A shaft of sunlight fell on me. Tiny specks of clouds dotted the azure sky. A whiff of breeze pirouetted with the leaves, as the curtain rose and set the stage for the ballad of love. As if on cue, a young couple arrived, interrupting my poetic musings. Beneath my lush canopy, their lips met in a deep kiss, sending me into raptures of joy. Not a day went by when I didn’t feel proud of my name – Tunnel of Love.
“Dreaming again?” It was my best friend Zmiya, as he curled up in an obscure corner, unseen by the people.
“Why are you always sceptical?”
Zmiya raised his head a little. “What do you know of love? You stand here all day without budging an inch. I slither my way to several houses and observe the behaviour of humans. Trust me, there’s nothing worth loving about it.”
“Maybe you scare them. Not everyone finds a snake endearing.”
Zmiya responded by stifling a yawn. Snakes will be snakes!
Wearing a coat as black as the night, Mykola came into view. I knew the exact moment Daryna would join him. When she finally did, they walked a stretch and sat down between the tracks. He ran a hand through her blonde hair, while she wiped away the tears that trickled down her blue eyes.
Zmiya, who was on his way to ensnarea rat or two, stopped in his tracks. “Don’t tell me you are getting emotional.”
“It pains me to see them meet under the shroud of secrecy,” I whispered. I need not have, for my voice never reached the humans.
“Mykola is a dreaded gangster,” Zmiya rolled his beady eyes.
“But he is in love.”
“There is no place for love in his life. He killed for money. Tell me, have you ever witnessed me doing it? No. I am not a disgusting human!” Zmiya spat out the last word.
“He has turned over a new leaf, Zmiya. Can’t people change? He has fallen for Daryna. And she reciprocates his feelings,” I mumbled.
“For all you know, this Daryna might be cheating him.”
“What? Oh, come on! What makes you say such things?”
“For the past few days, I have seen her talking with another man. I have an uneasy feeling about it.”
“Ah, my darling snake has feelings too!” I couldn’t resist taking a jibe at Zmiya.
Zmiya slithered away. I wished Mykola and Daryna had a happy ending to their love story. Why should his past come in his way?
** One Year Ago **
I remember it like it was yesterday. The sound of gunshots ricocheted around the tiny town. The number of couples that took refuge under my canopy dwindled. Only one word swirled in my mind.
Like the refrain in a song.
It was Zmiya who informed me about the new villain in town. A paid killer. The police arrested him twice, but somehow he managed to get out. Maybe he had the right connections with the right people. I listened with horror as Zmiya recalled the time he had witnessed Mykola shoot an old man in the head. I shuddered at the thought of the man who could damage me in a fit of rage. Thankfully I lived to tell the tale.
What happened afterwards? How, and when, did he meet Daryna? I have no idea. Even Mr. Know-It-All Zmiya claimed ignorance. All I knew was I set my eyes on them that moonlit night. The slivery beams created an aura around his handsome face. As he ran his fingers over his brown beard, laughing at Daryna’s joke, something in me stirred. I knew he was in love.
I looked forward to their nights. Of stolen kisses. Of furtive glances they threw while their hands groped each other.
“Where have you been?” I asked as soon as I saw Zmiya. “I can’t wait……”
“Whoa! Wait. You seem to be so excited,” drawled Zmiya in a tone that didn’t spell excitement in any way.
“Mykola will propose to Daryna tomorrow. I told you, my friend, that love conquers all.”
“Where did you come across this gem of an information?”
I ignored the sarcasm in his tone. “He was talking with someone on his mobile. I presumed it was a friend. He sounded jubilant. Said the day has finally come. He fished out something white and shiny from his pocket. It was a ring, Zmiya. A ring! I couldn’t control my happiness. How I wish I could whisper in his ears and wish him luck.”
“Well, how about asking your canopy to sway as they exchange rings tomorrow,” Zmiya responded with a sardonic smile.
“Hey, this is just a proposal. Ok? Not a wedding. Wait! Where are you going?”
“A place where I can curl up in peace and not puke thinking about love.”
Fluffy clouds obscured the crescent moon. The dewy grass protested in mock fury as they sensed the arrival of their friend. Zmiya settled himself on a black round pebble adjacent to the track. His face was grim. For a minute, we didn’t exchange any word.
Unable to bear the suspense any longer, I broke the silence, “What’s bothering you, Zmiya?”
“There’s a place infested with fat rats. They are delicious. I went there yesterday. It was then I realised that Daryna stays nearby. I had never noticed it before. I mean, why should I? Why should I care who lives where? Anyway, curiosity got the better of me, and I stood there. I must have been there for a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of footsteps. It was your man Mykola. He had a grin on his face. He was rubbing his hands together. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes widened. I looked in the direction of his gaze. Daryna stood outside the house under a closed window. She had her back to Mykola. She held a torch in her hand. She switched it off. Then she turned it on. She repeated this sequence many times. Mykola left the scene wiping his eye. I’m sure she didn’t see him.”
“What could it mean, Zmiya?”
“I asked my friend. You might have seen him. He is a dog, goes around sniffing random things. He told me it’s a Morse code.”
“A what?” I was confused.
“He couldn’t tell me much. But my gut feeling says something is wrong. And it has to do with Daryna.”
The sound of two giggling humans alerted Zmiya. He hid amidst the pebbles. His spotted skin acted as the perfect camouflage. But he was the least of my worries. I wanted only the best for Mykola. But I was helpless.
There he was. Handsome as ever. His eyes twinkled as he wrapped his arm around her slender waist and drew her closer to him. I couldn’t help but wonder if Zmiya had dreamt of this. As if reading my thoughts, he hissed, “It was real!”
Mykola broke free from Daryna and started to walk along the track. I couldn’t decipher the emotion on her face. Her lips were pursed. She smoothened the creases on her skirt as she followed him.
“What’s wrong, my love?” Daryna asked. Did I discern a slight hesitation in her voice?
Mykola shook his head but didn’t stop. I have seen lovers walking away after a tiff only to return later. But would he do the same? Suddenly Mykola turned around.
“You bitch!” he hollered. His gaunt body shook with rage.
I let out a gasp. Zmiya remained in his position.
“W.. What do you mean?”
A throaty laughter escaped from his mouth. “Who hired you? I know you’re a honeytrap.”
I made a mental note to ask Zmiya later about this honey thing. Human vocabulary is so complicated. However I was more concerned with how Daryna would respond. She took a deep breath and looked him in his eye and replied, “I am Bohdan’s sister.”
Mykola arched his bushy eyebrows.
“You killed him. You swine!” With that, Daryna took out a shining black object from the coat of her jacket. I looked at Zmiya. He lay still. I felt helpless. I was called the Tunnel of Love. I had witnessed tourists capturing my beauty in their cameras. I didn’t want blood in my famed trail.
But what could I do? I was but an inanimate object. If only the people stopped by and admired the wonderful nature around them.If only they heard the melody of leaves wooed by the flirtatious breeze. But all they saw was an opportunity for photos.
But I never complained. It gave me immense joy to see people falling in love. I was not sceptical like Zmiya.
The shrieks brought me to the present. Mykola was calling Daryna a fool for using Morse code. It was what made him suspect her. Ah, that Morseword again. What could it be? Zmiya had also said the same thing. Daryna raised the black object and pointed it towards Mykola. Her hands trembled slightly. I had the urge to bend over and hold them steady. But the gangster was quicker. In the blink of an eyelid, he kicked her hand. The pistol landed on top of the track. Daryna rushed to pick it up but fell flat on her face. Disgust rose in me like whiffs of smoke from a smouldering fire. Hadn’t he proclaimed his eternal love for her just the other day? And now? He had tripped her, knowing fully well the pebbles between the tracks were splintered.
Daryna’s scream filled the air, as Mykola shot her between the eyes. Silence reigned again.
** One Month Later **
The man went down on his knees. The girl covered her mouth with her palms.
“You look bored,” Zmiya whispered.
When no reply was forthcoming from me, he continued, “I witnessed what happened that night. I was shocked too. Such complex lives these humans lead. One day they are happy and claim to be in love. Suddenly, this love turns to hatred, and they end up destroying the people they care for. I am an ugly and slimy snake. People screw their nose when they see me. They call me venomous. But you know, I don’t kill for joy. I do it to satiate my hunger. I am glad I am not a human. They disgust me.”
He was right. As always. He had never trusted them. I was the naïve one. I believed in love as couples walked hand in hand, whispering sweet nothings beneath my green canopy. I forgot amidst my jubilation that humans named me Tunnel of Love for reasons best known to them.
The familiar cacophony of approaching tourists filled the air. I braced myself for another day of shrill shrieks, flashing mobiles, and public display of affection. I felt grateful for Zmiya. If only I had a tenth of his wisdom. But for now, I was happy to share a deep bond with him, unseen and unaffected by humans.
My #NPAT Details:
- Name – Mafia member
- Place –Tunnel of Love, Ukraine
- Animal – Snake
- Thing – Flashing lights outside a window