Beth was watching her husband as he was finishing his dinner with pomegranate juice. He said, it made him active, reminding him of his youthful days. She felt irritated when he made slurpy sounds at meals, especially when having his new favourites; pomegranate juice, custard with fruit pieces, and cakes that had to be topped with red coloured icing.
Quite peculiarly, in the twenty years of their married life, (both had got married in their thirties), Victor had suddenly turned rigid in his habits. He was bent on finishing his jobs early; and was increasingly turning into a man with eccentricities, like the one with his eating habits, which had to include some dish with pomegranate. Even after he retired for the day, he would like to sleep all by himself on a bed covered with bedsheet with pomegranate motifs. At night, he would dissuade his wife, with sweet words, from sharing his bed. When asked why, he would say, “Wait! Till the time is ripe! The promise needs to be kept !”
A mirror adorned his bedroom wall, adjacent to a painting. The painting was an antique. Beth noticed him looking at his reflection in the mirror, before retiring for the day. He would blow the painting a kiss before drawing the lace curtains. Beth was now sure; he had indeed gone nuts!
Their mutual friend Dr. Jonas Smith had been consulted in secret, and he was of the opinion, that mid life crisis had paid a silent visit, a bit early perhaps! He suggested they go on a vacation. Perhaps, that would help in changing the environment. But he added, that if the fixation refuses to alter soon, she should not get worried unnecessarily….” Let him be as he wishes, do not bother much unless he hurts himself!
Few Months Back! At The Antique Shop….
Victor had a penchant for antiques. Rather, both Beth and Victor shared this love. She herself had suggested that they change their living room ambience by introducing certain objects of art, paintings in particular that would add an air of artistry. ..
It was during one of Victor’s week end strolls near the Monument of Peace in the vicinity of the picturesque town that he came across an antique shop, away from the main road. An Ethiopian owned the shop. What arrested Victor’s attention, were the marvelous pieces of metal masks and old paintings, that seemed to draw him towards them. Among the pieces on display, was an old painting of a woman holding a pomegranate in her palm.
Upon noticing a promising client like Victor, the seller approached with a wide smile. Even if he smiled, Victor could not help but notice his serpent like gaze.
“Here is a whole collection Sir…. Yes! And that one in particular is an antique in the real sense. It is $30,000.”
“But it is just a painting of a lady holding a pomegranate! Why such high price?”
“Sir, if you see carefully. The canvas is darkened at the borders. The paint is raised. And allow me!”
Taking a magnifying glass, the shop keeper showed how the canvas had raised dots.
“An original antique Sir.”
As Victor moved on towards other paintings, the shopkeeper spoke in subdued tones.
“Sir! That painting has a history behind it. It is said, that a merchant belonging to the middle east, had first come across this painting. He had a terrible disease, that would cause his bones to turn aged and he suffered from multiple fractures and scurvy. A soothsayer he met on a journey, advised him to buy a painting of pomegranates and gave him instructions of how to adorn his home with the painting. He was to abstain from female company. He had to drink or eat food which had some part consisting of pomegranates. This was to continue till he felt better. Once he reached his required vitality, he had to dispose of the painting in another country, that he would never visit for the rest of his life.”
“So, you mean to say, this is the same painting? It is miracle find you mean!”
“Did the merchant get back his vitality? What were the instructions? Do you have any proof , any document enlisting the rituals?”
After going through the manuscripts and some legible writings on the painting, Victor decided to own the painting.
Victor, felt a sudden intense urge to buy the painting at all costs! And he was ready to pay the price!
Once, the transaction was over, Victor returned home. His face had a glow, and his demeanour had changed.
He hung the painting on the wall facing his bed. He used bed sheets with pomegranate motifs. He went on to include a diet for himself that had to include pomegranate desserts. He did not wish Beth to know. He wanted to show her, he would change! He would become handsome for his age. If he was successful, there would be newer horizons to wander, and enjoy life more!
The Irony of It All…
Days, rolled into weeks, then months. Victor seemed to have an aura about him. He appeared confident, stable and sure of his needs and expectations…
Beth, on the contrary, had suddenly taken ill. Age was slowly taking a toll on her. She seemed to remain as any piece of furniture required for some use and forgotten thereafter.
It was the time of winter solstice. As she rested, he retired for the night. He did not seem to bother if she may need something….
He stood before his mirror, like many nights before, and pondered at his reflection. His eyes had the gleam of youth. The wrinkles on his forehead appeared to have disappeared to a great extent. His skin appeared healthy and his receding hair line, saw new growth. His heart now sought a younger wife. Beth appeared too old, slow and incompetent in most ways….
In the new found happiness, he forgot about the painting. He did not bother to look at it. His daily life was now busy with more activities.
He had a secret haunt- the Young Boys Club, boasting of new life. His renewed vigour kept people wondering….
“Hey! You don’t seem fifty-seven! You must be lying!”
“Do you visit the baths of Rome? Do you bathe in saffron and milk like the oriental rajas?”
“ Tell me your secret !”
Even Dr. Jonas Smith could not comprehend how aging could be fixed in such a short period of time! He was a bit intrigued but stopped himself from probing the possible causes.
It was these outings, that Victor enjoyed immensely, since he received all the attention he craved. And then, he met a beautiful maiden. Her appearance seemed to register a similarity to someone he knew, but could not relate. They mutually shared the love for pomegranates.
A lady of smooth complexion and ruby lips had caught his attention-Diana. And he was confident that their feelings were mutual. Their secret meetings soon became a habit. Diana seemed to be whatever he sought in a woman of his dreams.
Beth’s health took a turn for the worse. And one day during the twilight hours, she left all.
The Secret Marriage
Diana was a woman with a voracious appetite for a high flying lifestyle. Her wardrobe spoke of opulence. Her frills and laces were imported from countries. Her elaborate hairdos, facials, beauty enhancing serums, sauna all made her slave to them even more. And Victor was too ready to oblige her needs.
“Ask for anything you wish! “
Now, people began to watch and soon the news of his new found love began to circulate. Now Victor did not want to rush into an impromptu marriage. He wished to be happy, not in a hurry.
Diana, however was now giving Victor an ultimatum. Either he marry her, or she would leave. Victor agreed to marry her, but in secret, till the time was ripe to marry among friends.
“He seems to have been overwhelmed with emotions. Just look the way he looks at her. She has her ways!” Doctor Jonas observed.
Victor seemed to distance himself from his groups and acquaintances. She seemed to be a wonder that entrapped him with her qualities.
“Why! He has eyes for her only!”
“Don’t you think, there is something terribly wrong somewhere?”
“Who is she? From where is she from?”
Whatever be the comments, Victor appeared victorious with his prized possession.
They wedded with a bottle of wine being their celebration drink. The wine was added to a glass and Diana kissed the glass with her ruby lips. The wine now appeared sweeter and more crimson. With the sky with twinkling stars seemingly enjoying their bliss, they spent the evening together.
As Victor sipped the wine, the wine seemed to numb his senses. He felt lighter, free and happier.
He was free to lead his life as he pleased.
“My love! Today marks the end of my wait! I have reached my dream! Tomorrow, we’ll leave for Paris!”
“You may be forgetting something!”
“What? Let’s not waste the evening thinking about the past!” Beth was his past; he wanted to live in the present!
Diana waited till Victor had drunk to his fill and felt sleepy. And as Victor went to bed, she excused herself saying she had to take a beauty bath. She pulled the lace curtain and vanished . Victor felt sleepy and tired after a long time, and he gladly drifted off to sleep.
In his dream however, he could see an Ethiopian. He could not place him where he had seen him before? The man was playing a flute, and an enormous snake was advancing towards him.
Realization, All Too Late..
The next morning, Victor woke up! But oh! The man had changed. Victor felt too weak to get up! Diana was nowhere to be seen.
He stared at the bedsheet. It seemed like a shroud. He removed it in a hurry. His glance fell on his hands. They were shriveled, loose skin hanging from the bones.
“Who are you old man? “ His reflection seemed to ask. With white hair on a near bald head, sunken eyes, veins prominent, the face from his reflection was an instant shock!
Victor felt weak, and his voice quivered as he spoke. Slowly he got up and then he stared into the mirror! He stared into an old, haggard face. The pale face contorted, and a cry of anguish escaped his lips!
“No! This cannot be! I cannot be old!”
“Diana! Where is SHE! “
Victor stared at the curtain and advanced to remove the curtain from the front of the painting.
The canvas appeared wrinkled beyond recognition. The pomegranates seemed shrunk in sizes. The face that emerged on the wrinkled canvas, was his own! He took a candle stand and hurled it at the painting. The painting seemed to move in a swirl. Things seemed to revolve around him.
He now remembered! He quickly ran to take down the painting and tore it from the back. A rolled parchment fell out!
It was written;
“Take me, take care, and never throw me from your heart!
If you do! You will become an abhorrence you once shirked!
If you still have time, take me to another place, from where you found me;
Or you shall perish! A sorry state, a fall from your grace!”
If you try to deface, you pay! You lag in the race!”
Tearing his hair with his fingers and screaming, Victor seemed to feel too tired at the same time. His visage in the mirror looked like a horror mocking his manliness.
He was suddenly in need of care, of warmth and companionship. He stood in self denial, and then he drowned in self-pity! He longed for a sign that all this was simply a nightmare!
Like a madman, he tore the curtain. He began to scratch the canvas!
Slowly, he gave up! He stopped suddenly and began to surrender to the inevitable! With each breadth that was leaving his body, the painting seemed to become a whole again. The sun streamed in through the window to dawn on the fallen , the lifeless .
The painting slowly patterned into its original canvas. The face of Victor , that had appeared on the canvas, got absorbed within the stretched canvas. The original painting seemed to replace it.
The lady’s face very closely resembled Diana’s. This time the lady was holding a fruit basket. There were two pomegranates in the basket .She had a sweet smile and the pomegranate in her palm turned crimson, like painted in fresh blood. Before the painting lay the slumped form of Victor. When the maid arrived in the morning, she alerted the neighbours. The doctor arrived and was astonished to find Victor’s lifeless body, so shriveled, so much old.
All the known and some unknown gathered and the mystery of a man who turned into a shriveled corpse overnight. But others were of the opinion, that it could not be! There must have been two of them! The old man was too feeble to go out. The younger man must have seized the opportunity to make himself known in his circles to avoid suspicion.
Brothers separated! Maybe the young man was an imposter trying to get at the mansion and killed the old man, to get his fortune. The lady may have fled with the imposter.
The portrait seemed to smile at all the gossips, while holding on to the pomegranate.
Among the bystanders was an Ethiopian, who introduced himself as an art collector. As there was none to call Victor’s heir, the painting was willingly handed over to the interested art collector by Dr. Jonas himself.
Rather, he was made to hand it over, as if in a trance. It was against his wish to let the painting survive; rather he wanted to destroy it in the worst possible way! But fate seemed to rule out that possibility!
“It had to be her! Dr. Jonas was sure! The face of the woman in the painting was hers! And now, she was carrying two fruits of the same kind! The painting was cursed from the beginning! Poor Beth! She had no idea what both of them were getting into! What could the last moments have been like for Victor? It must have been terrible!”
The mansion was to be auctioned after purification. He would make it sure that it would not pass into wrong hands!
The painting on the wall of Victor’s bedroom, now adorned the wall of a quiet antique shop, away from the monument of peace.
A middle aged man, probably in the sixties was admiring the portraits. His eyes settled for the lady holding the pomegranate. “Why! This should be it! I could present it to my wife, who will be turning a year older tomorrow! It would be her inspiration!”
A silent hiss emanated from the painting, but it was inaudible to the new client. The Ethiopian emerged with a wide smile.
“Welcome Sir! Welcome to the vistas of youth!”
It was again the time of winter solstice!
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