The PigeonsThe Pigeons

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It was dusk and the lamps in the palace were lit in a row, their flames flickering gently in the wind. Suyya sat at the door of an inner chamber and wrapped his coarse woollen cloak more tightly around him trying hard not to sleep. It was bitterly cold for there had been a snowfall that morning and the sky had been grey all day. A murmur of voices came to his ears and he sprang to his feet, awaiting his beloved queen, Vakpusta. She approached with a female attendant. Little Suyya rushed forward with his offering of fruit, wrapped clumsily in a cloth, and handed it to the queen.

“What is this, little one?” the queen asked. “Oh, this is my special fruit. You must love me well to serve me so faithfully.” She knew the little boy evaded the guards everyday to give her his gifts.

Suyya, delighted at her praise, stared up at the beautiful face, framed by long hair and bright ornaments, and sighed, “They say you are a goddess.”

The queen laughed gaily. “Now you must go home,” she said. “It is dark and you must hasten for your evening meal.”

Suyya walked home quickly, hardly feeling the icy wind and the deep snow into which his little feet sank at every step. He was thinking now of the time when he had accompanied Queen Vakpusta and King Tunjina to the outskirts of Kashmir. His father being the king’s attendant, Suyya was often allowed to wander about the palace and, on special occasions, to join expeditions like this one. The group had been hungry and thirsty. The royal couple had smiled and pointed to the newly-planted trees around them, which had been bare a moment ago, but were now suddenly laden with luscious fruit of every sort. Suyya, alone, could hardly eat anything in the face of such magic. The apple in his hand was larger and more gloriously red than any other he had seen and the juice which trickled down his chin was like nectar…

Suyya’s mother was waiting anxiously for him at the door. “What took you so long at the palace?” she exclaimed.

“A gift for the queen,” he said importantly and his mother smiled resignedly.

The Queen had inspired such devotion in Suyya that she sometimes feared for him. Padma, her husband, had related many wondrous tales of the royal couple’s doings. Verily two divine beings had descended on the land as their king and queen. It was said that even the weather obeyed their commands.

Not many days later, the land of Kashmir was afflicted by a famine. The snow bore down heavily from the sky, though it was autumn, covering the crops like a cloak. There was no grain left to reap in the fields. The food stores in the kingdom slowly dwindled till there was nothing left to eat.

“The good king is worried,” Padma told his wife. “He roams the streets by day, relieving the sick and is trying to turn away the hand of death from the land.”

Yet the famine showed no signs of yielding.

Suyya, thinner and weaker now, went to the palace. He had not been there for many days since he felt so tired. The watery gruel he ate did not fill his little stomach. He did not cry or complain because of the fear and despair he saw in his parents’ eyes. Tarrying by the council chamber, he heard the king exclaim to his ministers, “Take my jewels then. Sell the treasures of the kingdom to save the people. What use are they if the life of my subjects is ebbing?”

Suyya returned home to partake of another frugal meal. The streets were lined with people yearning for a morsel. Everywhere there were cries of sorrow and piteous wails of hunger. Children who used to throng the streets, lay at open doorways with sunken eyes, heedless of the harsh winds. A winding line of men were making their way to the border, their packages on their heads and stumbling weakly in the snowdrifts.

Padma carried Suyya to the palace the following day.

“It will take his mind off his hunger,” his mother said with tears in her eyes. “Why are the gods punishing us so?”

All day long, Suyya sat in the palace courtyard. People came and went around him, but his tired mind did not register anything. At dusk, when the palace lamps were being lit, Suyya heard a familiar voice and slowly made his way to the inner chambers. No one stopped the child; the guards were too listless and ill to care. Suyya’s heart beat faster as the king’s voice rang out in despair. “Alas! There is nothing more I can do for my people. I have wronged the gods that I should live to see my subjects dying around me. What use is a king such as I? No, I have decided. I will burn myself now and extinguish this useless body.”

Then the queen spoke. Her sweet yet firm tones sounded so comforting to Suyya that tears pricked his eyelids. “Rise, O king of what use is this grief?” he heard her say. “A king’s duty is towards his people and he cannot abandon it. In the same way is a wife’s duty to her husband. I will take care of your grief and that of the people. Be calm. Does my word ever fail?”

As she spoke, Suyya heard a curious sound of something falling and he ran out to the courtyard. Several courtiers were clustered in a corner, exclaiming loudly. As the boy approached, they stopped and rapidly distributed the fallen objects, giving praise to the gods all the while.

“What is it?” Suyya cried. “What has fallen from the sky?”

“Dead pigeons,” answered an official, a friend of his father’s. “Here, take some home to your mother. This will keep us alive for a while. What if it is forbidden food? The gods themselves have sent it.”

Suyya rushed home with the lifeless pigeons. All along the way he saw huge crowds of people shouting excitedly and knew that the pigeons had fallen all over the land. They were in his home too—twenty of them, grey and cold, yet offering a sustenance.

His mother rushed to embrace Suyya. “Come, my son. We are saved! We are saved! Our bodies will have some nourishment at last!” he following morning, the king issued a proclamation in the kingdom, declaring the miracle to be Queen Vakpusta’s doing. The joyous people received the news with renewed fervour and admiration for their saintly queen.

Suyya, however, remained a little withdrawn and thoughtful. He had eaten his share, yet his heart remained heavy. Towards dusk he made his way to the palace. The land looked so different —lamps were lit gaily all along the streets, people were thronging the roads once more and there, at the palace, the guards laughed to see Suyya, and patted his head affectionately.

Suyya proceeded unhindered towards the inner chambers and stood by the door. He had not long to wait. Familiar footsteps sounded in the passage and the queen came in sight. She paused when she saw Suyya and drew him inside.

“What? No gift for me this time?” she smiled warmly, holding his hand. “Your face has some colour at long last. Yet your eyes are sad. Why is that?”

Suyya looked into her beautiful eyes and the words came out in a rush. “The pigeons,” he said in a troubled tone, “they were all dead. You are a goddess—you protect life. How could you kill them?”

The Queen smiled and released the child’s hand. She looked out at the snow that shone white, despite the encircling dusk.

“Those were not real pigeons,” she said gently. “That was food sent down in the form of the birds, and it will be so for many more days. Keep this to yourself.”

The little boy ran home all the way, his heart at peace and filled with renewed love for the Queen.

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