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“NOW I warn you, you don’t want to enter that house over there,” the man said, pointing to the village house across the lane.
He was barefoot and bare-chested; white stubble covered his cheeks and chin. His khaki shorts were held up by a piece of string. He had come out into his front yard and was addressing the young mother with a baby in a sling who was standing in the dappled shade of the trees bordering the lane. She wore leggings and Adidas and her hair was pulled up in a high ponytail. She was taking pictures using a borrowed Canon R5 of a broken-down house obscured by a wilderness of trees.
“I’ve lived in this village a long time.” The man scratched the mat of white hair on his chest. Then, thrusting his thumbs in his belt loops, he began, “and I know a thing or two. Some years ago a merchant lived right there in that house with his three grown daughters after he lost his wife. It is now a ruin but once it was surrounded by a well-tended garden with jasmine and frangipani and fruit trees. A grove of coconut palms stretched on either side.”
The woman turned to him abruptly. “Do you know if I may go into the house? I want to take some pictures of the inside.”
“Wait till you hear my story,” the man replied. “You see that well there?” He asked pointing to something hidden by creepers and brambles. “A solitary coconut palm once stood near it. The merchant had come across a great big sealed jar in his travels. He planned to place the jar near the well, but his workmen accidentally cracked open the seal and some shadowy thing, light as an exhaled breath, flew out.”
The woman looked at him skeptically, as if questioning how he could have known this.
Raising his hand, the man continued, “I’m just telling you that which is common knowledge in our village. The two older sisters ran the household for the father and supervised the cleaning and cooking. Girls, after all, are borrowed wealth.”
The woman rolled her eyes.
Ignoring her, the man continued. “Sooner or later they marry and adorn their husbands’ homes. That is what Leela, the oldest sister, did. Even though she was big-boned and lisped, the lucky girl married a rich man and moved to a village twenty miles from here. Shortly after, when she became pregnant, she returned to her father’s house to be near her family during the confinement. That was when they first heard, from time to time, late at night, a thumping outside. At first the sounds were faint, then hard to ignore.
“Thump, Wumpf! Thump, Wumpf! It sounded as though someone was pounding the earth with a club, or bouncing on a demoniac pogo stick.
“‘Do you hear that?’ the girls asked each other.
“‘It’s must be the factory,’ the second daughter, Neela said. Now, Neela had long beautiful curly hair that she could sit on. She had a dreamy absent look, and she was always reading romantic novels.
“‘Factories are closed on Sunday night!’ said the youngest daughter, Sheela who always wore bell-shaped earrings, and her cheeks dimpled prettily when she smiled. But don’t be deceived, that one was a firecracker.
“The second time they heard the sound, the girls flew to the window. Stars twinkled in the sky, but there was no one outside. ‘Do you hear that sound, Father?’ they asked.
“The merchant was puzzled. ‘What nonsense you talk!’ He said. ‘I hear nothing. It’s just the fanciful imagination of you ladies.’
“‘Don’t include me, father,’ Sheela said, dimpling prettily.
“One night Leela had to use the privy. Dense darkness covered everything. She set out holding a lantern and was halfway down the sandy trail through the mango grove that led to the outhouse, but then she changed her mind and hitched up her skirts and crouched under the coconut tree. Immediately, she heard something slithering down the trunk followed by the thunderous sound of dead palm fronds being dragged at tremendous speed. The girl hastily straightened her skirt to cover her rump. Looking around in the light of her lantern, there was no one.
“She made her way back to her room and found fiery red ants circling her bed. Shortly after, a daughter was born to her. One day when she was playfully tossing the baby up in the air and catching her, she saw a shadow. She panicked and the baby hit the floor screaming. The child was always a little soft in the head after that.”
The woman pulled her baby a little closer.
The man fished a tin of snuff from his pocket and took a pinch in each nostril. “Now where was I? Ah, yes, the second daughter, Neela,” he continued. “She married a professor and moved to the same village as her older sister. When she became pregnant she arrived home for the confinement as her older sister had done before her. She lived in a room jutting out the side of the house with an entrance by an outside staircase. It was her habit to wash her long curly hair on Sundays with soap nut powder and sit with a book under the coconut palm while her hair dried in the sunlight streaming through the palm fronds. Late one night as she lay sleeping she heard it.
“Thump, Wumpf! Thump, Wumpf!
“At times the footfalls were right outside the front door. Within moments they were distant, as far away as the fields and beyond, and then again they came closer and closer, up the wooden stairs until they were right outside her door.
“Neela listened, lying on her bed sweating, her throat frozen. Early the next morning her water broke. I don’t know much about all this, but my wife used these expressions. My wife who is now no more, God rest her soul. Neela too, gave birth but, alas, the girl that was born had no heartbeat.”
Looking at the ground, the man shook his head sorrowfully. Then turning to the pony-tailed young lady, he continued.
“Now, there was only Sheela who had just turned 16, a vivid little creature, small and vibrant as a hummingbird and smart as a button, with her bell-shaped earrings dangling and her cheeks dimpling.”
The old man smiled dreamily. “A fire-cracker, I told you, and she was no domestic goddess, just like the rest of you modern young ladies, and though she loved her father, she could scarcely keep house for him.
“Still, that year a travelling troupe of actors visited the village. The merchant was a generous man and he offered the troupe lodgings in his home. The theater company cook fed everyone sumptuously. In return, the merchant and Sheela could see their play as often as they wished. Sheela appeared in the front row at every show, and one day she twined herself around the leading man and kissed him right under the coconut palm. When the troupe left the village she was nowhere to be found, for she had run away with the actor.
“But within a year Sheela was back at her father’s door, with a belly round as a watermelon.
‘Throw her out on the street for bringing shame on the family,’ the merchant’s friends said.
“This fell upon Sheela’s ears. She felt a rush of blood. ‘I’ll teach them,’ she said, shaking her raised fist, ‘I am going to be the queen of the silver screen. Just you wait!’”
The young mother’s pony tail bobbed in excitement when she heard those words.
The man continued, pleased by the interest that his little tidbit had generated. “Yes, Queen of the silver screen, nothing less! The father invited Leela and Neela, the two older sisters to come take care of the youngest sister. They steered Sheela to a dim back chamber at the end of a long passage to hide her from visitors and cruel wagging tongues.
“Months passed, and one night Sheela called the other two. Their father had set off early that morning for a town 12 miles distant and he had not yet returned. Shadows leapt up the wall as the sisters went down the long passage with their lanterns. We didn’t have electricity then. No electricity, no computer, no telephone, no fancy cameras.” The man said, appraising the camera hanging from the young woman’s shoulder.
“Sheela’s lips were dry and chapped. ‘Get me a knife,’ she whispered. Sweat beaded her upper lip.
“The older sisters ran to get a knife.
From far away came a familiar sound. Sheela rose from her bed and picked up a rock from under her pillow and it whizzed out of the window. ‘Go away, you!’ she yelled, ‘I’m not afraid of you!’
“All was silent for a bit, then, Thump, Wumpf! Thump . . . You should never anger these spirits. The footfalls sounded giddily triumphant as they pranced closer and closer, faster and faster. They almost seemed to be dancing a jig.
“After turning up the wick on the kerosene lantern, and instructing Sheela to bolt her door from inside, the two older sisters scurried through the house locking doors and windows and barricading the front door with the crossbar.
“‘Do you think she’s due?’ Neela whispered to Leela.
“‘Naw,’ Leela replied, ‘thhee lookth far too comfortable. Leth go to bed and thleep a little.’
“But, alone in her chamber, Sheela was moaning and tossing and turning all through the night. Her bedclothes lay in a heap. The lantern wick threw a weak sputtering light and a large shadow on the wall.
“The thumping stopped. A smoky shape like fog on water rose up; it towered higher than the house. It hovered briefly under the languid moon. Then swirling down like a corkscrew it passed over the threshold like spilled milk. Some villagers say like spilled blood. Then the shape rose and slowly glided down the long rambling passage to the heavy wooden door to Sheela’s chamber — and slipped underneath.
“An hour after midnight, the house shook with a blood-curdling shriek. I tell you, even my wife woke up. Terrified, she put her arms around my neck and snuggled up to me.”
The man took another pinch of snuff. He sneezed loudly and wiped his nose with a large dirty, handkerchief that he pulled from the same pocket that held the snuff-box.
“So what was I saying? Yes, the two sisters had been sleeping like ogres, for they had been working hard all day. The scream woke them up. They looked at each other, their hearts pounding in their breasts. They lurched down the passage with their lanterns. They saw bloody footsteps all along the passage and bloody handprints on the wall. It took them some time to batter the door down (before realizing it had only been locked from the outside). They burst in. ‘What happened, what happened?’ they cried.
“But there was no one there. Then they heard it. A faint mewling sound came from the bed, and hidden in the bedclothes they discovered a tiny infant, flailing. He was bloody but alive! The sisters were wonderstruck. When Neela, the middle sister, opened her arms and cradled the infant to her breast, she never wanted to let him go. Leela hurried to the kitchen to get hot water. Momentarily, they forgot all about Sheela.
“When the father finally arrived towards dawn, he sent out search parties. They called her name, but Sheela was gone. The grief-stricken father eventually left our village to be with his two older daughters and grandson — and look at this place now,” the man said, pointing to the house and shaking his head in despair.
“So, I’m telling you as I tell all the young people who visit our village of late, looking for some famous actress or some such nonsense: Don’t go there!
“And this is what I warn young mothers like you. If at midday on a Sunday, you happen to visit the well and gaze too long at your reflection in the water, a wan face will suddenly appear under the water staring up at you with a faint smile. It is Sheela with her bell-shaped earrings. ‘Have you seen my child?’ she whispers. Don’t look. Her eyes will cast a spell.” The man pointed to the baby in the sling. “Just hold tight to your child and run.”
When he finished his narrative, the old man was a little peeved that the young woman had been ignoring him. She had been taking pictures from different angles. She turned around and faced him. “I just need a few close-ups of the house and the interior,” she said.
The old man yawned, stretching his arms overhead. “Don’t say that I didn’t warn you,” he remarked, before sauntering off towards his dwelling.
“The story you told me is not true!” The woman called out to his retreating figure.
The shadows were now lengthening. Stillness enveloped everything. A leafy bough of one of the trees bordering the merchant’s garden began to shake violently even though there was no wind. The young mother stepped back, clutching her baby.
“Look!” she cried, addressing the now absent old man. Brandishing a picture she had pulled out of her pocket, she said, “You cannot frighten me. I have watched her movies and read about her on the Internet. The youngest daughter, Sheela, as you call her, is alive and thriving. That is why I have come all the way from the big city to this godforsaken village, to do research on her early life. Sheela became a famous movie star who played brave heroines. And though she never acknowledged it, I am certain that she is none other than the fearless Hemalata, the reigning queen of the silver screen.”
Her words echoed in the empty lane. The baby started to whimper. The mother sat on the stone steps leading to the merchant’s house and began to nurse her. “There, there, Sweetie. Horrible man, trying to frighten us! Just a few more pictures and tomorrow we’ll be back home, okay? Mommy has to work,” she cooed.
Then settling the baby in her sling, she started up the steps along the darkening pathway to the merchant’s house.