The book was old and tattered, the cover worn and edges curling. My sister had found it in a second-hand bookshop, one of the dark and dingy places in the lanes behind the market, where the piles of volumes rise almost to the ceiling and old men with thick bifocals read newspapers in shafts of dusty sunlight. She bought it on a whim, because she had rummaged about for an hour and wanted to have something to show for the effort.
So she just picked it up while walking out, and got it for almost nothing at all. And only when halfway home did she open it to see what it was about.
My sister was like that.
“Garbage,” I said, when she showed it to me later. “Just rubbish, is what it is.”
“Still, it’s interesting,” she said, flipping through the yellowed old pages. “I can’t even understand half the stuff that’s in here, but some of it’s pretty far-out.”
My sister liked using that kind of slang as well.
“Spells for summoning demons and ghosts?” I asked. “Don’t be ridiculous. Demons and ghosts don’t exist.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But it’s fun, isn’t it? Should we try one and see?”
“You’re daft,” I said, and pointed at the page she was looking at. “Look at that one, for instance. You’d need, let’s see, a fresh human skull and a virgin’s blood. I’m not about to donate my skull, and as for virgins...”
“Not all of them are that complicated,” she interrupted. “There’s one I saw which is much simpler. Just needs red and black cloth, sulphur, camphor, candles, and a few other odds and ends.” She turned back a few pages and showed it to me. “There, we can easily get all that.”
“Says it’s highly dangerous, and one shouldn’t do it unless one’s an adept,” I pointed out. “It summons the demon Rouhbe...Rouhbegha...anyway, he’s from the Seventh Circle of Hell, it says.” I pointed at an illustration, all horns and claws, spines and teeth. “Handsome, isn’t he? Wonder why anyone would ever want to summon him.”
“Shouldn’t matter, should it?” she replied, grinning. “Since ghosts and demons don’t exist? Isn’t that what you were saying?”
I looked at the illustration again. My eyes literally could not make sense of the thing depicted there, to sort out the long sharp spines from the huge, hooked claws, the shaggy pelt from the curling tail. But the eyes were clear enough, two pools of absolute black below the heavy, curved horns. And the mouth, with its clubbed, thorny tongue, pressing between its sets of needle-teeth.
It was horrible, and it was terrifying, and I wondered what diseased imagination had conjured it up from the depths of the subconscious mind.
“It’s all nonsense,” I declared. “I’m not doing this.”
So in the evening we did it anyway. My sister was like that.
It did feel ridiculous, sitting across the little table, holding hands and trying not to choke on the fumes of burning camphor, while taking turns to read aloud words from the book lying open between us, illuminated faintly by the flickering candlelight. After a while we finished reading, and waited, holding hands.
“I’m getting tired of this,” I confessed. “When is this demon supposed to turn up anyway?”
“We might not have read all the words accurately,” she said. “Some of them are pretty hard to pronounce.”
“Well, I can’t sit here much longer,” I said. “This camphor is making my head ache.”
“We can’t give up so easily,” she said. “Take a walk on the balcony, then come back, and I’ll go out. We’ll take turns.”
So I went for a turn on the balcony, which was down a short passage from the little room in which we were holding the séance. After the flickering candlelight in the room, all the better to summon demons by, the electric lights of neighbouring buildings looked impossibly bright, dazzling. From here, ten floors up, the noise of traffic on the street below was a hardly audible rumble, and the headlights looked like earthbound, swiftly moving stars.
I took a deep breath, leaning over the balustrade, and felt the tension ooze out of my muscles. Only now did I suddenly realise that I’d been tense. It was ridiculous, stupid, and embarrassing. Why on earth should I be tense of something that didn’t even exist? I felt a little angry at myself, and at the same time filled with relief and laughter.
Feeling much better, I wanted to stand there for a while longer and breathe, but I heard my sister calling my name. She could get really impatient, but it had been a while since I’d been standing on the balcony, so I reluctantly turned to go back inside.
I was half-way down the passage when I felt a cold wind blow past me. It blew for only an instant, a wind so cold that I flinched, and it was past so quickly I couldn’t even be quite sure I’d felt it at all. Shrugging, I turned the corner and entered the living room, already beginning an apology to my sister for taking so long.
She wasn’t there.
Now the living room isn’t large, and though it’s fairly cluttered, there’s nowhere someone can hide. Nor is there any other door but the one into the passage, and the window’s got a safety grille on it, and in any case was closed for the séance. And I returned far too quickly after hearing my sister call to miss seeing her if she’d gone down the passage – and certainly she hadn’t come up it towards me.
I fumbled for the light switch. It did not come on.
I was still staring stupidly around the room when I heard a sound behind me...
How can I explain the sensation in my spine when I heard it? The unmistakable clicking of huge claws on the floor of the passage, coming from the direction of the balcony where I’d been standing only moments before?
And how shall I describe the laugh that sounded from the passage, a low, chuckling laugh that did not sound as though it could ever have emerged from a human throat? With the best will in the world, I can’t. I will not try.
It’s there now, just past the door, and coming closer. I can hear its claws clicking, the laugh getting louder, rising in pitch, from a chuckle to a giggle. In a moment or two, it will come round the corner and enter the room, and I will see it. I do not want to see it.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013