In her childhood Beth often listened to her granny’s wondrous tales, as she rested on a cot under the starlit skies…
“…and the fox turns into a huge gourd, it slopes down swiftly through the dense jungles to reach me…”
Nine times out of ten she fell asleep before the story ended; her night a world of vivid dreams.
Then, in her teenage, she read Marquez: of colourless glasses turning blue when people are in love! Perhaps they did too! Why, even the most ordinary villagers had so many extraordinary tales to tell…
“…there’s this brook in our village, which lend gold to the villagers in their times of need given they promised to repay back. Sometimes someone wouldn’t and no sooner were they filled with greed that the curse of the brook brought grievous calamity upon them!…”
To Beth, Marquez’s world frequently came alive when villagers regaled such stories and in
her heart her granny’s words felt fair and square.
As a young woman Beth was enamoured by the mysterious German tales of snowy evenings; of grey characters and the most unexpected revelations. She didn’t really love horror movies yet the best of them definitely managed to reinforce her belief in unbelievable mysteries.
Now, let me not digress and tell you of this day, when mystery appeared in Beth’s ordinary life.
One night, in the heart of winter, Beth and her two house-mates lay shivering under their blankets. They lived in a bundle of wreck: a house with broken window panes and crevices on the walls. To boot there was also an open corridor and a majestic front porch which was by far accessible to any sneaky trespassers. With all those gaps and open spaces, naturally the house had to be well-ventilated, unlike other houses in the neighbourhood and the rent didn’t seem very high either; they thought they got more than what they had bargained for, so they took it. Normally they didn’t mind any of the shortcomings, not even the hideous thicket in the backyard but that night was unusual. It was very dark. Electricity had vanished for what seemed like ages and it was grave; even the crickets donned the silence out of eeriness. Besides, the owners, who were also living in the same compound, were out of station since a couple of days. The three little women were left to their own means.
“Are you sure you were not dreaming when you heard the noise last night?” asked Amy, still shivering but more out of fear than the cold.
“No, I didn’t. I am sure some rowdy guys are following us and they were here last night.” Meg replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
Beth let them talk. She was frail and fragile. She didn’t talk much and instead tried to concentrate on the silence outside.
“How can you be so blasé?”
“I am not. I am trying to be practical. Now look, all those hooligans are on the loose and they must know that we three women live alone in this godforsaken place. We might have to report to the police soon if they are up to some mischief.”
“And what of tonight? What if something happens tonight? What if they try to budge in? How do you plan to prevent it Meg?”
“I am not planning on preventing anything Amy! I’ll anyway study till the candle melts away, so I’ll look over you. Don’t fret and try to sleep, okay?”
Always sensible and mother-like Meg tried to put off the worries from her friends’ faces.
There was considerable silence for some time. So much that they could hear each other breathing. The irregular length of the breaths spoke that none of them were asleep.
Meg took a deep breath.
“Do you remember that Aunty miscarried twice and at a very late stage each time?”
They addressed the wife of the owner as Aunty. She was an amiable lady.
“What are you trying to say Amy?” Meg questioned, as Amy’s innuendo registered in their minds and all of them took a deep breath at the same instant.
Beth vaguely recalled watching the movie Casper when she was a kid.
That gave her hope. She sighed again, before she whispered: “Don’t worry; the spirits of babies do not harm anyone; besides, they were unborn and were not even touched by the sins of this world”, as she tried to retain faith in her own words.
“True.” Meg affirmed.
There was another spell of long silence, as Beth concentrated on the ticking of the bedside alarm clock.
Suddenly Amy gasped and they heard the faintest of scritch on a window, like when a small finger would slip down its smooth surface, and then
Someone threw something in each of the other two front windows.
Someone was knocking at the door leading to the open corridor, opposite to the bathroom door.
Beth was already on her feet, her wobbly feet, with a pair of scissors clutched in her right hand for self-defence and was about to run towards the window and pull up the curtain, purely out of shock when Meg pulled her down to the bed.
Amy whimpered under her covers. She might as well have been crying out of fright but the cover muffled the sound.
Meg was up and looked thoroughly shaken.
“Let me go and see!” Beth screamed; her wits at end.
“Are you nuts?” Meg reproached in hushed tones, as she held Beth. “Do you know they might still be around? I am sure there’s more than one person.”
Their ears were still straining to hear more sounds. But the silence was back. Finally Beth’s wits returned and she felt drained out of all her strength, so she slipped under the covers still holding Meg but wondering if Meg was really Meg; if Amy was Amy; if she was herself and instinctively she reached for her hair. At least her hair was real and so was Meg’s waist.
Someone was still there in the thicket in the backyard. The bedside window opened towards the thicket and it was broken. They couldn’t sleep until dawn.
The next morning was mostly spent between spells of silent contemplation and loud admissions. Daylight conferred courage and arrogance even to the rabbit. And they were the little women, of whom almost everyone in the village knew: the three little women who had come to live in their neighbourhood.
“I could have ripped off their heads! Damned hooligans!” Beth said indignantly.
“What! With the scissors?” Amy laughed.
“I don’t think they were people.” Meg offered.
“What do you mean?” Amy asked.
“You were right. They could be… you-know-who…; they are young so they might like mischief.”
“Do you mean they might be buried here, in the compound?” Amy wondered aloud.
Suddenly the horror of the night resurfaced as they looked into each other’s eyes but they tried to shake off the fear.
“It’s unlikely.” Meg reconsidered.
“Yes.” Beth confirmed. “Besides, if there would have been any such incident before do you think that tosspot of a guard won’t have told us?”
“Ah! The guard!” Meg looked as if she suddenly got hold of the key to the treasure trove. “Why! He might be the one behind all this!”
“And risk his only job?” Beth smirked, denying the possibility. To her, this couldn’t be such an easy case to solve. Mysteries took long time to reveal themselves.
“Yes Meg, don’t be daft!” Amy supported Beth. Meg looked at Amy disapprovingly at her words. “Poor long-suffering watchman!”
The banter continued and with it the many possibilities…
“I am sure I sensed some rowdy lads trying to stalk us. I have seen some following us whenever we go out. But I didn’t pay much attention before.” Meg was back to the possibility that they could be the hooligans on loose.
Amy looked thoughtful, “Yes, I think I too saw two of them follow me when I went to the telephone booth.”
‘So, they were coming to the same conclusion!’ Beth thought. But that couldn’t be. Hilly places and wintry evenings are prone to much deeper mysteries than these two silly were settling on. Above and beyond, the village they were staying in might be surrounded with mysteries. They were new-comers and were unaware of the past. She decided to speak her thoughts aloud and when she did the discussion again went haywire. No conclusion was reached.
They decided to spend the night with a friend they had in the locality; an older girl who helped them in their search for a rent house.
Later, that evening, they took their friend and her uncle in confidence and told them everything. The listeners turned quite worried too and when they put their brains together they reached quite a few possibilities as they also learnt that crime was nothing new in the place: it was abound in mysteries. They passed the rest of the night in silent foreboding, wondering if only the three of them were targeted or the whole village was.
Next morning brought them news. One of the windows in the upper storey of the owner’s house was broken but nothing was missing.
It was, then, not a case of theft either! What could it be? They reeled their minds trying to remember vital points that they might have missed while their stay in the place; but only in daylight. As night approached, they dreaded it like doomsday.
Unable to live through the mystery, they left for their hometown next morning, as their college was closed down for winter vacations. By the time they came back two months later, things looked normal, nothing was amiss except…
a gas cylinder was missing
Beth couldn’t believe her eyes! That’s all! The fuss, the wondering, the pondering: all for nothing; just a case of theft?
Of course not! Their owner was kind enough to remind them that they escaped serious consequences owing to their absence from the site at the time of the theft. The thieves were not yet caught, so they didn’t know who they were dealing with. Nonetheless, Beth was thoroughly disappointed; her only hopes of a true mystery now hung around the identity of the thief or thieves.
In that house, they dreaded each night. They left the house soon after their exams were over and found rooms in a hostel for the rest of the days.
Two years went by and almost every night they brooded over the possibilities. They couldn’t possibly leave the place without knowing who the culprit had been. So, they went to the owner’s place who had promised them that he would find the culprit. As they reached, Beth prepared herself for the most incredible revelation.
“Uncle, did you find the identity of the burglar?” Beth asked, trying to sober down the fervency of her enquiry.
He laughed out loud.
why the hell was he laughing?
All her hopes of an unexpected revelation came crashing down. She never wanted the epilogue to her fancies ending in laughter; they were supposed to end in wonder!
“Four kids of our locality and all of them poor.” The owner answered.
Beth heard the gasps of surprise. She sat quietly as the owner continued-
“One of them needed a gas cylinder in their house. They were no match for the three of you. So, they tried to scare you off before the robbery. They were caught. I have the cylinder. You can take it now if you want.”
Beth remembered hearing somewhere-
small places abound in mysteries and especially isolated hilly areas…villages have many secrets; histories which are known to all and yet are not spoken of by any…
So much for a mystery! Reality certainly struck her like a blow. She left the place, once and for all; her stomach in knots.
It’s heard that she earned her living by writing screenplays for neo-realistic cinema.