DOORS CHUN JINN
 
journal
new issue
- by s s haque
total read - 314
   

Reema pulled the heavy door behind her, closing off the steaming kitchen and leaving the cook and maids to tend to the pots of curry. She looked around the heart of the house her husband had built. His pending legacy. It was exquisite, created by craftsmen from Sherpur to Sundarban. Visitors were always awed by the carvings of wood and stone. Reema found the room austere, particularly at night time. The history of landowning heavy in its style.

The mansion had a central well on the ground floor, where a grand dining table sat and around which the other rooms were organised, upstairs and downstairs. A balcony on the first floor surrounded the central space and created a corridor around the top, like a Panopticon. The ceiling in the middle was as high as the building itself, so that voices in the dining-room boomed around the core of the house during gatherings and dinner parties. But when there were few people, like today, there was an emptiness and, for Reema, the expectation that something might happen. Only inanimate objects challenged the quiet; the occasional chink of a tea cup, or a drawer opened, rummaged in and slotted back.

Reema hated the silence. She knew it was wrong to be ungrateful. Allah would be angry.

But Reema had heard women from the village gossip with wide eyes about local curses and jinns as they chewed on their betel nut and got high on chun.

“Idle rich,” the beggar woman would spit, hidden in the corners of the vast kitchen; she was a regular visitor to the family and the mother of one of the maids. “The family used to own most of the land in the village and now, pah! – frittered away by lazy sons buying black-market passports to get to the West.”

“Not just that,” said another woman. “Ill-fate has its reasons. The earth can hold a grudge. Bad deeds are never forgotten.”

Reema didn’t dare let on to Majid she’d heard these things. As far as he was concerned, he had been responsible for bringing the family’s name back to its former reputation.

But it made Reema wonder. Majid’s nephew died in a train crash, the only one among tens of injured people. Another was almost sectioned for violent behaviour and mental health problems, and yet another had several illegitimate children conceived with local working-class girls. The family was pitted like bad skin. And Majid’s house was made of closed doors and empty rooms.

Majid’s mother, Mumtaz, had always been frightened of the new house. She complained that he hadn’t had the house blessed by the mosque’s imam. Reema would never forget her pleas on the crackling long-distance line. But Majid wasn’t superstitious. And Mumtaz was long gone. But her dying days had stayed with Reema.

Mumtaz’s old bedroom was sunny and faced the back of the house. During the day the clattering sounds and the steam rising up from the kitchen were her comfort as she lay in her bed and cancer devoured her organs. Her room was always busy with visitors paying their respects. But at night she cowered, quiet and alone in her bed, from the dark expanse of trees at the back of the house. Reema often stayed with her beside Tullie, Majid’s niece, until she fell asleep. Her ill-tempered husband slept in another bedroom downstairs during her last year in this life.

“There’s an unhappy spirit in the house,” Mumtaz used to say. “They will not be absolved for this crime.” Reema had held her old bones tight, careful not to press too hard into her creased, brown skin. She remembered her downy, white sari on her cheek. When she pulled away, Nani Mumtaz left a stain of pain from her embrace. Ever since Reema feared the next closed door.

* * *

“Things are changing. The Awami League won’t take any shit from those extremist parties,” said Sohel, waving his hands around. “This time Bangladesh will be dragged out of this mess and stand for what it was born to be –”

“A secular nation committed to free speech and progress,” said Tullie. “I know, I know.”

Majid’s nephew, Sohel, was holding court in the dining room. The Awami League had won the election and this time, he said, things would really change. His voice boomed around the well of the house. Tullie, his cousin, listened intently. She was nominally aligned with the party, but only because she was obliged to take a side as a university student. The opposition politics of Bangladesh didn’t interest her. But for Sohel, 1971 was the year of the glorious war of liberation. His love for the Awami League was symbolic of his patriotism. For Tullie it was simple: her countrymen suffered because of the entwinement of politics, bribery and extortion, at the expense of democracy. She couldn’t pledge blind allegiance to the party like Sohel. Still, Tullie suffered his rants.

Their pauses were filled with the clattering of pans and the servants’ distant banter. Reema emerged from the kitchen.

“Do you need any help, auntie?” asked Tullie.

“No, thank you dear, everything is under control. You two relax,” she said.

“Join us if you like.” said Tullie.

“Thank you, but I have to check the storeroom for supplies.”

Reema took a set of keys and went through the corner door to the store cupboard. Cockroaches scuttled into the corners as she turned on the light. Sohel and Tullie carried on talking at the dining room table.

“What’s that?” Sohel said, hand outstretched, eyes wide, head still.

A high-pitched singing, or a humming. Someone outside, or in a closed room upstairs. Somewhere in the distance. A female voice, an old Indian movie song. At first it was a distant hum; then it got louder, as if it was flitting around the large atrium.

“It’s probably just one of the maids,” said Tullie.

“But it’s coming from the back of the house,” frowned Sohel.

“It sounds too far away to be from the back garden. Hang on… it’s moving around,” said Tullie. “There’s nothing beyond the back of the house. No one would be there. It’s woodland.”

“I know.”

“Wait!” exclaimed Tullie, “I know that song.” As the singing got louder the lyrics emerged. A sad lament filled the grand space.

After a great while, a moonlit night has come.

After a great while, this meeting has arrived.

He has come tonight, after a great while.

Stay a while, o handsome friend, stay a while

“It’s that song from that old film, Pakeezah,” said Tullie.

“You’re right… everyone knows that song!”

They sat for some time, their eyes trying to hear, their hands poised in the air.

“You know, people hear all sorts of weird things around here. The cook told me he didn’t want to stay in the servants’ quarters anymore because he thinks there are jinns in the woods. I thought he just wanted a better room or something. I think he’s ashamed to tell his wife because she already thinks he’s a coward. The other day I saw her clip him round the ear as if he was one of the kids!” They both giggled.

“Anyway, you know I don’t believe in jinns and” – he lowered his voice – “religion’s never really been my thing. And I know what you’re going to say but Nani Mumtaz was ill and losing her mind. But I do wonder, maybe she had good reason to be uncomfortable here. Nana refused to talk about it and Uncle Majid is oblivious to things beyond the end of his nose…”

“Nana and Nani barely spoke to each other,” said Tullie. “He didn’t know anything about her.”

The singing retreated.

Tullie stared into space. The old noises filled the space again. Tullie looked through the large window facing out into the dark beyond the back of the house.

“Do you remember Nani made us move her to the room at the front of the house before she died?” said Tullie.

“You know the prayer room upstairs?” Sohel leaned forward. “I was walking past one day, on my way to the front veranda to smoke a cigarette. They keep the door locked for some reason. Anyway, I heard someone singing. Just like that.”

“Are you sure?” asked Tullie.

“There’s no question. The other rooms are much further away. As I got closer, it got louder, until I was in front of the door. When I tried the handle, it stopped.”

Reema froze behind the door of the storeroom as she listened in.

“The door was locked anyway,” Sohel shrugged. “There’s no way anyone could have been in there.”

“Look, I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just saying what I heard. Don’t you think it’s weird? Nani was a smart cookie. Maybe she was right to be afraid. And you know what they say about this place?”

“Stop it,” said Tullie. “Let’s talk about something else.”

Reema watched them from the shadows of the storeroom, through the crack in the doorway.

* * *

Majid rolled over in bed, the sheets clumped between his legs. His eyes blinked open and the room came into focus. The dressing area ahead was dark as a lion’s mouth. The day’s heat dwindled into sunset through the shutters and the marble floor was a still lake. He looked up at the carved ceiling of the four-poster bed. The craftsmanship was perfect; every undulating flower petal and leaf seemed to breathe and pulse. He felt at peace in Bangladesh. He felt at home. If only Reema felt the same.

Reema opened the door and entered the darkening room. “It’s getting dark, why don’t you turn the lights on?” she said, flicking a switch.

“Argh, can’t you see I’m resting?” snapped Majid. “What’s the matter with you? Bumbling around like a fool. Haven’t you got something better to do than disturb my peace?”

“I didn’t realise, sorry...” Reema tailed off. She reached to turn the light off.

“Forget it, I’m awake now,” snapped Majid. He momentarily regretted the ferocity of his complaint. Majid shielded his eyes from the light. He had a quick temper, he couldn’t help it. He liked to be mischievous and make fun of people’s flaws. It was a Bengali trait. But Reema made him irritable and she never seemed to get the joke.

He watched her go to work. She pulled yards of fabric taut between both hands and folded them until the panels of sari diminished in size. She had been beautiful when they married. She had the almond, black eyes that Indian poets regale Bengal’s women for. Her lips were cushiony and pink, her figure was once fluted. But caesarean sections and age had thickened her body and hardened her skin. Like an elegant Benarasi sari whose threads had started to unpick and thin over time.

“Majid, have you ever heard strange noises in the house?” she asked.

“What ‘strange noises’?”

“The other night, I heard someone singing – that song from Pakeezah

After a great while, a moonlit night has come

After a great while, this meeting has arrived...” she tailed off.

“Anyone could have been singing! The servants?”

“It sounded like it was in the house, close to me and faraway. It was so strange. And the other night I woke up during the early hours of morning; everything looked so real. I got out of bed. You weren’t here. I went to the window and you were outside, walking towards the woods. Then I woke up. I’d been dreaming. Everything looked the same, except you were here. I was on the cusp of déjà vu. I held my breath for so long, staring at you in the bed. I couldn’t believe you were here and not outside.”

“What rubbish you’re seeing.”

“What about your mother? What about the things Mumtaz said?”

“What about my mother?” said Majid. “She was ill and decrepit by the time you spent any time with her, if you’re referring to her ramblings. Perhaps the heat’s going to your head.”

* * *

“Assalamu alaikum,” chimed Reema and Tullie, as they walked into Great Aunt’s sitting room through the mud-floored courtyard. Large earthenware pots of colourful dahlia, roses and plants with patterned leaves were scattered around the courtyard and flanked the veranda.

“Waalaikum assalam,” said Great Aunt.

Reema always expected her to keel over from the effort of getting up, but she shuffled around and motioned to them to sit down. She had worn a white sari well before Reema had been married. She’d often wondered how Great Aunt had looked as a young woman, when she’d first dressed so simply at her husband’s funeral. Now she was hunched over and shriveled, with glazed, cataract-riddled eyes.

“How are you, Auntie?” asked Tullie.

“Very well. Why aren’t you in Dhaka?” said Great Aunt, confused and glassy-eyed.

“Where is your husband?”

Tullie blushed.

“She’s not married, Auntie,” explained Reema. “She’s at the university.” She had to raise her voice so Great Aunt could hear her. Her eyes darted around and the few teeth she had chewed on nothing, accustomed to betel nut.

“Hmm?” mumbled Great Aunt. “Let’s have tea.”

Great Aunt’s memory had been deteriorating for years. The decline had accelerated after her middle son, the sanest of the three, died in a road accident. He was in a rickshaw which collided with a car, throwing him onto the road. He would have lived had a truck full of mangoes not upturned, leaving oncoming traffic to crush the fruits under its wheels, and demolishing his body. Great Aunt was left with two sons: a sex-crazed simpleton whose two wives resided at the family home and the angry older brother, who never managed to keep a job down. Reema suspected that she had purposefully quickened the demise of her sanity. The only part of her life that wasn’t hazy was the remote past.

One of the wives shuffled in, holding her sari’s pallu around her head, a grinning baby in her other arm and balanced on her hip. She exposed stained red teeth when she smiled as she enquired after Reema’s health and offered tea and sweets which the maid placed on the coffee table.

“I don’t like these sweets, I can’t chew them,” complained Great Aunt. Crumbs fell from her mouth as she attempted to break the snack with her gums.

“Not like the old days, hey, Auntie?” said Tullie.

A large fly buzzed around the sweets. A muted sizzle and then the smell of frying onions invaded the room.

“Hmmm?” Great Aunt stared at Tullie. People often had to repeat themselves before she understood them, despite her hearing being much better than her eyesight.

“The sweets aren’t as good as when you were a child, right?” Tullie raised her voice and spoke clearly, her wide eyes meeting Great Aunt’s blurred spheres.

“When I was a girl, I could chew them! I had teeth! When I was a girl, everything was different.”

Tullie looked pleased.

“When I was a girl the Britishers built beautiful railways. My father took us on trips to the far reaches of Bengal. We went to the British schools. We children didn’t understand Gandhi and all the politics. We were lucky. Abba’s work at the school earned him so much respect. People used to stop him wherever we went. We were the great Abdul Choudhury’s children!” Great Aunt stopped and smiled and chewed her gums.

“One day he came home early. They had to close the school. After that he taught us at home. Of course it was much later that I realised he wasn’t allowed to teach anymore. Entangled in the boycotting. Everyone had had enough of the Britishers. Very sad. Too much damage they caused. My father always thought Gandhi a great man. Now people worship Ershad, I don’t understand it. It was so much better before.”

The air was still and cool inside the house. They sipped tea. A voice called from the door. The muslin curtains billowed in the breeze disclosing the courtyard beyond. A beggar woman tried to peer in.

“Auntie, have you got visitors? Auntie-e-e?” she called, as if her audience were quite a distance away. Great Aunt stared into space, as if she hadn’t heard. Tullie went to the door.

“Oh, it’s you. Come in, come in.”

“Assalamu alaikum,” she said, bowing dramatically and eyeing Reema. “Sorry, Auntie, I didn’t realise you had guests. I just…” – she let out a big sigh – “…wanted to pay my respects.” She was hunched over, a woman of forty-five who looked much older, wearing a scruffy sari and a mischievous look as if she was on the verge of letting out a very juicy piece of gossip.

“Who’s this, Auntie?” said the woman, gesturing towards Reema. “I recognise her, but I’m not certain.”

“Has it been that long since you visited our house?” teased Tullie. “You used to come all the time. You must be bored of our company.”

“Oh, Apa, you do mock me so,” the woman stood by the door, grinning and playing coquettishly with the end of her sari.

“Aren’t you going to introduce her?” Tullie raised her voice to get Great Aunt’s attention who appeared to be preoccupied in contemplation.

“Hmmm?” Great Aunt peered at the woman. “Oh, you’re here! You never visit me!”

“Hai-hai, how can you say that, Auntie? I came last week,” the woman moved forward, looking at the others with mock hurt, one hand on her bosom, the other palm out and moving to and fro in disbelief. “She doesn’t remember when I come anymore.”

“This is your Britisher Apa, remember?” Great Aunt pointed to Reema.

“How are you?” enquired Reema.

“Aaaah,” the woman crossed her legs and got comfortable on the floor next to Reema’s chair. “I knew I recognised you. It’s been a long time, Apa, no? My daughter talks so fondly of you. Such a wonderful, gentle, sweet soul, she says. Some of the Britishers are not nice, Apa. Stuck up and too too modern.”

“I was born in Bangladesh, dear.” Reema shifted her feet, invisible under her sari, and drank her tea.

“And how are your children, Apa? You must bring them. Such a shame when foreign children don’t know their own culture. Isn’t that right, Auntie?”

“They’re fine, thank you. They’re in England. Busy with work.”

“These Britishers work too hard, Apa, such a shame. Always rushing around, always money, money.”

“You talk too much. What do you know of England?” said Tullie. “Prattling on and on.”

“Ok Apa, don’t get upset. One day you will experience the wonder of England – when they marry you off to some British fellow. And you can come back and tell me yourself what it’s like! And may he be fair, handsome and chivalrous, unlike the men of our generation. Hey, Apa?” She nudged her shoulder towards Reema. “And we’ll cover the house in lights and dance and sing for days!” She started to sing an old, Bengali wedding song in her husky voice – ever so slightly off-key – about a large marrow substituted for a wedding car.

Dhur!” exclaimed Great Aunt. “This woman is crazy! Get her a cup of tea and shut her up so we can chat in peace.”

Tullie went to the kitchen. The baby’s gurgling as Tullie cooed at her floated into the room.

“Hai, hai, the things we women put up with from men,” the woman was shaking her head, spent from singing. “I used to be so scared of Tullie’s grandfather. He had a temper on him. Sometimes it felt as if the house would be in ruins from the force of his incessant shouting! Of course, as time goes on, men are becoming more sensitive. Even in your family, eh, Apa?” she giggled at her own observations. “But,” she said, serious again and with a dark look directed at Reema, “I suppose bad blood is stubborn.”

“What do you mean, ‘bad blood’?” asked Reema. The woman looked away. Tullie came in with the baby on her hip and a cup of tea.

“Ah, bless you, Apa,” said the beggar woman, delicately taking the tea cup. She quietly sang under her breath as she sipped her tea:

After a great while, a moonlit night has come.

After a great while, this meeting has arrived.

He has come tonight, after a great while.

Stay a while, o handsome friend, stay a while…

Reema was suddenly shrouded in dread. Fear rose like heat from inside her gut. Her face waned and her head swam. Her scalp sweated under her headscarf. She glanced at Tullie who, she thought, looked quickly away.

“I mustn’t stay long. So much to do.” The beggar woman giggled again, finished her tea and left.

Great Aunt chewed and gazed into the gauze curtains. Tullie bounced the gurgling baby on her lap.

* * *

“I’m worried for the cook, he won’t stop talking about that singing,” said the maid. “Says he can’t sleep in his room anymore; he’s scared of the woods! That beggar woman isn’t helping either, with her stupid haunted house stories.”

Reema hid behind the kitchen door, her head cocked and her body still.

“Just make sure he’s getting his work done. I don’t want Reema Apa taking the blame for his incompetence. He should thank Allah that Majid Bhai blames her first. As for his bedroom, it’s pathetic, getting worked up over idle gossip.”

“It does seem odd, though. That beggar woman was round the other day. She said Nani Mumtaz saw strange things out of her window, in the woods. She was so scared of being in her room alone that Tullie Apa slept next to her. And she boasts about how much money the Britishers give her. The other day she said debts of all sorts can be owed.”

“What ‘debts’?” asked Nadia.

“I don’t know. All I know is she and her family are doing alright, considering she doesn’t earn a single taka,” said the maid. “You know, they say the grandfather’s temper was worse than Majid Bhai’s? Apparently they have psychopathic tendencies.” She emphasized the phrase in a loud whisper.

“Enough!” Nadia commanded. “This woman’s family has worked for the Choudhurys for generations and it’s not for us to question.”

“Yes, Apa.”

Reema walked away quickly as Nadia approached the kitchen door.

* * *

“Since we’re having the fish tonight, let’s accompany that with the sour mango soup. Tomorrow we can have the beef, vegetables and daal,” said Reema.

“And I will make a shopping list. The cook will go tomorrow morning. If there’s anything you and Bhai want, let me know by this evening,” said Nadia.

A cock crowed in the back garden. The sun streamed through the mosquito panels in the windows and shattered on the marble floor.

“Reema!” called Majid from the bedroom. He sounded like an army major calling in the troops. Nadia nodded at Reema and went into the kitchen. Majid emerged on the upstairs balcony and stared down at her. “Where have you put my other pair of glasses? I’m going out and I need them,” he said. “I can never find anything in your mess.”

“I’m sure they’re in the wardrobe drawer where they always are,” said Reema.

She slowly walked up the long staircase.

Majid rushed back into the bedroom.

The house fell silent.

In the bedroom Majid opened more drawers and startled objects jumped out. Reema quietly went to the wardrobe. “I can never find anything around here. Can’t you use your head to put things in a logical order?” Majid was staring at her, standing in a clutter of objects around him. He tempered his voice to a low growl, playing at containing his anger. Reema felt he revelled in the affectation and the power. “How can any decent man live like this? Eh? Are you listening to me? I’ve put up with this for decades. How much longer can you expect me to be understanding of your foibles?” His voice was soft, as if he was trying to reason with her.

Reema fumbled in the wardrobe drawers. “I’m sure I saw them here just the other day.”

“I can’t cope with this much longer. What am I to do with you, eh? Eh? You tell me.”

Reema mumbled, praying that she would find the glasses.

“My life with you is like torture!” He was standing over her. He took objects from the wardrobe and threw them onto the floor. He smashed a ceramic ornament. Reema winced. Her hands became unsteady. The fingers shook.

“The only reason I need you is so I have someone to trust to organise my things.

Otherwise, what can you do for me that a cook and a maid can’t do, here? This is Bangladesh! I can buy anything I want! It’s not like England here. I don’t need you and I don’t need to pretend I do anymore!” Majid hopped from foot to foot, his body was tense. He was at the end of his tether but why was he so riled at her, Reema couldn’t work out.

Reema attempted to systematically assess the objects that had been thrown around the room. She was on her knees, scrambling, desperately hoping to fix this, to find the glasses.

“What are you doing? You idiot! Idiot!” he screamed throwing a jewellery box at her as she crawled on the floor. It hit her back. She whimpered.

“Forget it! I’m going out and I won’t be here for lunch. I will eat later – alone. OK?” Reema didn’t respond. “OK?” Majid stood over her and grabbed the end of her sari. He pulled it free from the pin on her shoulder and she bent backwards, falling onto the floor. “Did you hear me, yes or no?”

Reema carried on carefully taking things from the floor and putting them to one side.

“What kind of hell am I in? I spent my life working like a dog and this is what I’m left with.”

Majid stormed out and slammed the bedroom door shut. He shouted for the driver to start the car in the courtyard.

Reema looked around the bedroom. All the drawers were open. There were clothes, jewellery and boxes all over the floor. She put her sari back around her shoulder from where Majid had grabbed it and pulled it off. Her sari was torn. She sobbed.

Majid’s glasses lay underneath a newspaper on the floor.

* * *

That night Reema fell asleep, alone.

She was in the back garden. She walked past the chicken coop which was silent, the cage doors were locked against foxes and wild dogs. She looked around and then opened the gate and walked across the dirt towards the edge of the woods.

The moon was vast and bright; its light sat atop the trees like a veil. She looked down; her feet were bare. Her toes nestled in the soil and small stones glistened in the silvery light. The night was still and warm. She looked back at the gate and the house and saw that all the lights were off. No one had seen her. She continued up the path. She hit a patch of mud and watched it squelch between her toes. She’d have to shower later. But for now the dirt didn’t matter. She walked on, the mud was cool on her feet.

Then she saw, crawling out of the trees, a shape. She stopped and watched. It wasn’t a human shape it was something on all fours. She stood still, watching. The air smelt like damp soil and something cooed in the distance. A stream of glow worms waved through the air near the trees.

The shape moved towards her. Perhaps it was a dog. It got closer. She realised it was something decrepit, with an other-worldly shape. Something she’d never seen before. She felt stuck to the ground but she tried to walk backwards, while keeping an eye on it. She could make out a head of lank, black hair. A hunched back. A dirty dress trailing behind her. It came closer.

The hair hung over the gaunt, moonlit face which was looking towards the house. It hadn’t seen Reema. But it would. Surely it would see her eventually. Then, from a few meters away, it slowly turned towards her. The eyes were two endless black wells. They were boring holes that at the same time twinkled, as if made of a smooth marble. Reema continued to walk backwards, at the same pace. As the creature moved further forward Reema realised it was dragging itself along the ground. Its head was low and bent at an unnatural angle. It moved with great effort. Its withered hands grasped the ground ahead and pulled itself forward while clasping at the unstable soil. It was a withered and emaciated creature that moved around only with the strength of its arms. Its legs tapered away at the ends. It had very little of its feet left. As if its body had been in a grave and had depleted at an odd rate. But still, it edged towards the house, determined, its eyes casting a vicious look at Reema, acknowledging her and dismissing her.

Reema awoke with a start. Majid wasn’t in the room.

She heard singing in the distance.

* * *

Reema was in her bathroom, washing saris in a bowl in the bath.

“Apa, I can do those for you,” said Nadia, standing in the doorway. “I feel bad to watch you slaving away at my job.” Reema shrugged and carried on. She preferred to be busy.

“Nadia, I’ve heard people talk about something bad that happened in the family. There was a reason that Majid’s mother didn’t like this house?”

“People gossip, who knows. She was a pious woman. That’s all.”

“Majid isn’t religious so he didn’t bother with the blessing. But tell me what happened. What was Nani Mumtaz afraid of? You must know.”

“Apa, I don’t know anything for sure. Nani was ill.”

“They talk about ‘bad blood’.”

“Things were different back then.”

“What was different?”

“The way they treated the servants and women,” she said, looking at Reema’s face carefully. “These stories are always exaggerated over time.”

“Stop talking in riddles! Why does that beggar woman come here? Why does Majid look after her?”

“Her family has worked for Majid Bhai’s family for generations. All I know is that people say a young maid died in the house once.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. It was decades ago.” Reema tried to figure out from Nadia’s face if she was concealing something important. “Who’s that beggar woman?”

“Her daughter took care of Nani Mumtaz. The families have a strong bond. It’s hard to trust servants these days, Apa. That woman is a gossip, but she has a good heart.”

* * *

Reema heard the singing every day. Now the voice was following her. She heard it in the locked prayer room upstairs once, not far from her own bedroom. Now that she had connected the singing with the death of a maid, the two things ran a perpetual relay in her mind. Sometimes the thought was at the back of her mind like a distant band, but often it was at the fore, thrumming like a drum.

Majid became more impatient with her and criticised her constantly. She was unable to remember little things which inflated his anger, but she couldn’t help it. She skulked around the dark corners of the house, more a spectre than a woman, while he marched through the corridors and held court at the dining room table.

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing anymore!” he would say. “What am I to do with her? The other night I found she had left the bedroom in the middle of the night and was crawling around outside the prayer room.”

Tullie kept Reema company. She and Nadia were the only ones in the house who were kind to her. The men were only interested in business deals. Tullie listened to her, about the nightmares and the woods. “It’s not real, auntie, don’t worry so much. Try to get some rest,” she said.

“But I wonder, why am I having these dreams? What was Nani Mumtaz afraid of? She must have told you.”

One night, when Reema had gone to sleep, the singing started.

After a great while, a moonlit night has come.

After a great while, this meeting has arrived.

He has come tonight, after a great while.

Stay a while, o handsome friend, stay a while

It came from the back of the house. But Reema was awake this time. Yes, she was awake. She was sure of it. This was real. She looked at Majid who was fast asleep, his mouth open on the pillow. This proved it was real.

That night a new moon was a small sliver of a crescent above the trees, which were a mass of black below. Reema couldn’t remember anything between waking up and until she arrived outside, opening the back gate. She looked back at the house. A light was on in the back bedroom, in Tullie’s bedroom. She pushed through the gate and kept walking. She felt the knowledge drop into her head that the enemy was in the house, not outside, not in the woods.

Then, suddenly, Tullie was behind her, saying, “Auntie, come, let’s go back to bed. It’s time to sleep now.”

She held Reema’s body and escorted her back to her bedroom. Majid was asleep.

* * *

“When you had the meeting with that lawyer about registering the land, did he not mention anything about the limits?” questioned Majid. “It must have been in the paperwork he gave us. Why wouldn’t they document these things?”

“You know how it is,” Sohel explained. “The system is corrupt. So much bureaucracy, who knows what happened!” Their voices resounded around the heart of the house, emanating out to the corners and stopping at the doors.

“You’re saying even your friend is an imbecile?”

“Everything’s confused when a new government comes in. They changed processes very quickly.”

Majid eyed Sohel. “Could you talk me through the paperwork again?”

“Of course,” said Sohel and started to stand up.

“Sit down. Reema can get it. REEMA! REEMA!” he called. “Where is she? Honestly, I don’t know what she does all day.”

The clattering and sizzling of pots in the kitchen filled the space as Majid waited for Reema to emerge from one of the many rooms upstairs.

“Perhaps she’s resting, I’ll go and see.”

“Resting! Pah! She has servants to serve her hand and foot and all she does is wash clothes and tinker in the kitchen all day. Even then nothing is organised. She’s becoming worse and worse, I tell you!”

“Do you think she might be unwell?”

“She’s not sick, just ungrateful. Some of these British girls,” he said in a loud whisper. “They don’t like Bangladesh. They’re spoilt. They don’t have the freedom they have in England, you know? But things are how they should be here.”

“I’m sure this is a big change for auntie.”

“REEMA! REEMA!” shouted Majid without moving from his seat. He tapped a pen impatiently on the table.

Reema appeared above them on the balcony of the first floor: “Yes?”

“Can you not hear me when I call? Where are those papers from the land registry?”

“I’ll fetch them.”

Reema descended the staircase five minutes later with the papers.

“What have you been doing? Check on the kitchen, it’s getting late!” snapped Majid.

“I will check now,” Reema turned and paused. She turned back to face the men. “I heard a strange singing just now. Did you hear that?”

“No,” said Sohel.

“What singing?” said Majid. Reema stood in front of him, the papers she’d given him still held in one hand like a weapon, pointed at her midriff. “What are you talking about? You crazy? No one is singing! Have you been gossiping with the servants?”

Reema looked down and then walked off towards the kitchen. “Don’t think I don’t hear everything,” Majid shouted after her.

* * *


Majid woke up to find he was alone in bed. He checked his mobile phone. It was two o’clock. The moon was high and full and its suffused light penetrated the curtains. The bathroom was dark. Reema was not in the room.

Majid couldn’t imagine where she could be. It would be very unusual of her to go downstairs at that hour. The house was vast and silent at night time and the kitchen was practically locked up. He pulled on his dressing gown and stepped out of the bedroom. The grand hallway was dark save for the moonlight which dissolved into the marble floor. Pillars guarded the empty space between them. Perhaps she was in another bedroom, he thought. He opened each door only to find redundant furniture and the moon’s light, which was falling through the window and shattering in myriad patterns.

After the third room he turned on the lights, just to be sure. He passed the locked prayer room without opening it. He thought he heard a murmur from the back of the house. He stood perfectly still to try and make out the sound. Perhaps a woman’s voice. So faint he must have imagined it. Who would Reema be speaking to at this time anyway?

He walked around the hallway and down the broad staircase into the dining area, feeling small in the large space. He opened the doors of all the rooms downstairs.

She was not in the house.

He quickly opened a cupboard drawer in the dining room. The wood was as loud as a thunder clap and the sound hung in the air. He found a flashlight and opened the front door. He scanned the front garden with the bright beam and found nothing. He walked around the side of the house. He turned the corner to the back garden where the moon watched. The trees in the woods competed to receive its gaze. The back gate was swung open.

He saw her.

She was amongst the trees. She was singing.

After a great while, a moonlit night has come.

After a great while, this meeting has arrived.

He has come tonight, after a great while.

Stay a while, o handsome friend, stay a while

She was crouched on the ground, inside, near the edge of the forest.

Walking towards her, he saw her working in the ground like a midnight gardener. She was shoveling the earth with a tablespoon. She was trying to dig. She had made only a small indent in the ground. Majid walked to her and stood over her. She stopped momentarily and looked up at him. Her eyes were dark and seemed not to acknowledge him. Then she looked down again and continued to dig into the earth. She carefully placed each spoonful of dirt in a neat pile next to the small hole. As if it was a cockroach’s grave.

“What are you doing, Reema?” He was stammering.

“The lady was singing, Majid. I want to find her. She’s here, I know she’s here,” she said.

Majid watched the back of her head. The moonlight wrapped itself around her braided hair.

 
 
was published in November 2018
 
 
categories
 
Fiction
    Flash Fiction
    Short Story
Non-Fiction
    Essay
    Interview
    Narrative
Poetry
 
 
 
you may also like
 
THE ARREST (extract from The World In My Hands)
It was an axiom widely known in Pandua that it was ...
 
THE KISS
Sonali grimaced as her aunt labored away on the topic of ...
 
THE GIRL FROM THE WINDOW ACROSS
Naureen gave the habitual double push to the handle of the ...
 
 
top articles in Fiction
 
  THERE IS A LIZARD ON THIS BUS
Weary, at the end of your day, you enter an evening bus. You attach seamlessly with the rest of flesh in the vehicle. Tch, tch, someone inevitably makes this sound, tch, tch, as you step on that someone’s shoes. Tch, tch, as you crash onto the back of another ...
 
 
bengal lights © 2017