It was a chilly evening, and the small knot of women who had gathered at the corner of the bazaar huddled around a smoking charcoal brazier, occasionally waving a hand when the smoke blew into their faces.
“So Robinson Sahib went home to Vilayat?” Munni Devi asked Sheetal. Her eyes glittered in the glow of the charcoal avid for gossip. “Why?”
Sheetal shrugged noncommittally. She was a slim, pretty girl, seventeen and still not married, and this was the cause of considerable comment among the other women. It was not decent for a girl of seventeen not to be married. What was even worse was that she was rumoured to be able to read and write. “It’s not my business,” she said, not looking up from the fire. “He went home because he wanted to, I suppose.”
Munni Devi snorted. “Don’t give me that. You know what they say about him and you?”
Sheetal looked up quickly. “About me and Robinson Sahib? Who are they? What do they say?”
“Never you mind.” Munni Devi savoured the silence and the uneasy glances that went around the charcoal brazier. “But Robinson Sahib had no wife, and the other memsahibs at the Officer’s Club didn’t give him the time of day. We all know that.”
“Despite all his yellow hair and those lovely blue eyes,” Ram Dulari mourned. Her broad face wagged in mock sorrow. “I would have gladly thrown away my old scarecrow of a husband if only Robinson Sahib had looked my way once, but what can you do? He had his eye on a younger morsel.”
Munni Devi looked at Ram Dulari, torn between embracing her as an ally and resenting her trying to take over the conversation. “Yes,” she said finally. “And if the younger morsel has a baby one of these months, I’ll bet it has yellow hair and blue eyes, too.”
“Likely the morsel would think that only that kind of baby would be good enough for her,” Ram Dulari said triumphantly. “Our own men aren’t to her taste. What do you say?”
Sheetal looked from one face to another, and saw only a mix of curiosity, hostility and a smidgen of triumph. She wanted to get up and leave, but knew that if she did so, the entire village would be talking of nothing else by tomorrow morning.
“I never shared Robinson Sahib’s bed,” she said. “I am not going to have his baby. You all know this as well as I do.”
“Oh, but you know why he went home to Vilayat, don’t you?” Munni Devi said. “The real reason? After all, everyone saw how he was fine in the evening, when he came back from the Burra Sahib’s office, and the next morning he was running around emptying his bungalow, and left in the afternoon.”
“You were the only one in the bungalow with him,” Ram Dulari said. “You cooked and cleaned for him. And you stayed in the bungalow all that night with him; everyone in the village knows that. You really think we’re such fools as to think you didn’t open your legs for him?”
“Let’s say you didn’t lie with him. But then...” Munni Devi leaned as far towards Sheetal as the charcoal fire would allow. “If you don’t know why he left, who does?”
Sheetal looked around the faces once more, one by one. “All right,” she said. “I’ll tell you what I know. And then you can think whatever you want to.”
I know well enough none of you like me, [Sheetal said] and that you’d be happy enough to believe anything at all you hear about me, as long as it’s a lie. I know you would like nothing better than to imagine that I’m carrying Robinson Sahib’s child, and that I asked him to marry me, and that’s why he ran away. But that’s not true, and even if you all want to believe that, it won’t become true.
The truth of the matter is that Robinson Sahib never touched me. He never even looked at me in that way – his eyes were always for Evans Sahib’s daughter, Miss Charlotte. You all know Miss Charlotte. But she would never even smile at him.
He had a small portrait of her, I don’t know where he got it from, in the top drawer of the desk by his bed. I wasn’t allowed to touch that drawer when I was cleaning. He always kept it locked. Each night he would come in from the club, take the portrait out and look at it for a long time – half an hour, maybe more. He would do nothing to the portrait, wouldn’t kiss it or hold it to his heart. He would just sit motionless and stare at it. And if he saw me looking in while he was staring at the portrait, he would get up and close the door.
One evening, a week before he left, he came into the kitchen when I was chopping vegetables for his dinner. “Sheetal,” he said. He always called me by my name, not Hey You like some of the Sahibs do, like Jenkins Sahib whom I used to work for. That was one good thing about Robinson Sahib, he would talk to you like you were a person. “Sheetal, you know I love Charlotte Evans.”
I did not say anything. It is better in these situations not to say anything.
“I would do anything in the world to marry her,” he continued, as though I’d responded. “But that old fool Evans has poisoned her mind against me, I think. She won’t even look at me now, and she used to be friendly as anything once.”
“I am sorry, Sahib,” I said.
“Do you know – have you heard Charlotte say anything about me?”
“Miss Charlotte does not talk to me, Sahib.”
“I’ve got to do something,” he said, restlessly going to the kitchen window, looking out, and coming back again. “She’ll go back to England next summer, and I’ve no idea what will happen then. Maybe she’ll meet some bounder and take up with him.”
“Your dinner will be ready in an hour, Sahib,” I said.
He merely pulled up his chair and looked at me chopping vegetables, while he lit his pipe. After some he cleared his throat. “Sheetal,” he said, “do you know anyone who could help?”
“How do you mean, Sahib?” I asked.
“You know what I’m talking about,” he replied. That was another thing about Robinson Sahib, he didn’t treat us like little children who have to have everything explained to them. “You natives know things we’ve forgotten in the West, if we ever knew them. The old witch-women, perhaps, they knew them, but everyone’s forgotten it now.”
I put the cabbages I was slicing down. “Sahib,” I asked, “are you telling me that you want to find someone to cast magic for you to get Miss Charlotte?”
“What else?” he said impatiently, puffing at his pipe. “Do you know anyone?”
“I would not advise you to do that, Sahib,” I said. “For one thing, I don’t believe it will do any good. For another...” I hesitated.
He stared at me through a cloud of pipe smoke. “What?”
“Sahib,” I said, “do you really think it would be fair to Miss Charlotte, to turn her head with magic? If she won’t come to you of her own desire, wouldn’t it be right not to force her?”
“That’s none of your concern,” he said. “In any case, it’s not as though I would be forcing her. I just want to remove the poison old Evans has put in her mind about me. After that she can do as she wants.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. “Sahib,” I said at last, “I don’t know much about these things, but from what I hear it might not be safe.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” he repeated. “Do you know someone or don’t you?”
I thought back to my uncle from Lakhanpur village on the other side of the river. Three or four years ago, I’d gone to visit his family, and then the thing had happened with his neighbour Yashpal. Yashpal had a son who had the bleeding sickness, ever since he was a small child. Yashpal had killed a snake when his wife was pregnant, and he said the boy’s sickness was the result of the curse of the snake’s mate. Then when I was there he called in the witch-man to get rid of the curse and cure the boy.
I don’t know what the witch-man did; I wasn’t allowed to watch, though a lot of the adults in the village went. The witch-man did something, at any rate, and by morning, the boy’s bleeding had stopped. But the adults who went to watch didn’t want to talk about what they’d seen, even to each other.
“I know someone who once called in a witch-man,” I said to Robinson Sahib. “But that’s all I know about it.”
“I’ll see to it,” he said, sitting up straight in the chair. “Who is it and where does he live?”
That, as I said, was a week before Robinson Sahib left. The next day was the Sahib-people’s church day, but instead of going to church Robinson Sahib took his horse and went away early in the morning, telling me to wait until he returned, and that he’d be back in a few hours. He actually came back late at night, and went straight to bed, not touching the food I’d made. He didn’t say a word to me about what had happened, but I guessed he’d been to Lakhanpur and talked to Yashpal.
The next day onwards things went back to the old routine. Each night Robinson Sahib would come back and stare at his portrait, and he still closed the door if he saw me peeking. He didn’t talk about Miss Charlotte or the witch-man to me again, and by the middle of the week I decided he’d given up on the idea.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
One afternoon, he was late returning from work, and I saw him looking at a scrap of paper in his hand as he walked up the path to the bungalow door. When he saw me, he put the paper quickly inside his pocket. After that he went straight to his room and kept the door closed for an hour or more.
That evening, he stopped me just as I’d finished making his dinner and was preparing to leave. “Sheetal,” he said, “I want you to stay here tonight.”
“Sahib?” I said, astonished. “What...?”
“I’ll make it worth your while, don’t worry.” He shook his head. “It’s not what you think. I’m expecting a...visitor...and I don’t want to be alone when he comes.”
Then I understood that he had received some kind of message, and that it was to do with the witch-man; and I also realised that he was frightened. I had never seen a sahib frightened before. I didn’t know it was possible. He hid it well, but I could see it in his eyes; not just fear, but mixed with eagerness, as though he knew something was going to happen that was terrible but which he wanted desperately anyway.
“You’re the only one I can trust,” he said. “So I’m requesting...no, I’m begging you, Sheetal. I’m begging you to stay here tonight.”
I’d had it in my mind to refuse, for I knew that if I stayed, my reputation in the village, already low, would be dirt. But when I saw the helpless pleading in his eyes I couldn’t say no. I could never have believed that I’d see a sahib grovel, begging me on his knees. But that night I did.
So I stayed. He asked me to have dinner with him, for the first time ever, and I did, though neither of us did more than pick at the food. Afterwards he lit his pipe and sat back in his chair, taking out the scarp of paper from his pocket and reading and rereading it anxiously.
“Sahib,” I said at last, “just what is it that you...”
At that moment there was a sound at the back door, the kitchen door. It wasn’t a knock, but a scraping noise as though someone was scratching at the wood with his nails. Robinson Sahib, waving me back, jumped up and opened the door.
“Come in,” he said. His voice had no expression at all. It was like wood.
A man entered. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about him to look at. He was quite old, wrinkled, dark as sun-burned wood, and from the dirty white turban on his head to the cracked shoes on his feet could have been any farmer from this country. But there was something in his eyes, something I can’t describe, but which I’d never seen in anyone else. His eyes did not look as though they saw what anyone else saw; it was as though he was watching something else entirely; when he looked at you it was as though he was actually looking at something just behind your shoulder.
He had a large cloth bundle in one hand, which he dropped unceremoniously before squatting on the floor. “I am here,” he said without greeting.
“Thank you for coming,” Robinson Sahib said.
The witch-man began untying he bundle. “I did not want to come. My magic is for my people, not yours, and is not to be used lightly. But your threats left me no choice.”
“I will pay you well,” Robinson Sahib said.
The witch-man glanced up from his bundle. “That I do not doubt,” he said. “You will pay well, in one currency or another.” I noticed that he did not call him “Sahib,” or indeed make any attempt to be deferential. And though he was smaller than either of us, and was squatting on the floor while we were both standing, it was as though he filled the room with his presence. Even the oil lamp with the glass chimney seemed to grow dim.
“So,” he said, throwing some pebbles on the floor. “You want the woman to come to you. Are you certain you want it?”
“Yes,” Robinson Sahib said. His voice was again filled with that eagerness along with the fear.
“I will ask you again in a little while.” The witch-man took out a small pot from his sack and shook out some reddish powder, with which he marked patterns around the pebbles he’d thrown. “You, girl.”
I started. “Me?”
He didn’t even look up at me. “You’re a woman, the one he calls is a woman. Blood calls to blood. I need some blood from you.” His arm shot out and gripped me by the wrist before I could even think of drawing back. I felt a sharp, momentary pain in my finger, and saw a tiny hooked blade disappearing back into his bag. Dark red drops of my blood, almost black in the lamplight, began falling on the floor. He held my hand over each of the pebbles in turn, so my blood sprinkled over them, and nodded before releasing me.
“I will ask you again,” he said to Robinson Sahib, as I sucked my finger. The cut was tiny, but blood kept welling out. “Do you want the woman to come?”
“I do,” Robinson Sahib whispered.
“I will ask you again in a little while,” the witch-man said. “Now get me her likeness and something that belongs to her. I know you have something.”
Robinson Sahib nodded and went to his room. I heard the key turn and the drawer pulled open. The witch-man looked at me.
“You will need that blood, girl,” he said, his strange eyes apparently looking at something behind me. “Do not try to stop it.” He took out something from his bag which was like an old book, the pages made of thin wooden plaques tied together with a cord through a hole at one corner. “You will not call on me, ever.”
“I won’t.” I shook my head. “I didn’t want him to.”
The witch-man nodded. Robinson Sahib came back in, holding out the portrait and a large pink handkerchief with frilly edges of the kind memsahibs use. “This is hers.” He must have stolen it from her and kept it in the drawer. Heaven only knows what else was in it.
The witch-man took the handkerchief, tore it into pieces, and put one piece over each of the stones daubed with my blood. The pink cloth turned dark with the blood. He looked up at Robinson Sahib.
“Do you want the woman to come?” he repeated. “I will not ask you again.”
Robinson Sahib’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “Yes,” he said at last.
“Very well.” The witch-man opened a page of his wooden book, touched it to the face of Miss Charlotte on the portrait, and then took up the pieces of handkerchief and wiped the portrait with them. My blood smeared all over it, until her face was obscured. “Now I am going,” he said, putting the pot, pebbles and book back into his bag. “I have done my job. I do not wish to remain here any longer.”
“But,” Robinson Sahib began. “Charlotte...”
“The woman will come. What you do then is up to you.” The witch-man picked up his bag and went to the kitchen door. He turned to dart one last, bleak look at us. “Girl,” he said. “Remember what I told you.” And then he was gone.
For a little while neither Robinson Sahib nor I said anything. Everything was silent except for a jackal’s call in the distance. He seemed unwilling, almost unable, to move. The portrait lay on the floor where the witch-man had left it. At last I stirred. “Shall I go now, Sahib?”
“No,” he said. “I want you to stay for now at least.” He shook himself, all over. “If she comes,” he muttered, half to himself, “it will have been worth it.”
“I will clean the floor,” I said, and went to get the cloth and a pot of water. I came back into the kitchen and found Robinson Sahib standing staring at the back door, like a statue.
“Sahib?” I asked. He seemed not even to be breathing. “Sahib?”
His lips moved ever so slightly. “Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear her knocking at the door?”
“I hear nothing,” I said, and then I heard it too, a knock, but so faint that it was as though it was the fingers of the shadows of the night outside, not of a human hand. “Sahib,” I said, urgently, suddenly knowing, with no possibility of error, that something monstrous was about to happen. “Don’t open the door. Please don’t open the door.”
I was too late. As though ropes had tied his limbs in place and suddenly fallen away, he jerked forward. I forgot myself so much as to grab at his sleeve to hold him back, all I managed was to leave a smear of blood from my finger on his cuff. Crying out something in the Angrezi language, in which I heard Miss Charlotte’s name, he threw open the door.
And there she was, standing outside. I knew her at once, though I’d only seen her a few times before. It was Miss Charlotte, dressed in a white night gown, her hair loose around her shoulders and her feet bare. Her eyes were half closed, as though she was walking in her sleep. She raised her arms, holding out her hands.
“Charlotte,” Robinson Sahib said. He raised his hands, to take hold of hers. “Charlotte.”
And then I saw it happen. Miss Charlotte’s fingers closed like iron bands around Robinson Sahib’s hands, and she began to walk backwards, without a glance, dragging him out into the darkness. And, as though caught in a dream, he began walking with her too.
Then I knew that I must do something, but I had no idea what. Miss Charlotte turned her head towards me, her half-open eyes looking at me and I found myself unable to move, such freezing terror came over me.
Then I knew it was not Miss Charlotte that had come to us, but something in her body, something that the witch-man had summoned. I knew that whatever it was walked the night with malice in its heart, and that it was something so distant from humanity that one might look up into the sky and feel oneself closer to the stars than to it. And the fear that still lingered on me was such that I wanted to let her take him. I wanted them to leave me and go.
And that was what might have happened, had not Robinson Sahib’s foot caught in a crevice in the ground outside the kitchen door, and he hadn’t stumbled so that he almost fell. The thing that walked in Miss Charlotte’s body turned her head towards him, those half-open eyes leaving mine, and suddenly I could move again.
In that instant I heard the witch-man’s voice, whispering in my ears, telling me that I would need the blood which still dripped leisurely from my cut finger. And my eyes saw the portrait, kicked away heedlessly into a corner by Robinson Sahib as he’d rushed to open the door – the portrait whose face was effaced with my blood.
I do not remember very clearly what I did in the next moments. I recall throwing myself on the thing that rode Miss Charlotte’s body. I remember her hissing like a snake, squirming away from me, one hand leaving Robinson Sahib’s to push me away with such force that I staggered back and began to fall. But my cut finger did what I’d intended, and threw drops of my blood into her eyes and across her face.
Then I fell, striking the ground with such force that I was almost struck senseless. I saw Robinson Sahib falling, too, as though thrown away by something with great force. And as I lay on the ground, I saw something white and flapping vanish into the darkness, rushing away into the night from which it had come.
“And that is all,” Sheetal said. “Robinson Sahib got up and went into the house without looking at me. After some time I went in and found him sitting in his room, with his head in his hands, the drawer hanging open. I did not go in.
“I stayed the rest of the night, though he did not ask me to, though he did not respond when I called to him, and though he never spoke to me again. I did not leave because I was frightened; yes, I was frightened of that thing with the half-open eyes, which had taken over a woman called by another woman’s blood, and by blood sent home again.
“I was afraid that if I went out into the dark, it would come and take me.”
Nobody said anything, not even Ram Dulari. From far away, beyond the village, a jackal howled. Sheetal shivered, despite the charcoal fire.
“You know the rest. In the morning Robinson Sahib began getting all his things together, and he left the same day. He did not talk to me, or even seem to notice I was there. After some time I left him alone to do whatever he desired.”
“He must have made terrible threats,” Munni Devi said finally, “for the witch-man to take such terrible revenge.”
“The witch-man’s revenge?” Sheetal stared at her with contempt. “You really don’t understand, do you? None of you understand, do you?”
They looked at her blankly.
“The revenge was mine,” Sheetal said softly. “He wanted to go with her, don’t you see? He wanted to go with her, and I stopped him. I kept him chained back, when he thought he was about to be free.”
She got up and looked around at the women. “That was why he left,” she said. “Not because I’d saved him; because I’d stopped him from getting what he wanted, in all the world. I’d turned this land into a prison for him, a constant reminder of what he’d almost had and never would again.” Her lips curving in a strange and terrible smile, she looked round at them, and not one of them could meet her eyes.
“I wish you a pleasant evening,” she whispered, and walked away into the gathering night.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016