Agnes Chapman’s hands were overtaken by age, which is to say they were overtaken by wrinkles. But they were steady when she turned the pages of the newspaper.
As was her routine every morning, on this day too she ignored the leading pages and swifted straight to the obituary page- which was page number 14 on the Malayala Manorma.
The leading front page news piece for the day was about the latest minister who has been mired in a sex scandal. The scandal was so blown out of proportion that it could potentially topple the government- and if something affects the government, by default it affects the people too. And if something affects the ordinary people, it’s a noteworthy piece of news. But such logic was lost on Agnes.
The way she saw it, at 98 years of age, she felt much closer to the angel of death than anyone living, whether they had a sex scandal attached to their name or not.
The habit of checking the obituary pages daily began some 6 years ago when she took a fall down the flight of stairs from the first floor of his daughter’s house where she lived.
Many people started believing in miracles since that day.
There were some 10 odd stairs in the flight, each made with marble brought from Bangalore. Beautiful to behold but tough as hell. Definitely not the kind of surface which a 90+ woman should use to roll on. Heck, 90+ people are not even supposed to roll on the lushest grass in the hills of Manali!
But to everyone’s surprise, not only did Agnes survive the fall, she came out relatively unscathed. The only visible signs that something other than an eat-sit still-watch TV-sleep routine happened to heron that day were a split lip and a scratch on her right upper elbow.
Though she was told repeatedly by her doctor that she was fine (and she herself felt so) from that day on, Agnes felt closer to death. Much much closer, taking the fall down the stairs as a sign of even worse things to come.
Not that anything even remotely bad like that happened to her ever since.
The closest she came to an accident after that was when she tried to shoo away a stray cat from the compound and almost lost her balance and fell.
But Agnes still continued the tradition which she started on the day next to when she fell down the stairs- of checking the obit pages, to see if someone she knew has passed away.
Agnes lived with her daughter Dorothy who herself was a good 62 years old. Dorothy moved to Trivandrum more than a decade ago when she had to sell her home in Puthukuruchy to raise the dowry for the last of her three daughter’s wedding.
There was no point in staying in her home town after that, she felt.
If she stayed back, she would have to move to a rented apartment which would be smaller than the home that she used to own and where she had lived for decades. That would attract snickers from her enemies(or ‘non-well wishers’ might be an apt term) in town.
Another reason was that the printing press where she worked as a secretary shut down around that time. This meant she had to find a new job. And jobs were comparatively plentiful in Trivandrum than in the small coastal town of Puthukutichy which lied some 30 kilometers northeast of the Trivandrum city.
So she moved. And along with her came her mother, Agnes, who didn’t want her daughter to be all alone in the city. That, and the fact that none of her other children expressed interest in taking care of an old mother.
Dorothy was in the kitchen, making dosas for breakfast while Agnes was siting on a chair in the porch, going through the faces in the obituary pages with the diligence of a computer programmer picking through lines of code to find out where an error occurred.
Despite her age, Agnes’ eyesight was still strong- something she attributed to years of breathing fresh oceanic breeze while she lived in Puthukurichy. And her memory, though it has seen better days, hasn’t deteriorated to the point where she mistook a talcum powder tin for an umbrella. So, if ever there was someone who could identify someone she has known for years from a blurry picture on an obit page, it was her.
And she did find one familiar face.
And when she did so, an involuntary gasp escaped her.
She took a closer look at the man’s face. The last time she saw him, he was younger by decades. Age had made the skin on his face sag and one of his eyes looked smaller than the other- maybe he had a stroke or something, but there was no mistaking the fact that it was the picture of Ronald Gomez .
A quick glance through the small column of words by the picture confirmed this. Ronald Gomez. Age 95. Died the previous day. A special memorial service was to be held this coming Sunday(Agnes was reading this on a Monday).
All those details didn’t mean anything to Agnes except for the fact that he was dead. To her surprise, she felt a twinge of sadness tweak her heart like a pincer.
Not wishing to give into the sadness, she quickly turned the pages to the entertainment section where they always had some beautiful looking actress flaunting her curvatures in a body-hugging piece.
Agnes has always been an admirer of women who knew how to keep their curves in shape, especially since the first ever television was brought to her household in 1993. She herself had become sloppy in keeping in shape around her middle ages- her middle began to widen after her second birth and picking up on the exercises from where she dropped them more than ten months ago proved to be hard.
She found just the picture she was looking for. A golden haired Hollywood actress standing in profile looking at the camera. She had a body that men would die for and a smile that would kill them.
Some ten minutes later, as she was reading the fashion secrets as told by the beautiful actress in the picture, she has all but forgotten about the death of Ronald Gomez.
She was reminded of the death again the next Monday. When she saw the obituary repeated on that day’s paper.
The same picture with similar information- passed away yesterday, a special memorial to be held this Sunday. But of course, the dates were different.
In all her years of diligent obituary combing, Agnes has never come across such a mistake before. Her first reaction was amusement, thinking how curiously brutal fate would be if someone were to suffer death repeatedly.
But the amusement soon changed to a strange sense of sorrow as she began to think that the repeated announcement of the same death was somehow meant to remind her what happened all those years ago.
They were lovers. And they were young.
Puthukuruchy wasn’t exactly the most liberal of places. But Agnes didn’t care. She just wanted to roam around the town with her lover- the blue eyed chap who runs the ration shop in town, who was 3 years younger to her and whose smile could make you feel like the last column of air has been sucked from your body.
In fact, it was Ronald who expressed his concern at being “chided by the people” for them being so…loose.
And one day, or night to be precise, when Agnes offered herself to him behind a blue boat on the beach, he declined the offer, gently yet firmly, saying how he believed they should wait until after the wedding before he deflowered her. “Because I love you and would love you to marry me,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. The first time someone proposed to her.
Of course, Agnes had no issues with marrying him. She knew that her parents wouldn’t be glad about her marrying the guy who runs a ration shop. They were supposedly better than his family-both socially and financially. But she was sure that if she insisted, she could bring them around to her point of view.
But before she could inform her parents about Ronald’s proposal the next day, they told her something. About this ‘nice young chap’ whom her father met. The chap worked in Ceylon for a big company. He was from the next town and they knew his family. Great family. The chap was handsome as well. They showed her a photograph. Usually, her parents were poor judges of such things as handsomeness but in this case, she found that they got their judgement right. With a long forehead and seductive eyes, not to mention the oval shape of the face, the man looked as delectable as a puppy.
If he were to marry her, he would bring her to Ceylone where they would live for many years.
She did live in Ceylone. Not for many years but for the first two years of their marriage, after which they returned as the man wanted to run a business of his own- a stationery shop that sold everything from sarees to writing board for children who went to school- the first of its kind in the history of Puthukurichy.
With the sizeable amount of money that he had amassed from his short yet productive working life in Ceylone, he built a beautiful, not to mention huge house in Puthukurichy.
He made four healthy children in Agnes. All in all, it was a successful relationship. The only glitch was that the man died of a heart attack at the comparatively younger age of 52. But even that was not a disaster- he did leave behind a reasonably good sum of money for Agnes. That Agnes’ children(other than Dorothy) managed to squeeze that money dry of her before she could say ‘Jesus!’ or even ‘Lord!’ was because of her own lack of foresight and her overt belief in the ideal that ‘blood never betrays blood.’
Anyway, when her father first talked to her about the ‘nice young chap’ who worked in Ceylone, all of this was still in the future. Before any of it could come true, she still had to inform a certain blue eyed Ronald Gomez something- that she realized what she mistook for true love was just an infatuation, and so their relationship was off.
You can bet Ronald didn’t take this particular bit of information too well.
Couple of years later, when Agnes returned with her husband from Ceylone to settle in Puthukurichy, she found that Ronald was still a bachelor. Decades later, when she left her home town for good with Dorothy, he was still a bachelor. Of course, by that time he was kind of on the wrong side of the wrinkle count to be considered wedding-worthy.
And his obituary mentioned that he was survived by his sister. A man who died a bachelor, it seems.
Agnes wondered if she was to blame for it.
She also wondered if someone was poking fun of her for having so mercilessly walked out of a relationship by putting out his obituary twice, knowing fully well she would see them.
A thought that didn’t make any sense. But at her age, thoughts that didn’t make sense were not as rare as an Olympics for elephants.
Her vague yet illogical idea that someone was playing with her emotions by the repeated obits of Ronald Gomez gave way to full pledged panic at the thought that she was going mad when the obit appeared the third consecutive Monday. This time too, they got the dates screwed up- mentioning he died just the previous day and that the special memorial was to happen on the coming Sunday.
“Ammachi, are you okay?” Dorothy asked when she came with a glass of lemon tea for her mother. Agnes was breathing heavily and her eyes looked like they were ready to pop out of the head.
“I am fine. I just need that lemon tea to relax!”
Agnes said hastily. One of her greatest worries in life was getting confined in a home for senile old people where she might rot into oblivion, away from the eyes of all loved one, taken care of(somewhat) by a nurse who couldn’t even look after her own body shape. So Agnes was extra-cautious about not giving any sign of senility.
Dorothy eyed her mother with a suspicious look, as though wondering if the older woman was hiding something from her. But she didn’t say anything.
“Where is Alan?” Agnes said.
“Asleep,” Dorothy said, even as she turned and started walking to the kitchen.
“Doesn’t he have school today?” Agnes called after her.
“You mean college. No, he said he’s taking a day off!” Dorothy called back without stopping.
“You can do that?” said Agnes, surprise in her voice.
“Apparently, you can,” Dorothy said before disappearing into the kitchen.
Holding the folded newspaper in her hand, Agnes knocked on Alan’s bedroom door.
On the first knock, the door wasn’t opened. On the second knock, the same.
Without bothering to knock a third time, Agnes pushed the door open and entered the room.
The room was small but cozy, with a bed and a table lamp and a wardrobe the prominent pieces of furniture. The windows were curtained over, so it was rather dark even though by now the sun has risen enough to show that it meant business.
Alan was lying in the bed, a fist resting on his forehead as though he were thinking in his sleep. He was clad in a pair of boxer shorts and the blanket looked like it was pushed off his body sometime during the night. Agnes did notice the erection that bulged within the blue boxer shorts of her great grandson(though old, her eyesight’s still pretty sharp). But she decided to ignore it and tapped Alan on the shoulder with the folded newspaper.
Alan came out of his sleep slowly. But once his eyes fell on his great grandma’s face, he came fully awake, his eyes suddenly filled with concern. “Ammachi, is anything wrong?”
Alan called his own mother mommy. His grandmother- his mother’s mother, ie Dorothy, he called Amma. And he called his great-grandmother ammachi. All the three designations meant the same thing: mother.
“No, no, nothing is wrong,” Agnes said hurriedly. “Except that something may be. I would like you to come help me with something.”
Baffled by what Agnes said, Alan followed her out after putting on a T-shirt.
“What are you two up to?” Dorothy asked when she saw the both of them walking into the store-room adjacent to the kitchen where she was working.
“Ammachi needs to find an old newspaper,” called out Alan.
The newspaper that she needed- or rather the papers, for she needed them for two dates were soon found from the pile of old newspapers kept in the store-room. Agnes led Alan to the porch where she showed him the curious case of the repeated obits.
“Wow, that is strange!” muttered Alan as soon as he saw them. “So, you knew this person?”
Agnes just nodded, and as though she wanted to change the topic, added, “What do you think happened?”
Alan was in his third semester at the engineering college. His stream was computer engineering which he hated absolutely. He was staying with his grandmother in Trivandrum because his own home was in Kollam and the college where he got the admission was in Nedumangad- some 20 kilometers from his grandmother’s home in Trivandrum.
He dreamed of becoming a writer one day. A published writer who earned his keep from his craft. Though he did express his wish to join journalism after finishing plus two, he was discouraged by his parents. “Computer engineering could help you reach America!” said his father who was a huge fan of that nation, though he has never been there himself. “Besides, you know that we would need some good money in a few years’ time!” added his mother.
His mother’s remark was in relation to the financial turmoil that the family was going through at the time. His father-who ran a bicycle shop had incurred serious loss in business for reasons that were not his fault. Well, at least, not completely. And to recover completely from that set-back they would need a few years of steady pay-offs being made to those to whom they were indebted. A computer engineering degree would help Alan get a high paying job early on in his career, so that he could help his parents pay off all the debt.
Of course, Alan didn’t have anything to counter such a logical piece of argument. So, reminding himself that most of his writer heroes, from Dostoesvsky to Ramsey Campbell didn’t have an educational background in the writing, he attended the engineering entrance, and later got admission to a college in Trivandrum.
It was while he was in the fifth semester at the college that his father won the lottery.
Alan’s father has been buying one lottery ticket per month consistently for the last twenty years- and who has never won even once, not even a 10 rupee. Until he won the third prize of Rs.20 lakhs this time around. The amount was more than enough to cover the debts he had to pay.
He was overjoyed. His wife was overjoyed. But his only son Alan-he didn’t derive too much happiness from it.
Or rather, he did, only that happiness was so mingled with a sadness that you could hardly tell one from the other. He was sad thinking how if the lottery had happened earlier, he may not have had to join the engineering course. He could have pursued his passion for writing by taking up a course related to it.
He was sad because now that he was already in the fifth semester, and had just three more to go, his parents urged him to continue and not do anything drastic like drop out and join a journalism program.
The thing was, the art of coding- though it had a puzzle solving quality wasn’t quite as enthralling as reading The telltale heart, or The wind in the willows, for that matter.
But he did find solace in the city of Trivandrum. The capital of Kerala was also culturally vibrant- if you liked books and were okay with reading subtitles on foreign language movies. Film screenings and book festivals were not rare, if not frequent, and these were venues that offered Alan the chance to meet people who shared his own interests- in the arts and writing.
He met many interesting people this way. And a small percentage of them became his good friends. A good percentage of these friends happened to work in the media, surprisingly or not.
“I know a guy- a journalist who works in the Malayla Manorama,” he said to Agnes. “I will ask him to check this out for us. I’m rather sure that this must be some mistake that the paper made..” he added, eyeing the three obituaries.
Agnes nodded. She asked him not to tell Dorothy about it. “At least not yet.”
“Why is that?” said Alan.
She told him it’d be better if they waited until they learned what this was all about. “After all, we don’t want Dorothy to worry, do we?”
What his great-grandma was saying didn’t make any sense to Alan. But he nodded and agreed to her request. He knew that the old woman (“the ancient one” which was the nickname he and his cousins had given her)is given to certain idiosyncrasies at times.
He also knew that she loved her daughter like she were still a small child- though Dorothy had crossed the 60 age mark.
The enquiry at the newspaper turned up nothing much.
Except that it was the first time that something like that happened in the newspaper. Also that the obit was a paid insertion all the three times. The same person had apparently made the payment on all the occasions.
When Agnes was told the name of the person who made the payment, it didn’t ring a bell. Not even after drinking lemon tea which usually helps her focus her mind.
“Maybe it’s one of his relatives whom I don’t know, “ she said.
Alan nodded. The two of them were seated on the porch. It was night and a cool wind was blowing. Alan was lost in thought. Being an avid reader of fiction, he liked a mystery more than the next guy. And he was transfixed by the mystery of the person who would run the same person’s obit thrice mentioning three separate dates of death.
Even more fixated on the mystery than Alan was Agnes in the ensuing days.
The thought of someone playing a prank on her kept nagging her mind. Someone who knew how she betrayed Ronald’s love. Someone who knew she read the Malayala Manorama every day. Someone who knew she was an avid reader of obits in the daily.
She thought, day in and out, about the possible people in her life who would know all these things- so that she could make a shortlist of the suspects.
But she couldn’t think of a single person like that. If someone knew her obsession with reading the obits, they didn’t know of the episode between her and Ronald from decades back. And if they knew about the ‘love-not love’ episode, they didn’t know which daily she read.
Which should have led her to the conclusion that there was nothing going on like what she feared- there was no malicious prankster at work, no deviant personality who wished to cause her psychological harm in the twilight of her life.
But that’s not how it worked out, as her mind kept clinging to the idea that there was someone out there who was laughing right at this moment, even as she kept rolling on her bed, unable to sleep, thinking about who it could be that would want to cause her distress like this.
For man is not a completely rational being. And an old woman who lives in fear of dying any day, even less so.
“Alan, can you do me a favour?”
It was the second time in a week’s time that Alan found his great grandmother waking him up from his sleep. It was a Sunday morning. Having gone to sleep late last night after staying awake, reading a collection of stories by Kafka, he would have liked to sleep in for a while longer.
But the look of worry in his great grannie’s eyes suggested urgency. Even before she said anything, he figured it had something to do with ‘The Mystery of The Multiple Obits’-which was the tentative title of the book he has envisioned in his mind about the entire episode- an ode to the adventure books he used to read as a teenager in which ordinary kids tried to solve mysteries.
“Would you do me a favour?” she said again.
Alan nodded, partly as an answer, partly an effort to clear his head of the cobwebs of sleep which still clung adamantly.
“Can you drive me to Puthukurichy?” said Agnes, lowering her voice even though there was no one else in the room. “I would like to see what the thing is about the Ronald Gomez obituaries. I am unable to get proper sleep because I kept thinking of it and can’t stop.” This last part, she said so softly that Alan had to cock an ear and strain to make out the words.
“So, you knew this person really well? I don’t remember you ever mentioning about him..You or anyone on the family, actually..”
That’s because I haven’t told anyone- not even to my own children, not even after my husband’s death, , she thought. But she remained silent, eyeing Alan with round eyes which looked like they were ready to pop tears. Aside from the wobbly walk, old folks and small kids have something else in common- the power to pull off the most pathos-inducing look in the universe.
Not that such a look was needed for Alan to get enthused about the idea of driving down to Puthikurichy to investigate the mystery. In fact, he was hoping for something like this- something that would be a break from the mind-numbing mundanity that was modern professional education, something that would help him stay awake and alert during the day, unlike sitting, sedated with boredom in the classroom.
“So, can you do this for me?” Agnes said, as though she was a death-row prisoner expressing her final wish.
“Of course, I would, ammachi!” said Alan, being displeased with the pleading tone that she was using.
Ammachi was the one who used to tell him bedtime stories as a child. Amma(i.e. Dorothy) too was a pretty good story-teller but it was Ammachi’s stories that got under the skin of your mind and stayed there- mostly because she told the darkest stories- the ones in which the princess may end up being devoured by a dragon and her bones spat out into a lake of lava, what with the prince being late to the rescue.
The last thing he wanted to hear from such an enchanted storyteller was a pleading tone.
But her next question surprised him.
“So, can we go?”
Agnes thought for a while before adding, “Maybe we shall wait till breakfast. And don’t tell Dorothy about the reason for the trip. You haven’t told her about the obits, have you?”, she said, worry wrinkling even more her already wrinkled face.
“Why this sudden impulse to visit papa’s grave?” Dorothy said as she poured more sambar onto the idlis on her mother’s plate.
Agnes looked at her, exercising her full powers of pulling off the most pathos-inducing look in the universe. “I just have a feeling, dear girl, a feeling that I don’t have too long left on the Earth. And I just want to reach out to my husband in my time of fear, just like when he used to be alive, you know what I mean, don’t you?”
Dororthy did.She too was a widow, after all. So much so that she was on the brink of tears herself. “Such a romantic couple you both made!” she said, hugging her mother.
Agnes hugged her back. She winked at Alan who sat in the opposite chair, crushing a soft idli with his fingers, looking at the curious antics of his grandma and great-grannie with an amused smile on his lips.
Puthukurichy isn’t all that far from Triandrum. It’s just under 20 kiometers away. But the drive so far felt longer than that to Alan.
Unlike many of his peers, Alan didn’t enjoy driving.
The way he saw it, driving was like reading while looking at the empty margins of a book. Travelling is so much like reading, but for that, you need to have your eyes free enough to roam around, taking in the passing sceneries and the people on the streets and what they were doing- for these things were the words you could read. And the road which you focused on while you drove, that’s the empty blanks.
Well, not so empty given the appalling traffic conditions that could be seen in Trivandrum, like what he was presently experiencing as he swiveled the car onto the next lane so that he could get better leeway. Not until he reached Kariavottom was he able to come out of the clutches of the traffic. And the drive from thereon- through the suburbs went smooth.
Coming out of the traffic for good also had an effect on Agnes who began to breathe easily. This also put her in a talkative mood. And one of the first things she said was, “Thank God Dorothy had that prayer meet to attend today. I don’t know what I could have said if she had said she wanted to join us. I could hardly stop her from coming to her own father’s graveyard, can I?” Agnes cackled as though she just made an incredible joke.
This was one of the reasons why Alan loved his ammachi so much. Even though the woman has already lived at least two decades longer than most people could ever hope to live, she still had a small-girl vibe. For a young person like Alan, the possibility of retaining such simplicity of the mind even at such advanced ages was a source of hope- something that made him look forward to life rather than treat it like an eventual tragedy- something you know has only pain and death written in the last act.
“Why are you so adamant about keeping this whole thing a secret from amma?” he said, not taking his eyes off the blank margin in front of him.
Agnes took a deep breath. For a moment or two, she appeared lost in thoughts, a glazed look coming over her eyes. The kind of look which made Alan wonder if she even heard his question.
But Agnes did hear it. She was thinking whether she should tell him or not.
Now that he’s helping me out, driving me all the way there, it’s only fair that I should tell him, she decided.
And so she told him. Alan listened closely to every word that she said. And with every word, he found the story more exciting.
“Are you serious? This guy was your lover?!” he exclaimed once she completed her story.
“Shh..not so loud!” she said.
“But there’s no one else in the car!” said Alan.
“But still, I don’t like to hear those words out loud,” said Agnes in a chiding tone. “You are the first one I am telling this in decades, you know!”
“So, that’s why you didn’t want amma to know about this…” Alan’s words trailed off and silence settled inside the small car. A milestone they were passing mentioned the remaining distance to Puthukurichy to be j 3 kilometers.
Even though the AC was on in the car, the harsh sunlight fell through the windshield with an intensity that made the skin on Alan’s hands feel like burning.
The silence was broken some two kilometers after the milestone. It was broken when Agnes said, in a raspy voice, “You will have to take the next right turn. On the left hand side in that lane is the church. We should stop there. Now that we are here, I would visit my husband’s grave,” she added in a lowered tone.
Agnes walked towards the cemetery which was on the western corner of the church with slow but steady steps.
Locking the car behind her where he left it parked under a tree, Alan followed. The heat was near unbearable but Agnes looked like she didn’t care. She kept her gaze steadily trained on the cemetery like she were looking through the lens of a sniper gun and had her target locked. Alan walked a couple of steps behind her.
He wasn’t the sentimental type but he did think that this gesture of his great-grandmother bitter-sweet: visiting her dead husband’s grave on the way to investigate the death of her ex-lover.
Agnes reached her husband’s grave in a couple of minutes. Wanting to give her some private space, Alan stood a few paces behind her, his hands clasped in front of his crotch in a reverential stance.
Almost all the graves in the cemetery were overgrown with weed, including that of Agnes’ husband’s. Normally, a relative would come and visit a dead person’s grave on All Saint’s day every year- which was when they would get the grave cleaned by someone. The entire cemetery would reverberate with the sound of shovels and weed cutters on that day- some auditory animation in the otherwise desolate existence of the dead.
It’s been more than 5 months since last All Saint’s Day and it showed in every tomb in the cemetery that overlooked a big sand-filled field where kids play and grown up men came out to smoking cigarette and playing poker in the evenings.
Feeling bored standing still, looking at Agnes’ back as she stood still in front of the grave, Alan moved around, began walking through the maze created by the tombs. He derived a lot of amusement from reading the various names on the tombstones, especially the ones that belonged to people from the previous generations. Gloria Ramone. Janver Echsberg. Poirot John. Noldic Chapman. The kind of names you would only associate with Europeans.
Though there lived people from all religions and communities in the coastal town, Puthukurichy was mostly a Christian town. Alan remembered someone- his grannie or great grannie, he couldn’t remember whom, telling him how the Christian missionaries visited Puthukurichy quite early in the history of India and so “We are the descendants of some of the first Christians in India! We should be proud!”
He had a feeling that that was an exaggeration.
For in none of his readings of history has he come across a tidbit like that. Most probably, they just cooked up that story so that they could have something to be proud of, even if it’s a constructed lineage. He knew how his ancestors-grand fathers and great-grandfathers of Agnes, were fishermen, and how much they must have struggled for their progeny to be able to reach a point when they have enough expendable income to go on a trip chasing a ghost-which was what Agnes’ ex-lover was at this point.
Amidst such thoughts, Alan’s eyes were caught by one grave in particular.
Not because it didn’t have a proper tombstone in place- there were quite a few graves like that, but because it appeared clean. No weeds or plants grew around or near it. From the slight difference in the colour of the soil, he surmised that the grave was recently dug, its content a dead body that exited life not long ago.
His suspicion was confirmed when he saw the date of death on the make-shift plank at the head of the grave. It mentioned a date some three weeks ago. But it was the name above it which had him excited: Ronald Gomez.
“Ammachi!” he called in a loud voice, forgetting in his excitement that you ought to abstain from using loud voices in the cemetery. Next to the church, a cemetery is the place that people regard as the most worthy of reverence- mindful never to curse or pee when you’re there- even if there was one around.
Agnaes came to Alan’s side. Alan pointed out the name on the plank. Her gasp, even though soft was audible.
“It’s the same date as the one on the first obituary,” she commented. The two of them exchanged a glance, each having the same thought.
“So, I guess the rest of the two obits were a mistake, after all,” said Alan.
Agnes looked at the grave-which was essentially a mount of dirt, again.
She reckoned that someone must have arranged a proper tombstone to be built over it. At least, she hoped so. Though no embers of the love for him existed in her heart any more, the moments of intimacy that they once shared with each other were strong enough to make her emotional about him, the passage of time notwithstanding.
“We forgot to bring flowers,” she said. Catching the look in Alan’s eyes, she added, “For my dear husband, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” said Alan. “In fact, there’s something that I could maybe do about it.” He had seen a tree with yellow flowers standing at one corner of the cemetary, as though the tree were asked to stand in the corner as a punishment by a school teacher, bearing the burden of flowers as extra-punishment.
He currently ran up to it, plucked off a few flowers. They didn’t have long stems like the flowers one usually put on a grave, but they were large-each almost as large as his hand.
“I don’t know if these are appropriate grave flowers,” he said, handing the loot to Agnes. Agnes looked at the flowers and then at her great grandson. “You are a good boy, Alan,” she beamed.
Before leaving the cemetery, she left the flowers on her husband’s grave. Just before loosening the finger-clasp around the last of the flowers, she hesitated, just for a moment, wondering if she should let her old lover have that one flower.
No, that wouldn’t be appropriate, she decided.
She didn’t expect to live for a long time still(She hasn’t been expecting that for the last three decades, but that’s a different thing altogether). She expected to be united with her husband shortly in heaven. And she didn’t want him to question her loyalty when she reached there.
Yes, let all the flowers be for my hubby!
“Is there any point in us going forward with this?” Alan said as soon as the both of them were back in the car. “The first obituary evidently got things right.”
“Yes, but someone did ask the newspaper to run the next two obits.”
Alan nodded at Agnes’ words. Without another word, he keyed in the ignition and moved the car forward.
“Let me know the way,” he said.
“My memory may be hazy. So we may come across a dead end or two, but here we go,” Agnes said.
Alan smiled, once again appreciating the youthful spirit of the old girl.
They reached the house in under ten minutes.
To Agnes’ surprise, her memory served her well and they didn’t encounter a single dead end or a wrong lane on the way. The only thing left to be seen was whether Ronald Gomez had lived all his life in the same place where he used to live when he was 25.
The house had changed, of course. The one in Agnes’ memory was a thatched single-storied building with the branches of a mango tree arching above it. But the one she beheld as she got out of the car was a green-painted single storied terraced house. The mongo tree seemed to have been cut down. In it’s place there was a chicken coop, though she could see no chickens in it.
The house had a desolate appearance. No footwear on the front steps to indicate anyone was in. The front door remained shut and there were no pets to be seen, no “Beware of dogs” sign. Not that Ronald had pets when they were having the affair.
But the gate wasn’t locked. Alan looked for a calling bell switch outside the gate. Not finding one, he proceeded to open the gate. Nodding to Agnes to follow, he walked in.
He did find a calling bell switch- an old dirtied switch which felt more like rubber than anything else under his finger when he pressed on it.
Almost a minute later, the door opened. It was an old man. He stood somewhat stooped but his face was full of life- radiant and animated. When he smiled, Alan was surprised to see that the old man had a full set of teeth. Not only that, they looked sparkly white.
Whoever the old man is, he’s not going to die of dental hygiene issues, thought Alan.
“Yes? Who are you, I am sorry, my memory may not be as good as it used to be,” the old man said jovially, as though relating an extra-ordinary joke.
Alan was about to say something when he heard Agnes gasp behind him.
In the preceding few moments, Agnes had moved forward, so that she could take a closer look at the man’s face. Yes, his head had gone completely bald, and the wrinkles on his face practically made a mask over the youthfulness which he once possessed. But there was no doubt in her mind that it was Ronald himself.
The blue eyes were the first tell tale sign. Those eyes which she has never really forgotten, eyes, sparkling and possessing of a depth that could only be said as sublime.
“Ronald!” she gasped.
Alan looked at her, and so did the old man. He moved out from the shade within the house. He held a palm over his forehead to block the sunlight that fell on his eyes. He took a closer look at the woman who just uttered his name.
He kept looking at her for almost a full minute before lowering his hand. He took a step back in to the house so that he was no more in the sun’ line of fire.
“I am sorry. I don’t know who you are,” he said. The helpless expression on his face put in Agnes’ mind thoughts of a helpless puppy.
She smiled sweetly. “It’s me, Agnes,” she said.
It took the old man a few seconds to recognize the name. And when he did, his eyes widened in surprise, which made him look even cuter in Agnes’ eye.
“So, you never married?” said Agnes.
Ronald shook his head, smilingly as though this were yet another joke to be enjoyed.
They were in the living room- a small but comfortable space with sofas and a tea poe. A couple of indoor plants lightened the mood though there was no television to be found. Alan tried to recall when was the last time he was in a house with no television but he couldn’t remember.
He sat beside Agnes on the long sofa- the one with the striped throw pillows on it, sipping the cool lemonade which was made by a man who was supposedly the servant. The man looked to be around 40, with a thin moustache that dropped around the edges and a strong penetrating gaze.
Ronald had introduced the man as Golver before asking him to make lemonade for the guests. There was something unnerving about him which Alan couldn’t put a finger on.
Even as they sat chatting in the living room, Golver stood behind Ronald, leaning against a wall, not quite looking at anyone but still giving the impression that he was observant of everything. There was a certain detachment to him which could only be described as other-worldly
“So, what brings you to my home?” Ronald was saying.
He was still very much the jolly character he was when he opened the door. If there existed any resentment in him for what Agnes did to him, he didn’t show it.
Agnes looked at Alan, silently asking with her eyes, ‘Do you wanna explain it to you?’
Alan sat stone faced which was his way of saying, ‘I am cool, thank you. This entire thing is too weird for me, anyway.’
Agnes apparently got his message for she took a sigh and began speaking to Ronald about what brought her to his home.
Ronald sat listening to what she said with rapt attention.
Once the story ended, he looked at Glover and smiled. A smile the meaning of which Alan couldn’t fathom.
Agnes sat with a curious expression on her face, eager to learn what Ronald had to say.
“Would you like some more lemonade?,” Ronald said.
Agnes shook her head. “We are coming from the cemetery where we just saw your grave. I think an explanation would be more fun than a lemonade right now,” she said.
Ronald looked at Alan and Alan nodded. ‘Whatever the old girl says,’ the nod seems to be saying.
“Okay,” Ronald said, nodding himself. His voice was feeble, so his listeners had to lean in to hear. Glover though stood in the same position, leaning against the wall, nary an expression on his face.
“First of all,” Ronald began, “I must say that I’m touched by you taking time to come all the way down here and check up on me. I truly am touched by that. But I wasn’t expecting anyone to notice the three obituaries in a row. That’s why I gave it in the city edition- I don’t really know anyone who lives in the city. No friends, no relatives..My only sibling- she now lives in the gulf with her family. So, I thought no one would notice it. Guess we were wrong..” This last, he said to Glover, who nodded at Ronald’s words.
Turning back to Agnes, the old man continued, “Now that you have come all the way, I must tell you the truth. Otherwise, what sort of a host would I be? So, here is the thing- there is an afterlife. You know how your ghost is supposed to be immortal whereas you- or rather your body is confined to rot away six feet under? Well, there exists a way to reverse the process- to kill the ghost and render the body immortal. Now, you might be thinking why someone would want to do that, right?”
In fact, neither Agnes nor Alan were thinking of anything like that. They were both thinking the same thing though :The man has gone bonkers in his old age. Alan now realized why Golver looked so aloof and detached- caring for a senile person takes an immense measure of detachment.
“Think about it!” Ronald was speaking excitedly, “What good could possibly come from immortality if you’re a ghost. You cannot enjoy any of the fruits of living- like food or a good swim. You are a mere ghost who floats around in the ether, always one step away from being non-existent. On the other hand, if you were your own self- your body, and you were immortal, you could enjoy a lot! Which is why I killed my ghost and granted immortality to myself!” Ronald waved an arm down in front of his body, as though he himself were a magic trick.
The look on his face was one of expectation. He expected his audience to get as excited as himself.
“I just revealed to you arguably the biggest secret about human life and you two just sit there like I told you nothing!” he exclaimed, passing a glance to Glover saying ‘Can you believe these people?’
Turning back to his audience, he said, “If you are wondering how this mighty secret has anything to do with the three obituaries that you saw, then wait no more for the answer! The afterlife too has its rules, and one important rule is that once you have captured a ghost, you should announce to the world on three separate occasions-once every week after the capture, about your own demise. The dates in the obituary must correspond to the dates in which the ghost passes through the stages of death. Oh, don’t look too baffled! There’s nothing to it- you see, once a ghost is captured, it finishes one stage of death every week, for the three weeks since capture. But it would only truly die unless you kill it!”
Ronald saw that despite his best intentions, his explanation has only baffled them more.
“I understand that all of this might sound confusing to you, but…but, well, I can show it to you, if you are interested. I think that would be the best way for you to understand!” Ronald looked eagerly from Agnes to Alan and back again.
Agnes looked at Golver as though saying, ‘Is there any medication that you can give him at moments like these?’
Golver didn’t even look in her direction though. He had his eyes firmly fixed on nothing and everything at the same time.
“Of course, we could do this only if you subscribe to my idea of bodily immortality being superior of ghostly immortality,” Ronald was saying. From his wide eyes and the abruptness with which he kept nodding his head, Alan felt that the old man would be a great fit for the role of a mad scientist in a movie.
For the first time since she entered the house, Agnes felt sympathy towards Ronald. After all, he was a man she used to love at one point of time. Now, seeing him senile like this in his old age was not a pretty sight. That too when he was actually younger than her!
So she listened with a smile, nodding enthusiastically as he spoke about how he fooled everyone in the town by having Golver arrange a life-like dummy of Ronald which they buried, saying that Ronald died of a heart attack. “Now, I am free, immortal, ready to enjoy life for ever and ever more!” Ronald was saying. “And it’s all thanks to a chance encounter with Golver that I came to this wonderful position! He is also an immortal. We ran into each other at the hospital one day. He was an orderly there. I was admitted for a while and we became good friends. I was diagnosed with…with something that could have killed me. That’s when Golver told me about the Way Out- the method by which you could ennoble the body, make it indestructible! Oh, don’t look at my frail looking body like that, thinking how could it possibly be indestructible! There’s more to things than meets the eye! Anyway, when Golver first told me about the Way Out, I thought he must be mad. But I didn’t have any better choice, and also I trusted him. So, I went with it. And here we are!”
Here we all are!, thought Alan. In the house of a mad old man who ran multiple obituary columns for his own death, on a Sunday afternoon when he could have been having a post lunch siesta. Sundays, Dorothy made chicken biryani. He wanted nothing more than to get out of the house and leave, reach home and have the biryani along with some pomegranate juice(his favourite) before going to sleep.
He tried to wordlessly communicate this idea to Agnes with gestures.
But Agnes wasn’t looking at him. She had her eyes on her ex-lover, sympathetic eyes, eyes brimming with emotions, eyes that sought the answer from the universe for the question: ‘Why, oh, why, would you make people lose their goods in their old age? I remember how wonderful a human being Ronald was. And now, he is reduced to being this fool who mumbles about the afterlife and killing ghosts!’ She thanked the universe for bring benevolent to her, by not bestowing upon her senility.
The universe remained silent, offering no responses. Agnes prayed to Jesus to make Ronald better.
She has been a devout Catholic ever since she could remember. And she went to the church every Sunday unless there was something that rendered it impossible, like a heavy fever or if one of her non-Christian friends dropped in unannounced. At least, she used to be a regular church goer until the flight of stairs in front of the church building got to be too many in number for her arthritic legs. But even then, she didn’t stop the habit of attending a mass- thanks to the miracle of the television.
All this meant that she must have gathered quite some currency from heaven which she could transact for some services. The service that she presently sought was the cure of Ronald. In fact, she was so confident of the power of praying which years of devotion must have granted her that soon as she was done praying, she looked at Ronald expecting him to be cured.
But the mad gleam- or what Agnes took to be one, in Ronald’s eyes remained. Agnes felt her heart melting. She has come this far to see him. Why not indulge him? Just like you would indulge a young child even if you know that the kid was being unwantedly adamant.
There’s something about kids and senile old people that melts her heart. She could never put a finger on what exactly it was but she was pretty sure it wasn’t the poor control they have over bowel movements.
“Okay, show me,” said Agnes, softly, in her most indulgent tone.
Realizing that it’d be a good idea to break his silence now, Alan spoke, or rather whispered to his great grandmother. “Ammachi, it could be a better idea for you not to do it.” Even as he was speaking, he could feel the old man’s eyes on him. But he didn’t care.
There was no doubt that the old man was mad. And he didn’t want his ammachi to get hurt because of the man. Sure, the man has not done anything to indicate he was dangerously senile. In fact, the frail looking man was one of the most amicable persons he has some across in recent times(He wished the teachers and professors in his college were like this, minus the senility, of course).
But the apparent harmlessness of the man notwithstanding, Alan didn’t want his ammachi to take any risks.
Ammachi though looked chill about the whole thing.
Giving Alan a smile of reassurance, she said, “Don’t worry, darling. He obviously is gone in the head. A tragedy of old age. Now, the least I can do, as an old friend, is indulge his whims.” She spoke in a soft tone, partly to soothe Alan but also because she didn’t wish Ronald to hear her.
Without waiting to hear Alan’s response, she turned towards Ronald. “Come, Roanld, show me.”
Alan didn’t wait for anyone to invite him. He just tagged along with the trio- Ronald at the front, walking with the aid of a stick though the stick looked more ornamental than functional. The bottom of the stick rarely touched the ground. Following him closely was Agnes, with a curious smile on her face as though she were a little kid about to play hide and seek with her peers.
Golver walked behind the two old people, his strides confident and calm unlike the shaky walk of the old people. Bringing up the rear was Alan. He felt that something was amiss about this whole thing. If what Ronald said was the ramblings of a senile old man, why was he being so calm? Senile people were not this methodical, where they?
Ronald led them to a small bedroom. The bedroom was almost just half the size as the living room. But it appeared larger, mainly because of the colour painted on the walls- a luminescent yellow which gave the impression of a bigger space and also made anyone who looked at it for long to hurt their eyes. Agnes, for one, liked this colour much better than the dark green which was painted everywhere else in the house.
There was also something else in the room which wasn’t there in the living room- a circular diagram with three cones drawn inside it, each positioned in a skewed angle to one another, so that they looked like the geometric representation of three men who didn’t like to see eye to eye and so stood looking in different directions.
Filling in the gaps between the cones were small yet intricate designs- the kind which looked like they were inspired by overgrown weed in a garden-or a cemetery, only much better designed. There were numbers written among these smaller designs, numbers which looked like they were written in no particular sequence.
To Alan, the diagram-which was some 4 feet in diameter looked like a cross between the diagram that a Hindu clairvoyant might use to predict the future and a circle that a European witch would draw to summon evil spirits- at least, the version of such circles that horror films show.
Following a gesture from Ronald, Golver took from a box of chalks on the window-sill one stalk using which he proceeded to draw over the lines and curves of the circle, bringing to life the diagram which has begun to fade. There was a positive glow on the man’s face as he kneeled down and drew over the picture.
It was the first time that Alan saw the man happy.
For some reason, this only made Alan more nervous.
“Are you ready?” Ronald said to Agnes once Golver was done drawing the picture.
Agnes nodded immediately, broadening her smile.
Her stomach was rumbling. So, she would hang around for another ten minutes or so, let Alan show whatever he wanted to in that time, and leave. She could hardly wait to eat the lunch that Dorothy must have prepared by now.
Dorothy made one mean biryani.
Agnes- though she has lost some of her teeth had enough left in her mouth to nibble on the delectable meat pieces and think she was in chicken heaven.
“Ammachi, what is this? There is no point to this! Let’s just leave!” said Alan, careful not to show the panic that was rising in him i – he didn’t want to give the wrong impression to the old man and his servant. He wasn’t being discourteous by wanting to get out of here as soon as he could. He just didn’t want anything bad to happen to his ammachi.
Agnes tut-tutted him. She was looking at Ronald awaiting his instructions.
He asked her to get into the circle. With just the slightest of hesitation, she entered the circle. Alan told himself that the panic which clenched his heart was just over-reaction. It’s not like the old man could actually hurt ammachi’s ghost. One thing that he did find curious the more he thought about it was that the old man always used the word ‘ghost’ and never ‘soul.’
Taking a deep breath, he switched to a relax-mode, folding his arms across his chest. Whatever show the old man was going to put up, he was going to be a spectator. Also, all said and done, he did feel a certain sense of amusement at the proceedings, even a sense of curiosity. What the hell was the old man up to?
Golver meanwhile brought a small glass bottle which seemed to be filled with plain water. He walked back to the edge of the circle, stood reverently like he was attending a religious ceremony.
Which was more or less what the ensuing ‘ceremony’-if that’s what it was, looked like to Alan.
First, Ronald extended a hand towards him. When Alan looked at the extended hand with a questioning frown, he said, “So that we could begin the chanting!”
“Of course,” said Alan, not knowing what else to say.
He looked at Golver before taking the old man’s hand. But Golver stood as expressionless as ever. But that was before he reached a hand towards Alan as well. Golver put the bottle of water on the floor and took hold of Ronald’s free hand, smiling. Now the three of them made a circle around the circle.
Agnes, standing right in middle of the circle, gave a nervous chuckle.
Before long, Golver and Ronald began chanting- the younger man in a voice that was not so different from that of a Soprano in the church choir. That made the chanting more onerous than rhythmic but neither Golver nor Ronald seemed to mind that. In fact, the more they chanted, they more immersed they seemed to be in the whole proceeding- first gazing towards the sky-or rather the cobwebbed ceiling, and then closing their eyes in a rapturous emotion, as though the chanting has got them in a continual orgasmic grasp.
As for the chanting itself, if it wasn’t for the fact that his ammachi seemed to have started swooning, closing her eyes herself and spreading her arms wide like a movie heroine in a sunflower field, he would have found it hilarious. In fact, it sounded more like something that you might find in a children’s comic than from any bonafide book of spells.
He kept looking at Golver to see how far the servant would go with all this, to indulge his master’s fancy.
But seeing the earnestness with which he went at it, Alan was beginning to have doubts regarding him. But before he could voice his doubts, something happened.
A sudden flash- like the flash bulb of an old fashioned camera burst in the room. It came from his ammachi’s direction. The old woman gave a short but loud scream when the white light burst out of her heart. The scream was loud enough to rise above the chanting.
But Alan didn’t think that was why Ronald and Golver stopped the chanting abruptly. It was more because whatever they aimed with the…ceremony was accomplished.
For the light that came out of ammachi’s body soon assumed a human shape, like all this was happening in a low-budget supernatural film.
The entity- what one could probably call a ghost was a head or so shorter than ammachi. Alan didn’t know why this was, neither did he think about it because every active cell in his brain was involved in processing the information that he was witnessing.
As he stood flabbergasted, Golver and Ronald dropped his hand. Glover took the bottle of water from the ground and swiftly handed it to Ronald. The old man uncapped the bottle with a swiftness of the wrist which Alan felt to be unnatural on a man his age. When the cap was removed, he saw that the bottle had a wooden stopper with holes in it- like a custom made stopper akin to the ones that wine bottles come with.
Even before Ronald raised the bottle and sprinkled some of its contents on the ghost inside the circle, Alan has changed his opinion about the bottle’s content. It cannot be plain water- not when a ghostly being stood in the same room with four flesh and blood beings.
Whatever was the content of the bottle, no sooner had the liquid touched the ghost than it cowered, appearing to be suddenly fatigued, like a frail human suddenly hit by sun stroke.
But to his relief, Alan saw that his ammachi- the flesh and blood version looked fine enough, albeit a little pale as though she just saw a ghost. Which she did.
Alan wasn’t sure if it was proper to think nothing about seeing his ammachi’s ghost looking worried, but hey, this was his first encounter of the supernatural kind and he was sure there were a lot of things to learn yet about it.
He extended a hand towards Agnes, not stepping into the circle himself, worried about what weird shit might happen if he did that. Agnes took hold of his hand and came out of the circle. She was a little shaky but all things considered, she was coping with the situation decently well, thought Alan.
That was when she swooned and fell into his arms unconscious.
“But I thought. I thought…” When she couldn’t go on anymore, Agnes sipped some lemon tea which Golver had made her. She was out for about half an hour and has been awake now for an hour. But still, she couldn’t completely accept what she experienced inside the yellow-painted room.
The lemon tea didn’t make it any easier for her to speak. They were all sitting in the living room, all except Golver who stood a few feet away, in his previous position, leaning against the wall, a part of the background scenery. The significant difference this time was that there was a smile on his face.
Alan could well understand the reason for the smile now. After Ronald had explained.
Golver was one of the immortals. That’s how he knew the spells necessary for the ceremony. “I have been walking this earth for quite a long time now,” Golver has said in a deep sonorous voice. “I thought that many people would be interested in immortality. But to my surprise, I found that most people I made the offer preferred to stay alive only until the natural course of their life ran out. Only a very fewer brave souls- like Ronald, and your grandmother actually expressed consent!”
“Great-grandmother!” Agnes had said immediately. “And I didn’t want this, you know, this immortality without a soul! In fact, I didn’t even think that this would work!”
The details that Alan and his ammachi were given were bizarre. But now that one of them was an immortal, they didn’t find the details all that hard to digest.
The details included:
The fluid in the bottle was indeed water- only water ‘fortified’ with a few spells. The water would hurt weaken the ghost, so that it wouldn’t scream a lot and create a lot of nuisance to people in the house and in the neighborhood.
Once a ghost is entrapped in the circle, it’s impossible for it to escape. It will wither away in around three weeks’ time.
Ronald painted the house green not because shamrock is the supernatural colour of the universe but simply because he liked it.
If a notification is not given to the people three consecutive weeks in a row, there’s going to be a ‘Rupture’, by which two fiends would come out of the skies and take away the ghost to an eternal hell. And the body of the ghost would perish with that.
It was this last point which Alan and Agnes found the most troublesome.
“Is there any way for us to put the ghost back in her body?” Soon as Alan asked the question, he felt stupid about it. But someone had to ask it.
Ronald cackled, which didn’t do anything to lighten Alan’s mood.
“It’s not as easy as putting a ball of twine which spilled from a jar back in the jar,” said Ronald.
“And if this…this..rupture as you call it, if it happens, is there any way that we could defeat the fiends?” Agnes, ever the teen filled with fighting spirit, said.
“And why this stupid rule of running three obits in the newspapers!” Alan couldn’t contain himself.
“Because that’s just the way it is. Why does the earth revolve around the sun and not the other way around? Why do people always prefer junk food than healthy food? Because it’s just how it is!” Ronald spoke slowly as though talking to a particularly dumb animal. “Of course, it doesn’t have to be a newspaper. You can use any medium with a good reach. I would have liked to use the internet myself. Only I don’t know anything about it. Neither does Golver.”
Golver gave a sheepish smile to Alan. “I have been around for a long time. But I rarely keep up with the times,” he said. “What with the continual changes that you see, you kind of get bored by the very concept of change itself. After living in this earth for a while- say, for 280 years, one tends to cling to the things that rarely change- like the mountains, or the ocean or…”
“The recipe for puttu?” suggested Agnes.
“Yes, I suppose,” said Golver, sounding rather sheepish at his own inability to come up with many things that don’t change much.
“So, how exactly did you come across this..secret for immortality?” Alan was thinking of posing this question later, after he has solved the situation with his ammachi, but curiosity got the better of him.
Golver opened his mouth, a look of interest crossing his face. He looked pleased for the chance to talk about the experience. But before he could utter even a single word, Agnes said, “People, we might be deviating from the main problem here!” That was a general statement that she made towards the three men.
The next thing she said was specifically towards Ronald. “So, is there a way that we could beat these cosmic fiends!”
Ronald smiled. “Cosmic fiends! I like that!” But seeing that a smile didn’t bloom on Agnes’ face, he quickly assumed a serious expression, and said, “The only way to beat them is for the person whose soul is entrapped- in this case, that would be you-“
“-I noticed that!” Agnes interjected. Her sarcasm, if Ronald noticed, he didn’t give an indication that he did.
Instead, he continued in his serious tone, as though he was talking about the pitfalls of the latest policy decision made in the last parliament session. “You will have to beat the cosmic fiends, as you put it.”
“Beat, as in physically fight them and win them?” It was Alan who asked the question. If anyone has told him just the previous day that he would soon be asking someone about the specifics of beating two monsters that came out of the skies, he would have laughed at them. But here he was.
Ronald nodded at him before turning his attention back to Agnes.
“But that’s impossible!” Alan said. “Ammachi is an old woman!” he added, just in case, people haven’t noticed that yet.
“But what Ronald sir said is the truth. That is the only way to beat the fiends.I have done extensive research on the matter. I know what I am talking about.” It was the most that Golver has spoken since Alan and Agnes came into the house. Now, everyone had their eyes on him, some of them seeking more from him, as though he would add some caveat to the rule. ‘But there’s a caveat to the rule. If the person is more than 90 years old, you could just shake hands with the demons and they would just be on their way.’ Something like that.
But as the silence lengthened it becm clear that the immortal had nothing more to add.
“How exactly do you fight them? Is there any specific weapon that we could use?” It was Agnes who broke the silence. For an old woman who visits the doctor every month for a checkup and whose different body parts would ache if she didn’t get her regular medications from the doctor, she was being awfully calm about this whole thing. Her presence of mind didn’t fail to impress Alan.
“The fiends are said to be derivatives of fire. So, you need to counter them with that in mind.” It was Ronald who said it. “But let me ask you one thing, Agnes. Why would you want the rupture to happen in the first place? You can just announce your death thrice over and attain immortality. Your ghost would perish but your body would remain forever. It’s quite honestly baffling to think how you are willing to walk away from immortality- the thing that mankind has been looking for since..forever. The basis of all religions and man’s perennial hope!”
“I see that you still possess the eloquence you had as a youth,” Agnes said, her eyes crinkling with memories. And she could hear hopefulness in his words as well. Perhaps, he was thinking that the two of them would spend eternity together?
This made her speak in an even softer tone. “Immortality is precious, no doubt. But I cannot conceive of an immortality without your soul- or ghost, as you like to call it. No, that doesn’t strike me as true.”
“If it’s the age factor that is bothering you, let me assure you that even if you are old, like really, really old like us, if you are an immortal, your senses would work just like that of a young person. You could enjoy everything on earth. And it won’t be..what shall I say..won’t be a…a secondary experience!” Ronald looked pleased with himself for having found the right phrase.
Gently shaking her head, Agnes said, “That’s not the problem, really, Ronald. It’s just that I cannot conceive of immortality as a mere body. The spirit- the spirit is central to my belief. I don’t think that’s the kind of immortality that Jesus would have liked.”
Ronald opened his mouth to say something. But then, failing to find any words, he shut it again. To Alan, he suddenly looked like a fish out of the ocean. A man pitching for eternity with his old lover, now being rejected and finding himself lost. Alan couldn’t help but feel sad for him.
To cut off the awkward silence which has settled in the living room, Alan said, “So, these things are derived from fire, you say. But if that’s the case, having ammachi fight them with a bucket of water seems hardly a feasible strategy.”
Ronald who broke his gaze away from Agnes, nodded slowly.
He looked at Golver, as though asking, ‘Do you have a good plan or are you just gonna stand there scratching your chin looking intelligent, without having anything to add?’
Turned out, Glover did have something to add.
“No, bucket of water would be too silly a weapon against them,” he said. “I propose that we use one of those fire extinguishers that you find in buildings. You know, the ones that are red in colour and come with-“
“-We know what a fire extinguisher looks like!” Alan interjected. “But to me at least, that doesn’t seem like much of a leap from a bucket of water.”
“No, no, no,” Golver said, animatedly waving his hands in front of him. “I have only seen someone fight for his ghost once with the fiends in my life so far. And that time, the person had used a fire extinguisher.”
“Did he win?” Agnes’ words as well as her eyes were filled with hope as she asked the question.
“Well, he beat one of them..” Golver said after a moment of hesitation.
Agnes nodded thoughtfully.
“Maybe if we could all put our heads together, we could think of something…” suggested Alan.
For the next half an hour or so, all four of them racked their brains to come up with better alternatives to fire extinguishers. Their morale took a beating when they found that they couldn’t come up with a single idea amongst the four of them.
In the ensuing days, Agnes and Alan made out of the house citing different reasons- ranging from ‘Ammachi wants to go to the flower show. Again’ to ‘There’s an antiques exhibition at the Nishagandhi. You know how much ammachi loves antiques!” Though Dorothy found the excuses plausible more often than not, it was the frequency with which the two got out that made her suspicious that something else was going on.
But there was no way that she could have hit upon the truth- that Alan and his great-grandmother were going out to an immortal’s house in Puthukurichy so that Golver could train Agnes on how to use a fire extinguisher like a pro.
On the seventh day since the entrapment of her soul, Ronald took her aside and asked whether she was sure if she didn’t wish to run an ad, after all. Maybe a week’s worth of immortal existence has made her change her mind?
“You were right,” Agnes said. “I do feel much better..after..after my death, I guess I should say. I can breathe better and I have not had any pain in any parts of my body. In fact, I even stopped using medicines because I don’t feel there’s any need to. And food tastes much better. My daughter, Dorothy, she makes the best biryani in all of Trivandrum, and I am not saying that just because she’s my daughter. But I have never found it so good until I tasted it as an immortal.”
Ronald’s eyes lit with hope. But the light was doused immediately as he heard the next word that came out of Agnes’ mouth, “But..I still don’t think this is right. It’s the life of the spirit which is eternal and not the body. I know that you were never that devout. So, it’s not a huge problem for you. But for me, I have always remained a devout Catholic, Ronald! And I can’t just give up the ideals now!” She clutched the rosary in her hand even tighter.
Ronald did find it funny to hear someone who walked out on love because of a trip to Ceylone talking about ideals. But he didn’t comment on it. Instead, with a weary sigh, he said, “Then, do prepare well for the fight!”
The rupture was to happen tomorrow.
Both Alan and Agnes lied awake in their beds in their separate rooms though the night was no longer young. Agnes was thinking about Dorothy.
There’s a potential that she may die tomorrow. And if that’s the case, Dorothy would be baffled. Maybe, she would even get angry about not telling her about what was really going on.
Agnes loved Dorothy so much. Though a widow who just barely made two ends meet, she was the only child of hers who was glad about taking care of her mother, who didn’t crinkle her nose at the idea of having her mother live with her, unlike Agnes’ other-more successful children.
Alan too was thinking about Dorothy, from a slightly different perspective.
If something happens to Agnes tomorrow- and God forbid, it doesn’t, what was he supposed to tell her? A tale of magic chants and immortality and cosmic fiends would only come across as ramblings of an unsettled mind. Dorothy’s an avid follower of the news and many times Alan had heard her comment about the “growing drug menace” in the state. Ever since hard liquor has been banned in Kerala, there’s been reports that more and more number of youngsters are gravitating towards hard drugs- MD, meth , coke and the likes making their rounds in the state as easily a buses ply on a largely empty highway.
She would just think that Alan was a the prey to the government’s decision to ban liquor. Maybe she would think that he had turned a Satanist under the drug’s influence and killed her great grandma as part of a ritual.
Ronald had agreed that if something were to happen to Agnes, he would come along with Alan and explain things to Dorothy. Agnes too had written a signed letter explaining everything in detail which she has kept in the drawer of her bedside table. Alan knew about this.
He hoped that if the unthinkable happens, the letter and Ronald’s words would be enough to convince Dorothy that there’s more to life than just fun and tragedy and life insurance.
From somewhere afar, a dog howled. The sound was carried far and wide on the crispy night air. Alan felt a creeping sense of uneasiness growing inside him. He prayed to god to keep his great grandma safe tomorrow, even though he didn’t truly believe in God(of all the things, he found the idea of Jesus rising from the dead three days after death the hardest to digest. That was, in his opinion one zombie god).
But still, praying never hurts, he thought.
The next day, Alan hugged Agnes in a long time. As far as he could remember, the last time he hugged the old woman was on her last birthday- more than eight months ago.
He couldn’t help but notice how absolutely tiny she felt within his arms, and how fragile her body felt. He could feel her ribs under his fingers when he touched her back.
He wondered, not for the first time, whether such a person should be fighting fiends of cosmic dimensions at her age.
He didn’t show his apprehensions though. He wanted to give her as much confidence as he could. He smiled at her. “Send them back to whatever unholy hole they came from, ammachi!” he said.
A blank look came over her eyes. “Oh, you’re talking about the fiends!” she said after a couple of moments. “For a moment there, I was wondering what you were talking about. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, you see. Kept rolling over in bed. And you know how my brain works extra-slow when I haven’t got enough sleep…Well, of course, you were talking about the fiends. What else? Silly me!” She chuckled, a sound that was as filled with nervousness as much as a fraud was filled with malicious intent.
Alan gulped. Nodded. Forced a smile on to his face. Prayed again to god.
They were in Ronald’s living room. They all waited for the fiends to turn up.
“Are you sure they would come around this time?” Agnes asked to no one in particular, eyeing her watch, looking rather bored.
It was Golver who answered. “Yes, yes, This is about the time when your ghost was detached from your body. So, they should be here any minute now!” He looked positively thrilled by the prospect. The way he was going, Alan thought that these were the moments for which Golver lived.
“If I remember correctly, “Agnes said slowly, stifling a yawn, “The detachment..as you put it…was over by this time, at least by an hour.”
“Maybe they don’t keep their clocks synchronized with the earth clocks out there in the cosmos!” Ronald’s attempt at a joke wasn’t too successful. Everyone just kept on waiting- somewhat tense, somewhat bored.
The fiends appeared a full hour and twenty minutes late.
But when they did, their entrance was dramatic. A huge puff of fire in the centre of the living room which retreated back into thin air. But between the man sized fire’s appearance and disappearance, there came to being the two fiends- green slimy bodies with red eyes and spiked tails that ended at a conical tip which glinted sharply.
To Alan, the tip looked so much like it was made of ivory. As though the fiends themselves were designed by some toy maker with access to precious objects.
Seeing the four humans in the room, the fiends snarled. Their lizard like tongues extended into the air, at least a foot in front of them. Their teeth were jagged and Alan could see what appeared to be pieces of flesh caught between some of them.
He has never asked how exactly the fiends attacked their enemies. It appeared that they just ate them. This made him even more scared for Agnes. He tried to push off his mind images of her getting eaten by these two monstrosities.
The fiends, he noticed stood with their webbed feet planted apart, gnarling at everyone, a somewhat baffled look on their face, as though they weren’t sure which of the four was their enemy.
The fact that the fiends didn’t look all that intelligent gave Alan hope. That, and the fact that they were only as high as Agnes, who was just five feet two. This latter, he knew wasn’t exactly a matter of comfort, if you were being technical about it. For what they lacked in height, the fiends more than made up in their width. But he needed to clutch on all hopes he could find at this point, goddammit!
He watched, half fascinated and half apprehensive as his ammachi got up from the sofa taking the fire extinguisher in her hands. The red cylinder wobbled in her arms and for a second it looked like it would fall off her grip. It wasn’t exactly a light object. Alan instinctively took a step forward to help her but seeing how she regained her grip on the fire extinguisher, he stepped back.
Agnes took a stance across from the fiends, her legs planted apart, pointing the nozzle of the fire extinguisher in the direction of the fiends, as though saying, ‘Come on you motherfuckers! Let’s do this!’
The fiends, apparently got the message. For they didn’t lose any more time in charging at her.
The distance the fiends had to cover to reach her was just a few feet- enough distance for Agnes to fire off the fire extinguisher at one of them, covering the fiend with froth which made him scream- a high pitched tone which was almost comical, like a shrill whistle which was only partially functioning.
A large portion of the froth was on its midriff, which made the fiend scratch madly around those parts, as though he was stung by a horde of red ants. This only made matters worse for him. For his fingers were more claws than fingers and his scratching only made his flesh-tendered by the white froth- to cave in on itself.
This undoubtedly brought him great pain as evidenced by the even higher turn his screaming took- it appeared as though the more he screamed, the more his voice was carried beyond the auditory spectrum of humans.
It was fascinating to watch the fiend getting melted- for need of a better word- under the impact of the froth. The thing now looked skywards, its mouth wide open in a grotesque parody of a scream for mercy, its tongue wobbling lifelessly, slapping its lower and upper rows of teeth as it moved his head violently back and forth with pain.
In less than a minute, the fiend was lying or the floor, writhing in agony, inching closer to death with every spasmodic kick of its leg.
The sight of a green tailed, red eyed being suffering in agony lying on a Persian carpet was so grotesquely fascinating that even the other fiend stood rooted to the spot for a while, unable to do anything but watch the horrible proceeding silently.
But once the fiend on the floor shivered and pounced and shuddered and wailed its way into death’s arms, the second fiend looked at Agnes with even more ferocity.
Emboldened by the death of the first fiend, Alan’s ammachi was confident about taking on the second one as well. The two fiends looked the same. In fact, they might have been twins. And there was no reason to imagine that the second one would be any better when it came to defending itself than the first one.
Feeling the confidence coursing through her like electricity, Agnes raised the fire extinguisher, shifting the bulk of its weight from one arm to the other, holding its bottom with one hand as with the other she directed the nozzle towards the fiend who snarled.
From behind her, he heard her great grandson cheering, “Go, ammachi!” From her right came the sound of Ronald, somewhat frailer than Alan’s but no less enthusiastic.
But no amount of cheering could prevent what happened next.
Just as Agnes was raising the metallic extinguisher, the tendon in her right arm was stretched as he supported the utility with that hand. The abrupt shift of weight was apparently too much for her tendon and she screamed in pain. More crucially, this made her drop the extinguisher, hitting her right foot.
The resultant sound of bones breaking was heard by everyone. She was on the floor screaming in no time.
And also in no time was the fiend upon her.
No matter how much the others tried to detach the fiend from her, they couldn’t. Not until it has given a good go on her neck with its teeth. As though her neck were a piece of wood and the fiend’s mouth a wood chipper.
“You planned all this! I know it! You gave the newspaper ads knowing full well that ammachi would be reading them. You knew that would make her come here to visit you! This was just your way of getting back at her, for not accepting your love all those years back!” Alan was walking in circles in Ronald’s living room.
The last of the fiends had disappeared in a poof of- not smoke but fire, about five minutes ago. (The first fiend, the one which his ammachi annihilated also disappeared in a puff of fire- pretty convenient considering it could be an automatic incineration of the body.
Alan, who has of late been fascinated with the burial customs of different cultures since coming across a book on the same subject in the library would have found this interesting, had his mind not been shocked by the death of his ammachi. His ammachi’ body thankfully didin’t disappear in a puff. But she still lied in a pool of her own blood. (It’s highly doubtful that the resultant stain would ever come off Ronald’s Persian carpet).
“I should have seen this from the beginning!” Alan was saying in a hysterical tone, more to himself than anyone else. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” He admonished himself for not seeing this coming- he who has spent endless hours devouring Agatha Christie mysteries and Raymond Chandler noirs. He of all people should have seen a trap as it was being raised!
Ronald was standing at the far end of the room, right beside Golver. Ronald looked equally sad and shocked.
When he spoke, he spoke in a calm voice. In fact, a voice saturated with fatigue, one that sounded like it came from a man fed up with the shenanigans of fate.
“Please don’t say such things, Alan! I…You know it can’t be right. I am 95 years old, your great grandmother 97. We had our affair when we were both in our twenties. 70 years is just too long a time for humans to wait for having revenge. Besides, how would I ever know that she read the newspaper avidly! In fact, given her age, how could I even have known that she was still alive!”
Alan glared at him. But that was all he could do. Though he would have liked to say something in the way of a come-back, he had to concede that what the man said made sense.
Ronald gave the young man the opportunity to calm down. He asked Golver to make some lemonade for him. Ronald was initially apprehensive about drinking the sweet drink just a few feet away from where his ammachi lied dead, her neck and part of her shoulder mangled as though chewed up by a dog from hell-which was more or less what happened.
But Golver insisted, telling him that it would do him good. And once he gulped down the initial sip, fearing that it might make him puke, the drink actually felt refreshing. He found his heart beat coming down and his mind attained something akin to a level of normalcy.
“So, now that the unthinkable has happened,” Ronald said in a slow drawl, walking closer towards Alan, a benevolent expression on his face. “We must tackle the next issue. About informing all this to Dorothy.”
Dorothy was shattered by the news.
Not that Alan was surprised by this. If you had known that your mother- the person who carried you in her womb for 10 months, nurtured you when you couldn’t even frame a sentence or a thought, who sacrificed so much so that you could be an independent human being, was bitten to death by a fiend from the abominable parts of the universe, as she already lied in pain from the broken bones in her foot, you would also have been shattered by the news.
What actually did surprise Alan was how quickly she regained her composure.
No doubt, this was caused partly by the letter which Agnes had written for her just in case of such an eventuality. Also bolstered by the presence of Ronald who kept nodding every time Alan kept presenting one incredible detail after another.
Even when she was taken to Ronald’s home and she saw Agnes’ body, she was more or less stable. (Thanks in no small way to the make-over that Golver had given the dead body. Golver, as per Ronald was something of an expert when it came to such things).
The only time she looked a bit shaky was when Golver informed her that he would be dumping the body in the ocean later that night.
The world would be told that Agnes, in age-related senility just walked out of home one night, unbeknownst to Alan or Dorothy. No one knew where she went or where she was. A missing person notice would be issued for her.
“But ammachi’s soul would now be in heaven, right?” she asked Ronald before leaving his place.
Ronald looked at her with sympathetic eyes and nodded, adding that he was sorry things happened the way they did.
She said it’s fine, there was nothing that he could have done.
On the drive back from Ronald’s home, Alan also expressed a similar sentiment- about he being sorry for not having done anything to prevent the disaster.
Dorothy gave him the same answer as she did Ronald. What could he have done?
Alan certainly hoped that that was the case. If it turned out that there was actually anything that he could have done to prevent the death, if in hindsight he saw how he missed something to that end, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.
Ronald sat in the sofa sipping a cold glass of lemonade.
More than half an hour has passed since Alan and Dorothy left.
The day was hot- it was afternoon, and notwithstanding the ceiling fan that was rotating overhead, Ronald had to blow air from his mouth, skewering his mouth so that the air was channeled towards his own body to cool it down.
Golver was in the kitchen, fixing lunch. The sound of cooking- boiling water and plates being moved and veggies being cut on the chopping board- sounded like music to his ears.
Ever since he attained immortality, he has found a renewed interest in food. During the last years of his life as a mere mortal, his taste buds had steadily failed him, making more or less everything taste like boiled potatoes(saltless). But once he- or rather his body hit the jackpot of eternality, it’s as though he was experiencing the varied tastes of foods for the first time in his life, experiencing a thrill and joy in a dish of rice and curry like he could never remember ever having done before.
For that alone, he was thankful to Golver.
But once he was finished with the lemonade, it wasn’t to the kitchen that he went. Instead, he moved towards the bedroom that’s painted yellow- the one where the ritual to encapsulate Agnes’ ghost in the circle took place, the eight by ten feet space where Agnes and Alan realized for the first time that there’s more to the world than just material.
Pushing open the door, he looked down at the floor. The circular diagram which Golver had (re)drawn three weeks ago was beginning to fade. But Ronald knew that it was still strong enough to keep the ghost a prisoner. He might have to draw over it before it faded completely. But that won’t be necessary today.
He couldn’t help but smile seeing the ghost sitting in the centre of the circle, looking forlornly at the floor. He had a feeling that if the ghost could cry, it would have.
He walked towards the window, opened one of the panes which opened into the wall-less backyard beyond which- at a distance of about half a kilometer from the house- was the beach. Sometimes, especially during the nights, Ronald would leave one or two of the windowpanes open. Cool breeze would blow in from the ocean.
“You know, a cool wind is blowing,” he would say to the ghost at such moments. “Quite a counter-point to the insufferable heat of the day. Which makes it even more enjoyable. But you wouldn’t know that, now, would you? That’s the bad thing about being a ghost- you couldn’t enjoy the simple yet beautiful things on earth that makes life loveable-a cool ocean breeze, the taste of well-cooked meat, going for a short walk in the beach in the night…No, without a body, you could never do any of that…And I did dream about doing these and many other beautiful things with you once, when I loved you like you were my own heart..”
Presently, Ronald closed the window soon. Night was still more than 6 hours away and he didn’t wish anyone who might pass by to look in and see a goddamn ghost in the room. In fact, they would be worried seeing Ronald himself, whom they thought was dead and buried.
Taking a deep sigh, he turned towards Agnes’ ghost. “I am going to move soon. Move to some place where no one knows Ronald Gomez. Of course, you would be coming with me…Why, you don’t look happy about it…Well, you needn’t consider this as entirely my doing, you know. What I told Alan was the truth- seven decades is just too long to harbor thoughts of revenge. But that’s not to say that I could ever forgive what you did to me. You were the first woman I truly loved- if you had asked I could have given my life for you, that’s how much I loved you. I know it sounds like a cliché, but that’s how it was…So, when I found you standing at my doorstep one fine day…well, I thought it was destiny telling me that I should have my revenge after all. And what better way to take revenge that have your soul as my prisoner. And since I am potentially looking at an immortal life, that could be forever. I lied to them about your ghost getting released if your body dies. I figured a little white lie wouldn’t be amiss in this situation. In fact, not even a lie-if was more withholding of information. You see, there’s a subsequent ritual to be performed to release the ghost…Anyway, it’s a good thing that you chose you didn’t want physical immortality. Otherwise, I might have had to kill your body myself- that would have made me a murderer! God only knows how it would be to go through eternity bearing the sin of murder!”
Shuddering like his bones were suddenly chilled by a cold wind, he added, “But now you are mine. Mine forever!”
The smell of food wafted into the room through the open door from the kitchen. With smile on his face and a drooling mouth, he slowly walked out, leaving the door shut behind him without locking it. There was no need to.
The ghost was not going anywhere.
A long single thread of saliva dripped down the side of his mouth as he sat down at the table where Golver has placed the dishes.