A Mist-terious Affair to Cherish
The long awaited weekend had finally come. I was to break away from the shackles of office life and domestic duties and breathe in the fresh mountain air in my favourite getaway – Coorg. The husband had thoughtfully booked our room at Honeycomb estates, a piece of paradise tucked away in the lap of nature amidst the rolling hills. I sat down with a content smile on my face as the husband took the wheels of our sturdy Tata Safari Storme on an early Saturday morning, way before the crows woke up in Bangalore.
Within a few hours we were speeding past vast green water-fed fields, the sun’s mellow orange rays peeping through the dark clouds in the horizon. Rain or Sun? Which was it to be today, we wondered. By lunch-time (yes, that is how I count my hours), we had started our ascent to the hills. The sun had lost its battle by then and was relegated to a little corner where it sat glowering softly. A slight drizzle brought about a nip in the air and I drew up my window a little. Quaint little cottages with red roofs and beautifully kept gardens whizzed by, making me long for owning one such cottage for myself. Lunch at Madikeri was a wet affair as we watched the heavens pour down the hills, over our steaming plates of noolputtu and pandi curry.
The homestay was around 40 km away from Madikeri and quite a tricky road led to it. We were almost comfortable with the knowledge that we will lose our way. Isn’t that a part of the fun? But we were not prepared for what we were to encounter at the bend of the road. The mist. An impenetrable blanket of vast whiteness.
The vehicle’s fog lights worked itself up and yet all we could see were faint beams outlining the road a few metres ahead. We strained our eyes, looking out for a lane on our right. Finally, we spotted a narrow dirt road veering off to the right and heaved sighs of relief.
The road, somehow, looked very forlorn and ‘unused’, with dark groves of tall trees on either side. The owner of the homestay never mentioned that, I frowned. The road’s condition worsened with every metre covered and led us to believe that it definitely was not the road to the homestay. There was no way to contact the owner as we had no network coverage. To make things worse, a black cat crossed our path and the husband swore angrily. He hated cats vehemently.
“Let’s ask someone for directions,” I ventured.
“Sure,” the husband said, drolly. “Find me one.”
There was not a soul to be seen in the swirling mist. We drove ahead at a snail’s pace for some time when suddenly our headlights caught something in its glare. We could make out the shape of a gate ahead.
“Civilization, at last!” the husband threw up his hand dramatically.
We pulled up the vehicle at the gate of a cottage and disembarked. I peered at the name embossed on the gate. It simply gave the house number as ‘H’ and the name ‘Cherise’. We entered the premises and hesitated at the door of the little cottage. There was no door bell. Instead, a peculiar knocker presented itself.
“Go ahead,” the husband nudged me. “You are the great explorer between us.”
I stuck out my tongue at him and rapped the knocker sharply twice. Pin-drop silence pervaded for a minute. “Maybe there is no one,” the husband looked worried.
Just as we were about to turn back, there was a scratching noise from within and the door creaked open a fraction. We found ourselves looking in to the green eyes of a wizened person observing us through the door gap.
“Hello, Sir,” I put on my best smile. “We were on our way to Honeycomb estate in Kabbinadu and lost our way in the mist. Could you kindly guide us to Kabbinadu?”
The man kept quiet and for a moment I wondered if he understood English. Then, slowly, a large grin appeared on his face.
“Of course,” he beamed at us. “Why don’t you come inside for a while? Such bad weather outside today.”
I looked at the husband enquiringly and he nodded. It would be impolite for us to decline his hospitality, his look seemed to say.
The cottage was a cozy one and large log fire was burning in the fireplace. The man sat on a chair close to the fire and motioned for us to take our seats on the sofa. His was a picture of languid life as he let out a great yawn, somehow reminding me of something which I could not place at that moment.
“So, what made you come to this neck of the woods?” he asked. “Not many people come this side, you know. Maybe because of the woods. They are quite overwhelming, aren’t they?”
We told him about our weekend plans and made some small talk till the conversation died down. An awkward silence prevailed. I fished around for some topic in my mind and finally found one.
“You have a beautiful name for your cottage – Cherise,” I said.
“Yes,” he agreed with a happy grin. “Beautiful and quite meaningful, too. It means precious or to cherish. Something which we have forgotten to do in our busy lives.”
The husband shuffled his feet impatiently.
“Perhaps we should get going,” he blurted, afraid that the person might start a philosophical diatribe. “We want to reach the homestay before nightfall. How far do you think we are from Kabbinadu?”
The old man got the cue. He sprang up lightly from the chair, quite to my surprise, and spoke apologetically.
“I am sorry to have kept you back. Not offered any refreshments either! Would you care for some Coorg coffee? Although I prefer the ol’ glass of milk any day. Mamma knows best, no?”
He winked across to the husband. We politely declined his offer and he did not pursue us further. He explained the way to Kabbinadu lucidly and in a few minutes we were standing outside his door, thanking him profusely. In return, he gave us one of his widest smiles and bade us goodbye and good luck. The mist was still hovering around us as we boarded our vehicle and turned around for a last look at the cottage. It stood there for a few moments before getting engulfed by the thick mist, hiding it from our view.
We drove on for half an hour, following the old man’s directions and soon enough we found ourselves at Kabbinadu. The mist had subsided by then and sunlight was streaming through the tree tops. The air was filled with various chirping of birds and bubbling brooks. It was almost as if the mist was a dream.
We checked in at the homestay and decided to have a cup of hot coffee in its dining area. As we were sipping our second cup of freshly brewed coffee, the owner of the homestay, Mr.Uthappa, joined us at our table. He had been expecting us much earlier and we told him about the mist and the ensuing confusion which led us to seeking guidance from the strange old man. Mr.Uthappa gave us a patient hearing, although he seemed a tad disturbed.
“What did you say the man’s name was?” he enquired.
It was then that we realized that we had never bothered to ask the man his name.
“Actually we don’t know his name,” I said sheepishly. “We only remember his cottage number and name. It was something like H, Cherise.”
“There is no cottage number or name by that name here for miles.” Mr.Uthappa said, unexpectedly perturbed. “I should know. I have been born and brought up here. I know all the people and the lanes around here. Except….” He paused. “Except the area around the enchanted woods. Nobody goes there.”
We stared at him as we recalled the old man’s words regarding the woods around his cottage. I was about to tell this to the homestay owner when I caught the husband’s disapproving eye and refrained myself. No point in letting him know about what we had gone through. Most probably he would not even believe us.
The husband and I walked back to our room, lost in our thoughts.
“H, Cherise,” the husband said aloud. “It seems to be an anagram of…”
“Cheshire!” I spoke out abruptly, something clicking into place. “Cheshire cat, the philosophy-spewing creature from Wonderland! So, that’s what had been disturbing me all along...the green eyes, that large grin, the light gait...”
We kept quiet, stunned by our discovery. Then, suddenly, the husband burst out laughing.
“You know what?” he managed to speak between fits of laughter. “I never thought I would say this, but I will always cherish the time I spent with Cheshire, the cat.”
In fact, both of us will. For years to come.
(This is my attempt at fiction, written for the contest held by Indiblogger and Tata Safari Storme. The photographs are from my Coorg trips and mostly clicked at Honey Valley Estates. The knocker is from the monastery at Bylakuppe.)