As Charity skipped excitedly to the edge of the cliff, striking a yoga-inspired-pose with perfect form, Shubham sighed, raising her Canon DSLR to his eyes for what seemed like the 100th time.
“Try and see if you can get the sun placed between my palms in the picture,” she said, holding her hands above her head in the shape of a lotus.
Behind the camera, Shubham rolled his eyes, but did as he was told, nevertheless.
He was not particularly enjoying his first date.
It was Charity’s idea, just like everything else they did. They had first spoken on Tinder one week ago. Shubham had seemed like an exotic choice to her, something her whimsical mind always loved. She had never dated an Indian before and was interested in seeing what they had to offer. Shubham, on the other hand, had never matched with anyone before Charity on Tinder, and was therefore not in a position to really exercise any form of choice.
Charity was significantly more attractive than he was, and she had immediately taken command of the conversation and before Shubham knew it, he had agreed to a 6-hour trek amongst the boreal forests of Canada.
And so, he found himself on a Saturday morning, hours away from civilization and his beloved television, walking a forest trail with no prospect of a rest anytime soon.
“So, what’s the story behind your name?” he asked, prying his mind away from the trail.
“Well, my family has always believed in working for the betterment of the community. Philanthropy is our family business, you could say,” she said, her pristine teeth flashing a dazzling smile at him.
“So, you work for an Non-profit?” he asked.
“No, no, I just got done with my Arts Major. I decided I wanted to take a break before I start working in earnest, so this year I have just been travelling and seeking new experiences. I feel it is very important to witness first-hand the troubles that people all over the world face. It teaches you to not take what you have for granted. Don’t you agree?”
Shubham smiled and nodded.
Coming from a country that overflowed with such “troubles” and never having had the luxury of taking a “break year”, he could not really bring himself to see her viewpoint. But he did not see the value in pointing this out to her.
And what the hell kind of a name is Charity?
“How much longer before we turn back?” Shubham asked.
Charity looked back at him, slightly bemused.
“It’s only been an hour and a half, we have a long walk ahead of us. Are you getting tired already?” she asked.
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he lied, “I just like knowing what’s ahead of me so I am prepared mentally.”
“Ah, well, we have another 45 minutes of walking along this trail, which is level all the way and so shouldn’t be much trouble. Then comes the hard part. We have approximately an hour’s climb up the side of this mountain that is slightly rough going, and then it’s down the other side and looping back to the road, and we’ll be just dandy.”
“All right,” he said, defeated.
For the next hour, Shubham did not speak much. Charity did not notice it, she was used to dominating conversations and spent the entire time regaling him with tales designed to move all sympathetic beings to tears. Shubham proved largely impervious to her tragic stories, however, limiting his reactions to grunts and nods.
As they reached the foot of the mountain they were to climb for the next leg of their trek, the skies, as if reflecting Shubham’s inner state of mind, clouded over. He immediately felt the temperature drop and the world grow noticeably greyer. The breeze picked up, and Shubham thanked the Gods that he remembered to pack a sweater for himself.
Ten minutes into the climb, the first pitter patter of rain reached Shubham’s ears, bringing with it dread and fear akin to the Nazgul’s cry.
“Uh-oh, it’s beginning to rain. I hope you brought a raincoat,” Charity trilled, pulling hers out from her rucksack.
Shubham stared at her, hoping that her half-joking tone was an accurate appraisal of the seriousness of the situation if he hadn’t, in fact, brought a raincoat.
It began to rain in earnest, and Shubham’s weary muscles now had new foes to contend with. The wind now struck wet clothes, making the cold much more severe than he had accounted for. The rain had turned the trail to slush, making the uphill trudge slow and slippery. Shubham fell often, and every time his fingers touched the ice-cold rocks, his hands seemed to drop five degrees in temperature and never recover.
Even Charity’s spirits, which had tolerated no drop in levels of joviality until now, appeared to be dampened somewhat by this unseasonal downpour. She had meant for this trek to be relaxing and rejuvenating, not a battle against the elements.
“Shubham, you better get out that raincoat, these storms can get pretty harsh in these parts.”
“I don’t have a fucking raincoat,” Shubham snapped, shivering.
“What? Why would you come trekking without a raincoat?”
“I don’t know, I have almost no experience with this kind of stuff. I’ve lived in cities all my life. And tropical cities at that!”
“You told me you had been trekking before,” she retorted. The abrupt change from cheerful chirping to fearful interrogation did not go unnoticed by Shubham.
“Yes, I have. But not like this. I went for walks into the hills around a hill station lodge, I haven’t climbed mountains in the Canadian wilderness.”
They both stared at each other, Charity pale with worry, and Shubham panting heavily, with his hands turning noticeably purple in the cold. The wind was verging on storm levels now, and the intensification in the aforementioned pitter patter alerted Charity to the fact that they were now also in a hailstorm.
“Okay,” she said, “There’s nothing to be done now, we just have to push through. Let’s stay calm and just plod away, it’s gonna be all right. The storm will pass.”
Shubham stared up at the climb before him and internally asked his legs if they had it in them. The answer was a resounding “No!”
“No, he echoed to Charity, “I’m done freezing my ass off. I’m going back.”
“Okay, wait. Have some of this, first,” she said, pulling out her flask.
“What is that?”
“Brandy. It will warm you right up.”
“I don’t drink.”
“It’s all right, it’s to warm you up, it isn’t going to get you drunk.”
“No, you don’t understand. I don’t drink. I am forbidden to do so by my religion.”
Charity stared at him, wondering if he was being serious or just being an asshole.
“Okay, at least have a sandwich, something to keep you going. You look half dead.”
“What’s in the sandwich, Charity?” he asked, wearily.
“What is in the sandwich?”
“Ham and cheese.”
Shubham turned away in disgust and starting making his way back down the slope.
“What? What’s your problem?” Charity asked.
“I don’t eat meat. I’m a Jain.”
“Is that like a vegetarian?” she asked.
“A more extreme form of that, yes.”
“But you need to have something, you’re too weak right now.”
I need some meat.
The lynx slinked along, slithering silently between the trees and through the foliage. He had a pronounced limp, one that signaled the beginning of the end for a predator. Sure enough, this lynx, once majestic and in command of prime territory, had now been relegated to the foothills of the Canadian rockies, where prey was sparse. The fact that one of his legs was pretty much non-functional merely added to the difficulty he faced in getting himself a meal.
It had been three long days since he had had anything to eat, and he saw no reason for his fortune to turn favourable. He had begun to notice prey standing brazenly in his vicinity, no longer afraid of his predatorial abilities. His limp pronounced the absence of a threat loud and clear to animals all around him. There were even traces of lynxes from neighbouring territories making inroads into his territory, sensing the weakening of its owner.
As he stared at his crumbling empire, sullenly, drenched in the rain, his ears picked up a commotion. Loud, aggressive voices reached him over the sound of the brewing storm. Every instinct told him to flee, but these were desperate times. Even the hint of a meal warranted an investigation.
He picked his way through the brush, moving, as felines always do, in complete silence. He circled around the source and came up from behind it. He saw two bipedal creatures stumbling down the face of the mountain. He saw, with a hunter’s eye, weakness. One of them seemed sturdy, resolute and calm. The other, of darker skin and more appetizing scent, was in no condition to live.
Humans were familiar to the lynx. In his heyday, he had watched many a human walk these very paths, while he remained unseen in the undergrowth. His instinct had always taught him not to interfere with larger creatures and he left humans well alone. But this was a question of life or death. He needed that meal.
The choice was a no-brainer. The weaker one would be the target. The lynx could smell the fear in him. He would make an easier prey.
Poised as all felines are when ready to pounce, the lynx felt the rush of the hunt return to him. His rear legs jettisoned him into the air and he let out a menacing snarl as he lunged for the throat of his prey.
Shubham’s weary walk down the trail was interrupted by a snarl coming from right behind him. He snapped his head around, arms raised, to see what new abomination fate had in store for him. He immediately felt a searing pain in his arms as he felt a set of teeth sink into his flesh. Squealing with terror, he flailed his legs and arms desperately in an attempt to deter the attacker. He looked around to his companion for help just in time to see her fleeing into the distance.
Around them, the storm came into its own and the wind howled through the trees, mocking the screams of the dying man.
The lynx let go and lunged for his throat once again. Shubham tucked his chin into his chest, and this time he felt the teeth clamp onto his face. All the while, the lynx’s claws sliced his clothes and then his skin to shreds on his torso, shoulders and head.
The agony he felt had was unparalleled, but it also woke him up. His muscles forgot their weariness, his skin forgot what it is to be cold, and his brain forgot the feeling of fear. His entire body geared itself to aid him in surviving this attack.
Shubham, face still clasped firmly in the lynx’s jaw, felt about for a decent sized rock with one hand, while punching the lynx and pulling at its fur with the other. He managed to get hold of an oblong rock about the size of a brick and jammed it into the lynx’s skull with all his strength. The ploy was successful, as the lynx let out a roar and let go of his head.
The next time the lynx lunged, Shubham was ready. His vision was blurred by the blood streaming down from his scalp and the tears from the sheer pain he was experiencing, but his adrenaline pulled him through and he swung at the lynx while it was mid air and knocked it to the ground. He then let out a primal scream and, raising the rock above his head with both hands, pummeled it into the lynx’s skull again and again until nothing but a red pulp remained.
Shubham’s mind was overwhelmed with emotion and, in a final insult to the once-might lynx, he picked up a piece of flesh from its brain and began to chew on it.
The storm abated, the rain slowed to a drizzle, and Shubham, kneeling in a pool of human and lynx blood and rainwater combined, stared up the mountain face into the sky.
Silhouetted against the grey clouds was the blood-curdling figure of another lynx.
Shubham blinked, sure he was hallucinating. But there was no mistaking it.
Before he had time to contemplate what he had done to deserve his luck, the second lynx, a hunter just coming into its prime, pounced.
This time there was no struggle, this time there was no fight. The prey had lost its will.
Shubham’s clothes were found hours later by a search party that had been alerted by one Charity Faye.
The spokesperson for Canadian tourism warned the public that though lynxes were known to be reclusive, they posed a threat nevertheless and thus warranted caution.
Using the example of Shubham, a life lost to bad preparation and bad luck, she said, “Please remember, a Jain is only as strong as the weakest lynx.”