“I don’t know any ghost stories,” the old engineer said. “I don’t know any werewolf stories either, and I’ve never even heard of anyone who was bitten by a vampire. So sorry, but there it is.”
We were sitting over bottles of wine and plates of kebabs, with the lights dimmed. The rain poured down outside with the force of a waterfall, and it made the room all the cosier, and the atmosphere just right for storytelling.
“I’ve been listening to all of you,” the old engineer continued, “tell stories about ghosts and ghouls and all manner of creatures from beyond the imagination, and I’ve been racking my brain, but I simply can’t think of anything you haven’t heard before.”
“Oh,” said our host’s wife, who sat hugging her shins with her chin propped up on her knees, “you must know something at least, some strange tale. Don’t say you don’t!”
“Real life,” the old engineer said, stroking his grey goatee and smiling at her, “doesn’t have any pat explanations. I’ve seen some strange things, yes, and I could tell you of one or two of them. But that’s all I could do, tell you. I can’t claim that what I saw explains or doesn’t explain ghosts or demons or anything of the sort.”
“Tell us anyway,” said the host’s wife, who was very pretty, much prettier than she had any right to be at her age, and flirtatious to go with it. “I just know your story’s going to be the best of all!”
“Far be it from me,” said the old engineer, “to resist a request from such a pretty lady. All right, I shall tell you of something I saw once. I have never been able to explain it or find an explanation that fits, but I shall tell you anyway.”
The rain began to pour down harder than ever, and thunder crashed outside. We all poured ourselves more of the semi-sweet red wine and pulled our chairs forward to listen.
You know (the old engineer said) that I’m a mining engineer. At the time of which I am about to tell you, I was much younger, and still junior enough for my employers to send me out to godforsaken parts to do thankless jobs for them.
Back in those days, we were trying to revive mines that had been abandoned for many years but might still be made productive, especially with more modern techniques and equipment. Many of these mines were far away from civilisation, and often they had been left alone for so long that nature had reclaimed the sites, the remaining equipment, and the support facilities – all of it.
One of these sites was the old coal mine at Koehla on the border of India and what is now Myanmar. A team of us had been sent to try and restart this mine, which had been abandoned since the Japanese occupied Burma back in the Second World War. The mine area had seen some fighting and after the war, when the area had been hit for some years by insurgency, had simply been abandoned to be swallowed up again by the jungle.
Along with me in the team was Ganesan, a dark, lean Tamil with a bushy moustache and a fierce look. There would be others, as well, but later. It was basically for me and for Ganesan to do all the real work. We would be living on site; the others would be coming once we had done all the preliminary surveys.
Koehla was then, and for all I know still is, a smallish village of a few hundred people. It consisted of a row of huts straggling on either side of a red earth road, surrounded by a few cultivated fields and the hills, covered by forests, not far away. The derricks of the mine were visible from the village, standing tall at the top of a low, forested hill. There were railway tracks, too, which had once served to carry coal from the mine. But these were tracks along which no train had run since the Union Jack and the Rising Sun had flapped above the derricks in the distance, and what remained of the rails were rusted through and so overgrown that they could scarcely be seen.
The mine itself was, when we arrived, scarcely in better shape. The derricks, which had seemed so tall and impressive from the village, turned out to be corroded and tilted, their lines blurred with creepers, their foundations damaged by weather and water. The main mine shaft was collapsed on itself, and buried under a mass of earth and rock. Clearly, we would need a lot of work before we could even begin to determine whether the mine could be revived.
Ganesan and I, as I said, were supposed to be on-site to direct operations. We had planned to live at the village, but after one good look at the place, open sewers and all, we decided it would be better, more convenient, and altogether more sensible to set up camp at the mine itself. The old mining buildings were all uninhabitable. Some had lost their roofs, others their doors and windows, and the walls were cracked and the floors rotted through. We had tents, and at first, reluctantly decided they would have to do. But then, where the old rails ended, we found a freight wagon, buried up to the wheels in earth and the grass growing up its sides. The walls were covered with rust but still sound and it was far more spacious than our tiny tents. We cooked on a small kerosene stove in the mornings, taking turns, and washed at a tiny spring we had found in the forest not far away. The water was cold but wonderfully clear.
The day after we moved in, we began gathering labourers together for the preliminary work. Since it was the agricultural off-season, most of the men of the village had nothing much to do and we hired a lot of them, through the village chief, naturally. The village chief was the one whose word counted. We talked to him, he talked to the villagers, arranged everything, and we were to pay him and he would pass on the payment to the labourers, and so on. He was a charming old rogue with a deeply seamed and wrinkled face who loved liquor, and he had a tremendous capacity for it. I’m sure most of what he was given to hire workers with went on to the local bootleggers instead, but that was none of our business. We had to spend a fair amount of time with him to keep him in good humour. His name, if memory serves, was Matal.
The labourers began gathering on the third day, and they worked very, very slowly. We had to be with them virtually all the time, Ganesan and I, to tell them what to do, to make sure that they did it, and to keep track of what they discovered. And in the evenings we had to go down to the village, bottles in hand, and eat and drink with old Matal until the oil in his lanterns burned low and he would consent to our going back to the camp.
On the fourth day we began to find the remnants of rusted military equipment – as I said, the place had been fought over in the war – rusted helmets, a bayonet, and other odds and ends: metal belt buckles and the like, all far too damaged to be able to tell to which side they had belonged. On the day after that Ganesan came to me where I was helping in cutting down vines from the base of a derrick.
“You should have a look at this,” he said.
I stood beside him looking down at what one of the labourers had dug up. It was covered in earth and looked like a large rounded lump of rock, but there were teeth showing at one side and the curve of it was broken where the bone had collapsed.
“I wonder who he was,” Ganesan said. “This whole job is getting on my nerves.”
The other labourers had stopped work and come crowding round. Feeling vaguely like an archaeologist at a dig, I shooed them away, and together the three of us – Ganesan, the labourer who had found the skull, and I – dug around, and we found some more bones. After a little discussion we put those bones in a sack and stowed them away in one of the ruined old mine buildings. It was up to the government what they’d want done with them.
After that we found many more bones. Soon we had to keep one room apart for the remains we had dug up, and it became almost impossible to keep them all separate. No, we had no problems with the ghosts of the owners of those bones demanding we put them back. This isn’t that kind of story.
By the time the first week was over only part of the site had been cleared and the workers had to be promised a bonus to work even as fast as they had been supposed to do all along.
One thing always surprised me about old Matal, the chief. I’d worked in other such remote places before, and I knew all about the tribal chiefs. Generally they were eager – more than eager – to come to where the work was going on and to throw their weight around, order people, supervise and in general make a nuisance of themselves. Matal never did that. I even asked him whether he’d come round and visit – he refused, and gave me to understand that he’d never visited the site for years, and never would again. When I asked why, he just shook his head and took another swig of liquor.
The work went on for weeks, proceeding slowly, until we had cleared some of the growth from the derricks and the old equipment. The condition of everything was so bad that again and again we had to persuade ourselves to go on; we’d pretty much have to rebuild everything from the ground up and then who knew whether there would be enough in the mine left to make it worth the effort.
Every evening, after the session at Matal’s hut which, though unavoidable, was frankly irksome for both Ganesan and me, we used to walk up from the village up to the mine. At first we’d use our torches, but as the weeks passed, we became more and more used to the way; also, the moon grew and grew in its cycle towards fullness until we hardly needed the torches anymore.
On the night before the moon was full, we were at Matal’s when something very strange happened. We were about to leave after the usual drinking session when the old chief stood up and walked to the door, and stood there, looking out at the moonlit night.
“It will be full moon tomorrow,” he observed, in the pidgin Hindi we used to communicate.
“Yes,” I said. The landscape was silver and beautiful. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Tomorrow night,” Matal said heavily, “you two will stay here, in my hut. You will not spend it at the camp.”
“Why not?” Naturally, we were astonished. Matal had never suggested anything like this before.
“Listen to an old man who has lived his entire life in these parts,” he said. “When you come here tomorrow, come ready to spend the night. You can leave in the morning.”
We looked at him. He seemed perfectly serious, and stone sober. He must have understood that we doubted him, so he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back to my stool, nodding at Ganesan to follow. His grip was potent for an old man.
“You must have noticed,” he said, “that I don’t visit your mine site. Probably you’ve been wondering why. I know that most places you’d find the chief up there at all hours, and the village people too, to try and steal what they could while the officers were away. But you’ve seen, I’m sure, that not even the village thieves have troubled you at night.”
Ganesan and I looked at each other. We’d locked up the old rail wagon the first few days, but nobody had ever stolen any item we’d left out in the open, so we’d stopped bothering. We’d just assumed the village people were exceptionally honest, for all their laziness.
“I used to go there a lot once,” Matal said, “when I was younger. I used to look for things I could use, and sometimes I went there at night too, because that was the only time I was free during the harvest season. I found a lot of things too, but that doesn’t matter right now.
“The last time I went there was one full moon night. Now, even before me, many of the young men of the village had been up there at night, to forage or with a girl; you know how young men are. And one or two of them had been up there on full moon nights, and they had told me of having seen strange things – things they didn’t want to talk about, but after that I saw that they didn’t want to go up there again.
“That night I was there alone. I’d taken women up there, like the others, sometimes, but that occasion there was nothing like that. I was looking for a good knife, and there were a lot of things still left over then, from the war, so I thought I might find something I could use.
“I found a knife almost at once. The place wasn’t so overgrown in those days, of course, and I found it half-buried near the entrance of the mine. It was full moon, so I saw it easily. I’m glad I did, because after that night I could never force myself to go up there again.
“I’d just taken that knife out of the earth and rubbed it clean on my shawl when...”
“All this is very interesting,” said Ganesan, who had been nodding for some time, “but we’ve had an exhausting day, and we have a long day tomorrow, so if you’ll excuse us...”
I, too, was feeling the effect of exhaustion and the raw rough wine. I stood up too. “We’ll talk more about it tomorrow,” I said.
“But you’ll spend the night here?”
“We’ll see,” I told Matal. “We’ll see.”
The next day we worked hard, all day, as usual, and by the time evening rolled round we were dripping with sweat, and ready for a bath. As we went back to the railway wagon, it was with great astonishment that we saw old Matal coming up the track to our camp. He was leaning on a staff, and was panting slightly from the climb, but he was there, all right. We stared at him, astonished.
“Have you two thought over it?” he asked. “Will you spend the night in my house?”
“No,” we had to admit. “We haven’t.” As a matter of fact we hadn’t even thought of what he’d said, and if we had, we wouldn’t have wanted to stay overnight in his smelly hut anyway, but we couldn’t tell him that, of course.
“I was thinking,” said Ganesan suddenly, and to this day I don’t know what possessed him to say that, “that since you’re here, you might as well taste our hospitality and spend the night here. Because,” he added, “I’m too tired to go down to the village tonight, I’m sorry to say.”
Matal frowned slightly. “Then,” he declared, “I’ll stay here with you. It’s the only way I know that I can save you from yourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“You finish your bathing and whatever you need to do, and I’ll tell you some things.”
“That night,” Matal said later, when we were sitting in the carriage in the light of a kerosene lamp, “when the moon was full and I was here alone, I’d just finished cleaning the knife I’d found on my shirt when I heard a noise. I can’t describe the noise, but it was something I’ve never heard before and I never want to hear again. And I saw things–“ he closed his eyes and shuddered. “I have no words to adequately describe the things I saw. All I can say is that they came out of the earth, and that they were horrible, and if I had not run and climbed to the top of one of those metal towers of yours, they would have had me. As it was, they gathered around the foot of the tower and clawed at me all night, gibbering and moaning, and when the dawn broke they finally went away.”
“What were they?” I asked, fascinated. The old man looked haunted by whatever thought he was trying to put into words.
“I don’t know! All I can say is that they looked something like men and something like beings less than men. I couldn’t see them very clearly. Somehow it was the moonlight; it seemed to distort them, to make them almost glow. I can say that they were horrible. And they made me think of bad memories...”
“It was a long time ago,” said Matal. “Memories that came from the time I was a boy. Bad memories.”
What I’m going to tell you now (the old engineer continued) I did not find out all at once. Some I found out from old Matal that night, and some later, from research I did into the history of the mine.
In 1944, the area around the mine was occupied by units of the Imperial Japanese Army. The British had wrecked most of the equipment before withdrawing, but the Japanese tried their best to get the mine back in working condition. They needed the coal, and they did their best to get to it.
The only way to get the coal out, of course, was manually, by the efforts of men. The Japanese, typically, made no efforts to ensure the safety of the workers involved. The workers involved weren’t valuable or even anything more than expendable. They were, in fact, the entire population of the nearby villages, who were conscripted at gunpoint for the task.
Some reports even speak of a name, a lieutenant named Ishihara. This man, of whom almost nothing is known apart from his name, earned a reputation for his behaviour with a katana, one of the swords the Emperor’s soldiers used during the war. Ishihara, apparently, used his sword in inventive ways. I saw a couple of photographs that purported to show his handiwork. I won’t describe them. I’ll just say that I wouldn’t wish that sort of treatment on my worst enemy.
At the time, Matal was a very young man, not yet out of his teens. He was among those who had to work on the mine, and he saw his friends, too, killed or worked to death by the Japanese. He said he fell with exhaustion where he stood at the end of the day, until the Japanese kicked him up again. And so it went, day after day, week after week, month after month.
In late 1944, Field Marshal Slim drove the Japanese back from Imphal and Kohima and back towards the frontier. The Japanese were in rout, but as they went they left small detachments as rearguards pledged to fight to the death to delay the British as much as possible. Among these detachments was the one posted to the mine at Koehla, under Lieutenant Ishihara. Some of the Japanese would have retreated – not all of them were fanatics who wished to die for the Emperor – or even surrendered, but Ishihara would have none of it, and he enforced his authority with his katana.
The British reached Koehla one morning, just after dawn, and were immediately ambushed by the Japanese. Matal and the other workers who had been kept overnight at the mine managed to slip away as the shooting intensified. All that day the British drove Ishihara’s detachment steadily back, until by afternoon they were fighting at the mine itself.
I’ll say this for the Japanese – whatever he was like otherwise, whatever crimes he had committed, when the time came, Ishihara fought magnificently. With his tiny force he held off the British, who outnumbered him about three hundred to one, that night and all the next day, until by the time the second night fell, he and the remnants of his rearguard were forced to take shelter inside the mine.
It was a full moon night, Matal said, and he and a few others had sneaked back up to see the end of the Japanese officer they had learned to hate so much. They could see the derricks and the rail lines in the moonlight, and the muzzle flashes of machine guns and rifles and hear the bang of exploding grenades and mortars. There was a lot of shooting around the mine shaft, and finally the Japanese began firing back at the British from inside the entrance to the mine. Matal said he felt a few of the bullets skimming past him in the darkness.
And then the British, who had been delayed enough and had no desire to engage in a hand-to-hand fight underground with such tenacious enemies, simply dynamited the mine entrance.
Ishihara and his men must have starved to death in there, slowly. Nothing, at any rate, was ever heard of them again. The armies moved away, the war ended, and the jungle took over the site, and nothing moved there except wildlife and the odd visitor from the village. Only, Matal said, on full moon nights, things walked the old mine site, and it was not safe to be around.
“Are you serious?” Ganesan asked, when Matal had finished. By that time we had all drunk a fair amount, and the night lay heavy outside our little metal box on wheels. “You mean to tell us that the ghosts of the Japanese are still haunting the site on full moon nights? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying nothing,” Matal returned. I can still see him, sitting over the flickering light of the lantern, with a glass of whisky in his hand, the shadows etched deep into his face. “All I’m telling you is that something strange moves around these parts on the night when the moon is full, and I have no wish to see either of you fall victim to whatever it is.”
“In that case,” said Ganesan, rising, “I’m going out right now, and I’ll prove to you that this is all rubbish.”
“Don’t be a young fool,” said Matal. But Ganesan was too drunk to care, though not so drunk as to be slowed down. “All these superstitions,” he snapped, “have to be broken.” Before either Matal or I had had time to react, he had jumped up, grabbed an iron rod we’d found that day near the mine entrance, and rushed out of the wagon. I was full of alcohol too – we all were – and I had got up too, when Matal pushed me back, hard. “Wait,” he said. “Can’t you hear it?”
I listened, and I heard it too, then, a sound that I can’t describe, try as I might – a sound like that of the sea, rising and falling, a slushy, heavy sound, that was coming closer and closer. It rose up all around us, as if from the very earth, and Matal slammed the door of the wagon shut, and stood with his back against it.
Something tapped against the wall by me then, with a ringing clang as of metal on metal. It tapped the wall right at my side, hard enough that I could feel the vibration through the thick iron. It was followed by scratching, something scratching along the wall as if trying to claw its way in; and, louder and louder, all around us was that sound, like the sound of the sea.
And then, from somewhere not too far away, we heard Ganesan screaming. I was too paralysed with terror to think of rushing out to his aid. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, because he screamed for only a short time.
We stayed in that wagon all the night, listening to the tapping and scratching, and the sound like the sea, and something more, a low muttering noise, like moaning or slobbering. Sometimes it grew loud, sometimes faint, and finally, at about three in the morning, everything fell quiet, and I knew, somehow, that it had gone, whatever it was. It had gone back into whatever darkness from which it had come, to wait till the moon was full again.
Matal and I went out then, and in the light of the torch we soon found Ganesan. I don’t want to describe in what shape we found him. I will say that whatever had killed him had eaten part of him, and that what was left was so clawed that only his face and one arm and hand were intact. In that hand we found an object – but more about that later.
That was the end of the mine project. I reported that Ganesan had been mauled by a tiger, and Matal backed me up. I also said that the mine was beyond worthwhile revival, and, fortunately, the government accepted that report. As quickly as I could, I closed down operations and left, well before the next full moon.
“I can’t explain it,” said the old engineer. He paused and took another sip of wine. “I can’t explain it,” he repeated, “so don’t expect me to. All I know is what I told you just now.”
We all looked at each other and listened to the rain falling outside. “Couldn’t it be,” said someone; if I am not mistaken, it was the host’s young cousin, who had had an explanation for everything so far that evening, “couldn’t it be that you were right? Maybe it was a tiger that killed your Ganesan after all, and its mate came scratching around your wagon? Isn’t that the likeliest explanation?”
“Certainly,” said the old engineer, smiling, “it’s possible. I even wish I could prove it were true. But there’s something more to it – there is that thing that we found, clutched in Ganesan’s hand. We had to break his fingers to take it out because he was holding it so tightly.
“Both Matal and I saw it clearly, in the light of the dawn – a crumpled khaki cap, of the sort you see Japanese soldiers wearing in old photos from the war and in Hollywood films. We saw it clearly, and we held it in our hands, and when we looked inside it we even saw the sweat stains in the lining. Those sweat stains were still fresh, and damp.
“And then the first light of the sun broke over the horizon. In that same instant, right in our hands, the cap began to crumble away. The crown fell in, the cloth peak dissolved, and the sweat-stained lining fell apart.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12