One of the things that absolutely everyone knew was that Nistha had a ghost of her very own, which lived in a box.
Nobody was sure how they knew it. They just knew it, with a certainty so complete that nobody even thought of mentioning it. It was like saying the air existed to say that Nistha had a ghost in a box. In fact it was so well known that most people who knew it didn’t really believe it.
It was perfectly true, though. Nistha had a ghost in a box.
This box was of rough grey wood, only about big enough to cover the palm of a hand, but with a lid that fit so tightly that one could only with great difficulty make out the crack between it and the body of the box. Everyone knew, too, what the box looked like, though very few of them had actually ever seen it.
Nistha kept the box on the bottom shelf of the cupboard in her bedroom, hidden way behind a pile of old books and several stuffed toys which she had long since outgrown yet couldn’t bear to throw away. This cupboard was always locked, and only Nistha had the key. Not even her parents had one.
Nobody knew how Nistha had come by the ghost in the box. Some said she’d been left it by an old relative who’d been a witch or something like that. Others said she’d been born clutching it in one tiny fist, and that this was a gift from an evil spirit. There were other explanations, each more fanciful than the last. But nobody thought to ask Nistha how she’d actually come across the ghost. Not even her parents did.
This was how it happened. One school vacation, years ago, Nistha had been taken by her parents to visit what they called their “native”, the small town the family had originally come from and where a couple of grandparents still lived. The grandfather, who really didn’t understand children very well, had given Nistha some money and told her to buy herself some sweets. It wasn’t much money, but it was far more than Nistha had ever had at any time in her life, and she didn’t much like sweets anyway.
There was a market in the town, where people from all the villages around came once a week to buy and sell, trade and barter, bicker and have their ailments healed. It was market day, so Nistha pedalled off on her grandfather’s old black bicycle to visit the market and spend some of her money.
It was a nice market. Nistha, who had never seen anything like it before, was fascinated. All kinds of things which she’d never seen in the city seemed to be there, from fans made of reeds to clothes in colours so gaudy her mother would have blenched to look at them. And the people were even more interesting, tall men in turbans with long moustaches, women with silver rings in their noses and tiny glittering stones set in their front teeth.
She’d gone through most of the market, not even considering buying anything – it was all too fascinating anyway, and far too expensive – when she saw a man standing to one side. She couldn’t really see him very well, because he was in the shadow of a tree, and the dappled light seemed to hide his face, but he was quite tall and dressed differently from the others, as though he, too, was from the city. And he wasn’t buying or selling anything.
Nistha had wheeled her bicycle past him when he called to her. “I have something for you, Nistha,” he said.
She’d turned, slowly, astonished. “How do you know my name?”
“Let’s just say I know.” The man had held out his hand. On the palm was a small wooden box. “I think you should buy this,” he said.
Nistha had looked at the object with surprise. “Why? It’s just a box.”
“It’s not just a box.” The man’s voice had changed a little, and she could almost see his face. Somehow, he looked familiar, sounded familiar, as though she’d known him a very long time, though she was certain she’d never seen him before. “There is something inside it that will change your life. But I can’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to find out for yourself if you buy it.”
Nistha looked at the box. Though it was of plain rough wood, there was something that drew her to it, just as the man looked familiar. “How much is it?” she asked reluctantly, sure that it would be too expensive anyway.
“How much do you have?”
“Twenty rupees,” Nistha confessed, expecting him to laugh derisively.
The man had not laughed. He’d merely held out his hand for the crumpled orange note. “Very well. Twenty rupees is the price.”
When Nistha took the box from him, she felt a shiver in her hand, a moment’s tingling that spread up her arm. It lasted only a moment, and then disappeared. “How do I open it?” she asked.
The man seemed to be looking at her, though she couldn’t really tell, since she couldn’t see his face. “Take this,” he said, and put a little key on top of the box. It was a strange-looking key, very much like a tiny axe. “You can open the box with that key,” he said. “But remember that you can only open it once.”
Nistha had frowned. “What does that mean – I can only open it once?”
“Don’t open it until you really want to,” the man said. His voice seemed to be fading, and Nistha had the queerest feeling that he was disappearing slowly from view. “That’s all I can tell you – for now.”
And then he was gone.
Nistha blinked and looked around. On all sides, the market ebbed and flowed, as if nobody had noticed what had just happened. A man carrying a bundle almost bumped into her, blinked in confusion as though she’d appeared out of nowhere, and pushed past. Someone else pushing a cart angrily motioned her out of the way.
Suddenly she didn’t like the market much anymore, and it was getting late. So she went home.
She’d been planning to open the box as soon as she could, but her parents were waiting for her impatiently to go visit relatives, and by the time they got back it was late in the evening, too late to do anything much but brush her teeth – with aching cold well water – and drop into bed. She’d put the box under her pillow, but fell asleep before she could even think of opening it.
She woke sometime in the small hours of the morning, feeling sure that there was something in the room with her. For a while she lay with her eyes closed tight, trying to convince herself that it was a dream, but she knew it was useless. And the thing, whatever it was, knew that she was awake and pretending to be asleep, and she knew that too.
So she opened her eyes, slowly, and for the first time she saw the ghost.
It was a pale glimmer by her head, barely visible in the darkness, an oval of whitish light that hung in the air. And yet it seemed familiar, as though she’d seen it before, and she was reminded of the man whom she’d seen in the market, who had sold her the box. It was the same sense of familiarity, as though she was meeting someone she had always known.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
There was no direct reply. Instead, the darkness was wiped away, and she saw a burning desert, lying flat and immense to the horizon. In the middle distance, there was a city, of pink sandstone spires and tall walls, high-arched gates from which camel caravans came forth, laden with goods and led by black-eyed men with curved daggers at their belts and veiled women riding on horses, their feet in jewelled slippers with upturned toes. And things happened to the men and women, strange adventures that she had never read or imagined. Giants and jinni, wizards and caliphs, slave girls and princesses, met and fought and loved, quarrelled and made up, and little by little the night wheeled towards dawn.
And when she woke up, she couldn’t decide if she’d dreamt it all.
The next night the oval; of light was there again, and this time she was on a mountain side deep in snow, on which young soldiers fought each other and cried with homesickness and longing for the warm embraces of their girls. And the next night it was something else – a ship floating in the voids between stars, where strange tentacled beings led their own, complex lives.
The nights fled by, and each time it was there, to tell her tales of magic and mystery, of joy and sorrow, and all things in between.
And many times she fingered the little axe-like key, but she never used it, because she knew she could only open it once.
Many, many years passed. Nistha grew up and went to college, and the little box went with her in her suitcase, and told her stories while she lay awake in her new bed in the students’ hostel. And though she grew older and wiser in the ways of the world, the box kept her young in the mind, feeding her wonder and pushing the desolation of loneliness away.
One night she could not resist the temptation to ask it, finally, “Who are you?”
For a long time nothing happened. And then the scene changed abruptly, and she glimpsed distant ice cliffs across a frozen sea, under an eggshell-blue sky. There was a tiny speck on a far cliff, waving, waving, and she knew it was waving to her.
“How can I come to you?” she asked. “There is all this distance between us.”
But the speck in the distance waved, and as she watched, it faded further and further, and no matter how she cried out for it not to go, it disappeared, and the icy sea vanished with it. And there was only the darkness.
She woke with tears on her pillow, and nearly used the key. Then she nearly threw the box away, but at the last moment, holding it in her hand, she thought again and put it away in her drawer. And the next night there was another story, as though the icy sea had never been.
And so Nistha grew older, and she married a man whom she did not love and who did not love her, and they had a daughter. And there was less and less time to think of stories, though the box would try and tell them every night. One night she took it in her hand and spoke into it.
“No more stories,” she said. “I don’t want any more stories.”
There was a vast, hurt silence.
“I mean it,” she said, and put the box away.
Then Nistha’s daughter grew up and moved away, and her husband grew more abusive by the day. And one night he struck her, and struck her again. Then he got ready to hit her a third time.
“You won’t touch me again,” Nistha said.
“Oh?” he sneered. “And who’s going to stop me? That boxed ghost of yours?” He threw back his head and yelled laughter. “Hey, ghost...come and stop me.”
Nistha never saw all of what happened next. A shadow came into the room. It oozed out of the cupboard where she had kept the box, and it grew between her and the man who was about to hit her for a third time. The shadow grew and grew until it filled the room, blocked out the light, and her husband screamed with terror and rushed away, slamming out through the door.
She never saw him, or heard from him, again.
So Nistha was all alone, with only the box. But she never let it tell her stories again.
And so many more years went past, slow years which ran into decades, and then one night Nistha woke and stared up into the darkness, and she knew what she had to do. The time had come.
Rising slowly from her bed, she took the box out from the place it lay inside her cupboard and held it in her hands for the first time in many, many years. It seemed even smaller, more worn out, than she remembered. And her fingers shook when she brought out the axe-key.
“Ghost,” she said, “I am going to open the box now.”
There was no reply, but something grew in the room, a tenseness, a feeling.
“I’m going to open the box, ghost,” she said. “I’m going to set you free.”
And the axe-head found the key-hole, and turned in the lock.
It opened easily, as though grateful for the release.
The next evening, Nistha’s neighbour, surprised at not having seen her all day, entered her house with the spare key she had. To her astonishment, the house was empty. On the crumpled bedspread, she found a little wooden box, lying open. Idly, she picked it up.
Just for an instant, she seemed to see far distant ice cliffs, on which two figures were walking away, hand in hand.
Then it was gone, and she was looking down into an ordinary little box, in an ordinary little house, both of them empty but for the dust of the days and the years.
Empty, that is, but for one thing. In one corner of the box, she found an old, crumpled-up twenty-rupee note.
Empty, that is, but for one thing. In one corner of the box, she found an old, crumpled-up twenty-rupee note.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015