Lords and ladies, my greetings and salutations, and I wish you all a pleasant evening. Thank you all for coming to listen to my tale.
Let me introduce myself. As you can all clearly see for yourself, I am a ghost. This, of course, should not be anything surprising to you, let alone frightening. After all, this is Bunglistan, and you all know how every corner of our land is teeming with ghosts. I’m just one of so many millions that one can’t begin to count them all.
Nor, of course, am I in any way a special ghost, as you can also see for yourselves. I’m no fisher ghost with stilt-long limbs, living in the holes on the banks of ponds, and coming out to wade at night. I’m no giant bhoot with teeth like radishes, ears like winnowing baskets, and eyes like red brass gongs, no pret with horns like shields around my cheeks. Nor am I an obese brohmodottyi with a beard down to my navel and a belly full of specious wisdom. I am, clearly, a mere, unremarkable, common-or-garden ghost.
By now, lords and ladies, you will be no doubt asking why a miserable non-being like me should even dare to thrust myself on to your attention. Well, if you will only listen to me, you will find that out for yourselves.
As you may know, we ghosts have a society among ourselves, just as you of the living do. And we have, as you do, rulers, arch-ghosts, and, above them all, a king ghost, who rules in his capital down beneath a mountain in a place that has no name.
Ah, lords and ladies, you would love to see that city of ghosts! You would, I’m sure, love to wander its streets, and peer into the windows of its palaces, to feast your eyes on the wonders within. But, alas, no living human has ever set foot inside its walls of midnight-coloured stone; not just that – few of us ghosts have ever been permitted even the great fortune of gazing upon its jewel-sparkling roofs, even from a distance.
Once upon a time, though, it was different. Once, even a lowly ghost like me, of no importance whatsoever, might have been permitted entry inside its hallowed portals, and even be allowed to dwell in its halls and chambers if he or she so desired. But that time is long gone, and I am now going to tell you why.
Now, lords and ladies, we ghosts have little use for the things that the living hold precious – gold or silver ornaments, which humans lie, cheat, rob and kill for, mean no more to us than baubles, perhaps, to grace a petni’s wrists or a shakchunni’s neck, to buy a little peace at home; for you don’t know just how bitter a petni or shakchunni can get, and how difficult it is for us ghosts to sweeten their dispositions enough to get by.
But I digress. The real treasures of the ghostly world are measured in power and magic, in things great as universes that might be contained in a grain of sand. Most of them are, in fact, so ancient that their secrets are unknown even to us ghosts, or so powerful that even the most knowledgeable in their lore do not dare to use them. And there are good reasons for that – reasons so good that even they are a secret from common ghosts.
Long ago, when the portals of the capital were thrown open for all comers, there was once a ghost. Like me, he was totally ordinary, not even a pret or a tree ghost. But in life he’d been a famous thief, and, sad to say, he had not been able to throw off the stealing habit only because he’d died. I’m afraid, my lords and ladies, you will find many like him – and I would caution you now about it, lest you too carry your little habits into the afterworld. It’s different when you’re loaded down with habits that make you unpopular and stick around forever, which you can’t even die to get away from.
This ghost, whose name was Chĩchké Chōr, had unfortunately never learnt that lesson, or, as is perhaps more likely, he enjoyed the act of stealing much too much to give it up merely because he was dead. So he kept stealing things. At first he only stole little things, from the living, more to cause them annoyance than anything else. A housewife might find her cherished brass cooking pot vanished, only to discover it tucked away out of sight in the rafters; a fisherman might look everywhere for his net-mending tools, only to discover them pushed under a rock by the bank of the river. A tailor’s best pair of scissors might go missing the day of a major order, or a lonely student, preparing for an examination that might decide his future, would discover the oil mysteriously vanished from his lamp. That was the kind of thing Chĩchké Chor got up to for a while – annoying, but not really harmful.
But then he decided that this was really no challenge for an accomplished thief like him, and turned his eyes on more challenging prospects. And what could be more challenging than stealing from the vaults of the Ghost King himself?
It wasn’t that difficult to plan the theft. It was nowhere near as difficult as carving a hole in the wall of a family’s hut while they slept within, something he’d done a hundred times when he was alive. It wasn’t as difficult as sneaking into the back of a shop while the owner was busy at the front, taking all he could carry, and leaving again without being seen. He could simply enter the city like a thousand other ghosts, go where he wanted, and enter the treasure chambers without hindrance, since nobody then had ever imagined a ghost could stoop so low as to steal from other ghosts. But then there had never been a ghost as much in love with thieving as Chĩchké Chōr before.
He drifted through the streets of the city, perfectly openly, mingling with the rustling crowds of ghosts, until he came to the royal section of the city. Here were the tall, beautiful buildings with their soaring towers, their bridges that looked delicate as a petni’s sighs, though in reality they could bear the weight of the heaviest bhoot with no trouble at all. Here were the treasures of the Ghost King, just a thickness of wall away from Chĩchké Chōr, all there for the taking. So easy would it be to steal, indeed, that the thief ghost soon grew frustrated. There was no challenge here.
But then – casually glancing down a side street, which he’d just watched a comely shakchunni enter – he saw the tall spire of the Temple of the Ghost Gods, and all the frustration disappeared from Chĩchké Chōr’s mind like fog in the morning sun.
The Temple of the Ghost Gods? Yes. Did you not know ghosts have temples? Who would worship the ghosts of all the dead gods if ghosts didn’t, I ask you?
Now, of course, it was one thing to steal from the treasures of the Ghost King. It is another thing altogether to purloin the property of the ghost gods. Most thieves wouldn’t have considered it for a moment. But Chĩchké Chōr wasn’t like most thieves; he prided himself on being in a class of his own.
The reason he decided on stealing from the ghost gods was simple. Unlike the rest of the city, the Temple of the Ghost Gods was guarded closely, because otherwise, of course, any recently deceased ghost might barge into it and take up residence pretending to be the ghost of a god. Each entrance was therefore closely guarded by a pair of huge bhoots armed with staves that might break a ghost like Chĩchké Chōr to pieces with one blow. Even the windows weren’t just left free; at each, crouching with its mouth wide open, enormous teeth extended, was an eaterghost, still gluttonously trying in the afterlife to devour all it couldn’t while it lived. And the walls of the temple were covered with tiny ghostlets, which clung on to each other with teeth and claws leaving not chink between them for the likes of Chĩchké Chōr to burrow through.
In other words, it was a perfect challenge. Chĩchké Chōr shivered with delight as he contemplated it.
For several days, he drifted round and round it, watching. Nothing escaped his notice, from the bhoots with their staves guarding the gates, to the eaterghosts waiting hopefully at the windows; and as for the ghostlets on the walls, he abandoned the idea of finding a way to get past them without a second thought.
Did he ever, for an instant, think of abandoning the plan and moving on to easier prey? Of course not. The more impossible the project appeared – for, remember, he had not only to get inside the Temple, but to steal some worthwhile item of treasure, and then get out safely again – the more determined he became to make sure it succeeded. Obviously, it would be impossible to sneak by the guards. Therefore, he would have to bluff his way past them.
Only three kinds of ghosts got past the guards. The first, of course, were the worshippers, but they were few, because the ghosts of dead gods needed a home more than they needed worship, and they scarcely ever granted a prayer unless they felt like it. And what can a ghost offer to a ghost of a god as a bribe to grant prayers, in a city where treasures were to be had for the asking? So few worshippers ever came, and, as Chĩchké Chōr noticed, those that did were always accompanied inside by a guard bhoot, who stood attendance while the worshippers prayed. And there were, of course, the priest and priestess ghosts, but they were all Brohmodottyis and petnis, and he, a common ghost, had not the slightest chance of being mistaken for either.
There was only one way, then; he would have to pretend to be the ghost of a dead god.
This was, as you may imagine, less easily said than done, but Chĩchké Chōr hadn’t spent a lifetime sneaking through people’s homes without getting a good idea of what they expected from their gods. From there it was less than difficult to make out what the gods themselves must be like. And, being a ghost who’d once been human – and not born a ghost, as so many are – he knew what happened when someone, even if that someone was a god, died.
So, a little later, the pair of bhoots guarding the biggest of the gates watched a ghost walk towards them up the street and make as though to walk in right between them, as though they weren’t there. One of them hastily slammed his staff down in the nick of time, blocking the way.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded in a voice like thunder.
The little ghost glared up at them. “You dare try and stop me? I am the ghost of the god Asto Olumbush, and nobody has a better right to come in here than me.”
The bhoots looked at him and at each other. “Er,” one began. “I never heard of any such god...”
“Do you intend to tell me that you know the names of all the gods?” the spirit demanded, stamping a ghostly foot. “Tell me, fool. Do you know the names of all the gods, everywhere?”
The bhoot, who had never been challenged in such a fashion, licked his lips nervously. “Well, no.”
“Can you prove that you’re the ghost of the god Asto Olumbush, as you claim?” the other bhoot, who had a little more of his wits about him, asked.
“Can you prove that I’m not?” the ghost snapped right back. “What do I have to do to prove that I’m the ghost of Asto Olumbush – turn you into human beings?”
Now, this is one fate that bhoots dread more than any other. From being gigantic, powerful, immortal beings who could reduce even a wayward pret to shivering terror with a glare, to be reduced to a weak, puny human, one which could not even be certain of getting through a day without risking fifty different nasty fates – that is a fall indeed. The bhoots opened their mouths and closed them again, looking at each other nervously.
Chĩchké Chōr began snapping his fingers. “At five snaps,” he said dramatically. “One...two...”
They broke at four, as he’d anticipated. “Please, o ghost of the god Asto Olumbush,” the first bhoot said piteously, “forgive us for our rudeness. Please do come in at once.”
And that was all it took. Chĩchké Chōr walked past them into the Temple, into the colonnaded chambers with their richly carved walls and high-domed ceilings, where the ghosts of dead gods rustled and gibbered in the corners, plotting and muttering against each other as they had done when they were alive, and as they still did now that they were dead. He walked past them and deeper and deeper into the Temple, where the treasures of the ghosts of the gods were piled. But they were little enough treasures, things that attracted Chĩchké Chōr not at all; things he might have stolen with no effort from the city of the Ghost King, without having to enter the Temple at all.
No, Chĩchké Chōr needed something more. And then, in a chamber at the very heart of the Temple, held in the hands of a squat little idol, he found it.
Actually, it would be more correct to say he found them, for there were two, one clutched in each of the idol’s hands; little brown stones, faceted and streaked with blue and white, which reflected the light dimly; stones which were carved so as to resemble lenses exactly fit for putting over a ghost’s eyes. They weren’t anything much to look at, but as soon as he saw them, the thief knew that they were what he’d been looking for.
It wasn’t even a guardian idol; it was just an idol, ugly and common, and the stones were lightly held in its hands, so all Chĩchké Chōr had to do was pick them up and walk out. And that was what he did, down through the halls the way he’d come, until at last he reached the gate where the two bhoots stood gaurd.
“Move out of the way,” he snapped, even before he reached the door. “Let me out.”
“But you just went in,” the bhoots objected.
“And now I want to get out. This temple of yours isn’t fit for the ghost of a self-respecting god. Or...” Chĩchké Chōr raised the dreaded fingers again. “You know what I’ll do.”
“No, please,” the bhoots said, stepping aside quickly, and Chĩchké Chōr walked away to freedom.
Now, of course, Chĩchké Chōr was an experienced thief. He was no beginner to make the stupid mistake of stopping to admire his spoils. So he made sure not just to leave the City of the Ghost King, but to travel far, far away, before he took out the two stones and held them up to his eyes.
It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. The landscape before him – a dull picture of dry scrub and semi-desert – vanished, and instead he saw a breathtaking picture of transparencies and light, turning shades of being and nonbeing, things that were and were not and might have been. The whole of all the creations that had been, and might be, and ever were, came by him and went away, and then came by again. And it went on, and on, and on, no pattern ever repeating.
Chĩchké Chōr was entranced. He was, if I might say so for a ghost, in heaven.
And then he tried to remove the stones from his eyes, and found that he could not.
There is one thing I said earlier that Chĩchké Chōr had forgotten, and it would have been well for him if he remembered. The treasures of the ghosts is in magic, and much of it is magic the purpose of which has long since been forgotten. Undoubtedly there had been a time when the stones could be controlled, could be made to serve the will of the user, but that time was aeons gone. And now, having put them on, the thief could never take them off again. He was stuck there, in the waste, with the stones over his eyes.
It was much worse than being merely blind. If he’d just been blind, he could have felt his way, fumbling like a mere blind human. But here his entire senses were occupied by the flickering, changing lights behind the stones – he couldn’t even shut his eyes to block them out. He couldn’t even move; he could do nothing at all.
I see you all looking at me, and all of you are wondering the same thing: how is it that I am now talking to you, since you can see my eyes quite unencumbered by those crystals? But, my dear friends, I am not Chĩchké Chōr. Not at all! I’m just who I said I was, a common ghost with nothing special about him at all.
So how do I know all about Chĩchké Chōr? My lords and ladies, I found him. I found him one day, still standing where he had been, though the scrub around him had long since turned to farmland, and then to desert, and was beginning to revert to scrub again. I found him and brought him home with me, and he now sits, as he has sat since he came back here, in the rafters above our heads.
This is why I am telling you his tale. Through all the long, weary centuries he stood with the stones over his eyes, Chĩchké Chōr had thought and thought, and he finally realised what it is that has to be done to free him from the consequences of his crime – a crime for which, you’ll agree, he’s paid many times over already.
It is just this, ladies and gentlemen – one of you must remove the stones from over his eyes, and put them over your own.
Here’s Chĩchké Chōr – look how weak he is, how uncertainly he fumbles, though I lead him by the hand. And look how beautiful the stones are, how they sparkle and glitter, and how the universe shifts and beckons through its facets. Would you not love to wear such stones over your eyes? Think of the beauty, my lords and ladies. Think of the wonder that will be unveiled to you!
I can see the look in your eyes, my lords and ladies. I know your hands are yearning to seize those stones and slip them over your own eyes. You’re looking at each other, each wanting to dart forward, before anyone else can. Yes you are. So tell me, my friends –
Which of you will be the one to set my friend free?
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016
|[Image courtesy my dear friend Jim Lipton]|