- Part 3 -
Gautamjit Thokchom *
Unsettling Stories - Three
This happened a few years after the widely known initial appearances† of the bald old man. The account of what peculiar things happened qualifies itself to be placed among the rarest types of attempt he has ever made. He hasn't used this method for a second time either because it is special to him or the inhabitants of the village have become more vigilant. Nonetheless, it holds testimony to the capability, and reach of the bald old man to cause havoc and disarray in the peaceful village.
It was winter. The temperature dipped more than in previous seasons. Twirling streams of smoke from straw fires in the morning impart a burned smell to the air. It was obvious, and it happened every winter. Most of the villagers stayed indoors and slept early. Infants and old people were unfortunate. Infants fared better as mothers were always on the lookout for a rosy cheek, or any reflex movement of coldness. Old people were often left to their own devices because they were adults or their mothers had died long ago. Even if the family took care of them, the temperature didn't help much to assist the worn down organs. They could not hold on.
It was because of the same reason that the octogenarian grandmother of Heisnam household died one afternoon just when the sun was about to set. Her sons took utmost care of her, and she was not desolate even on her dead bed. Preparations were quickly made to perform the last rituals and cremate the body. Fatefully, it started raining when the burning of the body began. The logs of wood used for the purpose didn't catch fire in the rain. Eventually, they managed to keep the fire burning by using kerosene and numerous rubber tyres.
When the old lady heard the news of the death, she sent all his sons and in-laws to Heisnam's should they be of any help. The deceased lady had been very kind to her. Without her, she couldn't have brought up her children after she was widowed at a young age. She could not pay her a visit because she herself was also confined to bed. She cried both for the lady and for her own miserable condition which made her an ungrateful friend to the deceased lady.
A strange voice woke her up. It sounded that of a young tribal woman calling from the courtyard. " Eema, I want to show you something. Please see if you would want to buy it." The old lady felt it unusual for anyone to go around selling things at that hour. She decided to send her away. "I'm too old daughter. My daughters are not here. You come tomorrow. Try the Konsam households. They are wealthy." But the voice insisted, "I'm drenched Eema. Can I stay here till the rain stops? I'm shivering." The voice was innocent and surprisingly sweet for a tribal woman. The old lady remembered the kindness of the deceased lady and it softened her heart. She decided to let her in. She told herself, "Perhaps it will be a form of gratitude to you, Eche." And to the lady waiting outside, she answered "Why not daughter?
You can spend the night here. I am too weak to open the door for you. Just push the door inside and come in." She heard some footsteps. It didn't stop in front of the door. She saw the figure of a woman passing smoothly through the door. It walked towards her bed which was placed facing the door, close to back wall of the room. The door was still closed. But the old lady blamed these observations on her own impaired senses. It always happened.
The young woman was standing close to her bed. She was shivering and drenched with rain. "Take the mat. It is in the corner to my feet. Make yourself warm in the fire and we can talk." Quietly she took the mat and spread it very close to the fireplace. She sat down on it. The bag she was carrying, she kept it on her lap.
The old lady found her visitor to be an attractive young woman. She was shy and sensitive to her observations. Her hair and skin were soft and beautiful. She dressed herself with great care and attention. Her person was, in short, perfect. But the old lady saw two unfitting aspects – her Meitei attire and a flower inserted carefully in her hair. She got these two things totally wrong. Neither the attire nor the flower signified life, they meant something related to death. Would a tribal girl go for selling things like this in a Meitei village at dusk? The old lady had many questions. She felt uneasy.
She started, "Where are you from daughter?"
"From the hill, nearby."
"I'm old but I don't remember any tribal village in that hill."
"Oh, I'm sorry to tell you this. I came there only a few years ago. My family is the only one there. It is a quiet lifeless place. Sometimes I long for more people to join me. Look at your place, it is comfortable and up to my taste."
"I live with my sons and their wives. I have sent them away to ask for the death of a lovely friend of mine this afternoon. They will be here in no time. If the rain goes on, you can stay here with us."
"How lovely! The rain will stop before they are here, Eema. I find this very convenient, just you and me. Yes, I saw they were trying to burn the body at the end of the village but the rain kept putting out the fire. The smell was horrible when I passed the crematory. "
"Oh, poor soul! She was very close to me. She deserved to die at a better time."
Then silence. The young woman took the bag from her lap and placed it on the mat in front of her. The old lady coughed. She felt something strange about the answers he got from her visitor. She seemed familiar with the village, she even knew the deceased lady. Her attire, the flower and the way she mentioned about the body not burning – all, suggested something else. But she was there, innocently charming and looking into the fire.
"Can you bring me an ember ? I will smoke a bidi. Use the prongs and be careful."
"Sure." She took the prong, thrust it into the fire and took out a big lump of burning charcoal. "This is big." She passed it into her left hand. She thrust the prong again into the fire, and this time she got the right size. Meanwhile, the other lump of burning charcoal began to sink in her left palm. A puff of smoke came out of the tissue being burned. The charcoal passed and fell on the floor by making a hole in her palm. The old woman observed these things, but yet again blamed her senses as the young woman didn't give any response to it. But, the smell was unmistakable. She was not breathing pure air.
"Ok, bring it here and keep it near my face. I will light my bidi." As the other woman rose and came towards her bed she peeped at the left palm. Nothing was there, not even a scar. It was as shapely as a young woman's should. She sat down by the bedside and kept the ember near the old lady's face. The old lady quivered as she drew her bidi by pressing the tip into the red ember. Now she could see the woman's hand clearly. In the nail folds of those shapely fingers, there were some blackish-red crusts. They were in every finger. From what she saw, they appeared like permanent stain - something that resulted from repeated dipping into blood. The nail beds underwent a change in front of her eyes. From the base, they started transforming into a greyish black colour gradually towards the tip. It was a horror in motion.
"The bidi is lit." The old lady heard a huskier voice this time. The young woman turned round and headed back to the fireplace. She walked back like a man, a little stooped. She regained her softness only when she sat down and turned her head towards the fire. The air she stirred smelled of blood. Now the old lady believed what her senses had been suggesting the whole evening – there were two big patches of red on the woman's loin below knees. The same was for her blouse around the elbows.
"Is it late daughter? When will the rain stop? You must be hungry. I wish they came."
"No Eema. The rain will stop when the body of your friend is consumed. I'm hungry indeed. They will come only when it's all over."
The wise old lady knew what was underneath those words. In a bid to buy time and divert her mind, she asked, "How many children do you have? Who must be looking after them now?"
The young woman laughed playfully. She showed her teeth for the first time, but hid them quickly. The enamel had a dull yellowish-red tinge, and the blackish-red plaques between them were quite visible. And the old lady didn't miss the sharp elongated canines shining in the fire.
"I don't have children. That's why I'm here. But I have many friends, whom I feed and I can make friends with anything." She pushed her bag towards the end of the mat away from the fire.
"That's a good life. But children are a gift. You love them so much that you don't want to leave them at all", the old lady replied trying to indirectly appeal to the woman's mercy, if she had any.
"Eema you can't escape from death. Be concerned about the manner in which you will die. Your children will also die one day. When death comes, you are alone. No one can save you." She again pulled the bag towards her. The old lady noticed two long columns of dark red colour on the mat. At the end from where the woman had just pulled away the bag, a pool of blood was formed which overflowed the mat, ran down the sides and spilled onto the floor. She looked at the bag. The cloth was soaked.
"Is it still early? When will the rain stop?"
"It is getting late for me. The rain is about to stop." She blew the fire so that it burned stronger. The old lady yearned for her children - only if there was a knock on the door. Her feeble body was trembling. She wanted a quick dead. But what she had seen went against such a hope; she would die as painfully as the woman wished.
The woman lay down on the mat. She rested her chin on her hands. And looking at the old lady asked her, "Do you know what I have brought here to sell you?"
"I know you won't answer. But it is something beautiful and fascinating. Today will be a great day in your life, a day to realise extreme reality."
There came long drawn sounds of dogs crying. The rain became heavier. Winds fluttered the curtains of the windows. They entered the room and made the fire stronger and higher. The young woman stood very close to it. Through the shifting flames, the old lady saw her facial structures changing into that of a man. She had already heard of him. He was smiling as always, and with that bald head coupled with projecting hairless brows above a pair of dark sunken eyes, it was an abhorring scene.
He then reached for the bag. Blood was dripping from it as he suspended it near his cheek. He walked round the fire and came near the old lady. The rain was heavy and, the wind carried her cries away from any living ear.
"It is not that I want to take you. It's just that you are unfortunate, lady. There will be no help. If it happens, it completes." He knelt down and placing the bag on the floor began to unwind the binding. The old lady closed her eyes. There came a nauseating odour. She closed her eyes more tightly and started crying again.
A cold steely hand tightly grasped her hand. Her heart was racing. She could feel her hair standing and tightening her scalp. Her hand was carried towards something. What she felt first with her three fingers was sticky. She spread her palm over it. The thing was weakly pulsating. The grip directed her hand to a soft thing covered with a dry coagulated material. Some watery fluid came out when she pressed over it. She grew suspicious and half-crying, slipped her hand to the left. It met an elevation. She moved her hand vertically down from the point. She yelled out suddenly and broke down in shocked agony. She felt a severed pair of lips. Yes, it was a face – the cheek, the nose and lips. The thing inside the bag was a freshly cut head. The hand released its grip on her, and the thing fell down on the floor. When she opened her eyes, there was before her the thing she had expected, lying on the floor – her dismembered head.
The rain reduced to a drizzle and then stopped. The pyre had consumed the body of the Heisnam lady. The wind gushed inside the room through the door and put out the tiny oil lamp.
† Read the first two part of the series, THE RUMOUR and THE RICE FIELD INCIDENT
* Gautamjit Thokchom wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer is a "simple hearted introvert on medical intervention" and can be contacted at thgautamjit(at)outlook(dot)com
This article was posted on June 18, 2013
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