News of the virus lurking outside Arun’s doorstep consumed his mind. It made him lonely, irritated, frustrated, and rebellious; generally mad. The worried thoughts also expanded the horizons of his body.
One solution suggested by his muse, Chitra, was to work it out! Get up early and walk briskly for an hour.
Arun retreated behind his defences: a stiff upper lip, a pint of beer, crinkle-cut potato chips, and his favourite authors; all within the embrace of the worn-out stuffed armchair arranged in the darkest corner of his library in which he could relax with the push of a lever.
After the second pint or after three chapters, whichever came last, Arun’s head drooped, and eyes closed. On one of those days and in one of those states, aided by the elements above, Arun grabbed straws from the memory bank he could access and travelled to his childhood days.
Arun remembered his childhood as virus-free and care-free. He had few friends, but he was happy playing by himself.
Rarely did his grandparents entertain visitors. And when they did entertain, it was always the same. An elderly doctor couple, a high court judge and his young wife, parents of two of his classmates with whom he shared the top honours in class, and a sprinkling of aunts and uncles who visited twice a year at various intervals.
Arun’s grand-uncle was the lone exception. On one of his visits to Trichur from Malaysia, he brought Scotch and cheese. This was the only time Arun remembered having had processed food: Kraft cheese.
Like every other night, the lights went off precisely at 7 p.m. as part of energy conservation. Holding a burning candle to shield the breeze, Arun watched the brothers tap a Swiss Army knife on top of the Kraft can to open it. The cheese, prised out in chunks with the knife, lasted the evening. At age seven, Arun got his first taste of both – whiskey and cheese!
The next day the domestic help hammered down the can’s jagged edges with a round rock, cleaned it, bored a hole in the middle with a rusty nail, threaded a long string made of thin coir, and handed it to Arun. When the monsoons permitted, Arun ran around the house, dragging it over stones and concrete, wearing down the bright colours and letters on the can, and himself.
Holding a burning candle to shield the breeze, Arun watched the brothers tap a Swiss Army knife on top of the can to open it. The cheese, prised out in chunks with the knife, lasted the evening. At age seven, Arun got his first taste of both – whiskey and cheese!
Decades later, on the first day of spring in 2020, Chitra, Arun’s wife, thawing from a harsh winter, interrupted his dreamy state. Till then, she had made Arun the foods he liked during the self-imposed quarantine, which they broke once a week with a long drive and once a month for grocery shopping.
Like the turkey she helped stuff once for a Thanksgiving meal, she also fed him scenic images of landscapes around Ontario’s province: big and small water bodies; sunsets and sunrises; winding country roads; misty rolling countryside; and thick vegetation with no concrete and glass structures within sight.
Chitra was prepping Arun to take to the outdoors; she loved to stay in the open as much as possible.
At the end of the month, she invited him to stand on the bathroom scale. The scale groaned, went into a dizzy spell, and then settled flat on the pristine white mosaic floor. The needle rotated twice, jerked a few times, quivered with horror, and stopped.
Arun could not see the numbers beyond the gentle slope that fell from the middle of his chest. All the buttons of the shirt strained within the holes that held them and waited to hear the numbers. The genuine leather belt that choked Arun’s waist and widened the last hole also waited for deliverance.
Chitra bent down, put on her glasses, and announced an insane three-digit number. Arun had no way of seeing or believing this. He was 50 pounds overweight!
Chitra reminded him of her earlier suggestion. Burn down the pounds, one day at a time! Arun felt trapped; there was no other option but to put on his hiking boots.
Since that day, at five every morning, Chitra dragged all of Arun’s protesting pounds over stones, uprooted trees, marshy land, and densely wooded areas. Hiking, she proclaimed, every Friday for two hours, and walks every day for an hour.
Initially, Arun made noises that rivalled the Kraft tin can. Over time, his complaints lost its buzz and were buried in the woods. Then he began to enjoy it, even missed it when naughty weather cast a devilish eye on the hiking plans Chitra zealously hatched every Thursday evening.
Her trick was to go early and beat the rest of the world. The only people who mildly disturbed nature on these two-hour hikes were dog-walkers with their wards. None of them were on a leash though the park signs cautioned them otherwise.
Arun had his strap on earlier on those hikes. When he was disciplined enough, Chitra left it at home. He did not strictly belong to the canine family, but Arun was categorized as such in times of disputes. Otherwise, he had an easy life.
Chitra and Arun excelled at getting lost. On long drives, heated disputes over directions were cooled down by opening all windows and sky light and with the A/C on in full flow. Later, Garmin, the mediator, managed this waywardly status and gave it a general direction.
The Friday hikes were no different. Chitra had downloaded an app that blazed many a trail in the remotest parts of Canada. But the directions the app suggested got the cold shoulder once Chitra hit the trail.
On a recent hike, a dog-walker led them back to civilization. He said they’d have reached Quebec, the next province [exaggeration] if they did not die of dehydration first! Arun suspected Chitra was leading him on an extra few miles to condition him further.
Park signs cautioned dog-minders to scoop the poop after their wards. Most of them do strictly follow the rule. On one hike, Arun saw one person going back to collect when he saw Arun, which made him wonder.
To rest your thoughts, Arun was well trained in that matter. Most washrooms still have closed doors due to COVID, but nature had provided tree trunks wide enough to shoot the breeze. Only at times when mosquitoes get too inquisitive did Arun have to wave it like a flag!
The first time they saw the notice was when Chitra took Arun to the Northumberland forest. The note said, “Bear sightings common on these trails.” They did not walk that day as this was something Chitra was not mentally prepared for. At another park, she steered him clear of such notices. Arun saw it only after they finished the three-hour hike!
Hearing these stories, a good friend presented Chitra with a bear bell, which she tied around Arun’s neck before every hike.
Bears keep clear of humans. When they hear the bell, or other noises, they move away. Except in winter, when they keep their ears to the ground for Christmas bells and Santa’s gifts.
Chitra is now planning to take Arun on a Canoeing trip in bear country. More on this after the trip, either as a live narration or as part of local news in the middle pages of some obscure newspaper with the title “Bear chases couple!”.
Note: The images, mental and digital that accompany this narration are taken during these walks and hikes..
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