The sky was intermittently dark. Each period of darkness ended in a lightning flash. Each flash was succeeded by a deep growl up above and deep within the belly of the clouds. The light breeze smelt of a subtle promise of rain.
The old man with a head full of bushy silver hair stood quietly in the veranda. He was looking towards the western skies. His cloudy brown eyes were open but looked at nothing in particular. Instead they were filled with the grey shadows of memories.
‘Grandpa! What are you doing outside?’ The little girl walked out in search of her old friend.
‘I am waiting for the rain my dear.’ He looked down at her, smiling with affection.
‘Why are you waiting for the rain Grandpa?’ She was one curious child.
‘Because this is what old men do. We look at the night skies and wait for the rains.’
‘But it was raining. It has just stopped.’ The girl motioned at the wet grass.
‘Yes it has stopped but it will come again.’ The old man looked up at the heavy clouds. ‘The giants are still here.’
The little girl looked up and scratched her head. Sometimes she failed to understand the apparently simple words of her loving grandfather. But still she loved him.
She loved his old man smell – the musk-scented aftershave and the lingering bitter smell of tobacco. She loved his old man face – the countless deep lines and the bushy hair in bad need of thorough brushing. And she loved his old man talk – full of memories and stories and nostalgia.
‘Why do you love rains Grandpa?’ She persisted.
‘Hmm! Because they smell good my dear; they smell of wet earth and they smell of the circle of life.’ He answered kindly.
‘Yeah! They do smell of wet earth.’ She inhaled deeply. ‘But what do you mean by the circle of life?’
‘Each raindrop is born up there.’ The old man motioned at the clouds. ‘The elements make love and the raindrops are born. Their life starts the moment they start falling. They fall and the earth appears larger and larger with each yard they fall. The drops fall onto the parched earth and they form happy puddles. And finally the puddles die with the rising sun.’
‘That’s sad Grandpa. I don’t like death.’ The little one was quite sensitive for her age.
‘Death is not the end child. It is the beginning of a new circle.’ He smiled. ‘The puddles evaporate. The vapors float back above and form clouds. Then it rains again. The circle is repeated.’
‘So they come back……….the raindrops. They always come back. Don’t they?’ She asked excitedly.
‘Oh yes they do. They always do child.’ He breathed with obvious relief. He didn’t like disappointing the child.
The little girl sat down on the wooden stairs and waited for the rain alongside her grandfather. After a moment, the old man sat down too. He was too old to keep standing for long. He placed his hand protectively around her delicate shoulders and drew her nearer.
‘Grandpa!’ She asked after a while.
‘Yes child!’ He knew the question answer session was not over. In fact it was never over. But he knew she loved asking questions and he liked answering her questions.
‘Do you love rains only because they smell of wet earth and the circle of life?’
‘No.’ The old man smiled. ‘I also love rains because they remind me of the golden butterflies.’
‘Golden butterflies?’ The little girl’ eyes started shining with interest. ‘What are golden butterflies? I have never seen one.’
‘Golden butterflies are the people you love but whom you lose somewhere along the path of life.’ The old man caressed her shoulder softly.
‘Whenever it rains, the golden butterflies come flying along with the thick drops of rain. They play and dance in the rain, their golden wings gleaming with the moisture. And I watch them. In fact I love the golden butterflies more than the rains.’
‘Why can’t I see them Grandpa?’ She so wanted to see those magnificent creatures.
‘Hmm……!’ The old man searched for an answer. ‘Because you haven’t lost anyone yet my dearest. But no matter how much I detest the fact, you will lose those whom you love. And they will all become golden butterflies.’
‘Does it make you sad or happy – looking at the golden butterflies?’ She asked.
‘A little bit of both I guess. It makes me sad when I think of the loss. But it makes me happy when I think of the sweet memories we made.’
For a few moments both sat together – the old man and the child. Both thinking of the golden butterflies and listening to the silence of the stormy night. The silence was thick. It was as thick as a slab of invisible butter. One could almost slice it with a blunt-edged knife.
‘Grandpa!’ The child gently pulled on his gnarled hand.
‘Yes child!’ He patted her delicate hand in return.
‘Have you ever felt that it grows very silent just after the rain stops?’ She looked up into his face. ‘I mean, before the crickets start singing and before the fireflies begin their magical dance of stars?’
‘Yes it always grows silent just after a rain.’ The old man looked far into the dark night. ‘Legend says that it rains when the gods weep, up above in the skies. Maybe the silence is a mark of respect for the suffering of the gods.’
‘Do you really believe that Grandpa?’ She smiled naughtily and the old man chuckled softly in return.
‘No! Of course not, child. The gods never suffer. That is why they are the gods.’
‘Then why does it fall silent just after a rain?’ She repeated her question.
‘I believe the silence is the world’s acknowledgement of the sadness of life.’
The little girl remained quiet. She did not understand the sentence but she did understand sadness. She understood it through her grandfather. In her happy world, he was the only sad entity. But still she loved him because in spite of his sadness, the old man never failed to love her.
‘Why are you sad Grandpa?’ She asked him hesitatingly.
‘Because I have spent so much of life little one.’ The old man ran his fingers through her silky hair. ‘I have found out that life is sad. And with time, I have learnt to love sadness.’
‘Why do you love sadness?’ She asked and her grandfather smiled. He was expecting this question.
‘Because sadness brings along understanding – the understanding of life and the purpose of life.’
‘Don’t you like happiness?’ She sounded surprised.
‘No! I don’t. Because happiness dulls my senses and makes me numb to the pain around me.’
‘I don’t like happiness too.’ The little girl said firmly.
‘Ha ha!’ The old man laughed and then grew serious. ‘First you get all the happiness you deserve.’ He waved his index finger in front of her tiny nose and then bent down his head and kissed its cold tip. ‘Only then you have the right to like or dislike it.’
Suddenly a thick drop fell on the little girl’s forehead. She looked up. Rain was starting to fall again. She looked at her grandfather. He was looking up too. The lightning flashed and the thunder cracked. She moved closer to him for comfort. Thunder frightened her.
‘Can you see the golden butterflies?’ She searched the rain-filled sky.
‘Oh yes! I can see them. I can see them all. Floating down, riding the thick raindrops and dancing in the rain.’ The old man said dreamily.
‘Is Grandma one of those butterflies?’ She asked.
‘Oh yes! She is the biggest golden butterfly of all – the shiniest and the most magnificent of all of them.’ He smiled sadly.
‘Say hi to Grandma from my side.’ She so wanted to see her – the most magnificent of all golden butterflies.
‘I will child. I will.’ The old man said affectionately. ‘Now run back inside. Leave me alone with my golden butterflies.’
The little girl kissed the rough cheek of her grandfather and ran back inside. But before entering the door she looked back at him. There he was – sitting under the pouring rain. The rain plastered his hair to his forehead and the drops slid down his cheeks in torrents.
‘Grandpa!’ She shouted over the din of the falling rain.
‘Yeah?’ He answered without looking back.
‘You know, I find rain very sad too.’ She shouted, her eyes filling with tears.
‘And why is that little one?’ The old man’s question was almost drowned by the noise of the falling rain.
‘It is because the rain hides your tears very well.’ She brushed her cheeks with the back of her hand and ran back inside.
It rained all through the night. For a while the little girl watched her grandfather from the window. He kept sitting in the rain motionless. But he was smiling. She was almost sure of it. And she knew why he was smiling. He was watching his golden butterflies dancing in the rain. Then sleep came over and she slept, dreaming of her grandparents and the golden butterflies.
Morning came and it was still raining. The little girl got up and looked outside her window. Her grandfather was still sitting where she had left him the previous night. She hurriedly climbed down the stairs and ran outside.
The old man was sitting on the stairs. His eyes were closed but there was a most wonderful smile dancing on his sleeping face.
‘Good morning Grandpa!’ She lightly kissed his wet forehead. It was cold as ice.
‘Wake up Grandpa!’ She shook his shoulder and the lifeless body of the old man slid to one side.
The little girl knew something was horribly wrong. She thought of calling her mother. But something caught the corner of her eyes. There was something floating above the rose bushes, gleaming in the rain. She looked closely and couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a golden butterfly – her first golden butterfly.
But the old man was wrong. The sight of the golden butterfly only made her sad.