by SIDDHARTHA CHOUDHURY
o you boys like Opoorvo?” asked Mrinmoy.
It was recess. It had been barely two weeks since the festivities celebrating the twelve-armed goddess had culminated and the second semester was now in full swing. The boys were having lunch under the giant water tank on a ridge at the end of the football field. Several hands scrambled over haphazardly laid out lunch boxes like fighter jets engaged in a dogfight.
“That newbie?” asked Utpal as he stole a small fried fish from Partho’s tiffin box. “Why, what’s not to like? He won the match for us: six of the last ball.”
“I can’t stand him!” declared Amol as he made a roll of the chapatti.
“Still grumpy because he made the six?” chuckled Utpal.
“Certainly not because of that,” opposed Amol, in a calm, assertive tone.
“How much did you bet on him not making it?”
“You’ve paid your price,” he laughed.
“He’s overconfident!” confirmed Amol. “He’ll get himself into trouble one of these days, I’m sure.”
“He’s not scared of betting though,” revealed Partho, chewing fervently on Nilotpal’s lunch, “He must’ve been a ‘serial better’ even in his previous school.”
“How do you know?”
“We’re still on chapter 4 in chemistry, right? Well, I bet on him to make a soap--that’s chapter 7--in the lab last week, just to test his confidence. He just picked the proper equipment and actually did it! Mrs. Mozumdar walked by and she made no comment.” Partho shrugged, and swallowed the rice wholesomely.
“How much did you lose?”
“Same as him,” Partho glanced towards Amol, “but at least he gave me the soap.”
“Wow! No wonder he can afford to download all those fancy songs on his mobile phone.” screamed Nilotpal, his excitement breaking into an anecdote he recited thus: “Oh, I never told you people what happened last week! Opoorvo and I were a little late getting back to the classroom after the games period. On entering, we found the Principal giving the class a lecture. You boys don’t know it because your backs were towards us but he was about to walk in without asking her permission. I just pulled him back and warned him, but he confidently looked at me and said, “Let go”. So I did, and in he went and sat at his place like the rest of you, and the Principal saw him, didn’t say a word, and continued with her lecture.” Nilotpal--who was the twin brother of Utpal--was alone in being fond of Opoorvo in this group.
“And what did you do?” asked Utpal.
“I stood behind the bush till she came out. Then I sneaked in.”
“Clever,” said Partho.
“... I think he’s scared of nothing,” declared Nilotpal cheerily, much to the annoyance of everyone else, especially Mrinmoy who had finished his lunch and sat gazing into the horizon, as though searching for an answer to a question he had not found.
“I’ve been noticing that ever since he’s come, your meter has been a little down, Mrinmoy,” commented Utpal.
Mrinmoy looked pensive.
“The teachers like him more than you, isn’t it Mrinmoy? Ever since he’s come, you’ve gotten second best, no?” said Nilotpal cheerily, unaware that he was actually rubbing it in. Then he returned to his tiffin and greedily stuffed his mouth with another piece of fried fish.
“You know what? Since we all agree that he’s got great guts, I think he deserves a bigger challenge,” declared Mrinmoy suddenly, grinning at Nilotpal, who was now looking at him, blinking his eyes, fish oil and bread dripping from the sides of his lips.
“What do you have in mind?” quizzed Utpal interestedly.
“There’s talk in town that Boodhi-ma has returned to the graveyard at the Old Chapel Road,” Mrinmoy informed all present.
“You mean the white-haired lady ghost that was rumoured to have killed people four years back,” enquired Amol.
“Wasn’t a man found dead there just two days back?” asked Utpal.
“Yes ... on the graveyard itself. There was no wound, or sign of strangulation, but his blood-red eyes were found open--sockets out in shock; the same state in which they had found all the previous victims,” Mrinmoy alerted them, and searched for cryptic sounds in the moments of silence that followed.
“So ... what are you planning?”
“There’s our friend, finishing his lunch,” Mrinmoy looked across the field. Under a tree, was Opoorvo sitting by himself, fiddling away at his cellular phone. “Let’s see if he’s brave after all.”
“Hey ’poo!” Nilotpal called out to him. “Come over here, pal!”
Opoorvo got up, picked his lunchbox and sauntered towards them, his eyes never really leaving his phone till he met the boys. “Hi guys,” he regarded them for a moment before settling his eyes back on the phone, and sat beside them.
“What’s up?” he queried.
“Do you like graveyards?” Mrinmoy asked immediately.
“I love graveyards. Why, do they have one in your town?”
‘Your town’. That’s why most of the boys hated him. It was still their town and he was still an outsider. He always acted like their town was smaller than all the big cities he had dabbled with before coming here. His father was scheduled to stay here for two years in his posting. Their family had come from Kolkata and before that, they were in New Delhi and other such big cities. He treated this town like it were some sort of amusement park he had to spend a few days in, although it was not very far from one of the big cities of Bengal itself, and had besides, many good facilities. They were even opening a mall somewhere, it was said. He had no right to assume he was better off than them, or so they thought.
“Graveyards are places where souls rest before they depart for heaven,” Opoorvo was enlightening Nilotpal when Mrinmoy interrupted.
“Would you like to spend a night there?” he threw the challenge at Opoorvo right there.
“Where?” His eyes glanced intermittently from the phone to the boys and back.
“In the graveyard.”
“We just want to know if you can do it or not.”
“I can, but what’s in it for me?”
“Then why should I do it?”
“Why, don’t you like a challenge?” Mrinmoy quizzed Opoorvo. “We all find you very brave,” he hastened to add.
“The stakes are high, my friend!”
“Okay, do it for fifty rupees then.”
“Fifty? Call it off! I’m not risking my life for fifty.”
“A Hundred bucks?”
“I can’t buy anything I want with that money.”
“Okay two hundred and that’s final. Boys, we’ll all have to pitch in,” Mrinmoy looked around at the group.
“Five hundred and I’m in!” declared Opoorvo haughtily.
“No, that’s too much.”
“I’ll count to three. Going once ...”
“We can’t afford it.”
“Going twice ...”
“This is unfair.” “This is outrageous.” “Don’t do this to us.” The teenagers protested in fragmented unison.
“No wait, wait! Alright, we’ll pay,” Mrinmoy gestured with a reassuring glance to his clique.
“What do you mean ‘we’ll pay’?” protested Amol. He certainly didn’t have the money. Nor did Partho, who then added eagerly, “You pay yourself.”
“Alright, but it means that I’ll make all the profits too in case he loses the bet,” saying so, Mrinmoy looked among the faces around him. They didn’t want to part with a hundred bucks but a chance of earning a hundred was really enticing, especially for the ones who had lost their money to his rising adversary. “You boys think that over. As for the challenge, I think we can carry out the bet tonight itself, knowing tomorrow is a Sunday. The loser will pay the winner on Monday.”
“You are not going to back off, are you?” Surprisingly, the question came from Opoorvo. He had a smirk on his face when he made the query, reflecting his confidence in the matter.
“No way,” answered Mrinmoy nonchalantly, as though the challenge were on his adversary now; then he added craftily, “but we should remind you that Boodhi-ma is back in the graveyard.”
“What’s that again?”
“She is a white-haired lady ghost that feeds on lonely souls.”
“A spirit? Really? How awesome is this place!”
“Then you should know more,” added Mrinmoy with a bigger smirk on his face. “A man was found dead--I mean DEAD--right there, two days back, his eyes wide open in horror.” Mrinmoy widened his own eyes to a dramatic effect.
Opoorvo lowered his eyes and dabbled with his phone for a few seconds, as though he was calculating something very intricate.
“Fine. Who’s witnessing the bet?” he asked after a while.
“Nilotpal and I,” Mrinmoy winked at Nilotpal, now sure that he had turned the tables on Opoorvo and broken his confidence.
“I am?” asked Nilotpal dumbfounded.
“Don’t you want to see what happens?”
“Take him along, Mrinmoy. I’ll cover for you at home, Niloo!” said Utpal.
“So it’s settled then. The three of us will present ourselves at Old Chapel Road, 11 tonight.”
The moon’s incandescence was shrouded by the ripples of small clouds held over it, as though curtaining its light from the world below, yet letting it spy on all that was happening down there. The barn owl flapped its wings violently, taking off from one among a brotherhood of eucalyptus trees--guarding the necropolis from the sneers of the living beings that journeyed on the adjacent Old Chapel Road,--before it settled on the spire of the chapel within. It howled once, as though in warning to awaken any spirit yet engulfed in the raptures of eternal slumber, when the lone figure of Opoorvo encroached over its rusted gates. The boy walked carefully, trying not to stir anyone or anything, alive or dead, leaf or animal, and the filtered light from the moon was enough to direct him from the narrow road to the spread of gravestones that stood like a battalion of awakened corpses to greet him.
From outside the gates, Mrinmoy and Nilotpal could see a silhouette entering the muddy grounds and move amidst an audience of gravestones. Then, they saw him approach one particular stone, slightly wider than the rest around them, and drop himself there, as on a stool. He was barely a hundred yards away from them. They saw a light pop open in his palm and Mrinmoy punched his one fist into the open palm of the other in bitter retaliation.
“Darn that phone!” he said.
“Huh, why?” asked Nilotpal.
“He’s entertaining himself. How’s that a fair challenge?” protested Mrinmoy.
“Well, he’s still inside the graveyard, right?”
“But he’s going to spoil the whole ambiance listening to songs.”
Opoorvo sat in the same hunched pose looming over his mobile phone, staring exclusively at it, the only sign of movement coming when he shifted his weight from one buttock to the other. This carried on for a while.
“He’s not even looking up, see!” complained Mrinmoy. “How’s he ever going to see our ghost if she came by?”
“Hey, you know what?” exclaimed Nilotpal, with a look of sustained surprise in his eyes.
“I think that’s my old aunt’s tomb, where he’s sitting.”
“Your aunt? You have an aunt?”
“Yeah, she died five years back,” said Nilotpal. After a pause, he added in a tone replete with guilt, his eyes lowering in shame, “I still remember the last thing she told me.”
“What did she tell you?” The night was long and the topic had piqued Mrinmoy’s interest.
“Tchh ... never mind,” Nilotpal pushed the thought away with a nudge of his head.
“Hey, why bring it up then?” demanded Mrinmoy irritably. “Go on, tell me.”
“Well, it was late that night, and I’d had my dinner,” recalled Nilotpal. “I was trying to sleep but was still hungry. I just hadn’t had enough of my aunt’s delicious mango pickles at dinner. So, I sneaked back into the kitchen and began stealing her pickles from the jar. I wasn’t aware of her coming and standing behind me, and before I could put one pickle into my mouth ...”
“Look!” exclaimed Mrinmoy, “He’s gone! Vanished!”
“Good Lord!” Nilotpal gaped with his mouth wide open. He could see his aunt’s gravestone standing isolated among a crowd of crosses and stones--isolated, as it was the only one illuminated by the moonlight while all its neighbours stood as silhouettes. The boys looked around the area but could see no sign of life. Then, Nilotpal’s eyes wandered towards the chapel. “I think I just saw someone take a turn behind the chapel,” he observed.
“Are you sure?”
“Maybe we should go in and find out!”
“Maybe you should! I don’t think it makes sense if both of us go in at the same time,” Mrinmoy suggested. “You go find out. I’ll keep guard in case Opoorvo returns. For all we know he’s just playing a dirty trick.”
“Alright,” said Nilotpal and staggered up the rusted gate in quick monkey moves.
When he was at its tip, Mrinmoy called out: “Hey wait, finish your story first!”
“What story?” Nilotpal was crouched at the apex of the gate, with a leg hung over either side of it.
“What happened when you put the pickle in your mouth?”
Nilotpal looked around the sky to gather his memory. “What pickle? I couldn’t put one pickle in my mouth.”
“No, she held my hand and forced me to drop the pickle into the jar.”
“Then she said something I’ll never forget.”
“What, what did she say?” This was the part that Mrinmoy was eagerly awaiting.
“Those who enjoy their pickles after midnight will go to sleep with their eyes wide open!” The boys stared at each other silently, as though it were obvious to both of them that there was a metaphor hidden somewhere. Nilotpal jumped over to the other side, turned back and said sullenly, “The next morning, she was gone.” Then he took quick purposeful strides towards the chapel.
For the next few minutes, the wind remained Mrinmoy’s sole companion. It ruffled his hair and then gossiped with the leaves of the giant trees guarding the boundaries of the graveyard. Mrinmoy’s eyes restlessly searched for his classmates in both the graveyard and the chapel, but not finding either, he began to feel lonelier with each passing moment. He tried not to think of pickles. He looked at the straight dark line that was called the Old Chapel Road. The streetlights had been switched off. There was no house around the chapel; just wheat fields--stretches of wheat fields. His own house was a good three miles down the road. He wondered if he should go in or stay out. He tried not thinking about the urban legend, his classmate’s aunt or her pickles and then involuntarily found himself shouting, “Ni-lot-pal!”
He ardently searched for signs of life from the chapel side, “Niloo, are you there?” There came no reply.
“O-poor-vo!” he called into the city of the dead. He found that his arms and legs were already climbing up the gates while he was shouting. He found he had jumped into the graveyard. He tried not looking back. He observed himself moving forward with ease. A few dead leaves rustled under his feet, and he turned from the road into the muddy graveyard. He found himself passing a fleet of stacked marbles and granites of various shapes and sizes till he reached the tomb of Nilotpal’s aunt. Involuntarily, he shouted, “Ni-lot-pal! O-poor-vo!” He could hear nothing but the sound of a few whistling crickets.
He turned towards the chapel and reiterated, “Ni-lot-pal! O-poor-vo!”
There was a faint crackle from the small bushes beneath the armada of eucalyptus trees that was now behind him. He did not want to look back. He was looking diagonally upwards to the owl on top of the spire. The owl returned his look with a nod; then, with a short fearful gulp, it looked behind him and flapped its wings in panic. A chill ran from his spine upwards, as he saw a shadow crawling over the soil from behind him, till it became one with his own. A hand touched his shoulder, its cold index finger brushing his warm neck, and breaking him into a motion of panic. Mrinmoy’s eyes widened in horror and without turning around, he ran straight across the graveyard, jumped over the gates and took to the road till he was out of sight.
Nilotpal walked out of the chapel by himself and was happy to find Opoorvo sitting on his aunt’s gravestone. The owl was settled on the spire, and the clouds had lifted their veil off the moon, if only for a short while.
“Where had you disappeared?” asked Nilotpal.
“Me? I’d just gone to take a leak, that’s all.”
“I’ll go inform Mrinmoy that you’re okay. We were worried, you know!”
“I don’t think you’ll have to,” said Opoorvo, with a smirk. “I think he forfeited the challenge.” He got up from the gravestone.
“You mean he’s gone?”
“Flew like a missile when I touched him,” Opoorvo chuckled. “At least someone will sleep with his eyes wide open!”
“What? Where did you hear that phrase?” demanded Nilotpal.
“You tell me,” Opoorvo shrugged, and brought his mobile phone forward, “I kept receiving these strange text messages ever since I sat down, and what’s more, they are all addressed to you.”
“Yes, someone must love you a lot.”
Nilotpal looked aghast as he read the messages that were all addressed personally to him. One message said politely, “Niloo, haven’t I told you not to enjoy you pickles after midnight? Do you also wish to sleep with your eyes wide open?” Another warned severely, “Nilotpal Nicolas Fernandez, you disobedient wretch, stop looking for pickles and go to bed immediately, or I come!” There were two dozen such messages in total.
“They all came from some unidentified number; I tried calling back but it just wouldn’t get through. This town just keeps getting more and more interesting.”
“What’s the time now?” Nilotpal asked wearily.
Opoorvo checked the time on his phone. “Half past midnight.”
“Maybe we should go catch some sleep.”
“Maybe we should. It’s pointless looking for pickles in a graveyard!”
The clouds scurried over the moon as though protecting her luminous purity from the arrogance of the human beings, their cynicism, and their ignorance of the supernatural. Darkness overcame the graveyard. The owl on the spire sang, “Tu-whit-a-woo,” its eyes wide open to all the other worlds.
Siddhartha Choudhury is the author of numerous stories and abstract ruminations that lie placid in his hard drive. He made his first publishing appearance in Apocrypha and Abstractions in April this year, and has a piece forthcoming in the Journal of Microliterature. He lives and writes from Mumbai, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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