Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, The Wild Atlantic Book Club, DD Magazine to name a few. A winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, her short stories are Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Magazine Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, and winner in Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are Three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award,Two-time nominated for Aurealis Awards. Her book is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice.
No Life on Mars
“Not even the fragrant musk was as intoxicating as this story.”
The storyteller told sitting on a swollen root of an aged tree on the edge of a forest. He addressed a gathering of enthralled people.
One dreary afternoon, under the opaque clouds, when the mists had curtained much of the peninsula’s profile, a tea boy made tea. He had a stall near the same place where the storyteller was also telling his stories. It was the boy’s job to make tea as long as the storytelling lasted. He made it in an iron cast kettle over a makeshift stove kindled by dry wood and brown leaves. The kettle steam was a beacon that fuelled the desire of many travel thus far. The brew carried a distinctive aroma.
The storyteller had a large following. They gathered here not just to listen to the story, also to indulge in the hot tea served from the stall. This storytelling helped the boy’s business to flourish. The boy poured the tea in small pottery bowls and handed them over to the rapt listeners. The more they drank, the more they listened.
This tea boy was an orphan. He was fifteen. He lived with the storyteller who had adopted the child when he lost his parents in the last great flood. They had lived on the sea line of a rugged peninsula. This place didn’t have much to offer apart from a school, a spice bazaar, and a few odd dry-fish shops.
Deeper into the woods on the same peninsula, the storyteller now lived with the boy. They lived in a hut near a shaded pond. Tall poplars and their verdant saplings rendered much of this shade. In the evening, when they lit a lantern in the hut, a glow would illuminate a darkly spot outside and light up a pond’s pod corner. The jungle’s wild animals transformed in the full moon, especially the musk deer. This sparked the storyteller’s imaginations.
Neither the jungle nor the deer knew what treasure it possessed, not at least until the musk pods were wrenched out of the deer bodies. The deer didn’t know how crazy earthlings was for its musk. It couldn’t smell its own, the others could; the sensuous properties drove humans to madness, wild with gluttony where fantasy fed reality.
Where would they stop, though? How far would they go to get it? Not even the formidable amazon could stop them. And it was not just the musk but insatiable human greed … said the storyteller and stooped to pick up an object loosely stuck on the bottom of the tree trunk. His breathing intensified. Inch by inch they stole the natural providence. They ate away bite-sized like termite into the planet without replenishing. Poaching animals, cutting trees, mining gemstones: red rubies, green sapphires, blue lapis lazuli, the sparkling diamonds. His audience listened mesmerised as he told them this old story retold, and the tea boy to sell innumerable kava clay bowls. His coffers filling up soon with silver coins and gold jewels.
No matter, this storytelling was free. No one ever paid to listen. But drinking tea was essential, said the storyteller. Because the delightful tea glued those stories together. Even on a hot day, it had to be served. People tread miles to come here to listen, but more so for the thirst of the tea. No other could make it like this boy, magic in the brew, the word rang true.
One day it happened. The storyteller stopped and looked closer at the object he held in the tip of the index finger. It was a cast-away gold ring that also had a story to it.
“What happened?” the listeners gasped.
Sitting on the ground, they looked at him hooked to the hot tea. Today, the mist of the day and the tea vapour played a twister in the sky.
“The tea boy became sick,” said the storyteller. “He couldn’t make tea anymore. The boy lay cold on the grounds of his hut groaning in agony.”
“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.
There was no afternoon tea. People fidgeted and looked at the empty stall. But the tea never came.
“It was not the story, you see?” the storyteller told. “But it was his tea which brought them here.”
Where was the boy anyway? His listeners wanted to know. They demanded to see him. The storyteller told them. He grimaced and pouted his mouth in hesitation. But they were adamant. They stood up, held hands and formed a niche circle fomenting unrest. They protested in a slogan, “no tea, no story” and walked in a circle. In the beating heart, this addiction baffled the storyteller who then realised that he had failed to stir them to the core. He morosely nodded his sage white head as he relented and asked them to follow him to the hut. By then, the night had fallen a full moon lit up a yellow pathway.
It was a menacing jungle. But people didn’t mind. They walked over sodden leaves, shed snakeskins, dry blood, fallen horns and ivory, torn human clothing, hanging bats, and swinging monkeys. They must find the boy. They paced up and they reached the hut beyond the poplar pond. The bare bone sat unadorned on earth’s blue bowl. Not stark as Mars, Earth’s fowl-play tarred and scarred.
The storyteller asked them to wait outside as he went in to find the boy. But people were restless. They couldn’t wait it out. The mob forced themselves into the hut and looked in a frenzy for the prized fugitive. However, when they searched the small hut, they didn’t find him, at all. What they found though, was the last thing they had dreamed of? They found a white bellied musk deer instead. He was the same small size as the tea boy, lying lengthwise across space without a musk pod.