Sunday, 22 July 2018

Monoroma And The Ghosts: A Tale Of Bunglistan




Once upon a time, in a village in Bunglistan, there was a priest.

He was not much of a priest. He had a temple which was old and beginning to crumble, and he had almost no money, because an old, crumbling, temple brings in few worshippers and not much in the way of donations. But his wants were few, and he would have been satisfied with what he had, were it not for his wife.

She was a terrible wife. She weighed twice as much as the priest did, and had a voice twice as loud as he could have shouted, had he only enough daring to shout. When she walked the floor trembled, and when she spoke, the priest looked fearfully at the ceiling, hoping that it would not collapse on their heads. She was horrible beyond description, but she was his wife. Her name was Monoroma.

Every day Monoroma would berate the priest, on and on without end, over his poverty and his insignificance. “Other priests,” she would boom, while flinging his breakfast down in front of him, so that all appetite fled, “other priests have grand temples and lots of people coming daily, and pouring coins at the idol’s feet. And their wives wear saris with golden thread and eat fish fried in ghee at every meal. While I slave for you until I collapse and I’m starved to skin and bone. Look!” She would stick her obese forearm in front of the priest’s face, so close that he would flinch. “Look at how thin I am! My mother was right all along, telling me not to marry a weak, snivelling excuse for a man like you!”

With relief the priest would escape to his temple, pausing at the small village pond to gather a few water lilies to offer to the idol. Sometimes there would be a couple wanting him to bless a baby, or a bereaved son wanting him to arrange the last rites of a deceased parent. The priest was always happy with these, because funeral ceremonies were always quite lucrative, right behind marriages. But marriages always reminded him of his own, so despite the fee he could collect, he really didn’t enjoy them very much.

One day it so happened that, when the priest reached the pond, he found that the nearest water lily bloom was too far for him to reach. Stretch as he might, kneeling on the bank, it was too far. And he had too much of a fear of water to attempt to wade in to gather a few. Besides, the pond was deep in places, and he might fall in over his head and drown. He was convinced that if he ever fell into water over his head he would drown.

And yet he couldn’t possibly offer no flowers to the deity’s idol at all. That would never do.

Just as, scratching his head, he began to wonder if he could quietly raid someone’s garden and steal some flowers – or was it too late in the morning already? – he heard a voice right behind him.

“Do you want some flowers? Don’t worry, I’ll get you flowers.”

Before the priest could even look around to see who had spoken, someone enormously tall stepped right over him and into the water. So tall was this person that his knees were still above the kneeling priest’s head. Stooping, he gathered up a huge bunch of water lilies in his incredibly long arms and turned to give them to the priest. “Will that be enough?” he asked anxiously. “If not, I can get more.”

It was a ghost, of course. The priest had already realised that even before he looked up, and up, and up, to see the terrible face staring down at him with red eyes the size of bullock cart wheels set between ears the size of winnowing baskets. The ghost – it was surely a bhoot – grinned diffidently at the priest with teeth the size of radishes.

“I’m so sorry for startling you,” it said. “Please don’t be afraid. Don’t scream.”

The priest was not about to scream. The priest couldn’t even utter a squeak of fear. He considered fainting, but was too afraid even to do that.

“Here you are,” the bhoot said, handing the priest the water lilies he had plucked. “Please give a few to the deity from me as well.”

At this the priest found a semblance of a voice. “You want to offer flowers to the deity? A bhoot?”

“Why not?” the bhoot answered equably. Climbing out of the water, he sat beside the priest on the bank, his knees poking up like mountain peaks. “I have prayers just like anyone else, don’t I? I want to ask the deity for help as well.”

“What do you want to ask for?” the priest asked. “I didn’t even know ghosts had any needs, especially ones they needed help for.”

“If you only knew,” the bhoot muttered. Looking quickly over his shoulder to make certain nobody was listening, he bent his head towards the priest. “There’s a petni I’m in love with,” he whispered, “and whom I want to marry. The thing is...”

“...that she doesn’t love you?” The priest thought he saw where this was going. “I must tell you that the deity won’t take kindly to prayers intended to make someone fall in love with you against her intentions. The deity looks to everyone’s welfare, and...”

“No, no,” the bhoot hissed. “She loves me too, and wants to marry me. That’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?” the priest asked, befuddled. “Surely all you need to do is go to the nearest Brohmodottyi ghost and get yourselves married, right?”

“There you have it,” the bhoot replied, with a hollow moan. “The stupid fool of a Brohmodottyi refuses to marry us. Says it’s because our horrorscopes don’t match, but I know the real reason. He wants my petni for his own son!”

“He does?”

“Yes,” the bhoot replied. “His own son is a horrible snivelling ghost whom not even the most desperate spinster petni or shakchunni would touch. He’s ugly and stupid, and, what’s more, he thinks he has a right to do whatever he wants.”

“That’s terrible,” the priest answered mechanically. He got up and began walking towards the temple, the water lilies in his arms. He had never got so many before. The bhoot walked beside him, taking mincing little steps to match the priest’s gait. “What do you want the deity to do about it?”

“Can’t he intercede to change the Brohmoddtyi’s mind?” the bhoot asked. “That’s what I want. I’m sure the deity can make a Brohomodottyi do anything he wants.”

“Yes, but...” The priest looked up quickly at the bhoot from the corner of his eye. He was really a very large bhoot. “Just suppose the Brohmodottyi disobeys the deity, though. You know what you said about him claiming you and your petni’s horrorscopes aren't matching. So he’s perfectly willing to lie.”

“Well, if that happens,” the bhoot said gloomily. “The deity obviously wouldn’t have interceded strongly enough with the Brohmodottyi. He wouldn’t have threatened the old ghost enough. If that happens, there’s only one reason for that I can think of, and that is...”

“Wait, wait,” the priest said hurriedly, already seeing the bhoot’s nostrils beginning to flare with anger. “Look, you don’t actually need the Brohmodottyi, right? I mean, you need a priest to conduct your marriage, but there’s no real requirement that it has to be a ghost priest?”

“Um, no,” the bhoot said. “But who except for a Brohmodottyi would conduct our marriage?”

“I would, of course,” the priest said, quickly glancing up again to make certain the bhoot’s nostrils had stopped flaring. Another moment’s delay and the creature’s immense hands might have wrung his neck. “I’d do it with pleasure.” He wasn’t even lying, he told himself. Keeping his neck unwrung would be pleasurable enough.

“You would?” The bhoot seemed unable to believe his winnowing-basket-sized ears. “If you did that, I’d give you anything your heart wanted. Anything at all!”

“That would be nice,” the priest replied quickly. They had reached the temple. “Where do you want to conduct the ritual, here?”

“No!” The bhoot cast a horrified glance at the temple. “It’s all full of rats and things. No, we’ll get married in the proper ghost style. You know the ruined old temple in the middle of the tamarind grove in the forest?”

The priest gulped. Of course he knew the ruined temple in the middle of the tamarind grove in the forest. Everyone in all the villages nearby knew about the ruined temple in the middle of the tamarind grove in the forest. What was more, they knew well enough to never go anywhere near it, for any reason.

“All right,” he said, because he had no way out. “If that’s where it’s got to be, there’s nothing for it. Let’s go there and do it, then.”

“What, now?” the bhoot responded, aghast. “Who ever heard of a ghost getting married in the daytime! Not even a mamdo bhoot would think of such a thing. Besides, I need to send out the invitations, and my fiancée needs to prepare. No, we’ll get married in the proper ghost fashion – at midnight tonight.”

Tonight?” The priest’s teeth began to chatter at the thought. He would do almost anything rather than go to the ruined temple in the middle of the tamarind grove in the forest at midnight. Anything except, of course, getting his neck wrung, something that, with those hands, the bhoot could do before he could draw breath to scream. “You mean to get married at midnight...in the tamarind grove?”

“Well, of course,” the bhoot said, astonished. “When else would a ghost get married except at midnight? Most of us aren’t even awake during the day.”

“And you have to do it tonight?” the priest repeated.”Can’t it wait a day or two?” In a day or two the bhoot might have forgotten the whole affair. Some bhoots were notorious for their short memories.

But not this one, apparently. “Tonight’s omoboshya, the night of the new moon,’ he replied. “You know as well as I do that that’s the most suspicious occasion for a ghostly wedding. When would we ever get a better time than that?”

“All right,” the priest said, pressing his knees together so they wouldn’t give way. “I suppose it’ll have to be tonight.”

“So mind you get there at midnight tonight,” the bhoot said, waving cheerily. “We’re going to be waiting for you, and if you aren’t there, I’m afraid there are going to be a lot of unhappy ghosts.”

The priest swallowed. “There are?”

“Of course. And there won’t be any more unhappy than I am. Except my fiancée, of course.” The bhoot looked pensive for a moment. “Now you haven’t really seen anyone unhappy unless you’ve seen her unhappy.”

 “Ah, well, then, I’ll be at the ruined temple at midnight,” the priest said hurriedly, fleeing into his temple.

“You don’t have to bring anything,” the bhoot called out cheerfully. “I’ll arrange everything. Well, then, have a good day. I’ve got to go and tell my fiancée the great news.”

Alone at last, the priest began quaking with fear. So terrified was he, so busy trying to stop his teeth from chattering, that he didn’t even notice that not a single worshipper turned up at the temple the whole day.

Monoroma noticed, though, of course. When he returned empty-handed that evening to the house, her anger was something to behold.

“Useless!” she screamed, looking for something to hit him with, but not finding anything handy. “You’re absolutely useless! If I hadn’t got sixteen fish from the jeweller’s wife in exchange for that bundle of firewood I’ve been asking you to chop up for weeks, I’d starve to death. Here.” And she threw down half a fish on the banana leaf on which she served him dinner. The priest knew better than to ask where the other fifteen and a half fishes were, and he didn’t have any appetite anyway.

“No, you eat it,” he said, pushing it away.

His wife paused, the half-fish already halfway to her mouth. “Who’s been feeding you?” she demanded. “Admit it, you’ve eaten all the things the worshippers brought you! No wonder you’re getting as fat as a buffalo while I’m...” she stuffed the entire half-fish into her mouth and spoke around it. “While I’m thin as a stick and fading away by the day. The cheek!”

The priest didn’t say anything. At least, he thought, when the ghosts wrung his neck tonight, as they were certain to do, he wouldn’t have to listen to her anymore. With a sigh, he unrolled his sleeping mat and lay down, gazing up at the ceiling of the hut.

Now, of course – and this was something that the priest and his wife ought to have known, and it is to their discredit that they’d never thought of it – their own house had a ghost as well, who lived in the space between the thatched roof and the sheet of cloth that served for a ceiling. He was a very small ghost, a little pret, totally harmless, and far too timid to make himself known to a priest who might call down the wrath of his deity, not to mention his roaring monster of a wife. The pret was, however, rather fond of them, because as long as they were there no other ghost came around to bully him. Also, he had, of course, learnt by the ghostvine of the bhoot’s marriage that night, though he had not been invited. He had not expected to be invited, and was not therefore disappointed.

When the priest’s wife finally stopped shouting, belched satisfactorily and fish-redolently, and lay down on her own sleeping mat, the pret thought he might go for a short walk outside. He rarely did such a thing, because he was far too scared of the other ghosts. But tonight they were likely to all be at the wedding, and the pret thought he would probably be safe enough.

So, rubbing his twisted little horns, he slipped down from the roof and wandered off into the village. It had been a long time since he’d been out at night, and the cool breeze, the croaking of frogs in the pond, and the hum of mosquitoes was soothing to him, so that he went a lot further than he’d intended to. All of a sudden he remembered the bhoot’s marriage, and that if he went too far he might run into some of the guests. Just the thought of it made his tail curl up with terror.

Turning quickly, he found he had lost his way. This would not normally be a problem, because the village was not large, but the pret panicked and confused himself even more by wandering in circles through back lanes. By the time he’d found the proper path again, it was almost midnight. Hurrying back to the priest’s hut, he was just in time to see a shadowy figure slip out of the door and into the forest.

The pret decided instantly that it must be a thief. Only a thief would sneak around at night like that, and, having burgled a house, go straight to the nearest patch of forest to hide and gloat over his spoils. Not pausing a moment to wonder whether any thief would bother to come to the priest’s house, knowing that he hadn’t two cowries to rub together, the pret decided to follow the shadowy figure.

There were two reasons for this piece of almost unimaginable boldness. The first was that the pret had real affection for his unwitting host and hostess, and their distress at losing what little they had to a burglar would cause him pain as well. The second?

The second was even simpler. If they met some of the ghosts going to the bhoot’s marriage, they’d wring the thief’s neck first. The pret would have plenty of time to get away.

Feeling secure for the first time since he’d realised how far he’d wandered, the pret slipped into the forest, treading as close to the thief as he dared.

To say the priest was terrified would be wrong. For certain, he’d been terrified earlier, but the fear had given way to a dull resignation that now numbed him like a drink of the mohua liquor his wife permitted him to touch once a year, on Kali Puja. He wished he had some mohua liquor now, so that he wouldn’t even feel it when the ghosts wrung his neck. Well, he might as well go and get it over with.

Meanwhile, the bhoot had gathered his guests, and his bride, and all the ingredients of the feast at the temple, and was just waiting for the priest to turn up. Some of the guests were already getting impatient.

“Hey, Shurjonoroyon Mitomojumdar,” one of the shakchunnis shouted, for that was the bhoot’s name, “where is this priest of yours? The suspicious time of the marriage is almost here!”

“Ha ha,” another ghost, a mere headless Skondhokata ghost of all things, dared to respond. “He called a living priest to come and perform the marriage. Can you imagine a human being coming here, and at this time of night? Ha ha!”

“It’s not yet midnight,” the bhoot muttered, but he was growing increasingly anxious. “There’s still a little time left. I’m sure he’ll arrive any moment.” The only affirmation he got was the howls of the jackals and the croaks of the frogs that shared the forest with the ghosts.

But the priest was not about to arrive any moment, and for an excellent reason. The Brohmodottyi who had refused to conduct the marriage of the bhoot and the petni had heard of the planned wedding, and, of course, was incensed. The petni in question was the prettiest female ghost in the district, and the Brohmodottyi had long since resolved to marry her to his son. That his son was the ugliest, stupidest, most ill-mannered ghost of any description in all of Bunglistan mattered not at all.

“Come with me,” he snapped to the junior Brohmodottyi, who was poking around in a hollow tree in hopes of finding a luscious caterpillar or beetle grub to devour. “We will find this priest and stop him before he can get to this marriage. Then not only will the marriage fall through, the bhoot will be so discredited that no self-respecting ghost will ever care to be seen with him again.”

“In a minute,” the junior Brohmodottyi whined. “I’m sure there’s a grub in here somewh...ouch!”

Dragging his progeny by one flapping ear, the Brohmodottyi stalked off through the forest towards the village, looking for the priest. And as he stomped heavily along, his immense paunch heaving, he berated his son at every step for making his poor father do all the work, and the junior Brohmodottyi muttered about grubs and snivelled about not wanting to marry anyone.

“Be silent!” the Brohmodottyi roared, and gave his spawn such a shake the young ghost squealed and rubbed his ear, which he’d imagined had been torn right off. “Be silent! We’re going to meet the priest any moment, and we don’t want to scare him off.”

But, meanwhile, the priest had long since lost his way. This was not at all surprising, and the bhoot should have thought of it. The priest, like all the other villagers, hardly dared to set foot in the forest even in the light of noon; to expect him to be able to find the ruined temple in the middle of the tamarind grove, at midnight, was to expect far too much. At the moment he was walking in a direction that might bring him to the next village, on the far side of the forest, by midmorning the next day or thereabouts. And then, trying to find the path, he blundered into a little pond and fell right in, with an almighty splash.

It has been mentioned that the priest was terrified of water. This was true even in daylight, within easy reach of the village and rescue. In the middle of the night, lost in the forest, suddenly finding himself up to his chin in the slimy, cold liquid, all he could do was scream.

It was a most impressive scream. It started somewhere around his midsection, bounced around his lungs and throat while gathering strength, and then emerged from his mouth in a bubbling howl that sent the frogs diving into the mud for safety and the jackals running for their lives.

It sent the pret running, too. In the darkness of the forest, he’d thought himself safe enough from discovery to close almost within touching distance of his quarry, and so had received the full effect of the scream at point blank range. With a startled yip that was totally lost within the tail-end of the priest’s howl, he fell over on his tail, pushed himself backwards as far as he could with his elbows, and then jumped up and ran for home as quickly as though a thousand bhoots were on his tail.

The scream echoed, faintly, in the ears of the Brohmodottyi, too, as he dragged his reluctant son towards the village. At first he was inclined to dismiss it, for it had come from behind him and well to one side, far away from where the priest should be, if he were coming. But it was a human scream, and the Brohmodottyi was well aware that no human would dare come to the forest at night, and most of all not on a new moon night. Except, of course, the one human he was looking for.

“Let’s go and see what that’s about,” he muttered to himself, and giving his son another hard tug on an agonised ear, he turned in the direction of the sound.

The scream had reached, even more faintly, the winnowing-basket-sized ears of the bhoot as well. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “There was a scream.”

“Hear what, Shurjonoroyon Mitomojumdar?” the same shakchunni who had mocked him earlier called. “All I hear are the calls of jackals. If you’re planning to create a diversion from your priest not arriving, it won’t work.”

What calls of jackals?” the bride petni said. “Listen, Shorothkumari Shutrodhor. Shut that mouth of yours for once and listen. The jackals have fallen silent.”

“So have the frogs,” another ghost said. It was true. The jungle was still as a crematorium at midday.

“I suppose it was a scream after all,” the shakchunni admitted reluctantly. “But I still don’t see what that means.”

“It means,” the bhoot said, “that we have to go and see what’s happened to my priest.”

At the head of a shambling line of ghosts of all descriptions, he set off through the forest.

Meanwhile, the pret had managed to somehow find his way out of the forest, more by luck than judgement. At first he had run only in pure, undiluted panic. But the further he had got, the more a suspicion had grown in his mind. That scream...the voice that made that scream had sounded awfully familiar. If he hadn’t been certain that he’d been following a thief, he’d have sworn that it was the voice of his host, the priest. He tended to scream in that kind of timbre when his wife twisted his ear for not bringing home enough food and money.

He was just telling himself that he was mistaken when he ran, full tilt, into the not inconsiderable paunch of the priest’s wife herself.

Monoroma had woken a short while before, troubled by the bites of mosquitoes. Usually, mosquitoes did not trouble her. They tended to avoid her leathery skin and the terrifically thick layer of blubber beneath, preferring to concentrate their attentions on her husband, whose watery, anaemic blood was more than compensated for by how easy it was to feed from him. Tonight, though, they had had to make the best of a bad situation. And the itch of a particularly savage bite – the poor mosquito had had to jab her ear in the desperate hope of finding a blood vessel – had driven her from out of the depths of slumber.

“Are you listening?” she’d bawled, even before opening her eyes. “You lie snoring all night while I get devoured by insects. If I weren’t a weak woman, I would...” Then she’d suddenly realised that the door of the hut was open, and that it was empty.

Grunting, she’d heaved herself up from the mat, and stalked outside, ready to find her husband and wring an explanation from him. That he might be meeting a floozy from the village never even occurred to her; she had enough of an accurate estimation of her husband’s charms to realise that not even the most wanton of hussies would ever waste a come-hither glance on him. It had to be something else, and when she found him, she would...

It was at this precise moment that a small pret butted her in the stomach, hard. It might have hurt her, but for all the fat. As it was, the impact didn’t even knock her a step back.

Monoroma had many faults, but physical cowardice had never been one of them. She snatched up the pret and held him wriggling at eye level. “Well?” she demanded. “Where is my husband, and what have you done with him?”

At the question, the poor pret’s misgivings overcame the squalling terror that had gripped him along with the priest’s wife. “Was it your husband?” he gibbered. “He’s in the forest, and fell into a pond.”

“He did, eh?” Monoroma said. She gave the pret a shake that made his horns rattle. “Well, then, take me to him.”

The pret gave out a squeak. He could do no better, with her hand squeezing his throat. But that was enough evidence of acquiescence to Monoroma. She had long ago become an expert at interpreting squeaks.

“Right,” she said, dropping him. “Now, move.”   

The pret moved. Of course the pret moved. Wouldn’t you? You would.

Meanwhile...

Meanwhile, the priest, once he had stopped screaming, had realised that he hadn’t actually drowned. Thrashing around in the darkness, he had finally found some half-submerged roots and branches, and used these to drag himself out of the water. Scarcely had he stumbled on to dry land, though, he found himself seized by the shoulder.

There you are,” the Brohmodottyi bellowed. “Planning to give us a slip by coming the long way round, were you?”

The priest said nothing. He said nothing because his voice had correctly analysed that the effort necessary for another scream was out of the question, and gone on strike for the moment. All he managed was another squeak.

The Brohmodottyi lacked Monoroma’s ability to interpret squeaks. “You refuse to answer me, do you? I’ve a good mind to wring your neck. I was thinking I’d only keep you captive till morning and then let you go, but you’ve caused me enough trouble. Yes, I think I’ll wring your neck.”

And right then the Brohmodottyi realised something awkward. He needed two hands to wring the priest’s neck, emaciated though it might be; but one hand was busy holding the wretch by the shoulder, and the other had his spawn clutched tight by the ear. If he let the junior Brohmodottyi go, the dissolute boy would certainly take the opportunity to escape and look for insects to feed his maw, hiding away at the same time from the threat of marriage. He paused, baffled.

He was still cogitating on what to do when the bhoot, wedding party in tow, arrived on the scene.

“What on earth are you doing, Shubhodrolochon Bondopadhayay?” the bhoot demanded. “That’s my priest. He came here to conduct my wedding. You’ve no right to do a thing to him.”

“I don’t, is that so?” the Brohmodottyi sneered. “Don’t push your luck, Shurjonoroyon Mitomojumdar. Who knows more about religious law and horrorscopes, I or you? Well?”

There was a brief pause. “He’s got a point,” some of the ghosts began muttering to each other. “Shubhodrolochon Bondopadhayay is right. He does know more about religious law and horrorscopes than Shurjonoroyon Mitomojumdar does.”

“But do you know more about them than my priest?” the bhoot demanded. “That’s the question. He’s as qualified in religion as you are, and, moreover, I have every right to call him in. There’s not a single ghostly law that says I can’t call whom I want.”

“I can vouch for that,” a mullah Mamdo bhoot spoke up. “I’m a Muslim, so I can’t conduct this marriage, but I can stand witness that Shurjonoroyon Mitomojumdar is perfectly correct. He can call in whoever he wants, and that’s all there is to it. The only criterion is that the person has to be religiously qualified to conduct the wedding.”

“Well then,” the Brohmodottyi said, giving the priest another shake, and eliciting another squeak reminiscent of a baby rat. “Well, then, ask him and see. Let’s see what he has to say for himself, if anything. Let him prove what his qualifications are.”

“Whatever his qualifications are,” a charging elephant trumpeted, “you have no right to hold him like that. If there’s anyone who has a right to squeeze his throat, it’s I. Now let him go.”

Once the ghosts had managed to shake off some of the effects of the blast of sound, they discovered that it was not a trumpeting elephant, but something far more intimidating. A human woman had waddled into their midst. Or was it a monster disguised as a woman? The ghosts suddenly decided that they would rather not find out.

“Did you not hear what I said?” she thundered, stomping up to the Brohmodottyi. “Drop my husband right now.”

“But...but I was just about to wring his neck,” the Brohmodottyi whined. “You must understand, I was trying to do everyone a service. I was...”

“Drop him,” Monoroma replied, “or it’s your neck I’ll wring. And don’t think I can’t do it, too.”

The Brohmodottyi looked at her brawny arms, and at her face, which somewhat resembled a crudely shaped mass of dough. He saw the look in her eyes, as bleak and glittering as a cobra’s, and suddenly decided that discretion was the better part of valour. And there would be other petnis for his son. “I didn’t mean any harm,” he said, dropping his captive. “Come on, you,” he added, with a vicious tug at junior’s ear. “Let’s go.”

Monoroma didn’t even wait until he’d disappeared before substituting his grip on her husband’s neck with hers. “Now,” she said. “Sneaking off at the dead of night, are we? Hobnobbing with ghosts, are we? Just wait till I get you home.”

“But,” the bhoot protested, seeing his victory slipping from his grip. “But, he came here to conduct my marriage.”

“And the suspicious time is almost past,” the bride petni put in.

“He promised me anything I wanted if I would do it,” the priest, who had finally managed to gather enough voice to speak, said. “Isn’t that right?” he appealed to the bhoot. “Anything at all.”

“He did?” Monoroma replied, before the bhoot could say anything. Her eyes glittered with avarice as brightly as the fireflies that flitted through the forest around them. “Anything at all? Gold and silver as well?”

The bhoot cleared his throat. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “There’s enough loot stashed by bandits in this forest for us to supply your requirements. But first – ”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Monoroma said, grinning. “Of course my husband will conduct your wedding. He’ll conduct the wedding of every ghost in the forest if you want. Did you say the suspicious time for the marriage is passing?”

“It is,” the bride petni said. “We’ve got to get going if we’re going to do it at all.”

“Get moving,” Monoroma ordered. “My gold and silver are at stake. Move!”

They moved.

The wedding was a great success.

Afterwards, as the bhoot plied the priest with sweets and delicacies, Monoroma drew the petni bride aside. “My dear,” she said. “Listen to me carefully. You must break in your husband at once. Train him properly from the start, so that he never gives you trouble. Let me explain to you how.”

She explained.

And, in the middle of the celebrations, one tiny voice went unanswered. It was the little pret, asking one plaintive question.

“Please, can I go home now?”


Copyright B Purkayastha 2018

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Marriage Day


On the morning of my marriage day, my sisters come to me.

 I have been expecting them, and have washed myself and laid out the garment in which I am to be married – a gown as grey as the dawn, as light and wispy as the clouds. I let them dress me in it, and when they are done, I stand back, and thank them briefly, in words as steeped in ritual as the visit and the dressing.

“Go well,” they say in response, in a chant they have rehearsed, the chant I have also used when sending our other sister out on her wedding day. “Go well, and come back in full bloom. Go out grey as ash and come back as red as a flower. Do you promise?”

“I promise,” I reply. Then each of them touches me, briefly, and leaves. Soon I am alone, and free to go.

But before I go, I have one more thing to do. One of my sisters has not visited me – it is she who was married the last time. Now she is great with child, and lies on her pallet in her room. Before leaving, I decide, I will go and see her.

She raises a tired head and smiles wanly when I enter. “I thought you would be gone by now.”

“I did not want to go without seeing you.” I look down at her. “It’s going to be in a day or two, right?”

“Maybe even today,” she says. “I can feel the movements.” She gestures invitingly towards her swollenness, inviting me to feel, too.

I do not want to touch. Her skin is pale, stretched so tight that it’s almost translucent. It reminds me of wax. But it was I who had come to see her, and she would be hurt if I didn’t do this simple thing. So I bend and touch, forcing myself not to flinch. Things seem to crawl and bump inside her. “Are you happy?” I ask curiously. It is a question I’m not really supposed to ask, but she and I were always close, closer than sisters really should be.

“Happy?” She shrugs tiredly. “It needs to happen, because the future must go on. How does it matter if I’m happy? But of course...” she smiles again. “Of course I’m not telling you not to be happy when your turn comes.”

I do not say anything for a moment. I want to go, but at the same time I do not want to leave her. Nor does she look as though she wants me to go. After all, there is still time. “Do you want male or female children?” she asks eventually.

I do not have to think about this. “Oh, female, definitely,” I respond immediately. “Males are such silly, useless things.”

“But we need them, don’t we?” she says, laughing breathlessly. “Need them for...” she points to the swollen mound of herself. “For this?”

“Perhaps someday we can do without them,” I tell her.

“Perhaps,” she agrees. “But not now, not in our lifetimes.” She looks very tired suddenly. “Go now. Your groom must be waiting for you. Go and come back red and in full bloom.”

I leave. On the way out I see none of my other sisters. They have work to do, all of them, as I had work until today. Only on our wedding day, and afterwards, do we not work.

At the entrance, one of my sisters has left a small sealed pot for me, tiny enough to hold in my fist. It is still warm. My sisters will have squeezed out the essence into the pot, drop by drop, for me. It is not necessary, but I feel a great surge of affection for them for taking the trouble.

The morning is heavy and grey, the air humid and pressing down with no breeze. It is not marrying weather. It is not the weather I would have chosen. Fortunately, I know the way I must go, where my groom will be waiting for me. Once, long ago, I would have had to trust to fortune. No longer.

The path is only a smudge in the ground, but easier to my feet than the ground around, strewn with thorn and stones. The trees hang heavily overhead, drooping almost to the ground under the weight of leaves and branches. I can see the river through them. It looks in this light like a stretch of grey mud.

From here, if I look back, I could see my home – mine and that of my sisters. It is the only home I have ever known, the only home I will ever know. With every step, I can feel its pull on me. I fight down the urge to look back, because if I do, I may be unable to resist the urge to turn around and go back. I cannot do that. It is my duty to marry, as it will be that of every one of my sisters in her turn.

The path turns to the left, towards the river. Here is the stone platform, worn by age, where I will wait. I do not know what it was built for, originally, or by whom; I have no idea how many marriages it has witnessed. The only one that will matter to me is my own.

The river is slow, and bears a smell with it, a smell of mud and rotting vegetation, and other things. I have heard that the river comes from a long way away, from the blue mountains on the distant horizon, which I will never visit. Perhaps my groom has. Males wander far, as they must.

Methodically, I prepare myself. There is no wind, so I do not have to orient myself towards it. Opening the pot, I take out the oily liquid within and smear myself with it. My sisters have made it for me – I would not want their efforts to go to waste. The smell of it hangs in the air, overpowering that of the river. If there was wind it would have carried it away, but there is not the slightest breath of a breeze. The smell is soporific; the pot slips from my grasp and shatters to fragments on the stone. No matter; the amount I have smeared on myself will more than suffice.

I can feel his presence now, in the rustling of branches, the light cracking of a twig. He is not here yet, but he is coming. 

Kneeling on the stone, I bow my head, as I have been taught, and wait.

It is not right for a bride to look at her groom; I have been always told this, from the first moment I was old enough to know that someday I must marry. Why it should be so, I have never been told, and never asked; but now, listening to the noise of him coming through the bushes, faster now, faster and closer, I suddenly know.

A bride must not look upon her groom so that she does not take fright and run away.

A rush, a high pitched shriek, and he is upon me.

Even though I have prepared for this moment, he almost knocks me over with his weight. I can feel him on me, scraping and clawing away my filmy grey garment. He is so inflamed by my scent, and that of my sisters, that he cannot at first find the back of my neck, which I have bared to him. Then I feel his claws digging into my skin, sharp as knives, and the stinging pain as his organ cuts through the back of my neck and into me.

Crouching under his weight, bowed almost to the stone, I wait and feel him on me, inside me, hot and burning and throbbing.

The river eddies by, with its mud and leaves and its scents from places I will never see, which I will never know. I watch it pass, and endure.

At last it is over. With a final convulsive throb, he rolls off my back and on to the stone. I can feel him thrashing around, weakly, already in his death throes. Males are weak creatures. They are born for only one purpose, and once that is done, they do not live long.

I could look at him now, if I wanted. I could put him out of his misery, as my sister had done with her husband. But I do neither. I only want one thing, now, and that is to go home.

Discarding the tattered remnants of my grey wedding garment, I turn back along the path. The blood from my wounds runs down my body, dripping on the ground, painting it as I go. The blood will clot, soon enough. It will need to, to preserve what I carry within me now.

Yes, they are already squirming through my veins and pulsing arteries, the seed my already dying husband has planted within me. They are seeking out my seed, and merging with them, and soon they will settle down inside me, to feed. To feed and to grow, and grow, and grow.

And soon, soon, they will be ready to emerge into the world. They will be desperate to be born, and they will make their own way out, with teeth and claws, ripping through the swollen, translucent bag that will be my body. They will bear with them the only message that means anything in this world, or on any other.

Life is the only thing that matters. By any means possible, no matter what it has to do, life will go on.

I can see my home now, my home and my sisters’, which will be the home of my children. I left in grey, and I am coming back red in my blood, and in bloom, as I had promised to do. Soon, I will bear fruit, and bring life into the world.

My sisters must have seen me. Soon it will be their turn. I can hear their voices, raised in welcome.

Singing.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2018


Notice to Reader

I refuse to make any explanation for my recent absence. Let it be enough to say that I have had a hard few months, and that writing was not the first thing on my mind.

I will be writing again from now, but when I want, and what I want, as usual.

Thank you for your concern, etc.