The piercing whistle of the departing train recedes reassuringly. In the background, as she lights the lamps, crickets begin chirping. Night draws on, a tangible blanket, soothing her with pure darkness.
The peace crawls under her skin like a millipede makes itself comfortable under a rock, nestling in the moist darkness.
Three nights and days of solitude.
She moves, tracing paths, in and out. The kitchen, hall, bedroom and verandah are all spaces connected by her movement. Clothes off the line in the verandah, are folded into neat piles, and stacked on the shelves in the cupboard. The kerosene lamp lit in the kitchen throws shadows on the soot-stained walls, the flame flickering feebly with the wind that howls at the gaps of the windows demanding to be let inside.
The house is, after all, more than a hundred years old.
An ancient relic of the colonial past.
Outside, the leaves of the trees rustle and the branches tap against the bedroom window.
No, she has never been afraid. There is, in fact, a sense of solidarity and something really comforting about her presence.
A rustle of silk ushers her in.
A presence is what she is, most of the time.
On rare occasions, she manifests, a splendid vision in ivory silk and lace. She can even see the sheen on the pearls around her neck.
Her favourite space in the house is the window by the bedroom. The window against which the branches tap most urgently. She stands there looking at the church that is now a dark shadow etched against the shadows of trees. The candles still burn at the altar, for the old stained glass can be seen, the saints perpetually frozen in light.
She recalls how the room felt cold even on the hottest day in summer. He got up, many times, in a coughing fit, complaining he couldn’t breathe. She told him not to lie on his back. She could feel it too, something heavy, pinning her down, as she struggled to open her eyes and will herself to get up. Soon, she realized, resistance was useless and the feeling of oppression would soon pass. However, to make things easy, she shifted the cot, from the side of the window to the other wall, and then could sleep without interruption.
Except for the random episode when she would wake up feeling extra cold and the mosquito curtain would be lifted slowly, and she would shut her eyes tight, goosebumps heralding the intruder. Her hair would stand on end as she thought of all the Gods and Goddesses who could come to her rescue. After what seemed to be an eternity, the mosquito curtain would fall abruptly and she didn’t sense her presence anymore. When she opened her eyes, warily, she would sometimes see a figure stand by the window. She got into the habit of placing a chair by the window and was rewarded with the sight of her sitting there placidly.
She began to look forward to seeing her.
Their silent communion.
Of course she is not as calm and tranquil always. There are days when they would hear the persistent sobbing of a woman on the steps that led downstairs from the kitchen. He would complain to the watchman who ignored him, giving a perfunctory nod, while throwing a knowing look at the house. The wooden stairs would creak and the occasional pots and pans would clatter without reason. She would hastily rush to the kitchen to set things right.
Get rid of her? But why? This old place belonged to her. She belonged there. The old house. its rotting woodwork. The old ivy vine. The roses that bloomed wild on the overgrown shrubs. The mouldy walls. The crumbling plaster. The seeping walls. The high ceiling. It was hers.
She knew she was sharing her space.
She was just its most recent occupant.
She never told anybody.
Not even him.
He didn’t have the sensibility of even a cockroach.
You need to understand she has never felt safe with the living.
She clamps down. Her mouth is set. Shut.
The living, she says, are too restless. Their struggle pointless.
Why doesn’t she move?
Another town? Another house? Another life?
No, thank you. She mumbles. Sometimes our paths cross. The living and the dead.
The dead are content. To haunt. To linger. To stay. Just to remain.
It’s the living you need to watch out for.
Sometimes you wish they were dead.