by Geetashree Chatterjee
(New Delhi, India)
“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.
To be concluded in Part II...
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