Father Chacko put the phone down, leaned back on his chair, and sighed deeply.
He was 65, balding, with a thatch of grey hair running all around his pate. But his warm brown eyes, twinkling behind a pair of specs, belied whatever impression of sternness his weather-lined face suggested. He was a benevolent priest looking after the spiritual needs of a small cluster of villages in Kerala.
The call had been from the prison officials. Georgekutty, a convicted killer on death row, had requested a meeting with him. It was a duty call and he would definitely go. No dilemma there. But Georgekutty also wanted to meet Sheryl and that was going to be next to impossible.
With another long sigh, he took off his specs, placed them on the table, leaned back against the chair, put his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes.
His thoughts flew to the sensational murder of Isakki a few years back. Labeled ‘Isakki murder case’, by the Press, the incident had shocked and fascinated the public. The brutality of the murder and the pathos in the story kept the case alive for a long time.
Sheryl’s photos were splashed all over the media. She became the center point of the story, even though she was not the victim. One reason could be the intoxicating combination of her looks- a rare innocence, extreme vulnerability, and stirring beauty.
The tragic circumstances of her being orphaned at a young age, along with her two kid sisters, made it a heart-rending story and caught the public imagination.
Sheryl and her younger sisters had been taken in by her uncle, Isakki, and brought up in his small house set within his modest coconut farm. Isakki had sacrificed his whole life to bring up the orphaned girls. He had not married because no girl was willing to take on the responsibilities of three young girls.
Sheryl had finished her studies and had started working at the village school.
Georgekutty was a teacher at the same school.
The prosecution case was that he had developed feelings for Sheryl. On the day of the murder, he had gone to her house to convince her about his love. She had refused his advances.
Her resistance only seemed to infuriate him further and he had tried forcing himself on her. When her uncle unexpectedly returned and tried to stop him, he had taken the butcher’s knife lying in the kitchen and hacked him brutally to death.
The forensics had confirmed that the multiple wounds were a result of powerful thrusts of the knife. The doctors had remarked about how the depth of the wounds showed the fury and rage that must have fuelled the actions of the murderer.
George Kutty had neither confirmed nor denied his culpability. But finally, when Judge Thresiamma asked him if he pleaded guilty, he had accepted his guilt quietly.
Justice Thresiamma had observed “Typically only in the case of a premeditated murder involving brutal and violent killing, I award death penalty. But I want to make an exception in this case. A woman has a right to say ‘No’ to a man’s advances. For too long women have been under acid attacks and other brutalities for their refusal. I want to send a harsh message to all men, that any violence shown to a woman as a result of her refusal will not be pardoned. It will be looked at as an extreme case of cruelty and will be dealt with severely.
That’s why I am awarding the death sentence to Georgekutty. This is a warning to other men who want to hurt or show any form of violent behavior towards women who refuse their amorous advances or towards people who are trying to stop the advances, as in this case”.
This had all happened a couple of years back. Later on, the press had moved on to other cases and the public had forgotten about it, their interest replaced by other sensations of the world.
Father Chacko himself had almost forgotten the case. Except at those times when he passed through the side of the village where the tragedy had happened. Then he would remember Sheryl. How she had shut herself up in the house, rarely coming out. Her sisters, though, stoically attended school, despite the gossip, sly looks, and innuendos they had to endure.
He left a note to his secretary that he was not available for the entire day and calls his driver.
The car entered the village and veered off towards a thick cluster of coconut trees. A small dirt track, lined on both sides by more trees leads into the dense plantations. The earthy browns of the coconut tree barks were suddenly interrupted by the bright green leaves of shorter plantain trees. There are clusters of dark green bananas hanging from most of them.
The house was in a clearing surrounded by a porch built of stone and there was a hand-well visible behind it. Rough steps led up to a narrow verandah with seating. As he laboriously climbed the stairs, the two younger girls peeped out and were immediately followed by Sheryl, who shooed them back into the house.
She was wearing a sari rendered colorless with regular bleach. Her enormous eyes looked sad as if the tragedy that struck her a few years back has left a permanent shadow.
He was soon sitting in the wooden chair on the verandah and the girls served him a glass of fresh tender coconut water.
“Sheryl mole, I have to talk to you about something serious.”
Sheryl looked up with a sudden fear leaping into her eyes. Chacko continued “I had a call from the prison authorities. George Kutty is to be hanged sometime next month. Before that he wants to meet me……. And you”.
There was shocked silence. Some unseen birds chirped from the trees. A hen flew by cackling and a few chickens followed her squawking. The pulleys creaked as someone drew a bucket of water from the well.
“Me? why?” Her eyes suddenly pooled up and the tears cascaded down her cheeks.
Chacko spoke calmly “It is customary to grant the last wishes of people on the death row. I don’t know why, but George Kutty wants to meet with you.”
No reply from her. Her eyes brimmed with fresh tears.
“I think you should agree. I know how difficult this is for you. It is going to bring up all those bad memories, hurting you all over again. But think about this. He has suffered too. Also when the press asked him personal questions about you repeatedly, he never opened up. He has never talked to anyone about you or the case. Please don’t say ‘no’. Be compassionate. Love for God prospers when a fault is forgiven”
As more tears poured out of her eyes, she stood unmoving and mute.
As Chacko left, he turned back to look at her. The tears were still pouring down her cheeks. She had not agreed to the meeting but had not declined either.
A week later- Chacko had sent the driver to collect her and she had quietly come to sit on the back seat.
The driver drove through the long winding roads with fields on either side. The intoxicating fragrance of the fresh chenbagam flowers, brightly yellow, placed in front of a small photo of Christ on the dashboard filled the car.
Chacko sneaked a look at Sheryl, sitting in the back seat next to him. She was wearing a well-worn, but neat sari. Her hair was let loose. A few strands of tresses were collected from either side of the temples, and tied back into a neat small plait, in typical Kerala style.
She seemed composed, but her puffy eyes gave away the fact that she had been crying. She was looking out of the windows, though Chacko could see that her mind was elsewhere.
The two months of heavy Kerala rains had finally stopped. The sun glinted off the small ponds filled with bluish-green waters. The grass on either side of the road was a verdant green.
There was a profusion of flowers on most trees. They gave sudden glimpses of pinks, violets, blues, and yellows, dappling in the sunlight.
Chacko thought about the flowers: how most of them would go into decorating the ‘Ona pookkalams’- the colorful designs made of flowers, arranged in intricate, stunning designs during the Onam festival.
They reached the grim concrete structure of the prison. They had to sign so many forms and finally, a guard took them into the room.
He shut the grill doors and waited outside with his back turned.
The drab grey walls added to the gloominess of the dinghy little room. There was hardly any sunlight. The room was lit by a single naked yellow bulb perched directly on the dirty wall. There was a musty smell in the room- A result of dampness due to the long monsoons and the closed settings of the prison.
Chacko felt the sudden chill and gloominess of the prison room after the sparkling sunshine outside.
There were two chairs in front of the grimy table and a rough wooden bench on the other side.
Georgekutty was brought in by the prison guards and made to sit on the bench.
Chacko studied him from behind his glasses. The years in prison had made him frail but hadn’t robbed him of his rough good looks. His eyes seem to be alive, though and hungry- hungry for company, thought Chacko to himself.
Chacko turned to look at Sheryl. The fresh bout of tears had left streaks on her pale cheeks. But she seemed to be averting her gaze and was not looking at Georgekutty.
Georgrekutty was silent for a very long time. He cleared his throat and looked at Chacko. When he spoke his voice had a measured depth and hoarseness: as if he had been silent for too long a time.
“Father… I want to pray for my soul. I have thought a lot about God in recent times and I want his forgiveness. I want you to bless me and absolve me, in God’s eyes. The court and the verdict are not my concern. But for me, God’s absolution is the most important. HE is more magnanimous and merciful. I want Him to forgive me for whatever is wrong in my actions.”
Chacko reached for his hands on the table and pressed them. “My son, God is merciful and works in his own ways. He is our rock, our Fortress, and our deliverer. But before you ask for his forgiveness, you must learn to forgive yourself. Don’t ever underestimate the power of forgiving yourself. It lifts burdens that have been weighing on you and frees your mind from guilt. It opens up your mind to God and fills you with his love.”
Both of them got onto the floor and knelt. Soon, the father and the prisoner were murmuring familiar, oft-spoken words that have given comfort to many.
They get up and go to sit back in their seats.
All the while Sheryl had been on her chair, sad and lost in her grief. There was a heavy silence. A lonely crow was cawing far away.
Georgekutty’s voice sounded hoarse as he asked “Can I talk to Sheryl privately?”
Father Chacko stiffened in his seat and turned to look at Sheryl. Her eyes were distant and she trembled slightly, at Georgekutty”s request.
Chacko waited for a minute to see if she was going to refuse. Then he slowly stood up, patted her shoulder encouragingly, and left the room.
Sheryl and George Kutty’s eyes met for the first time and she burst out weeping.
She took his hands in hers and sobbed “George Kutty, I would never have agreed to this if I had known that it was going to be the death penalty. I would have confessed immediately that I had committed the murder. Now from the Judge’s words, I realize that if I were the murderer, it would not have been capital punishment. I am heartbroken that I am the cause of the death of my dearest friend, my most beloved. I can’t bear that you are going to die ignominiously. People are calling you names. A murderer, a heartless devil. They think you forced yourself on me when you were the most decent person and had never laid a finger on me.” She continued to weep.
George gently pats her hands and says “Sheryl, Isakki deserved to die. He had been abusing you since you were a kid. You never opened your mouth to complain. You bore up all that for your sisters’ sake. But when I proposed to you and wanted to marry you, he threatened that he will have to go to your sisters for gratification. No wonder you got into a rage and grabbed the knife and killed him, even before I could stop you. I remember your fury did not die even after he stopped breathing. You kept thrusting the knife into his lifeless body.”
“Is it? I don’t remember anything except my outrage at his suggestion. I only came to my senses when you were holding my hands and consoling me. But your quick decision to take the blame so that I could continue to be there for my sisters was so noble. You did not want them to suffer because they had already been orphaned once.”
As they hold each other’s hands tight and continue to shed tears, the guard signals that the visiting time is over.
If all the love in the universe could be condensed into a small space, it lay between the two pairs of hands that clung to each other, desperately, on the rough surface of the table.
This story is also available at “Pint of a Story” by StudioCacofunny
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