The Afternoon by Shefali Shah Choksi
by Shefali Shah Choksi
The haunting always began in late afternoon. Loud children returned to the shade of their homes to escape the midday heat, and the swings, the slides, the lawns, the fountain, the bandstand, and the wind palace pavilion of long-dead queens stood around awkwardly, like abandoned stage props. Then, somehow, the others began arriving and the humans left the park alone. The old Muslim caretaker, whom everyone called Chacha, was more diligent about his afternoon namaz, for he was furiously loyal to the grounds he cared for, and prayed daily for the humans and the others. For the most part, he believed that the haunters were not malicious and meant no harm. But being human, he was subject to human fears and superstitions. It was quite understandable, really, Kusum conceded, as she watching him rock back and forth, his eyes closed, the intensity of his prayer reaching her meters from where he squatted.
It began with a haze, a trembling in the distance, and the lone human in the park blinked, to clear the sweat from eyes. But the trembling, instead of diffusing, would reveal a figure, a woman with a long braid who looked behind with mischievous, beckoning eyes. Another blink would change her into a bougainvillea tree, and yet there she was, just beyond, sashaying down to the pavilion to join the bevy of unheard laughing girls gathered there.
As the afternoon deepened into evening, the entire park would be free of humans, though the city kept it illuminated tastefully. Chacha made it a point to ensure that all the light bulbs were fresh, that the pavilion and bandstand were swept clean twice a day, and that the fountain bubbled freely, no moss allowed to gather. But no one ventured there; no lovers lurked in corners, no conspiracies were planned in its shadows. In spite of that, the park retained a definite air of being inhabited, bustling with activity. Shadows kept shifting, almost as though dancing. Unlikely breezes arose from still bushes, wove over lawns like scarfs and settled around the bandstand, lounged along the fountain. The air and light whispered and giggled and raced each other. Stale perfumes and clinking steps floated constantly everywhere.
Kusum lived on the top floor of the high rise, one of the structures that bordered on the park, overlooked it and stared at the ocean beyond it. She lived alone in her aerie, and this was a choice. Kusum belonged to a line of Manipulators, women who were in charge of maintaining various kinds of balances that kept the cosmos recognizable and normal. Her grandmother, Nirja had taught her the traditions of Manipulators, the spells, the rules, the expectations, and finally the price. Nirja had had to sacrifice most of her family to her duty as a Manipulator. Kusum, horrified at the price, had decided never to construct a family of her own; she would, like all Manipulators, have held her family’s worth much higher than her own life. Why invite heartache?
Once her familiar, Jhun-jhun the peacock had turned too old to move, she had bought this penthouse with a roof garden. Jhun-jhun had an alcove to himself in the roof garden, patrolled by Ramu, the large feral cat that had adopted Kusum and her familiar a couple of years ago.
Kusum realized that she had to be around the park. A need hovered over it, palpable like mist or a tune repeated endlessly. It would emerge, mushroom from the park, from the wisps that had taken over it. The wisps had been wandering around when she came. Their eyes had enlarged, luminous and round, as they realized what she was. The import of her presence quieted them momentarily. Then, like a whirlwind, they gathered around her, chittering, clacking, whistling in their hurry to explain. Kusum shook her head and waved a palm to scatter them. She had turned around and called the realtor to get the penthouse for her.
The realtor tried to dissuade her, protested that the constant winds would be bothersome and she would not be able to open any windows or enjoy the roof garden.
“The wind doesn’t bother me,” She assured him.
“But these are no gentle breezes, madam, and it gets loud. . .” But Kusum shook her head and waved her palm to dismiss all concerns.
As far as Kusum was concerned, the windier the better. Each Manipulator had an element that they controlled best. Nirja was drawn to earth, and she, Kusum, was drawn to air. There was no such thing as empty air, she knew. All breezes teemed with unseen multitudes of beings, that is, unseen by normal human eyes. Manipulators, along with their familiars could see them easily, and could be trained to communicate, even. Of course, this communication was not anything like you and I sharing confidences over a cup of coffee. These communications were a series of textures, colors, smells, and images to be conjured against a blank mind, while keeping the eyes open, that the reactions to these may be easily discerned.
The wisps that haunted the park were wishes solidified by age. These wisps were not concrete or organic as such; but insubstantial as they were, they were a definite presence. Usually, they did not register presence of any other kind, especially the organic, living kind. But there were exceptions. The wisps of the park were especially fond of Chacha and wove around him like silver ribbons of light. Chacha, for his part, tried to keep the park clean and well-maintained for his invisible friends as much as for the city which paid him with living quarters and a nominal honorarium.
What summoned Kusum to the park was a new presence that had descended like locust on the park. The lily shrubs were the first to react, as they began wilting and no amount of care and plant food seemed to revive them. Then, there were new shadows that began clouding over unlikely spaces: the middle of the green, over part of the pavilion, a section of the fountain that never got warm, not matter the heat of the afternoon, and the most noticeable, a shadow of a curling creeper on the steps of the bandstand where no real creeper curled.
These shadows began crowding out the wisps and they turned angry, so that constant clouds hovered on the long summer afternoons, only over the park, leaving the city bright in sunlight. By the time evening descended, the wisps would shrink, moaning insistently in corners, not daring to come out in the open.
Kusum spent the first three months in her new penthouse, all windows open, sitting on the little balcony that overlooked the park. She watched, shallowing her breath, refusing to communicate with squeaking wisps that somehow reached her balcony. She kept a hand-held fan woven with grasses she’d bought from a street hawker, to wave away disturbances, to keep the air around her uncrowded. Kusum noticed in the first week that the hours of change, the afternoon, was the most intense. The day was at its peak, yet fought a losing battle with an advancing darkness that no one quite believed in, that was hidden beneath the horizon, like some Norse god. She began to light incense to lighten the air during afternoons, but the jasmine, the sandalwood, the rose fragrances seemed to only make the air more gravid.
Kusum remembered afternoon as times of rest after long morning walks with Nirja. The household lolled around, digesting the heavy midday meal, eyes half shut, talking in fragments as though thinking aloud more than communicating; even the trees swayed slower, lazier in the still heat. Now, Kusum sat in her verandah, watching the air above the park. There was a dusty swirling gathering at her eye level, meters above the park. The swirl seemed to halt, as though suddenly aware of her regard. As she sharpened and focused her vision, she saw that the swirl was made up of motes of deep purple, bright red, and an almost neon green. This was new; most air swirls were largely deep orange, browns, and whites, colors of beach sands. The particles in this swirl were also larger than any she had seen before. Most importantly, there was awareness about the arrangement of specks that hinted at a deliberation, more dance than just plain emotion. In fact, she sensed little emotion from the swirl.
As Kusum studied the swirl, she felt its inquiry about her. She stilled as well, letting the swirl feel her. It was a bright, hot July afternoon. The sky was an uninterrupted cerulean. The slight breeze smelt of the ocean a few meters away, which made the afternoon heat barely tolerable.
Kusum believed in the essential goodness of things. Her experience as Manipulator had indicated this conclusion: usually, things were lost, cold, spelled, or otherwise out of their depth. Kusum was born with an acute sense for the lost and ever since the afternoon that had awakened her Manipulator sensibility, she had been sorting out the air around her. Manipulators fought cosmic battles against hostile forces that were so beyond human imagination as to be invisible. Some were extra-terrestrial, others what Kusum called bubbles of the earth; irrespective of the origin, these forces fought with all their being, with a ferocity that bespoke their desperation.
Manipulators preparing for a confrontation often had to go on a special diet, use special clothing to wrap their body, wear no footwear for the battle, and often undergo rigorous rituals of purification and farewells. Kusum had made these rituals a constant condition of her life. She did not veer from her Manipulators’ sparse diet; she made sure that her body was clad only in a plain cotton sari; she rarely left her aerie and so never wore footwear. Manipulators were also obligated to conduct the ritual of farewells, concluded with lighting of a lamp on their threshold. Kusum, who never left her abode, had made this ritual of farewells a part of her everyday worship. A flame stood sentry on the threshold between the verandah and the rest of the house. She slept lightly, only napping briefly, kept an ear tuned in to every breeze, every air movement, often coming suddenly awake, startling Ramu who liked to curl against her leg.
Now, Kusum focused, used to scrutiny from her adversaries. She stilled her body and concentrated on stilling her thoughts. She noticed the traffic honking; her mind followed the screech of a bird sketching a curve to high skies; the murmur and giggles of the two gossips below her, who spent afternoons together reached her; the shiver and growl from an apartment couple of floors below touched her subconscious as the air conditioning unit kicked in. Kusum concentrated on each sound, separated each one, wound it tightly and put it away in a box in the back of her mind. Once all the sounds were wound up securely, she closed the box.
As she stilled, her eyes shone with clarity until she stopped blinking. She continued being examined, an experience she found as discomforting as familiar. To her, it felt short of being invaded in her innermost being. However, she tolerated this in favor of fairness in battle. She preferred offering an array of solutions once the being understood the extent of her power, rather than beginning her confrontation with an intense examination; she thought it a cheap trick of intimidation. She let a slight smirk steal onto her face to express her opinion about the scrutiny. This time, she felt a more aggressive push; the scanning seemed to stretch, probing, pushing inwards, insistent pushing further as though this was the battle. With a hiss, Kusum threw it off and took two paces away to clarify her perspective of the entity. Ramu growled deep in his throat and sulked back into the house; Jhun-jhun ruffled his feathers till they stood up.
Kusum’s eyes widened as she sensed no loss, grief, anger, or bemusement from her opponent. She sharpened her concentration. In response, Jhun-jhun screeched his battle cry, calling out to the blackest of clouds. Her hair lifted in excitement at the electricity in the air. Chacha looked up in surprise at the sky. He noticed the wisps had found hiding places, but they couldn’t stop their trembling. The breeze shivered with their fear. He sighed and retired to his hut; a storm seemed to be brewing in the ocean and soon it would find land to crush.
Kusum stared into the heart of the strange swirl while Jhun-jhun cried his summons, building eddies around his Manipulator, whorls rife with electricity, winds and vacuums. The part of Kusum’s mind where Jhun-jhun lived was shot with worry for her familiar; he had been her familiar for 21 years, and though she relied on him, she knew that he was old and that she was very fond of him. But battles leave no space such worries and she poured all her focus onto the swirl that obstinately faced her, unnatural in its frozen position. It seemed to grow ever larger till it covered the sky above Kusum. Leaving Jhun-jhun to streak the air with discomforts that the swirl would inevitably feel, she gazed more aggressively into the swirl.
However, no matter how much electricity was generated in the air, the swirl did not seem to feel any of it. Kusum widened her eyes than ever before till she understood that the increased size of the swirl was an illusion, a projection of its own self-image.
Jhun-jhun understood what was needed at the same instant. He was almost fainting by then. He took a deep breath and from the bottom of his bird heart, he let out a squawk loud as thunder. Then, his head hung down, his wings drooped, and he sank down into his alcove.
Kusum released a breath she had been marinating within her at the same time as Jhun-jhun’s squawk. She ignored all that was above her and aimed her breath at the middle of where the swirl had been when it first rose to meet her. She blew some more wind to follow her big breath, for good measure. Then again, she began holding air within, preparing another big breath.
The numerous lightning strikes from clear July skies made the city wonder at their weather gone crazy, but the busyness of the streets did not slow down. If anything, there was an increased scurrying, as people anticipated a storm and tried to reach shelters before the clouds arrived and the rains thundered down. The wisps in the palace gardens had begun huddling together, whimpering. Chacha read his namaaz with heightened fervor, swallowing heavily in between breaths.
Kusum released volleys of big breaths into the center of the swirl that had expanded so widely that she could barely see it anymore. Her eyes, dry as lightning, had stopped watering long ago and were streaked with red branches; her palms, toes, ears, and hair were stretched to their utmost lengths, the skin and tissues arid like sand, beyond reach of her body fluids. Jhun-jhun, spent from his summoning, released breaths in tandem with Kusum’s breath- volleys, adding his life-winds to her weapons.
Finally, the familiar’s summons claimed the high skies with billows and wreaths of blackening clouds. As clouds gathered, Kusum could see the alien coherence within the swirl loosening, the elements fluttering and scuttling rather than dancing. Here, under the murky skies, was the moment that tipped the power to her. She sensed the desperation from her adversary and steeled herself for an assault. She did not have to wait for long. This time, the motes that plunged into her had teeth; she screamed in outrage and Jhun-jhun screeched in pain.
Kusum’s anger now entered the fray at her familiar’s injury. Her big breath was now red and hot, threatened to burn the very world. She blew it out at the swirl. At the same time, the rains began; torrents and waterfalls beat down, as though the very earth would be swept away beneath waves. Lightning descended in curtains and veins, as though it would split the very fabric of all that was real, as though it would spill unimaginable light to blind and burn all. This barrage proved too much for the swirl and it began unraveling, scattering, chased and beaten into the ground, where the muds waited to swallow each atom.
The storm beat down until the swirl had scattered away. Kusum slowly brought back the world she had shut in the box at the edge of her mind: the honking traffic jam, the gurgle of newly made streams into gutters, the damp mist rising up from the wet earth, the clanging in the gossips’ kitchens as they began dinner, the doves cooing. The rain gentled to normalcy, and having finished their job, the black clouds scuttled back to the ocean. Kusum stood, her arms and hair limp in the humid air, trying to bring her breathing down. Ramu had crept back and now sat cleaning his face in the window seat.
Jhun-jhun lay spent in his alcove. Kusum rushed over to her familiar, stroked his feathers, tried to help him get his breath back. But Jhun-jhun shuddered violently with each breath he tried to swallow, his throat destroyed with his summoning, so that the very air he breathed burned him. He felt her touch and blinked slowly in acknowledgement, begging her.
Kusum knew that every battle a Manipulator fought and won demanded heavy costs. Nirja had to sacrifice her family, and Kusum, never forgetting, owned very little, thinking to pay for her victories only with bits and pieces of herself rather than anything outside of her. However, she had not thought that it would cost her the one being with whom she had felt a connection, the only one who understood her so completely that he had carved out a perch in her mind.
However, against all feeling, Kusum realized it was time. She nodded within at the Jhun-jhun perched within her and he left his body behind, severing himself from her for good. Kusum sank to her feet and lay down next to her familiar’s wilted, unmoving body.
The afternoon storm passed, the skies back to uninterrupted cerulean, now streaked with oranges; it was going to be a spectacular sunset, very normal after a stormy afternoon. The sun had moved to the West, dimmed his fierce light so that he resembled a large fruit hanging in the sky. Chacha in the garden was sweeping up fallen foliage, shaking his head and murmuring to himself. The haunting had begun already, and though it was only time of afternoon tea, the palace gardens had begun emptying as the people who had taken refuge from the storm, left the pavilions.
A few stragglers hurried along, even though the day was still filled with light. The bougainvillea had begun giggling and they could hear twinkling of women’s dancing bells. The breezes swished by and the people they touched could smell colors of forgotten events. The last of men leaving the pavilion gardens almost did not leave, as he watched a woman that seemed to be made of sheer light saunter on backwards feet. Then, suddenly collecting himself, he ran out of the gardens to the world that felt normal to him.
Kusum wept in her sleep. When she woke up, Ramu marched her to the kitchen for his meal. She glanced at her reflection in the window and saw a woman with wrinkled hands and hair marbled with white, at least a couple of decades older than the morning before the afternoon. This was logical; the years spent with her familiar had flown away with him, and her sun had begun shifting to the West, very normal for afternoons.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Shefali Shah Choksi 2015