Story 68: Achala

I SLIP THROUGH the shuttered glass window like a moonbeam. The room I enter is unfamiliar, but that does not mean a thing. Memory is a luxury I no longer have. This is my first time in here, I tell myself, watching the single bed with the unrumpled white sheets, the pillow cover with pictures of cats on it, a tall bookshelf of grainy, unvarnished teak displaying leather-bound books with titles I cannot read… yes, this is a new house, a house I’ve never been inside before – but who can say for sure? All I can tell is that I needed to be here, so here I am.

I hear her before I see her. Her voice is no more than a soft whisper, the kind of rustling noise fallen leaves make when pushed along by a breeze.

‘Hello, Aunty,’ she says. ‘Come and sit.’

They catch me off guard, these words, and I jump to back up against the window’s sill. It is a hot, clear night, and I feel some of the outside warmth transmit itself to my back through the glass surface. No distant owls hoot. No dogs howl. There isn’t a black cat in sight. Some days the signs just don’t appear.

And then I see her, of course, semi-reclining on the bed, facing the ceiling, just her head turned to face me. She is dressed in a green and yellow half-sari. Her forehead is punctured with a tiny dot of vermillion. Her hair has been braided into two pigtails, with a green ribbon knotted around each. Her skin is cotton-white, unblemished, radiant.

No one tells me this, but I know that she is seven.

‘What brings you here?’ she says.

‘I – I don’t know,’ I reply, looking around me. Suddenly I feel like there has been a mistake, something that doesn’t add up. A deep sense of loss takes root at the pit of my stomach. Involuntarily my arms raise, and I make the bookshelf shake, quite without volition. The walls of the room are untidy, there is some graffiti in the corner. Just scrawls. Some faces, a house, a sun hiding behind two mountains – I try to absorb every detail, in the hope that one of them will trigger a long-lost memory, which will in turn awaken others, and then I can tell this little girl why I am here.

But nothing arrives. I hook my fingers tighter in frustration. The bookshelf makes an uncomfortable sound. One of the heavier books slips out and falls to the floor.

‘Maybe I should go,’ I say. I look over my shoulder, at Second Cross road, with a solitary streetlamp on Venkayya Veedhi beckoning to me.

‘You can,’ says the girl. ‘Or you can sit with me and we can talk. You look like you could use some rest.’

‘I don’t need any rest. I don’t have time. I – came to know that my son – he is going to be harmed tonight.’

‘Ah, okay.’ The girl allows her head to turn so that she is facing the ceiling again. ‘And you were brought here. How old is your boy?’

‘He is four.’

‘No one that age here,’ says the girl. ‘My name is Achala, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.’

I think of telling her my name, but discover that I don’t know it.

‘No matter,’ she says. ‘I will call you Aunty. You seem old enough.’

There is a drumming inside my head now, it urges me to get out of this place and find Govind. Govind. Right at this moment he is somewhere in this village, either in or on the cusp of danger – and I must go to him. Why was I sent the signal if I was not meant to save him?

‘I don’t know if asking why will get us anywhere,’ Achala says. ‘In life as in death. You know, this is where I live now – though it is not my home. Do you think I ask why?’

‘I don’t have time,’ I am saying, only half listening to the girl. ‘I must go, find him. Do you have any idea where he is?’

‘I may,’ says Achala. She raises herself to a sitting position, leaning back against the bed’s head rest, stretching out her legs together in a straight line. She curls and uncurls her toes. Her toenails are clear, almost blindingly white. ‘I would sit if I were you. We may have more time than you think.’

I make no move, but the next moment I am at the foot of the bed, with my hands resting on my lap, and my feet suspended a couple of inches off the floor.

‘I like your sari,’ Achala tells me. ‘Why aren’t you wearing bangles?’

I laugh at the absurdity of all this, and shake my head. ‘There has been some mistake. I have to go find my son.’

‘And yet you’re not leaving.’ Achala smiles at me, through thin lips and white teeth. Her lower canine on the left is missing. Her gums are a deep, bloodshot red. ‘Could it be that you’re not sure yet that there has been a mistake?’

‘Yes, of course,’ I admit. ‘I am not.’ I want to rage against this little girl, ask her how beings like us can be sure about anything. Are you sure, I want to shake her and demand. Are you sure why you’re here?

‘I will tell you right now,’ she says in that low, dulcet voice. ‘I don’t think they make mistakes.’

‘Who is “they”?’

Achala shrugs and smiles. ‘I’ve only been dead two weeks, so I am still getting used to it. But they is whoever sent you that signal you speak of. About your son. What did it say, exactly?’

‘That my son is going to be in danger.’

‘What kind of danger? Mortal danger? Or something he can live with?’

I think about the girl’s question. ‘Signals don’t come in words,’ I say at last.

‘I know. You and I are not speaking in words now either. But it’s okay. How did the signal feel to you?’

‘There was this sense of urgency, as if I had to hurry – so I automatically assumed that he would be in danger. And I was brought here.’

Achala nods. She sits absolutely still, I notice, and she is at peace with herself, the sense of a person with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. Here I am, she seems to say, and here I will stay. I get the sense as I sit there watching her that she is the only entity of colour in my field of vision. Everything else appears to be doused in monochrome, in some sort of motion, either approaching or receding, twisting or turning. The only way I can remain sane is by willing myself not to look away from her.

‘The reason I think there may not have been a mistake,’ she says, bringing her round black eyes to fasten onto me, ‘is because this house belongs to a murderer.’ She pauses, and smiles as if she’s making an introduction. ‘My murderer.’

‘A murderer,’ I say. ‘Here in Palem?’

‘Right here in Palem,’ says Achala. ‘He has a bit of a taste for young children. He is actually a friend of my family back in Dhavaleshwaram. I call him Uncle.’

‘How did he bring you here?’

‘Oh, it’s easy enough,’ says Achala, giggling at my naivety. ‘He put me to sleep first, and then he brought me over in a car at night. This village goes to sleep early, doesn’t it?’

‘I am sorry to hear this,’ I tell her. ‘You must miss your parents.’

Achala shrugs. ‘That’s okay,’ she says. ‘I did the first few days but now I am used to it.’

‘Why are you here, though?’ I ask. ‘Why aren’t you with your parents?’

‘I don’t get a choice with that,’ she tells me. ‘No more than you do. For instance, right now, if you will yourself to go away from here, with all your heart, can you?’

I look around myself again, wondering if the walls of the room are closing in. For the first time I sense something familiar about this house. Did I just hear an echo of Govind’s voice from the kitchen? I try to focus on the girl’s question. ‘Maybe,’ I tell her. ‘But as you said – maybe it hasn’t been a mistake.’

‘There are no mistakes,’ says Achala. ‘You will see once you stop fighting it.’

‘I am not fighting it!’ I tell her. ‘I just don’t want to be in here speaking to you when I could be out there saving my son.’

‘Maybe your son will be brought here too,’ says Achala. And she looks out of the window at the dark, lonely mud path. ‘The night is still young.’

I follow her gaze and try to understand. For a moment I don’t. Then I do.

‘Your uncle is going to bring my son here?’

Achala shrugs. ‘Who can know for sure? But it’s likely, isn’t it? Here you are, drawn by a signal that your son is going to be in trouble. You’re brought to the house of a child-murderer. What does that tell you?’ She plays with her bangles as she speaks, twists them round and round. One of her ribbons comes undone, and she sighs. ‘Will you tie this for me, Aunty?’

I tell her that I will. She turns around on the bed so that her back is facing me. As I rebraid her hair and wrap the ribbon around the plait, she hums a tune that I do not recognize at first, but of course it is the lullaby that I used to put Govind to bed with. And at once I am asking myself a question: how does she know this song?

Long after her ribbon has been retied, Achala sits in the same position, leaning back against me. I am comforted by her touch, as she is by mine. This is the guest bedroom, I remember. All of the houses on Second Cross road are two-bedroom units, perfect for a small family of three or four. Or two. The other bedroom is big enough to accommodate a wardrobe, a dressing mirror, an attached bathroom – and from there I hear the soft crooning of a young woman putting her son to sleep.

‘Uncle usually doesn’t stay out this late,’ Achala tells me. ‘Lately he has been putting together some photographs of a boy – he seemed a bit older than four, though. More like six or seven. Are you sure about your son’s age?’

‘No,’ I say.

‘I think he will bring him home today.’ A crack appears in Achala’s voice, which she clears with a quick cough. ‘Drugged, of course. And if what he did with me is any indication, Uncle will rape your son over the next week, multiple times a day.’

‘Stop,’ I tell her. ‘I won’t let him.’

‘What can you do to stop him?’ she asks me, turning over her shoulder.

‘I don’t know,’ I reply. ‘If I was meant to stand and watch, I don’t think I would have been brought here in the first place.’

‘That is true,’ says Achala. ‘I saw you moving that bookshelf before. You made that book slide out and fall, didn’t you?’

‘I did.’

‘Have you always had powers like this?’

‘I – I don’t remember,’ I tell her truthfully. ‘I don’t remember what I was doing before I came here.’

‘Oh, me too!’ says Achala with glee. And at once a serious frown contorts her brow. ‘How did you die?’

‘I killed myself.’ As I say those words I hear the sound of rope stretching, of a chair clattering away in response to my kick, and Govind’s frantic cries, his little arms wrapped around my ankles, and his feet scrambling to support my weight. That happened out in the front room, did it not?

‘How long ago did you die?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t remember.’

‘Then it must have been longer than two weeks for sure,’ says Achala. ‘Because then you’d remember it. Your son – what happened to him after you died?’

I shake my head. ‘The first I heard of him after I died was today.’ And I stopped myself to wonder what ‘today’ meant. Were there days anymore in our world? Just time, extending forward and backward, in every direction, one unending desert in which you wandered forever.

‘I know what you mean,’ Achala says. She takes my hand in hers. ‘Come.’

The next moment we’re in the other bedroom. She points me to the king-sized bed draped in white satin sheets. The walls have been freshly painted, and the smell of lead clings to the air. A flash of memory hits me, an image of me suckling Govind while leaning back against that very wall – but so much has changed. So much in so little time…

‘He kept me here most of the two weeks,’ Achala tells me. ‘Four times a day he would come, bringing food to eat, a tablet to swallow, and then he would ask if it was okay if he took off his clothes.’

‘What did you say?’

Achala smiles at me disturbingly, like a grown woman. ‘What do you think I said?’

She holds me by the hand and walks me around the room in silence. It is as if she is telling me: he raped me here, and here, and here. She takes me to the bathroom – we slide in through the closed door – and I almost immediately retch at the foul smell.

Achala does not notice my discomfort. She is humming that tune under her breath. ‘He cut me open in here,’ she says, ‘and left me to bleed for twenty hours.’

‘Why are you showing me all this?’ I ask, covering my mouth and nose.

‘I don’t know,’ she replies in an imitation of my voice, and smiles over her shoulder. This is a more child-like smile, a smile of innocence, of welcome. ‘You’re the first guest I’ve ever had. I just felt like telling you.’ We exit the bathroom, and float toward the front door of the house. ‘I want to show you what awaits your son if you don’t intervene.’

‘Of course I am going to intervene,’ I say. ‘Do you think I am going to stand around and watch while that monster –’

‘That looks a bit like you, doesn’t it?’ says Achala, turning to a framed photograph on the wall.

I turn, and for a moment I freeze. My hand squeezes around hers a bit tighter than it should. It’s a photograph of me, of course, about as old as I am now, maybe a couple of years younger, holding Govind in my arms. And I am standing outside this very house, pointing at the camera and grinning. Govind is holding his hands to his eyes, his curly black hair running ringlets all over his scalp.

‘This used to be my house,’ I say slowly.

‘Looks like it,’ says Achala. ‘And looks like Uncle has been prowling for your son ever since you left. Do you have any idea who is looking after him now?’

‘No,’ I reply. I try to imagine this man who has taken possession of my house, and who is right now bringing my son back to the house in which he took birth – so that he could – but why?

‘I think Uncle may get a kick out of raping your son in your house,’ says Achala, quite calm about it all. ‘I wonder if he bought this house after your death or if he is renting it.’ She shakes her hand off my grip and walks to one of the windows, from where she can see the main road. ‘That is why I say it must have been a year or two since you died – because the house belongs to Uncle now.’

‘Correct,’ I whisper. Govind looks no older than two in that picture, so perhaps it has been two years since then. It is hard to keep track of time when it doesn’t exist.

Achala floats backward from the window as the sound of a car fills the compound. ‘Here he comes,’ she says.

We wait in the darkest corner of the living room, waiting for the door to open. The footsteps we hear are sure, light and steady. He is whistling a tune. The same one. A click as the key slides into the hole and turns. A lazy yawn from the door as it swings open. I don’t need to, but I pull Achala close to myself protectively.

The man who enters the room flicks two switches, and in an instant we’re bathed in harsh, white light. He doesn’t take any notice of us, of course. He walks to the mini-fridge, brings out a bottle, and takes a good hard swig at it.

‘Uncle,’ says Achala.

‘But he is alone,’ I reply. ‘Where is my son?’

For a long time Achala does not answer me. As the man moves to the rocking chair, settles into it, and places his feet on the coffee table, we watch quietly. I try to rack my brain to think of whether I’d seen him before. But I hadn’t. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties, quite slender of build, but strong in the hands and fingers. The glasses he wore were rimless and rectangular; they gave him the appearance of a schoolteacher. Or a librarian. A scientist.

‘Maybe there has been a mistake,’ says Achala.

‘Have you forgotten?’ I hear myself saying. ‘There are no mistakes.’

I am aware of the realization before it strikes me, before I know what it even is. I take Achala by the hand and lead her to the photograph on the wall. I rise up into the air so that I can touch my nose to the glass surface of the frame. I am looking for a remnant of a date which I know is present – the top left corner? No. The top right? No.

I find an almost fully faded sequence of three numbers along the bottom edge. ‘See this?’

Achala frowns at it and shakes her head. ‘It says three-eight-five. What does that mean, Aunty?’

‘That photograph was taken in March of nineteen eighty five,’ I reply. Behind me, I hear Govind sobbing and rocking on his chair. ‘Which year is this?’

‘It is 2017,’ says Achala. ‘Thirty two years – that means by now your son must have –’

‘Yes,’ I reply, turning around with Achala in my arms to face the man in the chair. For a moment I wonder if he is looking at me, but of course he is looking past me at the photograph. Tears are streaming down his cheeks, and he is clutching the armrests of the chair with all his might, rocking as fast as he can. Every now and then a guttural sound of agony tears him open.

‘He does this every night,’ Achala says. ‘He sometime comes to the backyard, where he buried me, and he says sorry. He says sorry, sorry, sorry, but I could not help it.’

‘Where did he bury you in the backyard?’

Achala takes me to the guest bedroom, to the window through which I entered the house. Now I know every nook and corner of this desolate place. This is where I first beat him. This is where he took his first steps. This is where he called me Amma for the first time.

She shows me the spot by pointing at it through the window. Under the guava tree. He and I planted the sapling for this third birthday. They buried me beside it. Now I remember. But who is ‘they’? Who buried me and who took care of Govind? Did it matter?

‘I am not the first one,’ Achala tells me. He small fingers entwine with mine. ‘There are others. All buried there.’

‘How many?’

‘Five. Four besides me,’ says Achala. ‘He began on his thirtieth birthday. I don’t know why he waited so long – or maybe there are other places he used to use, and now he has come here.’

I try to imagine this grave of five children, their faces and their smiles, and their bodies writhing in pain, this earth soaked in their blood. I try to picture Govind heaving Achala’s deformed and defiled body over his shoulder one moonlit night, and carrying her to the shade of the guava tree. She sits propped up against the trunk, watching, while he digs. He whistles while he works. The same song.

She still bleeds from her wounds even though life has left her. Her body is still warm. He talks to her, tells her that he loves her. ‘Don’t be sad that you have to leave, baby,’ he says. ‘We will always have these fourteen days.’

‘Stop!’ cries Achala, scratching on my wrist. ‘I cannot!’

Achala, pure and pristine by my side, without a mark on her divine face. Achala, buried under that guava tree, rotting away, her half-sari tattered and stained by his fluids. And the remaining four children he has claimed for himself – nothing but bones and dust. Even their souls are long gone. If they ever thirsted for revenge, that is also now just a memory.

I want to ask Achala if she felt anger for Uncle at any point during the two weeks he had kept her captive here.

She shakes her head. ‘Sorrow. A lot of sorrow.’

Did she plead with him to let him go? Did she promise that she would never tell anyone about him? Did she beg him? Did a seven year old feel the pangs of being separated, one inch at a time, from life?

‘He would ask me,’ says Achala. ‘He would ask me if I would like to go back home, to my family. If you promise to keep this a secret, I will let you go. And then, after I’d break down and promise him everything he asked for, he would smile at me gently, and he would shake his head. Tell me you love me, he’d say. And I would.’

She kept speaking now, as if she were reading off a page. ‘Seventy three times I told him I loved him. Even when he was cutting me up, he would say that he would let me go if I told him one last time that I loved him.’

Of course. A seven year old is yet to learn of broken promises. The guava tree is ripe with fruit, and it sways in the night breeze. She tells me – in her soothing, tender voice – all the things that he did to her, all the things he made her do and say… I wonder at what point she realized that all his promises were fake.

‘Not until the end,’ she says. ‘He sat down with me in the bathroom on the last day, and as my breathing became shallow, he leant close to me and kissed me on the mouth. I am setting you free, baby, he said. And cut me one last time.’

I think of the signal that came to me, that brought me to this house tonight. Achala is right, of course. There are no mistakes. My son is in mortal danger.

We float together into the kitchen. I sense a swelling of power inside me. I feel a deep, hard pounding on the inside of my breasts, and I have to breathe with intense focus in order to numb the pain. On the counter by the gas stove I see a carving knife. It has a dark brown handle, a small and narrow blade with tiny serrations on it. Without being told I know that it is what he used on Achala, and on the four other children.

I close my eyes and flex.

My fingers close around the handle. I lift it up. There is a gasp of surprise from Achala. She is standing by my side, looking up at me, holding on to the end of my sari.

Govind’s sobs still come to us from the living room. Interspersed with the rocking of the chair. He is muttering something to himself, a river of words flowing out of his mouth and hitting that photograph on the wall. We stand in the corner.

‘Would you like to watch, Achala, or will you go to the bedroom?’ I ask her.

Achala winces. For the first time that night I see her face contort, as if in pain. Then she begins to recover. She is turning over the choice in her mind. I give her time, watching the chair rock to and fro, hearing the remorseful groans of a beast whose time has come.

Then she says, ‘I will watch.’

She lets go of my hand, goes to stand with her back to the wall directly under the photograph, directly in Govind’s line of sight. She hides her hands behind her and steels herself. And looks her murderer in the eye and waits.

I raise my knife – her knife – and float toward Govind.