It felt strange after all these years to be naked in private. It felt stranger still to know that he didn’t have to hurry or hide for fear that someone would come. It had been so long since he had been inside a bathing chamber. A part of him was afraid of the vat of water sitting in front of him. He could not shake off the feeling that he had no right to the water. He felt like an imposter, a liar.
And in his mind, he was a liar. The people he had interacted with so far pretended that nothing was wrong, that they could just pick up from where they had left off 25 years ago, and that everything would go back to how it used to be.
But they all knew it wouldn’t, especially not for him. He was not one of them. He accepted Katappa’s kindness and tolerated Mukundaraju’s ministrations. But he also understood that thanks to his non-human status, he wasn’t entitled to any of it even after being released from his cage.
He was uncomfortable around his wife too. Of course, to know that she was alive and well had filled him with immense relief and joy. He had seen the same sentiment reflected clearly in her eyes as well. But while she had embraced him so readily, he felt unworthy of her.
She was a princess.
He was nothing.
She had borne him a son and raised him all by herself.
He had spent the last two and a half decades rotting away like a living corpse.
She was still beautiful, brave, and alive.
He was old, exhausted, and dead inside.
He also knew he would break her heart if he told her how he really felt. If he could have it his way, he would probably take leave of everyone and go somewhere far away to live out the remainder of his days anonymously. But he knew he wouldn’t be allowed to do that.
He could only take each moment as it came. With his lips sealed against any sound of discomfort, he braced himself against the wall as he peeled off the dressings from his numerous wounds. It took him several agonizing minutes to rid himself of all the bandages. It would have been easier to have an attendant help him but despite his difficulties, he was glad that he was all by himself for his first bath.
Some of the older injuries reopened in this process but he paid no mind to them. Instead, he steeled his nerves and forced himself to look in the mirror.
His eyes widened in shock as he took in his own appearance. For a moment, he couldn’t recognize himself.
This dirty, ragged body. This thin, sallow face. Those hollow cheeks. Those lifeless eyes. That matted hair. That bushy, unkempt beard. These chapped, discolored lips. This scarred, misshapen torso. This swollen, bruised neck.
It was him.
And yet it wasn’t.
It was a nothing, a nobody.
Once again, the overwhelming realization of how far he had fallen, threatened to drag him under.
But with a merciless courage he hadn’t known he possessed, he turned away from the mirror and experimentally, dipped his left foot into the vat of water.
An involuntary sigh of pleasure escaped from his lips. He swallowed roughly and reached for the washcloth.