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21 March 2016

The Twister Ghost by Ashvi K.S

The Twister Ghost

a mystery story about the past, in the future

1

2024

It was searing hot. Temperatures climbing back to the mid-30s. It is hard to believe that just a few days back the floods were taking a heavy toll of people, places, cities, towns and little unknown villages. A swirl of dust gathers around my boots. I stay rooted, somehow not inclined to disturb the thin coat of dust forming on my polished tan boots. After a while, the swirl has decided that it has had enough and lets go of the shoes, but moving in a twisty little spiral, gathering force as it reels away. This is what the locals believe is a little twister ghost. 

A twister ghost is that little swirling balloon of dust gathered by a strong ground-level wind. Among the locals of my region it is believed that it is a ‘Mohini’ or a woman who died prematurely with incomplete desires or ambitions. They take the form of twister swirls in open fields or long tree-canopied roads either at noon or midnight. They do not reveal themselves as women.

I look at the watch, just after noon. Gently shaking the boots, without looking down, I follow the twister ghost. First with eyes, then, involuntarily, walking behind it. When I see where it has brought me, I see it has vanished.

A perpendicular broken half-wall stands - mud wall - ragged and jagged on its top. It seems lucky to have survived the deluge the weeks before. Or, it is unlucky to have survived, while what remained has gone. Did anyone live there? No. I should know. This used to be my little hut. My house that I remember. My home that I cherish fondly. It is spooky, how cannily the twister ghost has led me here. I was going to come here. But later.

At 24, one of the youngest I.A.S. officers of the state now, I grew up here, this small town that exists only in the map. That was until I was 13. I was then adopted, when my grandfather, my only relative, died. Leaving me an orphan. A 13 year-old girl, a little girl whose only earthly possessions were memories of her reasonably wealthy parents, who got washed away in the Tsunami of 2004, from a nearby town of Cuddalore. It is a district most prone to floods, storms, cyclones and in general all the changing fortunes of unpredictable weather pattern in Tamil Nadu. I was Four then, too young to realise the horrors of being orphaned. But I had my grandfather, miraculously with me. He later told me that when the waters washed away our everything, including my parents, he had tied himself to a pillar in the temple nearby, with me fastened to him by his head-toga. It is a small version of a dhoti commoners normally tie to the head in our parts of the country. We had survived. By the divine intervention of Goddess Kali - normally considered the destroyer!

2

2004...

At the age of Four-something, my grandfather and I moved to a little hamlet, wanting more to get away as far as possible from our sad memories. He had nothing to start his life and a little four year old granddaughter. If it were a grandson, it would have been different. An old man with a little girl to look after. I do not remember much of my childhood, except, I would see him carrying me with him for two years around. He was 50 something. Strong, but burdened by the weight of the sudden turn of events that had reduced our family from well-to-do to mere nothings, overnight. Thank you, Tsunami!

My clearest memory of my grandfather was him walking into a wealthy businessman’s house, coming back with the job of rolling tendu leaves: he got himself a cottage job of making beedis for the nearby factory. Of course, he found me a school in the nearby town. That was when I was Six. That was 2006.

We would walk 3 miles - he would carry me on his shoulders whenever he knew I was tired - then catch a bus, reach another 5 miles. He would drop me at a government school, which took care of my food and education. Initially, the schooling was more for my mid-day meals. Once he saw that I showed interest in school and when my teacher told how important it is that a girl-child must be educated, especially one such as me, he let me continue.

In about 3 years time, he managed to get himself a second-hand bicycle, a cycle whose noise would announce beforehand that he was coming. When I was 11, we managed to get a few goats to graze. And we managed to move to the town itself. This town. My evenings had a purpose since then. I would come home from school, change and take the goats to graze at the little hilly tract outside of the village.

I loved the sunset. I would let the herd graze around in the nearby bushes and grass and sit under a tree, trying to work my homework, if I had any. Around dusk, I would herd them and take them back home. This went on for about a year. That was the happiest part of my growing up. And then I turned 12. I had a beautiful birthday gift. One of the ‘nanny’ goat gave birth to a kid. I felt like Mary with her little lamb. I would carry it with me, while all the herd went grazing nearby. And I would sit with the little lamb... and watch how the wind played on the vegetation nearby, how the evening was still, the birds twittering and chirping before they settled for the dark, how a random bat got out of the tree before it was dark and flew around anxiously, how the dust swirls spiralled up into small twister spouts, went and vanished into the thick nearby bush. I didn’t think much of the twister then. Until one day... that was the day that was to leave an indelible mark on me. It has me puzzled to this day. I was 12.

3

2012

It was another usual day, nothing amiss. The same scenario of the setting sun played out. And it was time for me to gather the herd home. One particular billy goat had strayed slightly afar. I went after it. Call it by name. It was ten minutes before I could get him back to the fold. Then I started home, gathering my little bag of books, slinging the back across my shoulder, left to right. Humming and coaxing the herd. Then I heard it. A little desperate wail for help.

My little lamb. I had forgotten in all this hubbub. I turned, followed the faint cries of the lamb. My heart was in my mouth. I hurried. And then... I saw.

It was struggling to hold on to a thick clump of brush that was an outgrowth between to rocks at the edge of the hillock. How it managed to climb up there, I could not imagine. I was at the verge of tears, my eyes welling up, my little heart fluttering in panic. I tried to keep my voice calm and called out to the lamb, trying to calm it. I slowly skirted around to one side where there was a little way to get to the top. I slowly reached out. Inching my way to the top, I took hold of it. I almost slipped, but held on to it tight. A few scratches to my shin. I did not realise the other side of the hillock was a steep into a smaller mound of rock. Beyond that rock... a little pathway where mud had given in to landslide and then a deep chasm.

It was pure chance that we avoided a big calamity. By the time, I climbed the way down, it had grown dark. Bats were flying around with abandon, squealing their sonar notes. Once or twice I heard a few ravens settling down and then the crickets. I could not see. The moon was not up, the sky was grey. Stars could not be seen. I was getting afraid. I had never been this long away from my house. I had always got home before dark. The bag on my shoulder weighed suddenly, the lamb weighed, my heart was in my mouth, I was panting for breath, I had to stop.

Whatever came over me! I decided to collapse. I just sat down, unmindful of where I was. I WAS TERRIFIED. An owl hooted, a bat flew around, mosquitoes swarmed noisly around my nose and eyes. I gathered the lamb on to my lap. Using the edges of my back I wiped my perspiration. Then, I swatted the mosquitoes. In the process, I clapped to kill the mosquitoes. The noise my clap made in the stillness further scared me. My heart ran a 100 metres faster than Bolt could have. The clap resonated around the dark and silent hillside and disturbed further night creatures. I started crying. I was LOST!

Then trying to randomly call upon the names of gods I knew, I got up, hugging my lamb and my bag and started walking. My eyes had adjusted themselves to the dark. The thought of my grandfather coming back tiredly from work, not finding me and getting desperately shouting my name triggered waves of sniffles in me. I tried to hurry. My feet stumbled and I fell. As I fell, the only thing I was conscious was to fall by the side so that the lamb did not get hurt. Luckily I fell on the side my bag hung and I was not hurt. I lay down there for what seemed minutes. Then my ragged breathing slowed down. The night was eerily quiet, but by the I was used to it. I sat up. Just sat there trying to figure how to get back home. Then...

The rumble started in the distance. And a crack of lightning. In that one second I saw sudden storm cloud gathering in the distance. The crack of lightning highlighted a single leafless arching branch, with a bat hanging on it. In that one moment... did I imagine an owl in the hollow too? It must have been my imagination because there were not that many trees in that area. I got up.

I started walking. I walked for may be close to ten minutes. By now, I had forgotten the goats. The herd can take care of themselves. Or if the rain was going to be coming and bad as it looked, they knew to take shelters. In such conditions, only us humans are confused. Animals have better instincts. So I plodded on, the lamb no more a weight, but had merged into a part of me. Then one drop... and another... and then a few more. I hurried. The rain came, surprisingly, from behind. It started drenching my back. I tried to run. Then another flash of light. To my left... a gate! An old building. Unmindful, I pushed it open, crossed quickly the creeper-worn yard, quickly ran under the awning. A small parapet of about 4 feet wide by 3 feet height and 3 feet depth. I sat exhausted, letting my lamb next to me. I did not know the time. I did not care. I could not care. Hugging my lamb, I dozed off...


*

With a start, I woke up when a mosquito sang past my ear. I sat up startled. For the first time, I could smell how badly the lamb smelt. It’s tender heart was beating warmly, quickeningly. My startled sitting up had upset its pulse rate. I huddled into me. I blinked around. All was quiet, except for a distant frog croaking in sync with a noisy cricket. I looked around. Everything looked ghastly. The rain had stopped. In a corner, towards the far left corner of the awning, water was dripping off. As it fell it may a strange chop-chop noise in the puddle underneath, on the ground where water had stagnated. 

I did not know the time. I thought of my grandfather. Was he still awake, anxious for me? I got up, decided to brave the dark. Clutching my bag and lamb, I, a 12 year old girl, stepped out of the open gates of that run-down house. I could not stop to see what sort of a house, or a bungalow it was. It was dark and a thin glow of light was felt. Probably the skies had cleared and the moon had come up. Is it midnight? How long had I slept? Or was it close to morning? I tried to search for the location of the moon. I gave up, because the thought of night was creeping the fear back into me. I rushed on... entered the single long main street of my town and quickly, quietly moved in to the shadows that lead to my lane. Putting my finger to my lips, I silenced myself. In fact, I was pretending that the lamb was a human playmate and I was asking it to keep quiet. I went noiselessly through the kitchen door. It was more a small thatched leaf gate than a door. I entered the house, went to a corner, lay the lamb down and... eventually slept.

*
Next morning... “Ponni... Ponni... get up, child. Grandfather needs to go to work.”

I woke up, shaking the sockets of my eyes and rubbing my eyes with my balled-up knuckles. It was bright. The sun was streaming through the single window on the wall and through the odd gap in the roof. Sitting up, I saw grandfather sitting on his haunches next to me with concern. “You are not well? You have been sleeping so long. I have never seen you sleep so long!” 

I wondered. How long? Was he awake? Does he know? Diving my mind, he answered, “You came home around 7:30 p.m and did not even eat. Fell straight to bed.” Suddenly, noticing the lamb, “Oh, you snuggled up to her for warmth, is it? Little fellow!” Saying, he lifted the lamb, cradling it, laughing, he slipped out.

“Wait... wait! Thaatha! I came home around 7:30 last night? Wasn’t it raining heavily? How?”

“All that I do not know! It was raining and there was quite a wind and lightning. You came home, holding your bag on your head. Straight you went to sleep. I tried to wake you, talk to you, you did not. You were off to sleep immediately. I did not disturb. And now... I made little sambar. There is rice from last night. There is a boiled egg. Clean up and eat. Don’t go anywhere, I will be back around 2 p.m today. Saturday!” He left, leaving me dazed.

Too many questions to be answered. I slowly got up, went out. The sun was up reasonably high. Must be around 9:30 a.m. I had come home, according to grandfather around 7:30 last night. I had slept 14 hours!!! That surely cannot be. Being young at heart and age, I let go, thinking thaatha must have been mistaken about time. Then I soon got over it. But the incident remained in me somewhere. Either grandfather’s sense of time was mixed up... or... I tried to dismiss it. An year passed.

Things changed. One day grandfather took me, I was 13 and half, to Cuddalore. For me it was not again. I had not remembered anything of my early past. He took me to a house where there were lot of other children. Many my age. I was to learn that it was a charity house. Grandfather told me that now I need to focus on my studies. Enough of travelling and learning from the elementary school in my town. That he would come every weekend to see me. And take me home for the weekend and bring me back Monday mornings in time for school. 

At first, it was difficult. More than the thought of leaving the town and coming there, it was the thought of leaving him. My eyes welled up. I clung to him. He caressed the top of my head, kissed the top of my head, consoled me. “After all, it’s only 5 days a week! Before you turn around, I shall be back to take you back home.” 

“But...but... can’t you also come to this town?” 

“No... who will feed me here. Who will give me work here! I am just a few miles away.” And then he visited me for six months. And then, I was just informed he had passed away. I did not eat, sleep... for days. My thaatha, the only real person I had ever had, known, who cared for me, my lamb, my herd, my house, my town. Nothing remained. Years rolled by. 

4

2024

I felt a wind swirl under my feet. It swept a bit of dust on my boot. And crept up my trouser, to my calf. I shook my feet. Coming to senses, I looked around what remained of my house. The only house I knew. “Meh... meh... meh...” The distant familiar cry! I looked around, walked out... followed the direction of the cry. At the edge of the town, about 700 metres from the outskirts, a small hillock. Teetering in the crevice of the rock... a little lamb! Deja Vu? Can’t be.

An IAS officer. Prided by the state authorities as the youngest woman officer from the State, educated, rational, am I to be beset with doubts? That was long ago. It was a rainy night. It can’t be. I skirted round the rock to find a convenient place to reach to the lamb. It first shrank from my touch. I could feel its heart beating hurriedly, in fear. I let my hand rest on it. It became less anxious. I held it with my single hand, gently peeling away the clump of brush from between its forelegs. Retrieving it, I cradled it and started walking.

Then I felt the familiar swirl of little wind dust. At first I thought I was imagining. Then I was sure. I looked down. I started moving away. This time I could not brush it away. Fascinated, on a whim, I started following it. At one point, I let the lamb slip from my grip and started following the little twister dust. It lead... to a gated house with an awning. I stepped in.

At the sound of footsteps, a toad jumped away, a biggish garden lizard scurried and I stopped short of stepping on it. Totally run down, bizarre and creepy, the walls had creepers all over. Hesitantly I stopped. Turned to go back. Then a long staccato of coughing came from inside the house. Adjusting my top, I tried not to sound unnerved. “Hello... who’s in there?” As I neared the steps, I noticed a four by three by three little parapet. I smelt tobacco. Beedi smoke. More cough. I stepped in easily. For a house so run down, there were no cobwebs on the doorstep.

My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the relative darkness inside. I peered around. In a corner, half laying down, propped on his elbow... an old, old man. His face was hidden inside thickets of beard and bushy eyebrows. Had I been younger, I would have been scared. Sitting up amidst a wave of cough, he snuffed the left over of his beedi on the upper soles of his feet and threw it away. “Come child. You finally came?”

“Uh... what old man? I finally came? Was I expected? Who are you?” 

“Not that way... I meant you were hesitating outside. Good you finally came in...”

“I do not understand. Whose house is it? It looks ruined and very old. Why are you here?”

He laughed a very guttural lengthy laugh that resounded on the walls of the house, disturbing couple of little nesting birds. Their rustle in turn made few loose strands of a creeper swing and finally fall with a soft thud that set off a series of rats peacefully munching the leftovers of some strange insect furtively look up. It unnerved me. The man laughed... softly this time. I stepped back couple of paces and something tripped me. As I bent down to pick it, the old man got up, so energetically for his frail frame. As I bent to pick up, I noticed him through between my legs, my back to him. And then looked away, to see what tripped my leg. It was an old photo frame. The glass had been broken thrice across the frame of the photo. I carefully picked it, cautious not to nick my fingers or hand. Keeping it away from me, I shook the shards so that they fell away from me, among the fallen creeper, with soft clink. The photo was dusty and pock-marked with moth holes. I could not see the face on the photo properly. I must ask the old man. I turned.

I had not heard any receding footsteps. I would have heard the crunch of his feet on the dried down leaves that lay scattered along with some odds and bits of pigeon feathers. I did not. I looked around. I took a few steps towards the door outside. He was nowhere to be seen. I tried focussing on the face in the photo. There were only random and faint glints of evening light seeping through the holes on the ceiling above. Holding it to what little light there was, I saw: it was the face of a smiling 11 year old girl. She... she... she... looked like ME! Scalded, I dropped the frame off my hands.

I froze. My thoughts fled to that night in the storm. I had stayed on the small parapet here!

I could not stand anymore. The world started reeling around me. I had to get out. I... the little lamb... I stumbled out, feeling slightly nauseous. I looked in the compound, no sign of the man. I fled outside the gate. It was dark. I looked around. No lamb. I hastened out...

Epilogue

The moon was rising.

A little shiny swirl of dust was forming, slowly gathering into a twister, not more than 1 foot high. It rose, above the ground, hovered at around two feet high, gathered speed, moved a few feet forward... following the hastening footsteps. 

It. Stopped. Resolved. Into The Face. Of A. Smiling 11 Year Old...

The moon had risen... a bat swam across the face of the moon, hung dead centre for a second or two. Then it left, followed by a chasing streak of cloud.

A drop fell. Then two. Then a few.

In the distance, a receding pair of boots.

The End

Afterword

It was in the year 2010. My family and I were on a holiday trip to Yercaud. While driving down the highway, I don’t remember which part of Tamilnadu, en route, we observed the twister swirl that I have used as a device in my story. It was no more than on foot high and about 10 inches in diameter. We saw it approaching from the open, fallow, agricultural fields on our right, some 300 metres to our approach. On both sides of the road tall trees canopied our road. To the left were also open, fallow agricultural fields. It came to the edge of the field and crossed the road, entered the left side fields and was gone in the distance. It took merely a minute or less. Our driver, a very superstitious person, stopped in the distance, 300 metres before, suddenly, stopped the car, prayed to his god as he saw this swirl go across. After it left, he offered further prayers and continued our journey. When my father inquired, sit in the front passenger seat,the driver explained the local belief about the twister, which in local language, he called as “surul pei” (a twister ghost). Hence my usage.

My grateful thanks to him for this information, wherever he is today. I do not remember his name. One other person I would like to thank is my father, Dr. S. Krishna Kumar, for helping me with proof-reading, formatting and final print outs of this story. The rest is FUN. Read on. I hope you have the same fun I had in writing the story.

- Ashvi, K.S. (December 2015)

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