In the evening, when it was cool, Rashna went down to the lake to watch the stars glint and shine on the water.
Tonight, though, she wasn’t alone. The ghost of the lake was there before her. It twisted and writhed above the surface of the water, as if dancing.
Rashna stood on the bank and watched it with irritation. “Can’t you come back later?” she said. “You’re here all the time.”
The ghost said nothing. She had not expected it to say anything. But it did turn to show her its face, the eyes and nose dark holes in the air. It waved its arms, making grabbing gestures.
“Big deal,” Rashna said. “It’s not the least bit scary. Besides, it’s rude. I just wanted to sit a while on the bank and you try to scare me away. I’ll tell on you, I will.”
The ghost of the lake seemed to be considering this threat. For a minute or two it just hung there over the water, one of its long arms rubbing at the space where its mouth would have been, if it had a mouth. Then it turned away, raised its arms and began to dance again.
“You’re mean,” Rashna said. “You just wait and see if I don’t tell on you.” Angrily, she stomped off from the lakeside and back towards the house.
The ghost of the grotto was waiting for her by the path through the garden, where the old well made a patch of deeper black in the shadow. It fell in by her side as she stalked up the way. “Something wrong?” it said, in a whisper like the wind. “You look angry.”
“It’s the ghost of the lake,” Rashna said. “It won’t let me sit on the bank to watch the stars on the water, even though it knows I’ll only be there for an hour or two. And it lives in the lake. It can come out whenever it wants.”
The ghost of the grotto nodded sympathetically. “Yes, the ghost of the lake is a little, shall we say, selfish sometimes. But the poor thing has reason, you see. A tragic history.”
“A tragic history?” Rashna stopped and peered suspiciously at the ghost of the grotto. Even though she was peering as hard as she could, she barely saw it. The ghost of the grotto was as near to invisible as a ghost could get. “What tragic history?”
“Ah, it was sad,” the ghost of the grotto sighed. “Once, you know, the ghost of the lake was a young and handsome nobleman.”
“That? A young and handsome...I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true though,” the ghost of the grotto said. It sounded faintly miffed. “Of course, if you don’t want to hear it...”
“No, go on,” Rashna said hastily. “You were saying how it was a young and handsome nobleman. And what happened?”
“Well, this was long ago, you understand,” the ghost of the grotto said, mollified. It sat down on a flat stone by the side of the path. “This young nobleman was betrothed to a lovely young woman, who was famed in all the country for her beauty. There was just one little problem,” it paused dramatically. “One problem, was all.”
“What?” Rashna asked, sitting beside the ghost of the grotto. It was a pretty narrow stone, but then the ghost didn’t take up any space at all. “What problem?”
The ghost of the grotto leaned so close that it almost touched Rashna’s shoulder. “She was a milkmaid,” it whispered. “A common milkmaid, for all that she was the prettiest girl in the country. Now do you see the problem?”
“Actually, no,” Rashna confessed. “So what if she was a milkmaid? Who cares about all that?”
“Everybody, back then,” the ghost of the grotto told her gloomily. “A nobleman couldn’t marry anyone beneath his station. Besides,” it added, “she had lice.”
“Of course, he had lice too, but then his lice were noble lice. Not like hers.” It laughed like the wind blowing across the desert. “Well, this young nobleman used to come down to the lake and meet her by the shore, and they’d sit and watch the starlight on the water.”
“All nice and romantic,” Rashna said, cattily.
“Oh, very,” the ghost of the grotto replied cheerfully. “They used to sigh and hold hands, and scratch at their lice. But of course they knew their love wasn’t going anywhere.”
“So they drowned themselves in the lake, I’ll bet?” Rashna asked.
“Where on earth did you think that up?” the ghost of the grotto said in surprise. “Nothing of the sort. What happened was that one day he was ordered by the next higher noble in the hierarchy – oh, a very powerful man – to marry his daughter. So, of course, he did.”
“How awful for the milkmaid,” Rashna said.
“Awful nothing,” the ghost of the grotto replied. “The nobleman would sneak out every evening and come down to the lake and meet her, just like before. His wife never came down, because of the mosquitoes.”
“I don’t understand,” said Rashna. “Where does the tragedy come in, then?”
“I’m coming to that,” the ghost of the grotto said testily. “One day, it so happened that the milkmaid had bought some sweets in the market, from a travelling pedlar – such lovely, remarkable sweets as I’m sure you never tasted – and brought them to the lakeside, to share the nobleman. He loved them, even more than she had.
“ ‘Let me take a couple back with me, to eat later,’ he told her.
“ ‘ All right,’ she agreed. ‘But make sure to eat them yourself. If your wife should taste them, then there will be trouble, I fear.’
“And the young nobleman promised, and he wanted to keep the promise. But as he entered his house, the smell of the sweets filled the air, and his wife came running to him.
“ ‘What is that aroma?’ she cried. ‘My senses are dancing, my blood rushing about my veins. Quick, give me whatever that is which smells like that, or I shall die.’
“Now, of course, this was ridiculous. She wouldn’t have died. But the young nobleman was terrified of the power of her father, and seeing no way out gave her the sweets. She ate them in two bites and immediately began to badger him to get her more.
“ ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I only had the two, and there are no more to be had.’
“But she wasn’t to be denied. ‘Go and get me more,’ she said, ‘or I will have a word with my father, and then you know what will happen.’ She was a very spoiled woman, his wife.
“Anyway, seeing no way out, the nobleman went back down to the lake the following evening, and told the milkmaid what had happened. ‘Why did you not listen to me?’ she asked. ‘The pedlar who sold me the sweets is long gone, and who knows where. Now what can we do?’
“The young nobleman thought for a long time. ‘Perhaps,’ he said at last, ‘you could make some sweets, as much like those as you can. Even if they are not exactly like those the pedlar made, perhaps they would satisfy her.’
“Agreeing to try, the milkmaid went away dubiously. ‘It will take at least a day,’ she warned the nobleman, ‘for I have never made sweets before.’
“The young nobleman made his way home and told his wife that the sweets would only be ready tomorrow. She flew into a terrible rage at the words. ‘I am sure,’ she said, ‘you wretched fellow, that you have eaten them all yourself. I will glue your mouth shut, so that you can’t eat them again. Only when I get the sweets will I unglue your mouth.’ And, so saying, she glued his mouth shut so tightly that he could not prise his lips apart, no matter how hard he tried.
“ ‘Since you’ve had all the sweets,’ she said, laughing, ‘you won’t starve.’ But of course, the young man hadn’t had anything at all, and was most dreadfully hungry. All through the next day he was hungry – so hungry, in fact, that his eyes began to cross and he could no longer walk a straight line by the time the evening came round. Desperate to meet the milkmaid and get the sweets from her, he rushed down to the lake side and, not being able to see where he was going, he fell in and drowned.”
“Hmm,” Rashna said. “And that’s why it doesn’t have a mouth?”
“Of course that’s why,” the ghost of the grotto said. “Now, when the milkmaid came with the couple of sweets she had made – and pitiful enough they were, too – she came running to the lake, but just in time to see the nobleman drown. Not being able to swim, of course, she could not help him in any way.”
“So,” Rashna said, “she jumped into the well and drowned, did she – and became you?”
“You really are a most tiresome girl,” the ghost of the grotto snapped. “I’m trying to tell the story here. If you’d rather that I...”
“No, no,” Rashna said hurriedly. “Go on, please. I’m sorry.”
“So, as I was saying, the milkmaid found the nobleman drowned. And of course this made her sad and angry.”
“I can imagine,” Rashna murmured.
“The milkmaid, in her anger, rushed along the path until she got to the nobleman’s house, and ran inside until she found the nobleman’s wife – his widow, I should say. And she stuffed the sweets into the woman’s greedy mouth, screaming ‘You want the sweets? Well, then, eat the sweets,’ over and over. Did I mention that the sweets were very thick and hard?”
“You bet they were. They were so thick and hard that they did for the silly woman. Choked her to death right on the spot.”
“Oh my. And what did the milkmaid do?”
“Well, she was scared, of course, when she realised what she’d just done. So, in order to prevent discovery, she dragged the wife’s body down to the well, and dumped it in.”
“She did? And then you are...”
“The ghost of the wife, stupid greedy thing that she was. And she deserved it too.” The ghost of the grotto gave a sigh which might have been of sadness or pleasure. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
“What happened to the milkmaid, then?” Rashna asked.
The ghost of the grotto shrugged. “How should I know? She dumped me here and went off. I’ve never seen her again afterwards. So, are you still going to tell on the poor ghost of the lake? It’s just enjoying a moment in the night air.”
“I’ll think about it,” Rashna said. Leaving the ghost of the grotto sitting on the stone, she went on up the path to the house.
The guard ghost at the door saw her and snapped to attention. “You shall not pass!” it said.
Rashna sighed. “You know perfectly well who I am,” she told it. “There’s no point going through this farce each time I come in. Now stand aside and let me by.”
The guard ghost had once been a soldier of some kind. It was dressed in the charred remnants of a uniform and a shattered helmet, and carried the ghost of a rifle which it held across her path. “No unauthorised personnel,” it shouted. “I have my orders!”
“What’s wrong with you today?” Rashna asked. “You seem a bit out of sorts.”
The shoulders of the guard ghost sagged. “You don’t know the half of it,” it said. “Today’s the hundredth anniversary of the day I was supposed to be given a medal for valour on the battlefield, but I was killed an hour before the ceremony. An hour!” It began sobbing bitterly.
“You poor, poor thing,” Rashna said sympathetically. She suddenly remembered something. “Wait.” Rummaging in her pocket, she took out a brass button which had come off her old jacket and which she had been forever planning to sew back on. “Look, here’s a medal for you.”
The guard ghost looked at it with incredulous gratitude. “For me? Really?”
“Really.” Rashna held out the button, and it disappeared from her hand and reappeared on the guard ghost’s chest. “Now will you let me pass?”
“Of course, ma’am.” The guard ghost saluted so smartly its helmet seemed about to fall off, though it was only the ghost of a helmet. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Smiling, Rashna entered the house. It was, of course, unlit, and the rooms were dark and thick with dust and clutter. Still, she walked unerringly to the staircase in the corner and upstairs to the room at the top of the house.
The figure in the corner turned with a rustle. “So, you’re back? I thought you were planning to go down to the lake.”
Rashna grinned. “I came back a little bit early. Heard a good story, too. You’d probably find it interesting.”
“I will?” The figure rustled. “What is the story about?”
“Before I tell you,” Rashna said, “tell me this. Did you really not know how to make the sweets, or did you deliberately make them hard and thick so they’d choke the nobleman’s wife?”
“Guess,” the milkmaid’s ghost said, and laughed so hard that its voice was almost audible.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013