An Apparition By the River
By Aaryana Rajanala
It was about to rain. He could feel it. The air was suffocatingly thick, threatening to collapse in a mass of all-encompassing clouds. It clung to his skin, pressing its way through his entire being, forcing the warm humidity into him. He sighed, tilting his head downwards as he stared at the water, shimmering in the street lights, rippling beneath the footsteps of the ghosts that danced on the river. This had been her favorite weather, the calm before the storm, the stillness that made them ache with the wish that things could always be so peaceful. He rested his elbows on the railing, feeling the icy metal burning his arms. If only she could see how beautiful it was tonight…
“Excuse me,” a small voice said from beside him. He turned reluctantly away from the water and looked downwards to see...a little boy, enveloped by a periwinkle raincoat with the sleeves hanging off his arms, his face barely visible beneath his bright yellow hat, an orange umbrella held over his head, shadowing him from the light. The boy peered up at him with small, curious brown eyes. “Can you please tell me your name?”
He stared at the boy for a while, perplexed by his peculiarity, then nodded, smiling sadly. “My name is Khed,” he said softly.
Be careful, my love, that name is a sweet, dangerous thing.
The boy continued to look up at him, frowning ever so slightly. “Your name means regret?”
Khed nodded and turned back towards the river, placing his arms back on the railing, focusing on the ghosts’ dance, their every step, every turn, every flourish with which they skated on top of the water. “Yes. I think it ended up being kind of fitting. Now, what’s your name?”
“Fitting?” the boy asked, ignoring his question. “Why?”
Khed raised an eyebrow, his interest in this strange child barely overcoming the grief that made it too painful to speak. “Why do you want to know?”
The boy shrugged. “I like stories.”
“You probably like adventure stories, though,” Khed sighed, looking wistfully at the water. “Stories with action and happy endings. Mine is a sad story.”
You can’t say what kind of story it is until you finish it!
“Sad stories can still have happy endings,” the boy said, joining him by the railing. He gripped the thin metal bars with small, gloved hands.
Khed didn’t say anything, looking down briefly at the boy before turning his gaze back to the water, watching it shift and shimmer in the moonlight…
“This was her favorite place,” he mumbled absentmindedly to himself.
“Whose favorite?” the boy asked suddenly.
Khed had nearly forgotten he was there. “A friend of mine,” he replied simply.
“Did she have a name?”
“I don’t think it would make any difference to you.”
He stared up at Khed. “Maybe I know her.”
He shook his head, locks of black hair falling over his eyes, obscuring his vision, hiding the ghosts. “No. There's no chance you could have met her, not the way fate carries on. It would be too fortunate for me to meet someone who knows her.”
Fate is a strange, twisted thing. Every now and then, it comes to our aid. How do you think we met, my love?
The boy stared up at him, watching him carefully, searching for answers Khed could never reveal. “Who was she?”
My sweet, sweet Suhani… “She was a woman who meant a lot to me.”
Awe entered his gaze and he said his next words with reverence. “Were you…in love with her?”
Khed nodded. “Yes, that's right. I loved her so much that I never wanted to let her go.”
Please, Khed, please, please don’t ever let go...
“Are you still in love with her?”
“More than you could ever imagine.”
The boy glanced in all directions, searching for something. He turned back to Khed. “Where is she, then?”
The clouds collapsed, the downpour hitting them fast and hard, the sound thick in their ears. The wind sighed, refusing to provide solace as it drifted past him. Khed shivered, immediately drenched, clothes clinging to his skin, hair dripping, all chilled by the wind.
“I don't know,” he whispered, his voice trembling, the tears mixing with the raindrops on his cheeks.
I love the sound of the rain, how it drowns out all the other noises. It makes it easier to focus on you.
The boy reached over with his umbrella. “Here,” he offered.
Khed shook his head. “Your mother would be very upset if you got wet.”
“That's okay,” the boy insisted, adjusting his hat to keep out the rain.
Khed smiled at the boy, the expression as melancholy as ever. “Thank you,” he said, taking the bright orange umbrella.
“But why don't you know where she is? You said you never wanted to let her go.”
“I didn't have much of a choice.”
I’m sorry, Khed, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry...
The boy didn’t move for a second, watching the river ripple beneath the torrents of rain, distorting the reflections of the light in the water. “Why does she like it here?” he asked, shuffling closer to Khed in an attempt to share the umbrella. The raindrops pounded on his cap, demanding entry, the sound deafening as it filled his ears.
Khed smiled downwards at the boy, moving sideways so that the umbrella sheltered them both. “She loved the water,” he breathed, “the way it never stopped moving and changing to adapt and accommodate...and yet, it remains unyielding to even the most powerful of forces. And she loved the way it sparkled in any kind of light, how reflective it was, how it could show you worlds in a single wave.”
It breathes, Khed, just like us, the ebb and flow, the eternal energy, the perpetual pulse...can you feel it?
“Wow,” the boy gasped, staring at the river, eyes widening with a newfound appreciation.
Khed’s eyes gleamed, shining with a dim reminiscence. “And she used to stand here and watch the ghosts dance on the water, and then she’d try to teach me to follow the steps. Sometimes I could see the edges of translucent dresses, hands in hands, the water rippling to a song I could never quite make out. I saw flower petals floating on the river and eternal laughter ringing through the air. But I could never hear the music.”
It’s a waltz, Khed, you have to feel the beat, the rhythm, match the tempo. See, it’s not so hard! Keep listening, keep listening!
The boy watched the water carefully, as if trying to find the ghosts himself, trying desperately to catch sight of the flowers, the hands, just a glimpse of the apparitions on the water. “I can’t see it,” he said, wilting a little. “How did she see them?”
“She had a special kind of magic.” Khed smiled at the river, watching the ghosts drift elegantly through the rainbows in the mist created by the rain. Maybe he’d be able to join them someday.
“But why isn’t she here right now?” the boy said suddenly, shaking him out of his thoughts. “Why aren’t you two together if you were really in love?”
Khed? Khed, what’s wrong?
“We had a fight,” Khed said simply, his head beginning to pound at the thought of it.
S-Suhani, I...it’s nothing.
“About what?” the boy pressed.
No, Khed, that’s not true. I know you better than that. Don’t lie to me.
“I can’t even remember,” he gasped, gripping the railing. The umbrella almost slipped out of his trembling hand. “It was so long ago and such a short argument and so trivial that I don’t know why it ever happened…” The ghosts slowed down as the rain intensified, as if the storm made it harder for them to continue, like it had overpowered the music.
Please, Suhani, it’s nothing--
“Then why didn’t you just make up with each other? Couldn’t you have said sorry?”
Of course it isn’t nothing! You aren’t feeling good, Khed, and I need to know why, so please just be honest and tell me!
Khed shook his head. “No, I couldn’t have.”
Listen, I’m sorry, but I just...I’m not…
You’re not what? Khed, this isn’t the first time you’ve done this. Why is it that you always feel like you can’t talk to me? I need you to talk to me, we can’t keep doing this!
Khed could barely move, overcome by leaden sorrow weighing him down, the rain refusing to wash away the remnants of remorse burning inside him. The ghosts mocked him as they twirled past. “It was too late for me.”
Suhani, please just let me...let me explain what’s going on. I promise, I’ll talk now, just please don’t go!
The boy’s hat covered his frown almost entirely, but the expression was audible when he spoke. “But why?” he asked again, the confusion only serving to amplify his curiosity.
I…I can't do this right now. I'm sorry, Khed, but I've heard too many apologies. Please, just figure out how to trust me and come back.
Khed forced himself to take a deep breath, struggling to see straight, his focus shifting between the gentle rhythm of the waves, the specters skating across the water’s surface, and the rain as it fell, drop by drop by drop, like crystals in the air, shimmering for eternities before falling, so fragile that they shattered at even the slightest touch. “I didn’t want her to worry,” he whispered at last, each word making him ache.
The boy was about to ask another question, but he stopped himself. “You didn’t tell her something,” he mumbled in realization, looking back towards the water. “You lied to her. Then...is she gone?”
“No,” he replied, wiping the tears from his cheeks. “No, she’s out there somewhere. She told me to come back, but I never did. I never could.”
“But you loved her!” the boy exclaimed suddenly in objection, staring up at Khed with wide eyes.
Khed returned his gaze, unflinching beneath the underlying accusation. “I know,” he said, the words barely audible against the torrents of rain. The ghosts had all stopped, turning towards him, watching him with critical, all-knowing eyes. The rain had slowed to a soft drizzle. He didn’t give the boy a chance to say another word before continuing, “Sometimes we do that. Sometimes we care about each other so much that we do our best to protect each other...but that ends up causing us the most pain. Sometimes we love each other so much that we can’t see when we’re hurting them.”
The ghosts smiled at him, nodding in approval. The music began again and they continued, step by step, turning and spinning, swaying in time to the song.
The boy opened his mouth to say something, but he was cut off by the voice of a woman, calling frantically, “Sonu! Sonu, where are you?”
“Amma,” the boy muttered in response, turning away from the water.
The woman walked up to him at a brisk pace, splashing through the puddles on the ground as she hurriedly held her own umbrella over his head. “Why aren’t you holding your umbrella?” she demanded, frowning at him with more concern than anger.
“I was sharing it,” he responded, turning back. “With him. It started raining and--” He stopped mid-sentence, freezing as he saw the space beside him, occupied by only the orange umbrella on the ground.
The woman raised an eyebrow, taking the boy by the hand. “Please, stay with me right now, alright? I just need to put this down and we can leave.”
The boy stared at the single white dahlia in the woman’s hands as she clutched it to her chest, protecting it from the rain. Moving to pick up his umbrella, he nodded and watched as she bent down to place the flower by the edge of the railing, smiling warmly at it. He couldn’t see her expression as she knelt there. He watched her breathe in deeply and whisper to him, “Sonu, please listen. Promise you won't ever keep secrets from me, alright?”
The boy looked up, startled, hesitating before answering. “Okay, Amma,” he said at last. “I promise. But why?”
She stood, wiping tears from her cheeks and turning back towards him. He felt his heart melt as he saw the fear in her eyes, hidden beneath the layers of remorse. “Because I once lost someone whom I loved very, very much to a secret.”
She took his hand and he stared up at her. “Who?” he asked, the question formed purely by his innocent curiosity.
He heard her breathe in again, her voice trembling when she spoke. “His name was Khed.” The boy didn't have time to react as they turned to leave, the woman’s steps quick, as if desperate to escape the sorrow that blew in the breeze by the river.
But just as they began to walk away, the boy heard music playing behind him, a silvery waltz, the melody lyrical and remorseful and so bittersweet it made his heart ache. He stopped and turned around to see...ghosts on the water, swaying to the gentle, lilting rhythm. They all stared at him for just a moment before turning their attention back to each other, dresses like clouds hovering gracefully over the river, flower petals appearing where they lifted their feet.
And then his gaze shifted back to the flower the woman had left on the ground. Khed was standing there, smiling at him. “My sweet, sweet Suhani,” he sighed, picking up the dahlia. He held it close to himself, breathing in its scent gingerly, afraid it would vanish all too soon.
I’m waiting for you, Suhani. But take as much time as you need. When you come, we’ll have eternities to ourselves. And we can dance longer than any of the others.
The boy didn’t look away until the woman tugged gently on his hand. “What are you looking at?” she asked, peering down at him.
He hesitated, then shook his head. “It’s nothing, Amma. I was just wondering...can you teach me how to dance like the ghosts?”
The woman didn’t respond for a moment, unsure of what to say. “The...ghosts,” she murmured. A sad smile emerged from beneath the grief in her eyes. “Of course I can. But why this question all of a sudden?”
He glanced back at Khed, who was still staring at the water. “There’s someone I have to teach,” he answered. “And then he’ll be able to practice for you.”
The woman’s smile broadened and she sighed contentedly as they kept walking, the music fading behind them. And as they walked, an apparition stood by the river, watching as the love of his life walked away, preparing to continue to await her return.
My sweet, sweet Suhani…