Mishra had just raised the earthen cup of tea to his lips when the cthulhu arrived.
Mishra had been waiting for the cthulhu for three days, out in the street, from morning till night. He’d almost given up in despair, and indeed he would have, if his bank account only afforded him the luxury. But he needed the job.
Of course, the astrologer his mother had insisted he visit had assured him he’d get it. “Let me look at your horoscope,” the man had said, bending over signs on a scrap of paper. “Yes, all you have to do is wear your birthstone, and you’ll get the job.”
“Birthstone?” Mishra had asked. “What’s a birthstone?”
He’d found out soon enough. And it was now on his finger, set in a godawful chunky ring, so thick he could barely bend the digit. It had cost him four thousand, a sum he totally couldn’t afford, but his mother had insisted.
“You want me to go to my funeral pyre worrying because you don’t have a job?” she’d shrieked. And Mishra, whose heart always dropped to the pit of his stomach when his mother began screaming, had given meekly in.
But that was almost three weeks ago. Mishra had sent in his application, after filling it in at an auspicious moment decreed by the astrologer...and nothing had happened. He’d waited a week, and then another, and still nothing. And so it was that he’d finally taken to waiting in the street outside the office to see if he could get a moment with the cthulhu to state his case.
The first day he’d tried going in, but the doorman had stepped firmly in his way. “No entry except for employees,” he’d clicked.
“I just want to...” Mishra had begun.
“No entry except for employees,” the doorman had repeated, in exactly the same tone of voice, his needle teeth clicking in his thick-lipped jaws. The enormous breadth of his head had allowed his round eyes to stare just past Mishra’s ears. Mishra had wondered if that was all the human speech he knew, and had briefly considered asking him a couple of more questions to find out. But the sight of the doorman’s immense muscles, rolling under his pebbly green skin, had been too much of a deterrent, and Mishra had retreated to the street, there to spend the next three days, becoming increasingly frustrated and losing hope by the minute.
And here, just as he’d almost made up his mind to give up and go home, there was the cthulhu, getting out of a car right there in front of the office!
Mishra was so astonished that he accidentally gulped half the scalding brown contents of the cup and burnt his tongue and throat. He couldn’t even take time to gasp for breath, because the cthulhu was already beginning to lumber up the pavement towards the office door, the green doorman moving to open it for him. Throwing down the earthen cup to shatter on the pavement, splashing tea everywhere, Mishra began rushing across the street.
He didn’t rush very far. Someone clutched his sleeve and pulled him back so hard he almost fell over on to the spilt tea. Windmilling the one arm he had free, he just managed to recover in time.
It was the tea vendor. “Oi sahib,” he snapped, “where is my money?”
“Later,” Mishra said, trying to extricate himself, but the vendor’s grip was potent. Mishra had to choose between leaving his sleeve in the man’s hand and standing still. He chose to stand still. “I said I’d pay later.”
“You pay now. I heard this later talk many times. No later.”
“All right.” Mishra threw a despairing glance across the street as he plunged his hand into his pocket, fishing out the first note his fingers encountered. The cthulhu had stopped to take a call on his mobile phone. The cluster of tentacles around his mouth twisted like snakes as he talked. “Here.”
“You give five rupees,” the vendor demanded. Mishra looked at the money he’d given the man. It was a five hundred rupee note, the last one he possessed. “I have no change.”
“But...” Across the street, the cthulhu had finished his call and had begun thumping up the stairs to the office door. “Take this,” Mishra said, ripping off the ring and dropping it into the vendor’s hand. “An astrologer said it’s lucky.” Leaving the vendor still staring at the ring, he raced across the street. Horns blared and brakes squealed, and there was the crash of crumpled metal and shattering glass. But Mishra managed to get across in one piece, and the cthulhu was still only halfway up the stairs.
Mishra caught him before he reached the door. “Sir,” he said desperately, stopping himself just in time before he pulled at the cthulhu’s near wing. “I need to talk to you.”
The cthulhu turned. He wasn’t a very large cthulhu, being only about a head taller than Mishra and four times as broad. His triangular eyes glittered and his tentacles twisted dangerously, but his voice was soft and quite polite. “Yes?”
“You advertised for an assistant – a human assistant.”
“Yes, I did,” the cthulhu acknowledged. “But that was weeks ago.” He turned to go.
This time Mishra did pull at the wing. He couldn’t stop himself. The feel of the thing was like wet leather. “Sir, please. I sent in an application...”
The cthulhu shook his wing irritably, nearly sending Mishra stumbling. “You’ll be called for an interview,” he said over what passed for his shoulder. “Come then.”
“You mean the position isn’t filled yet?” Mishra felt a sudden surge of hope. “Sir, I’m right here. Why don’t you take the interview right now?”
The cthulhu turned again, filling the doorway so completely that the green doorman had to step inside. “Persistent, aren’t you?” Grey nictitating membranes flicked over his triangular eyes. “Go away.”
“Please, sir,” Mishra said desperately. “I really need this job, or I’ll starve.”
The cthulhu frowned, his eyes nearly vanishing into the caves of flesh under his brow ridges. He tilted his enormous head, like a pot that was about to roll off his shoulders. “I can’t give you the job unless you’re fit for it,” he said.
“I’ll do anything,” Mishra promised. “You tell me what you want done, and I’ll do it.”
“All right, then,” the cthulhu said. “I’ll give you a test. If you get it right, you’ve got the job.”
“What test?” Mishra asked.
“Nothing very hard,” the cthulhu informed him. He rummaged in his briefcase and brought out a brown envelope. “Go to that address, and meet the dagon there. He’ll give you a packet. Bring it back.”
“That’s all?” Mishra took the envelope. It was empty and the address scrawled on it was almost illegible. “That’s all I have to do?”
“That’s all,” the cthulhu confirmed. “Come back with the packet and the job is yours.”
“Er...” Mishra had a thought. “How should I get the packet to you? I can’t get inside.”
“Give it to the doorman,” the cthulhu said. He pointed at Mishra and said something in a stream of sound to the green-skinned form squeezed deferentially behind him. “He’ll bring you to me.”
“All right, then,” Mishra said. “I’ll go right now.” He had another thought. “How soon do you want...” he began, but the cthulhu had already disappeared into the office, and all he saw was the doorman.
“No entry except for employees,” the doorman clicked affably.
The address on the envelope was all the way across town. Mishra took the metro until the last stop, changing lines twice on the way. It had been raining elsewhere in the city, and many of the new passengers were sopping wet. The carriage smelt like wet dog and felt like midday in a rainforest.
Mishra emerged on the surface with relief. He’d never really been in this part of the city before, and had to look around a while before he could get his bearings. The buildings were all strangely shaped, too low or too high or all angles, and some of them had doors that opened halfway up the walls. This was not surprising; there weren’t that many humans here.
The dagon’s building, when he found it, was at least accessible, though the door was low and partly sunken into the pavement. An Outsider opened the door to him and moaned inquiringly.
“I want to meet the dagon,” Mishra said, trying not to look at the thing’s decaying face. “I’ve been sent by a cthulhu.”
The glassy orbs which passed for the Outsider’s eyes roved up and down, and it finally nodded. Its rotting burial shroud brushed Mishra’s knee as he followed it. Little white moths flew up like specks of animated dust.
The passage was slimy with water crawling down the walls and spreading across the floor. Light the colour of late stage jaundice oozed from thick-walled glass globes set in the ceiling. And the passage went on and on and on.
“Where is the dagon?” Mishra asked, after they’d been walking so long that when he looked over his shoulder he could no longer see the entrance. “Is it much furher?”
The Outsider moaned reassuringly and led Mishra further down the passage. The water that was trickling down the walls had begun accumulating here, and splashed up with every step. Mishra wished he’d worn gumboots, but then the water suddenly deepened to his knees.
“Wait!” he yelled. “I can’t swim!”
The Outsider moaned again and gestured to the side. Mishra saw something against the wall, bobbing against the water. At first he thought it was a boat, and was just about to say that he couldn’t row either. Then he saw a flash of beady black eye, and knew it was something else.
“Get on my back,” the thing muttered in a froth of bubbly water. “And try not to fall off!”
It wasn’t easy. For one thing, the creature’s skin was slippery as though it had been soaped. For another, Mishra didn’t want to look at it, because he had a suspicion that if he could see what it really was like, he’d jump off into the water and drown. As it was, the feeling of many, many tentacles writhing in the water, and brushing against his legs, was bad enough.
“I have to get a packet from the dagon,” he muttered through gritted teeth, as though the thing had asked for an explanation. It didn’t bother to reply.
The passage seemed to go on forever. Now the walls had curved inward to form an arched roof overhead, and the jaundiced light had deepened until he felt as though they were travelling through bile. But still the Outsider swam ahead, and the thing on which he sat followed steadily.
“Do I really need this job so much?” Mishra asked. “Maybe I could find something else. Maybe I could set up as an astrologer.”
“Do you know anything about astrology?” the creature under him asked. Its words bubbled up through the water like belches. “Well?”
Mishra had to admit he didn’t. “I still need a job, though.”
“If you don’t find one you like,” the thing bubbled, “you could come and see me. I might be able to employ you as a beast of burden.”
“A beast of burden?” Mishra echoed, appalled.
“Why not? You’re using me as one, aren’t you?”
Mishra closed his mouth with a snap. Even on the creature’s back, the water had risen until it lapped at his thighs, and his underwear was soaked. Besides, he was hungry. Apart from the third of a cup of scalding tea, he hadn’t eaten all day.
The passage split into two. To the left, stairs rose out of the water. The Outsider moaned and pointed.
“Off you get,” the creature said, bumping none too gently against the stone. Mishra’s leg went numb. “We’ll wait here for you...for a while. Don’t take too long.”
“The dagon?” Mishra asked plaintively. “Where is it?”
The Outsider moaned again and pointed up the stairs. Its moan sounded impatient.
“I’d get along if I were you,” the creature advised.
Mishra got along.
The staircase was only a short one. At the top there was a small door. On it was a sign. KNOCK AND ENTER, it said.
Mishra knocked and entered.
The dagon was sitting at a table. Some of its eyes glanced up at Mishra. The rest were fixed on the plates from which three or four of its tentacles were busily transferring food to its parrot-beak.
“Come in then,” it said, after Mishra had gawked at it for a while. Its parrot-beak continued working. “Had breakfast?”
Mishra shook his head automatically. The dagon’s vast bulk rippled with displeasure. “Eat then,” it said, indicating a plate with the tip of one clawed tentacle. “What are you waiting for?”
The plate was filled with dark leathery strips. Mishra chewed one, only because he didn’t want to offend the dagon by refusing. Then he chewed another, because the first hadn’t been half bad. And then suddenly the plate was empty.
The dagon was still eating. “Now what do you want?” it asked.
Mishra tried to remember, and for a moment couldn’t think. Then he felt the soggy mass of the envelope in his pocket. “The cthulhu sent me to you for a packet,” he said.
“I don’t know its name.” Mishra mentioned the office. “It said I had to get a packet from you to give it.”
“Oh, that cthulhu. Here you go.” The dagon reached under the table and fished out a packet done up in white cloth. “All it needed to do was ask me to post it. Why send you?”
“I needed a job.”
The dagon began to make a noise. The noise grew louder and louder. Its parrot-beak clacked, spraying bits of food over the table. Mishra retreated, alarmed.
“Go on,” the dagon said, still making the noise. “Take the packet and get out.”
Mishra took the packet and got out as fast as he could.
It was only when he was again on the creature’s back, following the Outsider up the arched passage, that he realised what the noise had been.
The dagon had been laughing.
The policeman stopped Mishra just as he stepped off the Metro. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, politely enough.
“Yes?” Mishra asked, impatiently at first, before he realised the policeman wasn’t human. It was a nyarlathotep, of course. Most of the police these days were nyarlathotep. “Yes?” he repeated, much less impatiently.
“May I ask what you have in that packet?” the nyarlathotep pointed at Mishra’s hand.
“I, ah, I’m taking this for a cthulhu,” Mishra said. “A dagon gave it to me.”
“That’s not what I asked,” the nyarlathotep replied. He sounded less polite. “What do you have in that packet?”
Mishra felt the sweat start out on his brow. He could feel all the eyes around, staring curiously. God! Suppose the media was there, taking photos? Suppose he ended up on the news? His mother would never live down the disgrace. “I don’t know,” he said. “I told you, a dagon gave it to me for a cthulhu.”
The nyarlathotep stared at Mishra. His eyes were yellow, the pupils vertical like a cat’s. “You’ll have to come with me,” he said.
“Why?” Mishra asked frantically. He felt a sensation like goose pimples on his arms and legs. “What have I done?”
The nyarlathotep’s hand clamped down on Mishra’s wrist. “You don’t have any right to ask that,” he said. “Come along.”
Mishra went along.
The police station was dingy and smaller than Mishra had expected from the movies. There was no cell in the corner with a prisoner staring out, hands clutching the bars. The nyarlathotep pushed Mishra towards a chair and sat down on the other side. “The packet,” he said.
Mishra handed him the packet. He held it up, shook it, and frowned. “There doesn’t seem to be anything inside. What have you done with what it had inside?”
“I haven’t done anything,” Mishra protested. “I keep telling you, I’m taking it to a cthulhu from...”
“...from a dagon. Yes, I know.” The nyarlathotep undid the cloth cover of the packet. Inside was a cardboard box. He opened it. There was a flash of dark purple light. He closed it again hurriedly.
“A Colour Out Of Space,” he said. “Why didn’t you just tell me you were carrying a Colour Out Of Space?”
“I told you I didn’t know what was in it,” Mishra said. His skin felt as though it were crawling. He fought down the urge to scratch. “What’s a colour out of space?”
“Never mind,” the nyarlathotep said, handing back the packet. “Right, that’s all.”
“You mean I can go?” Mishra asked incredulously.
“Yes, you can go,” the nyarlathotep said, diving under the desk. His muffled tones sounded from below. “In fact, I insist you go. Get out of here!”
Mishra, once again, got.
The cthulhu was busy on the phone. He glanced up at Mishra and nodded to his desk. Mishra put the box down and waited.
At last the cthulhu finished his conversation. “So, you got it?” he said, not bothering to look at the packet. His triangular orange eyes stared at Mishra. “Any problems?”
Mishra thought about detailing all his problems, but decided it might be better not to begin whining to the cthulhu right away. “No, sir,” he said. “When do I start on the job?”
“The job?” The cthulhu’s tentacles twitched. “What job?”
“The one you promised me,” Mishra said. He felt a stone settle in his stomach. “The assistant’s job you advertised for.”
“Yes,” the cthulhu affirmed. “But that was for a human assistant.”
“I know. I’m hu...” Mishra stopped. The crawling on his skin erupted again. He looked down at his hands. The pattern of green scales was already forming.
“You went and ate the dagon’s food, didn’t you?” The cthulhu shook his head. “Stupid humans, eating dagon food while carrying a Colour Out Of Space. What did you think would happen?” He sounded disgusted. “Always the same, thinking of your belly, nothing else. Now you’re an ex-human, but still as stupid. Go away.”
Mishra went away.
“Hoi, sahib.” The tea vendor accosted Mishra the moment he came down the steps. “I want my tea money.”
“Again?” Mishra tried to shake off the vendor, but the man’s grip was potent. “I gave you a ring worth four thousand rupees.”
“Four thousand rupees?” the tea vendor spat. “I went to a jeweller. He said it wasn’t worth four rupees. Four thousand indeed!”
Mishra sighed and felt in his pockets. All he came up with was the waterlogged corpse of the five hundred rupee note. It disintegrated in his fingers.
“Do you want a partner in your business?” he asked. “I think I could learn to sell some tea.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016