This wonderfully satisfying short story comes from Shiva Kumar. His writing is quirky, funny, and eminently readable. It is a style I truly appreciate for its wordplay and its ability to bring out the sense of the action. For a truly delightful experience, head on over to https://thewiklyupdet.blogspot.com/ and read more from him
Author’s disclaimer: The contents of this story are grabbed entirely from the author’s own imagination and any resemblance to anyone living, non-living or otherwise is not deliberate, though it may appear so. The episode related in this story took place a few years ago, in the early hours of the very last day of the first month of the year.
He woke up sweating.
It was a cold January night and the temperature outside had dipped to 12°C, usual for this time of the year. He had left one window open in the afternoon to air the room and had forgotten to close it. By the evening it had become quite chilly inside. After shutting the window tight and drawing the curtains, he had covered himself up in a rajai, an Indian quilt, and gone to sleep. The fan was switched off and gradually the room had warmed up. It had become warmer still under the rajai.
As he lay in bed, he gazed at the ceiling and thought about the plot for his story. He had lined up two-three passable ones that he could work on. But he could not focus on any one. One moment his mind was debating whether the calibre of the gun should be .22 as in a Colt Peacemaker or .45 as in a Mauser ACP and the next it had wandered off and was trying to choose between a 60s Chiffon dress and a 50s Georgette saree.
Confused. That’s what he was, at the moment. A writer of thrillers couldn’t be confused. He decided to cool off this week. He must be experiencing some kind of Writer’s Block, he thought. He hoped that this too shall pass.
He got up from his bed and waddled to the dining table where he had kept a bottle of water. On the way, he stumbled over a low wooden stool left in his path by some unthinking person. No, it couldn’t be any unthinking person, because there was no one at home apart from himself. He must have done it, and done it when he was distracted.
Confused and distracted. He made a mental note to clear the house of all low lying articles of furniture as he disentangled himself from the legs of the dashed stool and staggered to the switchboard. Switching on the lights, he went to the dining table and reached for the bottle of water. Which was empty. No water. Forgetful! He had emptied it and forgotten to refill it.
Confused, distracted and forgetful. He refilled the bottle from the water purifier unit fixed on the wall and gulped some water. Spying the breadbox filled with different kinds of chikkis lying near the bottle, he fortified himself with a square of peanut-jaggery chikki and hit the bottle again for another swig of refreshing aitch-two-oh. Ah! Buch metter!
Switching off the lights, he groped his way back to the bedroom, rounding the corner in a smooth movement and bumping his head unerringly on the side of the wardrobe, an act born and perfected out of years of practice. He just wasn’t getting the turn round the corner right, always ending up against the wardrobe. Maybe he was pivoting a bit too sharply. Must figure it out in the morning and make corrections. Or move the wardrobe out of the way. That bump was quite hard and his head was beginning to throb. Drat!
He faced similar problems with his bed too and hated trying to find his side of the bed in the dark. Every third day, the bed was moved from its position for cleaning the floor underneath and when it was moved back, the positioning was always off by at least a few millimetres, pushing the co-ordinates in his head out of kilter every time.
He waited ten beats till the throbbing in his head reduced to a steady thump-thump. Rather like the sound his vintage 350 cc single cylinder two-stroke air-cooled engined motorcycle made as it ate up the miles on the old tree-lined state highway. Thinking of it, he had to smile and nod his head. The nodding restarted the throbbing and, pressing down the neutral finder in his mind, he brought it back to neutral and reduced its speed to idling. Gradually, the throbbing subsided and he found himself on his bed again.
He put his head down on the pillow, quietened the agitation in his head with a promise of a pit-stop soon and tried to get some sleep. In a matter of a few minutes, he had drifted off towards Dreamland. But somewhere along the way he seemed to have taken the wrong fork.
As he slept, he saw through his mind’s eyes an endless stretch of nothingness covered in thick yellow fog. He tried to focus through the fog and discerned a vague form in the far distance slowly taking shape. By and by he could make out a horse, a mottled grey roan, with a lady seated on it, cantering towards him. The lady was dressed in a shimmering silver outfit that covered her entire body from the top of her head to her ankle, with narrow slits for her eyes. She was wearing what looked like black stilettos with foot-long pointed heels. In her left hand she held the reins and in her right, a whip. He looked closely. That wasn’t a whip. As she came nearer, he could make out that it was a sprig of night queen blossoms, those tiny white flowers that gave off a heady scent.
She leapt off the horse and walked towards him with a feline grace. There was a look of something akin to menace in her eyes that chilled him. He braced himself. Where had he seen those eyes before? As he sought the answer in his mind, the lady suddenly lashed out at his face with her right foot. Only by moving his head with a great effort of will at the very last moment could he avert mortal injury! He let out a silent scream.
As suddenly as she came, the lady turned round and disappeared from his nightmare.
It took some time for the sound of the hoof beats to die and the pounding of his heart to slow down. He reached behind his head, switched on the fan at slow speed for its comforting sound and closed his eyes tightly shut. Gradually, apart from the gentle whirring of the fan, a quiet descended upon the room and the atmosphere became peaceful again.
But not for long. Suddenly, he heard a faint tinkle that unnerved him. He opened his eyes just a crack and, from the corner of his right eye, he saw a hand reach out to him. It was a feminine right hand and it seemed to be glowing. Behind the elbow, it faded away into nothing. It had long and slender fingers, with inch long nails painted a bright post office red. Around the wrist were two slim gold bangles studded with tiny glittering diamonds. They must have caused the tinkling sound. The hand was holding a shot glass containing a pale green liquid. He had seen such a liquid somewhere but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He was mesmerised by the fingers with the painted nails and couldn’t pull his eyes away from them. The hand brought the shot glass closer and closer to his lips and his mouth opened of its own volition to drink from it. As the glass touched his bottom lip, the connection switches in his mind clicked, the coin dropped into the slot, the cobwebs moved aside and he suddenly realised what the contents were. No, not green tea. It was Absinthe! With some kind of particles suspended in it. Could be Gunpowder. Or Potassium Cyanide. Or Arsenic. Or Strychnine. Or whatever. But he was sure it was some kind of a quick acting poison. With a super-human effort, his own hand reached out and knocked the glass aside to send it flying against the wall behind him where it shattered noiselessly. Its deadly contents splattered on the wall and slowly dribbled to the ground, leaving a smoking dark trail.
That’s when he woke up sweating.
Twice in two minutes he had escaped a horrible and painful end. Whew! He shivered in aftershock and looked at the luminous face of the clock on the screen of the mobile next to him. It showed the time as 3:45. Where did it learn to count in sequence, he wondered, when it changed to 3:46.
He switched on the light and looked around the room. Everything was as it was. He walked unsteadily to the curtains and drew them aside. The windows were shut tight. Outside, the streetlights had gone off and it was dark. Dawn was still nearly two hours away.
Inside the room, the air had suddenly become a couple of degrees cooler.
As he stood there and took a deep breath, he could distinctly discern the fragrance of night queen in bloom.
© Shiva Kumar