The fire hissed and fizzled as the moisture in the kindling bubbled into vapour and the twigs caught alight.
Ramesh hadn’t expected to be making camp in the jungle’s damp undergrowth overnight. But then, he hadn’t expected his shot to knick the flank of the deer instead of felling it where it stood.
The cowardly cooli had run off as soon as he saw the deer was merely injured, and now Ramesh was stranded in this dense forest, unable to see the stars for the leafy canopy, alone and with no clue how to navigate his way out. He kicked the base of his carefully constructed pyre, as the irritations of the day played out in his mind. In the jungle’s deep silence, Ramesh echoed the disgruntled grumblings of his campfire.
Though hunting was illegal, and the cooli was a Ranger by day, money was a great influencer. Ramesh had paid handsomely for his expert guidance. The blind eye had cost extra, and Ramesh had been generous there too.
Ramesh stretched out in front of the fire, leaning his back against a fallen tree. His stomach protested its emptiness. He took a deep draught of water from his canteen, hoping to quiet the rumblings with it. At least replenishing water wouldn’t be difficult in this moisture laden jungle.
Over the crackling of the fire, a louder crackling of trampled branches caught Ramesh’s attention. Out of the brushes, the injured deer appeared, its hindquarters smudged with dried blood, its antlers stretched ominously by shadows. Ramesh sucked a breath through his teeth and held as still as he could. The deer locked eyes with him, gazing into his very soul. Ramesh reached surreptitiously for his rifle, but just as his fingers felt the chill of the muzzle, the deer lay down. Ramesh’s hand hovered over the gun as he watched the animal. Then slowly, careful no to disturb it, he drew his hand back.
The deer began licking its wound, its thick pink tongue scraping against its fur with a soft whisk whisk. When the wound was thoroughly cleaned, the deer looked at Ramesh once more.
“You have tried to kill me, hunter, but you haven’t succeeded. I am Lord Rama, the supreme being, in animal form to test you. You know hunting is illegal, and yet you come here. Explain yourself,” the deer said.
Ramesh stuck his index fingers in his ears and shook them.
“Did — did you just speak to me?” he asked.
The deer looked disdainfully at him, and Ramesh giggled. He hadn’t known that deer could be disdainful.
“You will be punished for your sins,” said the deer.
Ramesh lunged for his rifle, took aim, and shot. A crimson bindi flowered in the middle of the deer’s forehead, and its eyes widened with shock as it fell sideways, its head hitting the ground with a muted thunk.
“I must be hallucinating from hunger,” said Ramesh to nobody in particular. “Lucky for me, that deer decided to join me.”