Thursday, 27 November 2014

After the Storm Is Over

All night the storm had raged, and the ground outside was littered with broken branches and other debris when the woman let herself out of the house.

The big tree had fallen, as she’d known it would. She had heard it fall in the night, a tearing, crashing ripping that had sounded loudly even over the storm. Now it lay, a shattered ruin, over the remains of two smaller trees, which it had snapped off like matchsticks.

She shook her head sadly. The old tree had stood there as long as she could remember, old already when she had first come to this house as a young bride, so many years ago. But she’d known it was weakening, known that it would fall. Maybe she should have had it cut down.

She shook her head again, a tiny motion of negation. No, she could never have let that tree be cut down.

A voice spoke at her shoulder. “Well, its time had come.”

She didn’t turn her head to look, because she already knew there wasn’t anyone there. Besides, the voice was long familiar, and she knew it was in her mind. “Go away,” she said calmly.

“Why,” the voice said, in pretended sorrow, “don’t you love me anymore? You were glad enough to talk to me at night during the storm.”

“You aren’t real,” she told it. “Go away.”

“I’m as real as I want to be,” the voice said. “Why, when I remember back in the day...”

Ignoring it, the woman walked down to the fallen tree. It hadn’t been uprooted, but had broken in two about a metre off the ground. The wood there had long been cracked and fissured, and white fungus grew there in profusion every year in summer.

It was not summer, and there were no fungi growing now.

Stooping slowly and with some pain due to her knees, the woman picked up some of the larger branches and tossed them aside. The stump was blackened around the crack as though it had been burned, and the wood was soft and leathery with rot.

“Couldn’t have lasted any longer anyway,” she muttered.

“An old crock, like me, like you,” the voice nattered on. “We’re all being eaten away from inside.”

“Not you, you aren’t,” she told it firmly. “You’re only a figment of the imagination, remember?” Stepping up to the stump, she was distracted by a flicker of movement. Something went skittering away, just past the edge of her vision. She caught the merest glimpse of grey fur.

The stump was hollow. Long ago, the rot had penetrated through to the centre and eaten it away, leaving a cylindrical hole that sank away down rootwards. She put her hand into it, and the black, rotten wood seemed to swallow it up completely.

“It’s deeper than you think,” the voice said. “It probably goes down all the way to the centre of the earth.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” The wood felt smooth and vaguely warm, despite the chill of the autumn morning. When she pressed with her fingertips, she felt it give. It was slightly repulsive in a fascinating way, as though she was touching some potentially dangerous but quiescent creature. She rubbed with her fingers and felt the soft wood crumble away. “As though you would know anything about it.”

“I know everything you know, don’t I?” The voice replied triumphantly. “Since you say that I’m only a construct of your mind, that is.”

“I...” She stopped suddenly. Her fingers had found something in the wood, something hard and rounded. It had the feel of metal.

“You know what they call you?” the voice continued, jeering. “The kids down in the village? They call you the mad witch woman. You know that, don’t you?”

“Hush,” she told it, rubbing at the wood, trying to free the metal. It came loose suddenly, falling into her palm. She held it up and out to the light, knowing what it was before she forced herself to look at it.

A bullet lay in her hand.

The autumn morning, grey as it was, seemed to grey out even more for an endless minute. She clutched her fists tight and crammed them into her jacket pockets. The bullet felt as though it was burning a hole in her palm.

“So if I know they think you’re a crazy witch, that must mean you do too, and –“

“Oh, go away,” she hissed, with such force that the voice fell silent. There was violence in the air, a seething cloud which filled her vision. Through it she felt that things around her were changing, the years falling away, and the air was warm with the smells of spring.

Warm with the smell of blood.

She screwed her eyes shut, knowing what she would see if she opened them, the years rolled away, the man with the gun across the garden, standing by the wall.

Her voice, raw with screaming in her throat, and the man, raising his gun to squeeze off another shot. She didn’t know how he’d managed to miss with the last one. She’d hardly been able to move with fear.

“He’s playing with you,” the thought came dimly, “He’ll play with you until he’s had enough, and then he will finish it.”

The smell of blood, that too, she knew where it was coming from. If she had moved her foot even a little she would have felt her husband’s body. That body had been wrapped around her in bed only half an hour ago, and now it was lying there, empty as an old beer bottle.

She didn’t even know who the man was.

She’d reacted then, hadn’t she? She’d put her feet down, one in front of the other, and walked across to the man, stepping over the body of her husband. She’d done that quite calmly, hadn’t she? She must have smiled, too. Yes, probably she had smiled, and she’d shrugged the dressing gown off her bare shoulders, and walked naked across the grass, smiling, holding out her hands. Hadn’t she? She must have done, because he hadn’t shot at her. And then...

She could not make herself remember what had happened then. All she knew was that she had had a hard time cleaning his blood, both their blood, off herself. And then she had called the police.

She’d been a heroine, for a day. A tragic heroine, they’d called her.

That was the way it had happened, wasn’t it?

She clutched the bullet tighter than ever, her shoulders hunched until the black fog had begun to clear from her eyes.

“Crazy woman,” the voice jeered. “Crazy, crazy woman.”

“Yes, crazy woman,” she replied, watching another scuttling grey shape from the corner of her eye. “What’s your point?”

She walked back up to the house, and the squirrel jumped up to the broken stump and watched her go.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014


Purkayastha's Axiom Number One

 "The further to the right a political organisation is, and the more it claims to be the defender of national values, the less it will actually know about the nation or said values. "

[Source]

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Question of Residence

I came out of the house and stopped dead on the doorstep. Well, not literally dead. But you know what I mean.

You couldn’t really blame me for that, either, if you saw what I’d seen. Not everybody is privileged to see a ghost walk up the stairs as he’s leaving home for work at half past eight in the morning.

What? Of course I knew it was a ghost. Don’t be daft. Everyone knows what a ghost looks like when they see one. And with the thousands of ghosts bungling around, it’s hard to get through a day without bumping into at least a couple. You just have to admit to yourself that they are ghosts.

Now if this had been just any ghost, of course, I wouldn’t have turned a hair. I’ve seen, at the last count, three thousand, one hundred, and twenty seven ghosts. Or maybe it was twenty eight – I thought I saw one once, driving a car, but ghosts don’t drive cars, do they?

But this ghost was something special. Oh yes. It was the last ghost I’d ever expected to see.

It was my own ghost.

I expect you understand now what I felt. For a long moment I stood goggling at it, imagining I was hallucinating. Because, of course, as far as I knew I wasn’t dead. And as far as I knew only dead people became ghosts.

One ghost each, too. I’d never heard of anybody owning more than one ghost.

Was the ghost similarly goggling back at me? Of course it wasn’t. The ghost didn’t even glance at me. It merely pushed past me and into the house.

What? Of course the ghost could push me. Ghosts can get solid for a bit if they want. I thought everyone knew that.

So it was inside my house. And then it slammed the door, and I heard the bolt clacking home.

I was locked out of my house, and my ghost was inside.

Think of that a moment and feel the horror of the situation.

So, what did I do? I did what you’d have done in my situation. I went right up to that door and began hammering on it. And the response I got was what you’d get – nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. From inside the house, my ghost laughed. Have you ever tried to imagine what it’s like to hear your own ghost laugh? Give it up, you can’t.

But I couldn’t give up, because the ghost was in my house, and I was locked out. Also, I was getting late for work.

“I’ll be back in the evening,” I yelled to the ghost. “You’d better be off by then!”

The ghost chuckled. A chuckling ghost is even worse than a laughing ghost. Don’t believe me? Have one chuckle at you and see. I knew then that I’d have more problems than I’d bargained for.

At work I asked my departmental head what she thought.

“I think you ought to call the exterminators,” she whiffled.

“Exterminators?” I replied. “But that’s for infestations, isn’t it?”

“And?” she shot back. “If your house isn’t infested by this ghost, then what is it?”

I thought she had a point, so during my lunch break I checked online for exterminators. I found several, and called them up – but, do you know, not one of them dealt with exterminating ghosts!

“A ghost is already dead, sir,” a sweet young lady told me patiently. “When we exterminate them we kill them, and you can’t kill something that’s already dead.”

I had to reluctantly admit the sense in that. “But what do I do then?” I wailed plaintively, like people who have never admitted to themselves they saw a ghost imagine ghosts wail. “It’s occupying my house!”

“Please don’t yowl like that, sir,” the young lady replied. “I’ll ask my boss and see if he can help.”

So her boss came on the line and after listening to me he muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like “confounded crackpots” but couldn’t possibly have been. “You’d better go consult a ghostologist,” he said. “They can tell you what to do.”

So, taking a few more minutes of my time, I checked online for a ghostologist and actually found one. No, I am not going to tell you her name. She wouldn’t like it for reasons which have nothing to do with you. Anyway, I called, and caught her just as she was about to go out for the day.

“Hmm,” she said when I’d told her what I wanted. “You’re sure it’s your own ghost? No identical twins or anything?”

“Of course I’m sure,” I retorted. “I’ve never been so sure about anything.”

“In that case,” the ghostologist said, “I’m afraid there’s only one option open for us.”

“What? I’ll do anything...” I hesitated. “Anything within reason,” I amended. “I’ll do anything within reason to get my house back.”

“Reason is never reasonable,” the ghostologist said. Whatever that means. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to recruit other ghosts to do your work for you.”

“What?” I squeaked. “Recruit other ghosts?’

“Precisely,” she replied. “If it’s your own ghost, it can’t be sent away into the next world. Because it’s never been in the next world, you see.”

“I don’t see,” I admitted frankly, “but I’ll take your word for it. How do I go about recruiting other ghosts?”

“I’ll see to it,” she said. “Give me your address. What time do you get off work?”

I told her. “That should be fine,” she replied. “Meet me outside your house at half past six, then.”

So at half past six I made my way back to my house, feeling like a bit of an idiot. The ghostologist was waiting outside, looking a bit like a ghost herself in the gathering dusk. Her face was thin and her skin translucent, and her hair was the colour of fog. Over her shoulder she carried a long bag that looked as though it was constructed out of discarded umbrellas, or maybe bat’s wings.

“Glad to see you’re here,” she said. Her voice sounded like a ghost’s, too, like a rustle of dried leaves. “Just make sure your ghost is still in possession and won’t let you in, and we’ll get on with the rest of it.”

So, feeling a bit stupid, I went up to the door and tried to unlock it. It was bolted, sure enough.

“Hey, ghost,” I called. “Open this and let me in.”

 All I got was a laugh. It wasn’t even a mocking laugh, just a really amused one. A ghost laughing that way sounds even worse than a ghost laughing any other way, in case you were wondering. The door stayed predictably, and obstinately, shut.

“Why aren’t you going to let him in?” the ghostologist asked.

“It’s my house now,” my ghost said from the other side of the door. “I need a place to stay, don’t I?”

“We’ll have to forcibly evict you if you don’t open the door,” the ghostologist warned.

The ghost laughed again. “Go ahead and try,” it said.

I turned back to the ghostologist. “Now what?”

She wasn’t put out. “Well,” she said, “we had to try. But since it didn’t work out...” She rummaged in her bag and brought out something that looked like a vuvuzela. She raised it to her lips and I braced myself for the noise, but nothing happened.

“It’s ultrasonic,” she explained, and blew again.

Something dropped out of the tree by the gate. It was long and thin, and had limbs that folded on themselves like spaghetti. Above a chest like a stovepipe it had a face made up entirely of knobs and tusks and dim reddish eyes.

It was a ghost, of course, and it was gorgeous.

“I didn’t know you lived in my tree,” I said stupidly.

The ghost glanced at me with three or four of its eyes and shook a knob or two at me. It then turned to the ghostologist.

“You will go in there,” the ghostologist said, “and open the door. You will then throw out the ghost inside. Do you understand?”

The thin ghost nodded. It was becoming more solid by the second, but still resembled spaghetti draped around a lollypop.

“It’s just the resident spirit,” the ghostologist said to me. “Most places acquire one or two. All the ghosts need a place to stay, you know?” She turned back to the ghost. “What reward do you want?”

“Peanuts,” said the ghost. Its voice sounded like a foghorn muffled with a pair of old socks. “Pay peanuts, first, I go then.”

“Very well.” The ghostologist fumbled in her bag and brought out a peanut. “You can have another after you do the job.”

The ghost nodded again, reached out with a spaghetti-limb, took the peanut from her hand and put in between two of its tusks. “Tasty,” it said. “One more?”

“Only after you do the job.” The ghostologist motioned to the house. “Go!”

 The ghost went. It drifted past me, its spaghetti limbs trailing, and came to the door. Then it folded itself up – no, don’t ask me how it did it, I couldn’t tell you – until it was a tiny spike the size of a baby earthworm. What? You’ve seen baby earthworms, haven’t you? No? Doesn’t matter. It just made itself very small, crawled up the door and oozed through the keyhole.

You know, it strikes me that burglar gangs could recruit ghosts. What better way of getting into vaults and...

All right, I’ll get back to the point. The thin ghost oozed through the keyhole and dropped inside. A moment later I heard the bolts shoot back and the door swung open.

“Let’s go,” I whooped. “Let’s get that ghost of mine out on its ear right now!”

“Wait!” the ghostologist shouted, but I wasn’t going to stand there when the door was finally open. And it’s as well that I did, seeing what happened next.

Right inside the open door, sitting on the floor, was a small bowl filled with roast peanuts. I was just in time to see the last of the thin ghost’s spaghetti limbs disappear into the bowl.

And what do you think happened? My ghost strolled up, picked up the bowl of peanuts, and swallowed them all down, ghost and all.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

“What happened?” the ghostologist asked, appearing at my shoulder.

“It...” I gestured wildly at my ghost. “It, he, it ate your ghost!”

“And very tasty it was too,” my ghost affirmed, patting his stomach. “Peanut-flavoured, too, the way I like it.”

“How do we throw him out?” I glanced at the ghostologist, and was perturbed to see the unsure look in her eyes.

“Wait a moment,” she said, holding up a hand. “This is...complicated.”

“You can say that again,” my ghost said, filled with obvious enjoyment. “Now I’m holding your ghost prisoner, and what are you going to do about it?”

“I’m, well,” my ghostologist said. “I’ve never actually been in this situation before. He’s turned the tables on us.”

“It’s just another ghost, isn’t it?” I argued. “Who cares if it’s eaten the other ghost? We just have to get it out of here so I can take my house back.”

“They care,” my ghost said, pointing over my shoulder. I glanced back, and froze.

The path to the gate was filled with ghosts! Some were tall and thin, others fat and short, still others tall and fat or short and thin, but they all had spaghetti-limbs and knobby tusked heads. And as far as I could tell, they all looked furious.

“Where is my brother?” the tallest, fattest and ugliest demanded. “We demand to know where he is at once!”

“Where is Uncle?” a small and thin one added, poking at me with a floppy spaghetti-limb. “What have you done with him?”

“Give me my boyfriend back at once!” another said, wagging her straggly-haired head. “At once, you hear me?”

“Oh heavens,” I muttered. “Relatives.”

But, still, I had to try. “That ghost there ate him,” I said. “It’s him you ought to be after, not me.”

The ghostologist shook her head. “That won’t work.”

It did not work. “He was working for you,” they all moaned, nearly in unison. “It’s you who are responsible.”

“What do we do now?” I asked the ghostologist.

“There’s only one thing,” she said grimly. “I’d hoped to avoid it but I see now that we don’t have a choice.”

“What?” I asked.

“We’re going to have to go to court,” she said.

****************************************

I’m not going to bore you with all the details of the court proceedings, all the long drawn out lawyers’ conferences, the back and forth and appeals and so on. All I’ll tell you is that, in the end, I won!

Oh yes, I won. I’ve got my house back now, and the spaghetti ghost is free and back with his brother and nephew and girlfriend. My ghost vomited him right up when he got the court order. He was a bit nutty bot otherwise fine.

My ghost now...this is where it gets a mite complicated.

You see, though I got my house back, it didn’t quite go all my way. It was...a...compromise. I got my house. He got something else.

What did he get? My body. He walked off wearing my body.

I’m the ghost now. I am my own ghost.

Well, it could be worse, couldn’t it? At least I have a place to stay. I don’t have to live in a tree like whatshisname, the nutcase.

But I no longer have a job, seeing as my old body is now filling in my position at the office. And I do have to pay taxes and such.

Besides, it gets kind of lonely and boring doing nothing, day after day after day.

So, um, seeing that you’re the leader of a gang of burglars, I have a little proposition for you. You know what it is.

Oh, you’re not the leader of a gang of burglars? Well, then, get going and recruit a gang! There’s a fortune to be made.

What are you waiting for?


Copyright B Purkayastha 2014