I was lost in the forest at night, alone, and I called to my ghost; and at last, my ghost came to me.
I asked my ghost, “Why, when I was lost and I was calling, did you take so long to come? I have been wandering alone and blind through the dark, and I could have harmed this body beyond repair.”
And my ghost settled before me like mist on the ground, and reached out to touch me.
“I was gone far,” it said, “looking along the paths of the forest, and the things that dwell therein.”
“And what did you see?” I asked my ghost, and saw that it still hung away from me, as though reluctant to come home to my body.
“I saw pain and hunger,” the ghost said. “I felt death and the terror of many small scuttling things. And I saw on the fringes of the forest, villages; but the villages lay empty, burned by fire and disease until the living fled and the ghosts of the dead, unable to bear the loneliness, fled after them.”
“What else?” I asked, for I knew the ghost had more to tell; it was my ghost, and it had dwelt within me since the moment I was born.
“And I saw on this path, before us, five images in the shape of women; but women they were not.” The ghost paused, and I could feel it look away into the jungle with its eyeless eyes. “They had skulls for faces, and were clad in robes made of the night. And the first of them had a flame in her hand, for she was the spirit of passion and the heat of vengeance, and she would burn you to ashes if she found you; not because she would want to, but because it is her nature.”
“And the second?” asked I.
“As for the second,” my ghost said, “she carried a bowl in her hands, into which she wept ceaselessly from the empty sockets of her skull; for she is the spirit of grief and sorrow, and if she found you, she would cause you endless agony in the depths of your mind for the things that have gone, and the things that can never be.”
“What of the third?” I queried.
“The third holds in her hand a bag that is heavy with gold,” my ghost said, “and its neck is tied fast with leather thongs. You will struggle a lifetime to get those thongs open, and you will not manage it. And if you were to manage it, you would fall into the bag and be tied in with the gold and never be able to come out again, not if you lived a day longer than eternity.”
“The fourth,” I whispered, for I could see, advancing through the darkness, a flame that lit up shapes as of five women in robes made of night, advancing on naked feet along the path towards me. “What is the fourth like?”
“The fourth holds in her hand a weapon as sharp as shards of starlight, and as cold as the gulfs between the stars,” the ghost said. “You may take it in your hands, but it will cut you, and the longer you hold it the more you will be cut, until nothing remains.”
By now I could see the faces of the five women, and they gleamed bare-boned below the cowls of their night dark hoods. “The fifth!” I said. “Tell me of the fifth. Does she bear a box of forgiveness? A phial of hope?”
And the ghost laughed, for the first and the last time. “The fifth is the most terrible of all,” it said. “Rise and go forth now, for they are waiting for you, and wish you to choose the one you will.”
And I rose and walked towards them, and they stood and awaited me, silent, welcoming. And the first of them had a fire in her hands, and I passed her by. The second wept into her dreadful bowl, and I stepped past her, averting my face. The third held up her bags, jingling her coins, beckoning; and I closed my ears. The fourth held out her weapon for me to grasp, beautiful and sharp as starlight, and I took it not. And then before me stood the fifth, which my ghost had called the most terrible of all.
“So you have chosen to be my mate,” she whispered, in a voice like wind blowing over distant desert wastes. “Come, then, and see what fate I bear in my hands, for you.”
And I stepped closer to her, and she held up the thing she clutched in her hands; and then I knew what fate was to be mine.
In her hands, held up so I gazed full-faced into it, was a mirror; and in it I saw at last, the clear, unfading, utterly unforgiving, reflection of myself.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016