The Terrace

By- Ajay Patri.

I walked up the stairs one at a time, the sound of my rubber slippers amplified in the narrow stairway, reverberating dully off the dirty white walls. Three flights of stairs led to the door, which is always kept open. I have never seen it shut. The old wooden door has hinges that are brown with rust and the door itself bears the scars of age, weathered, chiselled, beaten up.

I stepped out through the open doorway onto the terrace and was instantly buffeted by a cold wind that swept across the barren landscape of the roof. An involuntary shiver racked my body as I instinctively hunched my shoulders against the cold, trying to make myself small and insignificant to the elements. The thin t-shirt that I was wearing hardly offered any protection as the wind seemed to tear right through it. My ankles also bore the brunt of the wind as the shorts that I wore did no better a job.

I persevered, walking at a slow pace across the rugged surface of the terrace. It was roughly rectangular with an open gaping hole in the middle that gave a bird’s eye view of the courtyard below. I went to the waist high barrier that ran across the length of the chasm, separating the drop from the terrace itself. I placed my hands on the thin surface and felt its rough ridges pressing against my palms. I took a deep breath and the cold wind stung my lungs and made me gasp, an inaudible pang of pain at the sharp tinge of oxygen.

In the quiet of the place, I looked down and examined the concrete surface of the courtyard below. It seemed like a grey sea, suspended in its movements forever by an otherworldly act. The red walls of the building seemed to empty out their contents into this solid mass at the bottom, an endless receptacle that accepted everything and turned it into a featureless grey mass. Standing there, I felt faintly nauseated by the sheer drop. Three stories up but it seemed so much higher. I took a half step back from the edge and turned my eyes away from that presence at the bottom.

Two pairs of dull brown eyes stared at me. I was held by their unblinking ferocity, a steadfast quality that seemed so innocuous at the same time. The dog was standing on one of the solar water heaters, one of about a dozen that occupied the space on the other side of the precipice. It was standing on the elevated and inclined panel at full stretch, its back taut and the ribs bulging out of its brown and leathery skin. The tail was unusually straight, jutting out in line with its spine, quivering slightly in the wind. The head was turned towards me, at right angles with its erect body. For a moment, it reminded me of a soldier in a parade. The way they walk in attention and turn just their heads in one direction as a salute. It seemed like an absurd analogy to draw but I couldn’t help thinking of it as I watched this dog.

He, for he was a male, stood there; one of his ears was clipped which showed that he was neutered. Motionless and with his eyes still fixated on me. I had never before seen a dog so still, not even a sleeping one. He just stood there, his limbs straight and his paws placed firmly on the surface of the glass panel. His short snout pointed in my direction, he gazed mournfully at me. It was at once unnerving and amusing. It was like he was trying to show me something, something about his posture seemed to suggest that. It was a posture of supreme pride, like one a lion would strike in the middle of the African Serengeti, surveying the savannah of which he was the undoubted master, a fact that he understood in its entirety and believed in with a ferocity that came naturally to him. It seemed to be out of place for a dog in the middle of a city, surrounded by human beings, to stand there like that. With the dog, it looked like an image of defiance, even desperation.

I was suddenly unsure of what I was doing up there. For a minute, I couldn’t recall what had brought me up there and it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Those eyes were hard to turn one’s eyes away from. They forced you to look at them. And for reasons I couldn’t even begin to fathom then and haven’t been able to think about since, I felt a shred of pity for that beast. For the way he stood there, surrounded by a dozen glass panels, a terrace that was littered with cigarette stubs and plastic wrappers of long eaten crisps, on a building that was half obscured from the world by tall eucalyptus trees whose white trunks swayed in that cold breeze. No one saw him except me. No one was there to see him strike that majestic pose, of see him trying to proclaim himself to be worth more than any other dog. Pity is the right word for what I felt. At least that is what I have told myself since then.

I cannot recall how long I stood there and stared at him in the eye. It was evening, I remember, and the sinking sun cast a blood red glow on the world before me. His brown skin seemed mottled with red patches and the sun was directly in his eye and yet he stood there, unswerving and unrelenting. It seemed like he was deliberately being stubborn. That particular thought actually managed to bring a smile to my lips. I remember because I had no reason to smile and I hadn’t had one for a while. But seeing him there was oddly uplifting for the spirits and I couldn’t stop my lips from stretching into a reluctant half smile, the kind you try in vain to stop.

I also remember thinking stupidly that he might see me smile. Maybe I actually wondered what he would think. I am not even sure if that was plain stupid or if I should actually be feeling embarrassed about being caught by a dog, laughing at him. But he showed no visible reaction to my unsuppressed mirth. He was stolid as ever, his haunches seemed painfully taut, like he was trying with every ounce of his strength to stand like that and not slack off.

After what seemed like an age and a half, though I am sure time played some trick on me there, he lowered his head a little while his eyes still looked at me. Seeing some form of movement, I contemplated calling out to him. But before I could do so much as raise a hand or open my mouth, he moved again.

In one swift graceful movement, he turned his body, the sinewy muscles catching the last rays of the sun even as he squatted on his haunches and was soon crouching till his belly touched the surface of the glass. Then, even as I watched and saw those brown eyes finally shift their piercing gaze from me, he leapt into the evening air. There was a frozen moment when I saw him there in the sky. I am not sure I can even describe what I saw. And then he was falling down into the abyss, towards that dark, swirling grey sea.

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