Monday, June 21, 2010


“I see them”, she said.
“Who?” I asked, a little shaken.
She always had that effect on me.
We were sitting in the verandah encircling “The Villa”, a white, spacious bungalow in the midst of a manicured garden overlooking the Blue Mountains afar, now slowly getting eclipsed by the rising mist. Why it was called "The Villa", I do not know as even to my inexperienced eyes, no overseas influence was discernible in its structure or architectural form.
She sat there with that regal air, like a banished queen; only her throne was now of ordinary, varnished cane, old, shabby and jittery on their legs. She always wore white, a stark reminder of her unfortunate, early widowhood. Her dark mane sliding down her waist in a cascade of black with a few wayward strands dancing in the wind in a serpentine coil around her longish face. The marble white of her complexion was bordering on the pallor. Deep stress lines semi-circled her mouth. Her lips were pursed up in a thin line. Those mysterious dark pools of her eyes trying in vain to hide the hints of worry lining them. She sat with her head tilted to an imperious, arrogant angle defying the world at large.

We were having tea in the fading light of the day. Evenings in the mountains came in surreptitiously, tiptoeing from behind and suddenly swallowing the world unaware. It had been raining since yesterday. The garden looked moist and a darker shade of green with rain droplets dangling from the leaves, making sudden flopping noise in the stillness, as they dripped on the stone driveway, off the slippery cheeks of the leaves, swaying sedately in the evening breeze. Some other times the cool evening breeze would have made me nostalgic. But not today; not when I was sitting in front of her, not when she was speaking to me in that low whisper. I sensed a sudden chill in the air and tightened the shawl around me.

She spoke again softly. I had to stoop a little in front to hear her clearly. The cane tea-table with its assortment of cups and saucers and trays of almost untouched snacks and cookies rattled a little with my weight as I pressed more against it balancing my elbows on its rickety round rim.

“I see them. All of them. Everywhere. The silent shadows. They stare at me from dark corners and watch me from behind when I am cooking. Sometimes when one of the doors is left ajar, they sneak a peek. They are everywhere. “She said in a flat, matter of fact tone as though she were referring to the vegetable seller who came every morning with his cartwheel to sell vegetables door to door.

These weird tales were not new as she had often recounted encounters with flimsy white nothings swishing past or keeping a watch over her in the quiet of the afternoons and silence of the night, sometimes, even during lonely mid-mornings when the hills silently brooded over the transience of everything worldly. She said they were omnipresent. In the beginning, I blamed it on an idle, over-imaginative mind. But after getting acquainted with her a little more I realized that those fertile cells were non-existent in her cerebrum. At times, it seemed as though she enjoyed having them around as mute witness to her reclusive isolation. At the same time, I also sometimes wondered whether her cool exterior camouflaged a more disturbed soul with a penchant for the theatrical.

She had come to occupy her ancestral home after having lost her parents and husband in a gruesome car accident. She had had a miraculous escape for which she was not grateful to the Almighty. She was the only child and having nobody else to call her own or family, she decided to continue living an unassuming life in the lap of the hills. I wonder would she have resorted to any other alternate arrangement had the circumstances been different or offered more choice. I think not. But anything about her always ended like that, in vague conjectures, in the absence of finality of a confirmed answer.

"The Villa", comprising of two floors with five bedrooms, a living room, a drawing-dining hall, kitchen quarters and an outhouse in an oblong stretch of garden, did not strictly measure up to a sprawling mansion. Yet, it was a little "too big" for a loner. In the beginning, the elders of the community had suggested necessary renovation to the structure to accommodate families with known links as tenants or a paying guest or two. But she made it quite clear that in the existing scheme of things, she considered such propositions as intrusion in her privacy. The solicitous suggestions stopped soon to be taken over by vagrant rumours of a figure in white stalking the grounds in the dead of the night. On insistent probe, she complained of occasional sleeplessness. I suggested medical help and names of a few known physicians near about. Whether the suggestion was taken and acted upon or not I do not know. But after a while the rumours died a natural death never to be raked up again by "over-considerate" busybodies.
There was nothing in common between us. I knew we were the targets of many a jeers of wagging tongues. The Haughty (she) and the Dowdy (me) were the ones that took to the fancy of the local gossip mongers the most. As the nicknames implied we were poles apart in nature as well as station in life. I had come to accept my age and average appearance for a long time now. She always had a nose-in-the-air stance which did not go favourably with her critics. She almost led a life of a recluse and seldom attended any community programmes or gatherings. I had embraced celibacy by conscious decision after a mishap, early in life, but was a part of a large, cheerful family which in addition to my parents and a horde of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, also included four servants and three dogs. In normal situation, we would have shunned each other's company but for an overly social and caring disposition of my father who made me pay weekly evening visits to "The Villa” to give company to the one and only single woman residing all alone in the vicinity having nobody to look after or care for her. It wasn't in me to disobey the dictates of my patriarch however mildly and placatingly intoned.
Hence, I the Good Samaritan and the late afternoon tête-à-tête over fragile cups of tea seasoned with spooky tales of the "silent watchers". On earlier occasions, I had tried to either ignore or rationalize on these creepy anecdotes to the icy contempt of the gory story teller. By and by I relented to her staunch conviction of their benign presence around her and just listened in silence to the drone of her litany. At least there was something to listen to as otherwise the monotony of conversation would veer around monosyllabic exchanges.

But today it was different. The sky was deepening into more somber shades of grey. The exiting sun played a weak peek-a-boo behind the dark clouds in the horizon. The breeze blew in the garden-smells and the sounds of the insects gearing up for their nocturnal adventure as night approached stealthily. It grew chillier as the colourless afternoon melted into dusk, dusk into early evening and the evening shadows gradually deepened in anticipation of the approaching night.

I prepared to leave. The social faux pas had extended a little too long. I was about to bid her a cheerful good night when she muttered, “The other night they were all there standing in a row pointing gnarled, bony fingers at me while I was preparing to retire to my room after dinner. It seemed they wanted to tell me something?" "Did they?" I could not help but ask, wanting to sound casual but the question to my utter surprise came out as a hoarse whisper. "No", she sounded impatient. She had this most annoying habit of not making eye contact while talking and always had a far-away or seeing-beyond-you look while addressing people. At this moment, she was staring at the far end of the garden.
It gave me a start. I was about to get up when my left leg caught something under the table. I floundered and would have fallen headlong but for the tea table inbetween. I straightened the table with one hand but could not prevent the tray with its varied mix of cutlery and eatables from toppling over. The crash resonated in the stillness with increased frequency. She did not move. Her vacuous eyes were staring at the horizon as though she were not there. I picked up the shards of the broken china now inextricably intermingled with the scattered pieces of snacks and cookies, mumbling an embarrassed sorry. Courtesy demanded that I put the debris back in the kitchen bin. But the house had such an unwelcome air about it, that much to my own uneasy astonishment, I could not make myself crossover the threshold and walk inside. I decided otherwise and stood up to go. My knees shook a bit which I attributed to the initial stages of arthritis and bade her quick adieu before staggering out by the garden path.
As I shut the garden gate behind me I had the odd feeling of being watched over. I turned back. The curtain on one of the first floor windows was slightly drawn apart, softly moving to and fro in the cold evening breeze, allowing a slit of a space to sneak in between. The room was dark beyond and though nothing could be made out, nonetheless, I had a strange feeling that a pair of unseen eyes were staring at me from behind the billowing drapes.
I brought back my gaze forcefully down to the verandah. She was still sitting there erect and unmoving, her eyes fixed at a point far beyond human vision. Her lips were moving slowly as though in conversation with somebody invisible standing next to her. At that moment I had an uncanny feeling that all was not well with her and it was quite possible that the restrained grace and poise of her demeanour concealed a mind wavering on the realms of the real and the unreal, if not completely deranged - a bitter fall out of a traumatic past and untimely loss of near and dear ones.
The path to my house ran along the circumference of "The Villa". Though born and brought up in the hills, a brisk trot up or down the hill made me out of breath very soon. I was therefore given to sedate walks. But today I had an unexpected desire to run the distance. As I tried to traverse the spherical bend as quickly as possible, night descended with a speed as though competing with my gait.

It was just the beginning of winter. But the cold had spread early. It was a very funny cold, which crept up through the ground below, freezing the bones and arresting movement. The over laden sky, the silent echo of the hills, the rain soaked pine forests flanking the pathway and a fast deepening cold night lent credence even to the most unbelievable, bizarre drama.

It was an hour's walk to my residence, taken up as a deliberate exercise to shake off some of the calories which fondness for good food accumulated. Somehow the walk seemed longer tonight. The first quarter was taken up to circumnavigate the bungalow. As I walked past it, the dark unlit windows followed me with veiled curiosity, sending a shiver down my spine.

As I turned the final bend which obscured the bungalow from sight, the moon popped up and the stars twinkled. The hilly path shimmered with a silver sheen. I looked up to find a clear sky. Nature’s whim had made the clouds saunter by leaving the night colder. I trudged along...........I had to reach my destination fast.

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