Moat by Subhravanu Das

When I was a child, Bear built a moat around my crib.

The poison ivies that Bear had coiled along the frame of my crib were not enough protection. A deer or a rabbit—with their Bear-like immunity to poison ivies—could have chewed through them, chewed through me. Hence, Bear, with Bear-claws wrapped around a shovel, carved up the plateau circling my crib and filled the steaming cavity with the tears of a Lotus Queen.

Bear deemed these tears ideal for the moat because they were not water or anything resembling water. They were pellets of silver and gold that, when squeezed together, formed the high priest of glues. Whether it were a heretical page of a book or too inquisitive a frisbee, the glue caught them all. Once I saw a trombone and a sitar sinking into the moat yet going at each other; I wasn’t privy to their concert and neither was the forest on the other side of the moat.

Like the moat formed a circle around my crib, the forest formed a perfect circle around the moat. The forest, contrary to expectations, became greener over the years. Brown tree trunks, brown branches, and brown rocks and stones gave way to green towers. And green leaves gave way to solar panels that not only glittered with greenness but also transported their volts via green-coloured cables that snaked their way into the earth. A ball bounced around in the green forest without respite. The ball was a giant, taller than each of the towers. Sometimes it squashed a tower down, and sometimes it ripped a panel or two out. When the ball first peeked into my crib, on the ball was emblazoned SSARSICUN.

With every bounce of the ball, two of its letters exchanged places and made it say something new. This was apparent when the N and R traded spots. Or the C and A. It was only when the three S’s swapped places with one another that the ball appeared to repeat itself. For example, the RICSSSAUN the ball growled when it caught me folding creases into the velvet sheets in my crib seemed no different from the RICSSSAUN it mumbled when, immediately thereafter, it witnessed the bridge to my crib crumble into a thousand and ten pieces.

The bridge was how Bear had always journeyed over the moat with jars of preserved pineapple, whose sweet pickled water was all I drank. That calamitous afternoon, though, Bear chose to bring in a sack of fresh pineapples instead, and one pineapple slipped out and punctured the bridge all over with its spikes such that the bridge collapsed within a second. Bear managed to jump into my crib in time and was vindicated for not having got rid of the poison ivies in the post-moat era, for it was only by snorting through all the poison ivy berries that Bear managed to spend two days with me. Those two days were when I realised how furry Bear truly was and how much soft, silky fur it took to mask the fearsome as the fearful. Those two days were all Bear needed to extract each of Bear’s own dripping, hooked teeth, which Bear then used to dig a tunnel under my crib. Sealing the tunnel’s entrance before disappearing was Bear’s way of making sure that I couldn’t follow.

Bear emerged from the forest a week later with a new bridge strapped to Bear’s back. Like the previous bridge, its underside was crisscrossed with wristwatches, clocks, and grandfather clocks. None of the timepieces were digital since it was the rhythmic movement of their hands that provided the seismic resistance required to nullify the silver and gold pellets in the moat and keep the bridge afloat. While the bridge oscillating on Bear’s back as Bear approached the moat might have made Bear appear a bit odd, it was the intonation of time that forced Bear to stand out; tick, click, tock, clickety, unrepenting bells of worship accompanied Bear all the way. They deprived Bear of a fundamental Bear strength—stealth. Bear grinned and bore the deprivation because Bear was the sole guardian of that bridge, and of all bridges past and future. The bridges arrived with Bear and departed with Bear. Leaving any of them behind, unattended, thirsting atop the moat, wasn’t an option. The fear of who might take advantage of Bear’s absence and use a bridge to gain access to me never subsided.

None other than the Liberator—the Devil Wolf—might have sauntered up to my crib. Didn’t. The Liberator, who might have been swallowing a drop of poison ivy oil daily, since birth, to build up immunity, might have simply swiped aside the deadly roots, leaves, and regrown berries and led me out of my crib. Didn’t. The Liberator might have chased me over the bridge, through the forest, and up one of the towers. Didn’t. The Liberator might have kicked me off the tower and onto the soaring ball that hummed USISCARNS. Didn’t. While blowing through the clouds, sitting on the ball, I might have noticed that the forest wasn’t still, that it was constantly rotating, that its towers were bounding along, invisibly tied to the luminous centre that was my crib. Didn’t. After travelling on the ball to the farthest ends of the forest, I might have discovered the ocean that lay beyond the forest. Didn’t. I might have tasted its honeyed water, in which the Lotus Queens and Kings and the plankton princesses floated, thrived, colonised. Didn’t. I might have bid the Liberator farewell from over the horizon. Didn’t. I might have lain down on the bouncing ball to savour a nap. Didn’t.

I woke up, as usual, in my crib one morning and beheld what fortune did have in store for me—the giant ball had come to me on its own, having bypassed all might-bes and should-haves, having dipped into the gumminess of the moat instead of dodging it. The ball refrained from bouncing and proclaimed NARCISSUS. Bear wasn’t around to fight off the ball. The moat tried, but its advances were fended off by the sheer dint of the ball’s girth, which couldn’t help but strain against my crib. The poison ivies forsook their station and latched onto the ball; it remained unfazed. It persisted with NARCISSUS. A slit opened up between the consecutive S’s, and the ball rolled forward, peeling away from the moat, crushing my crib, and swallowing me up. Inside what I could only presume to be the belly of the ball, I found myself suspended in a zero-gravity darkness. The darkness was such that I couldn’t see myself and was akin to the darkness in Bear’s eyes where I hadn’t been able to see myself. I didn’t have any trouble breathing even as I felt myself rebound off the lumpy innards of the ball. There was no sign of an escape from the darkness. Just as there was never meant to be an escape for those trapped in the moat.

Subhravanu Das is an Indian writer living in Bhubaneswar. His work has appeared in Gone Lawn, Atlas and Alice, South Florida Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.