A Corpse Pulls Him In

Though a man of varied skills, Nashil was only an average swimmer.

He could shoot a moving target from a good distance with an ease that would raise the eyebrow of many who pride themselves on what they could do with one eye shut. On close contact fight, he could bring down an assailant before the latter even knew what was happening: The kind of skills which stood him in good stead in the profession of a police officer.

On the domestic front, he could make chicken chillie that made his wife-a decent enough cook jealous.

But swimming was never a strong suit for him.

But judging from the way she giggled and waved her arms animatedly at the way the swimmers in the television moved, slicing through the water like knife through butter, with a combination of precision and beauty which was both intoxicating and exhilarating, Nashil thought that perhaps his daughter had a natural inclination for swimming.

They would have to wait a while longer before he could know-after all, the child was just over an year old.

**

Nashil was enjoying his short vacation thoroughly. The vacation- if that word is applicable, was just for four days but he hasn’t got leave from work in ages- not even when his daughter was born: at that time he was involved in one of the most brutal cases he has ever come across- the murder of a young man that shocked the entire village- a case that Nashil didn’t like to be reminded of, not least because the murderer was still at large.

He could have turned the vacation into a proper ‘vacation’- one which involved going somewhere- to some hill station or a beach with his family. But he yearned for the domesticity of sitting on his sofa watching the television with his baby daughter on his lap, while his wife rested her head on his shoulder.

He was grateful for his wife to be so understanding even though he was away a lot. In fact, even when he was home, he would be so tied up in his own mind, wading through the myriad pieces of information floating around like debris, trying to put them together to form a cohesive picture of some crime that for all practical purposes he was still away from everyone around him.

But she rarely complained. And she gave him this lovely daughter who was fast becoming the center of his universe.

**

A phone call brought domestic bliss was brought to an abrupt halt.

The fact that the call came on the land phone and not in his cell made it all the more ominous-meaning that the caller probably knew where he lived. The caller didn’t identify himself. Instead, a raspy male voice informed him that he should come to the jetty at midnight, all alone. “There would be some information of interest to you,” the voice has said.

A dictum was to keep this meeting private.

Nashil almost thought it just a prank-such things, though not common wasn’t unheard of-after all, the larger population of India is young and that meant there were more than a few teenagers around with a wicked sense of humour. But the very last words that came down the phone line made him change his mind.

It was cryptic, and effective: “Haven’t you had enough sleepless nights about the Paul Sohra case? It’s time you learned the truth!”

Paul Sohra. The sound of name was enough to sent shivers down Nashil’s spine. A youth with his entire life ahead of him, meeting his death in a horrendous manner- that was Pual.

His body was found impaled on a long pole by the abandoned jetty at the edge of the village, its mangled face tilted upwards, mouth wide open in a frozen scream-, as if shouting to heaven for justice.

**

Though intrigued by the call, Nashil wasn’t foolish enough to go to the jetty on his own as the caller had asked him. He called up Shekhar- a trustworthy constable whose earnestness and intellect he admired and counted on for many of his investigations before.

Aside from an uncommonly acute intellect in someone so young- he was just 25, Shekhar was also enthusiastic about his work, considering the work of a policeman as that of a guardian angel or an emissary of justice- the kind of ideology that faded with age like the bright couloir of a fabric under prolonged exposure to the sun, as Nashil knew only too well.

This enthusiasm meant that he had no qualms in accepting Paul’s request- of accompanying him to the jetty at midnight on an errand that might turn out to be dangerous. Not even the fact that even Nashil didn’t know much about the purpose of the visit(he didn’t mention the way the caller’s allusion to the Sohra case, not on the phone) didn’t deter him.

“I will be there, sir!” he said in his firm voice that brimmed with an enthusiasm that hasn’t left him even after seeing some of the most violent crime scenes in his two years assisting Nashil Robinson.

For his part, Nashil didn’t tell his wife about the nature of the trip he was to make at midnight. “Someone at work has asked me to help them out with a case.”

His wife sighed though she didn’t say anything, not then.

“You will come back soon, won’t you?” she said as she was seeing him out of the door.

Pulling her closer to him, he planted a kiss on her forehead. “Yes, I will be back home in an hour tops,” he said, mindful to keep his voice as cheerful as possible.

Of course, the one hour time-frame that he gave turned out to be optimistic. Too optimistic.

**

The jetty was abandoned years ago and all the fisher-folk who lived around the area had long left-some seeking other jobs while some crashed against the wall of unemployment and drink. The last stretch of the road to the jetty was largely overtaken by shrubs, and whatever boats that remained on the shore were long degraded to disuse.

The fact that no one took the road anymore-except for those who wanted a safe place to drink and make a lot of noise in the night without waking the neighbors-because there were no neighbors to talk about , meant that the disrepair was more the norm than the exception.

So it was that Nashil found the driving progressively tougher the more they neared the jetty. Shekhar remained silent beside him, staring ahead though the hard clasp on the door showed that he felt the shake and rumble of the car only too well.

Not that Nashil noticed this. He didn’t feel like taking his eyes off the road- for the dark that stretched ahead of them(most of the streetlights had gone blind) appeared to be thick like the black of the blackest coffee that you could stir up. And the beams of the headlights could only stretch so far ahead, could only reveal only so much.

Nashil used to come to the jetty with his friends for the occasional swim in his childhood. Even after the jetty became just an abandoned artefact no longer remembered by people, he had come here more than once.

A couple of those visits were related to the Paul Sohra case.

But never before has he visited the place during the night- and certainly not around midnight.

**

It seemed to him that the night held a different quality around these parts. As if the darkness which covered the land at sun down hid more mysteries here than anywhere else, and more than anything, he felt an acute prickling of an intelligence prodding from behind the veneer of the dark, as though someone were watching the arrival of their car.

“What are you thinking, sir?”

Shekhar’s voice broke Nashil’s reverie though not his gaze from the road. He had slowed the car down but still the going was graceless along the broken tarmac.

Nashil smiled though, thinking of how very well Shekhar could sense his moods-something that made him an excellent ally in investigations in which you needed an emotional padding when you felt like you are slipping into too dark a pit.

“I don’t know, Shekhar,” he said after a moment of reflection. “All I know is that Paul Sohra’s ghost is something that still slakes for justice-or so it feels.”

Shekhar’s eyes widened at the mention of Sohra’s name. “Does this have anything to do with the Sohra case?”, he said.

“Yes. At least, I think so. The caller, he-“

“-Sir, watch out!”

Nashil did, looking up to see an old woman, standing smack in the middle of the road, appearing where there was just darkness a few moments ago. The car skidded to a halt mere inches from her, the stench of burning rubber forming part of the fabric of the night- at least for a few moments.

What do you think you are doing! Nashil wanted to shout at the old lady but a look at her from close quarters revealed a picture which numbed him with pity.

Disheveled hair, wide eyes, even wider smile, sweat beads rolling down her face, heaving chests, rasping breath, an expression on the face that suggested she was mere moments away from breaking out in a wild laughter…here stood a crazy old woman in a tattered saree, neither Nashil nor Shekhar needed a psychologist to tell them that.

But Nashil did wonder where she came from.

No one lived around these parts, and if she somehow made a dwelling of one of the old shacks abandoned by fishermen, he couldn’t imagine from where she found her food.

Not that her scrawny appearance gave an indication of her being well-fed, but still you are going to need food to stay alive, right? thought Nashil.

The woman came around to his side of the car and tapped on the window with a smile of eager anticipation. No sooner did he roll the window down than she began to speak rapidly: “There are two faces to a coin, right? Just like that there are two sides to the earth, the land and the waters. We always see just one face.” She pointed to her own face.

“Like this- just one face! You understand?” She looked from Nashil to Shekhar and seeing the identical look of bafflement on both the faces, she giggled-like a little girl who just perpetrated a deliciously malicious prank.

“No, of course you don’t!” she said abruptly. “No one ever understands. And when one doesn’t comprehend, what should one do? Why, it’s blindingly obvious. One must listen to those who understand these things- it could be an elder, in fact, more often than not, it’s an elder who knows these things…an elder like me!” And she started laughing again, saying, “Poor, poor me! Hah, hah, hah!”

Nashil and Shekhar exchanged a glance but when they turned their attention back to the woman, she was no more laughing. In fact, her expression was most serious now, the kind of serious face which may greet you just as you are about to enter into a grave discussion of national importance with a head of state.

“Now, go!” she said, taking a couple of steps back from the car window. “Whether you understood what I said or not, it’s time for you to move ahead. He must be waiting to meet you,” she added mysteriously, eyeing Shekhar as she said it, as though she wasn’t sure if he would be welcomed by whomever she referred to.

By now it was clear enough to Nashil that he was not going to get any cohesive information out of her. But still, he couldn’t bring himself to leave her in this dark path all on her own. “Why don’t you get in? We can take you some place better!”

At this, the old woman laughed again. And this time the laugh was all but uncontrollable, as though what Nashil said was the biggest joke that she could think of.

But before Nashil could add anything, she turned away and disappeared into the night, leaving a trail of ghostly laugher in her wake.

**

The two policemen arrived at the Jetty a minute or so after. The stillness that he experienced as soon as he stepped out of the car felt unreal to Nashil, almost as though by driving for just above half an hour from home, he had reached not the edge of the village but another planet.

No crickets chirped, no dogs howled and no wind blew.

And the water in the lake, flowing tranquilly, touched by the silvery beams of the moon didn’t make a sound either.

“It’s-“

“-awfully silent,” Nashil finished the sentence for Shekhar, who like him, now stood in front of the car, looking all around, peering into the dark to see if anything stirred.

They both knew that this sort of silence only existed in the presence of some sort of danger.

So they looked. Even though the darkness near the water body wasn’t as bad as it was on the drive, it was still hard to see, as though there was a filter invisible to the naked eye present just a few feet above the ground that made fluent passage of the moonlight harder.

“I thought I made it clear to you that you should come on your own!”

Even though  more than 12 hours had passed since he heard the voice for the first time, Nashil had no problem recognizing it to be the same one that spoke to him on the phone, the one that was responsible for him and Shekhar being here, standing in a cold night at a place he never would have wanted to visit, not if he could help it.

But he couldn’t pinpoint the source of the sound.

“Do you see anything!” he muttered ever so softly to Shekhar. He had seen the latter place an instinctive hand on the holster hidden under the helm of his shirt. Shekhar shook his head- shortly but long enough for Nashil to see the gesture.

“Humans are very arrogant!” the voice, which remained silent for a few minutes boomed out of the night again. “Promising something and then doing something else!”

The voice, which rose in tone now had a distinct edge of anger, something which neither of the cops missed.

Shekhar unbuckled the holster.

The flickering of lights from the factory on the other side of the shore was the only movement that Nashil could see, even though his eyes went every which way in search of a potential source of the voice. Even though spoken by a human, there was a vagueness to the words as though they had to pass through a metallic tunnel before spilling out into the air. This made him suspect that maybe the words were coming from some gadget which rendered the effect.

Just as the thought crossed his mind he saw something moving out of the corner of his eye.

The movement came from the direction of the small shed near to the jetty.

The aluminum roofed shed was once used as a waiting shed back when people were ferried across the lake-something that was rendered obsolete when a bridge was built-wide and strong, sponsored by the chemical factory on the other shore that was newly opened at the time.

The rusty aluminum roof gleamed under the pale moonlight.

Nashil peered closely for signs of any further movement. Sensing his superior officer’s tautness, Shekhar took a couple of steps in that direction, the gun now in hand.

**

The thing took its own sweet time moving towards them but when it did it was with a rapidity which baffled the two policemen’s senses.

And before Nashil knew what has happened, it had killed Shekhar with a swift and clean cut across the throat with a tentacls the edge of which glinted sharp even in the hazy moonlight.

“I told you to come on your own,” It said. “And when the ocean-folk say something, we mean it. Breaking an agreement with an ocean-folk and the consequences would be grave.” It pointed to the dead man on the floor, lying in a pool of his own blood that looked more black than red in this hour when everything lied dead to the world.

Nashil wasn’t sure which was the more incongruous fact- that the thing which stood before him spoke in a perfect human tongue while its head clearly belonged to an octopus or that it was wearing a blue pair of denim- the button glittered when the moon beam touched it.

Nashil slowly raised his pistol at the Octopus-Man, mindful not to let his hands tremble. The last thing he wanted now was to show how much he was afraid. Somehow, he got the impression that like a dog, this thing was adept in sensing human fear.

“What the hell are you?”

Nashil’s voice was commandeering enough in interrogation rooms. In fact, many were the times when the timbre of his voice- it’s gravity to be more precise was the final straw which broke the camel’s back, making a guilty party confess. However, he himself could sense nothing of that gravity in this case.

The Octopus-Man was most forthcoming with his reply, not missing even a single moment in delivering it. “I am one of the Ocean-Folk, of course. And I am here to take you.”

The first thing that happened after this was that Nashil’s pistol disappeared from his hands-disappeared not as in vanished, oh no, nothing as magical as that. It’s just that the Octopus-Man put his skills of swift movement to good use again. The befuddled cop barely saw the tentacle flick though he did hear the sound of the pistol falling into the water in the lake some 500 yards away.

And before long, he too was in the lake, carried down in a tight clasp by the Octopus-Man who had the head of an Octopus and the rest of the body belonging to a man- a boy, really, but Nashil couldn’t think of him as a boy, not when he just committed a murder so easily, so remorselessly. Not the kind of thing that a mere boy would do, with or without an Octopus head.

The darkness deepened as they proceeded downwards but Nashil didn’t feel the cold of the water even though he was wearing just a pair of pants and a half-sleeved cotton shirt which let in the chill even when he was at the jetty. Neither did he find any trouble breathing.

Just as they plunged into the water, the Octopus-Man had blown a huge bubble of vacuum within which they now existed, traversing the depths of the lake within its comforts, much like a space explorer might navigate the outer reaches above in a space suit.

No, in fact, much more comfortable than that- for aside from the fact that he was tightly clasped by the Octopus-Man, with a strength that would be impossible in any normal man, let alone a boy, Nashil found that there was space enough within the bubble to move around a bit, to twist his body this way and that, to swivel his head and move up and down, if only the being would loosen its clasp on him.

But it was dark. A kind of dark which was complete and which he would never have believed existed anywhere on earth-or beneath it for that matter.

It was the kind of darkness which sent a chill down right into the core of your soul, the kind of darkness that made you sad thinking of all the beautiful things in life that you may never experience again- for it was hard to imagine how, once confronted with such deep a facet of oblivion, anyone could come back and join the realm of the ordinary living mortals, on a plane where the sun gave light for so many hours and the moon and the stars brightened the sky for another set of hours-working like clockwork.

This felt like the darkness of doom. Eternal. Complete

But a sliver of light that came from below(how far below, he couldn’t judge as he had lost all sense of depth and distance) brought in its wake a ray of hope. Upon catching sight of it, he felt like a man who had just surfaced from the water and was catching his first breath.

And to his delight he saw the light, which at first appeared like a thin vertical line slowly spread outwards to either side, forming a shape in front of his eyes.

An oval shape. No not quite, for as he peered closely he saw that the shape was only half of that of an oval, like the shape of an entrance to a cave-provided it was smoothened enough with dexterous hands wielding adequate tools. From what he had seen of the tentacles on the Octopus-Man, he was inclined to believe that there existed among the Ocean-Folk those who could wield architectural tools with relative ease.

Something stirred to his left, he caught the movement out of the corner of his eye.

It made him take his eyes away from the cave mouth. The object that attracted his attention turned out to be the old woman- the same crazed woman he and Shekhar had seen just before they took the final turn towards the jetty.

The woman had entered the radius of the silvery light that came from the cave. To his amazement he found that she was swimming freely without any bubble or other paraphernalia-magical or mechanical but could see her experiencing no trouble.

In fact, she even gave him a small wave of her hand. And when she grinned, Nashil saw four perfectly shaped canine tools among her rows of teeth.

It was all he could do to keep himself from fainting.

But more excitement for the senses was on the offer as they entered the cave.

For one thing, even though it existed on the lake bed, the water didn’t enter the space. And soon as they were within, the bubble burst from around the Octopus-Man and Nashil. Almost immediately, the Octopus-Man released the prisoner from his clasp and Nashil fell forward on his knees- the ground though mud soaked was solid enough.

Coming in from the darkness, it took a moment or two for Nashil’s eyes to adjust to the bright interior of the cave.

A few blinks of the eyes and a couple of gasps-made out of surprise or exertion, one couldn’t be sure, and Nashil’s brain registered the fact that the silvery light issued from tiny orbs which were embedded in the walls of the cave-much like lightbulbs, only more biological in appearance-in fact, the orbs looked as though they were made of some gelatinous substance.

The next thing his eyes registered- and which his brain took its own sweet time accepting- was the presence of crabs. A dozen or so of them, standing in a circle.

They looked like the regular crabs that sometimes get caught in the fishermen’s nest when they went fishing in the lake, except for one detail. The claws- at least twice as big in proportion to the rest of the body, the claws had the same silvery glint as that on some of the tentacles on the Octopus-Man.

In the centre of the circle, on a somewhat raised pedestal – a rock actually, sat the biggest octopus Nashil had ever set his eyes on.

He wasn’t exactly an expert on octopi- what with dealing with human anomalies above ground, he rarely got the time to indulge in any extensive research about the creatures under the water but he was pretty sure that an octopus this huge was not natural, at least going by the definition of ‘natural’ that science has given us.

And octopi belonged deep in the ocean and not in some lake that was a tiny branch of a river which snaked through regions inhabited by people-ordinary men and women with their frailties and obsessions and passions.

But the thing that sat on that huge rock was not only an octopus, it was also easily the size of a house- a single storied house but a house nonetheless.

As Nashil looked up at its face, eyes wide in surprise and terror, it winked its own eye, or so it appeared to Nashil.

The sudden sound of the old woman laughing startled him even more. He hadn’t even noticed her entering the cave. A single look from the octopus brought the woman’s laughter to an end though.

“Greetings! I am glad that we finally meet!”

It took a few moments before Nashil adjudged that the voice belonged to the giant octopus even though he couldn’t see anything resembling a mouth on that thing- thank god for that!

As if reading his mind, the thing said, “I am talking directly to your mind, Nashil. I reckon, in human terms, it might be called telepathy? Anyway, that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that you are here- among the first witnesses to the existence of creatures beyond the realm of the natural-natural as science has taught you.”

A cold wave passed through Nashil’s  spine upon hearing the words which mirrored the thoughts he had just a few moments ago.

“Oh, how foolish of me!” continued the octopus, “Going on like a fool without having introduced myself. I am the Water-king, at least of these parts,” he added in a more modest tone.

He went on to give Nashil a brief history of the super-natural beings of the waters.

“No one knows for how long we have been here. All we know for sure is that our species have been her for a far longer time than humans on the surface of the earth.”

He explained how one of the supernatural abilities of the Water-folks was to ‘read’ accurately the thoughts and emotions of those who came near the water’s edge-whether it be an ocean or a lake or a river, it didn’t matter.

Pointing to the Octopus-Man, the king said how he was once just a boy whose father used to be a fisherman. As someone who has stayed near the shore all his life, his father had a special affinity for the lake-so much so that, on drunken nights he would drink directly from the lake to slake his thirst, saying that the lake’s water was the nectar of immortality that kept him alive.(Though once he sobered up, he would flinch at the way he drank the lake’s water which he knew only too well was dirty.)

Even though he rarely made enough money from his fishing and urged his son to study hard so that he could have a better life than that of a fisherman, he found his happiness from his profession-something that was practiced by his father and his grandfather before him, and something of which he was proud.

But all that changed when the factory opened on the other side of the lake and started dumping all those toxic chemicals into the water.

One of the reasons why the tragedy of the fisherfolk losing their livelihood didn’t catch the fancy of the nation, it was said was because of the minimal casualties involved. There were only two deaths- one a debt ridden suicide and the other that of the Octopus-man’s father.

**

It was one drunken night like so many others. The sky looked like it was ready to fall into the water-what with the effect of the cheap alcohol he had consumed that evening. (He usually consumed cheap alcohol, but on this night it was cheaper than ever- times were especially tough since the fish started turning up dead in the lake.)

That night too he drank water from the lake, against the warnings of his fellow drinkers.

The water didn’t kill him immediately. The water in the lake was toxic but not that toxic. However, the doctors were in no doubt that it was the poisonous water that killed the man, slowly yet surely, making his cells rot from within.

If the family were wealthy, they might have accessed better health-care which would probably have saved his life.

But they weren’t wealthy and probabilities of a positive kind were not to be had in their lives, it seemed. The boy stopped going to school and started working in a local fancy store so that he could bring in some money. The mother insisted that she could bring enough money to keep him in school-she sold fish for a living.

But the boy, wiser than his age knew that it was more wishful thinking than anything on his mother’s part. Selling fish wasn’t exactly an assurance of a steady income. Besides, she has a myriad number of health problems herself. He ought to help her out.

But even as he went about doing that, rage flamed within him. Young though he was he became part of a small group of people who [protested against the factory’s way of dumping all the waste into the waters making things harder and harder for the fisherfolk. Already many of them had left for better shores, and his dear father was never going to come back again.

And the rage remained. Even after the factory-owned by a multinational conglomerate- agreed to ‘comply with environmental norms’ and even paid a fine for the bad deeds of the past.

But a fine was hardly enough to douse the anger which boiled inside him whenever he heard how his mother cried in the lonely dark of the night.

“There stands the poor woman now,” the Octopus said, pointing to the crazed old woman who stood behind Nashil.

The octopus spoke – if that’s the right word- in a tone that was gentle yet firm, a tone suffused with the wisdom of ages.

He sensed the rage within the boy as clearly as one could sense a live burning lump of coal on one’s flesh.

“It was a time when I was learning about all the terrible calamities happening in the world due to human actions- or inaction. The chain reaction of the change in weather conditions that your species has perpetuated is killing species right and left- including even some of ours. And the general apathy with which your lot treated not just the planet but even each other made us realize that it’s time for a better species to take control of the planet. You have proven beyond doubt that yours is a doomed species, and one that takes  all the other innocent species down with you.”

Nashil’s extent of knowledge about such things as global warming was limited to the odd bits of news he might catch in the television as he sat with his wife having food in front of the tube(that’s what the tube existed for now, so that families could eat without having to talk to each other.)

He was wondering what his role was in all of this.

“We did experiments,” the octopus continued. “The water-folk couldn’t come above and take over the world, wish it were that simple..so we ‘recruited’ those among you who saw the poison that the human species has become. Like this boy here-whom I have huge hopes on. He- as you can see- is no more mere human. He is a true amphibian, with abilities that surpass both that of the water-folk and that of humans-someone who can come over there and help us take over the world.

“ But he would need time for that. Seven years, give or take. You see, we have skills unlike yours but we are still part of nature, albeit a part you have rarely explored. This means there are natural laws which all of us must follow-even our most audacious experiments-like this boy here. He is, what you might say is in a caterpillar stage. And for his transformation to be complete- I am hoping that he would be the king who would lead our army when the time comes for us to take over the planet, assuming there will be a planet left by that point,” the octopus added with wry humour.

“But for this boy to become what he truly could become, one more thing needed to be added in the mix- that’s where you come in, Nashil. We need your incessant zest for achieving goals to be part of the fabric of our king’s psyche. You have that and that’s something I found on the few occasions that you were at the water’s edge-at the jetty, investigating that case which still remains unsolved- the only one of the kind in your repertoire, the very same case the memories of which disallows you a pleasant night’s sleep, even after the baby had brought plenty of solace into your life.”

To be spoken about one’s most intimate feelings in so stark a manner in these strange circumstances was chilling enough. But even more chilling to Nashil was the memories of the Paul Sohra case which the Water-King’s words brought to his mind.

**

Paul was 20 years old when he was found brutally murdered.

His dead body was found spiked on a pole at the jetty. A thin and sharp cut which proceeded up from his navel and ended just beneath his adam’s apple had his innards exposed. At certain points, parts of intestines were stapled to the skin so that they wouldn’t fall off. The body was completely naked except for a pair of green checkered loafers-giving the grotesque savagery a darkly comical counterpoint.

 

The corpse’s eyebrows were pinned back to the skin so that the eyes remained open-staring at the open sky- as if expecting mercy from above. A mercy that the body never got when alive, now hoping for it in death.

By the time the body was discovered crows and eagles and rats had already started taking their shares. These creatures were probably the only ones who were pleased with the existence of the carcass.

Them, and those who committed the murder.

Paul Sohra’s father was an Assamese who came to Kerala decades ago as a manual labourer. He came down as part of a group of construction workers who were to help bring up a hotel in Kochi. Liking the place and the fact that you get more opportunities as a manual laborer compared to his home state, Sohra decided to moore in God’s own country.

He met his wife at a construction site- a fellow worker who became a housewife once he married her, he being adamant that she shouldn’t work. “I should be able to look after you, shouldn’t I?” was his innocent question to her. He was 24 years old at the time.

Sohra’s wife had issues conceiving. After a prolonged period of treatment and prayers, by the time the couple had their first- and as it would turn out, only-child, Sohra was already in his late thirties.

Paul, needless to say grew up the apple of his parents’ eye.

But once he entered teenage, he began giving them problems- a not so uncommon phenomenon among teens. However, in Paul’s case the shenanigans of the hormonally imbalanced age were not just limited to having a few drinks and smoke with friends and getting into a brawl. It involved heroine.

He graduated from being just a user to being a pusher soon enough. It was only his father’s intervention that prevented him from getting completely sucked in by the dark vacuum which the drug brings to any of its users.

Once he came out of rehab, he stayed clean. However, there began deaths in and around the neighborhood-mostly of young people, thanks to the use of spurious drugs. The police, even though they tried to find the root from which the issue began was unsuccessful in their efforts.

Paul had more than an idea about where the spurious drugs originated. Feeling a pang of guilt, he went ahead and informed the police about the source.

It was assumed that Paul was murdered by the members of the same drug racket. A revenge murder. The fact that his mutilated carcass was put on display was attributed to the idea of making an example of him.

But all of it was just conjecture. The police could never find a tangible proof which linked his murder to the drug racket. In fact, when Nashil and his team investigated the case, they found that almost all the members of the racket had long dispersed to other parts of the country.

Paul’s body was cremated without anyone knowing who killed him.

Now, almost an year later, the corpse would be in an advanced state of rot. And no one was the wiser about his murderer still.

The murder shook the village to its core- it was hard to imagine that the tranquil laidback village would be the site for so horrendous a crime. But no matter how ugly the details of a crime is, you would begin to forget about them sooner or later.

Unless you were the family of the deceased, or the police officer who led the investigation.

There were still nights when Nashil would wake up in a cold sweat, the last thing from the disturbing dream which he remembered would almost always be the face of the corpse, forced to stare at the sky with a horrendous grin.

Nashil looked up at the Water-King, he couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of admiration for the being for seeing into his mind with so much precision. And to think that he has been successful in hiding the fact that he was haunted by the Paul Sohra case still from this wife- he ceased discussing about it with her once the child was born- taking care of a little kid was a most worrying task, he didn’t want to worry her even more.

“Seven years,” the Water-King spoke in a sonorous tone. “That’s how long it would take to transfer qualities to our boy here, so that he could be our king. We would have loved to hasten the process but as I said, magical though we are, we are still bound by certain limits that nature puts in our way. But unlike you humans, we respect nature!” he added with a barely concealed hatred in his voice. “So, we gladly accept it.”

“…By transfer of qualities, what do you mean?” Nashil asked hesitantly, not sure if he really wanted to know the answer.

“By that I mean, your zest for achieving goals would be transformed to our future king- one lifebreath at a time.”

Life breath. Nashil was sure he heard the words right. For the first time since he entered the cave, he began to feel dizzy.

“Your qualities are entwined with your life breath, of course. And the seven years or so which the operation would take would obviously drain you. But hey. Look at the positive side- a part of you would survive into the next species to rule the earth. Not many humans could say that!” the Water-King added in a jolly tone as though he just made it known to Nashil that he has won the lottery.

Turning on his heels, Nashil ran towards the entrance of the cave. Though he wasn’t sure he could swim all the way to the surface-which felt like a long way away, he couldn’t think of a better option.

Expecting the Octopus-Man to try and prevent his escape, he clenched his arm in a fist, ready to deliver a punch right in his eyes if the need arose.

But the need didn’t arise. In fact, the Octopus-Man merely stood and watched as he rushed towards the cave mouth.

These things could probably only perform the ‘operation’ if I willfully complied, thought Nashil as he exited into the water and began to swim up.

**

The cold was numbing though the exhilaration of an escape warmed his heart. With all his might, Nashil waded, swinging one arm after the other as fast as he could, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the cave which he never wished to see one more time. Fearing that the Octopus-Man(or maybe something even more horrible) might be following him, he didn’t even dare look back, not until he had been swimming for a good few moments.

But when he did look back, he saw to his horror that the cave was a mere two feet behind him.

Dammit, the cave is following me! waas the thought which occurred to him. But then, he noticed something- how the silvery light from the cave never seemed to leave him, and how he could see the bottom of the lake in that light.

His joints ached with the effort of swimming, and the crypt-like cold of the water didn’t make matters any better either. Looking above all he could see was the very same thing that had filled his vision for the last few moments. And looking beneath he saw the cave-with its mouth a shape made of blinding light always just a couple of feet below him.

Like a hammer blow to his chest, the thought occurred to him that he wouldn’t move even if he swam.

He was beginning to feel chocked.

He started swimming back to the cave, his heart beating inside his chest like a piston.

**

The prison they put him in looked very much like the main chamber of the cave- the one in which sat the King. Only, this one was smaller.

Way, way smaller.

A much more subdued version of the silver light in the main chamber issued from the walls of this one as well- and the jelly like balls that were studded on these walls were smaller in dimension.

The Octopus-Man brought him meals thrice every day. The meals were palatable, that’s the best he could say about them. And he was curious about the arrangement by which it was the Octopus-Man who bright him them- hardly something that a future king should be doing.

As per the Water-King, the ‘transference of the quality’ would take place every third day.

The first time it happened, Nashil didn’t feel any different afterwards.

Sure, there was a certain dizziness but that was gone once he put some food into himself. But it was only after the second time that he started feeling the overwhelming sense of despair which took hold of his heart. It was a hopelessness that was so absolute that if he had any means of killing himself, he would have done it right away.

He had hoped that, contrary to what the Water-King said he would remain alive even after the seven years and once that time period is over, bringing to an end whatever this ‘operation’ of the Ocean-folk is, he would get to go back home.

By that time his daughter would be seven years old, but at least, he would get to be there for her and her mother from that point onwards.

But with each transference procedure his spirit, more than his body, weakened, until it began to feel as though his deepest core was just a mass of black phlegm from which proceeded thoughts of death and chaos, day after day, night after night.

To make his suffering worse, they had put the crazy old woman in the cell with him. “She is in there so that you will have some human company” was what the Water-king had said, though from what Nashil could see, the woman couldn’t be put under the definition of “human” anymore.

For one thing, she never slept. She kept rambling some nonsense(or not) about the “World having two faces- one above and one below” or “For everything that you do in life, there’s an even worse fate awaiting” and such senseless things.

Some days, Nashil would literally shout at her to stop, the sound of the woman’s craziness a constant reminder of his own deprived circumstances. But of course, she wouldn’t, at least not completely. She would cut off her mumblings just for a few seconds only to begin again-if anything, in a louder voice.

It was all that Nashil could do to keep from killing her.

He had a feeling that more than for the sake of companionship, she was put there to ensure that he didn’t do anything to hurt himself-despite her wild ravings, there was a discernible intelligence in her eyes which gave one the idea that she could be useful if one wanted her to be, provided one knew how to manipulate her.

But whatever the way to do that was, Nashil certainly wasn’t in the know.

But slowly, as the months went by, he began to accept her ramblings and even started liking them- after all, they were just about the only link he had to a world that he was beginning to forget- a world where humans talked and laughed and cried and lived in spaces that were perhaps not so congested, where they had families and hope.

But all his ploys to lure her into a conversation failed. Whenever he attempted to speak to her, she would raise the volume of her ramblings. In these circumstances when there were just the two of them- being given the cold shoulder like that only made him despair even more, so it wasn’t long before he stopped trying.

But one night, the woman unexpectedly spoke to him.

**

Nashil knew that it was night by the way the lights dimmed inside the cell. The jelly like orbs simple shrunk and in the process sucked in almost all the light into themselves. Usually, he would try to sleep before this as the darkness made the tiny cell feel even tinier. This made the sense of suffocation-something he has been trying miserably to come to terms with ever since his imprisonment- even more acute.

However, this night his sleep was broken by the sound of the woman crying, even as the lights were dimming. He turned around to see her crouched on a corner, crying with her head bent.

“Today is his birthday,” she said as Nashil sat up.

“Whose birthday?”

“My son’s” said the woman, “Though it’s hard to imagine that he is my son anymore. He used to be so different, so pleasant, so human…but now, he is changing, into what I don’t know. All I know for sure is that he is changing into something hard and cold-both his body and his soul. And the more time goes by, the more he changes-drifting away from being a human, drifting away from me.”

Nashil realized that she was talking about the Octopus-Man.

When the woman opened her mouth to cry again, the light from the dimming orbs caught on her sharp white fangs, prompting Nashil to ask her something that has been on his mind ever since that night when he was pulled down into a realm of existence he couldn’t have imagined.

“How did your teeth become so? “

The woman laughed- a short chortling sound which echoed inside the small prison cell like a gasp from a ghost.

She explained to Nashil how she got the infernal-looking teeth.

“The Water-King has a nasty sense of humour. It was upon my son’s request that the King made me amphibious, so that I could come and visit my son anytime. In one of his conversations with the King, my son told him that ever since my husband died, I am like a toothless lioness-which is true, I used to be so positive about life before that. The King’s sense of humour is so different from that of a human-so he gave me these fangs, saying ‘Now she has teeth!’ and laughed and laughed at his own joke.

“But there was something even worse,” she looked up at Nashil.

“What was it?”

Before answering, a fresh bout of tears flowed out of her eyes. “My son, whom the King considers to be the future leader of the water-folk, he laughed along with him.”

The tears came uninhibited now. Had Nashil still possessed the capacity to be awed by such things he would have found the idea of tears floating around so profusely when they were beneath the surface of the lake darkly amusing. As it was, he just held the sight of the flowing tears with sympathy, considering it a reflection of the pathos which he himself felt.

But that’s not to say that the sight of the tears and the old woman’s words left him cold.

He did realize what the words implied: the Water-King spoke about a new world order with the zest of an ideologically motivated being. However, the facet of changing someone from a pleasant and simple being into a cruel and hardened individual didn’t strike Nashil as a particularly ideological thing to do.

And when the transformation is complete, what is there to ensure that the cruelty won’t spill over into the wider world, making the earth weep?

From the interactions that he had had with the water-king so far- no matter how little in number they were, Nashil was convinced that the Water-King was earnest in his belief that a new species would be a better guardian of the wonderful plant that’s earth.

But how clear was the King regarding the nature of the new species, he wasn’t sure.

The King seemed to have a naïve belief that the new amphibian species that he is perpetuating using his magic would be like the Ocean-folk themselves, fiercely loyal to the planet. When there actually existed no guarantee for that.

These thoughts have been swirling inside Nashil’s mind for a while now. But it was only when the crazy old woman spoke with tears in her eyes that the thoughts began to make a cohesive picture, giving him a logical point with which to engage in an argument with the Water-King.

The thing was, he was fast losing the powers over his mind and he knew it. “I must argue with the King. Perhaps he would see the sense in my words and release me!”

“What?”

He looked up at the woman. He didn’t know that he spoke aloud until she said the word.

Nashil shook his head. “Nothing. Why don’t you sleep?”

“They took sleep from me,” she said.

Nashil nodded. Moving closer to her, he gently placed a hand on her shoulder in a consoling gesture. He saw the fingers of the hand trembling with weakness- a far cry from the strength he possessed before this waking nightmare began.

As he felt the tremors of sadness pass through the woman’s body, the darkness of despair once again threatened to overcome him, covering his mind like one might cover a well-kept secret.

He wasn’t at all sure that making a rational argument with an octopus three storied high would yield result, or even if he would get to make his argument in the first place.

But doing that, he supposed was better than doing nothing and succumbing to this despair which deepened by the day.

As he patted softly on her head, he felt a sense of gratitude towards the old woman- after all, she was the one who spurred the thought that gave him this hope – no matter how flimsy it was.

**

The Quality-transfer procedure, notwithstanding the ambitious scope of such a practice was simple enough. At least, Nashil had come to view the process as simple.

First, the gate to the cell would grate open- the bars on the gate were so much like the ones you would find on a terrestrial prison. In would come the Octopus- Man. He wouldn’t even bother closing the gate behind him, which gave Nashil the idea that the imprisonment was more psychological than physical.

Then came what was to Nashil the best part- he would float, or rather he would be in suspended animation lying down on a bed of thin air. The old woman would stop babbling around this point and start clapping her hands, laughing loudly. She would do this every time this happened- one impressionable audience who never got tired of the same trick.

Next, the Octopus-Man would lie beside him. A few of his tentacles, elongating like ultra-flexible rubber would enter the prisoner’s nostrils and ears. At times, the tips of a couple of the tentacles would be inserted beneath his nails.

But Nashil wouldn’t feel any pain, though he did feel revolted at the idea of the tentacles prodding inside his nostrils- a feeling he couldn’t get used to, no matter how many times he felt the blubbery flesh sliding up and down within his nose.

The entire transference procedure- unseen and unheard would take place over a period of 5 minutes per session.

Nashil waited for the process to finish this time, and for the Octopus-Man to bring himself and the prisoner to a standing position before saying, “I would like to make a request.”

The Octopus-Man regarded him quietly, as though guessing what could be that the prisoner wanted to request.

He gave his assent with a barely perceptible nod. His face was an expressionless mask as he listened to what Nashil had to say. And when he spoke, his tone was business-like. “I don’t know what you aim to achieve by having an audience with the King. But of course, I do believe he wouldn’t oppose to the idea. All things considered, the Water-King is far more humane than any human ruler you might find on earth.”

Even Nashil’s mind- weakened by the life under lock and chains and the frequent draining of energy from his self found the Octopus-Man’s last statement an abomination.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am being kept as a prisoner against my wishes!, he wanted to shout.

But it was with some effort that he even breathed and he didn’t wish to expend whatever energy he had by shouting. Instead, he simply said, “Thank you” when the once-human said he would relate Nashil’s request to the king.

Without even throwing a glance at his mother once the Octopus-Man walked out of the cell.

**

Nashil didn’t feel elated when the Octopus-Man came to get him so that he could be presented to the King.

He didn’t feel anything, in fact, except for a cold numbness.

Deep inside the cold, glowing like  a dying ember was hope though- hope that the audience with the king would lead somewhere. He didn’t succumb completely to it for fear of a disappointing end result.

As he was being led out of the cave, he heard the shuffling feet of the old woman behind him.

Seeing the way the Water-King sat on the rock surrounded by the protective ring of the crabs with steel-like claws, it felt to Nashil that neither the king nor the sentries had changed position-not even by an inch since he first met them. By his own reckoning, he has been in the prison for 4 months- he had found that the gelly of the white orbs on the wall made for excellent material with which to make tally marks, making keeping a count that much easier.

He wondered for what purpose the crabs were positioned? Who or what could possibly be the enemy of the Water-King? He had experienced enough of the water-folk’s ‘magical powers’- for need of a better term to know that no natural creature of the deep would stand a chance against them in a fight(And how he wished it were different!)

“Why do you have these crabs as sentries?” he said to the King who looked at him with mildly curious eyes.

“Oh, is that why you requested for an audience? So that you could quench the thirst for knowledge about my security provisions?”

The Octopus-Man’s mother had spoken to Nashil on multiple times about the sense of humour that the King possessed. Nashil realized that now he was getting a first-hand taste of it.

“There are other creatures of our kind, Nashil,” the king said in an indulgent tone, “Ones that may not like it that we are all living here in this place so comfortably. They may want to breach into this place and take it, and whatever magic is contained here. These crabs, small in size though they may look like, are far more effective than you may think.”

Nashil looked at the red glaring eyes of the crabs, ferocious, and for need of a better word-proud. He could very well imagine them to be effective against any enemy.

“So, your species- it’s not so different from ours,” said Nashil, seeing an opportunity to make his case open up. “There are always those who wish to take and possess something that isn’t their own!”

“Oh,no!” the king suddenly bellowed. “That’s so not the case. You are not at all like us. The significant difference between humans and the water-folk is that the water-folk cares for the world we live in, for we understand that our happiness and prosperity are very much dependent on the world, and the other species that are in it!”

Before Nashil could say anything, the King continued, “That is an understanding, the significance of which your species has long forgotten. Of course, there are among you those who speak about such things but their understanding is merely intellectual.

“ For that’s all your species is reduced to these days- dry intellect, without a soul. Not that I am blaming you lot. It’s not like you could help it, at least I don’t think so. The way I see it, nature intended you lot to be like this, so that we could come and destroy you, and restore the world- so that when we truly begin to rule the earth-both above and below the surface- we would have the pride that comes from the knowledge that we did the right thing!”

Subsisting on the measly meals that they have been feeding him meant that Nashil’s mind was not nearly as sharp as it used to be. But he had no problem in sensing that there was something off about what the King said. He was unable to articulate the thoughts regarding why exactly the King was wrong. Perhaps, it’s because he got one detail about the human species wrong- that we were mere intellect without a soul.

If there’s one thing that Nashil had learned as a cop, it was that most of the heinous crimes that humans committed- and humans did commit a lot of them- were spurred by emotions and not the intellect. And crime in the human world was something which marks the perpetrator out as a permanent social outcast.

So, if at all someone does commit a crime, at some level they do it willingly giving up the participation in the social life as a human. And no one comes to such a decision with the aid of intelligence alone. Emotions- of hues ranging from the purest white to the darkest dark would invariably play.

And Nahsil knew that such dependence on emotions reflected in the positive aspects of the species as well.

“I cannot accept your argument,” he said. “You have already transformed one human into something colder and impersonal,” he pointed to the Octopus-Man. “And that is the new species that you are giving rise to- one that is even lesser than humans when it comes to empathy. You do know how distant he is from his own mother now. And he is merely a boy, and already a murderer- I saw the way he slashed my partner right in front of my eyes. How can you expect to be hopeful about the future when you are set on this path!”

The King didn’t get the opportunity to make a reply. For before that, there arose a strange sound within the cave-a sort of gargling sound.

Both the king and Nashil saw the source of the sound at the same time.

Both of them were surprised to see the old woman clamping her fangs on her son’s neck, rupturing veins, making the boy want to scream in pain. But the agony choked him hard enough to transform the intended scream into a sort of gargling sound.

The crabs acted hastily enough under the King’s command.

But they were not fast enough. By the time they jumped onto the old woman’s body, the Octopus-Man fell to the ground dead.

“I couldn’t stand seeing my son being turned into a monster from within!” the old woman shouted as she was taken down by the crabs, some of them piercing her flesh hard with their elongated claws. Staring at the king with eyes wide with anger and hatred, she screamed, “I didn’t want him to be a murderer! I hope you take no other mother’s son away like this!”

For the first time, she sounded completely sane to Nashil.

**

As soon as his head broke the surface of the water, he began to gasp. He wasn’t sure how long it took for him to swim his way up but it was long enough to make his heart ache and make him feel like it was going to burst.

The pale blue of the sky made it clear that it was twilight- whether the day was yet to come or not, he couldn’t tell though. For even the hazy twilight made his eyes-which had become accustomed to the perennially dim light of the prison cell- ache with pain.

He dragged himself out of the harbor and on to the partly dilapidated pier on the jetty.

Breathing heavily, he lied down on his back. And when his eyes fell on an eagle flying above, he almost cried.

Following the eagle with his eyes, his sight of the bird was broken by the view of a long pole on the edge of the pier-much like the pole on which the dead body of Paul Sohra was impaled once.

And with it came the memory of something that the old woman had said that night when she broke down and cried in the cell.

“Look at all the cruel things that they are doing..” she had said. “Look at how cruel they were to the boy!” At first, Nashil thought that she was talking about her son. But when she described the corpse, he realized that she was talking about Paul. “They…they did that to the boy. They knew that such an action would bring in the best minds in the police- and they wanted to see if such a mind would have a will strong enough to persevere, strong enough to keep trying till it reached the goal. It was an experiment with them-to see if it will attract such a mind. An experiment that turned out to be successful. For they did get you. Even though the case was closed officially, you never stopped trying, did you?”

Yes, I never stopped trying!

Yes, they did get me. But now they don’t! he murmured to the gentle wind that was blowing. The touch of the wind upon his skin felt like a blessing to him, or maybe like the caress of a beautiful woman.

The red glow steadily expanded from the east, ready to fill the sky with the brightness of the day.

Nashil lied on the pier for a while longer-for a few more minutes or maybe for another hour, he didn’t know- before he sat up and started slowly walking towards home.

He was hoping that once he reached the main road, he would be able to wave down a passing vehicle.

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