Tuesday 10 August 2021

Nalini Pai, ShortStory 2021 Magazine

The Hostess

It has been a long time since I saw anyone in this place. I really wish I could share this room with a traveller. All I do is roam the grounds of this empty bungalow and sometimes peep over the steep precipice to see the thick green canopy of trees covering the villages below the hill. The vast grounds behind the bungalow also have beautiful old trees on whose branches I sometimes see little children playing. However, there is one part of these grounds that really scares me- the huge stone located at one side of the bungalow has an eerie feel to it. I often wonder how it came to be there. Years ago, I remember asking the old khansama (cook) about the stone- though he had been around for years, he did not know anything about how it came to be there.

However, that did not stop him from telling me stories about how dangerous it was and how anyone who touched it or sat on it met a violent and swift end. Apparently, a Sahib who had come on a trip with his friends stayed overnight here and one evening used it as a shelf to keep his belongings. He also sat on it while talking to his friends around a small fire. The next morning, this young man set out with his friends and as he was crossing a small stream slipped and was washed away in the current…. The next time the stone wielded its punishment was when a local woman, the baker’s wife tried to lift it and take it away for her use- she caught a fit of fever that made her tremble and shake through the night only to pass away when morning came.

I remember even now how a cold shiver ran down my spine and my hair had stood on end just listening to these tales. However, the bungalow has been home to me for many years now. The sight of the stone still unnerves me but not anywhere as much as before. Everything about this bungalow smacks of things not just old, but ancient. From the khansama to the architecture and the trees, everything seems to have been existing since forever…. As far as my room in the bungalow is concerned, I have been in it for a very long time. I first entered it as a traveller and simply stayed on after a particularly long tiring day on the road. I was moving towards the city that lay north and decided to stay the night at this lovely old mansion. The events that unfolded during the night and the next day made me decide to halt here.

My wish has finally come true! Two ladies- one middle aged and the other young have just got off their carriage and are making their way into the bungalow. “Monica, this has a real old world feel to it, doesn’t it?” “Yes Tara, I felt so too.” They are both walking along the corridor and looking into the rooms whenever they come across a room that is open. “Monica, I quite like Room number One. It is airy, spacious and has plenty of light. Let us take this room”. “You are quite right!” The next thing I know is that the two ladies have entered with the khansama and his young grandson following with their luggage. “Ah! Thank you. Here’s some money”. The khansama and his grandson bow slowly and make their way out of the room.

Tara, the younger of the two and sprightlier as well is excitedly exploring the large room that is mine. She looks into the oval shaped mirror close to the bathroom and calls out, “Hey, this seems to be an antique mirror and the old rocking chair close to the wall seems to be out of another era. I can actually picture an old Memsahib sitting on the wheelchair and knitting or a Sahib sitting on it polishing his gun to take out on his hunting expedition!” “Your imagination does run wild, Tara!” exclaims Monica. Monica goes toward the makeshift kitchen situated in one corner of the room and takes two cups and a kettle from the shelf. She fills the kettle with water and sets it on the stove. The soft gurgling of the heated water in the kettle makes quite a sound in the otherwise still air. I look around to see what the twosome is doing. “I feel so tired, Tara. It has been quite a journey today”. “I quite agree, Monica.” “I wish someone would make us the tea and bring it to us here.”

It is at this point that I decide to make my presence felt. I lift the cups off the kitchen platform and put them on the saucers. I then was just going to lift the kettle to pour out the tea when I hear Tara scream. I turn to face them and see that she has turned a deathly white. Monica is trying to get her to speak but to no avail. Both hug each other tightly, staring at nothing….

I remember the time I had turned pale with fear at this very bungalow, in this very room…. I had halted there after a tiring trek through the thickly forested area. The bungalow looked like a place where I could stay without having to fear any intruder. After an early dinner, I had gone to bed. I was awakened very suddenly in the night. The room was bathed in silver moonlight and a tall man was sitting at the table. Suddenly, a spear like object pierced his neck from behind and his head fell on the table, in a pool of blood. My hair stood on end, and I tried getting up from my bed so that I could run out of the room. The silvery moonlight now seemed like a blinding white light which strangely blotted out everything else.

The unusually bright light from outside made it impossible for me to run and I remember almost tripping over the worn edges of the carpet to reach the door. Fatigue, terror and anxiety to get out as soon as possible along with the sharp blinding light in my eyes ensured that I did not get to the door but collapsed as I was nearly at the door. I just saw the light swirl around like a halo around the room before total darkness set in….

Whether it was because of that incident or because of me I cannot say, but ever since that day I have had almost no visitors. Monica and Tara were the first two guests in my room after many years. Tara, her face ashen, is staring wide eyed and trying desperately to talk to her companion. Monica finally succeeds in taking her to the huge four poster bed and they simply climb into bed and close their eyes. I leave the cups and saucers where they are and stand by the window watching the silver night sky.

The next morning, Tara and Monica get up and shaken by the previous night’s happenings, try to understand what has taken place the night before. Tara says, “I have never seen cups place themselves on saucers all by themselves.” “This place is definitely haunted.” Monica says “Bah! What nonsense! How can cups lift themselves and place themselves on saucers?” “Next, you will say you saw a Sahib seated at the writing table!” Tara, you have a fascination for the supernatural, but don’t you think this is just your imagination running wild?” Tara says, “Ok. Let us stay here one more night and see what really happens!” Monica says, Of course, we will. Let us see what happens tonight.”

Both of them leave for their trek after breakfast and make their way down the hill so that they can start their journey for the small peak in the distance. I know they will take an entire day and sure enough both return in the late evening. Far from looking anxious, they look eager to see what the night brings with it. Tara sits at the writing table placed at one end of the room and tries to read. Monica stands near the window and looks out at the sky. They are tired but happy. Their trek has been a satisfying one with Tara collecting and identifying quite a few plant species and insects. Tara plans to note down her observations in a diary kept for the purpose. Tara, after a short while says, “This place is so beautiful! I wish I could live here forever!” Monica nods in agreement, still looking at the sky. Monica is happy to have come on the trek as her life in the city till now has been humdrum and monotonous.

Tara dozes off after a while and Monica gets lost in the beauty of the silky black sky. She notices an unusually bright moon and is just about to remark on it when she notices that Tara is fast asleep. Tara has put her head down on the table. “I must look up the calendar tomorrow. Is it a full moon night?” She goes to the bed and has just lain down for the night when she witnesses a scene that makes her blood run cold! The moonlight has turned bright silver and is flooding the room. What is terrifying is not the moonlight but what happens next! A spear like weapon pierces Tara’s neck and her head rolls to one side, severed from her body. Monica is petrified and falls back on the pillow, closing her eyes tightly. Her limbs are trembling, and her mouth has run dry. She wants to leave the room for good but cannot move.

The next morning, Monica gets up with a start and runs out looking for the resident khansama. She tells him what she saw, her words tumbling out, sometimes incoherently. He calls the police and they come to investigate. Tara’s body is sent to the local hospital and after a thorough examination, the cause of death is revealed as piercing of the neck and throat. Without wasting any time, Monica packs up her belongings and leaves the bungalow after settling the bill. She makes her way to the little hospital below the hill, her mind in a whirl.

The room in which my guests had stayed is cleaned up. Tonight, I will not be alone. Tara’s dream has come true. She is here to stay….

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