Being Human

I groan, rapping a loose knuckle
against the heavy double-glazed door of my local McDonald’s. Trying the door
once more – it doesn’t give – a familiar anxiety creeps up, leaping into
piggyback position, without permission. When, earlier that evening, the doctor,
a smug man with handlebar moustache touched his fingers to his naked chin in a
light, affectionate gesture and asked, ‘but how do we cure loneliness?’, and
with no answer forthcoming, nothing but mild, undeserved awe, had shrugged and
smiled at the woman I had been following around the impromptu party, her body
shifting but a fraction; still, this placing a chasmal difference in our
non-existent potential, I should’ve come back with a quick quip, sharp as a
whip from the hand of a matador cracking against a bull’s buttock. Something
like-oh, I don’t know, but something.

I knock at the glass once more. A
short woman appears, standing at a distance. We watch each other for a moment.
I knock again. She takes the few steps towards me, and when close enough, I
say:

‘I would like some nuggets.’

She points at the sign displaying
opening times, like the glass is soundproof. Indoors, I can hear the sweet
arias of Beethoven the company deployed as an anti-yob tactic, some genius from
marketing deciding that the Moonlight Sonata could prevent a riot.

‘I would like some nuggets,’ I
repeat. She points to the sign once more. This branch isn’t open until 5 AM.

‘I will pay you,’ I open my wallet
and take out the first note, squinting at the coloured face of Queen Elizabeth
in the darkness, ’20 pounds for 20 McNuggets. You can keep the change.’

The woman doesn’t say anything, so I
slip the note under the door, wobbling a little as I rise. She bends at the
hip, her hand against the small of her back, and sweeping back strands of
blonde hair which have strayed from the safety of her hairnet, picks up the
money, holds it to the light and pockets it. She turns around, and waddles
away.

I check my wrist. It’s naked. I took
my watch off earlier, before falling asleep cuddling a stranger in the spare
bedroom. She was not the woman I had been following around all evening, who, at
midnight, made her excuses – something about work in the morning – and left the
party. The glass door unlocks automatically. I walk in.

A child, barely out of the perils of
his teenager years, is behind the desk, his hands drumming the counter
arrhythmically, the fear he might have to interact with me manifesting.

‘Excuse me, could you get the short
blonde lady who works here for me? Like yay high?’ I ask, illustrating with a
flat palm to my breastbone.

‘Oh, Sandra? She’s on cleaning duty.
I’ll go get her.’

Behind the counter, the fat fryer
sputters and spits, as staff prepare the rations for the drunk, the wanderers,
the early birds, the habituals. The young man returns, more fidgety than
before.

‘Erm, she’s not here.’ A pregnant,
dishonest pause. ‘She’s gone home.’

‘Right.’

A disembodied hand slides hash browns
and McMuffins onto the relevant shelves, ready to serve. Near the bottom of the
set of shelves lies a greasy box of nuggets, the last box.

‘Do you have a no chase policy?’

‘Er…we don’t have security here.’

‘Oh, ok. Cool.

I consider leveraging myself over the
desk, which, would make for a better story and more entertaining CCTV footage,
but I’ve been drinking. That would be dangerous. I wander around the side gate,
pluck the Nuggets from their resting place, consider a box of fries, leave the
box of fries because I’m not greedy, just trying to stave off the surety of a
hangover, and, high-fiving the nonplussed young man, I walk out.

Outside, the sun is ignoring its
alarm, blues and pinks and purples but the orange corona nowhere to be seen. A
fox scampers along near me, not unlike a dog at feeding time. I chuck him – or
her – a nugget, which they chomp on.

‘Listen,’ I say, between mouthfuls,
‘I’ve always believed in the fundamental goodness of humans, but everyone does
things for a reason, you know? One which is justified to them. Whatever, you
probably don’t care anyway.’

‘So why’d you give me the nugget?’
The fox asks silently.

‘You looked hungry.’

‘Altruism feeding your static ego.’
He bobs his head in a nod, and darts away in the darkness.

In the morning, I try to massage the
hangover from my body with codeine and a skin-wrinkling shower. It’s Friday,
and still too early to order a takeaway. I type a message to my best friend, in
capitals, saying, ‘I WANT TO DIE.’ His response is equally melodramatic: ‘I’M
WAITING FOR THE REAPER TO COLLECT ME.’ I email work, citing stress induced
flu-like symptoms as my reason for not coming in on time, or at all. My flatmate isn’t home, so I dance around the
house naked, to ‘a-ha’s’ Take on Me, until even this liberation,
combined with the nausea, is overwhelming, retiring to bed.

I toss about in the duvet, unable to
find any position in which my body isn’t pulsating, my heart working overtime
to pump out every toxin I’ve dashed through my mouth. I make the executive
decision to masturbate. Queuing up visual memories, I am a child once more,
approaching the desk at Blockbuster with an armful of videos, intent on a
marathon. Like then, I’m told I can only have one, and reward whichever cruel
adult has delivered this sentence with hot, fresh salty tears. After I finish,
I wipe my eyes and fall asleep. Five minutes later, I’m woken by a hypnic jerk,
a swooping around my navel, my heart thudding harder. I check my wrist. It’s
still naked. The time on my phone tells me I could pre-order from the Indian
around the corner. Loading up some unpolitically correct sitcom from the 90s, I
spend far too long deliberating over my few choices, when I know what I want.

When it arrives, I call immediately
and explain my food is colder than the chest freezer from which the produce was
taken from. They extend their sincerest apologies and promise to refund me.
Instead, they email a colourful, badly designed coupon for the equivalent of my
next meal. We all know the deal here, this isn’t our first rodeo. The coupon
will do.

Whilst eating, I scroll through my
contacts at random. Spilling a daal off the edge of my naan bread onto my
pillow, I type a message to a friend I haven’t spoken to for a few months,
asking if he wants to get a drink tonight to catch up. My phone pings as soon
as I put it down. It is the girl from last night, the stranger I shared a bed
with, saying, ‘I’ve got your watch. Let’s get a drink, I can give it back to
you?’ I ignore her. I wonder if she is still a stranger if I shared a bed with
her. Probably. When I’ve finished my meal, I upload an image to Instagram,
describing the semi-urgent nature of my impending doom, both for the sake of my
employers, who I know keep tabs, and to let the world know what I’m doing. This
is the best, or one of the best times to upload, catching the ennui of
lunchtime, maximising interaction. Most of my life revolves around filling
time, until the next ‘certainty’ arrives. In this way, I’m sure when death does
arrive, I’ll be ok, I think.

Monday, I call in sick again. I’ve
run out of paid sick days, so my manager suggests I take a few days off as
holiday, which I do. I decide to feed my body, mind and soul, and head to an
art gallery.

It’s a muggy, nasty sort of day,
sweat pooling in pits and orifices of all kinds. The sun is still hiding. I
walk past the Tate Modern several times – the last time I visited, my best
friend and I were chased out by security, after failing to control a bout of
the giggles at the number of blank canvas’ the gallery was exhibiting. Still,
the potent cocktail of laziness and convenience entices me towards the
entrance.

The guy welcoming people, despite my
best efforts, catches my eye, holding my gaze with a fierce, determined glare.

‘What would be lovely, is if you
could donate £5 to the Tate Galleries. We are a charity so rely solely on
donations to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.’ He gestures
towards a short black pillar sprouting from the ground, and as he does so, a
screen lights up on it, with a payment due for £5. ‘All you have to do is tap.’
I reach into my pocket and tap my bank card against the screen, before I can
even question him, or myself.

‘Thank you, your contribution will
keep the Tate open.’ As I walk away, I hear him feeding the same lines to
someone else. 

Avoiding the gallery spaces, I make
for the enormous foyer, divided in two from where a deceptive carpeted ramp
starts. On one side, on flat ground, a range of oversized swing sets; here,
adults pretend they are only playing children in this sole moment. Above the
ramp, the main attraction: a huge silver ball, swinging back and forth on an
adjustable axis. Cut into the ceiling, a tiny square of blue in the sky,
somehow only visible from indoors. From the ground it’s like being a cat
trapped in a well, a rope swinging teasingly just out of reach, this made all
the worse by the fact a cat couldn’t grip a rope.

A few steps away, a girl holds a pair
of black balloons. She’s trying to take a selfie; the dexterity of her wrists
letting her down, she drops her phone; in the futile attempt she makes to catch
the device with her foot, her grip loosens on the trailing ribbons, and the
balloons drift silently towards the high ceiling. She watches me watching her
for a moment, then we both gaze upwards towards the floating objects. No one
else appears to notice. She puts her fingers to her lips. I shrug and lie on
the carpet. Knowing my best friend works close by, one of those flexible jobs
which he would be hard pushed to describe what he actually does, I
message him about the ball before its hypnotic nature lulls me away.

When he arrives, he says, lying next
to me, ‘You weren’t lying. Do you want a cookie? White chocolate and macadamia
nut. They went down a treat in the office.’

‘Nice.’ I take one from the
Tupperware he’s holding out. ‘How’s work?’

‘Oh, you know. It’s… you know.’

We watch the ball creak across our
vision, back and forth, back and forth.

‘Do you remember that video we saw
here last time? The guy pouring oil on sugar cubes.’

‘That was hilarious.’

‘Yeah, so funny. But it wasn’t.’

‘I get what you mean.’

‘What did it mean? Wasn’t it
something about the beginning and ending and order and chaos losing their
meanings?’

‘Something like that.’

He sits up and takes out another
cookie.

‘You’ve got new socks on.’

‘They make me feel good.’

‘You still feeling bad?’

‘Kind of.’

‘Hmm. You been dating anyone
recently?’

‘No. But that’s not going to solve
the problem. I’ve still got to be a person, even with another person.’

‘Fair.’

‘I need the toilet.’

‘Cool.’

In the cubicle, I cry some and listen
to Take on Me to cheer me up. I call my mother as I walk back to my best
friend, still sniffling and a little tender.

‘I’ve got this weird feeling of
homelessness,’ I tell her. ‘I feel alone a lot of the time.’

‘It must be the devil.’

‘Are you quoting that poet?’

‘What poet?’

‘Never mind.’

‘You should come to church on
Sunday.’

‘We’ve had this discussion, Mum. I’m
not coming to Church anymore.’

‘So you say you’re lonely, there’s
plenty of people to speak to at Church and you don’t want to come? Ah! What’s
your problem?’

‘I’m not lonely, I feel alone. I
don’t think that’s going to solve my problems.’

‘What do you want me to say to you?
You’re a twenty-eight year old man. Get on with your life.’

I request some more holiday from
work, citing the special circumstances of emotional burnout and a potential
oncoming breakdown. It is approved immediately, in what I believe is an active
effort to reduce a PR disaster.

Today, I
order too much food from KFC – I was unaware they delivered, and excitement
gets the better of me. The bill comes to £89. When the food arrives, I punch a
message into the delivery service website, saying the chicken was pink in the
middle. A robot sends a joyful message back, explaining that I won’t be charged
if the food is unfit for consumption.

I take a photo of the pile of food,
and post it to Instagram. It’s a little late to catch the flurry of lunchtime
activity, but I still get a little bit of action. I click on the list of people
who have liked the post. A person I don’t know in real life, or follow on
Instagram, has pushed the little red heart. I click on her profile. Similar
age. We have some mutual friends. Not my type, but the more I think about it, I
don’t really have a type. I accidentally double tap on one of her photos, the
red heart appearing to alert me to what I have done. Fuck it, I think, liking
four other photos. My phone pings shortly. She’s done the same on my profile.
Just incase, I like one more, from several months ago, a black and white
portrait, half her face in profile, illuminated by a stray block of sunlight.

She reciprocates.

Hmmm. I pace the room, wondering what
my next move is. I scroll through her virtual life for clues. A few scraps of
poetry litter her captions, so I post a quote from Audre Lorde.

She replies in my private messages
with a large red heart. I dance about the room.

Over the following week, we send each
other funny memes and videos at all hours. My heart gyrates for the next
faintly amusing photo joke every time I am away from my device.

On the weekend, I find myself at my
best friend’s son’s third birthday party. I pick him up, lift him towards the
ceiling, making abstract sounds the child grew out of a year ago, spin him
round, then settle in the sofa closest to the wi-fi router. I pause briefly,
when steaming hot plates of rice and chicken are delivered to the partygoers,
before realising my thigh is thick enough to balance the plate on, digging with
a fork with one hand, continuing to tap at my phone’s glass screen with the
other.

‘Who are you talking to?’ My best
friend’s wife asks.

‘His new lady friend,’ my best friend
smirks.

‘Oooh, when can we meet her?’

‘Soon.’ On impulse, I say, in our
long running message thread, ‘Marry me.’

‘Why do you want to marry me?’

‘You make me less lonely.’

‘I’m not a cure for your loneliness.’

‘Do I make you feel the same way
tho?’

‘Yeah.’

‘We should meet.’

‘Ok.’

‘That’s my Grandmother in that urn.’

‘Fuck,’ I say, almost dropping the
brass trophy.

My Instagram belle doubles over in
laughter, clutching at her sides.

‘I’m joking.’

‘Ha. Good one,’ I say, placing the
urn back on the shelf.

‘I wasn’t joking. I just didn’t want
you to feel bad, at first.’

‘Right. I need the toilet.’

When I return, she’s whipping a
leopard print dressing gown over her nude figure. I catch a tiny glimpse of a
stray nipple, pink and pointy, and freeze.

‘Hey,’ she says, patting the bed. I
sit beside her, and she wraps her leg around my own, leaning into my lap,
kissing me.

‘You’re still wearing your clothes.’

I untangle myself and begin to
undress.

‘What do you wanna do?’

She smiles faintly, like no one has
ever asked her that question.

‘I would like to cuddle.’

‘Cool.’

‘Sure?’

‘Yeah. Cuddling is cool.’

She lies down, turning her back to me
and I traipse my arm around her body, tucking up to her. Her breathing deepens,
body slack, and soon she is asleep. I glance around her room, properly. She has
laid a patterned scarf atop her dull lamp, giving the illusion there is a
forest on the ceiling. Her hair smells like my childhood, like coconut oil and
warmth. Succulents and creepers line the shelves and furniture. Outside, a
street light buzzes but it’s so high pitched and infrequent, it could be a
cricket. This is cozy, comfortable. Cuddling is cool.

Two days later, it is Valentine’s
day. I message my new – well, I don’t know what she is to me, but I message her
anyhow, saying, ‘Let’s hang out tonight.’ Before she can reply, I pay
too much for a dozen red roses from a leering man wearing a tartan flat cap. He
is in the process of trying to sell me a small, dying olive tree, the branches
gnarled and dehydrated, when she calls.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey. What do you want to do
tonight?’

‘Erm. I’ve got a date.’

‘Right. Ok.’

The silence hangs in my ears like an
echoing tinnitus. I’m unsure of what to say, what the protocol is here, so I
hang up and call my mother, asking to borrow her car.

‘What do you need it for?’

‘I’ve got a date.’

‘Ah fantastic! I hope you won’t be
drinking if you’re driving.’

‘I don’t drink, Mum,’ I lie. ‘Gave
up. For my health.’

Getting into the car, the first
whispers of rain graze my cheek. By the time I am bombing down a country lane,
listening to the acoustic version of Take on Me, which is infinitely
more heartbreaking, at the loudest volume my tiny ears will take, fat globules
of water are punching my windscreen. I speed past a strange, tall object. In my
rearview, I see the object shirk and shriek at the waterfall my tyres just
splashed on it. I do a U-turn and open the passenger door and the figure jumps
in, slamming the door.

‘WHY ARE YOU IN THE RAIN?’

‘WHAT?’

‘WHY ARE YOU IN THE RAIN?’

‘OH. I NEED TO GET TO MY GIRLFRIENDS
HOUSE.’

I turn down the music, and begin to
drive.

‘Why are you in the rain?’

‘My car broke down.’

‘Bad timing.’

‘Bad timing, indeed.’

I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker, or
helped anyone in this manner, nor would I think I would. My parents always said
never to answer the door if not expecting anyone, or the phone if you I didn’t
recognise the number.

‘Here,’ I say, reaching towards the
back seat, thrusting the bouquet of love flowers in her direction. ‘For you.’

I expect a fuss, a squeal, maybe even
tears from the sodden stranger I picked up from the side of a country lane;
instead, a content smile, wistful, almost, and she says, ‘I wish all strangers
were as nice as you.’

We haven’t gone the length of a
single take of the song when she says, ‘if you could stop just here, that’d be
grand.’

‘Wait – you don’t want to go any
further?’

‘No, I just needed to get to my
girlfriend’s house.’

‘Oh, ok. Well.’

‘You’re a lifesaver, thank you!’

I let the engine purr, body and
vehicle static as my thoughts roam. I want to gun the throttle, spin the
wheels, making a tsunami-like wave, pulling away from this obscure country
road, which, with the apocalyptic rain and engulfing darkness, resembles a scene
from a horror film where my naivety leads to me perishing. But for now, I’m
content with my thoughts and an eerie radio silence.

Then I do something I haven’t done in
a while: I begin to pray. Strange incantations, asking for deliverance.

The radio turns on. A blur of static,
then the traffic report, delivered in dramatic fashion. Apparently, it’s
raining. They will be back with an update in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes.

Rather than switch back to the
nothingness, the radio remains on, promising the greatest hits from the 80s.
And of course, the most absurd impossibility: That electronic drum break. A
baseline played with such delicate beauty, like a plucking a feather from the
wing of an angel. Those synths, those glorious synths! Music is a gut language
and joy shoves aside whatever is swimming in my stomach. The vocals from Take
on Me (radio edit) usher into my ears. Another burst of static. As the joy
came, it leaves. A growl, like the monstrous feeling within me has just been
given a voice. Perhaps my mother is right. It must be the Devil.




A Boy in Wolf River

Watching Wolf River flow by is to watch a god in rage. A flood of spring
rains turns the typically docile creek into a roiling serpent, broken branches
and trash swirling in its coils. Every now and then, little waves leap ashore,
bleeding through the grass to lick Adrian’s toes.

He stands a respectful distance from the springtime menace. A year
before, he had enjoyed swinging from a rope tied to an overhead branch,
trailing his toes across the water like a tease before landing in a dirt patch
beyond. But all good predators are patient, and when the old branch snapped,
Adrian dropped right into the river’s frothy jaws. It toyed with him, tossing
him over and under, slinging him tauntingly against its slippery banks before
sweeping him along again. The water was so cold that his body ached.  His lungs felt like they were twisting up
inside his chest, trying to wring themselves of the water he kept inhaling. The
gray-white churn of the surface gave way to blurry darkness.

This is it, he didn’t think but felt, for there is little space for thought in
the act of drowning. Thankfully, the hand of God reached down to yank him
through a sharp S-bend, and he was mercifully spat ashore.

The wind rushed by, wild and raspy, but then he realized that the
sounds were his own gasps for air. He clutched at the earth with every inch of
himself. The world spun, the day turning to hazy night and then back to burning
day once more.  Even as he dragged his
trembling body away, a piece of himself would be forever caught in the river’s
grip. A piece of his youth, stripped from him and driven to the sea.




Litro Desire issue


Cover design Noa Gravesky

Table of Contents

Summer 2019

The Editor’s Letter
Eric Akoto

Guest Editor’s Introductory Note
Ira Silverberg

Nadia Owusu “A Good Mask
Chika Onyenezi – “Complicated Blues
Lawrence Schimel – “Fresh Sheets and Five other short stories
Frederick McKindra – “Unmastered Desires
Ingrid Norton – “Into the Pleroma
Laila Halaby – “Court
Leah Dworkin – “The Little Mermaid
Hannah Seidlitz – “Homebound”




The Visitation

I never wanted to go to Pahargarh. I did everything I could to spoil our plans. There were too many wounds, memories of sour exchanges. It was their careless words. Each infliction still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t old enough to forgive them, not then, but there was Papa – demanding I do right by them. You know better than anyone how he gets.

I know you’re the sort to believe in omens and such things, and we had enough. A fortnight before we were to leave I remember catching something that had baffled the doctor. I was ill for days. Coughing through feverish nights, barely conscious. And that summer, remember how hot it was, a meteorological record they said. Do you remember the news reporting all those cars, sparking up by themselves? Booming in mini explosions. Hellfire they’d called it.

Hellfire.

You spoke of forgiveness over the phone, but this isn’t about forgiveness at all, is it? I will, I have decided, tell you everything that happened to me that last time I was in Pahargarh, and perhaps then you will understand.

In writing this, I find myself wishing that the horror of that time will lessen somehow, simply by putting it in words. There are moments even now when I feel once again the fear start to creep back in. It’s closing in, clawing its way despite the distance placed by the last twenty years. Oh Jija, I have to stop myself, trick my mind, fool it into thinking that that’s all behind me. Some days it works and then some days … it fails me.

I suppose the problem lies in remembering it all too clearly. As though in a mere few seconds the clock has unwound itself and I am there again, a confused child.

I don’t mean to scare you, my dear Jija, that is of course the last thing I would want. They’re our family and I know that means something. It is different for you, we both know the special place you hold in their heart. In you they see her reflection, in me they see something else. I am sorry if I sound bitter, even after all these years.

*

Uncle Roy and Auntie Jaya had initially planned to drive down. It’s a scenic route, they’d said, and there was so much they wanted to show me – but that wasn’t to happen. We must have booked the last tickets on the overnight train and the journey wasn’t a good one. We had two unscheduled stops. The first time was for an engine change, the electrical problems had already caused us significant delay. The second time it was much more terrible: on the tracks before us, the driver had spotted the dead carcass of a cow that had strayed too close to its end. At first he didn’t know what it was, that lump of leather? Abandoned furniture? Old luggage? It was dangerous, whatever it was, it shouldn’t have been there. But as we got closer, we saw. All of us peering out of our windows with ghoulish interest. The cow laying lifeless, its dark eyes staring vacantly ahead. I could take it no more, Jija, I couldn’t. I felt unsettled like I had made a big mistake, taken the wrong road, Auntie Jaya said it was nothing, nerves probably from seeing what we just had, but I have wondered since, if it wasn’t simply a warning.

It took us a whole day to reach Pahargarh, our train pulled into the station just before dusk. Uncle Nema was waiting there for us. He barely spoke a word, instead he lumped our bags in the boot of his old Ford and loaded us in the front like parcels ready to be shipped out.

“It’s his way, he’s always been a little … distant,” Auntie Jaya said to me. “Don’t take it to heart.”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

“He’ll warm up to you soon,” she went on, “I’m sure of it. He loved your mother, like a sister. They were inseparable.”

“Oh,” I said, and I tried to imagine a young Uncle Nema and our Mama, playing their childish games. How she would have hidden, how he would have gone looking for her. Was he still looking for her?

*

The sun had set by the time we reached the fort. The Pahargarh Kothi stood a little way out, a great shadow rising from the dunes. The jeep rattled on towards it, barren landscape slipping past us. As we got closer, I could see the orange glow of the torches, and I could make out a small silhouette waiting by the gates.

“Dai Ma is excited to see you,” Auntie Jaya said, nodding towards the figure.

Dai Ma, she looked so frail.

“Oh, you’re here. My dear sweet child,” she said, rushing towards me. “You’re home.”

“Dai Ma,” I said, “It’s … nice to see you again. How have you been?”

“Good,” she said, smiling, her face too young for the rest of her, “a few aches and pains but that’s old age, isn’t it. Come inside, come on. Have you had something to eat?”

“We ate on the way, Mai, don’t worry. I didn’t starve your poor girl,” Uncle Roy said, shaking his head at me.

“You look so much like your mother, it’s like having her back with us,” Dai Ma went on.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m not the one who … Jija’s the one who looks like her. Not me.”

I see you now, shaking your head at me, but you couldn’t possibly blame me for speaking the truth. We have each inherited our sorrows.

“I think you both have a little bit of her,” Dai Ma said, pressing her palm into mine.

I didn’t say anything.

We sat talking outside in the courtyard. The night was peaceful, the kind of peace one would never find in the city. I understand what you mean when you say that you miss the stillness of Pahargarh, it is a stillness that I haven’t found anywhere since. Time seems to stop there, maybe I imagined it so, imagined those moments preserved in their entirety like some kind of strange magic.

Dai Ma asked about everyone, Uncle Nema sat silent beside her listening to what we had to say, he didn’t share in the conversation. Every now and then he’d allow himself the smallest of smiles which would disappear just as suddenly as they would appear. I didn’t have much to give to the conversation myself. Pahargarh felt so foreign, so unfamiliar, that I almost felt like a pretender. Uncle Roy and Auntie Jaya, kept the conversation going, bless them.

“You must be tired,” Dai Ma said, she’d caught me nodding off. “I thought since the rooms are too warm, we would lay the cots out in the courtyard where it’s cooler. Camping under the stars, you don’t get to do that in the city.”

“No, we don’t,” I said, with a small smile.

After the journey I had had, a warm bed, a good night’s sleep sounded lovely. I didn’t argue with her.

The cots had been laid on the other side of the gate. Beside the small door carved into the iron stronghold, giving easy access to the outsiders. It was oddly exposing, but I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow, as though I hadn’t slept in days. When I woke later, it was slowly, a creeping consciousness and then complete awareness all at once.

I don’t know what it was.

You know how sometimes you can feel how many people there are in a room, not by looking but just by sense, it was something like that. I know how it sounds, as I write this I can feel your doubt, but my dear Jija, believe me it was so. I sensed movement, not more than ten feet away, moving closer, ever so closer.

Something other.

Where do I begin to talk of the doubt that wracked my mind, for days after I questioned that first night. Returning to that dark hour, the first impulse.

Was it real? Any of it?

Could I have done anything differently? Ignored it perhaps, but what use is any of that now?

I kept my eyes closed, my breath shallow as one would in the troughs of deep sleep, but my heart would not listen. It thundered on like a race-horse threatening to escape. Threatening to make a run for it as I … I stayed in place. Paralysed.

The footsteps were soft. Delicate pattering against the stone floor. They kept coming, closer and closer.

Why didn’t I scream, you wonder. Why didn’t I jump out of my bed? Call out, “Who’s there?” Call for help? What if I had? What if there had been a reply?

The footsteps stopped, a foot from me. Nothing happened, for what seemed like a long time.

I tried to gauge the time in my head, I’d slept before twelve, but it was still too dark, too still, for it to be close to dawn. I could hear the cricket’s song. Perhaps it was two thirty, three, perhaps it was later.

Even in that state of panic, I felt myself drift in and out of sleep and it was just as I had shaken myself awake once again that I heard it. The tinkling laughter, an escaped giggle of a small child. Suppressed, controlled, fighting to break free. Every sense in me became alert to it as I struggled to keep my eyes closed. Have you ever fought against your own nature?

Don’t, for it is a battle you shall always lose.

The child, whoever she was, sang a familiar song, like a lullaby from years ago. She was in a world of her own making, happy. Auntie Jaya slept beside me, I could hear her gentle snores unperturbed by our visitor. Did she not hear the girl? I wondered.

Somewhere in the house a door slammed shut, loose around the hinges, and the girl stopped her song. I waited for more but this time the silence lasted. I don’t know how long I lay still, awake in my cot, my insides twisted in a knot. But when I finally fell asleep I could hear the birds of dawn singing their morning song.

When Dai Ma woke me the sun was a good way up in the sky. The light, the clatter of the household, the industrious movement of its people, I’d slept through it all.

Were it you, you would have asked her about the child. I didn’t. I started to, but I hesitated. Instead I folded up my things and took them inside the house. There was much of Pahargarh I was still to discover, and the small girl, she seemed so far away that it didn’t take much for me to convince myself that she were only a figment of some waking dream.

*

Pahargarh by day looks quite different than it does by night. It is not nearly so menacing, I should say. The place is woven in memories. Of course everything that I know about it is from Papa. His stories always made Mama sound like a goddess, didn’t they? It wasn’t much different there either. Even though they spoke in hushed tones, guilt-ridden, trying not to catch my eye, I could understand what she meant to them, to that place. With the invisibility of the listener, I relived her time. Her exploits and adventures.

Did you know she was a crack shot? Sharpest shooter in the district, they said. Even her room is kept just the way she left it, as if at any moment she were to return. The walls are painted with murals in her hand. Fantastical creatures, apsaras and devas, the fabled landscape of Shalimar patiently filled in with the passion of miniaturist. In one corner of the room lies her Veena, I didn’t know she was trained in classical music. There were so many things about her that I was learning for the first time. If only we were half as accomplished as her, Jija, imagine what we would be.

Uncle Nema followed me around all day. He didn’t speak to me, not a word, but at every turn I’d find him waiting, watching. Whenever I’d catch him he’d pretend to do something, but I knew it for what it was – a show.

*

That second night, I felt rested, more at ease, despite the events of the previous night.

It had to have been in my head, I remember telling myself, no one else had made mention of it. I slept earlier that night, took a Melatonin to ensure that I wouldn’t wake. For a while it worked. I slept a heavy-lidded sleep, the night breeze that blew through the courtyard lulling me into dreams of family, of Mama, of all us together, happy.

It was the laughter that woke me up. Louder this time, open. Somehow she seemed more real, my nightly visitor. She was playing a childish game, her unbound pleasure was obvious in her carefree movements.

I don’t know if she could have sensed my awareness. That I was awake. I didn’t move, not a finger, but she knew. She stopped her game, still humming that lullaby, I could hear her footsteps coming closer to my cot. Bare and soft, with a music of their own. This time she didn’t stop, perhaps she were emboldened by my lack of action. She was almost by my head. I had stopped breathing, my eyes squeezed shut. I prayed to anyone who’d listen, but the words that came out were jumbled, half-eaten, half-forgotten. I couldn’t string a sentence, I couldn’t even squeak out a cry. Choking on my fear just as two hands grasped the side of my cot.

Nothing for a beat.

Dare I hope…

For a moment it seemed as though everything was alright.

Do you know, Jija, what it feels like to be shaken out of your own skin, to tremble so violently that every part of you seems displaced?

The cot shook terribly, the child’s strength – incredible. I could hear the iron legs creak against the granite floor, scraping the bottom and with it I shook. Every part of me shook.

Scream, you’d say, and I tried with every ounce of my strength, but my lips seemed to have been sewn shut.

I was made of ice.

I don’t know if it were the shock, or the fear, or the complete loss of control of my own body, which made me lose consciousness. The next thing I remembered was Dai Ma shaking me from my sleep.

I bolted upright. I think she saw the fear in my features.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“It’s … it’s nothing,” I said. “Bad dream.”

Why did I lie?

I don’t know. Would they have believed me?

I was having a hard time believing myself.

I couldn’t tell them then, could I?

I washed up, the cold water jarring me out of the nightmare.

I felt sick.

*

Uncle Roy had planned a nice picnic lunch in the afternoon after a trek along the Chambal area. Its history, he said, hangs heavy in the air and I couldn’t, he insisted, miss the opportunity to go around. I thought it would be a nice distraction, a good way to get away, so I agreed. It was just him, Uncle Nema and I who went, Auntie Jaya and Dai Ma stayed home preparing for the Puja in the evening. Dai Ma loves her customs, or perhaps it is the place they hold for her. To me they seem like meaningless actions, but to her they bring a sort of order to life.

“This place has stood its ground for centuries, did you know that?” Uncle Roy said, as we went around the Chambal caves.

They were grey and stony, dark cold walls that seemed to whisper. What would they say, if they could speak?

“Invaders repeatedly conquered this land and it passed through many hands, yet isn’t it remarkable how it still stands. If only the spirits could speak.”

“Spirits? Ghosts you mean?” I asked him, trying not to sound too eager.

“Yes spirits, ghosts, memories even,” Uncle Nema said in a low voice. He had been silent for so long that I’d forgotten he was with us. “Things buried don’t stay buried, you may forget them but they don’t forget you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Uncle Nema looked at me not saying anything, as though he were making up his mind about something, and then he said, “You can run from things, but they will catch up to you. One day, you’re going to have to face them.”

“Face what?” I asked. “What are you talking about? Is there something here? Is there something … something that you’re not telling me about? Please, what is it?”

“Nothing,” Uncle Roy said, a boyish grin on his face. He isn’t the sort to believe in these things, I do love him but he hasn’t the imagination for them, not that I’m saying I had imagined any of it. Oh, I don’t know Jija, I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. It gets difficult, things don’t seem as they are even as I write them.

“Stop scaring her, Nema,” Uncle Roy said, turning to him, and he shrugged easily, letting go of our conversation.

“Come on, there’s something I think you’d like very much. Better than Nema’s tales of spirits and ghosts,” Uncle Roy said to me. And we moved on, not returning to any more talk of spirits, ghosts, and empty walls. Instead for the rest of the afternoon we listened to Uncle Roy go on about the local lore of Pahargarh. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject, centuries worth of historic account, tales of old kings and queens, most of which seemed to end in tragedy. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what Uncle Nema had said about running from things. I didn’t know what he meant, I was there, I wasn’t running, and yet. Perhaps he’d seen her, my nightly visitor, perhaps he knew the little girl, but why didn’t he say anything, why did I have to endure it all on my own, alone?

By the time we made our way home, I was too tired to think about anything but there was no rest to be had. The minute we got home Dai Ma rushed me off to get changed for the Puja.

*

Dusshera, what a momentous festival it is, and in Pahargarh it is as though the entire year centres around these celebrations. The burning of the effigy of Ravan heralding a new way. Let go of the past, make way for the future. It is the village’s most beautiful offering, isn’t it? I do miss it, I’ll admit that to you, Jija. The fire roaring up into the sky, the way it licks the ten heads of Ravan, the way the drums beat as parts of him melt away. I took courage from its heat. I took courage to let go of those old gashes that I had clung on to for far too long. If I tried, I knew I could finally escape.

The evening ebbed into the night. I thought of my nightly visitor, was she around watching us? She should be, because if she were she would realise that were she to come tonight, she would hold no power over me.

I suppose knowing what I know now, it was childish of me to throw out such a challenge, maybe I shouldn’t have. For she came that night, just as she had before.

This time I wasn’t asleep. I lay waiting for her soft bare footsteps. I wanted to see her face, it was the only way I could be rid of her and she knew that, because when she came to me she kept her head turned away. I sat up not two feet from her. This shadowy illusion of my dreams.

She gestured for me to follow her and I did. Her small steps guiding me. She knew her way around, better than I knew mine. We walked to the edge of the courtyard, you know where the stone slab ends in a drop. She was so close to the edge. I called to her to stop, “Stop,” I said. “Stop.” But she wouldn’t. Come closer, she signaled. And closer I went, trying to pull her back, pull her away from the edge.

One behind the other, that’s how we stood by the edge of the drop. And then she turned and I saw.

I saw her face.

Those familiar features, a reflection of my own, a reflection of yours.

It was too much, the world started to spin around me, even the soft rustle of the trees boomed and echoed. And in all that I could see only her eyes, brown like mine, brown like yours.

The weak cry that escaped me, I wouldn’t have thought anyone would have heard it.

I wouldn’t have thought that I were meant to be saved.

Uncle Nema was right, things have a way of catching up to you.

They told me that he caught me before I fell.

They were all very understanding of what I told them, I didn’t tell them everything, I still don’t think they would believe me.

The doctor said that it was a case of sleep-walking. The excitement, the sudden change, they were all factors. Dai-Ma worried about my health, Uncle Roy and Auntie Jaya did too, but they said I was lucky that Uncle Nema had been there. I know I was and I guess I should be happy, but … but Jija, I can’t help but feel like I had abandoned something there.

I know how it sounds and I don’t mean that I should have given up my life, but that little girl she meant something. She was showing me … and I abandoned her. I ran away.

“Shock,” Dai-Ma whispered when I tried to explain this to her.

“Trauma, perhaps,” said Auntie Jaya.

But I know what I saw.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t return there, not until I was ready. I wasn’t then, and I don’t think I am even now. If this is about forgiveness, my dear Jija, I shall say that I’m not ready to give it yet. Not to Mama, not to myself.