The three boys watched with ever-widening eyes as the yellow ball rolled past the open door and into the witch’s house.
“No,no,no,no…” Karthik kept muttering, willing the ball to stop on its track and roll back out of the witch’s gate that had iron etchings of two chrysanthemums on it.
But, of course, the ball did nothing of the sort. I
t just rolled right into the green house the inside of which looked dark to the kids who stood on the street.
“Now, look what you have done!” Karthik said angrily, turning Sammy. The latter looked at the green house, nervously swinging a cricket bat.
The bat had the letters MRF plastered on it- though Sachin Tendulkar was retired, his legacy lived on in such bats wielded by kids who made the streets their playgrounds over the weekends.
“What do you mean? Sammy said equally angrily. “It’s not like I struck the ball into her house because I wanted to..”
“At least, the ball didn’t hit any of her windows..”
Of the three boys, Ashok was the softest spoken. That attribute was not lost even under pressure situations- or what passed for pressure situation in a 10 year old’s life- like losing a ball into the house of someone whom they were sure was an evil witch.
“If we had broken a window or something, she might put a curse on us!” he added.
This was yet another aspect of Ashok’s character which endeared him more to his friends- he could always find the silver lining to the cloud, like what he did last summer when Prakash came down with measles and so couldn’t join them for cricket or going to the mall in the evenings. Prakash texted him saying how he could now coax his parents into buying him the new Play Station, telling them how miserable he was being stuck in the house all alone all day long.
Sammy nodded appreciatively at Ashok.
But whereas Ashok was an expert in finding the positives of a given situation, Karthik was the opposite.
Which is to say that neither Ashok nor Sammy were surprised to hear him say, “Ok, but what if the old witch still put a curse on us? What if she doesn’t need a broken window to be become angry enough to curse us? Maybe a tennis ball going where it shouldn’t be visiting in the first place is enough of a reason?”
Though the words didn’t surprise the others, they did sent a chill of fear dancing up their spine, though neither of them showed it- that would be unmanly.
The repeated honks from a two wheeler moving towards them made the three move to the side of the street. The bike, rode by a young man behind whom sat an equally young woman with a coton shawl covering the lower half of her face from the perennial dust of Bangalore passed them by swiftly.
“Yuck!” Ashok said in English, twisting his mouth as though he tasted something awful when he saw how the woman, who sat with her breasts pressed against the back of the man as though she wanted to merge into him, ran a hand up and down the leather of his jacket, over his chest.
Whenever they played on the street near the park, it was almost inevitable to see something like this at least once.
And it invariably made them feel sick- especially Ashok who was of the opinion that girls and boyswere always meant to stay in the opposite sides and never come close, just like in the school classroom.
Seeing the exaggeratedly sick expression on Ashok’s face, the other two boys laughed Ashok too joined them though all of their laughs were somewhat strained- they still needed to figure out how to get their ball from out of the witch’s house.
So far, even though her front door-also with a chrysanthemum motif was partially open, the witch hasn’t come out.
This hasn’t really surprised them as they had rarely seen the woman come out in the daylight.
Most of the times any of them has seen her was in the evenings when she went out for a walk in the small park that was directly opposite to her house.
Once the collective laugh subsided- which didn’t take long, Kartik said, “So, Sammy, go and get the ball!” He scratched his midriff casually, crumpling his Scoobee Doo T-shirt as he did so, trying to bring in an element of casualness to his words, though his high voice sounded nervous.
“Why should I go?” Sammy, if anything, sounded even more nervous than his friend.
“Because you are the one who knocked the ball in there..”
Sammy opened his mouth to say something but then with a ‘Why bother?” expression, closed his mouth again.
It’’s not like Karthik hasn’t seen how the ball, delivered by Ashok caught the edge of his bat and went over the Chysanthemum gate, and bounced just once on the witch’s lawn before rolling into the house.
“Also, it’s your ball!” Karthik added, seeing how Sammy still looked hesitant.
Before Sammy could say anything, another voice- peppier than any of theirs rose from behind them: “You want to start playing or do you just want to stand around all day long sweating?”
Prakash parked his bicyclcle by the green fence of the park.
He had a red rubber ball in his hand- brand new and shining. Grinning a toothy grin, pushing the round soda-bottle glasses up his nose, he said, “Why are you looking at me like you saw a ghost?”
When Karthik explained how Sammy knocked the ball into the witch’s house(“No, I did not!” Sammy shouted though no one listened), the pleasant expression faded from Prakash’ face.
After consulting with each other they came to the unanimous decision that they should continue the game with the ball that Prakash brought with him. In the meantime, maybe the witch would bring the ball out on her own volition.
“By evening, maybe she would come out..”Prakash said hopefully.
“And if she doesn’t?” Sammy asked, unable to completely keep the shiver out of his voice.
“Why, then, you should go talk with her! She, after all is a neighbor!” Prakash said with mock-jolliness. “Or, you could just let the ball go..”
“I can’t!” Sammy said suddenly. “Then, this would be the third ball that I lost this month! Father wouldn’t like that at all!”
His friends nodded solemnly at his words, as though they understood that Sammy must walk his head into the death knot if that’s what circumstances demanded; only, they were helpless to do anything about it.
“Let’s play!” Sammy said, swallowing hard, not wishing to brood too much.
Now that Prakash has joined them, formed two teams with two members each.
So far in the day, the three boys have been playing individually- one person batting after the other, each getting a three over innings. At the end of the three innings, whoever has got the highest number of runs would be the winner.
But even with the additional number, many rules for their ‘improvised’ cricket remained the same.
For instance, the bowler’s delivery must hit the white part of the pair of slippers that were used in lieu of stumps behind the batsman.
The rubber slippers which belonged to Sammy were white but came with blue straps.
All the kids agreed that this rule heightened the excitement of their games- though it also often led to arguments with the bowler swearing that he saw the ball landing right in the centre of a slipper, only for the batsman to claim he was wrong. (“How could you know? You were looking in the opposite direction when the ball hit it!” the bowler would say, prompting the batsman to say how the idea of everything slowing down as though in slo-mo movie in crucial situations- like when facing a ball, standing at the crease, so he had enough time to see the ball hitting the blue strap, thank you very much).
Another rule was that if anyone hit a ball into the nearby park or past the gate of the witch’s house, that would automatically bring their inning to an end.
The park maintained by the resident’s association, though not large was still well kept, flowers of different shades and shapes stood dancing in the wind, adding life to the drab surroundings which were filled with houses and buildings, standing so close to one another that you may have trouble telling where one ended and the next began.
Everyone was extra- cautious this day to maintain this rule, after losing the tennis ball.
And not just because they didn’t wish their inning to end abruptly. It was the first time that a ball has gone into the witch’s house.
If you were to ask the four why they thought the old woman was a witch, they may not be able to give you any one reason.
There would be multiple reasons, depending on whom you asked.
“It’s the hair. That’s how you could tell! The old woman ‘s grey hair is BIG!- like there is a bird’s nest underneath …That’s the sign of a witch- I have read that in a book!” That’s how Ashok- the only one among them who would go to a library because he wanted to, would tell you.
“I saw her walking down the street in front of my house once. I was standing at the balcony of our house when looking down, I saw the old witch, walking with that slight limp of hers, down the street with a plastic bag of groceries or something in her hand. It was 3 in the afternoon, and I noticed, I noticed that even though the sun was up in the sky, she had no shadows” That would be Sammy, speaking in a hushed tone, as though the very air could carry the tale to the old woman’s ear if he wasn’t careful.
Prakash too had a story to tell- one which he has told his friends one night when they had all come over to sleep at his home- this was right after he recovered from his pneumonia and he invited them for a sleep-over so that he could show off his latest acquisition: the newest Playstation.
They were all seated in a circle on his bed, a paused game on the game console behind them, showing a humongous robot with its arm suspended in mid-motion on its way to landing a punch.
The robot watched over them like a deity as Prakash talked to his friends in a hushed whisper, his thin lips parting to reveal pearly white teeth as he spoke. “You know how there are an large number of chrysanthemum plants in the witch’s front yard? And also other plants..Well, ever wondered how she manages to take care of then all- I mean, she is an old lady, with a limp and everything..how could she stand and water them and make compost and stuff?”
“Maybe someone helps her,” Ashok suggested.
“Oh, and when was it that you have actually seen anyone go into that house?”
Ashok nodded at Prakash’ question, as though that settled the matter.
“So, there I was walking past her gate, coming back from visiting Sammy here one day-you remember, last week when I came to borrow your Physics notebook?, yeah, that’s when. Anyway, I was walking past her gate when I saw the flowers in two of the chrysanthemum plants, elongated on their stems- like that rubbery guy from Fantastic 4, and they were spitting- yes, spitting out water from their mouths. Watering each other. Sometimes, out came of their mouths dark things- like pellets of shit-“
Hearing the word ‘shit’ said aloud made one of the other boys giggle.
“I think those pellets were fertilizer of some kind. What I mean is, the flowers were very much alive and they were taking care of each other!” When he saw the silent stares from his friends, he added, “Don’t you see! She put a spell on the flowers to do that! Only, when the chrysanthemums saw me noticing them, they went back to being just ordinary flowers!”
Though none of the other boys found this story that believable, neither did they contest it. It’s a witch they were talking about- so, they had to give it the benefit of the doubt.
However, they did think how during nearly a month when he was bed-ridden at home, Prakash has done nothing but watch manga toons TV and fight alien robots on the PS, so maybe he was running away with his imagination.
As for Sammy, his entire attitude towards the old woman could be summed up in his own words which he uttered one day to his parents, shortly after the woman arrived in their housing colony: “There is something off about that woman!”
It was an abstract feeling- a response to the fact that the woman had a hooked nose and a sly face and bishy eyebrows and a wicked stare, among other things.
The fact that her back was bent and so she walked slightly stooped didn’t help either.
Once he saw the woman walking up from the other side of the street by the park.
It was dark, the street was deserted- the two wheelers and cars parked on either side were all covered under plastic sheets. With the woman there, all the vehicles took on an ominous quality, as though the covers would come off from them any moment now and out would pop car and bike shaped monster instead of machines.
He also expected the woman, walking with her head bent, to suddenly jerk her head up and look at him as she passed him by, and her eyes would sparkle green, and when she grinned, her teethwould be revealed for what they were- knife like protrusions which made eating up pieces of little children easy.
To avoid such an eventuality, he entered a bylane to his right where he waited in the darkness until the witch passed by.
Then, there was also the fact that the woman lived alone. Now, who in their old age would live alone, unless she was a witch?
Sammy’s father explained patiently that there wasn’t anything ‘off’ about the fact that the woman lived alone. “Her children all live abroad and she doesn’t wish to join them there. She likes to live in Karnataka where she was born and lived for so long. Her husband died many years ago. Yes, she may benefit from having a help around- at least, someone who could clean the house and the yards for her.
“But both mummy and I met her the other day, and Mrs.Sandhya came across as a strong-willed woman. You know what strong-willed means? It means she doesn’t like to think of herself as old. ‘I can take care of myself without help!’ that’s what she says” Both his parents laughed lightly at this, though Sammy didn’t get the joke.
Neither was he convinced that the witch was not a witch. There was just something ‘off’ about her.
“We won!” Prakash, who has teamed up with Sammy picked up the latter after hitting the winning score for their team. Sammy laughed, shouting, “Hey, put me down or we are both going to fall!”
An old man wearing thick black rimmed glasses, watching from a balcony grinned at the children.
When Prakash stuck his tongue out at Karthik, the latter said, “Yes, we should get you tomorrow! In fact, the light is fading. Otherwise, we would have beaten you right now itself! Isn’t that right, Ashok?”
Ashok nodded in the affirmative, though he was smiling self-consciously.
The light was indeed fading in Kormangala’s KHB colony.
Whatever little number of trees remained in the area- leftovers from man’s hunt for ‘progress’ now became shelters for birds that came flocking back to their nests. The air was suddenly alive with the sound of birds and the boys themselves must now go back to their homes, or else face their parents’ ire for being late.
Only Sammy had a little business to take care of first.
“Are you sure you guys couldn’t even wait out here until I get back from there?”
His three friends- all of whom now perched on their bicycles, – Ashok with his cricket bat clipped to the carrier of his bike, shook their heads in unison.
“Mom would be mad if I am late!”
“Need to go finish some homework!”
“We are going out tonight and it’s already late!”
The three of them called out and went their separate ways.
Looking again at the old woman’s house, Sammy swallowed.
Though the evening was fast turning grey, he still couldn’t see any lights on in the house.
It was as though the grayness of the eve was draining colours from the world- including from the chrysanthemums in the witch’s front-yard.
Looking both to his right and left, Sammy saw that the small street was empty, except for a woman at the far end who was sweeping the patch of the road in front of her gate.
The only commercial establishment in the entire street- a small tailoring shop that specialized in women’s salwar, was not open today for some reason. Two doors away from the witch’s, it’s blue shutter- with a white painted image of a young woman cat-walking, remained resolutely shut.
Sammy wished that it were open. The whirring sound of the sewing machine would have been a constant auditory reminder that people were not far away, even when he walked into the gate of the witch’s home.
“What’s not to be is not to be” he muttered an line often repeated by the lead detective of a detective show he regularly watched on the television.
The detective uttreed these words whenever he ran into a dead end chasing clues.
The old man with the thick glasses still stood on the balcony, observing a green parrot take refuge in a tree.
Wondering if the old man would be fast enough if he had to come save Sammy, the boy unlatched the gate.
The latch on the gate was in its middle and there was plenty of space in the grill for Sammy to reach his hand in and slowly turn it.
It looked like it was placed there in such a way that kids could easily get in.
The though sent a shiver down his spine.
He reminded himself that this house had belonged to someone else before the old woman brought it, with the gate and everything. So, it couldn’t be the witch’s way of inviting the kids in.
The frontyard, though small was filled with flower bearing plants- chrysanthemums and lilies and orchids and roses and plenty of others which Sammy didn’t know the names of. The air was thick with the fragrance of these flowers.
From somewhere not far rose the sound of bees buzzing.
Reaching the porch, he had to stand on his toes to reach his hand to the calling bell switch .
He felt assured by the fact that the switch was not positioned for a child’s convenience. A shrill and loud cuckoo cry rang inside the house.
Sammy waited for almost a whole minute before he tried the switch again- he didn’t wish to piss off the witch by repeatedly pressing it.
He kept looking towards the gate for reassurance, as though making sure that it remained open, just the way he has left it.
The door to the house too remained open, just as he has seen it when they reached the street to play earlier in the afternoon.
But no one came out of that door.
He took two tentative steps towards the open door, as though expecting something to pounce at him from the quasi-darkness within. But nothing happened. Only, the fragrance of the flowers from the yard abated as a the relatively stale air from within the house entered his nostrils.
Squinting, he saw the faint outline of a television on one wall and a glassed show case- some five feet by four feet in dimensions on the opposite wall.
Almost the entire showcase was filled with small sculptures and plastic replicas of flowers- of different shapes and sized and colours, just like there was a proliferation of floral species in the garden outside.
Mrs. Sandhya must be a great flower lover, that’s why she maintains the garden just like the previous owners, he thought
For a fleeting moment, he had a vision of the old woman walking toward her house with plastic bags in hand, as seen by a 10 year old from his balcony- when he saw that she didn’t had a shadow- or thought he saw…he couldn’t be sure now.
It occurred to him those plastic bags might have contained fertilizers.
Titling down his head, he saw the greenish yellow ball lying on the white marble floor, resting against the leg of the coffee table.
The two plush looking sofas near the table were empty, except for the green cusions.
He could reach the ball in two steps, take it and run out of here, though.
Looking up further into the house, he could see the arched door which probably led to the kitchen.
But no one came out through it- a brown double fridge stood to the door’s right. It hummed softly, almost menacingly.
Taking a deep breath, he took the necessary two steps, and stooping down, picked up the ball.
But when he looked up, he saw the woman.
Or, the woman’s legs to be particular.
Even in the dim light he could see that they looked somewhat bloated- though aged, she had a lot of fat on her body still.
But what was she doing lying there on the floor like that? Wouldn’t the floor be cold and couldn’t an old woman like her catch a fever from that?
Despite himself, he moved towards the woman- there was something ‘off’ about the way she was lying- he could feel it. More palpable than the buzzing of the fridge, almost as real as the soft thud that his slippers made on the floor was that feeling.
She was lying the way in which the detective found dead people lying in side their apartments-or anywhere else, for that matter, in the television show.
Sammy looke away when he saw that the woman’s nightie didn’t cover her neatly anymore. Her thighs were visible, as also the blue frilled edge of her panties.
But out of the corner of his eye, he saw crimson blood congealed around her head.
“She has obviously slipped and fallen. Her head cracked open when she fell. There is no case here!” He could hear the television detective speak in his head, in that somber tone of his.
Sammy peered at the woman’s open eyes that glinted faintly in the light from the window, as though even the last hope for life was leaving the body.
A bee-which has left its comfort zone of the garden and entered the house- flew into the old woman’s open mouth, poainting a wavy path on the air in the process. The bee perched on the tip of her tongue and started to nibble.
That was when Sammy acknowledged to himself that the witch was dead.
A pain in his hand made him look down. He held the tennis ball so hard that it has begun to hurt him.
Outside, the light was fading even faster now, the night, now that its time has come, displaying an urgency to claim its territory.
With pounding heart and sweaty palms, Sammy ran out of the house, ready to proclaim to his friends, or anyone who cared to listen, for that matter: “The witch is dead! The witch is dead!”