Steamed Peacocks

James sat in his usual chair facing away from the television. Who knew how much more life he would see, so he may as well witness what was available. He watched the people that had become his daily companions here at Open Hearts seniors daycare centre. They were not the people he would have chosen, but God, fate, or Satan had chosen them for him. He knew that he was here for a reason. He had been angry at first – really angry – about his third stroke and partial paralysis.

What they fed him at lunchtimes was dull – things like chicken stew, chow mein, or potato curry. It wasn’t bad food, just uninspired. The cook Zoe tried hard in the kitchen, but there’s only so much you can do with an ingredients budget of $2 per person per day. James had flashbacks of sumptuous feasts – steamed peacocks with their iridescent fans spread wide, and above them were roasted quails speared on golden trees; baked fish were set in tanks of crystal wines; spiced curds in mango and saffron sauce; necklaces of black grapes and pomegranate seeds; bejewelled women and turbaned guards; lavish tables spread in marble palaces with rose-scented air seeping through grilles, and cool water spouting from fountains inlaid with precious stones and tinkling along floor channels.

James’s static state had enhanced his powers of observation and concentration. Sitting in one place all day – facing real people and life, rather than fake versions – made him aware of himself and his world.

The manager Mr Amin always said hello to him. James appreciated being recognized as a person rather than a pet or statue, which is how most others viewed him. He only turned towards the TV when Mr Amin played an Indian movie. They were mainly for the female clients, who loved the fabulous colours, clothes, dances, and songs. But James also liked to watch them, for they ignited memories of red saris with golden embroidery, and blue ones with pearls, of troupes of fat men performing devotional songs in trances, and women with curves and luscious lips banging their feet strung with small bells. He wanted to tap his feet to the rhythms but couldn’t move them. He found himself rolling his eyes instead. Sometimes blinking rapidly.

Ex-cowboy Albert greeted him too. He’d say, “Howdy Jesse!” meaning Jesse James. “Now don’t you be causing any trouble today. I’m keeping an eye on you pal. Remember I’m the sheriff ‘round here. Self appointed of course – who else would appoint me?”

Zoe was unhappy in her relationship and it showed in her food. Her chicken stew was stewy, her chow mein was mean, and her potato curry was full of worry. Why didn’t she get together with their driver Smuel? He was a decent chap. He’d said to James this morning, “How do you like life on the road, James? I’m thinking of taking a trip across Canadia, maybe across the world. I’d love to take Zoe. What do you think of her? Want to come along with us?” James felt an affinity with him, the hopeless romantic. He knew that Zoe was in a long term relationship and unlikely to join Smuel’s road trip. Still, it didn’t hurt to dream.

James’ dreams held only one person: Irene. He didn’t know why at first, but it soon became clear. As he sat in the Centre’s communal Temple – filled with OMs, Stars of David, Crosses, Crescent Moons, and other holy signs – he visualized a new sign, a Black Sun, which was in truth an old sign, recalled from long ago.

He was seated in a desert encampment, the air warm with cloves. Torches blazed, casting golden glows across horses, people and tents. That’s where he had first known Irene – then called Noop, a royal maid in Northern India. He was a guard called Raja, tasked with protection of the prince’s wives. He guarded them with honour. His loyalty was absolute. His feelings for Noop however were special. He fell in love with her at first sight. Love between servants was forbidden so they kept it quiet, but Raja couldn’t bear the prince demanding “royal favours” from Noop. He had sworn to protect the royal family so couldn’t attack him, but he could try to reason with him. With great humility he asked permission to marry Noop. The prince blessed their union, but that night had him arrested. “Bastard servant,” he said. “Who do you think you are? You have spoiled this woman for me. She is no longer fit for a prince.”

The last thing Raja had seen was Noop executed before him. Then his eyes were gouged out. First there was one black spot, then another, and then nothing at all.

Here they were at Open Hearts seniors daycare centre living together again. Here they were at Open Hearts seniors daycare centre dying together again.

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