Tehnuka is a Tamil tauiwi writer from Aotearoa-New Zealand. She likes to find herself up volcanoes, down caves, and in unexpected places; others, however, can find her on twitter as @tehnuka.
Fortune Favours the Parrot.
You’re new in these parts, huh? Welcome to this lovely palace. And, I think, to my homeland. Yes, I see from your dhoti—it’s inside out and the knot is loose. Either you’re thoroughly addled, and I don’t blame you, or you’re a foreigner.
No, leave your clothes. You’re here for a while, aren’t you? Sit, talk. I’ll show you how to tie it later.
Sure, I’ll share my story. But sit, first, sir. In any case, it’s cooler in here, and there’s water in that ceramic pot beside your foot. Wait, I’ll pour it for you. Better? Here, fold out these dried palm leaves and fan yourself if you like. No, it’s not a real fan, they’re dried palm leaves,
for writing on—see the etching? Just some letters I was to deliver, though I haven’t done a good job of that.
Ah, my story. Well, they say fortune favours the bold. I was once a brave young adventurer like you, albeit not so far from home, returning from years at war with messages from high-ranking generals.
How life changes!
When I first departed northwards I knew my weapons no better than I did my wife. Yes, I married shortly before I rode away, spear in hand and sword at my hip. She’s a cousin’s cousin, a highland girl. Her voice was the sweet hum of a bee, her eyes like fish. No, no, the shape of fish.
You laugh, but the truth is, that is a common description hereabouts. I could be speaking of any beautiful woman. With sorrow, I must admit that I know the appearances of my comrades-in-arms so intimately that I would still see them even were I struck blind, and all I can tell you of my wife is what I was told of her before ever we met. What are mere weeks of marriage compared to friendships forged in war?
Anyway, you wanted my story and I ramble.
I was finally approaching home. A day or two from my town I passed a village around noon, and thought to find shade to rest my horse, an inn or housewife to sell me food—but everyone had retreated indoors from the midday heat. All I found was an astrologer’s cottage, his drowsy apprentice loitering outside.
I like an omen reading, and you’ll appreciate that I was nervous about returning to my wife after four years’ absence. So I tolerated my hunger, tethered my steed to a tree, and entered.
He was a parakeet astrologer. You know those, right?
He had a cage with a green parrot reciting the Thiruvasakam. You don’t know that epic of hymns? Then, in terms you’ll understand, he’d trained the poor bird to sing of spiritual enlightenment—not tunefully—as well as to do the usual parakeet astrology trick of picking horoscopes. I think it was concerned less for its own godliness and more about dodging another palm-leaf scroll thrown in anger.
You’re right, I took a dislike to this from the start. The battlefield gave me my fill of young innocents who mindlessly follow orders they fear to disobey. I was one, once, cured by a youth spent fighting to extend our borders into new lands. As for training an innocent speechless beast the same way… you know, our warrior caste eat meat, but I even lost my appetite for that.
If not for the urgency of delivering those messages, and distrust of how my fellow countrymen would treat the animal, I might have sold my horse and walked, rather than flog that war-weary creature along these dusty lanes. Perhaps, when we meet, my lady will be pleased to find me a more compassionate man than the warrior husband who left her five years ago.
But I was inside the astrologer’s house already, so I told the old vermilion-streaked face my birth star, my hopes, fears, eagerness and apprehension to meet again my wife—now almost a stranger—after her time alone in a floodplain town, far from her family in the hill country.
Then he opened that cage. The quivering bird hopped out, twisting her red-ringed neck hither and thither. The astrologer had laid out the palmyrah cards, and after inching back and forth along the low table, the green-feathered beauty pecked ever-so-gently at the one nearest me.
Smiling, the man said, “Ah, the goddess Lakshmi blesses you! Wealth, luck, love. Stop squawking, you idiotic crow!” He paused to swipe at the parakeet, who fluttered her wings uselessly, and continued, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, but oranges do. Take what savings you have, return to your wife’s homeland, and there, begin an orchard. That will both make your fortune and secure her love.”
The bird perched on another of the cards and started the Thiruvasakam verse about becoming a grass, then a weed, worm, tree, many types of animals, bird, snake, stone, human… I thanked the astrologer and paid a princely sum. Then I snatched up the startled parakeet before it could progress any further on the spectrum of rebirth, and ran for it, while the old man screamed, “Aiyooo, my fortune, aiyooo, my livelihood, gone, gone! Is this thanks?” and stumbled after us.
I would have escaped—the apprentice was a twig of a boy who only stood blinking as I passed—but my exhausted horse was asleep, and two well-built youths strolling past took the opportunity of my pausing to rouse it to jump on me.
I couldn’t very well use my sword on such children, so I untied my horse, flung the parrot at the tree, and let them take me, and here I still am.
I do believe my verdant-plumaged friend reached safety, because the fortune-teller denounced me in the people’s court.
And you, young friend, what’s your story? What luck brought you here?
What’s that? No, I certainly haven’t lost my faith, only the means to cover all my fines.
I’m restless to get out of prison one day and plant our orange grove.