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IN LIEU OF DEATH ~ Sushant Singh Rajput


Death came for me on the 14th of June. No, it did not arrive at all in the way I had always expected it to – there was no blinding white light, or some demon dressed in black. It came like an assassin in an unruly ambush, and took me as I was, totally unprepared. 

 

It left me to grieve the loss of someone very dear. Only I’m just not sure who: whether it was the someone dear who went with bodily death, or us, that the someone dear left behind as dead, I do not know. I only know that this is going to be a yearly occurrence. 

 

 

 

In an hour of my having posted that on Facebook, the doorbell went off. I answered the door in my boxers to see a friend who said she was giving me exactly ten minutes to change into something more presentable. Once I was changed into jeans and tee, she towed me along to a place I had not been to before: an assembly of individuals who had faced the loss of a loved one. Not someone comfortable in unfamiliar environments, I began to feel queasy, but before I could have a word with my friend, a woman called out to me and invited me to join her and five people that had gathered in a small circle. I ambled along and drew a chair as a pleasant sounding man looked at me. “You are new here, right?” he asked me as I sat. Dumb question I thought, and wanted to tell him to get to the point, but, of course that was not how I would behave, and so I said nothing but merely moved my head in agreement. “What’s your name again?” he said. Another dumb question because I hadn’t shared my name yet. I turned and smiled at my friend collectedly, in order not to make her feel awkward, because I knew she was reading my facial vocabulary, and it reflected that I thought rather poorly of such support groups. I kept a straight face and stated my name. “Welcome, Mr Khan,” he said in his pleasant voice, “is there anything that you would care to share with us?” I shook my head. He didn’t take that as a rebuff and went on about how I should start to tell them who I was grieving for. I looked at the ground for a few seconds and thought that the floor could make do with a bit of cleaning. Then I breathed and looked up. “My best friend.” He gave me a look of having understood me, which I am certain he did not, but since he was trained to talk and behave in a particular way, he pretended he had understood me, and I pretended to let him fool himself that he had. “And did you lose her recently?” he asked. “A little over eleven months ago,” I replied. “And may I ask how you lost her?” I looked at him piercingly at first, and then calmed myself in a flick. “Suddenly,” I said, “I lost him suddenly.” He once again made a face with the expression that he had understood what I was feeling when he did jack. “Well, would you like to share with us about how you are feeling, or?” I shook my head and turned again to my friend who muttered a muted please. “Look, um, I don’t intend to sound . . .” I paused, reflected, “but this whole process,” I glared at the man directly, “I–I think that I’m at a different stage, or . . .” He cut me and said, “Well, the healing process of grief takes place in five different stages.” I was now furious at this dumb-fuck talk, and it was openly showing. “And what does this process do? Does it deal with my loss by helping me bring the person that I have lost back into my life?” He was flummoxed at my brazenness. “Any process is only supposed to act as a framework, a loose framework of the grieving process, accounting for everything from the grief of losing a loved one to the grief of somebody who is dying himself.” I lowered my head and reflected for a second, gathered myself and stared square into the man’s eyes – “Is there a difference?” He was quiet. “Is there?” I asked again. “Um . . .” he said, his demeanour a clear indication of his own inability to help me in any manner possible other than what his training or transcripts had taught him. I dipped my head, more as a token of politeness, and then stood up, winked at my friend, who was now thoroughly mortified at my behaviour and walked away. 

 

My friend followed up behind me. “I took you there for a reason you fool,” she scowled, “I took you there to help you overcome your grief, and also because I am so fucking worried that if you don’t talk,” she halted and looked about here and there, “that you might also end up dead . . . so at least you could have heard them out, right? At least!” I took in a lungful of air. “This ‘at least’ is what fucks everything up,” I told her, exhaling the air with a rather dramatic air. She narrowed her eyes and glared at me frostily. “People say all sorts of rubbish and then fit in words like ‘at least’ which are most unnecessary.” She hit me on my chest with her bag. “You’re being an arsehole,” she said. “Am I?” I asked, “Because as much as I appreciate what you are doing for me, I think that each of us have our own narrative of how we would like to deal with our angst . . . and the last thing anyone wants to hear is bollocks like it will be alright, or at least they lived long enough, or it was god’s plan, or they would want you to, or the classic – everything happens for a reason, etcetera, etcetera.” She hung her head down. I could see she was mildly ashamed. “Come on,” I said, grabbing her hand, “let me get you an ice-cream.” We got our cones and sat quietly on a bench as we watched people go by. “Were those people that repulsive?” I licked my ice-cream, spun round and faced her. “Like I said, everyone has their own method to process their pain, there cannot ever be a formula for it. Telling people to look at the bright side of it is like un-ringing a bell.” She smiled and repeated softly – un-ringing the bell. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said bashfully. “When someone is in agony, being real may sound a bit rough perhaps, but it helps,” I said, “Something like – ‘I know what you are going through is hard, and I cannot say I understand what you are going through because I don’t, and I only hope that in time you will come to terms with it.’, can be one way to make someone feel real about it.” She reached out to my cone, took a swirl of my ice-cream and handed it back to me. “What’s been the hardest part of this for you?” she asked as she ruffled my hair. “Also, ‘Would you like to talk about it, or would you like to talk about something else?’, works splendidly too,” I replied. She smiled. “I get it.” I smiled too. “We just have to let people know that we are with them . . . we shouldn’t be putting words into their mouths because that is not what they would be needing. Practical support, even if it means to be with them in silence, is sufficient to get most ships across to the shore.”

 

When a person close to us dies, everything changes. It is as if a cyclone has swept and washed everything away. Everything appears meaningless, unfamiliar and empty. Some even tend to question who they are considering that a large sense of their identity was bound to the person they have lost. Dogmas, optimisms, aspirations seem utterly vain and tend to dissolve with time, and as cliché as it sounds, time stops. 

 

“So what form of death do you think is the hardest to accept?” she asked, slurping from her hands a large drop of ice-cream that had trickled down. “You think one can rate one over the other?” I asked, rather puzzled at her query. “I mean, you know,” she said stammering. “It could be the passing away of parents, siblings, partners, friends, spouse, it could be the loss of an unborn child to abortion or miscarriage, anything can cause bereavement.” She was absorbing what I was telling her, and it was evident that she was thinking something as I was speaking. “Out with it,” I said. She giggled. “I think tragic and violent deaths might cause more pain than the others.” I rolled my eyes. “Say an accident, a murder, a drowning, or suicide,” she paused, “disease, heart attacks too.” I nodded at her rather harsh reflections. “Expected or unexpected, gradual or sudden, any death is devastating,” I added. She got up and walked a few steps ahead, spreading her hands wide as the cool breeze caressed her skin. “Why did you behave that way in there?” I got up and walked up to her. “Really? After all that I’ve told you.” 

 

While she thought that talking to strangers would help me get over the loss of Sushant, it would have been impossible for me to make her understand not to meddle with the agony of others after I had already made my mind clear to her. What was it with some people, I wondered to myself – they are helpful and they are caring, but do they ever get anything?

 

“Tell me? Tell me!” she nudged me. I said nothing although I knew that her intentions were noble, only her intent was enormously incorrect – it was difficult to make someone understand that you miss the time you had with them, and that you may get over the pain in time, but you don’t really get over the passing of someone important to you, and this is the fundamental aspect of mortality that the world at large gets fully wrong. The people who care about you, they want to help you, they are worried about you, but the truth is that nobody can help you, nothing anybody says can make a difference. 

 

“What are you thinking now?” she asked me. “About the positive side of loss,” I answered. She studied me warily. “I think that while the death of the loved one destroys you, there is also a great positivity to be found in it.” Her eyes now became attentive. “We change as people . . . radically change . . . and this results in people becoming more open, intuitive, realistic, self-loving and gentle.” She slipped her hand into my hand. “I know what you mean,” she said kind-heartedly, “I have observed that people adopt a fresh set of values in life. They develop a stronger desire to help others, contribute to the world, prioritise relationships over money and materialism and spend more time with the ones they love.” I grinned upon hearing those words from her as I thought to myself that the one thing that is clear is that life chugs along, you accept and adjust without the person in question, but you do not get over the bereavement, ever. 

 

 



*In memoriam of my friend Sushant Singh Rajput (1986-2020) 



SHOT


 

He held his hands up in despair. “I am not taking my second shot if you don’t take your first shot.”

“You,” she stopped and rolled her eyes.

“Me, what?”

She exasperated. “Do as you like,” she retorted with a tinge of irritation. 

“Of course I am going to do as I like,” he remarked playfully. 

She was quiet. 

“What?” he asked.

“What?” she echoed. 

“Why no reaction? Everything, ok?” he stated smiling slightly. 

“Would my reacting make a difference to you? You’re as stubborn as a stone.”

“Whatever,” he hummed mischievously, “and throw as many tantrums as you wish but I am not taking the second shot if you don’t take your first shot.”

She cleared her throat and exhaled. “You know I am not on the list because I am not a resident of Paris . . . and . . . and you also know that I cannot go back home because the lockdown in London is on until the beginning of May, and we are currently only in the first week of March. So understand, please. . .”

He became thoughtful and breathed heavily because summer was coming up, and if she was not vaccinated, then it would have certainly become an impediment for her to travel as freely. 

“What are you thinking?” she asked holding onto his hand. 

His eyes met squarely with her eyes. “What say we take a chance.”

She shook her head. “You know if I get stuck in London it’s going to be such a bother.”

“Yah, but at least you’ll still be at home.” 

“You are a darling,” she said pinching his nose lovingly, “take your second shot and I’ll take mine whenever I can.”

He shook his head vehemently. “Not until you don’t take your first shot.”

“You’re impossible!” she exclaimed with some restlessness. 

 

ONE MONTH LATER

 

He and two of his friends were at the pub. “So did you take that second shot?” asked the friend. 

He shook his head. 

“Why not?” 

“Because she didn’t take her first shot.” 

The friend took a sip of beer. “Are you fucking serious!” 

He nodded. 

“And she didn’t tell you that she won’t take her first shot until you had taken your second shot?” asked the other friend. 

“Nope,” he said softly. 

“What fools,” said the friend lighting a cigarette, “what fools.”


THE CONNECTING TOUCH


 


Las relaciones humanas son más llevaderas cuando hay música.

 

~ Andrés Obando ~

 

(Human relationships are more bearable when there is music.)

 

 

For human infants, thriving is not simply a matter of getting enough calories, warmth, and other necessities of life, but also requires emotional and social nourishment. Caregivers are needed to provide warm affection and kindness. The physical health of children depended on it. 


Humans are übersocial animals. Being socially connected is essential for health, well-being, and happiness. Being immersed in a social environment with friends and loved ones is a default assumption of the human mind. We are born to belong.

 

Today, the need to maintain social connections is born out in public health data. Astoundingly, the data shows that having only a few friends or close acquaintances is more likely to make you ill and cause your death than such obvious health risks as smoking and obesity. Relatedly, socially isolated adults are more likely to smoke, less likely to exercise, and eat fewer fruits and vegetables. A large-scale survey of nearly 7,000 adults in the San Francisco Bay Area found that over a nine-year period, the risk of all causes of death—that is, the chance of dying for any reason—was more than twice as high for people with the fewest social ties as those with the most. Similarly, people lacking social relationships, in the form of weak social support or in stressful marriages—are at greater risk for cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University has recently brought the ill effects of loneliness into national focus. In a ground-breaking 2010 study, she and her team assessed mortality data for more than 300,000 people followed for an average of 7.5 years. People with adequate social relationships—as in being integrated into a social network—had a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival during this period than people whose social relationships were lacking. On average, people with strong social relationships lived 3.7 years longer than less socially connected people. In fact, loneliness was found to be a greater mortality risk than smoking, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, obesity and air pollution. “The overall effect remained consistent across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, follow-up period, and cause of death, suggesting that the association between social relationships and mortality may be general, and efforts to reduce risk should not be isolated to subgroups such as the elderly,” she and her colleagues wrote. Several years later, her team followed up with an analysis of 3.4 million people worldwide, again finding similar mortality rates. Across the globe, and across demographics, isolation killed. “We wanted to know: Does it vary by country (It does not!)? Does it vary by cause of death (Doesn’t matter!)? Is it stronger for men vs. women (Equally strong!)?” she said in an interview. “This was a snapshot of real life, right? With implications for real-life health outcomes.” 


Just like the infants in the foundling homes of the 20th century, adults in the 21st century are in deep need of care. Holt-Lunstad compared the devastation of social isolation to the paradigm shift that came with the discovery of hospitalism, its mechanisms, and its treatment through bonding and affection. “To draw a parallel, many decades ago high mortality rates were observed among infants in custodial care (i.e., orphanages), even when controlling for pre-existing health conditions and medical treatment. Lack of human contact predicted mortality. The medical profession was stunned to learn that infants would die without social interaction. This single finding, so simplistic in hindsight, was responsible for changes in practice and policy that markedly decreased mortality rates in custodial care settings. Contemporary medicine could similarly benefit from acknowledging the data: Social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults.” 


While Western, and especially American, culture may venerate rugged individualism and self-expression, people in contemporary society depend on other people to survive, just as it’s been through human history. The notion of “the individual” is a relatively modern invention, making its first stirrings in the writings of medieval Christian philosophers like St. Anselm and William of Ockham, and reaching its perhaps final form in free-thinking European Enlightenment. The word individualism itself was not coined until 1815. For the course of human history, the social group, the clan, the religious sanctums, the state—these have been the fundamental elements of society. Our lives depend on other people, not just on the nuclear family but the larger communal group. 


The isolated way of life due to lockdowns and social distances has been a boon in manifold ways and also a curse too. While it has helped us take stock of our priorities it has also robbed us of the very basic human needs – touch, warmth, being around those who matter and throughout this essay we shall explore rather lightly human ecology: how we fit into our environments and what they afford to us, the interplay of which is expressed in perception. Affordances are not only physical; they are also social. Other people offer possibilities for good (love, affection, support) and ill (threat, abuse, social anxiety). The brain reflects these social affordances. Through the course of evolution, the structures of social pain scaffolded off those for physical pain, providing one of the primary imperatives of our lives: the drive to belong and be loved. To be embodied means not only being able to hold a stone but also being able to hold a hand. The most intimate of social relationships are built through touch. 


The university of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow began a seminal 1958 paper on the importance of touch by commenting on the huge disconnect between the centrality of love in everyday life and its lack of study within research psychology. In the 1950s, psychologists assumed that animals, including us, were motivated by basic biological drives (like hunger, thirst, and pain) that motivated behaviours needed for survival (like eating, drinking, and withdrawing from sources of pain). So, where does love come from and the desire for social affiliation? Psychologists at the time surmised that we learn affection by becoming attracted to the caregiver who provides sustenance. Infants desire milk, caregivers provide milk, and thus over time infants learn to desire caregivers, or so the story went. But this story did not sit well with what Harlow observed in his laboratory. In studies with infant macaque monkeys, he found that they grew attached to the cloth pads that lined their cages, hanging on to them and throwing tantrums when they were taken out to be cleaned. Conversely, a baby monkey raised on a barren wire-mesh floor “survives with difficulty, if at all” the first five days of their lives. This observation sparked the insight that contact comfort might be as important for infant health and well-being as basic biological needs. In what has become an iconic experiment, Harlow’s team built two artificial mothers that stood in for the infant monkeys’ real mothers. One mother was made of wood, covered by sponge rubber, and wrapped in terry cloth, with a light bulb radiating heat behind her. The other was made with wire mesh and a light bulb. One warm and fuzzy; the other warm and metallic. For four monkeys, the cloth mother possessed a nipple that lactated, whereas for four others, the wire-mesh mother had the lactating nipple. The striking finding: in both groups, the infant spent 12 or more hours a day on the cloth mother, for the full 160 days of testing, with less than one hour spent on the wire mother—even if she was the source of food. This flew in the face of what had become received psychological wisdom: that nourishment drove behaviour, with affection being an acquired outcome of feeding. Contrary to such views, it became abundantly clear that tactile comfort was deeply desired by infant monkeys regardless of whether it had been associated with food. “We were not surprised to discover that contact comfort was an important basic affectional or love variable,” Harlow observed. “But we did not expect it to overshadow so completely the variable of nursing; indeed, the disparity is so great as to suggest that the primary function of nursing as an affectional variable is that of insuring frequent and intimate body contact of the infant with the mother.” What is true for macaque monkeys must surely also apply to people, Harlow concluded, and hence he added: “Certainly, man cannot live by milk alone.” From the start, humans, like other primates, need to be touched and it is that very lack of to touch and be touched has resulted in a suffering of individuals during the pandemic, and the question is – will such people ever fully recover?


Over a good part of 2020 I observed people introducing pets into their homes at an alarming rate, but there is only so much a dog or cat can do, even if they think that it might be something that is saving them from the internal pandemic of lack of touch of a real person. I spoke to a friend in London and she said that ever since she has been home-bound, the most that she misses is the smell of her friends, the taste of her lover. “The human body has built all its models based on touch received from caregivers,” says Dr Katerina Fotopoulou, a professor of psychodynamic neuroscience at University College London. “We’re utterly reliant on the caregiver to satisfy the body’s core needs. Little can be done without touch.”

Nina is 40, and lives alone in south London. She experienced a protracted recovery after a spinal injury in 2018, requiring long periods of bed rest. People visited, but her pain levels meant that being touched was difficult. She felt she had good foresight for how to prepare for the first lockdown. “I thought I knew how it would play out,” she says over Zoom. “For example, I knew how strict I had to be about the routine of going for walks; you always feel slightly better having taken in different surroundings.” But after six weeks, her resolve started to crumble. “The isolation I’d already experienced made me more vulnerable than I’d realised. I tried to keep myself in a routine but …” she begins to cry. “At some point, not being able to have a hug was genuinely torturous. I don’t believe the government considered the impact of the first lockdown on people living alone.”

As adults, we may not comprehend the importance of touch even when it disappears. “We might begin to realise that something is missing, but we won’t always know that it’s touch,” says Prof Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist based at Liverpool John Moores University and a leader in the field of affective touch. “But when we talk about the problem of loneliness, we often ignore the obvious: what lonely people aren’t getting is touch.” 

Touch has a huge impact on our psychological and physical wellbeing, says Prof Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford. “With our close friends and family, we touch each other more than we realise,” he says. As adults, Dunbar’s research has found, we have a core set of, on average, five friends who we can call on as a shoulder to cry on. “We see exactly the same thing in primates,” he says. “Even in much bigger primate societies, groups of five best friends appear at every layer, who do all their grooming together – their form of social touch. In primates and humans, these intense coalitions act as a buffer; they keep the world off your back.” It is unsurprising, then, that of the 40,000 people from 112 countries who took part in a 2020 BBC and Wellcome Collection survey, the three most common words used to describe touch were: “comforting”, “warm” and “love”.

As the pandemic continues, many of us will be trying to cope with profound stress without the comfort of touch. We all have different needs and boundaries (McGlone says “not everyone suffers from a lack of touch; I don’t really like being cuddled, and drive my poor wife nuts”), but the total absence of touch, particularly when emotions are high, contravenes the hardwiring that regulates us from our preverbal years.

“Touch is a modulator that can temper the effects of stress and pain, physical and emotional. We have seen in our research that a lack of touch is associated with greater anxiety,” says Fotopoulou. “In times of high stress – the loss of a job, or a bereavement, for example – having more touch from others helps us cope better, particularly in calming the effects of [the stress hormone’ cortisol.” Even if we’re used to not being touched a lot, after a while the need can feel very physical – sometimes described as “skin hunger” or “touch hunger”.

While I can empathise with the exhausting monotony my friends with young families have described to me (and I know that the grass is always greener), I have felt the lack of belonging to a pack acutely. Claire Birke, a teacher from Edinburgh, has felt it, too: “I’m 37, and most of my friends are living with partners or children,” she says. “I have never felt more aware of my single status, nor the lack of intimate bodily contact, in my life.”

The number of people living on their own has only been swelling up around the world. The sliver of sociability that came with social bubbles being announced has felt life-saving. Smith has been “bubbling” with a couple who live together and says it has helped with her mood. But the days are long, and her friends “are not particularly tactile”.

“I realise how much I touch people without thinking,” she says. “I feel like I am holding all this emotion in my body with nowhere to put it.”

In high-stress states, it can feel as if our bodies can barely contain our emotion if there’s no one there to hold us. “Lots of studies support the theory that touch gives the brain a signal that it can delegate its resources for coping because someone else is there to bear the brunt. This relaxes the body, going some way to restoring the stress budget, if you like,” says Fotopoulou. But touch is not a single sense. The two square metres of skin that contain us are teeming with nerve fibres that recognise temperature, texture and itch, etcetera. One set of fibres exists purely to register gentle, stroking touch: the C tactile afferents (CTs). McGlone has been studying this since 1995, when it was discovered in humans. “These neurons, in the skin of all social mammals, transmit slow electrical signals to the emotional processing parts of the brain. They play a critical role in developing the social brain and our ability to withstand stress.”

The highest density of CTs across the body are in the parts we can’t “groom” ourselves, such as the shoulders and back. “If you love having your back rubbed it’s because there are more CTs there,” says McGlone. “Stimulation of these neurons releases oxytocin and dopamine, and has a direct impact on cortisol levels, which regulates our mood.” In 2017, Fotopoulou’s team published a study that showed even gentle, slow stroking from a stranger can reduce feelings of social exclusion. But in our normal lives, we’re not going round stroking each other all the time. “No, you don’t need that touch all day,” McGlone says. “We only need this gentle kind of touch intermittently.”

In these times of touch deprivation there is no real substitute for what we get from other humans, but there are ways to soothe ourselves. Fotopoulou’s lab will soon publish a study conducted during the pandemic that builds on the theory that, in the same way we think we can feel others’ pain, we may be able to experience touch vicariously, too. Researchers have found that seeing touch (on the telly or in films, for example) – particularly social, affective or pet touch – can give us some of the benefits of feeling touch. “This is called ‘vicarious touch’,” says Fotopoulou. “The brain codes multisensory experiences in multiple ways. We can also ‘feel’ the pain and pleasures of others just by ‘seeing’ them,” she says. “This is not a permanent or complete substitute, but a partial one.”

Products such as weighted blankets can help. Smith says that laying one across her chest and shoulders makes her feel “much calmer” – speaking, perhaps, to an instinctive need to stimulate the CTs. Interacting with animals is also settling. “My neighbour’s cat has decided to live with me half the time and having her sat on my chest, purring, is so soothing.”

This resonated: the warmth of my dog’s back under my hand has been the most grounding thing for me over the last 12 months. I know this feels good, but why? “When you’re stroking your dog, you’re engaging systems that would be activated if the dog was stroking you,” says McGlone. 


A hunger for touch is a signal that a primitive need is not being met. But evolution is on our side. Every scientist I spoke to was hopeful that, once we can come together again, we will adjust quickly. “It will differ between people, probably based on the duration people have been alone, and there may be a period of clumsiness and renegotiation,” says Dunbar. “But we have evolved to adapt.”

 

 

 

 

Some references from Perception - How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds by Dennis Proffitt, Drake Baer, and Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard by Eleanor Morgan 

 

 


ONE DAY



This is a voice that need not be raised to be heard

This is a sign so vivid that it will one day

Protect us from ostensible doom

 

This is a name so virtuous and just 

That it will amend

The very path of antiquity

And reinstate us as victors 

As we have always been victors

But had fallen under the dimness of despair

 

This is my ode 

For the endless reign of my brightest star

It is my prayer for the health of my dearest brother Fazza  




THE GRACE OF KINGS


 

“How does it feel to be a —“ I stopped short. 

 

He fastened the loop of his bag over his shoulder to his comfort and looked up, “How does it feel to be a what?” 

 

I hesitated, “You know.”

 

“I would know only if you spell it out now, wouldn’t I.”

 

I cleared my throat. “A sovereign, my brother.”

 

He smiled graciously, “Hah, that,” and replied in the most poetic and gentlest manner, “the sovereign, my brother, is just a man, after all.” 

 

I grinned. 

 

“I reckon you envision me in an armour . . . wielding a weapon even, right?” 

 

My eyes lit up. “Exactly!” 

 

“A sovereign serves his people,” he said spontaneously, most clearly, gracefully, “and the day the people serve the sovereign is the day the empire falls. Remember that, if nothing else.” 

 

I rounded my mouth, reflecting. 

 

“And, yes,” he went on, giving me a thumbs-up, “my armour and my weapon is my imagination.” 





A RIVER RUNS THROUGH


 

William loved the city. But he loved the village more. He kept tender memories of certain woods, of ponds, the hills and the river that stirred joy in him. And today, as he was walking along the countryside to his grandma’s cottage, whilst crossing the streams that glimmered in the sun, his thoughts wandered back to some remote corner of the hills, or the end of the riverbank, or to some garden, full with plenty of flowers seen on some fine day, and yet residual in his heart quite like the picture of a suave girl at the coffee shop, waving and smiling gleefully. The mere thought of the girl evoked in his mind an unsatisfactory longing for her – a feeling that he could not suppress, although it gave him a sweet sensation that happiness had simply whiffed past him. Opening the tiny-weathered-wood-gate, he watched as the hefty dogs charged at him and almost tripped him over as they licked and sniffed him. He cuddled them and noticed that the stables were empty. He took a deep breath, inhaled the pure air, and knocked on the main door. 

“I’ve been expecting you much earlier,” said his grandmother’s voice from within the cottage, “come on in.” He pushed the door that made a creaking noise and saw a wrinkled old woman with white fluffy hair sitting by the fireside doing some needlework. 

“Uh, grandma, I see that you still leave the door open,” said William with a tinge of concern. 

“Don’t you worry about me, little lad,” she said with a broad grin, “even today I can fight any prowler with just my bare hands.”

“I don’t doubt that for a second,” William said, hugging her and giving her a kiss, “but the times have since changed, grandma, and you ought to be cautious and careful.” 

“Oh, don’t you admonish me like your mother always does,” she said kissing him back.

“People these days are no longer trustworthy, my dear grandmother,” he said squeezing the sagging skin on her cheeks.

“This is where your generation goes wrong,” she said kindly, “you have to place your trust in people enough, and there would never be a time when they would not return the same to you.” 

William heaved a deep sigh. “Where are the horses?”

“I had them sent away to the farm.”

“I see.”

“Go along and see them, I am certain they’ll be as overjoyed to see you as I am.”

William smiled to himself and mumbled a faint – love you grandma.  

 

William set out into the orchards the same afternoon. Nibbling on berries and singing songs he reached the river that ran through it. He immersed his feet into the water and remembered the times during vacation when he would fish with his father every Sunday morning. On his way back home, and much to his pleasant surprise, he ran into his childhood friend Walter Moore whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. “William Smith, dear god,” exclaimed Walter, “do I believe my eyes or am I dreaming?”

“Well what can I say old chum, a city certainly changes some but not me . . . you do know how like iron, I am most naturally drawn to the magnet,” said William with a wide smile as they hugged each other tightly as any two friends would do in the villages sans the superficiality of the cities. 

 

Fishing rods in hand, worms in matchboxes, the boys sat silently by the river the following morning, concentrating on a good catch. With no luck at half past noon they decided to call it a day. Over the week they met regularly. On some days they did not talk and at other times they chatted endlessly. Having similar tastes they understood each other quite well without the assistance of words and a warmer friendship began to simmer between them.

 

Toward the close of the day, as cattle were being herded into the backyards and anxious fathers were returning home after a hard day’s toil to be united with their families, the sun was setting, rendering a blood-red radiance over the western horizon. The warm colour shone on Walter’s fair countenance emanating a shy flush as he thought about his girl who had moved to the city to study. And he so terribly missed her. 

 

As William jogged alongside the river one morning, the early sun caused a pale mist to glide over the water, and he felt that his heart was finally sold to the serenity of the village than to the savagery of city dwelling. He wrote to his mother and father intimating them about his decision not to return. Baffled, they tried to convince their city-savvy lad on phone that small town life was not for him, but upon noticing his unwavering determination they knew that they were happy in their son’s happiness. William admitted himself in the residential college that was elegantly tucked away in the middle of the rich flora and fauna. It was not close to their cottage, but it was not too far too. Yes, he missed his washing machine and microwave, but apart from such materialistic conveniences, he personally found that the simple life in the village was largely incomparable to the din of the city. He adored the idea of having to struggle a little in order to find what he wanted than to merely step out and get whatever it was that he wished in the city. He delighted in the significant charm of seeing the roads free of automobiles, and the aesthetic beauty of the scenic village landscape – well it had besieged him even as he was a tiny tot when he would visit his grandparents during holidays. He looked forward to the fishing expeditions with his friend, the lengthy walks, the soul searching. In time, all of the above, combined with academics triumphed with an unbroken regularity, and he cherished every moment of his life here.

 

William was more into literature and humanities, while Walter was ever hungry for scientific knowledge. He waited eagerly for the journals to arrive at the library, and managed to comb and digest each line with such rapid speed that it left him feeling a void that the wait for the next edition was unbearably long. William laughed at his friend’s restlessness and teased him about displaying such a devotion for a woman instead of a magazine because the former yielded far beneficial psychological and physical results than the latter. Walter in return ragged his friend by telling him that he was a pervert.  

 

Customarily, the friends walked home together after college, but at times when one of them had to stay back for some reference related work at the library, or a game of football with the boys, the other would be on the way home, alone. On one such day, since Walter had some math problems to solve with his teacher, and William had to carry provisions for home, William scampered along leaving Walter at the college, bought fresh vegetables from the market, and began walking through the woods. He loved the mystery of the woods, and as he was singing to himself in glee, something along the path caught his attention. On reaching closer he found a photograph. It was of a woman who looked stunning despite the damage caused to the picture by time. Smitten by her charm, he tucked it into his pocket, and upon reaching home asked his grandmother about the woman in the picture. His grandmother, visually uneasy by now, snatched away the picture from his hands and asked him in a shaky voice where he had found that picture.

“What’s the matter, grandma?” asked William taking note of her edginess that had now turned swiftly to trepidation.

“Keep away from where you found this,” she said sternly, as she shredded the photograph and flung it into the fireplace. William watched how within seconds the fire had consumed the beautiful woman’s picture leaving nothing but a blob of charred waste. 

“Did you bring all that I asked you to?” she asked coolly. 

“I did,” answered William noting that she was no longer overwrought like she had been a few minutes ago. 

“Would you please wash the vegetables and chop them my darling,” said she, looking into the fireplace like she were looking at someone real.

 

He telephoned Walter, detailed what had transpired between his grandma and him, and asked him if they could stop by the same spot where he had found the photograph. “I think it’s a bad idea,” said Walter with some reluctance. 

“Oh, come on!” said William with impatience.   

There was no response on the other side. 

“Are you there, Walter?”

“I’m thinking,” replied Walter, his voice heavy with introspection. 

“Come on, mate, let’s just go!”

“All right,” said Walter half-heartedly.

“Love you, mate!” exclaimed William, his belly tingling with interest as he hung up.

 

Walter carried a torchlight with him, and William some candlesticks. They walked side-by-side, leaving behind light posts and orchards, and then they ventured into the route bordering the river. It was about ten o’clock when they shone their torchlight and looked about the spot as scrupulously as they could; upon discovering no apparent clue, they turned to leave when William suddenly froze. Walter focused the beam of light on the spot where William was pointing his finger and saw something was embedded in the sand and appeared somewhat like a photograph. When he went closer, he established, much to his surprise, that there was nothing. 

“Strange,” said Walter looking at William terrifyingly, “I am sure I saw something.” 

“Don’t look at me like that, you’re the science enthusiast,” said William softly.

“I think science would explain it as nothing but an illusion.”

“You have your answer then, old chap!”

“Err,” said Walter unconvinced and went back to the spot. He wiped his face with his palm and was lost in deep thought. How, his mind was asking, how? Was it merely a trickery of the eyes, or was his mind playing games, or was it something else that was beyond the realm of explanation.  

“It’s already eleven,” said William, “let’s get going now.” 

 

The following day William was returning from a game of football when he met his grandmother along the way. She said she was scuttling along to her friend’s place for dinner and asked him to join them once he had finished freshening up. William relented on grounds of being exhausted from football. He had an invigorating shower, picked up a magazine on art and sculpture, and went to the kitchen in order to get himself a glass of orange juice when he saw a delicious looking apple pie with fresh cream sitting on the kitchen countertop. Rubbing his hands with glee, he attacked the pie with ravenous enthusiasm and devoured the whole damn thing in a sitting.  

 

Walter, on the other hand, was drowned in books at home, drawing probable explanations to the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the picture in the sand. Reading about illusions, he reasoned that what he saw was something like a mirage perhaps. However, mirages, he further gathered, were phenomena largely encountered in deserts or large expanses of sandy lands. This was sand by a tiny riverbank, and quite incapable of such mirages, then, what was it that they had seen in the sand, and how? The urge to uncover the mystery hounded Walter, and he knew that somehow he had to crack it until which he would not find himself at ease. 

 

Munching on his favourite white-seeded guava from the garden, William telephoned Walter. The boy was so busy with his quest to find answers that he had failed to hear the phone ring. After trying twice to no luck, William languished on the easy chair by the fireplace and opened a book. Before he could read a single page, his head loosely sunk between his shoulders and he fell asleep. With the pleasant air playing on his face, he was deep into the land of his dreams where he was skating on water when a gust of breeze woke him up from his sleep. The large window was ajar and dried leaves came flying in. He rushed and clamped the window lock; quite sure that he had secured it before he had fallen asleep. The dogs that were sitting quietly until now began whining; their eyes fixed at the windows. “What’s it Target and Tuffs?” asked he, cuddling them and peeking towards the window when he thought he saw a cloudy shadow escaping out of the hall. The door slammed with a bang and there was an inanimate hush in the atmosphere. As dreadful thoughts came, one by one, he remained immobile. Mortally stupefied, he felt his flesh had turned frigid. Just then the wood died out in the fireplace, and it suddenly became pitch dark. He fetched a candle and tried hard to light a match, but the match failed to ignite. Clouted by an uncanny feeling he closed his eyes tight and held still for some time. Then collecting strength, he opened his eyes slowly to espy a flimsy glow flickering under the crack of the slammed door. 

“Grandma, is that you?” he asked in a whisper, his voice sinking with terror. 

There was no reply. 

Feet nearly paralysed, William now moved very slowly towards the door and clutched its handle. It was cold. He pushed it with all his energy and his heart sank as he saw Walter standing right before him.   

“Jesus! How did you come in?” said William in a deafening voice. 

“The door was open,” said Walter, “is everything all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Did you light the candle?” asked William fidgeting with his forehead. 

“It was lit when I walked in.” 

“That’s not possible,” said William asking Walter how he was here.

“My father said the phone rang twice and stopped before they could answer it. I figured it would have been you. I tried your number, but your line was simply not getting through, so I thought I’d stop by.”

William nodded and heaved a sigh, but the apparent fright in his eyes was crystal clear.

“Sit down first and tell me what happened,” said Walter, detecting William’s face was as white as a sheet of white paper. William told him about what had happened before he had walked in. “I think it was just another co-incidence, that’s all,” said Walter after listening to William with utmost concentration. “How then do you explain what happened at the river?” William asked, his eyes bigger than usual.  

“I think most of the times it’s nothing but a figment of our own imagination. I had read somewhere that sound waves or magnetic waves act by blending into a part of our brain, and the different frequencies of geomagnetic energies affect us to varying degrees of hallucination.”

William was listening. 

“There have been accounts of ghosts being sighted, but upon investigation, magnetic waves were the real culprits. I think ever since you’ve found that picture you’ve begun to believe that something is eerie around here, though in my opinion, it’s purely a case of the mind over matter.” 

“Possibly,” said William seriously, “but I have a hunch that the recent happening may have had some relevance to the strange clash at the bank of the river. It certainly was beyond waves or energies.” 

 

Walter dropped by William’s place the following morning and shook him out of the bed. “I think I’ve found some answers,” he said joyously.  

“Dude, happiness bared is happiness not necessarily shared,” said William with a playful smile, rubbing his eyes and plopping his head on the pillow. 

“Books that unquestionably explain, generally the element of whimsy do they disdain,” said Walter rhyming William’s bared and shared with explain and disdain.   

“All right, all right, indulge me,” said William with a vast smile, sitting up. 

Walter started to read passages from a book that said that people did experience shocking things, and that sometimes these things may well be outrageously forbidding. He said that some parts of the planet are more vulnerable to such sightings, either by artificial or natural conditions, and sometimes they are created merely to entice and lure people into believing the unbelievable – that the power of the mind could influence physical objects and make one believe that something actually exists. That the ghost stories are nothing but a fine yarn, re-told and accepted with time to such believable levels that people who tell them, and those who listen to them too, begin to think they are truly living the event. He attempted to persuade William that the bizarre apparitions he seemed to witness were events that could be rationalised and if William continued to believe too much in them, then his saneness could be called into question. 

“You woke me up from sleep for this,” said William in a light-hearted tone. 

Walter laughed, “Say something, William.”

“What about?” 

Walter looked at his friend in anticipation.

“I don’t seem to understand your over-indulgence in this,” said William yawning and moving out of the coverlet. 

“I’m just looking for some answers,” said Walter with a tinge of restlessness. 

“Have I asked you for any answers?” 

“No, but,” he paused, “I’m merely trying to dispel your,” said Walter, raising his eyebrows, “your fright.”

“Or yours?” replied William coolly and poured water from the jug into a glass.  

Walter didn’t care to reply and left the room. 

 

His bladder full, William was on the edge, and the class was not seeming to get over. The moment the bell rang, he scurried out towards the lavatory and slammed into Hazel Sand on the way.

“William, hi,” she said, giving him a big smile, “in a hurry, are you?” 

William wondered whether they had met. He had forgotten that indeed they had, just once, and very briefly at the grocery store. He had helped get her a jar of cherry jam that she was unable to reach. 

“Hey, hi, I am in a bit of a hurry, sorry,” said William with a grin as he pointed towards the loo. 

She smiled, “Ah, go along then.”

He apologised profusely once again and took to his heels. 

 

William walked into the classroom after his visit to the lavatory and saw that Hazel was sitting alone. He sought her permission to occupy the seat next to her. She agreed. He glanced at her surreptitiously from the corner of his left eye. She was not beautiful, only simple, and attractively so, regardless of the fact that she was low in body weight. Walter who was sitting on the seat right behind William mildly pierced the sharp nib of the fountain pen on his friend’s arse. William pushed the pen away and smiled at Hazel who was now looking at him. Staring into her eyes for the first time, he recognised that she had lovely hazel eyes that most aptly suited her name. When the classes were over, William and Hazel spent the entire evening together, and there was such a tremendous charge in the air that it could light up a room full of fireworks without any friction. After dropping her off at the main gate, William went in search of Walter and saw him coming out of the library. “Have you looked at the sky?” he asked Walter. “Love makes even the cloudless skies look so very enchanting,” said Walter with a teasing smile. William gave Walter a punch on his tummy as Walter broke out into laughter. They then went to their much-loved spot on the bank of the river, immersed their feet in the icy waters and chatted until late into the night. 

 

After that day, Walter, Hazel and William walked home together after college. One Sunday afternoon William invited Hazel to join him for fishing. She told him that she had never fished earlier. William went after her with a clear sense of determined charm and she could not refuse his invitation. Despite being the novice that she claimed she was, she quite speedily grasped the tricks and ended up yielding the largest catch of the day. In time, William concluded that tough Hazel tried her best to be outgoing, more so to please him, she was not what one would call adventurous. He found that she devoted more of her time for events that dealt with charity; like a ritual, she was at the old age home every Sunday afternoon. She helped her colony with weekend chores. Instead of buying something nice for herself in the pocket money that her father gave her, she purchased toys, or some useful books for the orphans. If one thought her benevolent activities seized at that, they did not – she nursed unhealthy animals at the veterinarian clinic too. At times William wondered how he felt so intensely attracted to her; they were so unlike each other. 

 

Walter was visiting his girlfriend in the city for two days. With plenty of time on hand, William and Hazel debated about the pleasures of fishing against the nature of charity, about books and paintings against the nursing of animals. When Hazel figured that William was not of the same school of thought as her, she asked him whether he would like to watch the sun go down with her. William smiled and said mischievously, “So long as you do not insist that I also watch the sun rise with you.” Hazel smiled shyly, “Actually, I would love that,” she said as she slid her hand in William’s hand. Holding hands, they sat by the river watching the fiery orange sun slowly shrink. The air was crisp and she disentangled her hand from his hand and started to take off her clothes. “Err . . . Um . . . ,” stuttered William, “what are you doing?”

“What do you think I am doing?”

“I know, but,” he trailed off and watched her as she locked her eyes with his eyes and dropped her knickers. He swallowed hard, his eyes on her eyes, as she smacked him jovially on his chest and dived into the river, altogether naked. He sat on the bank and watched as she sliced through the water like a fish and disappeared inside for a few seconds, emerged on the surface, wiped her face, and called out to William. “The water’s warm. Hop in!”

He shook his head. 

“Don’t be a prude.” 

“I—I.”

“Gosh, you’re a virgin,” she guffawed, accentuating on the virgin. 

He looked about, “Shhh, can you keep it low.”

She laughed exuberantly, swam to the shore, and moseyed towards him. William tried to look at the rocks, the sky, the water and then unable to keep his eyes off the first naked girl he had seen this up, close and personal, he rested his gaze on her: her arms were much more slender, she had the firmest breasts despite being thin, her legs were not as skinny as they appeared through clothes, her skin was glowing white; the veins could be seen clearly. “I think you ought to get naked too,” she said in a hopeful tone. William deliberated for a few seconds, and she knew what he was thinking. He opened the first two buttons of his shirt, and then shaking his head, he buttoned them back again. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, “and can you please put something on.”

“What’s troubling you?” she asked, knowing she was being a cock teaser. 

“That,” he said not meeting eyes with her. 

“That you’ll have to get used to anyway, so . . . .”

He grinned and covered her up with her clothes that were on the rocks when they suddenly heard the sound of footsteps behind them. They turned around, as she began to put on her clothes, but there was no one in sight. It was getting dark rapidly and William suggested they leave the place at once. They had hardly walked a few steps ahead when he felt that he had stepped on a piece of paper. Arching down, he picked the paper up. In his hands was another picture, this time of a man. Fear drove blood in surges into his heart and he felt himself struggling for breath.

“What’s it, William?” asked Hazel, observing the hysteria in his eyes.

Shuddering like a leaf, he handed her the picture.

“Why do you look so shocked?”

“That man,” exclaimed William, “do you know him?” 

She looked at the paper in her hand. “What man?”

William recovered from his shock. “The man in the photograph you are holding.”

“This is not a photograph, William, it is a paper, and it is plain,” she said, showing it to him. 

“I don’t believe this,” exclaimed William, his face still pale with fright.  

“Here,” she said giving the piece of paper back to him, and when William looked at it, the face of the man stared at William from the picture. Was fate playing an eccentric game? Or was he going insane? Unable to reach a rational consensus he stuffed the photograph into his pocket, grasped Hazel’s hand and began walking in quick paces. “Slow down, William. What on earth has got into you,” she protested trying to catch up with him, but William walked even faster, slackening his speed only when they set foot on the main road. There was silence between them for a long time. Once his breathing had returned to normal, he recounted what had happened over the last few weeks. She heard him intently without saying anything. “You don’t believe a word of what I’m saying, right?” he said seeing her vacant expressions. “I don’t disregard the existence of another world other than ours. But I also strongly believe in my god and that he powerfully protects me from any kind of evil that I cannot fathom,” she said calmly. William said nothing but walked along quietly until they had arrived at her place. She invited him inside for a cup of coffee. He politely declined her offer. “Not letting you get away this easy,” Hazel said, holding his arm and yanking him inside. He noticed that the house was huge, but orderly. The furniture was tasteful. A stunning chandelier hung from the centre of the ceiling in the room where she had asked him to sit. A lacquer cabinet stood in a corner exhibiting an assorted variety of lovely collectibles. Drawn to the formidable display of books, he was browsing the titles when his vision stretched across an open door. In the other room, he could see a piano against the wall. The floor was carpeted, and books were lying on it. He was engrossed in admiring an old carved chest when she returned with two cups of coffee. The delicious aroma filled the air, complimenting most perfectly the beautiful décor, and William spared no praise on how tastefully the home had been done up. “Thank you,” she said smiling, “it’s a joint effort between my father and I.” 

 

William dreamt of a child crying bitterly one night. Over the week, the same bleary oracle repeated itself twice. In spite of trying hard to delve into his mind as the image of the child was clear, he was not able to establish the identity of the child in his dream. He wondered what was it that was speaking through him? Was someone in danger? Did someone need help? He wished he knew. His heart thumped, and his mind galloped in numerous directions as the agitation of the unknown kept him awake for long hours, and the confusion had gradually begun eating into his productive time. He discussed the dreams with Walter, who again gave them a logical contour, and the flashes then abruptly stopped, and William began believing that Walter may have been right – everything was perhaps only a figment of his imagination. 

 

Back home from an evening well spent at Hazel’s place, William was revelling in sweet thoughts of her, as he pulled the coverlet over his cold feet and felt nice with the warmth that it provided him. He had hardly fallen asleep when he had a flash – a fuzzy image of someone being tortured. Tossing around restlessly in bed, and dismissing it as another delusion, he was just about to sleep when the vision appeared again. Flinging the rug to a side, he saw the time. It was three-thirty. He rang Walter, “We have to meet, Walter. And urgently,” he exclaimed. 

“I want you to first calm down and then tell me what happened.” 

“I’ll explain. Just come along to my place as soon as possible,” said William hurriedly, disconnecting the line.   

 

Both of them were at the location where the pictures had been discovered, and stood exactly where the pictures had been found. William looked around and drew a blank and then as if out of the blue he said, “If we cross the bridge at the end of the road there’s a vintage cottage in the woodlands.”

Walter made a face, “You’ll only find a perplexing labyrinth out there, Willi. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I know the woods inside out.” 

“Follow me,” said William with sureness. 

“Are you crazy, William? It’s wee hours of morning, and it’s very cold too.”

“Just follow me.” 

Grumbling, Walter followed his friend, and soon after they crossed the river, he felt a cold-blooded chill when he actually saw an old, time-worn cottage.

“Where on earth did you see this?” he asked William in a whisper.

“In a vision tonight.”

“I think what you need,” he paused, pursed his lips and murmured, “is to see a psychologist, William. I’m sure there is something wrong with you.” 

“I don’t dispute it at all, but this is no time for debate,” said William, “because now we have to find a pathway with cobblestones, so keep a watchful eye.” 

In minutes, they found the pathway with cobblestones. 

“Now?” asked Walter, amused at the bizarre range of unfolding events. 

“You’ll reach a rusted and dilapidated picket fence next,” said William and as he was describing the fence, within Walter’s eyesight was a run-down picket fence.

“Walk along and you’ll meet a length of wall with solid stone masonry.” 

Just a few steps ahead; Walter stretched his hand and touched a cold wall. He beamed the torchlight, and indeed, it was solid stone masonry. 

“You’re beginning to spook me, William. Just tell me you’ve been here before,” he said, anxiously. 

“This is my first time here,” said William softly, stopping a few steps ahead. 

Walter looked at him questioningly.

“I think this is the place,” said William with reliance. 

Walter looked puzzled, “What place?” 

“Shhh,” said William searching about the area. 

“What are we looking for?”

William did not answer Walter and ran his hand over the wall as he located a crevice. Using his penknife, he slowly but steadily dug deeper to figure that the wall did not resist the exploring, and he felt fragments of limestone in his fingers. Walter watched in disbelief as his friend was behaving like he was almost involuntarily following the instructions of someone or something guiding him from somewhere else. 

“What on heavens are you hoping to ascertain here?” muttered Walter with trepidity. 

“You’ll know in a wink,” William said as he kicked the frail wall that exposed a deteriorated door behind it. 

“Someone has deliberately patched this with limestone in order to hide the door,” said William trying to open it. A little push, and it opened, plunging behind with a deafening bang. William coughed as fragments of dust filled the air. He entered the space and went towards a dilapidated table. He picked up a vase with one hand as his torch slipped and fell from the other. He was trying to find his torchlight in the pitch darkness when he heard Walter shriek. “Come here, William!” he said in a shaky voice, “Soon!” Unable to find his torchlight, William followed Walter’s voice into another room. “Look,” said Walter shining his torchlight to a corner. In William’s vision were two skeletons. One dangling from a hook in the roof, and another chained to a chair. Suddenly the phantasm from his dreams seemed to fall in place. William took a step closer and the frizzled remains of once soulful people were surprisingly intact, except that time had weathered the chain to rust and it was loosely lying in the lap of the one tied around it. The other skeleton that was suspended from the roof was clothed in something that looked like a skirt in tatters. 

“Who do you think they are?” asked Walter trembling with disquietude.

“That’s something we’ll have to determine, and on the quiet.”

They left the scene untouched and went straight to the chief of police’s house, Mr Matthew Word, who was Hazel’s father. Hazel answered the door and said her father was out of town for two weeks enquiring why both the boys had a frightened look on their face. 

“Frightened? I’m not frightened. Says who that I am frightened? Why should I be frightened?” said Walter as William looked at his friend and smiled at Hazel, asking her to join them for breakfast at the local eatery. They met an hour later and updated her on the finding. 

“I don’t know what to make of this,” she said. 

Walter stared at Hazel with a straight face, “I’m amazed, Hazel. It was so bloody precise,” said Walter.  

Hazel looked at William; he smiled and turned his face away feeling slightly embarrassed. 

“What if I were to write an anonymous letter addressed to your father leading him to the site. Do you think he could trace the sender?” asked William. 

 “They’re the police after all. They can dig out anything from anywhere,” she said as she paused, ran her fingers over his cheeks lovingly and continued, “I suggest that you tell him the truth.”

“Also, I think we must keep this bizarre ability of mine under wraps.”

“Oh, yes, if word got out, it could get messy,” said Walter, “if it were couple of hundred years back they would have burnt you at the stake for being a sorcerer.” 

They agreed to keep tight-lipped about this for the time being.  

 

One afternoon William fell asleep at Walter’s place. Walter made himself a glass of carrot juice and sat in the porch reading a book. Past forty-five minutes or so, he went in to see if William had woken up and found his mate soaked in sweat, a terrified look on his face. Walter woke him up at once and asked him what was happening. “Nothing,” said William looking at Walter quizzically as he rubbed his eyes and was still drowsy in sleep. 

 

Hazel’s father was back, and both the friends disclosed everything to him. The skeletal remains were taken into custody and a routine questioning was conducted. Being a small township, a letter was sent to the nearest city police station for assistance in the investigation, but since it was not a recent murder the city police stated that they had much work on hand and that the investigation could wait. When the team finally arrived from the city, they suspended the case due to lack of insufficient clues and information.

 

As the evening mist enveloped the pathways and the moonlight played through the grilled windows, Walter felt a hounding feeling of helplessness raid him in entirety. He firmly believed in proof of science but what he had seen with William defied his beliefs. Confused, he telephoned Hazel. They discussed that though the mysteries intrigued them; there were many facets of life that were still unexplored and many things unexplainable. Hazel also told Walter that she believed in the terrors of the unknown. That neither William nor anyone could solve the riddle because other than god, no one else had so much power to tell what was exactly happening. That night, Walter lay awake all throughout the night, introspecting the extent of his opinions.  

 

A classmate was having a party at his farmstead. While his friends and classmates were rejoicing and dancing around the bonfire, William sat watching Hazel. She looked so whimsical to him. So beautiful. After sometime he went inside to fetch a glass of wine and stood talking to some friends. Twenty minutes later when he came out into the garden, Hazel was nowhere in sight. He asked his classmates whether they had seen her. No one had. He telephoned her house and there was no reply. Troubled by her sudden disappearance, he skimmed every foreseeable inch of the farm, and then rushed to the spot where they usually met in the evenings. She was not there either. He began to venture into the woods and called out for her several times as he was proceeding along when he noticed that he was standing in a pool of blood. He woke in a cold sweat and saw the time. It was three-thirty in the morning. He rang Walter up. 

“What’s with you and three-thirty, hunh?” asked Walter groggily.

“I don’t know, but something gory is about to happen again.”

Walter shook his head, “You are terrifying the wits out of me now!”

There was silence from William’s end and then he spoke in an aggrieved tone, “It’s about Hazel.”  

“For heaven’s sake, spare her, William, and please let me sleep,” said Walter. 

“Fine!” snapped William as he hung up, irritable that his friend was taking this moment of despair with such lightness. 

 

Just as Walter kept the telephone receiver on the cradle and was turning out the table lamp he sensed that someone had run across in his room. Curling up in the foetal position under the blanket, he left the table lamp burning and didn’t remember when he had fallen asleep. 

 

At a get together over weekend, Walter recollected something that William had said to him on the telephone. He felt somehow that the scenario at the party matched almost perfectly to what William had described. Half an hour later, William and Hazel showed up at the gathering. People were drinking merrily and dancing around the bonfire. While Hazel enjoyed herself with her group of friends, William sat admiring her from a distance, and then went inside the house for a glass of wine. As William was heading towards the table, a familiar feeling of similarity struck him again. Worried, he rushed out of the house and searched for Hazel. He couldn’t find her anywhere. Then he looked for Walter. Even he was nowhere in sight. With sweat trickling down his sideburns, William stood rubbing his fingers on his forehead when a friend tapped him on his shoulder. “Hi,” said William, wiping out the sweat. His friend looked at him keenly, “Feeling all right, are you, mate?” 

“Have you seen Hazel or Walter around?” he asked trying to remain as calm as he could.

“I don’t know about Walter, but Hazel asked me to give this to you,” he said, handing William a piece of paper. William read the note: “Too much noise in here. I’ll be waiting by our favourite spot. Meet me there when you’re done with your friends – Hazel.” William’s stomach went weak with fright. When he reached the spot, his nerves froze as he saw Hazel lying on the sand, in a pool of blood. He rushed to her and noticed that there was a wound on her head that was bleeding profusely. Holding her in his arms, he began yelling for help when he saw his college professor spring out of thin air. 

“What happened?” said the professor sharply.

“I don’t know. I–I found her like this. Please help me get her to a hospital,” said William with panic in his tone. 

“Oh, certainly,” said the professor as he slammed William on his head with a club. William passed out instantly, and when he regained consciousness, he saw a fuzzy picture of the professor sprinkling petrol on Hazel who was tied to a tree. He tried to get up but felt powerless by the blow. He heard Hazel sobbing inconsolably. Unable able to stand, William panicked when the professor seized him by the collar and threw him on the ground. His eyes glaring with fury, the professor kept throttling William’s neck with one hand, and with the other hand, he began to strike William savagely on the face. William tried his best to untangle from the heavy man who was over him to no avail. Coughing and choking, William tried to gasp for breath, but the infuriated man socked William with another hard punch and blood started to ooze out of the lacerations on his lips. Hazel began to cry at the sight of blood. The professor yelled savagely at Hazel. When she failed to quieten, he commanded her to stop crying or face dire consequences. She became silent. He then dragged William to the tree and picked up a thick rope. As the rope was being tightened around William’s chest, William tried to wriggle out and was awarded another stinging slap. Horror apparent in their eyes, they asked the professor what he was going to do to them. He bragged that he was going to roast both of them alive, and delight at the sight of them petitioning for sparing their lives.

“Sir,” said William, helplessness in his tone, “whatever have we done to deserve this?”

The man sniggered, “I got away by killing that couple eleven years ago, but you two rotten boys and this stupid little girl have uprooted the dead again!”

“You may have got away with the previous murders, sir, but you cannot get away if you harm us, sir,” said William as Hazel stared on, too stunned for words.

“Ha! Ha! I was foolish to leave their bodies, but I'll leave no trace this time,” roared the man in wrath, “I’ll light you up and watch you both burn.” 

“Why did you kill them?” asked William.

“Oh never mind,” snarled the man in anger, squeezing Hazel’s chin aggressively.

“You can tell us, sir, dead men tell no tales,” added William in a challenging tone. 

The professor punched William in the face. William yelped in pain. He then explained that the two of them were a handsome couple, and that they visited their child every summer. Though the woman was happily married to her husband, the professor was drawn to her beauty. He called the couple to the cottage in the woods, drugged the husband, and raped his wife. Shocked and shaken, she threatened to inform the police, so he killed both of them and knew that no one would discover the place since it was out of the town; a weekend getaway that his parents owned, and not many people knew of its existence.

“Weren’t the couple reported missing?” asked Hazel in a docile voice.

“The child who studied in our school was born before they were married, so naturally his existence was kept a secret. I heard there was an enquiry in their hometown, then everyone assumed that they had moved to another place without wanting anyone to know anything since the couple had some domestic problems with both their parents,” gnarled the man.

“What about the child?”

“That’s enough,” screamed the professor, guffawing wickedly and pouring some more petrol on them. 

“Please don’t do this, sir. Please!” said Hazel, snivelling in terror.

“Shut up!” he bellowed, pulling out a matchbox and muttering how enjoyable it would be to see them scorch in the fire. 

William struggled to pull his hands away from the ropes, but unlike in a movie there were no miracles here. Moreover, in this deserted place, there was no hope of survival and they knew that they were going to die. With not much to fight back with, William prayed inwardly as the professor inched forward and Hazel began to cry loudly. He gave her a harsh slap, and observed how William was shivering from head to toe. In a blink, the wretched man lit the match as Hazel and William shut their eyes. They prayed hard. They remembered god. They pleaded him for mercy as they felt the heat of the fire that was spreading towards them at a rapid rate. Death was just a few steps away from their bodies; and utterly defenceless, both of them did not know what they were feeling that very instant when they heard a gunshot. William opened his eyes to see the professor plunging on his face, exposing Hazel’s father standing with the gun still pointed at his back. Walter quickly began extinguishing the fire by throwing as much sand with his bare hands as he could. He untied Hazel as her father was checking the professor for a pulse and found him dead. Since Hazel had lost enough blood she was rushed to the hostel dispensary, whereas William was still in a state of shock. Walter stayed with William at his house, and when he was out of the drowsiness induced by the medication, he asked Walter how he had found them. “Mark showed me the note Hazel wrote you,” said Walter. 

“Ah, now understand why you were missing too.”

“I knew you would be looking for me, but I had to fetch her father first.”

When William and Hazel were in a state to speak to the police, their statements were recorded and a letter was sent to the town police stating that the culprit had been found and done to justice. Hazel coped well and showed signs of normalcy in no time, but William’s worries were still not over: the dream of the crying child did not seem to let go of him. One morning while William waited for Hazel at her house, her father informed him that the burial ceremony of the couple was to be held the coming Sunday after mass. 

“Thank you, sir,” said William as Hazel put in an appearance.

“I have some reading to get done. You kids have a nice time,” said the man and left the parlour.   

“I was going to brew some coffee, would you like a cup too?” asked Hazel. William nodded as he made himself comfortable on a settee. While Hazel was away making coffee he got up from the settee and browsed some books in the library. He was about to extract a title from the shelf when Hazel entered holding two cups of coffee in her hands.  

“What a beautiful day it is, isn’t it?” he said taking a cup. 

“Sure is,” Hazel replied, smiling at him and taking a sip from her cup.

“Excellent coffee,” said William looking at her with tenderness in his eyes. 

“Thank you,” she said, smiling. 

William looked across the garden that was visible from where they were sitting and thought to himself that looking out of a window provided him such peace, it was a sight far better than any painter can ever paint on their canvas. 

“Would you fancy anything to munch with the coffee?” asked Hazel.

He turned his gaze back at her. “How’s your charity work progressing?” 

“From when have you developed an interest in charity?” she asked him inquisitively. 

“Uh, let’s say just now,” he said with a smile. 

She said nothing but burst out laughing. 

William felt his cheeks getting warm, “Did I say something funny?”

She continued laughing and said, “You came here to enquire about my charities, did you?” 

The decisive moment had finally arrived. He flushed crimson and cleared his throat, “You’re right. I came here to ask whether you’ll have dinner with me the coming Monday,” he said gingerly.

Hanging her head loose she smiled, “I don’t suppose my father would have a problem with that.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” he said kissing her on the cheek. 

“You are most welcome,” said Hazel with poise. 

Leaving the finished cup of coffee on a little inlaid table in front of him, he stood up, “I’m afraid I have to be off now.” 

“Really?” she said giving him a big smile.

He studied her carefully. 

“Mission accomplished, and so the gentleman decides that he better be on his way out.”

He went red, “Err . . . err . . . you know I didn’t mean it like that.”

She became serious. “What did you then mean it like?”

“Ah,” William scratched his head. 

She burst out laughing, “I was only messing with you.” 

He sighed and kissed her quickly on her cheeks again. 

“Just the cheeks?”

“Yes,” he said firmly, “just the cheeks.”

Hazel smiled and bid him a goodbye. 

 

When William told his grandmother about the funeral she grimaced and asked him to keep away from anything to do with the funeral. 

 

Walter retired into the reading chair with a book. Halfway, perhaps, he had fallen asleep and woke up to a start when he heard the windowpane rattling violently. He walked up most lethargically to the window and fastened the stopper. His sleep now gone, he made himself a toast with peanut butter and pineapple marmalade, and travelled back to his room. Keeping the plate aside, he reached for the water glass and struck it down accidentally. He cleaned up the mess with a waste cloth and was about to shut the light when a chill whooshed through him again. He couldn’t believe his eyes – there was a picture of a child on his desk. Startled, he felt his knees buckle. He tried to shout, but his voice failed him. Closing his eyes he murmured, “Jesus! This is not happening!” His heart was racing like a motorcar, and he was contemplating running to his father’s room that was adjacent to his own room, when he caught a whiff of a pleasant fragrance in the air. His father had a perfume allergy, so perfume was never brought home, and even if he had bought perfume, why would he wear it at midnight? Wondering whether William’s words were really affecting him, he shook his head and moved his feet forward with great difficulty. Gathering some strength, he walked out of the room and noticed a shadow running up the attic stairs. He followed curiously, what he thought was nothing short of a hallucination, but on reaching there, he saw quite strangely that the attic door was partly open. Pushing the groaning door slowly, he peeped inside, it had been years that he had stepped into this area. He toggled the switch couple of times and realised that the bulb might have fused. So he pulled out a matchbox from his pocket, extracted a matchstick and had just taken it near the wick of the candle when it automatically erupted into a flame. He ran his hand over the flame to make certain he was not merely imagining it all and he knew he was not when it felt hot. His distress then switched tracks with wonder and vice versa. Drawn to a large elaborately carved wooden trunk, he stacked some books little above the height of the box and placed the candle on the books. Within the trunk he found a tiny-checked shirt that was soiled. Underneath the shirt was a pair of blue trousers, some strands of pearls and a wristwatch. Dusting the pearls, he picked up the trouser and saw a picture fall down. Holding the light in hand, he examined the picture closer and saw a beautiful woman and a well-built handsome man, both were semi-naked. The picture, it appeared, was taken on a holiday and Walter noted that the lower portion of it was missing. He searched his pockets, pulled out a piece, and completed the puzzle. Flipping the picture behind, he saw the names – Mrs & Mr Moore & family. His face went pale as he was wondering why the picture was in his attic. Placing the items back in the trunk, he rushed out of the attic, tripping and tumbling down the stairs. Walter’s father heard the commotion and came out of his room to see Walter curled up at the base of the stairs. He was shrieking in pain. His father summoned the doctor who diagnosed a broken wrist and ankle. Walter was shifted to the dispensary the following morning. Still dizzy from the high dosage of painkillers, he was happy to see Hazel and William by noon the next day. When his father left the ward to fetch himself some coffee, Walter asked them to come closer and told them everything. He then asked them to go home in pretext of fetching him some stuff and stop by the attic. 

 

Walter’s father took them home and left them to pack whatever Walter had asked them to bring along. He told William and Hazel that he would be breezing in and out of a shower. When they heard the bathroom door shut, they ran up to the attic and searched the trunk. William’s eyes were suddenly filled with delirious horror when he saw the wristwatch. He examined it carefully and exclaimed, “This is bizarre.” Hazel glimpsed at him questioningly. He took the watch closer to her and she noticed through the smashed glass that the arms had stopped at three-thirty. “This is scaring me, William. Let’s leave,” said Hazel, elevating her eyebrows. William grabbed the box, and they had barely climbed down the last step when Walter’s father came out of his bedroom. 

“What are you both doing with the box from the trunk?” he asked, his facial expressions wearing a troubled look.   

William didn’t utter a word and sat on a chair nearby. Walter’s father sat next to William and said sombrely, “I never wanted him to know his parents were brutally murdered.” 

Hazel’s eyes popped out, “You knew all along?” 

The gentleman took a lungful of breath, “I was wandering in the woods one day when I heard chilling screams. I followed it to an abandoned cottage. As I tip toed inside, I saw your school teacher murder Walter’s parents.”

“Why didn’t you report it?”

“At first I was shocked at what I had witnessed. Once I had collected myself and decided to go to the police, your teacher intercepted me one evening as I was returning home and threatened to kill the child and me, if I ever opened my mouth.”

“Gosh,” said Hazel.

“Then one evening the evil professor overheard your grandma and I talk about it at the farmer’s market, and threatened to kill your entire family too, so that is when your grandma forced your parents to leave the village and move to town.”

“But?” said William confused, as he looked at Hazel. 

“That explains why your grandma was apprehensive when you brought the picture home,” added Hazel.  

“Where was Walter during all this?” asked William.

“Locked and crying in another room.”

“Your dream,” said Hazel turning to William. 

William froze as a chill went down his spine. 

“What dream?” asked Walter’s father.

“Long story,” said William, “let’s go to the hospital now.”

“How did you open the attic because I had done away with the key the day I placed that box inside the trunk there?” 

“You probably wouldn’t believe us but something led Walter in there,” said William.

“Something?” 

“Yes the same thing that has shown me this picture in bits and pieces and probably the same thing that has helped me get to the crux of this matter.”

Walter’s father’s jaw dropped when he heard what William had to say about the incidents in sequence.

“So he knows?” said Walter’s father rather poignantly.

“I’m afraid he does,” said Hazel. 

Back in the dispensary, Hazel unfolded the mystery behind the box, and though it was a sudden jolt to Walter, he knew that Pete was his father, immaterial of what had happened in the past.  

 

The burial was carried out after mass on Sunday. Almost the entire town was there. Walter was wheeled into the cemetery and paid his last respects. That night William felt liberated from the shackles of something that he couldn’t explain. Though one point that was reinforced with much certainty was not the unearthing of the scary secrets, but whatever it was that was leading him, had aided in bringing justice to two restless souls and yet didn’t cause him any harm. 

 

With fishing rods in hand and the tin can filled with worms, both the friends strolled to the river. His feet dangling free in the cold water, William turned to his friend, “The truth, Walter, is that the world is not as simple as it looks. There’s lot’s going on beyond our five traditional senses.”

Walter smiled, “Maybe.”

“So do you now believe that there exists something else other than what science can corroborate?”

“I had read that in science, the imaginative experiment is tested by confronting it with physical experience, and in literature, the imaginative conception is tested by confronting it with human experience. So, no matter what, I still think that there’s always an explanation.”

William smiled, “Say whatsoever you want but I think that we are all intimately linked to each other even though through thousands of years we have been conditioned to believe otherwise.”

“Maybe,” whispered Walter. 

 

A Week Later

 

Walter was snoring when he woke up to a start. His alarm clock had gone off. He rubbed is eyes and turned on the bed lamp. Then almost instantly he covered himself with the blanket and curled up inside, sweating profusely. The time: three-thirty in the morning.