It was already dusk when she arrived at the house. She opened the gate and waited for a little while. The green paint on the windows had begun to peel. Mould had accumulated on the walls to a height of nearly two feet. Rows of big black ants scuttled over the front steps purposefully, as if they had somewhere to go.
She took out the key and went up the steps.
The black doors opened wide like the mouth of some giant creature. She took a step forward. Fear hung thick in that darkness and she closed her eyes, surrendering to it, savouring it as if it were honey. Then she opened her eyes.
It smelt musty inside. She groped for matches in her handbag and lit one. The big brass lamp was where it had always been, at the foot of the staircase. She opened the wall cupboard, took out a green bottle filled with oil and poured some into the lamp. She tore up her handkerchief, made a thick wick, placed it in the lamp and lit it. The darkness retreated beyond the circle of light. She looked around.
The matches she had used lay scattered on the ground. She ran her foot over one of the cracks on the floor. A clock-shaped space showed on the wall at the spot where the Japanese clock used to hang.
Spiders dozed here and there on the wall.
She opened the window. "Here I am, I’ve come."
No one answered. She spoke again, wanting to hear her own unwavering voice: "I’ve come."
Her voice struck against the wall of the corridor that led out of the room and sent back an echo. She took off her slippers and stepped into the corridor. The brass lamps waited silently in the corner where they had always been. She poured oil in one of them, lit it and carried it into the inner room.
The darkness kept retreating, making way for her. Storerooms that used to be filled with paddy; round, flat urulis made of bell-metal; four-legged wooden clothes boxes; clothes-lines.
She went into the kitchen. The light of the lamp in her hand turned yellow against its blackened walls. Firewood was stacked in a corner. Cooking vessels were inverted on the shelves. She pushed some twigs into the fireplace, threw bits of paper on top and made a fire. She wiped the hearth clean with a square piece of coarse cloth hanging on the wall, then opened the outer door and walked to the well to get some water.
Deliberately clanking the pulley so that it made a noise, she began to draw water. Almost fifteen years! It was as if she had come home for the summer vacation, she said to herself, nothing had changed.
She was sure to hear their voices now, speaking of trivial things. If she listened carefully, she would hear the clip-clop of Muthassan’s wooden clogs at the gate. And Muthassi’s voice scolding the squabbling servants in the dining room. Plates would clatter to the ground, a brass utensil would be banged on the floor. The windows would be slammed shut to keep out the dew. And the soft sound of bare feet would come to her as they walked through the rooms carrying lamps in their hand.
Nothing had changed. The formless years were not stone walls. Why did she believe in the invisible?
"I’m coming, Muthassi." As soon as she called out: she wondered, why was she playing this game? Still, she made an effort to believe in it. She felt that the illusion would last as long as her belief in it did not waver.
Leaving the water to heat on the fire, she went upstairs. She fetched a broom to sweep the bedrooms. She swept away the dust from the bed with the red-lacquered legs in her bedroom, the one on which Muthassi used to stack the mattresses. She found a sheet in the box on the verandah and shook it out.
Dried neem leaves rustled to the ground.
Days wrapped in neem leaves surfaced in her mind. She thought about them entirely without emotion, having distanced herself relentlessly from the past. "Nothing has changed," she thought.
Muthassi was in the other room, seated on a mat, laughing as she recounted amusing anecdotes, while Muthassan, seated on the cot, stretched out his right hand for betel leaves.
The words were too soft but she could hear their voices. She opened the windows.
She looked out through the window on the north, her legs folded over the sill.
Moonlight lay under the trees in the distance, where, in the old days, the low caste parayans used to sit, learning to play on their wooden pipes. Not a single lamp had been lit there. She looked at the sandy path.
He was sure to come in a little while. The moonlight grew brighter, like silver when it is polished. It must be eight o’clock, she thought. She should not have forgotten to bring her watch.
She took off her sari and threw it on the clothesline in the verandah. Taking out a mundu with a thin border from the wooden box, she wrapped it around herself. Its folds had yellowed with age. Then she took out a lump of sandalwood from the wall cupboard, washed it, broke it in pieces, dissolved it in water and cleaned her face and arms with the paste.
She opened the next room to look for a mirror. It hung in its carved frame on the wall. She held up the lamp to its greenish surface.
Nothing had changed. Her hair, instead of being in two braids, was in a chignon. Maybe her face had filled out a little. She wondered whether creases had begun to show under her eyes. But she was certain no one would guess she was thirty. She hung the lamp on the wall, undid her hair and braided it.
Humming softly, she went downstairs. The lamps she had lit burned brightly in all the rooms. She opened the front door and sat down on the steps.
The trees were shrouded in darkness. But in the moonlight, she saw the leaves that had fallen on the sand. And a large bird seated on a branch of the almost leafless tree that dipped to the left. She wondered whether it was the mottled wood-owl, the bird of death.
"My God! Don’t let it cry out now."
She realised he had arrived only when she saw him standing next to her. His face seemed to have merged into the white moonlight, but his hair, combed back from his forehead, gleamed like hot coals.
"I couldn’t get away earlier. There were two people with me in the car, I had to drop them at the station."
She got up and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Shhh… don’t speak."
Why did he not understand what she was playing at? She had created this illusion with her faith, as one makes bubbles, blowing on soap water. Nothing had changed at all, she told herself. Why speak thoughtlessly and destroy everything she had blown up with such care so quickly with a few trivial words?
He drew her head down to his shoulder and gazed around him. At the plants, the trees, the sand and the moonlight lying over all of them.
"Come, let’s go in." As they entered and closed the door, the bird hooted. Her hands trembled.
"What was that sound? A bird?"
She did not answer. All a bird could do was hoot, after all, she comforted herself. She could pretend she had not heard it.
He stood very still, leaning against the wall.
She said, "Don’t move. Let me look at you in this light." She watched him standing next to the pillar on the stone floor and asked silently: "Do all of you like him?"
He put his hands in his pockets, looked at her and smiled. The light from the lamp did not quite reach his face, so she could not see it. If she had seen him smile in amusement at that moment, his strong teeth showing, she would not have liked it.
"Where can I sit down? Or lie down?" He looked around.
"Is it very dirty?" she asked. He shrugged his shoulders.
Later, when they lay down together on the cot with the red-lacquered legs, she said: "This is the only way I could get married."
He looked into her eyes expectantly, but did not say anything.
"…with everyone’s consent."
The lamp went out. Swaying on their old hinges, the windows creaked in the breeze.
He put his arms around her. "Are you afraid of the dark?"
She pressed her face down on his chest that smelt of tobacco and sweat and said, "I want to hear about your childhood. Why have you never told me anything about it?"
"What is there to tell? My father used to preside over bank meetings and make speeches at the Rotary Clubs. My mother used to play bridge with her friends all afternoon, eat muffins and drink tea."
"Then I grew up. A weak, friendless child. I began to write. And my father began to speak hurtfully, sarcastically to me."
"Why don’t you want to hear more?"
She did not say anything. Once he began to think of those times in which she had had no part at all, he would go away from her. How would she endure that?
"One childhood is enough for both of us to remember — mine," she said.
"How selfish you are!"
"Did you realise that only now?"
"No, I it realised at that meeting last year, the one at which Stephen Spender spoke."
"During the meeting?"
"No, when we came back, when I dropped you home."
She closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.
"Are you asleep?"
She did not say anything.
"See, how selfish you are."
Kamala Das, a leading writer of India, has written short stories and novellas in Malayalam
under the pen name Madhavikutty, and poems and articles in English. An eternal rebel, she has recently embraced Islam and is now known as Kamala Suraiya