Night had fallen, and it was raining harder than ever, as I rode across the little bridge and up the hill on the far side.
By then I’d realised that I was lost, that somewhere during the long afternoon I’d taken a wrong turn. The broad highway I’d been riding along had long vanished, and this narrow road, through increasingly desolate country, was nowhere I could identify. And the rain came down, stinging my hands and face, painful as hail even through my raincoat jacket. It was so cold that I could no longer feel my face.
The river was in spate, the bridge almost awash, and the road uphill was slippery with mud and water. My headlight showed little except the falling rain, and as I crested the hill I realised that I couldn’t go on much further. I would have to stop before disaster struck.
And it was then that I saw the building, on the left side of the road. Raindrops glittered as they fell past a light in a window, wan flickering yellow. I braked, almost skidding, and turned the heavy motorcycle towards it. Parking in front of the short flight of steps that led up to the door, I took off my helmet and shook myself as dry as I could before knocking on the door.
Nothing happened for a long time. The rain, if possible, was coming down harder than ever, and I tried my best to rub the warmth back into my face and hands as I waited. At length I heard footsteps and the door opened a crack. Ancient eyes peered out at me from a withered face. “Yes?”
Until that moment I’d not taken time to wonder what I would say, whether I could demand shelter from the night in someone’s house. And one look at the old woman’s eyes told me I couldn’t impose myself on her.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’ll go.”
“No.” The door opened and her hand clutched my wrist with surprising strength. “You can’t go out into this weather tonight. It’ll be much worse in a bit. Come in.”
I followed her in. The room was dark and overcrowded with furniture, and almost as cold as the rain outside. She turned on a lamp and it became less dark, though no warmer.
She was tiny, this old lady, her head barely reaching my shoulder. She looked up at me with her ancient eyes, blinking as though the lamp’s light hurt them. “I can give you a room for the night,” she said, “but I doubt if I could find any food for you.”
“A room will be fine,” I said quickly. “I’d be grateful for a room.”
“Come, then.” She led me upstairs. The house was very silent, except for the rain crashing down outside. It was so silent that I heard her mutter something, almost under her breath.
“You lost your way,” she said, a little louder, “but there are other ways to find.”
I did not get to ask her how she’d known I’d lost my way. She opened a door and stepped aside, motioning me in. The room was large, the floor covered by a carpet so thick my boots sank halfway to my ankles in it. There was a rack against one wall, a couple of chairs, and a bed under the window.
“You can put your clothes on the rack,” the old woman said. “I will leave you now.”
“Just a moment...” I began. I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to say, maybe that I didn’t want to be alone just yet, not after all the time alone in the saddle in the wind and rain and the dark. But she was already gone, the door clicking behind her.
Suddenly exhausted, I draped my raincoat over one of the chairs, undressed and got into bed. My body still seemed to feel the vibration of the bike under me, and the wind that howled outside the window blew again in my face, the rain crashing down whipped against my skin. I lay down, staring up at the darkened ceiling, but though my body felt incredibly heavy and weary, I could not go to sleep.
At length it became impossible to stay in bed any longer. Pushing myself up, I turned towards the door.
The door, which had been shut, was partly open, and the light was coming from it. And it wasn’t the dim yellow glow of the bulb in the corridor, but a cold white radiance like the full moon, only whiter and colder by far.
I found my legs carrying me across the floor of their own volition. In the white light I saw my hand rise, and push at the door. I passed into the light.
She was waiting for me, no longer old and small and tired now, but immensely tall and beautiful and utterly, fearsomely, dreadful. Her face was made of stars, her eyes the colour of the lightning in the skies outside, above the wind and the rain. That is, if there was still a sky outside to have wind and rain. I could not tell.
The narrow corridor with its dim yellow bulb was gone. Before me stretched a path of silver so bright that the glare from it dazzled my eyes. I stood, blinking.
She took my hand in hers. It felt as though I was touched by a marble statue. “Come.”
We walked along that path. The silver light was so intense that it seemed to fill everything. Looking up, it filled the air above, too, so I could not tell if we were in the open or walking along some great hall. When I looked down, I could not see my feet.
At last I found my voice. “Where are we going?”
“To the place you came looking for.” Her voice was pitiless as the wind blowing across the Arctic wastes. “There is no going back now.”
There was no way to answer her. Shadows appeared on both sides of the path, bulky and angular, poised like birds of prey. Little by little they grew more distinct.
They were like statues, squatting on pedestals on either side, and no two were alike. They were like statues, but alive, and in the bright glare I could make out that they moved and shifted, and reached out, as though imploring, or something else. There was something obscurely horrible about them, horrible and at the same time fascinating. I fell the compelling pull of them and tried to turn aside for a closer look.
The woman drew me on. “You have outgrown them,” she told me. “You have more important things waiting for you. Come.”
“What are they?” I whispered.
“Don’t you know?” Her words might have sounded mocking, but her voice was the same pitiless wind across the waste. “Do you, who created them, who gave them existence, really not know what they are? Why do you imagine they mouth and gibber, if not for you? Where else but with you might they find a place?”
And then I knew. I knew what they were, the fears of my childhood, the things that shifted in the shadows and crouched in dark corners, to emerge when the lights went out. But they were powerless now, in the light, and we passed them by.
Then we saw people, ahead of us. They were walking from side paths onto the one on which we were. They were mostly alone, though a few were together. We came to the first one.
It was a thin, dark woman in a burgundy and yellow sari. She was short and thin, but for some reason I felt that she should be much taller than me, and looking down. She stared at me, as though she wanted to do something, or to say something, but she couldn’t, and she stood helplessly, awaiting justice.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“The woman who spat on you in the zoo, when you were five years old. You remember her. You did not tell anyone, just wiped your hand on your trouser. Nobody has ever known, except you...and she.”
I remembered. I remembered the hot bright day, sweat on my face, walking behind my father as quickly as I could, and the sudden plat of frothy spittle on my hand. The woman staring down at me, the expression on her face half-spitefully triumphant, half defiant, daring me to make a fuss. We had stared at each other a long moment, and then I’d turned away and walked on behind my father.
“Why did she do it?” I asked.
“It does not matter why. Why never matters. It only matters that a thing was done. Would you like to see what happened to her... afterwards?”
I don’t know if I made an answer. The woman wavered, and changed, suddenly. Her face grew skeletal, eyes looking huge. Her thin arms became thinner, the wrists skin and bone. I saw bruises on her skin, the marks of fingers on her neck and part of one bared shoulder, as though someone had shaken her and struck her where it would not easily show. Her lips contracted into a thin line, the outline of her growing hazy and dim, and yet her eyes would not leave me.
“She never forgot,” the woman who held my hand whispered. “Every day until she died, she remembered, and sometimes she thought it was your curse which had done all this to her. Sometimes she never forgave you, and sometimes she never forgave herself. Come.”
We walked past the woman in the sari, who was now no longer a woman, just a shadow except for the huge, peering eyes, disappearing down the side path along which she’d been walking . The woman who held my hand drew me on. We came up to the next person on the road, and at the sight of him I made an instinctive effort to draw back.
“He can’t hurt you now,” the woman said grimly. “He’s done all the hurting he’ll ever do. Do you want to see what happened to him?”
I looked down at my arms as though expecting to see the lines of blood well up again from the razor cuts in my skin. “No,” I said. But I did anyway. I didn’t have a choice.
And we walked on. I saw things I didn’t want to see, things I didn’t want to remember, things I wished I could forget. I met lovers who had wronged me, employers who had mistreated me, and others. And each time I had to see what had happened to them.
“Is it truly what has already happened to them?” I asked once, as the shade of someone I had once loved dearly disappeared into the silver glare behind us. “Or is it what will happen?”
“Does it make a difference?” she asked in return. “Whether it will happen, or it has already happened, you can’t change anything now. Everything she, and those before her, did put them on a different path. Are you happy?”
“Happy?” I repeated.
“Are you happy that they all have suffered? Does it give you any satisfaction or pleasure?”
“I don’t know.” I couldn’t think about happiness or satisfaction. The silver light flooded through me. “I don’t know at all.”
She nodded noncommittally. “Come.”
Then we came to a wall across the path, and in the wall there was a door.
The woman paused and turned her lightning-hued eyes to me. “All this time, you’ve seen one set of paths – those that crossed yours, and moved on. From this point on, we are on your path. Do you want to go on?”
I suddenly very much did not want to go on, but I knew there was no way but onward. “I have no choice, do I?”
“No. You made your choice that put you on the way here, and there is no going back.” Her star-sparkling hand pushed the door, and it swung slowly open. “Here we are.”
I saw the shadows first, the monsters of my childhood fears. But now I was the one who watched them pass, and they looked at me and reached out, and I felt the old fear again, the terror that had chilled me once. And then they passed on, and others took their place, and they passed on, too.
Then it was the woman, and I saw myself through her eyes, as I had been then; small, plump, well-dressed, obviously born into enough privilege that I might have everything she’d never be able to give her own children. And I felt the sudden impulsive anger rise in her, the spittle forming in her mouth, arcing out before she could stop, before she could will herself to stop. And, after that, the terrified exultation, the feeling that she’d got a little of her own back, ready to deny it all – but the little child had just looked at her, looked at her, wiped his hand on his pants, and walked away, as though even her spittle was beneath notice. And then I felt her rage, and her hate; and, after that, her fear.
That fear. The dread, growing day by day, even though she tried to forget, down the years. The fear that consumed her, most of all because she told herself she deserved it, and could not let the idea go.
And then the next one. I saw myself through his eyes too: the small plump know it all with the irritating voice, who couldn’t even run or play, and so spent all his time reading. I felt the cool contempt coming off that plump small boy, and the desire to cut him, to mark him in some way he couldn’t help but feel. And I reached for the razor blades.
“No more,” I whispered. “No more.”
But of course there were more. One by one, and there was nothing I could do, the woman by my side, now silent as she led me on, past the others who were real now, who were on their main paths, while I was only a ghost crossing their lives. And the silver light flooded me, until there was nothing of me that it did not fill, except a tiny speck in the core of my being, a walled off speck which was all of me that was still mine.
I was naked, I was more than naked; I was nothing more than a speck of consciousness drifting in silver light, and still she drew me on.
At last it was the girl who’d lain so often in my arms, her sweat-slicked skin on mine, limbs twined around each other, and whom I’d been still looking for, though she had long since left me. And if I’d had eyes, I would have shut them then. If I’d had a hand, I’d have pulled it out of my guide’s hand, and run, run anywhere, rather than know. It was the last straw.
“I hate you,” the thought came from her. “I loved you, and you turned that love to hate. I hate you and everything about you.”
And the silver light broke into the speck, flooding me, filling me, wiping away everything that still gave me warmth and the hopes of illusion, stripping it all away until there was nothing except the silver light, and I was the light, and nothing more.
I opened my eyes. I was lying on my back on the muddy road. Next to me lay my motorcycle, on its side.
The wind and rain had stopped. The clouds had gone, and the moon shone down, brightly, on my face. It was very cold and very quiet. I could hear my heart beating in the silence.
I must have been lying there for quite a long time.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016