Monday, April 6, 2009

That Night

I am a man who was known in the circles as one of those grim, grouchy sorts who would brood and mope; who would think twice before smiling and then finally decide not to smile and who always had the look of a thundercloud, an anomaly that did not bode well for his already dark appearance. Women found me intriguing because I was one of those ‘unsoughtables’. I wonder how I managed to ward off those wily, debauched, conspiratory advances made by females of all shapes, sizes, ages, colours, accents and intentions. I then proceed to marvel at the fact that in face of such perils my good sense prevailed and I escaped unscathed. But then that was to be expected of me. I was after all an intellectual, a well-read professor, a seasoned traveler and an authority on several disciplines. Reader, I perceive that you are smirking. You may also harbor the notion that I am a self-glorifying, arrogant bigot. But believe me, I am not what you think I am. This is a mere pose. A fa├žade. An armour that protects me from all evils. You still smirk disbelievingly. Hmmn…let’s see if what I am about to recount can alter your reaction.

My expansive knowledge on several branches of science won me invitations to innumerable gatherings, be it academic or social. One such purely academic gathering took me several miles away from home. Hence it entailed an overnight travel coupled with at least a week away from familiarity. Such transitions tend to bring with them a feeling of impending doom. You may think that this is a rather weak foundation to build my fear upon. But imagine, reader, traveling all those miles in the dark, where mists rise like funeral shrouds and trees devoid of leaves resemble shadowy shapes, half human half corpse-like, empty branches stand stiffly like outstretched, paralyzed limbs, and gaping black holes on tree trunks seem like open mouths screaming noiselessly. This noiselessness is scarier than the loudest of all screams. The unknown unseen brings with it a deeply penetrating, raw fear because it gives the mind the liberty to conjure up all kinds of unwantedness  and leave you at its mercy. And yes, I too am a man who has his share of momentary weaknesses. But I am also a man of science. A man who harbours rational thoughts and is a skeptic when it comes to certain unexplainable occurrences that do not have any scientific premise to unravel their explanations.

Several of us were traveling together and an animated discussion ensued regarding the house towards which we were headed. Apparently there was a strange series of events that unfolded in that property just the day before.

“I am ready to lay a wager that it was a ghost,” she remarked with a wicked glance at me.

I stared at her with a deliberate, blank look. She was beautiful, dark, like me. Her lips never smiled completely. And that lazy half smile with the sharp, darting looks from those smoky black eyes would definitely have felled a lesser man. I continued to gaze at her without saying a word. She stared right back at me unblinkingly. A mistimed query from a colleague compelled me to look away. Her triumphant smile literally had me boxing the questioner’s ears. I consoled myself with the knowledge that there would definitely be a next time.

We reached the house. House? It was a mansion.  And there it stood with the black sky and the moon like a backdrop prop of an unfinished drama. Wispy clouds hung about the turrets like torn silks and the moon gazed sadly at us. She seemed to sigh heavily and her breath swirled around her like a grey veil. No lights welcomed us. No human being was in sight. The sombre air seemed to spear the chill from the atmosphere into our souls and we huddled deeper in our coats. She stood close to me and I could feel her tremble. (Reader, I am a tall man and I tend to look down ‘on’ people. Figuratively speaking). And I looked down ‘on’ her. She was afraid. All the bravado had vanished. I decided to let go off my customary resistance. I put an arm around her shoulders, gathering her close to me. I knew that this gesture of mine gave her comfort.

An instant later we heard a loud, melancholic cry. It sounded like a child crying out in agony and it echoed into the night. We stood still rooted to the ground. A sudden movement and a black cat rocketing out of a nearby bush had us literally down on our knees thanking God for small mercies. We decided that enough was enough and trudged towards the gates of the mansion. It seemed like a cue because suddenly the doors opened and a herd of people (servants all of them) poured out. Lights came on miraculously. Everywhere was chatter, action and commotion. I felt strange. Surely they knew that we would be reaching at this hour. Why weren’t they ready for us? Why were we made to wait? And why did their smiles seem forced? Maybe I was reading too much. But I kept adjusting the collar of my shirt and twisting my neck, because I felt extremely uncomfortable. Not with my attire, mind you, but with the scene that was being enacted in front of me. I was shown into my room by one of the butlers. A man whose formal demeanour was stiffer than my starched collar. He wouldn’t even look at me, but every move of his bespoke centuries of impeccability.

The feeling of unease was still inside me when I laid myself down on the bed. The room was richly furnished and spotlessly clean. Flawless as far as the externalities were concerned. But there was something embedded within the atmosphere of the room. Something cold and eerie. I closed my eyes and was just surrendering myself to sleep when I felt a cold whiff of air upon my cheek. As though someone had exhaled after swallowing a lump of ice. My eyes opened and I saw her. She was white. Unnaturally white. My first instinct was to demand an explanation. But I realized that she was floating in air like one of those curtains that are suspended from frames, billowing bodylessly.

“Will you?” she implored. Her beautiful face underwent an agonized distortion. And she vanished.

This was not real. There has to be some logical explanation for this. A floating woman cannot find her way inside my room and pose an enigmatic question like that. No. I refuse to believe this. But when ‘this’ occurred twice during the two ensuing nights, I felt that some step ought to be taken.

On the fourth night I waited for her. I would have been the happiest man on earth if she hadn’t come. But then I was one of those men who were neither happy nor lucky. There she stood, her silks and veils flowing sinuously around her. Her gaze imploring, her face agonized.

I sat up and asked her, “What do you want?”

She turned and disappeared inside the wall as though it never existed. Well, I had to use the door and I did. I saw her in the dimly-lit corridor. It was heavily carpeted with gleaming wood and grim faces imprisoned in frames glared down at us. I felt cold as I followed her. What was I doing? What was I thinking? She seemed to know her way well and she took me through labyrinthine passages. I was thankful for the cache of candles and matchsticks lying comfortably inside the pocket of my greatcoat. I felt  a sudden sharp wind almost cut into my face. We were outside. I could see a little garden with shrubs in full bloom. The perfumes suffocated me. Roses, lavender, forget-me-nots and what nots. And then she stopped. Her gaze seemed to be transfixed at one particular spot on the ground. It was a newly made flower bed with a neat little border. She pointed at it. Something that belonged to her was obviously buried there. I looked around and found a shovel. I dug and I dug. The effort made me sweat, despite the cold night and the chilling enterprise. And what I unearthed still strikes terror in my heart and makes me break into cold sweat. It was a body. Her body. She had been stabbed. The shovel fell from my hands. I turned to look at her. Her eyes were red. They seemed to have filled with blood. And it over flowed like tears. Incrimsoned.

I am ashamed to confess but I chose this moment to faint and they found me lying there the next morning. My strong physical disposition brought me out of the feverish condition in no time. And I awoke to heated discussions on the murder, by stabbing, of the lady who owned the house. Her husband the culprit, who hankered after her property which was worth millions, tried to cover up his crime by burying her in the garden. But her restless soul clamouring for justice had triumphed in the end. I am relieved to say (albeit shamelessly) that the rest of my time passed uneventfully.

Can you imagine then, reader, what I went through and what I still go through (at times)? A skeptic man of science was singled out by the ghost of a murdered woman and made to unearth a ghastly secret. It almost reduced me to the level of those mediumistic individuals who commune with spirits from the other world. I was confounded and the only way I could save face was to transform myself into a brooding bigot.

But she saw through this. And today we are married. Happily married if I may be allowed to add. It remains though that we have confined ourselves to the crowded cities and never laid a foot in another mansion.