It was the winter of 1990, at about the same time when our country was being paraded on the world stage for pennies, when I first realized that fairy tales are an oxymoron. My sister Greta says it’s not what you do but rather what you think that defines you; and yet I find myself inherently drawn towards wild flowers as moth to flame. Pink Oleanders are my favourite ones. In case you are still wondering, this is a story about the perfect murder and how you can get away with one.
Agatha Angela Jones was my step mother by way of her marriage to my father in 1988. I was 15 years old and by the time she became a part of our daily life, I already had a crush on her sensuous lips. The first time I saw her was when my mother died due to somewhat tragic circumstances. Agatha came to the funeral wearing a crimson pout and a black suit that did very little to hide her rather blessed endowments. When granny asked me about the funeral all I could remember was, there were more snickers and blushes in that funeral than at a wedding, to which she replied with a “hmmmph”. Afterwards me and Greta went home and had a glass of ginger-honey lemonade each before being told to go off to bed.
I remember that night I looked at my mother’s picture for a long time while waiting for sleep to take over. She had the most beautiful hair I ever saw. There had been many a theory about how she died but it is the pink oleanders beside the kitchen sink that piqued my mind the most. Sometimes at night, when sleep refuse to offer me relief, I can still imagine her clutching at her throat, gasping for air as she collapsed in a heap in front of the fireplace. The screams as her pallu caught the sparks, me being dragged out of the room while father rushed towards her with a ragged cloth – every sound, every colour and every smell clearly etched in my mind as if it were but yesterday.
It was not until the next winter that I got the letters. It was a rainy weekend in Manali and we were mostly indoors. That day Gretchen, who had learnt a new cuss word, was eager to try it on unsuspecting victims and she had been asking me to rate her pronunciation. Father had gone shopping for the weekly groceries and I was in his office searching for a particularly long wooden ruler to beat Gretchen with. As I went through his cabinets, there was this sudden flash of a curiously familiar flesh that shouldn’t be there.
For a second I was terrified.
So I checked, again. Photos, dozens of them, stacked and tucked in a corner. I took a step back and listened to my heart beats drumming in my ear as I braved myself to pull open the cabinet again. Beside the testimony of guilt was a silver box which I pried open with my fingers. Letters, dated as long as three years back, declaring unwavering love in every sentence imaginable. Agatha Angela Jones.
I was shaking with fury when father came in, but I couldn’t utter a word. It was New Year eve and everybody was busy enjoying the festivities. As soon as we got engrossed in the eggnog, he dropped the bombshell – almost as if he was waiting for us to revive a little. We were told that we could shortly expect to acquire a new mother as he had decided to tie the knot again, and with none other than the respectable Miss Agatha Angela Jones. Outside, I remember, the snow was falling thick and fast and though I was standing in front of the fireplace, I felt goosebumps crawling under my skin.
Agatha was a sensual and large woman with an ego even larger than her hips. It is only after meeting her I understood the relevance of the word “handsome” while describing women with Anglican features. Fiercely beautiful, she was a person who knew her mind, which is more than I could say for myself at this point. The Sunday that father introduced us formally was an Easter and I remembered praying for forgiveness at the Church Services for imagining her black boots on my chest. After lunch, Father went to his office and left his kids and the newly formed fiancée to their wits. I escorted Greta to the backyard garden, and went back in the hope of catching a glance of that blood-red pout. When I reached the door, I saw her through the hallway, kneeling on the new carpet in the living-room, a big cardboard box in front of her, going through my mother’s ornaments.
She was bending over mother’s pearl necklace, when my voice startled her.
“I know what you did.”
“Hans. I didn’t know you were here”, her face a blank mask that refused to be read.
“I know what you did to mother”, I repeated.
“It doesn’t matter anymore, sweetheart. I’m your mother now”, she said, mocking me with her eyes to do anything about it. Head held high, she swept out of the room. A second later, head held even higher, she swept back in, snatched up her purse and was gone again.
They were married that spring. `
One day, nearly two years after the marriage, Agatha asked me & Greta to go hiking with her. Father was out of town and the winter holidays had just begun so we consented. We had reached Willow Point when she said she needed to rest for a while but that we should carry on. So I and Greta went along for what I thought was a good 5 miles. When we went to look for the next leg of the trail and couldn’t find it, we decided to backtrack. That’s when the shadows grew long, and the track got sketchy, so we wound up losing the trail. When we finally made it back to the Willow point, Angela was nowhere to be found. It was dark so we took the familiar road to town and headed home. In the doorway I heard Angela laughing and something burned my skin so hard I scratched it vigorously before peeking through the windows.
It was in that moment, when I saw her with the gardener that I finally decided to pluck those delicate Oleanders for Agatha. I stretched the muffler around my neck as I walked my way back to the godforsaken house through the dense fog, a bunch of wild flowers held tightly in my left fist as I held Greta’s hand in the other.
That evening after dinner, I found Agatha in the kitchen, putting away the plates.
“It’s cold out here”, I uttered. “Care for some hot chocolate?”
Ignoring her tone of surprise I walked across and poured the chocolate in a mug, setting it in front of her and watched her as she took her first sip, the wilted stems tightly crushed in a pile in my pockets, wishing for the miracle to happen. And then I went to sleep. Somewhere in the distance a dog was howling to his mates to join the after party. The huge Grandfather’s clock in the library struck one, echoing a terrible emptiness as it receded into the walls, leaving the mansion quiet once again.
Next morning I woke up to the sound of banging doors. I washed my face then went downstairs to the kitchen – that’s when I first heard the wailing of the gardener’s wife. Her cup was sitting right there, in the kitchen slab, empty to its last drop. I took it and washed it in the sink then turned to face the day’s eventuality with a blank face.
Fairy tales are like chocolates, I thought as I entered her room. Sweet and messy, they are the life’s greatest aphrodisiac until you get a toothache – or a heart ache – from having one too many. Agatha’s face was pallid and she was drawing short quick breaths under her blanket. I noticed for the first time that she had grown pale and slightly haggard since the time we had first met, and that was just over four years ago. There was barely any trace of the lascivious handsomeness that I had so lusted after as a child. The pout which I had originally found so sensual, had now etched itself into her mouth like a scarred tattoo. She stared at me for a moment longer, before her soul ripped apart from its earthly cage. Somehow I felt sorry for her. Perhaps she did it out of a wistfulness of a life that she imagined being in some ways better that the world she was living in, I will never know.
They say everyone who looks into their family history will find a secret sooner or later. That’s the funny thing about secrets. They spill.
This story was shortlisted for the final round of #AWinterInStoryland Story Writing Contest. Read other shortlisted entries here.
Being a contest entry, this story has been posted in its unedited form.