Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Gray Man’s Wish

“It so transpired in the merry months of summer of the earlier years of my life that my father was posted to a far off station. So, my mother and I moved to my grandmother’s village. Although it was a long time ago, I remember the place very well. It was such a contrast to the city I had lived in before. There were more trees here than houses and Ajjamma was forever planting more. The houses themselves were ancient. Most of them were made of stone or brick and sheltered by rotting, moss-covered sloping roofs. In fact, our house was one of the few with an actual terrace. The backdrop for the village was a magnificent roll of hills with jagged stone jewels arrayed at the roots rounded off perfectly by the serenely beautiful lake at the very bottom. I had always imagined that the lake was a shard of glass fallen from the heavens above, longingly reflecting it“. The man in gray sighed at this point and paused to stare out at the lake to his left. The wide-eyed boy listening to his narration followed his gaze, trying to picture the lake twenty years younger. Right now, it was just a murky puddle of polluted water surrounded by crumbling hills and dilapidated houses. Not even the bright crescent moon that hung in the sky alongside a generous sprinkling of stars was reflected in it. The water in the lake shivered and trembled as if the freezing cold was bothering it. The boy, who was called Shri, was not sure what to think of the man squatting on the boulder before him. His cousins- the ones he had been visiting- had disappeared into their houses long ago. Only he had remained outside with an almost lazy desire to explore the ruins nearby. A few minutes into his quest, he had encountered the Gray man, as Shri called him in his mind. Although attired in the most boring of clothes, he somehow earned Shri’s attention with a few jesty remarks but even before the boy knew it, he launched into a painfully long narrative of his life as was the custom with all old people. Currently, a gust of wind rattled the broken windows of the nearest vine-covered wreckage of what was once a house, waking the Gray man from his reverie.
“Yes, the lake was beautiful. It was lined with lush gulmohurs. At the fag end of the summer, the petals floated down to the surface and created ever so many intriguing mosaic patterns. Back then, the nearest house to mine was this one.” He gestured to the crumbling conglomeration of bricks and stones overrun by weeds, dully shining in the wan moonlight behind him. It was probably handsome once upon a time, just like everything else seemed to have been in this village.
“There was a girl who lived here. I called her V. Veda was her name. I met her when I was wandering, just like you, by the bougainvillea in the courtyard, searching for the old cork ball I was playing with. She was frail, fair and thin. She almost seemed weak to me when I first laid eyes on her. But as time passed, I discovered that she was the most amazing companion. We played by the lake till the moon ran out into the sky. We cast skipping stones onto the surface of the lake, made soups with its salty water to serve imaginary guests and fished for hours together with handmade nets. We even solved a mystery once!” He said and smiled, as if trying to impress the boy before him. Taking his silence to be awe, he continued saying, ”Oh, it was nothing. All the villagers, at that time, believed that the lake was haunted. On clear nights, when the moon also slept, a dull glow permeated the waters of the lake emanating from the very bottom. Athajja, an old gardener who lived by the lake with his dog, claimed that it was the light from the souls of the lovers who had drowned in it long ago. He said the doomed lovers shone the lights from their watery graves as a reminder of the curse they had laid upon this village for destroying their love: none that died here would ever attain peace.
V, of course, was very clever. After two days of detecting, collecting samples of the lakebed, and interrogating several people, she discovered the true reason behind the glow. V told him that it was phosphor deposits that lent the lake an eerie shine on moonless nights too. Athajja never was convinced though! He rambled on about ghosts, ghouls and true love, forever and ever!” He let out a cackling howl of laughter at the memory of the poor man’s face. The boy, who was enthralled by now, smiled, and began to think of the Gray man before him as not-so-boring-after-all.

It was two days later. The moon was almost gone. The lake had a dull greenish glow about it. The Gray man was sitting by the porch of the house when Shri found him. He smiled as Shri folded his legs up and squatted beside him, ready for another story.
“So, what other adventures did you and V share?”, he queried.
The Gray man smiled again. It was a far off smile, and lent sadness to his eyes. It faded as he quietly said, “V was wonderful. We played everyday on the shores of the lake with Athajja’s dog but only till she had the strength. V had leukemia. The smart, engaging girl with a loving heart I had fallen in love with, died. She was very young. It was pouring ever since morning that day. Much like today. The skies were frowning, ready for another thunder shower. I had been by her bedside all the time, and had fallen asleep by midday. My mother woke me around evening with tears in her eyes. There were too many people in the house. I was in shock when I realized I had not been next to her when it happened. I was inconsolable. I hated that I let her go on that last adventure alone. “
A glistening tear wet his cheek. A long silence ensued. It was broken only by the thunder venting its anger on the world. Somewhere far over the lake, lightning struck.
As if with a lot of effort, he parted his lips again to mutter:
“I left the village, with a mind never to return.”
“But you came back”, Shri said.
“Hmm”, said the man. “I did. Many years later, I did. But it was only after months of willed effort that I finally decided to pass by this house. It was empty. V’s parents had left it, to move to the city. Only a caretaker lived here.
The first time I came back, I was overwhelmed. I could barely see through the tears in my eyes. My sadness for my long lost companion was crippling. As I stood, in the wee hours of dusk, staring at the window that used to be V’s, I even thought I saw the curtain flutter as if she moved against it. That only brought on a fresh onset of sobs and I left, not thinking much of it. But I just couldn’t help coming back. Three days later, I was here again. After a long time, I saw the curtain distinctly being pulled back by V’s frail hands.”
A window behind them creaked in the wind when he paused. Shri, who felt the beginnings of fear, jumped at the sound. The thunder once again roared and added to the atmosphere. But the Gray man looked unperturbed when the lightning flashed enough light onto his face for Shri to observe it. He was lost in a different time.
He began again after a few seconds,” I was mesmerized by these sightings. I believed that V wanted to talk to me. Play once again by the lake shore or say goodbye, at the very least. My wishful mind kept bringing me back to the padlocked gates. My eyes peered out through the overgrown vines wrapped around the bars to see V again. I was addicted. It was a terrible thing. Hope is enough to drive a man crazy. I visited the gates for a week, only to find that they were locked everyday. I needed to go nearer. V was in the house. I needed to go inside!” A mad glint definitely entered into his eyes around this time. His eyes were slightly bulged, he gesticulated wildly with his arms and his voice was an octave higher. Shri edged away from him, but the man never noticed. He simply went on, “For long I desperately tried to climb hedges, walls and even the gate. Nothing worked! But one day, ah, that one fateful day! I found the gates unlocked. I stood at the open gates wondering what had caused the sudden change. The caretaker’s coat was hanging by the side of the gate along with many other articles: a net, some bottles and what looked like a briefcase. At that instant, I saw my opportunity, but hesitated. Where was she? Why wasn’t the curtain drawn? Was it too late??”
The man suddenly stopped speaking. His face was in his hands and he was pacing to and fro. All Shri could hear were muffled sobs. He looked hither and thither for an escape route. But before he could summon the courage to run, the man started to speak again.
“I needed to know. I walked into the deserted courtyard as if walking into a dream. The bougainvillea was wild by then. It scratched my arms and ripped the skin off in huge bloody gashes. It really did not matter though. From somewhere far off, I could hear her tinkling laughter along with the barks of Athajja’s dog just like old times. A few more steps in, and I saw the most astonishing sight. I believed that time had taken pity on my sorrow and unspooled once again, the threads of the past. Athajja’s dog was running towards me. V wasn’t with him. But the mere sight of him filled an ephemeral joy in my heart. When the dog had nearly reached the house from the shore, I suddenly became aware of others in my field of vision I had not noticed before. The caretaker was yelling something at me. He seemed to be saying ‘Get out!’After focusing with a lot of difficulty, I surmised that he was asking me to get out of the way. I laughed and told him, ‘Don’t worry, I know this dog. I played with him when I was younger’. The care taker, however, did not give up. ‘No, sir..! Please get out!’ he yelled. I was dimly aware that the men beside him were holding funny nets and sticks. When I would not budge, the man frantically shouted at me, ‘Sir, that dog you played with died a few months after Veda’s death! Please get out! This dog is rabid and dangerous!’
After that, a huge shape blotted out my vision and I don’t remember anything.”
The Gray man fell silent. He turned to face the lake. The faint light revealed tattered clothes, scars on his body from a bloody battle with the rabid dog. On the far shore, in his line of vision, eerily glowing in the light from the lake were two tombstones, tortured by age and covered in layers of petals and leaves. The thunder was growling incoherently in the distance. Shri was frozen. The Gray man was muttering inaudibly. It was something about goodbyes. When he looked up at Shri again, the moonlight that was vanishing behind the clouds revealed an empty socket where an eye should have been and cheeks torn through their length.
“But you know what,” he whispered, looking up at the house, at a fluttering ruin of a curtain; Shri thought he saw a ray of light dancing upon an insubstantial hand playing just out of reach of the light. Somewhere behind him, the Gray man said softly, “Athajja was right.”
A flash of lightning illuminated the ruins and rain began pouring down. But when Shri looked back, the Gray man was gone.

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