Rosewood by Rekha Valliappan

'Eurydice sits alone on a red bed.' —Kathy Acker

One sultry evening in June, Salomi the home-owner on the fifth floor leant precariously out of the living room window of her spacious multi-storey brownstone in the heart of New York City, when oddly out of the blue Wham! she was struck perpendicularly in the face by a piano being winched up to one of the upper floors above. The dizzying certainty with which it exploded was like an iron manhole cover rocketing out of control by a jet steam. The blow made her reel.

An accident? Perhaps. Violence in the city was notoriously endemic. It touched the lives of most urban bred hardy New Yorkers immune to most calamities, exclusive as they were to tensile malleability of the abrasive kind. The Town Planning Board fixed everyday ailments with a keen zest and gusto born, bred and bent on being seen to doing the right thing on a regular basis. Safety Plans and Protocols in all frankness read like well regulated military drills—'Avoid walking in the dark,' 'Do not lean out of open windows,' 'Look before you step,' This was altogether re-assuring. It showed the town cared for its citizenry, besides enhancing semantics and good neighborliness.

A deliberate act of evil? Who could say? On a normal day Salomi would have deftly dodged the flying projectile that had landed like an iceberg in her face. As it turned out, it was a hurricane of a moment for her, entangled in the cosmic pop of neon lights that surged through the interiors of her mind at electrifying speeds as brain signals go, smoking in streaks and embers of atoms to connect, disconnect, like blue lightning.

In a dizzying instant Salomi saw her life flash critically before her unfocused eyes and for that instant she hovered in a region of forced activity beyond the pale. A classic beauty of the wholesome kind she was the embodiment of ageless charm and grace, generously endowed with lustrous raven black hair and milk white skin that glowed. To be struck in the face without a moment's notice was an erudite experience of detonated son et lumiere for her.

And yet Salomi had been struck. It would have consequences.

She had never been struck on the face before, least of all by a baby grand, least of all as a famous dancer. How infamous! And yet this was the juncture where the melodrama had chosen to unfold into a crime, to become her story. But who could be the judge of whose story it would truly become?

In the brief period it took between strike and overture the gaggle of gossip mills had started to churn. Soon Salomi's highfalutin lady friends who lived in upper class style in grand country manors on the gold coast of Long Island's north shoreline and city penthouse suites were all a-twitter.

'Did you hear?'

'What?'

'Piano toppled on our Salomi.'

'Really?! When? How? Head is all right no? Very important.'

'But what she is doing standing under piano?'

'She is not standing.'

'No?'

'Piano is standing. Going up going down. Going up going down. Same scaffolding story. Everyday this is happening only in New York.'

'Nowadays I am walking looking only to sky.'

'Two months my Bittoo wearing neck braces. Till today nobody know what hit his head.'

'My yoga guruji great believer of the sky.'

'Bilkul! One minute we're all alive other minute we're lying down fully dead.'

'But why authorities not fixing problem?'

'How they can fix?'

'Only one half city full of real peoples, other half city full of ghost peoples.'

'People not real? Arre Baap Re Baap! What you are saying?'

No. Salomi had not been struck before. Never. Folks would recall in the aftermath of the baby grand encounter on her delicate upbringing in the distant village of Purbakot. But when one is on the track of a true crime even the smallest of baffling coincidences presents a clue, not to be ignored. So one must take note that as a child she had been struck. Just once—if one could count that towards a strike in retrospect. It was by way of a flutter from a brahminy kite's wing.

She had been standing one afternoon upon her brick-walled balcony, when the rain was sprinkling lightly. She had been absorbing the smell of the raindrops when they first soaked the earth. She was lost in Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Princess and The Twelve Wild Swans.' A round homemade dough cookie lay half-eaten in her limpid hands.

The hungry kite hovering high, as Purbakot kites were wont to, spotting easy food, suddenly swooped with klepto-parasitic speed and stealth. Its unbidden wings were outstretched taking her unawares as it boldly snatched the meal in extended claws, from her nerveless little fingers. Two quick flutters of feathered wings smacked like whiplash against her face. Bird acknowledgement of gratitude complete, the chestnut red bird gathered wing in lively allegro, twirled in a dancer's pirouette and turned airborne leaving her no time to wail.

Little Salomi would recall at the time that it was a swan. This would sound absurd perhaps. But not to her. The largest bird she ever knew was the white swan. So this had to be a swan. And it had chosen her. To visit. To slap its wings against. One of the twelve wild swans. Oh how she just knew! The Princes on a detour. And they all went on to live happily ever after. Truth to her as a child was a matter of winged imagination.

Her mother had run out onto the terrace in alarm waving a broomstick high, all tangled up in the long folds of her nine yards of ankle length saree. She had noisily chased away the winged predator.

'Shoo! Go away! Leave my baby alone!'

Then turning to her little daughter, barely waist high, she had cried with the same vehemence she had reserved for the kite, concern in her voice raising it to a shriek 'You gave your biscuit to that greedy garuda? Daily we are already feeding it, no?'

Her father's authoritative turn came next. He scarcely minced words, not if he could help it. 'Learn to stand up child. How you can let little birds bully you so?'

'It was a swan. Now its gone to live happily ever after,' Salomi would stubbornly whisper. It was futile.

'What do we do with this child?' father would say to mother with a shrug of exasperation. 'She's dreaming again.'

When the piano struck, only one of two outcomes could have resulted. The first, that she almost lost balance and toppled over, like an inebriated woman at a boozy farewell party. This would have crash-landed her five floors down of a prominent brownstone, in the tree-lined nexus of Central Park—spread-eagled; smashed; smeared; her brains strewn like pulpy lumps of orange pumpkin seeds onto the busy asphalt below. The modern day Babylon of Manhattan would at that time of day have been a riotous overflow of honking cabs, buses, trucks, ambulances, cars, pedestrians, shoppers, tourists, window-gazers, pan-handlers and horse drawn carriages.

The second outcome would have been that she walked away from her bay window none the worse for wear and tear, with a light streak of red staining her forehead and a purple bruise over one eye, where the piano came into contact with her face.

It is what happened next that becomes of consequence. With her initial cross-eyed stare coming unglued after the escalating piano strike, Salomi's eyes blinked rapidly, settling on a forty foot cargo truck negotiating a parking spot on the road below. Out of this vehicle emerged packaged neatly a huge parcel, the object she had been anxiously peering at. Her suspenseful wait with baited breath was now at an end. Or was it?

No one had seen their comrades-in-arms' joint solace. No one had witnessed them quietly disembark that sultry night in June, a few days earlier. They had borne the trip well. It was not their usual method of long distance journeying, comfortable as they were with the strenuous exigencies of time travel. They had arrived weary and red-eyed for lack of sleep from the sea voyage home. But they had a priceless cargo to bring—a four poster to deliver. From Purbakot—a widow's original four-poster bed, smelling of roses.

As it turned out a restlessness had brought it about, signaling Salomi's immediate return to Purbakot. It had arrived in the form of an urgent letter from her aunt. There was not a moment to lose. Her mother's health was failing fast. The ancestral house was being sold, together with all the furniture and the workshops. With no more family left to oversee day to day operations, the concern became the red rosewood four-poster bed—her parents' last possession, tied to her family for all time.

It would be the last anyone would ever see of Salomi. She would mysteriously vanish never to be spotted again, not in her current avatar of petite glamour and allure. Perhaps she roamed among the ghost people in the streets of New York. Who could say?

Many have looked, and continue to this day.

A baby kawi brahminy kite would float skywards. Others would claim to have seen a red eagle take flight that day when Salomi went missing to enter the Amelia Earhart limbo of a deserted island, laying waste for eternity among the decaying crustaceans, coconut husks and tangled seaweed.

The trajectory of the story of the missing woman would take an even stranger turn running in spasms. This would develop when her diamante encrusted cell phone with not a single finger-print on it would be miraculously found, laying in full view like strip club vintage memorabilia, in the green summer grasses of Central Park. It would lay as though casually tossed away by someone near the rows of tall elms at the Bethesda Fountain, past Belvedere Castle, a popular haunt. To add to the mystery a single slender jeweled slipper with glittering stiletto nail design shaped like a dagger would surface on the architectural steel stoop, the main entrance to her Upper West Side brownstone. It would define the Cinderella moment in the investigations.

Later even that conjecture would fade when it would become known that the stiletto was poisoned with a substance of unknown origin. This would play into the 'Rose Mist' tragedy to strike the Upper West Side community and parts of Manhattan still reeling from what the newspapers would call 'the blow', as they dealt with the aftermath and its fallout, when the dots were connected.

The flame-colored rosewood king-sized bed was a massive, imposing structure as four-posters go. It bore the stamp of extraordinary craftsmanship and royalty. Fashioned with a large intricately arched headboard, it featured an extravagant gilt hand carved-cornice, with finely hewn acanthus leaf foliate baluster crest frieze, over delicate rosettes run. The style followed the solid mango wood design of the craftsmen of Jaipur. The design would encircle the entire bed, echoed similarly on the footboard. The four tall posts would be spiral topped by pine cone finials with cloth of gold and crimson velvet in the detailing. The styling was eminently inspired, it appeared by the original Italian walnut state bed design of George III, circa 1755, on exhibit in the India Silk Room. The large claw feet in rich bronze finish made this opulent four-poster a luxury to sleep in, added to which it exuded the original sweet cloying smell of roses which clung like bees to flower.


Ornately hewn it declared a rarity so phenomenal that it could supposedly only have sprung from the personal collection of a princess or maharajah. One such princess historically existed, in intelligence and beauty as rare as the exquisite bed, proficient in several languages, learned in warfare, theology, painting, music and all manner of the arts. Lost volumes of her life's work carefully restored would reveal a woman richly to be celebrated the world over. She was a widow. And therein lay the stain of her marketability. She was the widow of a noble prince of a faraway exotic land, who had inopportunely been put to brutal death by boiling in a hot cauldron for the sin of harboring political ambitions against his father-in-law the King, or so it would be divulged in the manner of ancient history texts, which set out to get the facts right. As punishment this princess's writings would be declared destroyed. Publicly humiliated she would be held in isolated captivity. The outpourings of her wildly beating heart would be forever muted—her ghazals forcibly torn away from her in cruel punishment, till her sudden death—in her four-poster bed, where she would be found mysteriously. None could take this one possession away.

After which for a period the bed would be lost. Or so the story suggests. By which time the empire would collapse, its famed palaces ransacked, its coffers pillaged, its gold and jewels irretrievably lost, its kingdoms destroyed. Till one day the four poster would suddenly reappear—sanded, veneered and fully restored—over two hundred years later. The restoration would render it to look, as some would describe, as good as it did in its heyday. By this time it would belong to the family of Salomi at Purbakot.

Shortly thereafter her father would lie dead. Poisoned? None could conjecture. He would be found peacefully asleep on the four-poster. It would be assumed he had been murdered. This would trigger numerous stories. The bed would fall into disuse and disrepair again—cold-storaged once more. No one would dare find any further use for it, not even her mother. It could not be sold. And so it would lie bequeathed to Salomi. There would be a vague remedy suggested in Purbakot, to have it dismantled, broken down post by post, leg by leg, whereby smaller pieces of furniture like kadhi, interlaced stools and hand painted chests, could be sold in the marketplace. But this would not come to pass with the entire village tormented at the idea of dismembering it. And so it would continue to lie in storage amidst the shadows, gathering dust, till Salomi arrived to claim it.

'Happy?'

'Very.'

'Now I'd like to know how you plan on frolicking on this monstrosity?'

'I'll find a way.'

'The Dirtbunnies arrive tomorrow.'

'They have a treat in store.'

'Will she figure it out do you think?'

'I'd be disappointed if she didn't.'

Salomi and Dil had been bubbling with excitement over cocktails before dinner the day the four-poster arrived. Scarcely contained exhilaration at the hidden treasure within, had been screaming to be released. They toasted each other barely able to conceal their thrill. A few hours longer and it would be all over. Salomi was like an overheated minx trying to live down the elation. Dil was keeping sobriety and aroused emotion in check. More than anything he wanted Salomi in his arms one last time.

'Don't you want to see it again? Feel it. Touch it.'

'I have. Its safe.'

'Are you sure you want to actually sleep in it?'

'Isn't that why we got it?'

'Wasn't it to show off to your brigade of lady friends?

'It is a strange bed.'

Salomi rose trembling in the contagion of the moment. She could read Dil before his thoughts ever surfaced. She tuned off the T.V. which had been loudly showing Viceroy of the Plains, a saga in three parts. She turned on a minstrel song CD of Elizabethan times, 'The Three Dark Ravens.' The flute tones and strumming of the celtic harp rose and fell like a mournful dirge emanating from the office of the dead. A wild and melancholic cawing of rooks solemnly bounced in acoustic sensations off the walls. Her body swayed in rhythm, lost in the magical and poignantly lyrical music of the lament. 'The Ballad of You Hooded Snakes' followed next, one of her very early favorites in this collection. Tears of purple grapes dropped as the orchestra played. The enchantment of sweet roses whispered pebble white as she tripped along, woven in threads of gold chasing the moon's luster in ivory sandaled feet, down to her delicately painted toes.

Dil who had seen Salomi's dances often enough when the mood claimed her, vanished into the kitchen to get his dinner. Today was his favorite fare—chicken alfredo cooked in Tuscan sauce with brown eggs on the side, organic variety from free-roaming happy hens. Salomi was known to be highly particular in her kitchen. She scrutinized every ingredient that she added to her culinary preparations. She researched every component that came out holistically from the rivers, streams and farms. On many an occasion she insisted that they eat only environmentally ethical meals, or when eating out only at Michelin-Star restaurants, to maintain her harmonic inner balance.

'Cream and sugar?' she asked. It sounded to her ears like a flight attendant. Both giggled, images of how real people really flew shoring up their frivolity. Both knew teleportation was the marvel of the future. The mythical leap to Icarus had discouraged too many, tragic tales of winged mothmen of the skies on psychedelic road trips running out the tapestry of their lives.

Dil looked amused, studying her—swan-throated, a petal in flower, where the honey bees hid; her pale hands delicate as summer moonbeams blown by the gentle zephyr lightly flying over the silver tea service. He knew exactly what was running through her mind at moments of intimacy. Prehistoric hands he called them. She was an old soul.

'I'm on my way,' he had said, tearing his eyes away.

'My mind's jumping like a sea dolphin,' she had replied.

He had understood. This would be their last summer together. Eternal life had a way of rejuvenating, separating all, to rejoin.

With investigations underway on the sudden disappearance of Salomi the monstrous rosewood bed would lie practically all but forgotten, surrounded by nothing more macabre or devious than its classic signature rose smells. Or so it was thought at the time. How wrong could everyone be!

Slowly other stories would percolate in its warp and woof, among those the question whether there actually was a crime committed and if so by whom? Priority could only arise when there was a body. And without a body the cardinal rule was there could not possibly be a serious crime. True, a woman had gone missing. Her disappearance could not be accounted for. True, her friends and close associates could not make anything of it except to worry and wonder. True, her husband and child could not be located either. Alienated Salomi would ride out a wave of whodunit insanity.

In the meantime the Purbakot Criminal Investigation Department would get into the act. That would be when Salomi would be all but forgotten, and in a new twist the four-poster would be summarily remembered, because cobbled within its fanciful rose odorous balusters would be a priceless stolen manuscript.

It would set the entire literary world aflame. #widespreadshenanigans—#tricky and #mischievous, would trend. There is devilry afoot in every high-spirited endeavor. 'What's in a name? That which we call a rose.' It would require horticulturists and rosarians to iron out the folds. They would closely analyze rose perfumes galore, combing through particularly those emanating from the one called Shaky's illustrious willow cabin, that thirteenth century former priory converted into a rose garden, housing thousands of species of known and unknown rose of every hue and shade.

With media from three continents bolstering up the penultimate act of what was turning into a multifarious dramatic extravaganza on a scale untapped, it was small wonder that Dr. Nyla Foxe emerged to settle for all time the matter of the missing manuscript and the bed with its redolence of rose.

A bright-eyed 'Shaky' scholar, she decided it would be best to arrive in New York unannounced, as that city, after all, did not have a clear understanding of the mystery in literary matters originating from the other side of the pond, nor a firm grasp on a sliding scale where psycho-dramas were concerned. As for Purbakot, on the under side of the globe, where a gaggle of folks were going ballistic for being kept in the dark—they were best left out of the quadratic equation.

She had no choice for a better rationale. That it would upend the literary world and twirl it around on its head was without question. The situation was a delicate one: here was a self-proclaimed detective of the world-renowned playwright-poet-genius Arthur 'Shaky' Bearde who would not settle for nonsense. And somewhere out there was a crafty perp spewing like a methane gas black geyser in a California ranch. A paleographer specializing in Pre-Raphaelite England, she was widely known for her brusque candor and tongue-in-cheek methods and philosophy. She rarely minced words, resting her reputation on the waspishness of a certain Catty the shrew to get her message across. The question of whether the widow Annie Hoxley's bed was above reproach or not would not be argued any further from any possible legal or historical perspective.

It had been settled history for the past five hundred years, insignificant and of second-best quality as the old bed might be. What mattered was what the Museum of Literary Antiquities had done with it. It was a deep cultural thing with them, they had placed the worn old wooden four-poster in their possession, on an anointed pedestal, declaring it to be the one and only original. So how could another 'original' bed have emerged?

Purbakot, in the grip of Shaky-mania thought otherwise, caught in the throes of an unholy fever of escalating excitement. The yogis pontificated the loudest 'Jai, Jai, Shak- Y! Jai, Jai, Shaky-Y!' Poor dame Hoxley they yelled, the faithful wife of forty years, cuckolded across continents, trapped in a loveless marriage, left to survive on paneer, cheesecurd and dry roti, paradoxically nixed out of the will, by a neglectful spouse.

While Dr. Foxe was reeling at the ravenous attack without merit, Stratford-upon- Avon was at bursting point. It was Merrie Englande's four hundredth centennial anniversary, commemorating the architect of modern English literature. London was brimming with scholars and actors, and all manner of aficionados of the Bard of Avon with enthusiastic claims of connections to the classics. A time to celebrate, not throw the universe off kilter. They sought to correct the error. All manner of public pronouncements and tweets took to the airwaves and internet and media in a blitzkrieg never imagined, bespoke on behalf of Dame Hoxley and the second-best widow's bed.

Purbakot rocked out of all equilibrium, picked up the cudgels on behalf of their exquisite rosewood structure, crafted by the finest artisans of Jaipur. It existed. It was real—not some nonexistent second best caricature of a floundering piece of furniture, churned up by a village bumpkin; or one fictitiously created supposedly by a philandering husband, whose surfeit of authorship could not be verified or denied—since the original hailed from Purbakot. And wherein could a dark lady originate, except in sun struck Purbakot, which boasted the most exotic of olive skinned shapely beauties?

To lend further credence to this argument was the invaluable missing manuscript—the complete First Folio, containing even the hitherto nonexistent Love's Labour's Won, cleverly concealed within the rosewood four-poster from Purbakot redolent of roses—English roses to be precise, as the world reeled. A stressful period in the conspiracy theory developed, with one half initially calling it utter balderdash, preposterous beyond contemplation, leaving the other half to tackle the sober reality of working out the historical timeline, for the gimmicks to be declared workable or insane. The outcome potentially placed Shaky in the area of the Deccan and the Ganges Plains, to validate which, three continents turned both versions of the multi-layered and sketchy story, into a comedy—in three acts.

Dr. Foxe distended to the very outer limits, sensibilities fully outraged, developed the countenance of a pedigree bloodhound on the scent of large game. Her sleuthing antennas at full stretch, she tweeted incessantly, like a raving lunatic, to keep her followers posted. By the people for the people, was her pounding invective. All in favor say 'Aye!' She had scores of enthusiastic supporters. She simply could not pass up this highly charged forgery staring her in the face, not by a long shot. She refused to be cowed down either. She believed in speaking plainly. Without more ado, the incensed defender of the Bard of Avon, wrote a broad op-ed in The News Times, enjoying worldwide circulation, in which she accused everyone who lacked literary clarity to desist adding to the folly, backing up her theories with substantial literary argumentation to fortify her unalterable position.

With not a moment to waste, there being method to all madness, from the days of Poe, she plunged into unraveling whatever details she could assess, from the executor of good Dame Hoxley's will—one elusive yeoman, of an even more elusive hamlet named Toft—the mystery man, who supposedly died without a will, but who had inherited all of Shaky's estate, including furniture, where the papers were hidden. Bingo! The clue. This is where it was she who fainted away in surprise. Because the secret hidden truth lay not as supposed in Toft, but spottily camouflaged with the descendants in Purbakot. The further one digs, the more trash one uncovers. Ya, Dig? She set aside her notes, mollified, trembling with uncertainty, excitement turning fractured. What to next?

She turns to her team of stalwart sleuths—Dirtbunny diehards—experts at chasing up every miniscule hair, dirt, ink, sample and scrap of parchment folio associated with the national treasures. They would know what to make of this effect-to-cause ratio. They would ensure the Bard of Avon's noteworthy place in legacy would be permanently stored, for all posterity, for it was their job, and one which mountains of libraries and museums and legions of followers depended on. Why, only in March one such rare Folio had been discovered, in the remote limestone hills of Borneo, together with a rhyme and roundelay book, and wasn't it forthwith authenticated, by a gaggle of experts? No bogus affair declared there, so why not in Purbakot? No, she had no doubt of outcomes.

Next she tore into a plethora of the diabolical villains who usually emerged, following her whenever Shaky issues popped into their crosshairs, as they occasionally did, given their trajectory—veritable Iagos of sorts, filled with acrimonious green bile—the Dirtpossums. More dirt than possum. They fancied themselves to be intimidating. They made it their life's work to fiendishly demolish the Great One at every opportunity available. Wife. Bed. Folio. Chandos' portrait of the great genius. Et al.

The Dirtpossums carried within their bosoms every bit of treachery their magic book of spells could concoct. They were an utterly immoral group, defiantly willing to disable history. What's more, their growing army of enablers and search engines had reached cataclysmic proportions it appeared, because now Nyla held them suspect, more certain than ever that it was they who had nefariously teamed up with that wily pair from New York—Salomi and Dil—who had disappeared like a pair of vanishing cabinets, from Hogwart's Castle to Borgin and Burkes, to attain their Mephistophelian ends.

Dr. Foxe was doing a little jig when she decided to write a stinging missive to their new hedonistic leader Dirtpossum-in-chief—the stage actress, a firecracker, if ever there was one, Dame Venetia Musgrave. This fiscal hawk of a woman was a thespian of theatre and screen. It was by embodying the paradigmatic ideals of Plato with Aeolian poesy that she had attained such heights of artistic creation. She could recite Sappho with a zing. She could excoriate the Dirtbunnies. All was lost with old wounds opened. Nyla refused to capitulate.

Dame Musgrave was fixated for four whole decades upon dethroning the Bard of Avon, compartmentalizing his genius to the levels of a clever ruse. Her didactic modus operandi clearly favored that clever group of young erudite gentlemen the world knew of as 'university wits'—the real authors of the First Folio.

The basis of her obstinacy was two travel diaries of one Earl Musgrave. With journals in grasp, she was propounding the theory that this unknown relative of hers of dubious standing, was indeed the heretofore dormant fifth university wit, who together with the other Oxfordians, had created 'Shaky' out of nothing, replete with coat of arms, gentility, single portrait, and all manner of historiographical anatomy. Sleight of hand? Perhaps. Jolly good adventure? The English were good at adventuring. As it turns out they exuberantly almost succeeded. In actual fact this errant young Earl had methodically foraged eastwards. And in his wanderings through India maintained some compromising journals which had fallen into Dirtpossum hands. Defiantly tackling the logic Dame Musgrave had replied to Dr. Foxe, 'Art is what is happening where art is happening,' in irrefutable syllogism. The die was cast.

With her gall rising, and waters so murky, Nyla lastly informed Purbakot that their rosewood monstrosity, which had mysteriously washed up in a Manhattan brownstone, redolent of roses, being foist upon a gullible literary world, while beautiful to behold, was indeed a hoax. Pure drivel, a contemptible fraud. 'The damndest piece of malarkey perpetrated by a pair of designing scamps.' Perps as she chose to call the missing pair. Victims as New York City countered—referring of course to their statistics on Salomi and Dil. Crime in the City was real and taken seriously. In the uproar that followed, Purbakot would learn London took its hoaxes literally.

New York City which up until then had stayed above the fray, found itself thrust into the awkward position of having to show Dr. Foxe the Upper West side apartment wherein this entire bizarre episode had unfolded. Unhappy with this outcome, they did not take kindly to meddling when they were in the midst of investigations, however insidious the gall of their victim was being made out to be. Funny business, thought Nyla, laying blame squarely on the crime unit for aiding in Salomi's convenient disappearance, like a bard's soliloquy gone wrong for want of a ghost. Diabolical. How this state of affairs could arise with the best in forensics she did not want to speculate on, her regard diving to a new low. Leaving her learned colleagues to contemporaneously handle the centennial celebrations, she hastened to New York at full speed, overcome with fear of what she would find.



The fifth floor of the Upper West Side brownstone was swiftly accessed the very next day of her arrival. A Sergeant and a Detective of the NYPD had been authorized to accompany her and her one assistant. Standard practice, owing to the ongoing investigations, although the luxury suite had not been declared a crime zone. All looked remarkably peaceful within, clean, dust free, untouched, room after room of the spacious suite, as if the occupants had merely stepped out and would return any minute. A set of silver framed photographs lined one wall, where a console stood with more frames on its glossy surface. Some were of Dil, others of a young girl at boarding school in Lausanne. A large oil painting of Salomi in a dance pose occupied another wall. Crystal Lalique vases tastefully sprinkled many rooms. An exquisitely crafted Rajasthani wedding chest occupied another corner. Exquisitely woven Persian carpets lined the marble floors. It was not difficult to conclude this was a princess with regal bearing and ageless beauty.

A perfume of roses noticeably impregnated the air as the group of four moved in lockstep towards the kitchen. All looked in place. A silver tea service stood on the marble center island. It appeared to have been used. Shelves were stacked with long-grained aromatic rice, red gram and rajjma beans, nothing unusual. In neat rows, several glass bottles of every variety of spice one could possibly conceive of or name lined the cabinets. Dr. Foxe stared in bewilderment, the profusion lent color, adding brightness to an otherwise pastel look. Sesame. Mustard. Cardamom. Nutmeg. Anise seed. Vanilla beans. Nyla ran her fingers over each, stroking the glass bottles thoughtfully.

'They cook a lot,' the Sergeant added by way of explanation. He had noticed her gawking, and was in awe as well. They certainly did. But all this quantity? Perhaps they entertained. Nevertheless the mistress was chef too. Mistress of spices. What's this? Something else had caught her eye for its robust color. Saga seeds? She recognized them in an instant, for her time spent in Sri Lanka chasing up a lead which turned out to be false. And she froze. Those red bright shiny little things, like pieces of faux jewelry? Weren't they poisonous? They did not belong here, so what were they doing with the edible spices?

Curious, she asked the Detective. The officers accompanying were equally stumped. They did not know, or would not reveal. They grew silent.

The extra room had been converted into a library-study. Dr. Foxe was astonished to find entire bookshelves stretching from floor to ceiling, laden with classics, many in leather binding. Rows devoted to Hardy and Hawthorne, and shelves of foreign books in several languages—French, Russian, Mandarin. She read the titles—novels of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Rabelais, Montaigne. Shelves overflowing with horror tales and time travel. Wormholes. Black holes. House of Andromeda, followed by books on physics, quantum physics, astrophysics, Newcomb's paradox thought experiment, geometry. Gamma rays. Cantor dust. An awards certificate by the Time Traveler Society of New York, occupied another shelf with science fiction, the butterfly effect, mixed into a row dedicated to the erotic novellas of the Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties.

'Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.'

Dr. Foxe quoted softly, reading from The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, which she had idly pulled out.

'Well, if we're done here...' the Sergeant said, hustling the group along. He sounded a trifle impatient for the length of time this visit was taking.

'We're not. I'd like a little longer with this Chinese literature, please.'

'Ah, the great city of Shanghai. I hear they eat tiger meat there.'

'Really? How awkward!'

'I've been told it tastes like chicken tikka masala.'

'I wouldn't know, Detective. I'll take your word for it. May I?' she indicated the book.

'It's Sergeant. Oh yes, indeed. Why not? Go right ahead, Ma'am. Take whatever you like. We're done here.'

'Thank you.' She replied, handing the book to her assistant. The collection was without doubt a feast of a find. It also appeared a good starting point for clues. She was amazed that so much had been missed by the crime experts—truth staring them gutturally in the face, all here in this apartment. Only she could not yet put her finger to it.

'Any update on the missing woman?' she had to know.

'Nope!'

'We keep this door permanently locked,' was all the explanation the Sergeant and Detective offered before unlocking the chrome locks to the all-important last door. They then wandered down the entryway to wait outside. They had been specifically instructed not to pepper the scholars' visit with unnecessary crime investigation dialogue.

In a few minutes the two women were in the room that contained the four poster. Nyla stared awestruck, unable to move—her first reaction. The bed was for real. She felt reverentially fascinated, taken up by its enormous size and beauty. Here the smell of roses was considerably stronger—impossible to ignore, as if someone had spilled an entire bottle of concentrate and soaked the walls and floor. It emanated like a bilious hidden gas wherever they turned, producing an acute discomfiture. Both women burst into a fit of paroxysmal coughing. They frantically opened the glass windows overlooking the front, the smell would not clear though gusts of fresh air wafted in. Gradually their coughs subsided.

They carefully circled the four poster looking for clues, examining every joint. They ran their fingers expertly over the veneer, deliberately lingering over the wood, each whorl and crevice. Nyla bent low to not miss a single carved rosette. She knocked, probed, as if by the mere touch, or a hollow sound commingling with the aura, they could unravel the mystery, travel into the exotic past, of their existences. It was what she would have wished more than anything on earth—to travel through time, because the past was what beckoned—anything that would connect this bed to the real Annie Hoxley—the unknown widow, whom few knew. All else was irrelevant.

Her assistant took a series of photographs. Dissatisfied with their initial modest search they decided they would return once more the next day, when something new which still lay hidden would perhaps reveal itself. It must. Would Shaky have stored his most treasured possession of a complete Folio in a hidden chamber in this bed? And if so, where could it possibly be located? Whatever was she thinking? Dr. Foxe froze mid-thought. She was not here to lend credence to some wild theory, on the authenticity of this bed. She was here to reassure the world of the very opposite. Her followers were pinning their hopes on her loyalty. Granted the bed was beautifully constructed, in a scented wood, probably from trees which commonly grew in that region of the world. But it was nothing more, merely a princely four poster. That was all she would report. Yet deep in her guts she felt something was not adding up. The nagging doubt intruded, resisting her summary dismissive conclusion.

She planned to meet her assistant later after dinner in their hotel room, they had a great many calls to make, to London, to several others, reports to transcribe and discuss, photos to send. The girl nodded coughing fitfully into her tissue.

'Beautifully sanded, isn't it?' It was the Sergeant again.

'You mean the bed? Yes of course. It brings out the veneer and gloss. Did you get it done?'

'Oh yes, indeed. Professionally. We had to spruce up for your visit. Orders.'

'It's not a crime scene, then?' Nyla inquired, emboldened.

The Sergeant let it pass.

'Nice collection,' he remarked, pointing to the pile of books she had picked up on their way out. 'Any book you could recommend?'

'None, from this lot. But yes. The Joy Luck Club. Its all the rage.'

'Chinese? I like Chinese.' He spoke it like he was talking about food.

'Absolutely. Don't we all? I'd like to take a look at the cell phone you have of the missing woman. Do you think that's possible?'

'Sure. Be at the precinct station at 9 a.m.'

A chilling rain had started to fall, monotonous, drenching, conveying with it a sense of history. It carried the effects of ancient rain—strumming, drumming. The dance of the dead souls. It moved in sheets, the lost souls, as only London could convey. But they were in New York. It lent the perspective of fear fuelling rain—ominous when one moved towards the point of fear; it became the main preoccupation, obliterating all logic and reason. It turned irrational, aggressive and dominant, taking one to that inhospitable dark place one reaches when swimming against the tide and energy and direction are lost.

Dr. Foxe felt such a cold fear, breaking into a sweat. She had not felt these sensations in a long time; once when she was in Gibraltar researching the catacombs, her dreaming mind envisioned a global catastrophe then on a scale she had not envisioned since. She now felt the same sense of impending disaster. Was it to do with the missing woman? How strange that she should disappear when the bed had arrived? Did she get sudden amnesia? Could she be wandering the streets and subways?

How could the First Folio have wound up in her bed? If not hers, then, whose? What was Earl Musgrave's connection? To Purbakot? To the bed?

As she shut her eyes for a moment, a sudden onset of weariness seized her. It was inexplicable, another odd sensation that she could not explain. She put it down to travel fatigue, but she was as strong as an ox. She scarcely tired, and never when chasing up a lead, as others would vouchsafe. The contradictions and horror welling inside her were reaching absurd proportions, she mentally tussled with trying to connect disconnected ends. What was that smell, why was it so strong? And curious that it was rose. Could it be ionizing radiation, instead? But then it would have been odorless—she had encountered radiation sickness before. Of course not. How absurd! In a luxury apartment in the middle of high end real estate. Hindu vegetarian stew. That was what it had to be. She knew the kind—Indian variety, lots of it, with a zing. Came with the spices. Oh, those spices! Bottles filled with saga seeds! What was it about those bright red seeds? Something still felt unsettled.

'Is there a library nearby?'

'Don't you have enough bedside reading, for one night?'

'Please,' was all she could say, too exhausted to argue. The fatigue had changed to a queer muscle weakness overpowering her and she broke into a fresh bout of nonstop coughing. The Sergeant swung around. Two blocks to go. His target was to drop her off at the park's public library. That strange smell, colorless but not odorless. She could not quite define what was happening to her.

Nyla felt her head spin in vertigo, and a darkness took hold. She was descending into the cold stone underworld again, of cobalt green and indigo blue. It did not permit prisms of light to break, hovering at activation point. She broke into more sweat. She could hear voices, but they were from afar. Why were the Sergeant and Detective staring at her queerly? Their eyes spun in whorls, like spinning saucers. What were they saying? She mouthed a reply. It seemed a struggle, like watching a movie in slow motion. But the occasion demanded bold action. She could not move. She gasped.

Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!

The colors looked hypnotic. Blooms on the screen. Clamoring for a storm. Tudor ladies in crinoline. Kipling's ghost in the abandoned cemetery. The clock is ticking down. Pine Barrens of Long Island. The terrifying flight of a bird which has no wings. Journey to the dead end of night. In the heart of Times Square. The exultation of the white cows. Lethe. Dance of the Seven Veils. Other orbits. Curling into a ball. Like a newborn rodent. Salomi of the glowing amoeba. Blissful. Speaking softly. On a diamond phone.

'I want you to identify a body for me.'

'Why me?'

'Because she was with you.'

'She was?'

'I want you to look at this stiff. What did she say?'

'That she's doing the rose dance.'

'Just dancing? What else?'

'Something about a dolphin.'

'We think it's the missing woman.'

The morgue attendant pulled open a metal cold chamber and removed the sheet. This moment was solemn, not a whisper could be heard in the vacuum.

'No, I do not know. Wait a minute, isn't she my assistant?'

'That's what we are trying to find out. The cadaver has no face, as you can see.'


###

Dr. Foxe struggled to open her eyes. When she did it was to a sterile setting of a hospital room, surrounded by a battery of white-coated personnel milling about. She believed she was dead, or as near as could be. She could not bear watching it play out, she shut her eyes tight.

'Dr. Foxe. You can open your eyes. You've had a mild fainting spell. You're fine now. Just a few more tests and some rest. Then you're good to go.' The room cleared. The white-coats turned out to be a gang of final year med students accompanying the doctor on his rounds. They had given her a needless fright.

'What day is it?'

'Monday. The twenty-fourth.'

She had been out stone cold for two whole days? She struggled to rise rapidly, almost bringing down the tripod to which her arms were IV'ed. Where was her assistant?

'Steady!'

A nurse was besides her, brisk and efficient, impeccable bedside manner, gently but firmly plumping up the pillows and resettling the apprehensive patient back on the bed. No visitors were being allowed, it was made crystal clear. Any other details she must elicit from the Sergeant, handily placed outside. She noticed they had not touched her collection of books and notes taken out of the brownstone.

'NO butterfly will I impulsive be in waves
Flame flying headlong to perish. But say
Glowing candle will I precipitate passion slow
To silently melt and consume away.'

She read from a translation from the Collection of Poems of a Persian Princess, having picked it at random from the stack of books on the metal table besides her hospital bed, grateful to whomsoever had placed them there. Rummaging through, her movements restricted, she grappled for clues. What's this? The Princess and The Horseman? A play by Francis Theobald. Could it be part of the original First Folio? Her eyes alighted on some annotated lines. How famous was this oft-quoted soliloquy, 'A garden of thirty thousand trees'.

Nyla returned to the tale of the ill-fated young widow princess—a grim story of death, languishment and incarceration. The chronicles described a fortress prison of Salimgargh, in ruins. Adjacent to it lay the yellow desert sands, blowing hot in the strong winds. The poems trilled birdsong notes of a princess in captivity, hidden deep within the recesses behind high stone walls. But she had never been a woman trapped in a purdah, half-hidden behind the filigree. She was a princess. She belonged to the colorful desert city she could only view from afar, through tiny prison windows. In the shimmering distance of those burning sands stood the princely palaces of pink walls, where strutting peacocks with iridescent tails and bejeweled camels roamed. Gut-wrenching emotive song penned from the heart by a woman crying to be free. And the chronicler, none other than Earl Musgrave on overseas explorations, traveling through Salimgargh and Purbakot, caught in the romance of the ages.

Of course! This princess had written of gardens and roses; and nature and seasons. Her verses spilled with the moon and love.

'WITHIN my bosom stirs once more in flight
A dewdrops song. Love, softly slumbering,
Harbors his mystery, as the flowers of spring
Burst forth and bloom. Winter, refrain your might
My heart's pure meadows. Listen! From left and right
Through deep green boughs the bulbul's note is heard,
And, wing-clipt and imprisoned, my heart's bird
Fluttering against his cage, wild for flight.'

She reached out in a frenzy to grab at Bearde's Compleate Works Folio One. It was a heavier book at the far end. She stretched clumsily, in so doing knocking the entire table over with a noisy clang. The loud crash brought the full battery of white-coats charging in, this time with a disagreeable nurse in charge. That was the end of that mental tango, where reading and clever detective footwork were concerned. How clumsy! She would have to think of something better. Time had run out.

'I'd like to speak to the Sergeant, please.'

'In good time. All in good time.'

'Now!' With anxiety mounting her voice had risen several decibels of their own accord like an unprepared soprano tuning up.

'Now,' she repeated a trifle softer. 'There's not a moment to lose.'

'Miss. It is your nap time. My job is to see that you get your rest. And you need to rest.'

'You don't understand.'

The young nurse vanished, bringing in tow a replacement—the Lady Macbeth battering ram type nurse, which most New York City hospitals possessed by the container-full—exuding a ruthless kind of charm.

'What's that?'

'What's what? “Who's that,” you mean? Now Miss, we must mind our manners, mustn't we? That is our bedtime routine. What seems to be the matter? Non-cooperative are we?'

'Where's the Sergeant? I particularly asked for the Sergeant. Not that—'

'Now, Now. Let's see. The clock is ticking. Tick-Tock! Tick-Tock! Gnashing our teeth in discomfort won't help, will it?'

'In this case it will. And while we are tearing out our hair, I demand to see the—'

'Unless it is your serious intention to perish before our very eyes, and we don't believe it is, no amount of screams will hamper us in the care we aim to provide all of our patients, even the petulant ones.'

'Then we shall carry on shrieking, till our demand is met.'

'As you wish, Miss. As we have been saying all along, we will get to see our policeman. But all in good time.'

'H-E-L-P!'

'Do you see these hands?'

'I see them. “Out damned spot! Out I say! What, will those hands ne'er be clean?” How many hours Nurse do you spend, washing those hands, thick with blood?'

'Ah! Shaky Bearde. My favorite too. “Methought I heard a voice cry. Sleep no more... the innocent sleep. Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” Sleep! Sleep!'

Nyla felt a sting from the needle. The voices turned faint. In a few seconds she had dropped off to sleep.

###

The panic that greeted her was nothing short of crazy. New York had exploded, it appeared, when the first announcements surged over the wires trickling into local radio stations that day, followed by media networks picking up on the sound-bytes. It was like The War of the Worlds meets The Day of the Triffids. It was like the world's coming to an end, head to the storm cellars. Parts of it took on the unreal characteristics of cheap sensational horror in cinemascope. Only the cast of characters were live. People were running amok, through glass and steel. People were running afraid, raw and pulsing, overreacting strongly in catastrophic unison, it seemed to her. 'Everything is under control. There is no cause to panic,' the public systems repeatedly announced—to no avail. The affliction was widespread.

Dr. Foxe was in an ambulance. The siren screamed, as she bumped along in breaks and starts, through the surrounding noise and confusion. She had not the remotest clue where she was being driven, or why. She tried calling out, above the din, but the noise drowned out her words. She looked at her hands. She could move them, she thought vaguely. They seemed clear of all the needles and tubes. It was a relief. Somebody pushed something cold and dripping wet in her hands, mumbling something. Above the din she could not hear what was said. It was a can of coke. She took a sip, puzzled, although grateful. It was the friendly Sergeant of a few days ago, grinning sheepishly. It felt light years away.

'In your sleep you kept repeating—mycoke... mycoke...' he shouted as loud as he could to make himself heard. It came to her in a flash. She shook her head as memory flooded.

'Mycology,' she shouted back, her voice hoarse. 'I was looking for a book on plant pathology—the library. I suspected what it was.'

'Too late,' he signaled in acknowledgment. It appeared he understood. He handed her the morning's edition of The New York Daily News. The headline read MORE FLEE UPPER WEST SIDE AS ROSE FUMES SPREAD. A quarantine had been ordered in a ten mile radius. Roadblocks were set up. Homes, businesses, offices, even hospitals in the gas zone were undertaking mandatory evacuation.

In the days ahead it would emerge that the rose fragrance wafting over several miles, had the properties of myrrh—the distinctive aromatic anise-like smell of the spice, found almost exclusively in English roses.

###

All the major networks would feed into the news of an unidentified woman's body found outside a brownstone near Central Park. She had fatally fallen from her fifth floor suite, having been struck by a two thousand pound baby grand piano being hoist to the eleventh floor above. The Moving and Scaffolding Company were under investigation. The City taking all mishaps seriously, had issued fresh safety guidelines to prevent a recurrence. While the news media would not publish details, it would be widely rumored that her cranium had been smashed to smithereens, pulpy gelatinous matter coagulating on the pavement, like wet bits of orange pumpkin seeds. It would not be known how long she had lain there. No direct reference to Salomi would be made, or forthcoming. Although it would be surmised by all, following the trajectory of the strange case of the bed and missing manuscript, that it was indeed she.

The disease control centers working in close collaboration with the chemistry department, together with government bodies and investigators, would, over the next several months, publish from time to time reams of data, which would lead to innumerable international conferences on 'Continuum of the Rose—Unity and Schism.' Scientists and learned experts would pour over thesis presentations and fine print, contained in lengthy appendices.

What would starkly emerge would be the crux of the revelation concerning rosewood. That it belonged to that category of hardwoods which upon sanding produced a toxic dust that could turn lethal—a pinch of which if ingested through the lungs, or burnt at certain temperatures, would cause an aromatic cloud to build, which depending on the quantities circulating could prove fatal, at worst, or at best, bring on a sudden spasm of breathing difficulties that would necessitate an emergency response. If swallowed by accident, it could be easily recognized for its distinctive metallic after-flavor in the throat that created a corrosive burning sensation of being poisoned. It was considered particularly lethal for those with chest ailments and lung conditions.

The fifth floor of the brownstone where the rosewood bed was housed would be sealed, crews in hazmat gear working overtime. The traffic crawl in the vicinity would be unprecedented, lasting months. The strange colorless rose whiffs emanating like harmful gas would sicken many for a whole critical week. Twenty deaths would be reported—mostly chest related illnesses linked to the toxins in the rose fumes. Others from flying projectiles, with people fleeing in panic. Nyla's assistant would be one among the dead. New Yorkers would shake their heads in equanimity at how little the city ever changed.

The Sergeant would be decorated for a hero, having saved many lives at the height of the panic. Together with the Detective, both would be promoted and commended for bravery in the line of duty.

Shaky's faithful followers worldwide would turn vocal in their defense of the widow, carrying placards and banners, proudly wearing 'Love's Labour's Won'-tees. A Magic Lamp Scheherazade Festival would be organized, to thumb their noses at all dirt bag genies in the failure of their atypical ruse.

A literary meeting would precipitately be convened in New York. After a raucous start it would acknowledge the statement released by the Dirtbunnies, through Bearde the Bard Club, which would award ownership of the newly discovered First Folio, hidden in the rosewood bed, to Purbakot—to be returned at once. The findings of the Dirtpossums would remain unproved, having no basis on fact.

Students of criminology, moving away from familiar tropes propounded by crime guru Alfred Hitchcock, would seek to reconfigure certain popular paradigms concerning blondes making the best crime victims, since Salomi was no blond, but a raven-haired doe-eyed beauty, and if she were not a victim, she could not possibly be a perp either. With the onus upon them to revitalize movie mantra perception, they would go on to issue certain newer guidelines, at variance with the great master of suspense.

After a hiatus of one year, Dr. Nyla Foxe would still wander the adventurous route of Earl Musgrave, greatly enamored of his travel journals. Her journey would take her through the mystical Silk Route and the land of elephants, peacocks and camels, into Purbakot. Her experiences would greatly enrich her subsequent Dirtbunny findings.

Weeks later, with quarantine lifted, life would return to an even keel in the City. Bystanders idly passing by the Upper West Side brownstone at Central Park, still walloped by the unsolved mystery perpetrated under their very noses, would look up, then look down. Then they would look at each other, shaking their heads slack-jawed in their disbelief on why it had taken Salomi five whole days to freefall just five floors down before finally hitting the asphalt in the rigor mortis of deathly dance?

Travelers to Purbakot would in time narrate seeing Salomi in her ancestral home, feeding the brahminy kites. With her would be Dil, in entranced attendance, a wry smile playing about his features. Others taking their cue would concede that they had witnessed her wondrous rose-dance in an arbor of rose-quartz and crystal. This would drive literary- and dance-groupies to take to social media in droves, with outlandish claims of having seen Salomi perform. It would trigger a huge following of #salomisighting.

The location of the ornate rosewood bed would never be disclosed.

###


Rekha Valliappan is an award-winning

writer, poet, essayist

and book reviewer. She has been published in
Queen Mob's Teahouse, Lackington's, X-R-A-Y Lit, Aaduna Lit, The Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, NonBinary Review, The Punch Magazine, and many more. In 2017 she won the Accent prize in a writing contest. Some years she was shortlisted, longlisted and nominated for the Pushcart Prize Poetry in 2018 and for the Best of the Net Short Story in 2019. More poems will be published in Ann Arbor Review again. More writing will appear in Artifact Nouveau and The Blue Nib. She is a double graduate in English Literature and Laws from Madras University and the University of London. Some of her strange stories are published in books available on Amazon including another in print from Dime Show Review listed in the Library of Congress.


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