Shailen Mishra holds a PhD in English Studies from Illinois State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University. At Illinois State University, his work was recognized with the Tom Kuster Creative Writing Award, and he served on the masthead of the poetry journal Spoon River Poetry Review. Currently, he is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Delaware. His stories have appeared in The Bookends Review and The Shine Journal.
Between Bears and Bees
Boka makes the muzzle of the rifle dance. “Banda ye bindaas hai,” he sings and jerks the rifle around. Broken . . . bloody, a tuneless broken record he is. Bad light is upon us already and the night will fall soon. Bridal red is my favorite color, and to see the west sky redden like that gives me a funny feeling.
Boka finds a boulder to his liking to perch the rifle. Blowing a cloud of dust off its surface, he breaks into the song again, bobbing his head. Basically, it’s going to be his show since Boss chose him over me to use the 0.22 imported rifle. Both of us carry our regular business with desi kattas, and for that matter everybody else in the gang. But for today’s mission, Boss didn’t want to take any chance, so he personally handed Boka the special rifle from his chest. Birds like Boka are not fit to handle sophisticated weapons I tell you. Better to entrust your plan to an ape.
Butchery is our profession, so to speak. Be it women, old folks, or children, we don’t discriminate. Bear gang they call us for a reason, and we have a reputation of honoring a murder contract even if a man has to be pulled out of his funeral pyre. Boss called the two of us last night and told us that this fatherless boy of sixteen must die, and we must chop his wings off. Between you and me, I am not squeamish. Been part of a raid before, when a kid as young as five came in my way, and I didn’t care about bleeding him for good. Blood runs hot in a siege and when you’re out to kill grown-ups, their children seem fair game. But what bothers me is that Boss chose Boka. Boasting is not my thing, so I won’t say that I am a great marksman no matter the light. But let it be known that I own the record of getting it in the eye of a rival while aiming from a moving bike. Be that as it may, I question this business of killing a fatherless kid when I wasn’t given an explanation.
Bootlegging used to be our trade until the alcohol proportion went wrong one night and eighty-three people died. Before dawn, the police were after us, raiding our shop, houses, hangouts, and whatnot. Bihar was the place where we wanted to escape initially, because the law walks upside down there. But Boka at the last minute balked. Biharis are no friend of outsiders, he judged. Better off we’re in our own state than in a stranger’s land. Boy, to listen to him talk like that will make you think he has the wisdom of a sage. But his name is Boka, after all, and with a name like that you’re better off trying to persuade a cabbage.
Bihar or not, I just wanted to kick the police off our tail. Blundering through jungles and scavenging on berries are no fun ways to be. Businessmen we are, after all, and no bushmen of Kalahari. Boka has the stamina and agility of a wrestler. Burly like a bull he likes to call himself. But I, on the other hand, get winded easily if I have to walk uphill for more than ten minutes. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. But do you know what our morning meal was when we were on the run? Berries! Bloody four fucking times a day.
Back home, who knows what our mothers and sisters would have suffered at the hand of the police? Before I left, I didn’t have a chance to say a proper goodbye to my mother. Being discreet was our only chance of getting away. Bound to nowhere we originally were, then Bihar became our plan, and when Boka balked, I told him I have had enough. Because of another escapee who I knew had run off to the northwest part of our state, we came straight here. Before long, we joined the Bear gang, which gave us guns and a clear set of prey to target. Boka may not concede this but it’s true that ultimately it was my idea (never mind Boka’s reluctance to go to Bihar) that ended up saving our lives. Been more than a year here as gang members, and we walk around untouched, carefree. Biggest truth of life is that man is lightweight and prone to being blown away, if not anchored by bruteness, money, and power. Before we got here, I knew the world is unevenly balanced, but the extent to which it’s skewed became clear to me when a gun was thrust into my hand and my target became the Bee people. Battered, bruised, and brooding is the way I would describe the Bee people and most of the time their scars are courtesy of us. Bit of a quandary, if you ask me, that the Bee people who belong to this land have to put up with us intruders. But since the honey turned out to be so sweet, someone has to steal it.
Boka rubs the tip of the bullets against his shirt and pushes them one by one into the chamber. Beads of sweat have started to gather on the bald spot of his crown. “Bugger,” he says, “it looks like tonight will be a full moon night. Bit of scenery here, isn’t it?”
“Boulders, that’s all,” I say to discourage him.
“But look at the valley down there. Bet you a hundred that a bunch of sambars are lurking there.”
“Bet two hundred then, and we can go there as soon as we get the boy.”
Both of us are perched between two larger boulders atop a hillock. Below us the road runs, barren and soulless. Barely four hundred feet away the road vanishes sharply behind the south face of the hillock and will be the entry point of the lad. Bicycle or motorbike, whatever his vehicle of choice and speed of motion, targeting him with a powerful gun will not be a problem. But the question is, should we kill him and do things to him that Boss has asked for?
“Been thinking about home lately,” Boka says, feeling for a good spot on the boulder to minimize the recoil.
Birds and butterflies are rare here. Boka can get sentimental that way.
“Burning dreams are bothering me lately, right before the daybreak, which makes me think they will come true. By the threshold of my room, I see this girl standing in bridal clothes and her left foot raised and she’s about to knock over the brass pot. Bindi. Bangles. Banarasi sari. Bow-shaped lips. Bells ringing from her anklets.”
“Babbling like this surely suits your name.”
“Bhai, must you always piss on my happiness?”
Behind us the slope of the hillock dips, but slowly enough so that I don’t get dizzy looking at it. Before I could get to the slope, Boka teases: bunking?
“Bathroom break!” I snap.
Between you and me, Boka doesn’t know that I am actually younger than him. But not infrequently he addresses me as “Bhai” as if he owes me respect. Brand of a man’s making comes from his heredity, and in Boka’s case it was his father, who was a desperate borrower and who died by pissing on a live electric wire because he was too drunk to know the difference. Boka doesn’t feel the burden of redeeming himself, but if I were him I would strangle anyone for making my lineage look bad. Burdened or not, I don’t like living under the weight of anything or anyone. Boss doesn’t think he owes us an explanation because we are his lackeys, and that sort of smugness bugs me. Boka, on the contrary, thinks it’s none of our business. Business, he says the word in English. Bit of selfish-thinking hasn’t hurt anybody, which is not only good for the soul but it’s essential like oxygen. Boka isn’t smart enough to get it and no matter what I say he wouldn’t agree that maybe we should abduct this boy first, torture him a bit, get to know the truth of what he owes Boss or maybe his father did, and then carry out Boss’s order. Both of us are still new to the area, so I get Boka’s apprehension that we can’t cross the wrong people, let alone fuck with the orders of a mental gang leader, who treats disobedience the same as treachery. But following orders makes you disposable, so much so that your brain and balls are shot, and the only thing left to be carted off is your body. Boss, who is stingy with praise, said the other day that the two of us are doing a stellar job and living by the gang’s code like a natural. By that he meant we’re now as much a dogmatic bonehead like him and his army, who buzz all day long until our ears ring and who snitch on each other when one of us doesn’t buzz the right way. Bears take their pledge of fealty by reciting the line that “Bees beget Bears.” Born into brotherhood with such a sadistic oath, such killers should make anyone’s hair stand up on the back.
By the time I finish peeing and return, bleakness of the twilight invades us from the valley below. Beer bottle shards on the ground come to my attention for the first time. Bellies of the boulders swell with crude chalk marks of cocks and pussies. Boozy youths likely kill their spare time at this elevated spot.
Boka’s body gets tense, as he rocks forward the bolt and disengages the safety. Bizarre or not, Boka gets plagued with premonition when his target gets closer. Bulk of the daylight is now on the other side of the hillock and I don’t know if Boka can see his target. Borders of the bend glow a bit and the motorbike with its headlight glowing “turns the chicane” as they say in motor-racing. Billowing dust trail shoots from the back of the motorbike and against that cloudy backdrop, the silhouette of the boy is painted and so are his wings and so are the two antennas sticking out from his helmet. Bang! Bulk of the boy’s head gets hacked off and the bike crashes to the ground, trapping the boy’s right leg. Boka follows his ritual of kissing the stock, licking his right palm, and whistling, since he got the target on the first shot. Both of us amble down the hillock with Boka leading the way. Bike’s headlight cuts a beam through the road, bouncing off the hillock’s face. Boka hands me the rifle and gets the knife out while I extricate the boy’s gangly body from under the bike. Bottles of honey are packed in his backpack. Boka sets out to sever the wings, one by one. Blood squirts out in measly amount, a sign that the boy was anemic. By the time Boka gets to the last wing, the evening fully sets in. Beaming light of the moon animates Boka’s labor as the sweat drips off his face.
“Bhai,” he asks, “how about we make a phone call to our families? Been long enough already.”
“But the police?”
“Bakwas! Baanchod police must have better things to do than worry about a couple of fugitive bootleggers.” Blood on the wings makes them slippery, so they need to be carefully handled. Besides, Boka is terribly clumsy so he has to be extra cautious. Bundling the wings together and tying them with the boy’s belt, he places them in the backpack so as not to get them damaged. Boss must have hated the boy’s family madly to have his wings cut off, and why so we will never know. Bee people are particularly sentimental when it comes to death. Before burying their dead, they cleanse, spruce, decorate, and perfume the wings so that the soul can fly off to heaven without problem. Bereaved relatives go to extreme lengths to fix nicked or damaged wings to get them looking as good as new and to send off the dead with a loving gesture. But to have no wings for the funeral will be quite a blow to the boy’s family.
“Bhai,” Boka hums, “you know how much I respect you. But your paranoia of not calling our families has gone on for too long and my mother will think that I’m dead.”
“By the end of this month then.”
“By the month end?”
Blokes of the loony asylum don’t even talk the way we do. Book this, book that, as if we were a bunch of juveniles. But that’s the way Bear gang talks, when they need to extract a promise.
“Being the only son of the family isn’t easy,” Boka says. “Bou was bedridden already before we fled, so she can’t be doing well without me, without her son by her side. Baas, hearing my voice will uplift her spirit. Bhai, you should call your family too and let them know that you’re fine and alive.”
Boka grins and in his euphoria he almost drops the bag of wings and honey. By the roadside lies the boy’s body, half of his head blown off, one remaining antenna snapped, and the wings stripped, as both of us walk away, wading through a terrain of uneven boulders and scattered shrubs. Boka feels in charge, I can tell from his stride, since he’s carrying the more important stuff now, while I carry the rifle.
“Biting the dust” is one way to put it, but this region reminds me of it constantly. Bleached of color, endlessly sun-ravaged, and I fear the earth will split open and swallow me whole. Bones and flesh can’t tread this earth without grating and grinding. Blending with the earth does not buy chameleon permanent security, since sooner or later he will be discovered unless the whole land becomes his.
“Boka, we shouldn’t call,” I say firmly, making up my mind about a couple of things.
“But you booked it?”
“But I’m allowed to change my mind.”
“Bhai, why must you do this to me?” Boka squats down and seems reluctant to move as if he were protesting. Being the voice of reason to a man-child is quite a test. Blow them bubbles of cuddle and comfort all the time and still they throw tantrums. Bloodsuckers!
“Both of us don’t belong here,” he bemoans, “and you know that one day they will chop us down. Boss’s eyes are always hungry and every month he singles out one or more as traitors and blasts them with bullets. Bajrangi, Bimal, Ballu, Bheja, Bunty, and the rest have demons in their minds, and they see everybody as their rivals. Bit of a slip and they’ll cast us off. Better off we’re in prison and around our family than among these madmen.”
“But we’re in it now.”
“Bee like we buzz all day! Babies don’t even babble like the way we do. B...B...BBBBB. Bhai, can’t you see that this honey is cursed? Bee people don’t fight back for a reason, because they have already taken their revenge. Before you and I get trapped, we have to leave.”
Bulk of him slouches forward in despair and I sense the opportunity to put him at ease.
“Boka, you’re like a dear brother to me. Bear in mind that whatever I’m doing is for our own good. Between prison and freedom, I will win us freedom.”
“Because I’ll become the boss soon.”
Bang! Boulders have a way of returning the sound back to you. Back to you. Back to you. Bitter and powdery stuff are stuck to the roof of my palate. Bodies have a bizarre way of contorting themselves once life is knocked out and by the sight of it you can tell that man needs additional help to make life memorable, or why do the Bee people go to great lengths to make their dead feel remarkable? Boka wouldn’t have done this to me if I had slipped and such faith was dangerous because sooner or later the complacency would have led me to slip up before others. Better Boka than me. Both of us had permanently left. Bears we are now, who can’t live without honey, not because we need it, rather we must have it. Burning my mind and tongue with the Bear gang’s code was not easy, but I did so to stop running and to become an original one day by imitating a bunch of barbarians.
By a lonesome brush, Boka’s head rests. Bridal color is my favorite color I’ve told you, but that doesn’t mean I want to see it on my friend’s face. Bottles of honey jangle in the backpack, which I retrieve into my possession. Beyond a boulder pile I see the giant babool tree under which we had parked our motorbike, and thereto I walk. By the tree’s feet I take rest and twist open a bottle. Before I could take a sip, a bit of heavy and tart buzz tickles the back of my throat, tempting me to say my name, my real one before the Bear gang replaced it with one starting with the letter “b.” Beautiful like a dew drop is how my mother used to describe my name. But my tongue, my mind, couldn’t coordinate to say it anymore. Barred, blocked, blotted, blipped . . . bloody bamboozled bucking bizzarrrrrrrrrd…broooohhh brooooooohhh....
Back home someone remembers my name still and rolls it off the tongue like I’m still there. Bothered not by any code or game. Bewitched not by blood or power. Boka is there too, boasting how burly he is, like a bull. Bedecked in flower and jewelry his bride awaits him to turn in her direction. “Book it!” someone calls before a bullet is fired, and I take a swig of honey. Buzz as sharp as broken glass travels down my trachea, leaving me drained and sad. But like the inconvenient voices of the past, this one too shall be buried.
“ This story started from a self-challenge, a writing constraint: how about a story where each sentence starts with the letter 'b'? It was whimsical and playful at first, but I started to like the narrative voice that emerged from the challenge. Later, the theme took shape: from the letter 'b' to bees, and everything beautiful and inspiring that species represents, and how that could be a metaphor for societal tension. This story has been at work for many years now. But the more I worked on it, the more natural the constraint felt. ”