Following on from my earlier post, this is the story that made me reclaim my love for writing, after years in the wilderness. Of course, I see all the flaws in it now, but seeing as it was almost a stream of consciousness work then, it didn’t do too badly. It was a runner up in The Guardian’s Summer fiction special in 2009.
She loved staring into the well those long, lazy summer afternoons. The sticky heat, the low buzzing of the flies, the trees that swayed in the occasional breeze, would all lull her into a strange stupor. She’d throw little stones into the well and watch the concentric ripples with a mild fascination. Her imagination would make up little stories about fantastical creatures that lived under the water. She’d wonder if they were watching her, just as she was watching them… a thin veil of water separating the two worlds. Perhaps, some were quite amiable; wanting to be friends, to laugh and play with her… or perhaps they were monstrous beasts – hungry, salivating, waiting for one misstep; to swallow her whole. She’d laugh at her fancies, and chuck a load of pebbles, watching the splashes with delight. At nine, life was a comforting routine of school, a home with Amma and Appa, two brothers, and her vast garden overgrown with dense foliage, hidden amongst which was her special, mysterious well.
It had become almost routine to spend her afternoons by its side. Appa would be at work. Her brothers worked in the city. Amma would give her a light lunch of rasam and rice, and then pat her on the head absently and say, “Go and play, molé”. Obligingly, Parvathy would take her miniature wooden truck and the doll with the missing arm into the garden and while away those afternoons daydreaming. Speculating about the world that lay beneath that cool, still water. A magical world where anything was possible.
She was a shy girl of few words. A late, surprise entrant into the world, she seemed almost to apologise for her existence. After all, Amma and Appa’s family had been complete till she decided to appear. Her brothers had been in their late teens and profoundly embarrassed. Her father had viewed her as an inconvenience. Only Amma seemed to want her… and then not.
Parvathy curled a tendril of her hair around her finger. She could remember the hugs and the kisses. Being gently rocked to sleep. Yet, that too had faded over time. Amma was always busy. Trying to feed and care for three grown men seemed to leave her no time for the slight, anxious girl who always hovered in the shadows.
A ripple of laughter erupted from the house. Mohan uncle must have arrived. Like the well, the house, and her family, he was another constant in her life. He came most weeks to deliver merchandise for Appa. Some days he came in the evening, and all the men would sit and drink hot sweetened cups of tea, and polish off plates of freshly fried pakoras. Other days he’d come in the afternoons. He was well liked by the family. He was Amma’s distant cousin, on her father’s side. Tall and broad shouldered with a big black moustache, he had the whitest smile Parvathy had ever seen. Even Amma seemed calmer, almost happier in his presence.
She wanted to go in and mutter a shy hello as she had sometimes done. He always laughed and pulled her towards him. Then with a flourish he would produce a sweet out of his pocket and present it to her. Amma would smile at these exchanges and Parvathy would squirm with happiness. Of late, however, she could sense that Amma was not happy if she came in unannounced. Once Amma had said quite sternly, “Molé, I told you to play outside. You must not interrupt adult talk.” Parvathy never did again. She would often hear snippets of conversations inadvertently. Sometimes Amma would sigh, other times giggle. Once she looked like she’d been weeping. Mohan uncle reminded her of home… of her family, her brothers and sisters she’d had to leave behind at sixteen when she’d been married off to Appa. Parvathy was happy that at least Amma had not lost all contact with her family. The distance between the villages was so great that Amma hadn’t been to see them in six years. She had to make do with the sporadic letters and the tidbits that Mohan uncle brought her.
A drum roll of thunder startled her out of her thoughts. Two fat drops of rain fell on her arm. She licked them off in excitement. It was the first of the rains heralding the arrival of the monsoon. The gentle drizzle turned into a heavy downpour within minutes. Parvathy snatched her doll and ran inside. She was soaked through. She grabbed a towel and started to dry her hair. Quickly she undressed and leaving the sodden pile on the floor pulled an old faded dress off the peg. It was then that she heard it. The sound was something between a snort and a grunt.
She peered into the living room but there was no one to be seen. The merchandise lay on the floor abandoned. The clipboard and pen lay next to it, inventory half done. Two cups of barely drunk tea sat forlornly on the little side table.
In a panic, her eyes cast around for her mother. Where was Amma? Then she heard it again. That odd sound coming from her mother’s room. The door was shut. She didn’t dare open it for fear of finding some alien creature behind it. Instead, she carefully and quietly clambered on to the table propped next to the wall, and peered in through the little mesh window.
Parvathy nearly screamed in horror. She had to clamp her hand over her mouth and steady herself. It looked like her mother was being assaulted by a boar. Her eyes were closed and her hair swanned around her head like a fan. Her saree had been pushed up to her waist. The creature, whose back was covered in black fur, was holding her down and pushing, pushing into her. He grunted as he collapsed on her. Her mother opened her eyes and wept. Parvathy nearly seized the knife from the kitchen to go attack the beast.
Then the strangest thing happened. Her mother smiled and cradled the creature’s face and kissed it. Her heart knocking wildly against her rib cage, Parvathy lowered herself hastily. She ran to the toilet and retched till there was nothing left but her heaving empty stomach. She stayed in her room all afternoon feigning a headache, her mind still reeling from the shocking image of her mother and that repugnant monster.
The next few days she watched her mother silently. Her shadowy presence was as insubstantial as ever but now there was a subversive purpose to her stalking. She was convinced her mother had been possessed by an evil entity. What else could explain that bizarre, horrific scene she had unwittingly witnessed?
She noticed now, how different Amma was in Appa’s presence. She was quiet and timid, a docile wife, barely speaking unless spoken to. Her brothers too treated her with a quiet condescension that she bore smilingly. Yet, in their absence, she was a different person. Always humming and laughing. Preening in front of the mirror. Oiling her thick, beautiful hair. Putting kohl in her doe like eyes. Trying on different sarees till she found a favourite. Aligning the dot just right on her forehead.
She now shrank from her mother’s touch, and withdrew even further from her. This was not her mother! Not the woman who birthed her. How could it be? This was some sort of abomination. A parasite from the netherworld sucking all the love and goodness out of her birth mother.
Her mind was made up. Too scared to approach Appa, she put a letter in his shirt pocket before he left for work, detailing all that she had seen and heard.
That afternoon as she played with her doll, she heard an unearthly wailing emerging from the house. She ran in to be confronted with Appa yanking at Amma’s hair as she screamed in agony. Mohan uncle was hastily tidying up the merchandise, his shirt falling open to reveal his hairy chest. Her brothers stood by the door, shocked and uncomprehending.
For a brief instant, her mother’s eyes met hers – anguished and pleading. Parvathy shuddered as Amma was dragged away.
It was a tense evening with little food and no conversation. Her stomach churned all night. She slept fitfully. Her dreams were strange and terrifying. She longed to crawl into bed with Amma and cling to her. At last, exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep.
She awoke late the next morning. The police were already there. The well had been sealed off. Parvathy’s last glimpse of her precious well was of a doll with no arm floating placidly, entangled in a deep crimson saree.