin and inspecting the wound.
Then her eyes fell on something. Slithering away into the thicket on the other side was a snake. Its head was triangular, its body thick like a grown man’s forearm, and it was about five feet long. Sister Toynette shuddered, for she had immediately recognized the creature. It was a Rattler, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. Only last week, a local herpetological group had given a lecture-demonstration at the Home and the information was still vivid in Sister Toynette’s head. Her chest cramped with fear. Although not many types of snakes are found on the islands of the north Pacific, New Halcyon was an exception. Being home to the Western Wall, one of the world’s most wholesome natural habitat, it has a fair variety of these reptiles, many of them venomous.
She stared at the two clear fang marks on Robin’s wrist, blood trickling out of them. The forearm had begun to swell and the adjoining flesh had started to go a dirty red. Without anymore thought, Sister Toynette hauled the girl into her arms and was dashing out of the bush and toward one of the buildings that had the in-house infirmary. She began to utter a silent prayer, even as her pace automatically increased, oblivious to the great agitation of the kids following her, aware only of the great thudding of her heart. She glanced down at Robin and saw that the girl had stopped crying; her eyes were shut tight and her face was contorted in a deep frown. We have to save her...oh, Lord Jesus, mercy! Sister Toynette kept entreating. Nonetheless, she knew that the chances of the girl making it were slight. As they neared the building, Sister Toynette began shrieking for help.
Saturday, September 29, 2007...
This was Wolf Butcher’s first public appearance since the great Butcher tragedy and President Grant Butcher was an anxious man. He covertly glanced at the young man sitting beside him in the Toyota sedan. Wolf seemed calm on the outside, but Grant knew what hurricanes still swirled inside of him, and Grant himself hurt as a result. It had been over a year and a half since the deaths, yet Wolf’s wounds simply refused to heal.
On his part, Grant missed Sage the most. The young man had been more than a son to him. At first, Sage had joined his father, Eric, in business, but in time had realized that commerce wasn’t his brew after all, and he had quit, to sign-up with Grant. That had been four years before the tragedy, and ever since, Sage had been Grant’s right-hand man, taking care of his office, helping him win the Presidential elections. Grant now glanced at his son, Art, sitting passively in the front seat next to the chauffeur. Oddly, Art had taken strongly after Eric. What Grant and Sage had shared, Eric and Art shared—the same vision in life, the same likes and dislikes, the same principles... Both Eric and Art were hardcore businessmen, and although they swore by honesty, there was always an escape clause, called ‘Being Practical’, that excused almost any practice. This was something not acceptable to Grant, but he never interfered. It wasn’t his place to...not unless any law was clearly violated.
The catastrophe had been an unspeakable disaster for the remainder of the Butcher family. For Grant, it had been a nightmare coping with his own grief, while taking care of his brother’s son. Wolf had gone into complete shock, then had turned suicidal, then had become a vegetable, and Grant had been truly scared. He had taken the lad under his care, been his constant companion, and somehow kept him breathing. Just barely.
Look at him, Grant thought now, feeling a pang in his bosom. Wolf’s beautiful male body had shriveled—once one-hundred-eighty pounds of robust energy, he had lost thirty pounds in the last nineteen months. The eyes, once lively green, had gone dull and withdrawn. The hair, once luxuriant blond, had gone a lifeless yellow. The face, once a healthy tan, had shrunk to a pale white. Lines of ageing had appeared on the cheeks and around the eyes and mouth—a face that had begun to sag prematurely. The voice, once so pulsating that it had stopped young girls’ hearts across the globe, was now a hollow echo. The carriage, once so full of spring, like some fine leopard’s, had wilted and now he almost hunched. The attitude, once so keen, had now given up on life. Here was a brilliant boy who had aged thirty years in a year and a half. Oh, this is not the Wolf that I know.
Now, as the remains of the family—and it included Grant’s wife Estelle and Art’s wife Rochelle, who were seated in the middle row of the sedan—proceeded to the silver jubilee function of the St. Teresa Children’s Home, Grant Butcher glanced at Wolf again and a lump came to his throat.
As usual, Wolf had not wanted to go. But this time around, Grant had been firm. He had been almost angry with the boy for the first time ever.
“You cannot go on like this, son. I am there to support you, but finally you must want to be helped,” he’d said. “It is vital you attend this function. We are the chief patrons of the Home, indeed the only patron, and your mother was involved here full-time. It is a major family occasion.”
So finally, Wolf had tugged along...most listlessly.
Grant understood Wolf’s unrelenting inert grief was principally due to the loss of his beloved daughter. It had profoundly affected him…beyond imagination. Philippa’s death had been out of the blue and had swallowed Wolf up in a bottomless fog of grief—a void, an emptiness, that had inundated his heart, his lungs, that had strangled his ability to think, to even breathe. An infinite ocean of sadness had swamped his every cell, every fiber…his whole being.
Philippa wasn’t just his daughter—she was his life…his All, and just when he was on the cusp of getting it on paper, she was cruelly snatched from him. They talk of ‘Matches Made In Heaven’. But why is it always in the romantic context? Why not a bond that is even higher…purer? Could there have been a match more wholesome, more uplifting, more worthy of Heaven than this father-daughter? Grant thought. Grant was sure that had things been the reverse, had Wolf died instead, it would have been similarly disastrous for Philippa.
Now, they neared the Home and Grant was startled to see a huge crowd at the entrance. So the word had somehow gone out that the big Hollywood moviestar would be visiting. He noticed Wolf cower instantly.
The crowd surged as the sedan approached the main gate and then there was a stampede. Policemen swung into action, but they were badly outnumbered and the Toyota was forced to a complete halt. Grant saw Wolf duck. Luckily, the car’s glasses were plastered with dark sun-film. Grant placed a soft hand on Wolf’s lowered head.
It was ten minutes before some semblance of order was restored and by then the sedan had lost one headlamp and the bodywork had been broadly redone. Grant let out a soft whimper. Perhaps I should have permitted the Presidential security to tag along this one time.
Police reinforcements had arrived by now and they pushed the crowd back, allowing the sedan to move into the Home premises. Then they quickly secured the gate.
The anxious reception party was waiting at the main building—the Sisters and other dignitaries, and Grant gently took hold of Wolf’s arm. And then a huge cheer volcanoed in the background—at last they had spotted the mega-moviestar. Grant noticed a fresh surge forward as the crowd went almost ballistic. Two contrasting emotions swept through him. One of great pride, that his boy was still so popular, so loved, and yet fear, that the crowd would manage to break through. His hold around Wolf’s arm tightened instinctively, and his body shielding Wolf, he led him into the safety of the building.
They were seated on the big dais, the Butchers. To Wolf’s right sat Grant and Estelle, to his left, Art and his wife. Besides the Butchers, there were three other people on the stage: Judge Ian Cass, the Chief Justice of the nation’s Supreme Court, and the chief of the National Adoption Board—a diminutive man in his early sixties; Cardinal Valerian Misquitta, in his late sixties; and Sister Blessing, head of the St. Teresa Children’s Home, a spinster in her late fifties. Together with Grant and Art, these three were the trustees of the Home.
There were over a thousand people packed in the massive hall, mostly children, and Wolf noticed all eyes were squarely on him. Although he was used to the public gaze, had even relished it at times, it felt very strange today. Today, he wanted to run, to hide, and would have done so had it not been for Grant. His proximity made all this somewhat bearable.
The formalities ended and Grant was called upon to speak. Wolf watched him get to his feet, and he felt as if his protective cloak was suddenly being snatched from him and he felt more naked than ever before. Somehow, Grant seemed to sense it and he leaned low and placed a comforting hand over Wolf’s.
Wolf bowed his head and began studying the floor between his feet as Grant began to speak, not daring to look at the people before him any longer. But it didn’t help and his uneasiness only grew. And then it threatened to get out of control. Finally, Wolf looked up and he looked at Grant. And he kept looking at him and felt reassured again. What would he have done without this beautiful man, without the overwhelming support and comfort he had received from him in the last nineteen months? There had been many times (oh, countless!) when he was on the verge of losing it. But for this man, he would have. Somehow, Grant had held him together. Wolf felt a sudden surge of affection for him and he swallowed rapidly as his eyes misted.
As he watched Grant, another reflection came to Wolf and he shook his head in wonderment. What a marvel of a human being this man is otherwise too, he thought. Here is the President of the nation, the most powerful man, with all the privileges of the world at his feet. And yet, he refuses them all. Grant wouldn’t stay in the palatial Presidential residence at the tax-payer’s cost, preferring to reside at the family home. He wouldn’t have the all-encompassing, round-the-clock security that was a given for a man in his position. “Perhaps I am being naive, but I really do not think I have enemies,” he’d say. And he didn’t. His policies were so people friendly, so all-embracing, so very transparent, he somehow managed to melt the most hardened and hostile heart. Indeed, he completely dispensed with any official security when on a private visit like this. “It would just not be right,” he’d say simply. The same went with the other stuff. He disdained using the presidential vehicles to move around, choosing instead one of the family cars. No roads were ever shut down when the President had to pass—no citizen was ever inconvenienced on his account. How can the people of this country not love such a man? Wolf thought. And how can I not feel totally blessed to have this man in my life?
Wolf had decided, though he had told no one of this yet, that he would follow in his brother’s wake; he would join Grant, be his right hand man, like Sage had been. That way, he could be close to him at all times. He was calling it quits at Hollywood. It was time he did something real in life, something productive and meaningful, and who better than this man to show the light.
And then the speech was over and Dad had spoken for barely five minutes and Wolf instinctively knew that he had kept it short so he could return to Wolf. As Grant lowered himself in his chair, he smiled at Wolf, then quietly patted his hand and gave it a little squeeze, and Wolf smiled back and exhaled.
It was Art Butcher’s turn now to speak—now the world’s richest man, inheriting the Forbes title from Eric Butcher, having inherited the latter’s wealth. For a while, Wolf watched him, thinking how strong the man was. Art had been deeply attached to Wolf’s father, and, like the rest, he had been crushed. But how swiftly he had recovered and moved on. In a way, Wolf envied him. There’s something about these business people. Observing Art make his speech and donate a million dollars to the orphanage—to thunderous applause—Wolf couldn’t help wonder how dissimilar Art physically was from the rest of the Butchers. He was barely five feet eight, had raven eyes and hair, and generally features that resembled no other Butcher. A thought struck Wolf...but then he was immediately ashamed. I shouldn’t be freaking thinking this way! Wolf watched Art’s comportment as he spoke—the cultivated professional manner. He was the reserved type—always had been; the mature type. And so correct in everything he did—whether it was the way he spoke, the way he dressed, even the way he walked and smiled. Everything was measured and in place. Wolf thought he would die of asphyxiation if he had to live in the man’s boots for even a minute.
Yet, Wolf liked and admired his big brother. Not just because he was family. That was important, true, but the man had sterling qualities to him. One was his single-minded devotion to his profession. Since Art had joined Eric, the company had expanded ten-fold in no time and gone on to become the top business house in the world. More important, though, was Art’s commitment to the family. Although he himself didn’t dabble directly in social causes, he never shirked from contributing financially to any cause the family might choose to patronize, and there were many.
If there was one thing Wolf felt really bad about was that Art would never be a father. Wolf knew how badly his brother had wanted children. They had tried for many years, then finally sought medical assistance. And the cause had been quickly established—it was Rochelle. How shattering it must have been for him, Wolf thought. And yet, Art never forsook his stoic patience, never showed his disappointment, never blamed his wife for it, not by the slightest word, deed or indication. If only I had some of the man’s poise and grace. What truly sealed Art’s fate on this front was that he would never divorce his wife no matter what. For, Art was a staunch Catholic and he would rather die than go against the most fundamental principles of his faith. Rochelle would be his first and final life-partner.
Wolf felt equally bad for Art’s wife. Here was the sweetest woman one could come across, of middle-class upbringing, who Art had met at a play. She had been essaying the lead part and Art had been instantly smitten by the large soulful hazel eyes, the lush brown waist-length hair and the high cheek bones. Rochelle was a simple woman, who nonetheless had seamlessly integrated into the ways of the affluent. Even if no one remotely talked about it, Wolf knew this fine woman would forever cart the stigma of being the barren one. He could tell from her eyes every time he looked at her—there was a vague sadness in them, the subtlest hints of it, which nevertheless his actor’s sensibilities clearly snatched. He doubted though that Art could see.
Wolf now looked away from Art and into the crowd once more. Their eyes were still on him—searching, probing, trying to get into his very essence. He breathed deeply and endeavored to be brave.
He avoided the adults in the gathering and instead let his gaze roam among the children, feeling safer with them. All of them were either orphaned or abandoned, he knew, without any true family to speak of. And watching them, Wolf realized how freaking lucky he had been all his life. And he realized more—that despite being unwanted, there was something to these children. It was reflected in the sparkle in their eyes. Despite a crippled childhood, there was trust in those eyes—a hope of a better future, and Wolf was suddenly ashamed of himself. He was so caught-up in his own grief, as if his grief was the only grief that mattered in the world, as if he was the only one afflicted on the planet. How full of yourself can you be, you spoilt brat!
And how long am I going to burden this amazing man beside me with the weight of my troubles? Look at him...Grant had in effect lost his son, a boy so close to his heart, a boy he had leaned on so heavily in his public and personal life. He had been devastated too. But he had recovered, triggered by his responsibilities and the added burden that he, Wolf, had placed on him over these past several months. It was time to get responsible.
And yet, quite frankly, he didn’t know how to do it. For, Wolf also realized that he’d had such a privileged life, he hadn’t really learnt how to cope with the genuine difficulties that life bestowed on the less fortunate. He realized how hopelessly impotent he was when confronted with real life in the real world. That was his tragedy. Me and my incredible success and great fame...some good it has done me.
How long he had been watching her, he didn’t know, but it was only now that it registered. One girl in the whole bunch of kids that caught his attention, so much so he bolted upright in his seat.
Sweet shit! Wolf gasped. I don’t freaking believe this! It was his daughter, Philippa...there, right there before him in the middle of the front row! A Philippa who had grown older by a couple of years. A seven or eight year old Philippa.
Wolf found his flesh begin to crawl. This can’t be!
He rubbed his eyes as if to wipe the illusion away. But the girl remained, as real and alive as Dad beside him. Philippa! My little Butterfly! But how was that freaking possible! Tricks of the mind, he told himself. Now you’ve even begun to hallucinate! With a great effort, he turned his eyes away, and then kept them away, for a couple of minutes, although those two minutes felt like several ages. Finally, he turned back to her.
She had gone nowhere. Except now she was staring at him too. Their eyes met and there must have been something strange in his gaze, for a curious look came into the little girl’s eyes, as if to say, why are you looking at me like that?
Wolf’s heart was really thumping now. I must sound Dad! He was now sure he wasn’t having delusions. Yet, rationality hollered it just couldn’t be. His eyes darted around in panic...then he froze. He noticed Art watching him slyly, yet very closely, almost with a deep interest. For a moment, Wolf stared back stupidly at his brother, but then recovered and flushing with embarrassment, he hastily looked away, even as Art himself hurriedly averted his gaze. Sweet shit! Am I so freaking transparent? At that time, and in that situation, he didn’t realize that Art had been gazing at him not just with deep interest but that there had been a light of triumph in his brother’s eyes.
Wolf turned back to the girl who had caused so much alarm in him. And finally he understood that this was not Philippa, it was someone incredibly like her. The similarities were mind-boggling: the swimming blue eyes, the expressions in them—of innocence blended with intrinsic intelligence; the thin straight nose that curved up cutely at the tip; the wideish forehead; the full cheeks that glinted in the light; the thin red lips... A freaking photocopy. Sweet shit!
Wolf bit his tongue hard. Oh, god, why are you doing this to me now?! Please...I’m in no condition to endure it! But then, despite, and amidst the million goose-bumps all over his body and his pummeling heart, he felt something ignite in his soul, a rekindling spark. For the first time since the family tragedy, he felt enlivened, his green eyes alight with new life. In that instant, he knew he had to have this girl—if he was to breathe again, if he was to start living again. He clenched his fists tightly as he felt himself shudder with the thrill of fresh hope.
Then his gaze fell on something else on the girl’s person, that wasn’t remotely like Philippa. He looked closely, not believing he was seeing what he was. His heart gave a sharp pang of agony. The girl had only one arm. A beautiful little girl who was dreadfully disfigured. And Wolf Butcher felt an uprising of emotion, which rose from his belly and choked his throat. No! Oh, Jesus, NO!