The pain felt like it was throbbing just behind her forehead, as though her brain was inhabited by some spear-wielding being who was prodding from within.
And it has been relentless ever since it began yesterday. Meenu had assumed that it was the onset of another bout of migraine-part of the reason why she urged her parents to go to the wedding without her(but only part of the reason-another part was that she absolutely disliked uncle Mohan and his daughter-whose wedding it was. If the father was the epitome of arrogance brought about by the vast amounts of wealth he has amassed from years of running a steel plant in Bhilai, the daughter was its direct inheritor. And there’s a certain extra bit of yuckiness that comes on when it’s that woman who is arrogant-even Meenu has felt that clearly on the occasions when she has come in contact with that woman-really, a girl.)
“God, I don’t wanna take another crosin,” she muttered to herself, looking at the strip of tablets lying on the table in the living room-the one where the laptop sat with Shah Rukh Khan staring at her from the screensaver.
She contemplated the crosin with an intensity that suggested a matter of life and death and then decided it’s not worth it. The tabs rarely helped. At least, that’s how it was usually with the migraine. But this one hasn’t developed into a migraine. Not yet. This one felt like a headache designed to annoy her rather than hurt her.
And the continual annoyance evolved into something akin to pain.
Bruno started barking. His kennel was some good 100 yards away from the house but even from this distance, from the sound of his barking, Meenu could imagine her black furred friend as standing right next to her.
Despite the headache she found herself smiling at how some things never change-Bruno’s appetite is..dramatic, to put it lightly, something that hasn’t changed at all from the time her father brought him home as a pup. In her father’s words: “Our Bruno will bark like a mad dog if some stranger appeared at our gate. But he would bark like a prehistoric monster if he’s hungry!” Coming from her father, a science nut whose favorite television shows could all be counted on the fingers of one hand and all of which are to be found on the Discovery Channel, it wasn’t a surprising remark, albeit a perceptive one.
The dog’s barking soon began to grate on her nerves which did nothing to help her headache.
“Am coming Bruno!” she muttered, half with irritation and half with the love that one reserves for pets no matter what.
But the barking which appeared to be getting louder-and even angrier began to get more than annoying, making Meenu wonder if it wasn’t hunger that brought it on. Removing the curtain a bit from the window she looked out-first at the gate to the house. No one there. Then to the corner where the kennel was , Bruno barking, jumping up and down in the rather confined space, running around as if chasing his own shadow and the most curious thing-whenever he barked, he didn’t bark at anything. He would swivel his head, squinting his eyes to mere slits and bark, as Meenu’s father said, like a prehistoric monster. Like a mean prehistoric monster.
‘What happened to him!’ Meenu wondered aloud, simultaneously placing an arm to the side of her head. The reverberating barking drilling invisible nails into her head.
‘Maybe mother forgot to give him food before she left.’ She thought.
Her parents had left for the wedding in Coimbatore early in the morning-to catch the train at 4:30. Her mother-ever the thoughtful homemaker had thought of giving food to the dog before she left and had told Meenu so on the previous night.
“It’s alright, ma. I will do it,” she had said. But her mother insisted that she take rest. “And I know that if it’s migraine, you probably won’t be able to stand Bruno’s barking. Might as well feed him early on to prevent that,” she had said.
Yes, her mother was perceptive. However, as it turned out, she could also be forgetful.
On the way to the kitchen, Meenu turned on the television-to drown out the noise of the barking. Anything would be better than that. Even one of the bazillion mindless jingles for the mindless commercials.
At the kitchen she found Bruno’s bowl-filled to the brim with rice mixed with meat pieces, right beside the stove on the counter. Her mother did make it but forgot to take it out to Bruno.
A smile spread across Meenu’s face at the thought of how her mother, still groggy from sleep might have forgotten all about the bowl after making it. “And she says I’m the forgetful one!” muttered Meenu. One of her mother’s favorite pastimes was to point out the things that Meenu has forgotten to do in the day-like the absent clip on her hair as she steps out to go to the college or the fact that she has forgotten-once again, her own birthday!
She couldn’t retain the smile for long though as the ache in her head intensified. She grabbed the steel bowl and walked towards the front door, as fast as she could, to stop the dog’s infernal barking.
Right as she was passing by the table in the living room, her cell phone which was lying on the table began to ring. Looking at it, she saw that the call was from Chianki-her best friend and classmate. Soon as she learned that Meenu was to have the home all to herself for most of the day, she had proposed that she would come over with a bottle of wine.
Occupied as both her hands were, she thought she would give her a call later. To her right, the television was tuned to Doordarshan-her science loving father sometimes found informational programs on it which he approved of. However, it was not any informational program that was on right now. It was the Independence Day parade.
Bruno began to bark louder at the sight of Meenu walking towards him. The barking soon transformed into a series of yelps and grunts as he saw the familiar bowl in her hands.
“You poor thing, you have missed your breakfast, haven’t you?” The rusted aluminum bolt grated against the lock as she opened the kennel’s gate-a sound which aggravated Meenu’s headache. And as she bent to place the bowl of food in front of the dog, it felt like the entire blood from the rest of her body flooded into her brain, causing the kind of distress that’s usual with her bouts of migraine.
“Ahh!” she exclaimed and stood up immediately.
Bruno though wasn’t aware of her plight. He was too busy lapping up the much-delayed food.
Even through her pain, Meenu laughed at this. She didn’t stay around too long though as she felt like sitting somewhere-from somewhere behind the sheath of pain in her head, lights of dizziness began to flash.
While walking back to the house she noticed how the sky was overcast. It was overcast earlier when her parents were leaving. It’s as though the weather-gods had left a job half done, she thought. She would have liked it if it rained. A cool weather is always a balm for a headache.
Even without being completely aware of it, she gazed at the gate to the house, the bolts on the top and the middle both were shot. One can’t be too sure of such things these days-what with the rising number of burglary attempts, especially when you are alone at home.
Satisfied that the gate was secure(relatively speaking) she turned towards the steps that led to the porch. Which was when her eyes fell on the window, the curtain of which she had earlier parted. More precisely, her eyes fell on the person who was sitting on the sofa beside the window.
She blinked and she looked again. Now, there was no one.
She had halted on her tracks, with one foot on the lowest stair, a hand with which she was rubbing her forehead, suspended mid-motion.
She attributed what she saw to the combined effects of the headache and the fact that she hasn’t had her breakfast yet-after all, it was near 10.
But that didn’t stop her from shuddering as she took the next two steps up to the porch. A premonition of something obscene waiting for her in the living room surfaced in her mind. Despite her best efforts to ignore it, she wasn’t completely successful in the endeavor.
And obscene it was.
The figure on the sofa, that of a man’s or rather what happens to a man once he has begun to rot, the skin on his cheek hanging loose like torn cloth, maggots running free within the caveats of the exposed flesh, one eye just a black orb with fading green around it, the nerves on the neck hardened and brittle standing against the parched skin like wires running beneath the surface of cloth.
The corpse was looking up at Meenu with a toothy grin(and with toothy, what’s meant here is precisely that-a display of brownish, jagged teeth, dust and clay stuffed in the spaces between them.)Though its face was as far removed from a living face as the Himalayas were from a deep well in Kerala, Meenu had no issues recognizing who it had belonged to in life. The high cheekbones, the protruding chin and the smile-even in death unmistakable all told her a story-one which she wanted desperately to forget.
The scream that arose in her died within her lungs. She suddenly realized that she had stopped breathing-fear had a clutch on her heart now which was harsher than the pain of migraine which she usually got but never got used to.
The corpse cackled, the sound like dry tindersticks rubbing against each other. Raising a finger which was more bone than flesh, he pointed to the television screen. The sofa was the one where Meenu’s father usually sat when watching the television or reading the news.
“You didn’t like to watch the Independence Day Parade,” the corpse said in a dry rasp.
It cost Meenu some significant willpower to start breathing again. “Why are you here?” She was surprised at her own question. She said it as though she were talking to a living, breathing ordinary person and not the reanimated corpse of Terry uncle.
The corpse looked at the screen. A mounted missile was being paraded on the ground. Judging from how many of the onlookers were waving the Indian flag, they looked happy about the fact that the nation possessed it.
“Thought I would come up just for old time’s sake!” he said and laughed. A hollow sound which was like the wind blowing in a desolate land.
Come up.That phrase stuck in Meenu’s mind, suggesting that he came from beneath the earth.
How absurd! She thought. How ridiculous it was to see this..this being sitting there on the bright red sofa diagonally opposite to Shah Rukh-her favorite actor staring from out of a laptop screen!
And yet, there he was, supposedly come from the underworld, for what purposes she dared not imagine. And no matter how many times she blinked, he wasn’t going away either.
“Is it that you have forgotten?” the corpse asked, baring its teeth in all its unholy glory.
Forgotten? How could she?
How many sleepless nights have the incident given her? And how many self-help books on overcoming trauma has she gone through only to have the memory coming back at her, over and over again, catching her unawares at the most unexpected times, bringing up a surge of puke and its wake.
No, she hasn’t quite forgotten:
The day so hot and humid one could imagine that it was transplanted from hell, her parents, leaving their slightly feverish 10 year old daughter with the trusted uncle Terry-the person who was her father’s best friend, someone who served with him in the army.
Now, her father was a floor supervisor at a local factory that manufactured copper plates and utensils whereas Terry-well, he couldn’t stick to a single job. Traumatized as he was by an incident in which he found himself alone with 12 corpses in a harsh Himlayan pass. The enemy had left him, thinking him to be dead like the others- at least, so it was told.
It took almost thirty days for them to locate him. By that time, he was practically out of his mind, babbling like a fool, grinning like a mad man, clutching at his hair and crying every now and then, reduced to such a state by the elements and cannibalism-for how else could he survive but by partaking of the cold flesh of his dead mates?
Meenu’s father was part of the party which found his best friend in such dire straits. Meenu was told the harsher details of Terry’s state t only much later, once she was grown up and asked her father(pressingly which surprised him) about what exactly happened.
But at the time when she was ten and Terry came for a visit(upon her father’s invitation) all she knew was that Terry was a brave man who had saved her father’s life once in battle.
Whom could you trust your child with than such a person?
“We would be back in half an hour or so,” her mother said as she trailed her all the way to the front door. “You are feverish and it’s too hot outside.” She took her chin between the fingers of her hand. “Uncle Terry is here. He is just like father,” her father had said. “So, do not worry.”
The little girl watched her father and mother walk away.
Uncle Terry promptly appeared at her side, ushering her gently inside, sitting down on the red sofa, taking her on his lap, giving her a candy which he produced out of nowhere like a magician.
Meenu’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the candy- a delicacy covered in a delightful looking red wrapper.
“You want it?” said Terry. In reply, she smiled and extended her hand. Terry, without losing the candy got hold of her arm and kissed her on the back of her palm before giving her the sweet.
Next, his hand drifted to the windowsill where there was the glass of whiskey from which he was drinking, glinting in the sunlight.
He took a couple of sips from it, looking, admiring the way little Meenu so delicately unwrapped the candy and put it in her mouth. Placing the glass back on the sill, he playfully pushed on her cheek, where the candy made an odd shaped projection. With the aid of her tongue, she pushed the sweet to the other side of her cheek, and smiled.
Smiling back, Terry took hold of her chin, leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. Meenu was revolted by the smell of liquor, and the touch of his moustache and stubble on her skin.
“Uncle stinks!” she said, squinting her eyes in a show of disgust.
For some reason, this only made Terry happier. He laughed, a s if saying, “How adorable!”
Pulling her closer to him, he unzipped his pants.
He hugged her so close , wrapping her tightly in his arms that it hurt her ribs. Finding it hard to breathe, feeling a surge of pain enveloping her entire body she started to cry.
It wasn’t hard for Terry to stifle it with his hand, nor was it hard for him to do what he did next. Her feeble struggles were as nothing to him.
Once he was finished and Meenu lied quivering on the floor, her skirt still raised over her waist, he bent and patted her on her cheek. He was now completely dressed, he re-arranged the skirt but didn’t bother putting the panties back on her. Instead, he he carried her to the bathroom-the one in the guest room where he was staying, and gave her a quick but thorough wash. While washing her inner thighs he said, “Does it hurt?”
That brought tears to her eyes, and it also pained her that she couldn’t understand the reason for the tears. At least, not completely. She was fairly certain that it had to do with more than the physical pain.
“Don’t cry,” said Terry in a crooning voice. “It will soon pass. Look, there is no bruise or anything!” He pointed to a place she didn’t like to look at, not in his presence.
The crooning voice was replaced by a timbre of menace when he pulled her closer and whispered into her ear, “But if you told anyone about this, there will most certainly be bruises. And not just on you. On your mommy too…you hear me, Meenu?”
Meenu didn’t respond. Though she was looking at him, her eyes were glazed over.
“Did you hear me!” this time the words were even harsher, and the sharp echo which reverberated within the bathroom made Meenu blink. She nodded, and more tears came in its wake.
Terry broke into a grin. Wiping off the tears from her face, he said, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be alright.” He gave her a conspiratorial grin.
By the time her parents came back, they were back in the living room, Terry on the red sofa while Meenu sat immobile on the low chair which her father brought for her the previous summer.
“How is your fever?” her mother said, putting a hand on her forehead, though she hasn’t been gone more than an hour.
She looked at Meenu with a curious expression. Seeing her mother’s face broke all of Meenu’s defenses. Burning hot tears gushed out of her eyes, making the skin beneath those eyes prickle. “You said you will be back in half an hour!” she said and leaned towards her mother.
They were parading newer missiles this year as well. But neither the corpse nor Meenu had their eyes on the screen. They were intent upon each other, Meenu’s breathing getting rapid while the corpse, without breath brought premonitions of horrendous life moments in the making for her.
“Would I be mistaken in thinking that you haven’t given even a passing thought to me ever since that day?” he said. “No, I didn’t think so. How can you forget. I was, after all, your first one, wasn’t I?” He laughed, the cackle the worst vulgarity she could think of. So much so that upon hearing it, she looked away disgustedly.
But her eyes were back on the corpse’s face in a moment-terrifying as the apparition was, she didn’t have the luxury to look elsewhere-not for long, not if she gave merit to self-preservation.
The corpse took a step towards her. Then another. Dead though he may be, he still had the animation of the living. Meenu was pretty sure that if she were to run, he could easily catch up with her, assuming that such a being would have to give chase on foot.
In another vain attempt to make it go away, she closed her eyes once again and opened them. Tears made her view opaque, she took pity at herself, at her own helplessness, thinking how so much like a child she was right now, trying to blink a nightmare away. Perhaps, not too different from what her 10 year old self would have done. The 9 intervening years as good as non-existent.
“Why..how are you here?” Meenu said tremulously.
The coprse coked its head. A slow grin appeared on his face like a part of the moon coming out from behind a cloud cover, though not nearly as beautiful as that.
“Why, isn’t that obvious?’ he said. “I came to see you. To revive the memories of that day.” Pointing to the television, he said, “The fact that you had the tele tuned to the same event is perhaps sign that destiny wanted this to happen!” He gave a dry cackle.
“But then,” he continued after a few moments, “That only explains the why, doesn’t it? As for the how, well..you see the underworld is a queer sort of place. Their rules are not at all like what one may institute on earth. For one thing, the rules of gravity don’t apply. So you can as easily float up to the surface as sink deeper!” Here he made a short crackling sound which took Meenu a couple of seconds to recognize as a laugh. Sort of. Apparently, he just broke a joke-or maybe one that passed for one in the underworld.
“And other thing is that you can sometimes create your own rule,” Terry was saying, “For instance, you can make a rule that if you are given the permission to visit the earth for a few days starting today, say-after all, it’s a day of freedom, and do whatever you wish to-for instance, have some good time with young girls and younger girls, if you know what I mean, in exchange, you will have to stay in the underworld without possibility of release after that period. “
Meenu involuntarily shuddered at the mere idea. “Why would you do that?” Despite herself, she was overcome with a curiosity.
“Lust, of course,” said Terry, as if it must be obvious. “That, and the fact that doing something like this also permits me a drink or two-something that I cannot enjoy otherwise in the underworld, or if I get released!”
The sickening sensation which was consistently rising in her throat sought to overcome Meenu now. What sort of a soul would forsake itself for the sake of lust and inebriation!
As if doing a victory jig, the corpse whirled once on one leg, stretching its arms wide to either side in a crude impression of Christ on the cross and said, “So, here I am, eternal in life. Sort of.”
And with a vapid grin, it hastened towards Meenu.
Before she turned around and started running, she had enough time to see that indeed, the visitor from the other world didn’t have any reason to rely on something as mundane as legs to come towards her-it was floating, a couple of feet above the ground.
Meenu ran, as fast as her legs would carry. The corridor took her past two doors-the first to the guest room and the one after that to her parent’s bedroom. Her room was at the end of the corridor, to the right. She could have gotten into any of the room and locked herself in but in the panic, she wasn’t thinking straight. She was just going to that place in the home where she spent much of the time, other than the living room or the kitchen.
A tall grey flower vase with lily flowers stood on the far corner of the corridor. The vase became a sort of marker for the finish line in this race for her life-but the corridor, some fifteen feet long felt longer than ever before.
As she neared the corridor’s end, she saw on the gleaming surface of the vase, the reflection of the being chasing her. With widened eyes, she saw that it was now so close to her, its arm outstretched , ready to grasp her hair. If she could manage to keep ahead of it for a few more seconds, she would be able to reach her room. In her mind, she was already calculating how much time she would lose by pushing open and then closing the door, trying desperately to come up with ways to compensate for that time lost.
And even if she locks herself in, will it prevent the thing from entering? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps it got in to the living room through the front door. After all, the door was open at the time.
Willing herself to shut all such thoughts out, she took the final few steps towards the room. She felt the fingers of the corpse graze her shoulder, but it was unable to take hold of her. Another two steps, she told herself. After the first step came the sound of the calling bell-that of a cuckoo bird crying, a sound so innocent, so strange in this context that she felt like laughing, the only thing preventing her from doing so the thought that if she started she may not be able to stop.
She pushed the door open and in one fluid motion, swiveled her body to the right and entered the room. Turning around she closed the door but had enough time to see that the corpse was nowhere in sight.
Gathered by the momentum of her running and the panic she took a couple of steps away from the closed door. She waited for the door to start banging, or the sound of that vulgar laugh to issue from the other side.
But nothing happened. Except that the calling bell rang once again.
She turned around, it suddenly occurring to her that Terry might already be in the room. She took the whole room in- the crumpled salwar lying on her bed(“Meenu, you forgot to fold up your washed cloth” she can hear her mother saying), the globe that stood on the table , looking rather lonely, a world orphaned, the long mirror on the wardrobe door reflecting noting but the wall opposite-empty except for a lone plastic cloth hanger.
Nothing. Everything was as it should be. Meenu felt her heartbeat slowing down. The calling bell chimed again, she imagined it sounding more impatient this time.
Slowly, with baited breath, she opened the bedroom door, first only a crack and then emboldened by the fact that she was still not hurt, opened it all the way.
The corridor was empty. The lilies in the grey vase stood as innocent as ever. Meenu could hear the sound of the Independence Day Parade coming from the television. Another sound of innocence. She still walked slowly though, putting one foot in front of the other, as carefully as if she were walking through a floor filled with glass, apprehensive of an attack at any moment.
But then, her mobile phone rang. The ring tone a song from an SRK film. For some reason, the sound of the phone ringing brought a rush of relief. It implied a human connection(unless it’s one of those telecallers). Unlike the humans on the television celebrating Indian’s independence, the person on the phone could be a live being she could actually talk to. And at this point, she wouldn’t like anything more than that.
With a renewed energy she walked faster towards the table in the living room. Even as she took the phone in her hand, she swept the living room with her eyes-and was greeted with the sight of a room empty of beings, living or dead.
“Hello?” she said on the phone.
“Yo, I’m waiting right at your gate! Will you open up!” It was her friend Chianki. The high-pitched pleasant voice sounded like nectar to her ear.
“When you said migraine, I didn’t think it was this bad!”
Chianki was referring to Meenu’s appearance, of course. With her ungroomed hair blown out like a balloon and sweat breaking out of her pores like an incessant rash, she could well imagine that she didn’t exactly pose a pretty picture.
“Yes,”” she said. “I couldn’t sleep well last night either.”
She didn’t bother telling her about the strange hallucination. After all, what Terry did to her long ago had stayed buried in her heart this long. No point in bringing it all up now. Let bygones remain so, provided they don’t come back as rotting corpses, she thought.
“I’m starving. Is there anything to eat?” Chianki said as she placed her bag on the table in the living room and pulled out a bottle of red wine from it. Soon as she learned Meenu was home alone, she went out, brought the wine and came straight over.
While in the kitchen, the smell of the upma which her mother had prepared revived Meenu’s appetite which has sort of died with the arrival of the dead. Something else which resurfaced in her wasn’t all that welcome though- the rhythmically pounding headache.
But this is way better than dealing with the crazy dead, she thought with wry humour.
“Yo, why are you watching the parade and all?” she heard Chianki calling out from the living room, followed by the sound of the channels being flipped, eventually settling on a Hindi song.
As Meenu walked by the vase with the lilies, she couldn’t help but look at it. The power of the hallucination was made most clear when the ghost’s reflection fell on the vase. Now, the surface of the vase gleamed, spic and span as new, thanks in no small part to her mother’s fetish for cleanliness.
A shudder swept through her as the memory of those fingers brushing her skin came to her.
It was only as she neared the living room that Meenu realized how awfully quiet Chianki had fallen. Her heart skipped a beat when she didn’t receive any reply before she entered the living room. Her worst fears came true when her eyes fell on Chianki’s body on the floor, the corpse beside her, one arm cupping her mouth and the other her breast, a mean grin on its face.
Chianki whimpered, trying hard to wriggle out of the being’s grip. Upon seeing Meenu, her eyes widened, a lookof pleading mixed with horror.
With the two plates of food in her hands, Meenu suddenly felt ridiculous, standing there being witness to this preposterous view. However, now that the corpse was proven to be real-no matter how incongruous that may be, she had to approach things without panicking, especially now that another person was also tangled in this.
She placed the plates on the table.
“Did you think I would leave without having my fun?” Terry said, his infernal grin widening as he pinched hard on Chianki’s nipple.
“Please leave her alone,” said Terry. “You came for me. Not her.”
“It is true that I came for you, said Terry, extending his green tinged tonguehe licked Chainki on the cheek. “But I didn’t come only for you. As I said, I have a few days allowed me to have fun. And though I would have liked it to begin with you, by no means did I plan to limit it just to you. In fact, you can also join us!”
“You can have anyone you like..” said Meenu after a beat. “..You are way more powerful than any mortal, aren’t you?” As she was talking she didn’t take her eyes off the corpse’s face, looking for any sort of reaction-as far as it could express emotion using its torn muscles.
“And when you are this powerful, it is not becoming for you to make it a struggle, if I may say so,” she lowered her voice a notch, careful not to come across as sounding arrogant. She wanted to appeal to his sense of ego-because that’s what lust implied, isn’t it? Ego. And she was clutching on the hope that the corpse’s vanity would make him listen to her.
So far, it seemed to be working.
“Your appearance is rather sudden..and you must agree that the way someone from the underground looks is different from how we mortals look.” She looked in Terry’s eyes for any sign of being offended, but those eyes, as far as she could see seemed to give off a neutral vibe. Not wishing to change it, she hurried on: “We will need some time to prepare ourselves mentally. Just a couple of days,” she added hastily.
She waited for a response. The corpse kept rubbing Chianki’s breast up and down like how one might rub one’s chin while thinking. Then, all of a sudden, leaving Chiaki behind, Terry leapt off the floor, true to what he said before, defying gravity, levitating and standing right in front of Meenu.
His eyes fell on the bottle on wine of the table. He took the bottle and had two giant slugs from it. The bottle-full just a moment ago was nearly three quarters empty now.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pressing the back of his fingers to his lips. He replaced the bottle on the table and ran a finger down the curve of Meenu’s cheek.
Meenu suppressed a shudder.
The coprse grinned. “I cannot be sure if you are just buying time,” Terry said. “For what I cannot imagine. But you know, mortals, especially young female mortals could be rather foolish. Anyway, if you are hoping that I will leave and never return, think again. And if it’s some silly reasoning like your parents being able to protect you, well, just think how hard it will be for them to watch their child getting raped in front of them! On the other hand, if what you propose is in earnest, I am glad, very glad indeed. For if the girl is more mentally ready,” he lowered the finger down to her breast, “It shows in her body.”
He took another swig from the wine bottle, kept it back on the table. Then, still not taking his eyes from Meenu, he pointed to Chianki and said, “But when I come next, I will need her as well.”
Meenu began to protest, then thought better of it. Yes, she was buying time and she didn’t want to sabotage that.
“Agreed,” she said.
“You two together,in tow days time” said the corpse, smiled and disappeared, just like that, gone in the blink of the eye.
Once the corpse was gone, she looked down at Chianki, still shivering on the floor, she propped herself up on an elbow but then all energy seemed to leave her as she started crying.
“Uncle Terry took to the bottle after he got out of the army. Apparently, he was disenchanted with the entire experience. He had gone looking for honor but found something else. He found pleasure, in the act of killing. In fact, it was suspected that those of his dead peers among whom he was found, may well have been killed by Uncle Terry himself, at least, that’s what my father had said.”
They were in the college library. It was the one place in the entire college grounds where they could be sure that they will be alone. They were seated in the mechanical engineering section though they were both in Information Technology-solely because there was a window near where they sat through which came a most pleasing breeze. The sun was giving no one much respite.
“Of course, such a speculation didn’t leave the army,” continued Meenu. “They discharged him from the service. Already a drinking man, he took to the bottle harder from there on. His mother-who knew my father and he were best friends called my dad and asked him to help, saying how he was unable to keep any job due to the drinking. She wanted to find a girl for him..but if this drinking persisted, how could she..That’s why father invited him to stay with us for a few days, in the guise of inviting him for my parent’s wedding anniversary when they’re not the type to celebrate their anniversary. Of course, they couldn’t expect that the man would do to me what he did. How could they..”
Chianki reached and patted Meenu on the arm.
Meenu looked up, forced a smile onto her face and said, “He died of drinking related issues last year. Dad went to the funeral of his friend who once saved his life on the battle-field.”
“And now, he’s back,” said Chianki.
Chianki and Meenu were as different in appearance as it got. Meenu -fair skinned and lean, with a length of hair which is the envy of most girls in her college and Chianki with brown skin, plump in appearance and hair cropped at the shoulders. But at this instant, the existence of life beyond death-and the devious turn it could take lent them an aura which transcended mere appearances, binding them in a similarity that went beyond what’s visible.
“Which brings us to this discussion,” said Meenu, pulling out a thick black leather bound book from her bag. She placed the book on the table. From the worn appearance of its cover, it was clear that it was a rather old volume. On the cover, stenciled in golden letters was the title, “Evastoniyaka”
Chianki posed Meenu an enquiring look.
Without saying anything, Meenu turned the pages to one which she had bookmarked with the folded corner of a page. Turning the book around, she showed Chianki the passage which she had marked in yellow.
Chiankin read: “Though standing on two sides-one on the side of life and the other with death, the struggles of both the body in life and the departed spirit in death are the same. For it is nothing but the satiation of desires that both seek. And with a departed spirit, the desires would be limited to a very few numbers. It is in the interest of the living to pick the strongest of these desires, bring it to contact with the spirit in as intimate a manner as possible,” here she glanced at Meenu once before continuing, “In an attempt to end it once and for all. This method is called The Sickening of the Spirit.”
Glancing her eyes up the lines of print, Chianki saw that the section had the heading, “Warding off the evil.”
Closing the book, she looked around to see if there was anyone around. Of course, there wasn’t. The library held its sacredness in that only the pure elements-in the form of air and dust visited it. No tainted mortals, well, except for ones who wanted to discuss methods of exorcism.
“What exactly is this book?” Chianki asked. From her voice, it was clear to Meenu that she wasn’t truly convinced with the method.
“It’s an ancient book of Celtic wisdom” Meenu said in as animated a voice as possible to get her friend on her side. “It deals with both the natural, and the supernatural.”
“Terry was a Christian. Why are we trying to exorcise him using Celtic methods? As far as I know, the only connection that Kerala has to the ancient Celts is that even Malayalam movies use Celtic war music as BGM sometimes!” Chianki was getting excited, but all in the wrong way for Meenu.
Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, Meenu said, “Look, I have done a fair amount of research-at least, as much as I could in the span of a day. And compared to methods like “Add two cups of dragon skin to egg yolk and place in front of you” or “Make a circle with two triangles on the floor-sit within and you will stay protected” this made more sense!”
“How!” horse whispered Chianki. “It says you have to pick its utmost desire and get it to as ‘intimate a manner as possible.’ In case you haven’t noticed that sort of intimacy is exactly what we are trying to avoid here!”
Meenu took hold of Chianki’s arm. “Chianki, listen. Uncle Terry’s obsession with girls—I don’t know when it began. But I know from my father’s accounts that he was someone well taken with the bottle at an early age-he was just 18 or 19 when dad first knew him. And I remember how the man drank that one time he stayed at our place. Even though dad opposed vocally, he wouldn’t listen. That man couldn’t go on without a drink for even half an hour. Yes, I know that he said he came back for lust..for girls. But I’m pretty sure that his greater lust is for alcohol.” When Chianki still looked skeptical, she added, “Otherwise, I don’t think he would have left us like that.”
That seemed to break something in Chianki. The possibility that what her friend was saying could be right gleamed in her eyes.
Meenu gave her the chance for out.
“Not in a million years, girlfriend!” said Chianki. Her cellphone rang. “It’s Neeraj,” despite the circumstances, a smile broke on her face. Her boyfriend, 5 years older and from her neighborhood worked as a software engineer. Their wedding was a foregone conclusion, once Chianki is out of college. At least, that’s how it was between them.
“It’s Neeraj. I better take it,” Chianki couldn’t suppress the smile when he said it.
“And right on time too,”said Meenu.
Chianki raised her face with a look of enquiry.
“I want you to ask him something,” Meenu said.
What Meenu asked her girlfriend to ask her boyfriend was the keys to his cabin.
Perched on the shores beside the tranquil Kerala backwaters that draw tourists from around the globe, the cabin was an abode of comfort flanked as it was by trees which blocked the rays of the sun. And very much isolated. Even though that didn’t mean that the place was insulated from the problem of insane heat, the AC more than took care of it.
Nonetheless, Chianki was sweating as she waited with Meenu in the cabin’s hall, a largely bare room with just a sofa and a table to break the pattern of emptiness. The sole bedroom had a mattress and the kitchen had an induction cooker. Chianki and Neeraj would bring the required provision to cook so that they could stay over a couple of days on occasions-an arrangement neither of their parents knew, and if they did, would approve of.
Meenu and Chianki hadn’t brought much provisions, except for some packaged food and the crate of whiskey bottles. They pitched in as much money as they could(Chianki even asked Neeraj for some cash).
They had arranged the crate and a mattress in front of the cabin, beside the canal, underneath the spread braches of a mango tree.
The two friends were sitting on the bare floor, playing checkers. But Chianki was too tensed to concentrate on the game.
They had been here more than five hours now. It’s almost sundown and there is no sign of Terry.
Not that Terry had specified the time of appointment, but she dreaded encountering Terry in the dark.
“Meenu, I can’t play anymore.” Drawing up her legs, Chianki leaned against a wall.
Meenu gave her a smile that was meant for assurance but which came out rather tensed.
“Do you think he’s not going to turn up?” said Chianki. “Maybe he meant after two days.” Meenu noticed the quiver of hope in her friend’s voice. Whatever they had planned to do, it was dangerous, to say the least. And though they would want to get it over with as early as possible, the relief at having to to face the crisis not today but another day would be tangible.
“Oh, I am here!”
The voice broke any prospect of relief.
The blue of twilight that came in through the windows fell on Terry’s rotting skin, accentuating his otherworldly appearance.
“I must say you don’t look too thrilled to see me!” he said, looking from one girl to the other.
It was Meenu who broke the awkward silence that was threatening to build up to extreme proportions.
“No, of course, we are pleased to see you,” she said, taking hold of herself and standing up, bringing a smile to her face. “It’s just that we were just wondering where you were.”
“Oh, I had certain other people to meet!” Meenu felt that if he still had eyelids, he would have winked. “But don’t let anything keep us from having fun now!” he added.
“Of course,” Meenu said, without missing a note. She pointed a finger to outside. “We have made arrangements there.”
Meenu led him to the door, carrying an emergency lamp which she turned on.
Terryfollowed her, keeping his eyes firmly trained on Chiaki, who all this while hasn’t moved from where she sat on the floor, not even daring to meet his eyes. “What about her?” he said to Meenu.
Meenu, flustered, said, “I thought we would go first.”
“No, let us all have fun!”
It was a command as anything she has heard. Meenu looked at Chianki. She wanted to involve her as little in this as possible but there seems to be no way out now.
Chianki, taking a deep breath, stood up, summoning all the courage that she could.
The three of them exited the cabin to be greeted by the warmth of the impending night.
Seeing the assortment of liquor, Terry’s lidless eyes looked about ready to pop out.
“Wow, you certainly know how to please a man!” he said, patting Meenu gently on the shoulder, a gesture she could have done well without.
As Terry moved towards the crate, she said, “No. Allow me.”
She held her breath as she passed him by, the stench that was coming off him wasn’t made for human nostrils. Placing the lamp on the floor, she uncapped a bottle and asked Terry to lie down on the plush mattress.
Terry had no qualms with obeying her. As Meenu crouched down beside him, he gestured for Chianki to do the same. The grey pants that Chianti wore creaked against her skin as she lowered herself into a crouching position. As Meenu poured some whiskey into Terry’s openmouth, both the girls were revolted by the sight of his tongue-green and filthy, it looked more like consolidated slime than any human organ. But then, that could be said about almost the entirety of Terry.
As Meenu began to pour shot after shot of whiskey down his throat, Terry began to enjoy more, losing himself to the feel of the liquid which he could only dream about in the underworld. He has now finished the first bottle. Meenu reached for the second one. She was hoping that by the third or fourth bottle, Terry would be inebriated enough to lose consciousness-provided this thing has what could be conventionally termed as consciousness.
But the contents of the second bottle went down Terry’s throat without making him any less conscious. In fact, he looked more awake than before, the grin ever present on his face, satisfied with experiencing something he has only hoped for in life-two women who weren’t prostitutes, by his side, one of them feeding him the spirit.
When the third bottle also became empty without any sign of Terry turning off, Meenu began to get truly alarmed.
“How are you feeling?” she said
Still rubbing Chianki’s thigh up and down, he said, “Marvellous, my dear. Marvellous!”
Meenu and Chianki exchanged a glance. This was not going as planned.
But halfway through the fourth bottle, Terry took his hand off Chianki’s body and held Meenu’s wrist. It was a command to keep pouring the liquid in his mouth without pause-something that would have made someone alive choke to his death. .
Terry was now enjoying the incessant drink so much that he rolled his eyes, making his pupils disappear-a post mortal approximation of ecstasy.
Seeing how he remained so, Meenu gestured to Chianki. She wasn’t completely sure if Terry could see what’s happening around him or not. But she felt that waiting wasn’t prudent. They needed to act now.
Chianki slowly stood up, never taking her eyes off from Terry’s face. After throwing a glance at Meenu, she walked back in to the cabin. Once she entered, her hastened, subconsciously thinking that she was out of Terry’s earshot and could afford faster footsteps and the sound that these implied.
The footsteps took her straight to the bedroom, or more precisely to the wardrobe in the bedroom. The creaking sound as she opened the door made her wince, afraid-perhaps irrationally that the sound might awaken Terry from his reverie. Without losing time she took a blue tumbler which was on the bottom section of the wardrobe. She had no issues carrying the half liter tumbler out-one of the provisions that they had brought with them. The feel of the liquid splashing within heartened her.
She was further emboldened when she saw that Terry was still lost in his reverie. As she came closer she saw how the cosrpse’s eyes were still unseeing. It was all she could do to keep herself from laughing.
Meenu, who was feeding the insatiable corpse the fifth bottle of whiskey looked up and nodded at her.
Chianki took the lid off the tumbler. When a hot wind began to blow, she became afraid that the sound of leaves rustling will make the corpse take note of his surroundings again.
He didn’t though. Terry continued savouring the liquor.
Chianki unloaded the contents of the tumbler on the corpse’s body. That certainly made Terry take note of his surroundings. In fact, at the touch of liquor on his torso, he sprang up. In a different situation, it would even have been funny. As he sat up, he inadvertently let go of Meenu’s arm.
For her part, by this time, Meenu had pulled out the lighter from her jeans pocket. The lighter, a one engraved with the image of a cannon was a gift to her father from someone who served with him. Meenu thought it ideal that it should be used to get rid of Terry.
Before Terry could truly figure out what was going on, she flicked on the lighter and threw it on the corpse.
The fire engulfed him with a relish that delighted both the girls. Both of them took a few steps back as the flaming figure began to scream. For a moment, Meenu was concerned about whether the sound of the screaming will bring someone here. How would they explain all this away? But then, her worry was soon replaced by intense joy as the last fleck of the corpse’s body turned to ashes- carried away by the wind up to the night sky.
They stood staring at the sky for a while, at the twinkling stars-there were so many, and at the silhouette of the leaves which blocked the view here and there, half-expecting something to come out from between the branches, to spring at them, in a different shape or form, Terry who refuses to die.
But nothing. Even the wind stilled. And there was a calm silence -broken only by the sound of crickets.
Looking down at the partially burnt mattress, Chianki said, “I don’t think Neeraj is going to be too happy about that.” She said it with more than a hint of a smile in her voice. And it seemed to break the tension as Meenu smiled at her.
Chianki got the emergency lamp off the ground. Looking at Meenu, she said, “Do you think this went too easy?”
Meenu halted just a moment before she replied, her teeth radiant in the moonlight as she smiled, “ That thing stank to the high heavens. If you thought that sitting beside it, feeding it liquor for half an hour while it had its grip on my arm was easy, girl, you need a reality check.”
They laughed. The crickets chirped. From afar, they heard a vehicle’s honk.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” said Meenu.
Her father had given up searching for his lighter-a fruitless search that lasted two days. Now, he was puffing away furiously at a cigarette as he sat in his favorite sofa watching a science show on the Discovery Channel. It was called ‘Megaprojects’ or something , noted Meenu who sat beside him on a chair clipping her nails. This episode was about the construction of a gsyscraper happening in Dubai.
“These middle-easterners are making a whole lot of buildings!” murmured her father.
Meenu smiled, pleased by the fact that she was back in this domestic environment, far from the wilderness which was what the proximity of a corpse afforded. Only she and Chianki knew what had happened(Chianki, apparently had told her boyfriend that the mattress was burnt because “we girls spilled some wine and accidentally lit the lighter”).
“Did you see that!” her father suddenly exclaimed. Meenu looked up to see what the excitement was all about. As far as she could see, they were showing what they have been for the past half an hour or so-men standing at great heights, trying to pile up more heights. Perhaps, it was that giant crane which had her father excited, she thought.
Whatever the cause of excitement, it was soon taken off, intruded by a commercial.
“Oh, these commercials!” her father exclaimed. He began switching channels-he hated commercials almost as much as he loved science. The way he saw it, whatever nation-building was done by the government or any other organization or individual, it’s brought down by commercials.
Something on a news channel made him stop switching channels. The news reader sounded overtly dramatic, and from her tone alone, Meenu realized-without looking up that it must be some sort of tragedy that they were reporting.
Looking up she saw that it was indeed the case. The latest in the string of rape incidents that has shamed India. This one somewhere in Mumbai, the victim a girl of 17 years. What made this case more curious than the others, according to the news reader was the girl’s insistence that the perpetrator was not a man but a corpse.
The psychologists think she is still in a state of shock.
Something knotted inside Meenu’s belly. A pain that originated as a burning point in her underbelly grew larger in radius and spread towards the region of her groin.She stood up, the pain made her almost lose her balance but she managed to move towards her room, entering which she found a tampon and proceeded to the bathroom.
She has been expecting her periods any day now. But never before had it come with such abruptness. Perhaps the shock of the news was what caused it, she tried to convince herself. But in her own mind, the argument rang hollow.
Almost as soon as she removed her panties, the fluid began to ooze out of her vagina. But it wasn’t any of the fluids associated with periods. It wasn’t blood, it wasn’t thick, it was in fact rather too fluid.
From the smell of it she recognized what it was. But just to make sure, she touched it and brought a finger close to her nose.
Alcohol. Her eyes widened even as tears sprang to them.
And the sound of the laughter-like tinder sticks rattling made her look up. There, on the ceiling was a blob of rotting flesh with a discernible mouth. The mass dripped down to the floor and the blob inched towards her, eventually sliding up the side of her thighs with the mouth at the front. The flow of alcohol continued from her innards and the mouth clamped over its source. Only by then did it stop laughing.
That was also when the choking sensation brought on by fear and sadness lifted from her throat and Meenu started screaming.