The Theatre round the Corner by the Second Lane on Parsi Street
Updated: Oct 1
The town of Rattlecreek stood dead silent. The hands of the clock in the watchtower ticked on, silently. Five minutes to midday. A solitary eagle soared high above the deserted street. There was no sound but the faint neigh of horses. The townsfolk watched from their windows, some peeked fearfully from salons and joints. The two men on the street stood facing each other in the scorching heat, waiting for noon and death. Their hands rested anxiously on their belt. The wooden handle, the leather holster, the warm smooth metal brushing their calloused hands.
The sheriff of Rattlecreek glanced at the clock hands and then back at his opponent. His face was barely visible beneath the dark hat, but the sheriff knew those pale grey eyes. They were the eyes of a fugitive, and he had memorized them from the bounty posters. The outlaw squinted at the man before him. The golden badge on his coat glimmered in the overhead sun. The two men stood motionless waiting for the clock. For a moment their eyes met a faint tick and then two loud bangs.
They stood still after it had happened, their hands drawn, smoke curling up from their pistols. A second passed in roaring silence. The sheriff toppled and swayed, falling squarely on his back. It was over. The sheriff had missed. The outlaw had won. The town of Rattlecreek looked on in panic. Women watching from their windows turned away in horror and disbelief. Wind whistles through the parlor doors, somewhere a baby cried with unabating shrillness.
The outlaw chuckled nervously at first and then laughed. It was a dark, dry laugh, unkind to the ears. He beamed at the onlookers, the pale grey eyes dancing with joy. He had killed the sheriff of Rattlecreek. When the joy and disbelief faded, he advanced towards his victim. He swaggered slowly, trying to hide a limp, twirling the pistol in his hand. He had killed the sheriff of Rattlecreek.
As he towered over him, he noticed that the sheriff wasn’t quite dead yet. He lay flat on his back twitching in pain. The outlaw pointed his pistol straight in his face. The man who would kill the sheriff of Rattlecreek. A hand moved, a click echoed, and then another bang. The outlaw was thrown back a good five feet from where he stood. Blood burst from his body and his pink white insides spilled on the dusty street.
The sheriff of Rattlecreek stood up, unperturbed, pulling out a dented metal sheet from beneath his uniform. It was over. The outlaw was dead. The sheriff had won. The townsfolk came down to the street to pick up the hero on their shoulders. They walked off into the distance, singing, and dancing, leaving only death and dust in their wake.
Rafique finished with the flair of a seasoned magician. The other boys stared blankly at his face.
“Well, what happened after that?”
“Nothing happened stupid, that’s how the film ends”, chided Rafique.
He was taller than the others, well built for his age. None of them dared to cross him, but I could tell they did not believe him.
“Where did you see the film?”, one of them asked.
“Round the corner by the second lane of Parsi street.”
I knew well enough that no such theatre existed. So did the other boys. Some of them nodded and looked the other way. Someone mentioned something about getting back. Disappointment clouded Rafique’s face. I elbowed him to tell him it was a nice film.
“I would like to see it sometime.”, I added.
Rafique did not say anything. We rarely spoke on the way back. I could sense his discontentment. It was a nice story, I felt like repeating. It wasn’t real, I knew that but it was true, every word of it. I loitered around him as we walked back hoping he would notice me.
“How much did you get today?”, he asked absent-mindedly.
“I don’t know...forty maybe fifty bucks.”, I shrugged.
Rafique stopped to look at me. I stopped too. The other boys had crossed the street. His eyes scanned over my clothes and rested on my ragged pants. I knew the gaze. I felt warm around the ears. I did not ask for his pity. I did not ask anything from him.
“Here take some and don’t let Biswada know.”, he shoved a few crumbled notes in my hand. My ears grew warmer. He did not see me as his friend, he felt sorry for me. To him, I was a small and fragile kid. I tried to protest.
“Take it, besides there’s much more left. I pick enough pockets in a day, and there’s more cash in stealing wallets than begging.”
I murmured a few words of thanks. He did not notice, his eyes had already drifted off to some distant place. Perhaps he was drinking with the good townsfolk of Rattlecreek, celebrating his victory.
It turned out there wasn’t much left with Rafique after the charity. When we turned in our earnings from the day, Biswada took notice of the scant amount that Rafique produced. It wasn’t a nice thing to be noticed by Biswada. The cold steel gaze of the pale grey eyes could break the toughest kid. Rafique was stronger than others, and he could endure more, but even he shuddered a little.
“Don’t worry, he’s special. Biswada loves him.”, sniggered one of the boys in a hushed tone.
I knew what special meant. I knew that some nights, Rafique wasn’t allowed to sleep with us. I knew the things Biswada would do to him. The chain of noises that came from the room above. I knew how Rafique was loved, and I knew it was cruel to love someone like that. He walked funny when Biswada was done with him, and he never came back to sleep. Sometimes I would find him on the rooftop, sitting underneath the stars, bruised and bloodied. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him till the next day.
I would accompany him sometimes. We didn’t talk. It was just silence. Sometimes he would sob, or place his head in his hands. Sometimes he would put an arm around my shoulders like a big brother. I didn’t mind him thinking of me as a brother. I liked the safety of his strong arms on my back.
Years swept by and the city turned cruel, the days grew weary. But the nights we had for ourselves. The hours we spent sitting underneath the stars were ours only. Mine and Rafique’s. He never talked about what Biswada did to him. He talked in stories. Episodes from the adventures of the sheriff of Rattlecreek.
I laughed with him, when he told me, numerous times how the sheriff shot the outlaw between his legs. How humiliated the outlaw felt when he fell off his horse before the townsfolk. How the sheriff served true justice and looked after the women and children of Rattlecreek.
I knew that in his dreams he was the sheriff. I knew why the outlaw had pale grey eyes and limped exactly like Biswada. I knew why the stories ended with the townsfolk carrying the sheriff on their shoulders. I also knew Rafique never held a gun in his hand and knew much less about horses. But I listened to him all the same. That dream was all he had, and my ears were all I could give him.
The years swept by and Biswada gave us all new duties. Rafique was no longer just a pickpocket. He was given a blade, a gun, and a list of names that needed crossing. He never spoke of what he did. But he told me the tales of the sheriff every night. How the sheriff killed the looters of a cargo train and put the fear of law into people who took loans and forgot about it.
My duties changed as well. I was given errands to run around the city. I did not mind the traveling, it was being away from Rafique that bothered me. There were nights when I slept in stations and bus stops. I always made it a point to look at the stars before sleeping. I knew in my heart, Rafique was looking at them too.
When I came back from an errand that took a couple of nights, the worst had already happened. There had been an argument between Rafique and Biswada that had caused it.
“He was blinded with rage, he didn’t know which bottle he threw.”, one of the boys explained.
It wasn’t true. Biswada had known what he was doing. He knew which bottle he was hurling at my Rafique. He knew what would happen.
I found Rafique sitting at our usual place in the rooftop. He wasn’t sobbing or crying, his head wasn’t in his arms. He sat straight like a hound on the watch. I sat beside him in silence. We looked at the stars for a long time before I spoke.
“Tell me the story. Tell me the story of the sheriff of Rattlecreek.”
He turned to me. The silver light of the moon illuminated his visage. The left of his face, his and shoulders were charred from the acid. I did not gasp. I did not react. He was still my Rafique, still my sheriff.
He started in a soft parched voice.
They were far from Rattlecreek, our hero, and his prisoner. The sheriff stopped his horse and looked around. There were no trees or shade, only the vastness of the canyon stretching to the horizon. He would do anything for a drink and some sleep right now, but the nearest inn was still a day’s ride.
The sheriff looked back at his prisoner, the outlaw. He had passed out from the heat, his hands still tied to the reins of the horse. The sheriff felt pleased. He wanted to drag the criminal around the canyon, tied to his horse but he was tired from the ride. The sun was no longer visible. A bright red scarlet was painted across the sky in its place. There was a cavern, not far from where he stood.
“I will stop here for the night. Tomorrow, I take him to justice.”
He checked his supplies. There was not much food and very little water. Some of course had to be kept for the horse. It was tired and needed rest. The outlaw was lying face down on the sand. It would be a shame to waste any of the supplies on him. But even so, he needed water to get up for the horse could no longer drag him. The sheriff unzipped his trousers. No one would know. No one would believe him.
Night descended like a mountain cat pouncing on its prey. A makeshift fire crackled and popped inside the cavern. The sheriff sat close to the flame, slow cooking his meal. In the distance, out by the cold, the outlaw slept in a fetal position. His hands tied to a large stone. The blood at his brow had dried up and the bruises on his good leg stung persistently. He looked at his captor, sitting in the warmth. The pale grey eyes swam with tears.
“We are not so different, you and I. We’re cut from the same cloth.”, he called out, his voice breaking with the stress.
The sheriff looked up. There was a hint of laughter in the air. It was a dark, dry laugh, unkind to the ears. He rose from his place, vengeance twisting his posture. As he advanced in a slow swaggering walk, the outlaw regretted having called out. There was a half-burnt log in his hands. Fear paralyzed the outlaw. He cried and begged, wriggling like an insect trapped in a web.
The sheriff crouched beside the man. A set of petrified pale grey eyes shone in the warm hue of the burning log.
“I am nothing like you.”
Screams of agony echoed through the air, as he brushed the face of the outlaw with the log. No one would know. No one would believe him.
“I am a man of law. I am just and good.”
The log seared over the thin skin of the neck, shoulders, and chest. The bare white skin crumpled and shrunk turning a furious red.
The sheriff found peace that night. Fragments of howling pain and muffled cries lulled him to sleep.
The next day, dawn broke with startling innocence. The horse was well-rested and prepared for the day. The sheriff of Rattlecreek arranged the bridle and reins. A long journey lay ahead of him. He looked at the outlaw laying defeated in the sand, the left side of his face charred and cleansed. He felt pleased with his handiwork.
The outlaw woke at the sound of his captors’ voice. He reeled away with whatever strength he could muster. The sheriff of Rattlecreek kneeled by his side, studying him with concealed caution.
“You are no longer of any use to me, I will let you go, but under one condition..”, he paused to gauge the reaction of the fugitive.
“Anything, anything you’ll say”, mewled the outlaw.
When his hands and legs were untied, the outlaw crawled and limped away from his captor. His legs could no longer walk, and he staggered and fell with every step. It was over. He dragged himself on the sand as fresh waves of pain crashed on his body. He paid no heed. It was over. He was free.
The shot from the rifle echoed harshly through the canyon. The sheriff marveled at his own aim for the outlaw was almost a hundred feet away when he killed him. Poor man, he had actually believed him. Believed he was being set free. The sheriff chuckled at the thought and then laughed to himself. It was a dark, dry laugh, unkind to the ears. He rode off into the distance leaving only dust and death in his wake.
In the end, Rafique did manage to kill Biswada. It wasn’t like the film he saw in the theatre that never existed. There was no ticking clock on a watchtower. No anxious townsfolk. No metal plate hidden beneath his shirt. He shot Biswada in a cold damp street, with no witnesses and no regret. No one knew who did it, and he never told anyone. But I knew it was him.
He vanished after that. The years that followed were lonely and mundane. There was no one to sit and watch the stars with. No one whose scars I would trace. No one to put a strong arm on my back and tell me a story.
I saw him one last time. I was running an errand for somebody when I found that I had lost my way in the labyrinth of the city. I spotted a theatre, round the corner by the second lane on Parsi street. The one that had never existed. The film that was playing was about to end. I slipped in without a ticket.
I saw him, one last time. His face was almost unrecognizable beneath a dark hat, his eyes had turned a pale grey and he staggered forth on the screen towards the camera, trying to hide a limp. I saw nothing else. Rafique was there before me, beyond the screen, in a world, he had dreamt of. I saw him getting thrown back a good five feet. Blood burst from his body, as his pink white insides spilled on the dusty street. The other actor rose from the ground, unperturbed, pulling out a dented metal sheet from beneath his uniform.
The extras came down to the street to pick up the hero on their shoulders. They walked off into the distance, singing, and dancing, leaving only death and dust in their wake.