‘Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore…’ ― Edgar Allan Poe
It was early summer when Moira, weary and dusty from several hours of
extensive convoluted journeying, had arrived at last on the final leg of her sweeping tour
at what was to be her home of the next few days – ‘Chembaratti Villa Resort’ – House of
Red Hibiscus. Dusk was swiftly descending.
A frosted white lake, red cacti, an orange island, and red hibiscus.
Her designing sequence for grad school’s painting portfolio was far from
complete. She felt strangely dissatisfied. Missing from the sampling of sketches and watercolors were twisted trees. It
disturbed her increasingly when plans went askew.
She surveyed the picturesque main lodging house, with red-rimmed eyes. Scenic structures of dark
timber-beamed rustic cottages dotted the famous backwaters, that led to the pearly grey lake, undulating in mystical
movement, or, so she imagined.
There was no turning back. She was on her last leg. She was out of time. She
was low on funds. A lost listless soul crossing Patinir’s River Styx with boatman Charon.
Flashes of burnt sienna coagulated like fallen autumn leaves behind prickly
watering eyes as she staggered inside, two banged up large suitcases in tow. She was
exhausted. Three large ants inched their bulbous red shiny bodies speedily upwards in
single file for a juicy bite off her available anatomy. Welcome to Hibiscusland! Red! Wearily
she dusted them off her crinkled blue jeans, watching them scamper purposefully to join hundreds of others swirling
in fractal symmetry.
Red. Red. Red. Her series of current work. The red trail.
Now all she was seeing was red, like red soda pop fizzing up the nostrils.
The genial lodge-keeper Mr. Joy appeared, greeting her warmly, settling her in.
Visitors from America were not uncommon. He had a honing instinct for
foreign tourists. They made delectable morsels. He rubbed his hands gleefully,
hospitality unabashed, broad smile visible in the rumbling laughter rising from deep
within a portly girth, making up for what suspenseful dialogue and language could not.
That very first evening he served up his famous house culinary specialties, with
hyperbolic finesse. Bowls of fish moilee curry cooked in succulent coconut milk,
followed by fried karimeen fish the local delicacy, made their way with dramatic flair
onto the table. She had not expected a feast. She was over budget. All she wanted was to
sleep. Her mind crashed in a sudden wave of numbness. How had she made it?
Crazy tour was how, crazily coordinated, by an equally crazy travel agent of
‘The Penny Pincher’s Globe-Trotter’ super-lowest luxury package deal, as advertised.
She was literally left high in the air. Nowhere to alter route, nowhere to reach middle
ground. One moment bouncing at high altitudes in mini vans through the arid Uyuni salt
flats, the next moment cresting the Andes. All the while searching, searching, after
miles of ridiculous trekking, for the rare opuntia red cacti in flower. Then the long boats
through rain-soaked Madre de Dios River’s steamy rainforests teeming with birds and
insects in loud cacophony of bursting song. Finally, a profusion of red passion flowers. At long last jolting in bath-tub
sized tuk-tuks, for the orange islands off Pattaya, awash in vanda orchid hybrid blooms in shades of marsala, peach
and apricot of every hue.
Not the way her two-week brazen blitzkrieg was meant to unfold. Roaming the
brush like a cantankerous wild wallaby.
Moira flopped onto clean sheets eyes wide shut willing herself to sleep. The
room spun, rotated, her thoughts thousands of miles away. She smelt a faint lingering
perfume of mogra jasmine wafting gently inside. She could not place its origin.
“What boro are you from, bro? Puh-leez take a seat,’” had gone this travel
luminary from Queens, through the fogged-up confined spaces of a windowless cubicle
he called ‘office’. Posters to exotic destinations in Jamaica and Switzerland and Dubai
were pasted in elaborate graffiti on all the sides he called walls. The Dickensian chimney-stack was eyeing her expertly,
billowing smoke from over-worked twin flues off his creased countenance, looking to connect. He was not sure she
made a good travel customer. She had that look of being out on a limb.
The room held just the one steel chair.
“Never mind. Now this is what I require, please. Five destinations. Got that?”
“’Naw, I didn’t think we were neighbors . . .”
“Bolivia – Peru – Thailand – Maldives – Kerala.”
(Chuckling loudly) “And I’m to geddyu in and out of these spots in? . . . how
many weeks didya say?”
“Not weeks, aren’t you listening? 14 days . . . days! 2 weeks! Can you count?”
He had guffawed so noisily; it had brought in the Hebrew voices from those
parts, on their way to attend services. Admirable crowd, for the spectacle they made.
They politely wondered if they could be of any help.
“14 days?! . . . geddouttayere . . . Ma’am, I respekfully decline. Maybe I suggest
you kinda kick butt somewhere else . . .” He was shaking his woolly head like a
befuddled jack-o-lantern, about to split. “Them plants have histories, bad histories . . .”
“And you came highly recommended. Should have known better . . .”
“Fuhgeddaboutit . . .”
At the end of a structured negotiation, during which the over-strung travel
lothario had harangued his evaluations, and Moira had displayed singular abilities from
viewpoint of low funds, and the over-zealous Hebrew voices who had popped in
compellingly, had had to divest yarmulkes to turn impromptu itinerary-referees, they
arrived at a compromise solution. No stopover in Maldives.
No twisted trees. Moira’s guts twisted in knots. She felt off the rails.
But it would allow her the extra days in red hibiscus land. Would do!
The speed with which sleep overtook her, hit like nepenthe, the weariness-
banishing hemlock she knew for a plant, whirling her into oblivion.
Next morning, considerably refreshed, she briskly roamed thegardens end to
end, through orchards of vibrant frangipani, sunbursts of sunflowers, balsams, and
chrysanthemums. The only difference, not a single red hibiscus was in sight. How
weird! This would not work, this unanticipated set-back. Not to be outmaneuvered by
whatever was conspiring against her, a sanguine and hopeful Moira with palette,
sketchbook and paints in hand, headed to the waiting canoe, called a water-taxi. It would
ferry her each day to the center of the village. This was an unexpected bonus, if it meant
She set herself up, and in no time, she was sketching the old betelnut-chewing
boatman, as they meandered down the narrow canal, beneath overarching palm trees,
towards the pontoon jetty.
There was much to sketch she discovered, traipsing through the village. Each
day produced something new. It was enchanting. Quaint storefronts, spice markets, rice
padi fields, houseboats, shops with garish exteriors, music blaring. An occasional
motorbike would roar past, its exhaust protesting. The cows loitering in the shade of
the giant banyan tree lay quiet. And to top it off, there was masala tea. To her delight
Moira found she could drink the beverage by the steaming pot full. Forget coffee, her
daily mantra. Easy to be lured into this rural countryside, she mused. Easy to be lulled
into procrastination of her plant project, her real reason to be in this spot. Easy to forget
the passing days.
Only, the days flew. There was no time to play catch-up. And still, she had not
seen any. The red hibiscus for some reason were remaining out of sight.
The first stirrings of an uneasy restlessness fluttered fleetingly. Then came the
day, when, almost out of funds, realization hit her that she must venture further on foot.
Head out of the village. Buses did not ply the route. It was the only way to reach the lush vegetation beyond—to the
red hibiscus, hidden from sight. She must try.
Through a narrow-dried mud path that twisted some distance out of view, behind
the copse of trees, she plunged. There had to be red hibiscus along the wayside. Such a
common plant in these parts. Strategically vesting in all its believers eternal cosmic
power. She would know when she found it. She had a fire in her. She had to find it first.
It was the day she met him.
She stumbled lost in thought, the red uneven earth ridged hard in broken
fissures. The earth badly needed rains. Moira was in awe of the coastal monsoons in this
part of the world. But she would be long gone before the torrential rains arrived. Her
mind was so far elsewhere, she scarce realized where she walked. Not a soul was in sight.
Not a single passer-by. All was still, the sultry air oppressive under cloud covered
dappled skies. Except for some passing goats which bleated feebly, she felt quite alone.
She must have been walking for two miles at least when she came upon three
forks in the path, stretching crookedly in lopsided directions. Moira felt somewhat
helpless, brushing wet tendrils of long dark hair off her slender expressive face, as the
mercury of the noonday heat soared mercilessly.
In the minute or two that it took her to decide, a tall young man appeared as if
from nowhere, gliding silently forward. His stride was slow and measured, as if he were
in no hurry. He was neatly dressed in startling white, which contrasted starkly with his
dusky skin and wavy dark hair, in a handsome sort of way. She was startled. But his
lack of haste as he approached, quiet demeanor and friendly air, put her soon at ease. And
she relaxed. She looked around surprised. Where had he sprung from? Perhaps he lived
close. Introductions followed. Soon, the pair like old friends chatted amiably. Propelled
of her own volition, she followed, as they proceeded towards his house nearby, which
he promised was a visual treat of rare scenic beauty for any visiting artist.
Along the way the young man regaled her with fascinating stories about local
history–of the old fort, temple festivals, fishing villages, remnants of Dutch arrival. She
learnt he had an affinity for red—a partial wisdom, he called it. Before she knew it they
were at the picturesque waterfront. Sheltered in the neat clearing stood this solitary tiny
red brick house. Its whitewashed columns and exteriors contrasted starkly with the small
red-tiled porch, which held two cane armchairs, and a small table. The canopy of fruit
trees beyond completed the pretty picture.
What arrested her attention was the unusual garden. A single gnarled old plant,
its tall twisted stems bent and leafless, reached angularly skywards, like a giant preying
mantis in splayed repose. At the very top of the splintered twig hung a full blood moon
in bloom. A single red hibiscus.
A flower so red, so bright, so alive, its gold stamen trembled from breathing the
Golden energy of the sun. The size of the fragile petals was as nothing she had seen
before. Mesmerized, she stared with bated breath, locking in her heart the magic of the
moment. Perfect, thought Moira aloud, grateful. This would do nicely to complete her
art thesis. She need never have feared.
So, the young man gently obliged, a small smile of satisfaction illuminating his
face. He brought her a wooden stool from within the house and helped set up her easel.
Once immersed in her task, he rarely disturbed. All conversation ended. He had that self-
effacing characteristic of cotton wool quietness, which bestowed on him a dignity and
quality that eliminated time and space. She felt near and far. She felt drawn and
distanced. She felt urgent and relaxed. This enhanced her comfort as she forgot the
hours rolling by.
He took his seat in the armchair on the porch, and broodingly observed her in
companionable silence, as she painted.
And so, a routine developed in the days ahead.
So enamored was Moira with the focus she had found, they arranged to meet the
next day, and the next, at the very same spot that she had first encountered him. Their
mutual camaraderie, and admiration, and obsession, was mystifying even to herself,
immersed and absorbed in each other as they were, all else forgotten. Each day that
Moira awoke made her yearn with a strange, desperate longing for more of their daily
secret assignations. And for the strange red flower.
Then came the dreaded last day when her ‘holiday’ was at an end. Both had
avoided discussing it. It was the day Moira had planned to single-mindedly devote to the
red hibiscus alone. But their conversation had turned a trifle strange that day. More
argumentative. Baiting. Annoying. He had never interfered with her painting before.
He preferred green leaves for a background. Every corner of her palette was
Matisse’s ‘The Red Room’ treated, none less. He suggested the ruby shade was not right.
His hibiscus was blood red. She thought not. Not nearly the right shade, but close. He
argued the color looked smeared. Red was difficult to transpose on canvas, she snapped,
if he knew anything about art. A mounting irritation was rendering her impatient.
He was unrelenting, unyielding, not slipping up. He persisted the scale was all
wrong. Not in Fibonacci sequence. Not in proportion. He would show her.
Yes, really. Couldn’t she tell, he was the reincarnation of the immortal Giacomo?
“The who? You? Never heard of him.” She felt defeated. She did not know
what to make of her strange companion of the past few days, who had always been
“All art historians know of da Vinci’s famous apprentice.”
She threw down her brushes. Furious. He was being impossible. And the fact is
she had a painting to complete. Mostly his banter had been appealing, sparse. So, when
he surprised her with a confusing out-of-the-blue distraction to break the monotony, she
was nonplussed. He desired they plant together a half-grown mango tree in his tiny
garden. It would be their tree, to mark their futile art-disagreement. Her painting would
promptly complete. She wondered why she didn’t just leave.
Moira could not fathom if his invitation was in jest. In seconds she was beyond
caring, if only to get back to her painting–the red hibiscus. She was stuck. That was the
day she ventured into his home for the very first time. She felt intrusive. She had often
wondered why he had hesitated to invite her in. But had politely refrained from asking.
Small dark rooms met her gaze from the inside. Sparse furniture, bamboo-
curtains, some clay utensils. The smell of burning incense pervaded strongly, an over-
powering flower bouquet. When they reached his front bedroom which faced east, she
knew instinctively where she would want their half-grown mango tree to be. Looking
out this window. Besides their red hibiscus. Their last memory together.
It took them the better part of an afternoon to plant that small mango tree.
“So, where did you go today?” inquired Mr. Joy jovially, that last evening at
dinner. He had drummed up a rollercoaster spread of Malabar duck roast with chicken
pepper fry, too mouth-watering to resist.
Moira was far from relaxed. “I found this cute little red house deep in the trees..
Perfect to paint, which I did. And the backwaters, so soothing, so calm, so postcard-like.
And this nice young man kept me company.”
“What nice young man? There are none here.” He broke into loud jocular
“Oh, but this one is. Knows art history too. A teacher at the local high school.”
“Local high school? Nice line. But there are no schools near here, my dear.”
“Anywayz, I could not have coped without his help, or his house. I really am so
happy and grateful. Thank you for my stay. I will be back sooner than you think. I owe
him a lot too. But he has refused any money.”
“I should hope so. Made off with your painting, did he? Rest assured you will not
catch him if he has. Mark my words.”
“Oh no! No. You musn’t! He is awful sweet. Really! Hope I did not offend him
when I offered. All he wanted was nothing more than for me to paint what I found. He
swore that would be payment enough.”
“Indeed! Now he sounds a real rascal.”
“Oh yes. I sketched him too, against the coconut palms. And in his tiny garden
with the small mango tree, which I helped plant. And the pretty flower.”
“Flowers, my dear. This is heavenly land of flowers. We got them all. They
grow everywhere, marigolds, mogras, roses, lotus, carnation, sunflowers, blossoms.
What flower you want? You choose.”
“But I found what I want. A single red bloom. The red hibiscus. Such an
exquisite perfect bloom. Shining blood red. Radiating large. Each bright petal perfectly ar
ranged. I believe I caught all the angles. I could not have missed. If only I had another
Mr. Joy was turning pale. “Red hibiscus, did you say? How queer! Are you sure?
May I see the paintings,” he suddenly asked, hoarsely.
Moira led him to her room, concerned, her palettes in full view.
Whatever it was Mr. Joy saw turned him desperate, whiter.
“What is it?” cried Moira in alarm.
“Where did you find this house? Oh, why did you go there?” He was yelling like
“What is it? What is it?”
But Mr. Joy had rushed out of the room, a low gurgling cry echoing behind him.
When he returned, he was armed with a long kitchen knife, slashing demonically at the canvases.
“Achamma’s story” he kept repeating, frothing at the mouth. “Bah, you young
people, what you know about leaving things be, about love?!”
Moira did her best, beseeching, imploring, pleading, following him in anguish.
The front parlor adjoining the guest dining room looked empty. Mr. Joy, ruddy
from exertion had settled hidden from view into his favorite armchair, by the window.
He was gulping masala tea by the mug full, drowning his trepidation in an over-sized
platter of fruit dessert.
“What, ‘love’?” Moira spoke in whispers not to alarm the kindly lodge-keeper,
into another knife-wielding session. She picked half-heartedly at a pineapple piece. She
was distraught. She could not think. The loss of two weeks worth of work was
unbearable and too brutal to contemplate.
“Tale of unrequited love?” She needed to know.
“They all disappear. Only female persons. Now you will disappear. My family
members, all . . .”
Moira shuddered at what was to unfold. A superstitious dread of what the
narration would portend was enfolding her in its vice-like grip. However, much she
wanted, she could not stop it.
Haltingly, he began. What was a deathly tale of impassioned love and tragic
family custom unfolded in pieces. There was a bewitching young maiden with the
flowing dark hair at the temple. In her arms she bore an offering of red hibiscus. There
was an impassioned schoolteacher with the large dark eyes. They were lovers. There
was a cruel family betrayal of betrothal. In a young man’s broken heart grief tore so
savage, the entire little house by the backwaters, and gardens, were consumed in red
flames. It was said the backwaters burnt red that day. Even the surrounding trees were
aflame. Reduced to ashes. All perished.
Except one red flower.
The next day, it was said in the re-telling, villagers found the body of the young
maiden trapped beneath the water hyacinths floating on the backwaters. She had
It is said some people see that single red hibiscus in full bloom sometimes. It is
said when that occurs the maiden is roaming the earth in search of her espoused mate. It
is said the young schoolteacher gets his bride when the red hibiscus appears.
“It has happened before. Many girls. Young women don’t wander alone out of
the village. My great grandmother vanished one day. Then, more recently, Achamma,
my wife, some years ago. She was warned. She wouldn’t listen. I could not stop her.
The house itself is no longer standing. No one goes there.”
Moira’s stomach heaved. She felt sick. Her eyes shone with unshed tears. A cold
shiver went up her spine. Urban legends! What else? She knew what she saw. And
Mr. Joy grew silent, lost in deep thought, his long tale concluded. He looked
exhausted. He also looked ill.
Animated in protest, she revived warmly her fresh memory of a personable
young man. In her excitement to reveal her daily routine, she urged Mr. Joy to
accompany her, to meet him. It would assuage his grief.
But, Mr. Joy looked so appalled at the suggestion, eyes rolling to the back of his
head, she was quickly discouraged, and desisted pursuing this line of encouragement,
She attempted a different approach, this time suggesting that she bring her young
man right there to the Red Hibiscus Grand Villa, instead.
Poor Mr. Joy, he had heard enough. His countenance took on such an apoplectic
purple hue, with an accompanying howl, she thought he was having a stroke, or at best a
He broke into bitter and sarcastic reprimand, unlike himself, yelling in agitation,
like a man demented. “It will stop at nothing! It will stop at nothing! Think of the harm.
Haven’t you done enough damage? Haven’t you heard? You evil woman. Awakened the
red. Brought the evil poison back. With your painted death flower!”
That was when she realized how far gone he actually was in his own local
And she ran to her room, weeping quietly.
But when she awoke he was gone. Gone! And the house, and the bedroom in the
eastern corner, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus, and the
half-grown mango tree they had planted together. All gone!
Moira sat up with a jerk. Her eyes were wet. Had she been crying all night? She
was sweating profusely. What had occurred? She felt unwell. The events of the previous
evening came flooding back. Mr. Joy’s loud distress. His pain. His ludicrous tall tale. Her
paintings lay in ruins. Slashed. Like a demon with claws had torn through them.
They had parted amicably on a promise and a prayer. He had seemed somewhat
distracted and subdued. Unlike his usual self. As if both were face to face with
something that neither of them could quite comprehend. She had seen it in his dark
eyes. The tumult.
If only Mr. Joy had not filled her head with his mumbo-jumbo.
Moira hurried with her packing. The taxicab to take her to the airport had
arrived. There was no sign of the lodge-keeper as she departed. Anyway, it was too late.
She felt acutely unhappy.
The cab sped past the village, honking loudly. She looked longingly at the copse
of luxurious green trees, in the distance. Gripped by an impulse beyond her control, she
asked the cab-driver to stop.
In a bound she was out, racing feverishly down the familiar mud path that led
out of the village. She had to see him. One last time. She had to feel his stoic calmness
enveloping her. She had to secure his last promise that they meet again.
All around was the familial silence, broken only by twittering sparrows. She
reached the confusing fork in the road spreading oddly in three directions, where he
always waited. She had never gotten around to asking him where the other paths led.
No one appeared. Not a sound broke the stillness.
She had been walking awhile. But now, she felt unsure that this was the right
path, because now, no house appeared either. No replanted mango trees. And no
hibiscus. It was absurd. She was certain she was on the right path. Only it wasn’t.
That couldn’t be. Strange.
The surroundings looked the vey same. Tall coconut trees, two bent double out
of shape. How often had she passed those! Tamarind trees and laburnums in bloom. She
retraced her steps back to the fork. This time she took the other path. She would keep
walking. She would keep searching all three paths if it took her all day. She would seek
her red hibiscus. Mr. Joy was a silly old trail-baiter, using horror tales to lure tourists.
She would find him, her art companion. All would fall in place when she did.
Her anxiety was building to breaking point. Everything looked different.
A burning pain stabbed her sides. She ran, stumbling wildly. How far or how
long she ran she could not tell. Where she was running she could not tell. Her breath
was coming in long, labored gasps. A parching thirst consumed her in the heat of the
cloudless morning. Her surroundings looked altered, every tree, every blade of grass.
Then, she stopped short, catching her sides in agony–eyes widening in slow
recognition, then, mounting horror. She knew where she was. But it was unlike her
paintings. She let out a low, anguished moan, as realization hit.
Not twenty yards from where she stood, were the blackened ruins of what may
have once been a brick house. It looked insanely familiar. Some traces of its timber, red
bricks and teak were discernible. Still intact. Red tiles were in shards, molded into the
red earth. Most of the house had rotted away. The rest looked burnt to ashes. A
blackened half tree trunk belched ooze, like an unstoppable river of dark sludge–in the
eastern quarter, her previous day’s mango tree, they planted together.
By the front entranceway stood a gnarled old decaying plant. Age, and whatever
fire, or supernatural force beyond earth’s realms, or throes of unrequited love had
conspired to destroy it, had twisted the once sturdy glowing plant out of all maniacal
proportion. It was lifeless and leafless. At the very top, blinding the sun, was a most
unusual sight–a single red hibiscus, her hibiscus, large and spreading as her
painting, but, in fading, deathlike bloom, so that, blackened striations intermixed, to hold
her in thrall. She stood transfixed. She could no longer move.
In seconds, a further apparition recalling Mr. Joy’s grim warning, completed the
picture before her. Gliding silently forward in long measured strides, feet barely touching
the earth, as he wordlessly floated in and out from behind the burnt darkened rubble, she saw a ghostlike
blackness appear, take her by the hand, vanishing in split moments —–
Rekha Valliappan has had dozens of her short stories, poems, review, interviews, essays, published internationally in literary, genre, print and online journals and anthologies, since 2017. Her mystery novella Rosewood was released in December, 2019. And A Pilgrim’s Push went online in America’s grand old publication The Saturday Evening Post. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her website is silicasun.wordpress.com.
“Red Hibiscus” was previously published by Intellectual Refuge in 2017.