What came first- the man or the aphrodisiac?

On cold winter nights, when a harsh wind blew from the north, adding to the sense of isolation one feels in the hills, Munnu would think of the question. It amused him. Many are the nights when he found sleep the most elusive of commodities-owing mostly to the fact that he didn’t have enough to eat for dinner. Or for lunch and breakfast for that matter.

Munnu wasn’t sure how old he was. Some said he was 17 while others were of the opinion that he was 19 and soon would become a man. As for his mother, she never failed to inform him-any given day that he was already a man. She has never been to school and even though the concept of years was known to her, she never really bothered to keep track of them. So it was that she related to him that he was either 16 or 17. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

For some reason, Munnu found the number 16 more attractive than 17-he has a thing for even numbers, even ensuring that the flowers in the vases that are in the house have an even number of petals. Being the only child to his mother, and growing up under her meant that Munnu had developed interest in things that are usually the domain of girls- like home decoration.

Anyway, 16 is an age when one is bound to be interested in aphrodisiac as a concept but still view it funnily.

Munnu first heard the word when he was twelve. Someone-no one was sure whom, found a particularly potent variant in his own village. And the news of it carried to the outer world. The hamlet where Munnu lived lied in the shadow of mountains-snow capped and majestic they stood as formidable impediments for outsiders to breach into the nation. Lying on the borders of a country that never really reached its full potential in its history-owing to its perennial issues of political corruption and a people divided based on caste and creed, Munnu’s hamlet was pretty much an abandoned piece of land, even though beautiful.

But the beauty of the land came with a catch- arable land was negligible in the village. The main occupation of the men was to tend sheep which they reared for the wool. Tourists, even though they visited the valleys and villages that are comparatively not far from the village, rarely came to the village itself- lack of electricity, good roads etc. being the reason.

But things began to change since the discovery of the aphrodisiac. Over the past couple of years, the village has sprouted a few shops that sell the said item. The general perception that the outsiders have was that the love-root(as it was nicknamed) that you get in the hamlet was far more superior than what was commercially exported. But from the elders of the village, Munnu had learned that it was so not true. It was what one of the more educated of the elders said, “a way to snare the rabbit!” the rabbit being the ones with the lesser libido-growing up a kid who had ample opportunities to observe nature and the beings in it, the joke wasn’t lost on Munnu.

All the same, the tiny village even though still far from being blessed with such modern amenities as roads and electricity was on a path of economic progress thanks to the aphrodisiac business. The aphrodisiac itself wouldn’t form anywhere else in the country owing to the peculiar geographic features of Munnu’s village.
The natural production of the stuff requires two key players- a strain of pollen and a caterpillar variant both of which are hard to find in conjunction in most places. During summer season, the pollen is carried by the wind and get entrenched inside caterpillars which die a few months later. Winter arrives and buries the carcasses under snow or frozen ground but come spring and the land thaws, which is when the pollen sprouts from within the dead creature –in root like appearance, it doesn’t taste good when made a potion out of it-but who cares as long as they can have great sex?

As is the case with any such enterprise, counterfeiters also flourish under the shadow of the love-root. Munnu himself was present once when an irate customer came back with his purchase which he found was just a plastic mould shaped like the root and painted over. And complaints about other roots and shrubs etc being passed off as the aphrodisiac weren’t uncommon. Only, these weren’t the sort of complaints one would take to the consumer courts. For all said and done, people were people and no matter how sex-crazed we are inside, the price of civilization is to be pretentious.

But as for the sum one must pay for the drug- it’s very handsome, literally more than its weight in gold.

Though the aphrodisiac’s effects haven’t yet been scientifically verified by any agency or individual, its reception by people the world over has been phenomenal to say the least. And the villagers were plenty happy about the scene, the counterfeiters notwithstanding. In fact, there were many in the village who openly expressed their doubts regarding the root’s efficacy. And even if they themselves never counterfeited the produce, they easy turned a blind eye towards those who did such things as injecting a little Viagra into the root.

All in all, a win-win situation. Until last spring.

The caterpillar variants which made the aphrodisiac began to fall in number. Everything from global warming to the curse of the gods have been theorized- depending on whom you asked. But largely, the news was limited to within the village and wanting not to give the impression that they are having a short supply when the demand was high, the villages kept the news among themselves. Worry that one day someone would run sophisticated tests in a big lab somewhere in the developed world and find that the drug hasn’t any beneficial effects was one main reason for this- they must sell as much of the drug as possible before anything like that happened. That such a thing hasn’t yet happened was considered as blessing of the gods-by both the educated and non-educated alike.

Of course, to make up for the lesser production of the love-root by nature in the face of heightened demand, counterfeiters began to get ingenious- peddling root variants that closely resembled the original, and to appease their own conscience, injected with all sorts of chemicals that they could procure which were thought to be beneficial to the libido.

No one knew who first injected the chemicals that broke all hell loose.
Now, Munnu lied in the small hut on the hillock where he tended the sheep. It was night.

From where he lied on the cot, he could see the glimmer of light still shining in the house at the foot of the hillock- his house, or rather if you want to get technically correct, the house where he was born, the house where his mother stayed.

His mother would ask him on certain nights for him to stay out in the hut . Munnu used to wonder initially at this. But then, the wonder gave way to disappointment when he did learn the reason. Men.

Slowly yet steadily Munnu began to stay at the hut even if his mother didn’t ask him . This was one of those nights.

It was cold as it was always cold in the valley. Even though this wasn’t the biting cold of the winter-that which feels like steel cutting through your flesh, it was cold enough for Munnu to wrap his blanket even closer around himself. He moaned, cursing sleep which wouldn’t come. And it wasn’t as though it lacked a reason to grace him this night-for almost all day has spent tending the sheep. Physically he was tired but mentally he remained alert.

Part of the reason for this was the news which he heard from one of his fellow-sheep herders. According to him, someone has sold a tinkered version of the love-root in the village. The customer came back after consumption(apparently, he stayed in one of the nearby districts in a tourists’ lodge). The unfortunate man found that he couldn’t go to sleep after taking the ‘medicine.’ However, once he reached the village and found the person who sold it to him, he collapsed with fatigue. Some of the elders in the village treated him but he developed a fever that scared them. And when he came back to consciousness, he was a different being. He was frothing in the mouth, his eyes were red and he bit people.And he turned into something else..at least,that’s what the boy said.

In the course of the day, Munnu heard multiple versions of the story from different sources. In one version, the man had already killed a person in the village and was now at large. No one knew where he was hiding, maybe in some of the woods. Perhaps in the woods surrounding this very hillock.

Munnu didn’t really believe that someone could turn savage after consuming an altered version of the drug. That was just too simplistic a scenario for him. His father- a wanderer, after impregnating his mother vanished from her life, never to return. His mother brought him up and ‘entertained’ men at home on certain nights to complement the household income(which was mainly dependent on whatever she earned by collecting and selling flowers from the valley at the local market and also what Munnu brought in from tending the sheep. ) When he was a child, he once went with a friend of his and his father to the nearest town where he saw an air-show. He was mesmerized by the power of the flying magic machines. Upon reaching home, he informed his mother in the most enthusiastic of tones that he was going to be a pilot when he grew up. His mother told him in no uncertain terms that not all dreams come true: “Life doesn’t work like that.”

No, Munnu didn’t have a reason to believe in simplistic things. However, he didn’t have to believe with all his heart that a crazed being was roaming in the woods around his hut for him to feel afraid. For he kept hearing noises, twigs breaking and the howling of the wind. And he imagined voices-human and animal mixed in with that steady howl.

At one point, he was very sure that he heard someone- a man, chuckling softly in the night, just outside his hut. He sat up, his heart hammering inside his chest. He willed his heart to calm down, if not for anything else only to hear over the sound if there was anyone outside.

Braving himself, he pulled himself out of the cot and walked with unsteady steps towards the window. The hut was meant for rest after lunch, when the sun would be beating down hard on your back and you have no shade in the hills where the sheep grazed. For this reason, the hut was small in size and comforts were rudimentary. In fact, aside from the beat up old cot which Munnu recently shifted from his own(his mother’s) home and a small hearth where you could burn woods to keep yourself warm(to call it a fireplace would be an insult to actual fireplaces) the hut was pretty much bare. As he made his slow way towards the open window, Munnu wished that the hut was filled with more things-for the absence of objects made the place suddenly feel even more lonely to him.

Form somewhere a dog began barking. The sky was filled with stars-so much so that the white spaces seemed to cover the sky than the black areas. The moon, though was nowhere in sight.

Taking in a deep breath, Munnu put his head out of the open window. Actually, calling it an open window is unnecessary since the window was just a rectangular hole which lacked any mechanism to shut it. He wasn’t aware of the cold anymore. He was listening to any sound with every inch of his body and not just his ears. Aside from the wind and the distant barking of some unknown dog, he could hear nothing.
He squinted into the night to see if there were any shadows lurking in there. Nothing, except for the roiling steppes where he took out his sheep during the day.
Then, he heard the man’s chuckle again but this time he was sure that it was inside his head- a mere imagination. “I must get some sleep,” he told himself. Once again, he looked towards his mother’s home, the light from the oil lamp still flickering there. He wasn’t told to spend the night at the hut tonight. He contemplated for a second the idea of leaving the hut and spending the night there. But then, the flickering light discouraged him. If his mother were alone, she would have long been asleep.

Letting out a long sigh and taking in the immediate surroundings of the hut once again, he walked back to the cot and got under the blanket. The moment he did that he began to be aware of the cold again. “Funny,” he thought, “My mind is working in funny ways tonight.”

He knew that lying facing the window would only make him imagine unreal shapes looming out from beyond. He was as practical a kid as you could find, but he was still human- still given to nightmares and dreams.

He turned around, facing the wall or rather the utter dark which persisted in front of his eyes on the other side. He had found the absence of the moon in the sky odd-given how all the stars were so clearly visible. If only the moon were around..he thought, then there would be more light even inside the hut.

He thought about lighting the lamp(which was kept under the cot) once again and leaving it lit. But then he found that his eyes were coming down on their own. Well, he thought, what use to keep the flames awake when it’s darkness that I seek..
He wasn’t into his sleep more than two seconds when he heard a sound just outside the window, distinctly clear as to penetrate the sheath of vapour floating around in his sleepy brain. Munnu came awake instantly. In the single second which took him to turn around to face the window, a hundred images passed through his brain-of monsters of various shapes and sizes. The ones with long fangs and bloody lips and also ones with protruding eyes and lips that extended like snakes. Monsters that are the flavor of a mere child’s nightmares. Even as he was having them, Munnu knew that he wasn’t going to tell any of his friends that he- a 16 year old could get scared of such visions still.

But on turning around, he saw nothing but the window and the quasi-darkness beyond. One second, two seconds passed. Beyond that, Munnu didn’t bother to count. He was taking deep breaths.

He remembered this one time when he had strayed too far near the woods with his sheep. He was some 10 years old then. A wolf came out to the fringes of the woods and the sheep scampered. Munnu had gained the knowledge from the elders that as long as you made sound beating a stick on the metal kettle which every sheep herder carried with him, and as long as you stood your ground, the wolf is not going to hurt you. He will try to scare you and he may succeed, but he will never be able to hurt you physically. Most important, you have to keep calm until the wolves have retreated. You must keep breathing. Deeply.

Wolves are usually pack hunters. But once in a while one would stray from the pack, looking for its own delicacy. Maybe it was because the wolf was all alone that day that Munnu succeeded in keeping all his sheep away from its vicious fangs.

Munnu was pretty much sure that the sound that he heard outside the wooden window was made by just a single entity. Now, Munnu just hoped that he would be enough of a man to keep whatever it was from attacking him. And he doubted if the rusty kettle drum and the stick would be enough to keep this one away.

Nonetheless, he took the stick from the floor. It was a sturdy stick made from the branch of a tree that fell in the heavy rains last winter. It was one which he used to beat the sheep, only occasionally when they got really out of hand and one which also coupled as a walking stick. In other words, it could be a formidable weapon if used with wisdom.

Taking the stick and waving the stick in front of him, across him, Munnu walked towards the window. Whatever it was out there sounded heavy. Even now, he could hear it breathing- a dry gurgle of a sound-the sound of perverted pleasure, as though every gasp of breath was orgasmic. Notwithstanding the cold, Munnu began to sweat.

And the closer he inched towards the window, the louder his own breathing got. Tension, the kind of which he has never known before gripped him.

He almost missed the hand, for it was just a silhouette on the bottom of the window. But its movement soon became undeniable and as Munnu looked, there came the other hand beside it. The two hands gripped hard on the windowsill and the body appeared from the other side. A mass of hair floating behind it, the head was oval-shaped, with eyes burning yellow, sharp and fluorescent. Munnu couldn’t make out the features because the light inside the hut wasn’t strong enough.
And he wasn’t sure he wanted to either. From what he could see, it was clear enough that this was a human being- or at least used to be. Its lustful grunts as it heaved itself from behind the window weren’t of a human nature, though. It was more urgent than anything the human physiognomy would warrant. Also, now that his eyes were getting used to the creature in the dim light better, he could see that the hands of the being were clawed.

Heaving itself on to the window, the creature crouched. It was completely naked, silhouettes of its two breasts hanging loosely, the clump of pubic hair spread out as it spread its legs to make itself comfortable on the window.

Munnu almost dropped the stick in his hand. He has never seen a woman naked before. But he got a grip on his weapon again as the creature slowly planted a foot inside the hut and hissed at him. Munnu knew that there was a thought formulating in the back of his mind. But he didn’t know what would happen if he waited for the thought to finish. Maybe the creature would have killed him by them; all he knew was that he didn’t have time for the idea, the thought, the realization to take root in his brain.

Without thinking further, Munnu heaved the stick with all his might at the creature. Even as he struck the creature , Munnu realized that the only reason he was able to upset the creature’s stance was because of the element of surprise. For some reason, the creature must have actually thought that it would be easy to seduce Munnu. After all, he was a mere boy.

Before the creature could regain its feet, Munnu ran to the door, flung it open and ran out like the wind. The creature gave a disgruntled sigh and howled. It was the ugliest sound that Munnu has ever heard. He didn’t stop to look back. Had he, he would have seen that the creature has followed him out. Standing at over six feet, the creature had long legs and powerful arms. It’s face was filled with ridges-as though flesh were carved out of it. It’s lips were a mess of foam and saliva, constantly being ejected from its mouth. And it’s eyes with yellow glows were focused on the running figure of Munnu.

“Munnu!” the creature called out.

The sound of its voice finished the thought that was in the making inside Munnu’s brain- the creature was his mother. He suddenly felt weakened. He was running towards the flickering light of the house in the valley below. He was planning to go wake his mother and run with her. Of course, some part of his mind was already aware that the creature was his mother- a realization that happened inside him as soon as he saw it for the first time. He never really confronted the thought, though. But now, even though his name came out as a gnarled sound from the creature’s throat, it was hard for him not to notice the underlying tempo- unmistakably his mother’s.

He turned around. With a wicked grin on her face, the creature was running towards him, shrieking, panting, like she was having sex while running.
Munnu felt tears pressing behind his eyes. But he knew this was no time for emotions. The creature-his mother was faster than any ordinary human. It could cover the distance which Munnu managed in the last couple of minutes in a few seconds. He had to hurry. Without wasting time, without giving vent to the emotions forming in his mind he ran down further to the valley where more number lights were coming on in more houses, accompanied by screams.

Munnu’s run was cut short. At first, he thought it was some animal-it was so fast. But when it stopped he found that it was another one of those-this one a man. Like his mother, this one too had ridges on its face. Furthermore, it’s lower lip was hanging loose and so were its eyelids, as though the skin and flesh on the creature’s body had begun to decay.

“Mine!” Munnu heard it call out. He shuddered at the sound that was like pins ejected off a porcupine’s back. A full moon was now out in the sky-formerly hidden behind some passing cloud. In its light Munnu saw to whom the creature had called out. A woman- no, a girl, really. He knew her. She was the sister of one of the sheep herders, one of his friends.

The girl’s clothes were torn, ripped at some places, dirtied at some others. She had evidently fallen a few times before she reached here. Munnu found a hiding place behind a ledge that was a natural formation beside the steppe where he stood. He looked in the direction of the hut to see his mother looking gleefully at the other creature and his exploits. She hasn’t seen Munnu hiding.

Both mother and son looked-one with satisfaction and the other with horror, as the man-creature proceeded towards the girl. It took him but one moment to reach her-she has stumbled and fell on the ground, and another to rip off her clothes enough to insert his hardened penis into her vagina. In the moonlight her pubic hair glistened.

Munnu’s mother began to clap her hands crying gleefully as the man began to rape the girl. She was jumping up and down. The girl’s scream mingled with the screams of the others in the valley. Munnu couldn’t hold the tears back anymore-he felt helpless, ashamed that he was not able to do anything to protect his friend’s sister. He lowered his eyes and cried. The girl’s scream subsided. Munnu looked up. The creature was still inside her, his mother inching closer to the creature. Long tendrils broke out of the creature’s skin and entered the girl’s chest, it’s sharp ends piercing open the nipples on her barely formed breasts. The girl could utter but a single cry before life fled her body. The creature’s chest opened up, like there was a zipper mechanism there. From top to bottom, and Munnu heard more than saw the creature devouring the girl. The girl’s bones breaking, her flesh being turned into a pulp before her entire mass was absorbed into the creature’s body. And some adhesive mechanism that he possessed made the man’s chest whole again. Except for the girl’s clothes which lied soiled in front of him, there was no clue that such a person was there just a few moments ago.

Munnu’s mother leaned down beside the man. He cupped her ass as they kissed.
Turning his face away, Munnu stood up, ready to flee but as he did so, his foot struck the metal kettle. He looked back and saw that both his mother and the man were now looking at him. His mother’s eyes filled with lust again.

But there was something about their posture which made them different from how they appeared before. For the first time, they seemed unsure.

Without taking his eyes off them, Munnu began to walk backwards, slow steps, one foot behind another. He kept a steady rhythm on the kettle, beating with the stick, louder and louder with each beat. The creatures grunted, snarled, hissed…but they didn’t come closer to him beyond a certain limit.

A smile of relief spread on Munnu’s face. He was more than half way down the hillock. Without stopping, he called out, “Hey, villagers! They are like the wolves! Beat the kettle and they stay away!” and he beat on his own kettle with all his might. The sound reverberated across the valley. He called out his message again and again and soon, the sound of other kettles being beat began to rise into the night’s air. For the first time that night, Munnu felt that the stars were actually bright.

The villagers-whoever were left made it out of there together. They moved as a pack-most of them making sound on the makeshift drums they possessed- old tea kettles and kerosene bins finding an unusual use.

No one told him but Munnu surmised that his mother must have been given the altered drug by one of her customers- he had heard that when both the persons having sex were to consume the drug, the experience would be unimaginable. She contracted the disease from that. Tears streamed down his face thinking about the girl he couldn’t save and his mother whom he would never see again.

Once they reached more civilized regions, the villagers-the elders among them, reported the incident to the authorities. The authorities sent a contingent to check but they came back with the news that the village was deserted. The villagers never went back again- they were sure that it was not just wolves that now wandered the woods which surrounded their hamlet.

Munnu found work as a table cleaner at a restaurant in a nearby district- a place that specialized in continental food and catered the tourists who came to experience the beauty of the high altitudes. Munnu’s pay wasn’t high but he was given a place to stay on the first floor of the restaurant, along with the cooks. Tiny though it was, and stuffed with provisions for the kitchen, Munnu did have a room of his own. And on cold nights, Munnu would think of the rumours that the tourists bring- about how the altered love-stick did make its way out of Munnu’s village and were now causing people to change in places as distant as America and India. Some think that the whole thing is just an urban legend while others say there are secret treatment facilities for the ones who were ‘changed’ completely. The governments of the world had kept the news from spreading to prevent a global panic.

As for Munnu, he would think to himself with dark irony on cold winter nights, “What came first- the man or the aphrodisiac?”

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